Hespeler, September 17, 2023 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 14:19-31, Exodus 15:1b-11, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
I began my serious biblical studies in the late part of the last century – so long ago, in fact, that you might say it was in a different world. And, in that different world, I learned to interpret Jesus’ famous parable of the two debtors.
One thing I learned about it, back in the last century, was that the amounts of money in it were completely ridiculous. The first debtor, for example, owes 10,000 talents. Given that the average worker at that time earned about one denarius a day and there were 6,000 denarii in a single talent, that would mean that the average worker would have to work <calculator keys clacking> about 200,000 years and save everything that they earned with no expenses in order to pay such a debt back.
Ridiculous, right? That is just an unimaginable amount of money. If we put that in terms of the average modern Canadian wage, we are talking about approximately 11 billion dollars!
And so, I was told and I read, obviously Jesus is speaking about a wildly unimaginable amount of money here. The very idea that someone could ever accumulate such a debt, much less dream of paying it off is clearly unthinkable. The notion that any creditor could possibly forgive such an amount, equally ludicrous.
So obviously, the conclusion went, this parable was not talking about practical earthly realities. It had to be about sin and the forgiveness of sin, and it could not possibly be any sort of critique of such things as the modern banking and financial system.
And there was even a somewhat sympathetic interpretation of the actions of the first debtor that went along with it. It was said that the reason why he refused to forgive the debt of the other fellow – the one who owed 100 denarii or about a third of a year’s earnings (placing him in what we might recognize as the middle-class today) was because he simply could not believe that his 10,000 talent debt had been forgiven.
He thought he still owed it and only had got what he had asked for, more time to pay. He thought he had to collect his debt in order to pay his creditor. That led, of course, to an application of the parable that taught people to accept that their own sins had been forgiven so that they could learn how to forgive others as well.
And, don’t get me wrong, that is a perfectly acceptable application and use of the parable, it may even be at least part of what Jesus intended. It’s certainly what the author of the Gospel of Matthew understood it to be saying.
But I do not believe that parables only have one interpretation or application. That’s one of the things that makes them so powerful. They continue to surprise us with the various ways that we can understand them and apply them.
And besides, everything that I was told about this parable in the 1980s and ‘90s and early aughts turned out to be completely wrong anyway. Oh, you think that the amounts of money in this parable are so exaggerated that such a thing could never happen in the real world? Really? Then you probably have been hiding under a rock over the last couple of decades. What if I were to tweak Jesus’ story just a little bit, would you still find it to be impractical?
The slave had a problem. Let’s call him Max because he had a problem of maximum size. Max had invested his company’s money into some pretty shady deals. He was particularly invested in loans and mortgages that were so bad that it was practically guaranteed that the people who had taken them out would default on them.
But Max had figured that that would be okay because when they all defaulted, he would just foreclose on them and sell their property again for even more money. It was foolproof.
And, in order to safeguard these investments, he had bundled them all together into what he called mortgage-backed securities so that, even though they were individually almost worthless, when you put them all together and pooled the risk, they seemed like rock-solid investments.
Indeed, he even had another slave friend certify that the mortgage-backed securities were very safe investments with little risk so that everyone else wanted to invest in them too. Things were going great, and he was making tons of money – living the high life.
But then things suddenly crashed. Interest rates went up and all of a sudden it seemed that everyone couldn’t pay their debts and mortgages all at once. But since all of the houses and properties were seized at once, the market was flooded, and nobody was buying. All of the seized properties and houses were practically worthless! And even those who managed to hold onto their houses found that they lost their value too.
And so, almost overnight, the clever slave went from being extremely wealthy to being in debt? How much was he in debt? Was it ten billion dollars? Was it maybe eleven billion? Ha, that’s chump change! Max barely would have lost any sleep over an amount like that! But this was, he had to admit, a bit more! He was 700 billion dollars in debt!
When the king heard that his slave had somehow managed to rack up such a massive debt, he was concerned. He summoned Max before him and demanded some explanations.
And when the slave came, he made a great show of regret and repentance. He put on sackcloth and ashes on his head as a sign of his deep repentance. He said that he was sorry, but he just wouldn’t be able to pay off his debts.
The king was a wise man who understood the consequences of things. He realized that this was actually a bigger problem for himself and for his subjects than it was for the slave. If Max’s various businesses and enterprises – which were deeply integrated into every part of the economy – failed, it would create so much chaos and disorder that people everywhere would suffer. Max’s impact was so maximized that he couldn’t be allowed to fail.
And so, the king heaved a big sigh and said, “Alright, I’ll do it. I’ll cover your debts.”
How the King did it
Now, how do you suppose it was possible for the king to take the hit of such an unimaginable debt? Well, of course, he had the theoretical ownership of all the assets of the kingdom. He merely needed to borrow against that.
The big problem, however, was that this would have many trickle-down effects on the very people who had already suffered so greatly from Max’s machinations. It would lead to rising prices while they saw their wages restrained. Their savings – if they actually had any – would also lose their value.
