Rev. Scott McAndless
How do you report on a year like 2020? So many of the conventional approaches to annual reports simply do not work this year. If you were, for example, to compare 2020 to any previous year, like say 2019, in order to see how well you did, it would be like comparing apples to oranges but if you were comparing apples from the finest orchard in all the world to oranges that had been going bad in the bottom of the fridge for several months! We’ve never quite experienced a year like 2020 so we don’t have much to compare it to.
If we want to see how we have done in this past year, I think we are best to stick to one simple measure: how have we grown? 2 Peter 3:18 suggests that our most basic job as Christians is to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” And growth in these things is always possible. So, here is how I have seen myself grow in the past year.
I have grown by being and becoming a…
- Pastoral care supporter. During this past year, I tried to work at connecting with the people of the congregation and give them whatever support I was able to with God’s help. In many ways, I would say that I put more effort into that, more creativity and certainly more time than in many previous years. But, given the limitations that we were working under, I often felt most dissatisfied with the connection and support I was able to give. It is odd, in some ways we are so able to connect in these times, but in others we feel so very far apart. I pray that, whatever challenges come ahead, God give us the strength and wisdom to face them together.
- Content creator. Now, ministers have always been in the content creation business. Content is just a general term for any sort of media that is made available either in print or online. So sermons are content, as are things like Bible studies. But in 2020, I certainly learned a lot about producing content that is more widely available and that connected with people in new ways. During the year, I produced up to seven weekly videos that were posted on YouTube, I produced and posted extensive written content as well as audio content in the form of podcasts. In many ways, I can say that I connected with more people using these media during the year then I likely have during any other year of my ministry. Now, that doesn’t mean that I made better contact or more meaningful contact, but it does mean that we can grow in some pretty interesting ways in terms of the impact of what we do even in times like these.
- Internet analytics interpreter. How do I know about any of the things that I mentioned above? It is because I’ve learned a great deal, in this past year, about interpreting the analytical information that is available on audio and video platforms and in web page design tools. I never really wanted to learn about any of these things but has become a necessary part of ministry these days, it seems.
- Social media influencer. In order to get that kind of attention in the modern world, I’ve had to learn a lot about how to disseminate and promote information through social media. Who would have ever thought that that would be a necessary part of ministry? But it has become so in 2020 and will likely only be more so in the years to come.
- Online worship leader. I have many years of experience leading worship in many different kinds of facilities, but, until a year ago, I had never even experienced worship in a virtual community. Our zoom worship services have been a huge learning experience for all of us. There have been some difficult lessons, like learning the necessity of keeping a handle on who is in attendance and making sure that there are enough co-hosts to handle that. There is so much how about our worship in the past year that has not measured up to what we would like. We have missed music and certain forms of connection. But I think there have also been positive effects as we have been able to connect in new ways. It has been wonderful to be able to be creative about some of that. I have also really appreciated the ways in which we can share our prayer requests in that format much more interactively than we ever achieved before.
- Public health official. One thing I have not relished in the past year is having to be in the position, with the support of some others, to make difficult decisions about access to the building and the health and safety of everyone involved. I have tried to do my best to balance the need for safety with the good that we can do through ministry in the building, but I never found it to be easy.
So those are some of the areas of growth that I have noticed in the past year. I am sure, if you look back and take stock, you will discover a great deal of growth has taken place for you too. That is one of the wonders that comes with living as a disciple of Christ, who brings us growth both in the easy seasons of life and in the difficult ones.
May God richly bless you in 2021 and may you continue to see growth, even as many things get much better.
Respectfully submitted, Scott McAndless
Watch the sermon video here:
Hespeler, 28 February 2021 © Scott McAndless – Lent 2
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38 (click to read)
If you were a Galilean living in the first part of the first century, what did a cross mean to you? Remember that this was before the most famous (or infamous) crucifixion in human history. What did the cross mean before Jesus was nailed to one?
Oh, they would have had some sense of the meaning. Crucifixions were a part of their life and history. The Romans did not invent crucifixion. It was a particularly brutal form of execution that had been used by a number of other empires before them. But the Romans seemed to have lifted the crucifixion to an import symbolic status.