In fact, the problems that this would cause were so far-reaching that it was hard to even predict what they would be. It would be bad, there was no doubt of that, but nobody could say exactly how. And that uncertainty just seemed so much less urgent than the disaster that was looming in the moment. So what could the king do? He bailed his indebted slave out.
He did make an effort, to be fair, to set up a few guardrails in order to make sure that this kind of thing couldn’t happen again. But that was about all that he could do.
As the newly debt-free slave left the presence of the king, he quickly took off his sackcloth and brushed the ashes from his hair, absently tossing the rough clothing and dirty brush to his assistant who hovered nearby.
Did Max believe that his massively impossibly large debt had truly been forgiven? Of course he did! He knew from the beginning that this was exactly how it would work out. And now that the unpleasant grovelling was over, he quickly turned his attention to the fun part.
Max started with generous bonuses for himself, and everyone had set up this whole scheme. Next, he started paying off the lawyers and the lobbyists who would make sure that any of the king’s guardrails were quickly demolished.
He had basically just brought his king and many people in the kingdom to the very brink of utter ruin and yet somehow only managed to end up richer and more powerful.
He knew, of course, that someone in his organization would have to be a sacrificial lamb. Some low-level person would get charged, maybe fired and possibly even thrown in prison, but that hardly affected him.
He was busy thinking about where he could go from here. What would be his next conquest? How could he become even more fabulously wealthy?
A New Crisis
Sometime later, another problem began to arise in the kingdom. Many of the king’s slaves, in order to do the specialized work of the kingdom, had received, at their own cost, specialized education.
They had been required to take out heavy loans just to afford it. But then, once they were done, their wages were so depressed and housing and other costs were so high as a result of all the fallout of Max’s affair that they just couldn’t pay off their debts, some of which were in the tens of thousands of dollars.
They began to petition the king for some debt relief, and he was making some very sympathetic responses and even prepared some legislation.
Max Sees a Problem
But then Max heard about it. Max knew that if the workers got some relief, it would make them less reliant on him and his industries and might even put some upward pressure on the slave wages that he paid.
And so, he and his friends began to put out a media campaign that condemned any debt relief measures for student loans. They complained that it made no fiscal sense, that it would cause inflation and that it would reward the bad behaviour of people who took out loans that they couldn’t pay back.
Finally, with their lawyers and lobbyists, they managed to quash the debt relief legislation altogether.
The King Responds
And what happened when the king realized what Max had done? Did he summon him and say to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slaves who were suffering, as I had mercy on you?”
And in anger did his lord hand him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt? I certainly hope that he did.
Hearing the Parable in a New Way
I must say that, ever since the 2008 financial crisis, I just cannot hear that parable of Jesus in the same old way. The crisis basically proved that everything I had been taught about the parable was just plain wrong. The amounts of money in it, far from being wildly exaggerated for effect, turn out to be just a little bit on the small side.
And, in fact, if you want to read it as a parabolic commentary on our modern economic system and priorities, it turns out that it is actually quite believable. It turns out that people who have massive, unbelievable amounts of debt find it so much easier to have their debts wiped clean than do those who have to borrow just little a bit to get by. That is unquestionably the world that we live in.
The Part that’s Hard to Believe
In fact, the only part of the story that really seems a bit hard to believe is where the rich debtor who gets his mistakes bailed out actually gets punished for opposing some basic debt relief for his poor fellow slave. I mean, when have you ever seen that happen in our world?
But, of course, that it why Jesus told the parable – to show us where the priorities of God actually lay. To promise that the ridiculously wealthy, the too big to fail, will indeed face the consequence of their actions. That is the kind of God that Jesus proclaimed.
And, though I know that we are not going to be able to completely overturn the economic priorities of our society today, I think it’s important to remember that we are called to stand up for the belief, for the possibility, that things could be different – that priorities could be more aligned with God’s vision of economic justice.
And maybe we shouldn’t be afraid to speak the words of Jesus in this story – the words I think he was saying are the words of God – to those who have contributed so much to our present economic mess: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
Hespeler, September 10, 2023 © Scott McAndless – 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
Today is the effective beginning of a new year in the life of St. Andrew’s Hespeler Presbyterian Church. I mean, that has always been true of the first Sunday after Labour Day, but in many ways, it feels especially true today because this September 10th comes at the beginning or rebirth of many things.
It comes after we have completed a process, working with Cathy Stewart as our coach, in which we have taken a hard look at where we are and come up with plans for where we need to go. We effectively begin to implement many of those plans today.
It is also the Sunday when we begin to enthusiastically restart a number of things that lapsed during the chaos and difficulties of the last few years – things like regular worship assistants, Sunday School and childcare and we will soon see more action from the choir benches. This is part of an exciting rebirth in many ways.