How the Romans Used Crucifixion
It was a form of death that was so painful and shameful that it would not be used against people who had any sort of status. Roman citizens, for example, could not be crucified no matter what they did. No, it was a form of death that was reserved for what the Romans saw as the very worst sorts. Rebellious slaves, for example, were routinely crucified. The most famous example being in the great slave revolt led by Spartacus.
When Spartacus and his slave army were finally defeated, the victorious general, Crasus, celebrated by crucifying thousands of slaves on crosses that lined the Appian Way, the most important highway in ancient Italy, for miles and miles and miles. This was not just the celebration of a victor, however, but a very graphic warning to the huge numbers of slaves in Italy who might ever be tempted to follow their example and revolt.
Insurrectionists and those who threatened the order of the empire, if they belonged to the lower classes of course, were also often crucified. There was a huge revolt in Galilee around the time when Jesus was born which, the historian Josephus tells us, resulted in a huge number of crucifixions. It is hard to know exactly how common crucifixions were in Jesus’ day, but they were common enough that everyone would have known about them and would have understood what they meant at a very basic level.
How Christians Have Come to See the Cross
But what didn’t exist in the early first century was any of the Christian symbolism that we have come to associate with the cross. There would have been no association with the figure of Jesus himself or the idea of salvation or life after death. Certainly no one would have dreamed of using a cross as a piece of jewellery or a decoration. They likely would have been horrified at the very idea.
The Reaction that Jesus Provoked
So how then do you suppose did people react when Jesus, seemingly out of the blue, started saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”? They certainly didn’t hear it the way that some Christians might hear it today. They didn’t imagine, for example, somebody wearing a cross in public as a way of advertising their belonging to the Christian faith. And they certainly wouldn’t have imagined the trite phrase that some Christians might use when they are dealing with some minor irritation or burden in their life and they say, “Oh well, that is my cross to bear.”
No, the only thing they could have possibly imagined was the image that they had seen or heard of, the image of condemned insurrectionists or rebellious slaves or bandits being forced at the end of a whip to pick up large wooden crosses and carry them to a place where they would suffer an unimaginably painful death. The only thing that they could imagine was the people hurling abuse and probably rotten fruit at those people who were so condemned – not, mind you, because they actually detested those people. They may have even had some sympathy for them. But they would have joined in abusing them anyways because they were afraid that any show of sympathy would have condemned them to the very same fate. There was absolutely nothing positive about taking up a cross that these people would have been able to think of.
Why did Jesus Say it?
So why did Jesus say that? Wasn’t he aware that saying such a thing would have shocked and stunned them? The answer is, of course, that he was aware. He knew exactly what he was doing and the shock that he gave them was entirely intentional. Jesus did that often – spoke in ways that were designed to shock people into changing how they looked at things. He knew that the message that he was presenting broke many of the assumptions that people had about God and about how we should live out our relationship with God and one another. But people really struggle to accept new information that does not jive with their preconceived notions. So Jesus knew that he would have to shock people into seeing things from a very different point of view.
So, I guess the question is, what assumptions were Jesus trying to shock people out of by telling them that they would need to take up their crosses if they were going to follow him? I would say that what he was trying to do was trying to shock people out of the ways that human beings have long thought about religion.
Why did he Try to Shock them?
I probably don’t need to tell you that religion, in general, does not have a stellar history. As people have related to their gods, they have often exploited religion to build the foundations of their own power. We have seen them use it to demonize outsiders and to control people on the inside. There is absolutely no question that our human impulse when we encounter something divine, is to try and see what we can get out of it for our own ends.
Why, in the passage just before the one we read this morning, Peter comes up with a remarkable realization about who Jesus is. Peter confesses that Jesus is the messiah. And, as he does that, you can almost read Peter’s thoughts. The very fact that he is the first to realize this puts him on the ground floor of this whole messianic situation. Peter can just imagine all of the prestige, influence and even power that will come to him because he is a close friend of God’s messiah. How do we know that that was what Peter was thinking? Because as soon as Jesus goes on to talk about things like suffering, rejection and death, Peter immediately goes, “Hang on a minute here! That’s not a part of the deal I was thinking of in my head!” And he started to rebuke Jesus just for bringing it up.
Shock Therapy Needed
So, yes, Jesus recognized that a little bit of shock therapy was going to be necessary. But I sometimes fear that some of the radical statements of Jesus, like this one, have largely lost their power to shock us today which may mean that they have lost all of their power. As I said before, centuries of Christian tradition have turned the image of the cross into something that is familiar and comfortable to us. They have turned it into a piece of jewelry, a decoration and a symbol of salvation. And even the idea of having a cross to bear has often become trivialized. So how can we reclaim the power of this saying of Jesus? We can only reclaim it by letting it shock us again.
Though we recognize that Jesus came to serve and ultimately to lay down his own life for the sake of ourselves and others, we also know that there is divine power in what we have experienced in Jesus. And so we do face this tendency within ourselves to turn that encounter into a base of power and influence.
The church has been doing that, to various degrees, throughout the centuries. One particularly strong illustration of this is something that we’ve seen happening in the United States over the last several decades as a kind of alliance between conservative Christianity and right-wing politics was formed. That alliance, I think there is no question, has led to the election of quite a number of conservative politicians from presidents to senators and representatives to many local officials.
So the politicians got a lot out of the alliance. But don’t think for a moment that the Christians didn’t get anything out of it. They saw the agendas that they were interested in being promoted. They saw judges that they believed would rule in their favour on various issues put into place. And I’m not trying to say anything about those particular issues. I may not agree with all of them, of course, but I can accept that Christians were promoting these issues because they believed that it was the right thing to do.
But, whatever the motivations, make no mistake that this was an alliance of power. This was about using religion and it’s influence in the way that religion has always been used by people seeking to accomplish their own goals. That was the kind of thing that Peter was dreaming about and it was the kind of thing that Jesus was trying to shock him out of.
And I realize that Christians in Canada do not operate in the same way and don’t seem to have the same kind of influence, but that doesn’t mean that we are completely immune to the lure of that kind of power alliance. We too have a certain tendency to think of our Christian faith in terms of what earthly gains we can get out of it for ourselves, whether it be a good reputation or connections or even a feeling of self-righteousness. So, yes, I do think that Jesus has a desire to shock us into thinking about all of that in very different ways.
A Spiritual Exercise
So, once again, I am going to invite us to enter into a little bit of a spiritual exercise. Many of you have made crosses to bring to the service this morning. If you don’t have one, however, I’m going to ask you to conjure one with your imagination. And I want you to put that cross on the table or lap or keyboard in front of you. Look at that cross for a minute.
Try and forget every comforting association you have ever had with a cross. It is no longer the image of an established religion. It is no longer the symbol of a comforting story of a Christ who died for you – I know it will always be that, but put that association to the side for one moment. Especially, forget every golden or jeweled cross you’ve ever seen. I want you to see that cross as the people listening to Jesus would have seen it: a symbol of horror, pain and rejection that you would not wish on your worst enemy.
Because here is the truth, for you to be an authentic follower of Jesus in this moment of time, you’re going to have to freely, of your own choice pick up, that cross, that deeply disruptive cross. What might it mean to carry such a cross in our modern world? It might mean that you choose to prioritize service to others over taking care of yourself. It might mean, for example, that in the world where we might all find ourselves soon – a world where everyone is clamoring to get a vaccination for themselves or for the person they care for – you may have to make the choice to do something that serves the health of the whole community rather than just yourself.
Carrying such a cross might mean bearing the name of Christian, not just when it’s convenient or when somebody might think well of you, but when it is extremely inconvenient, and your confession of belief might make them think less of you. That kind of thing was once quite unlikely in a society that was largely Christian, but it’s actually quite likely these days, especially if you deal with people of younger generations. But we should not be angry at that, we should actually embrace it as an opportunity to live out the Christian faith as Jesus taught us, by bearing a cross.
So look at your cross for a moment. See it for what it truly is, a very disturbing symbol. But Jesus wants you to pick it up. Jesus has many blessings available to you if you will bear such a cross. And so now, if you are willing, pick up that cross.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for sending Jesus to us to show us the way that we are to follow. We recognize that following that way is not meant to be easy or to automatically increase our standing in society. We pray that you would make us followers who would indeed carry the cross, no matter what the cost, because that is what it means to follow Christ. Amen.
Laying Down our Bows
Hespeler, 21 February 2021 © Scott McAndless – First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 8:20-22, 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15 (Click to read)
Can God make a mistake? Can God be sorry for that mistake? Many people would suggest that it is blasphemous to even ask a question like that. Surely God is God and God cannot ever be wrong! But then how do you explain the whole story of the flood in the Book of Genesis?
The story begins like this: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’”
In any simple and straightforward reading of that text you cannot see anything but an admission of a mistake. God regrets creating humankind. God seems to regret it in particular because of the inherent violence of the human race. Ever since Cain and Abel, it seems that the people cannot stop attacking and killing each other. And so, God comes up with a plan. God decides that the only way to counter murder and violence is with, well, murder and violence. God decides to wipe out the whole lot of them.
And then, in our reading this morning, we meet the same God on the other side of the whole flood narrative. And here, the sense of regret seems even deeper as the Lord speaks to God’s own heart and says, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” Now listen closely to that. Not only is God regretting the act of destruction that God has committed, God also seems to be admitting that it didn’t even accomplish anything. The human heart is just as evil as it ever was. The flood accomplished nothing.
Did God make a mistake?
That is the plain meaning of the text – God made a mistake and regretted it and so vowed to behave differently from now on. And, of course, ever since that story was first told, people have struggled with it and tried to explain away God’s apparent mistake. People have rightly pointed out that our minds can hardly comprehend the mind and the motivations of God. Who are we, after all, to accuse God of making a mistake when we barely even understand why we behave like we do sometimes?
So yes, we should approach God with all humility and not pretend to understand all that is in God’s mind. But, at the same time, there is no question that God shows some real remorse over what has happened and is so convinced of the need to take a new course of action that God sets a permanent reminder in the form of a rainbow in the heavens so that neither God nor anyone else can ever forget.
What if the Story Is About Us?
So, what do we do with this story? I have a thought. What if this story is not really about whether or not God can make mistakes? What if it is actually about something else – what if is it actually about us. Yes, we may never understand the thoughts of God’s heart, but we know the thoughts of our own. And I can’t help but notice that there is something familiar about how God behaves in this story – something very human. And I think it may be intentional.
God sees a problem and that problem is mounting violence. And God concludes that only one thing can fix such a problem. The only way to counter violence is with more violence. That is what we usually think too, isn’t it? The only way to stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun. Ever heard that one? The only remedy to violent crime, some would say, is the death penalty. And, of course, the only way to solve a problem in a violent Hollywood movie is for Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise to run in with guns blazing. Fixing violence with more violence seems to be our go-to strategy no matter what happens.
Well, that is the approach that God takes as well in the flood story. God chooses to simply wipe out all the violent offenders at once. But, as we see in our reading this morning, when it is all over with and everything is finally dried up, God realizes that his approach did not work. All kinds of people have died, but the basic problem still remains as God recognizes that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.”
But what do we do in that kind of situation? When we recognize that the solution we have tried to follow to solve our problems hasn’t worked, what do we do? Often all we do is double down. We conclude that the problem is not that we tried to counter violence with more violence, but that maybe we just weren’t violent enough. We humans, generally speaking, are just not very good at recognizing that our strategies for dealing with problems are bad.
God Shows Us A Better Way
But God, in this story, shows us a different way. And he shows it to us with a very concrete symbol. God says this to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
The reference here is pretty obviously to the appearance of a rainbow that can often appear in the sky in the aftermath of a large storm. But do take note that the word that is used actually refers to a literal bow, that is to say the kind of bow that is used to fire arrows. The image here is of a warrior, God, who decides to lay down a weapon of war and not use it anymore. The rainbow is a visual symbol that that is what God has decided to do. Every time it appears it is meant to remind both God and humanity of this rejected method of dealing with problems.
And I honestly do not know what that is meant to tell us about whether or not God can make mistakes, but I suspect that it is meant to teach us something about how we ought to respond to the mistakes that we make.
As I said, we have a tendency, when the strategies we have used to solve problems do not work, to double down and just try to do them harder. This is a particular human folly, but we all do it. And I’m wondering if maybe this whole story of God and the flood is there to teach us to give up on that very folly. Every time we see the rainbow, we should remember that God gave up on a failed strategy and, if God can do that, we should think, maybe we can do it too.
Various Ways of Dealing with Problems
We all have ways of dealing with our problems. There are some people, of course, who always do try to solve their problems with violence. But that is not everybody.
Let me give you an example from my own experience. When I find myself in a situation where there is some conflict, my immediate instinct is not, like that of some people, to want to fight. I personally have a deep dislike for conflict, and so what I tend to do is I try to avoid it at all costs. If I’m in a disagreement with someone, I often want to do just about anything to resolve it quickly and that includes giving up and saying that I’m wrong, even if I actually believe I’m right. Other times, I will just do whatever I can to just simply escape the situation.
This is just how I have always tended to deal with conflict. Now, does this strategy always work? Not really. Yes, it might sometimes make things feel more peaceful in the short term, but it is not really a very good strategy for dealing with conflict over the long term and can often make it worse over time. But this is the way that I, because of my background, because of the psychological tendencies that I have, would naturally deal with any conflict or problem.
I believe that, if I want to take the example given in the story of the flood seriously, what I ought to do is that I ought to put down my bow. I need to learn to stop relying on this natural method I have for dealing with conflict because it doesn’t really work. Indeed, I have already done a lot of this work in my life and developed other ways of responding.
But I recognize that we are not all alike. There are indeed some people who try to solve all of their problems with violence and brute strength. There are some, like me, who have developed passive aggressive strategies for avoiding conflict. There are others, and I have known a few, who’s automatic response whenever they face a difficult situation, is for them to take all of the burdens of everybody else in the situation on to their own backs, often neglecting their own needs in the process. There are others who just give up or run away. We are all different.
But the problem is that once we develop these kinds of responses to stress and trouble, we tend to lock ourselves in. And a lot of the time, these strategies just do not work and that is where we run into a lot of trouble.
The amazing thing about God in the story of the flood is that, when God discovers that the strategy doesn’t work, God lays down the bow. God vows not to use that strategy anymore. And what I’m wondering today is whether that might not be there, not to teach us something about God and God’s failures, but rather to teach us to be willing to do the same kind of thing when our strategies fail.
We Lay Down Our Bows
And so, we are going to end today’s sermon with a bit of a spiritual exercise. I know that many of you have made or drawn a rainbow for this morning’s service. I want you to take that rainbow now or, if you don’t have one (which is fine), I want you to imagine that you’re holding a bow in your hand. This bow represents your weapon. It represents how you respond in the face of a stressful, conflicted or dangerous situation.
So, close your eyes, and just imagine yourself in that kind of situation. Say that you’re in the middle of a room and people are yelling at each other because everyone’s upset and maybe they’re especially upset at you. Just imagine yourself in that situation for a moment. Are you there? Now, ask yourself, what is your instinctual response to that situation.
I’m not asking what you may have learned to do. I’m just asking what is your gut level response. Are you tempted to strike back? Do you want to play the victim? Do you want to withdraw? Do you want to fix everybody else? Do you want to play the peacemaker at the expense of yourself?
That instinctual response is your bow, your weapon. That is how you have learned to respond in that kind of situation. Has it always worked for you? Maybe sometimes, but I’ll bet that often enough it causes some serious problems.
So here’s your what I want you to do. I want you to lay down your bow. I want you to consciously decide to set aside that instinctual response to stress and ask God to empower you to make different and better responses. If you’ve been literally holding a bow, lay it down. If you’ve just been imagining one, make that motion. That’s what God did at the end of the flood, and I suspect that God did it to teach you and me that there is another way.
And, of course, the wonderful thing about the rainbow in the flood story is that it’s a continual reminder. Every time the dark clouds gather, and the winds blow and all does not seem right in the world, the rainbow appears in the clouds as a reminder that there might just be a better way to deal with our problems.
And so, if you have laid down your bow, I invite you to place that bow in a place where you are going to see it this week and throughout this season of Lent. Let it be that reminder to you of your decision to trust in God that there are better ways of dealing with your problems and with the stresses of life than the dysfunctional ones that we have developed out of our personal fears. Let it be a continual reminder of God’s promise to do the same and help to renew you during this season of Lent.
A Final Prayer
Heavenly Father, we are just a bunch of people who sometimes get things wrong. And when people are upset or they’re stressed or the world seems upside down, we don’t always respond in the best ways. Some of the weapons that we carry around with us are dysfunctional and can even make things much worse. But here we follow the example left by us in the scriptures, and we lay down our bows. We dedicate ourselves to find other ways, better ways, to deal with the difficult moments of life because we are committed to be loving and giving people. Amen.