But I was just thinking that this might also be a good time to pause, take a bit of a breath and talk about what is essential to the church. I can’t help but feel, after all, that one of the things that has made recent years so difficult is that people have certain expectations of the church that we haven’t always been able to fulfill.
It just isn’t church for me
What I mean is that people have been saying to themselves that they don’t want to go to church or aren’t ready to come back yet because, as they might put it, “Well, it just isn’t church for me if we don’t have x.”
And of course, that x is a variable that might be different for different people at different times, but I suspect that all of us have a few x’es. A big one early in the pandemic for many people, for example, was, “It is not church if we can’t all be together in one place.” I suspect all of us felt that one to a certain extent.
But there are many others that we have felt keenly as well. “It is not church if there is no Sunday School, if the choir doesn’t sing, if there isn’t organ music, if there is no stained glass, if the preacher doesn’t dress a certain way, if there aren’t a sufficient number of people there, if there is arguing or fighting, if… if… if…” And the list can go on and on and on, right?
And I am not denying any of those feelings. If you are having a hard time being in a church that isn’t quite what you were expecting or hoping for, those are valid feelings. But, at the same time, if we are missing something simply because it is comfortable or familiar or brings back positive nostalgic memories, that doesn’t necessarily mean that such a thing is essential to the very nature of the church.
What would Jesus say?
So, let’s ask the question. What really does make a church a church? When Jesus looks at what we call a church, does he ever say that’s not a church because it’s not a church if it doesn’t have x? And what is that x for Jesus?
The New Testament, especially in the Book of Acts and the Letters, obviously has many things to say about the church. But I am specifically interested today in what Jesus has to say – particularly what he says during his life and ministry. That has got to be a reflection of what is most essential, right?
Little in the Gospels
Well, it turns out that, if you look through three of the gospels, Mark, Luke and John, Jesus actually doesn’t say anything at all. The word “church” (the Greek word ecclesia) does not ever appear in any of those gospels.
And that is not really that surprising when you think of it. The church didn’t even exist yet during Jesus’ life. And, in those gospels at least, there is no indication that Jesus even anticipated it. Jesus clearly states over and over that he has come to announce the arrival of something else, the kingdom of God, which may have some things in common with an ideal church but is clearly not the same thing.
Jesus’ Response to Peter
The word church does appear three times, however, in the Gospel of Matthew, twice in the passage we read this morning and once two chapters before this one. The first time comes after Simon Peter gives an important answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am.” When Simon answers him by saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus says to him, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
And right there we see a couple of things that are truly essential about the church. We see, first of all, that the church has one rock or foundation. That foundation is not, as far as I can see, the person of Simon Peter so much as it is the content of what he has just confessed. Jesus is saying that the church is built on the rock of the confession of Jesus as Lord, Messiah and Son of God. There is, of course, nothing more essential to the church than that and if we don’t have it, we don’t have a church.
The Gates of Hades
And then there is the business of the gates of Hades. When Jesus says, “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it,” that is a symbolic way of describing what the church is supposed to be doing in this world. Hades, as you may recall, is the name of the Greek god of the dead. But Hades was also the name of the kingdom that the god ruled over, the place where, in Greek mythology, the souls of the dead went after death.
So, you have to wonder why Jesus would say anything based on Greek mythology. I know that sometimes people have taken this as Jesus saying that the central role of the church is to take on the power of evil in the sense that the church is supposed to be storming the gates of hell – taking on the forces of evil firsthand. But Jesus doesn’t say hell, he says Hades, which is probably the Greek translation of the Hebrew concept of Sheol. He is simply referring to the power of death and its dominion, not evil as such.
Opposing the Power of Death
So, I would say that the second essential to the church is that it stands in opposition to the powers of death in this world. It is to be an enduring witness that that death is not the final word and that its power has been defeated once and for all.
So far, therefore, we have learned that Jesus taught that the church is to be founded upon the confession of Christ and that it is to bear witness against the power of death. These are very important essentials that we must never lose sight of.
The Only Other Place
But let us turn now to the second saying about the church, the one that we read this morning. This is the only other place in the New Testament where the word church is found on the lips of Jesus in the gospels. And they offer a very interesting perspective on what is essential about the church.
This passage is interesting because it is all in the context of the church not quite getting along together. Jesus starts by saying, “If your brother or sister sins against you…” He takes it for granted that there will be arguments and disagreements and that people will act against others within the life of the church.
The Unity of the Church
That is actually a rather odd assumption to find in the New Testament which often tries to communicate the opposite. The Book of Acts, for example, which offers an account of the early church, goes out of its way to present the church as being remarkably unified. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul,” it says at one point. (Acts 4:32) This sometimes sets us up with an expectation that the church is supposed to be this place where we always get along and where we will always see things the same way.
Jesus Expect Conflicts
But Jesus clearly doesn’t have that expectation of his followers. That’s because he knows that the church is going to have to be a place where people aren’t going to be afraid to be themselves, to speak even difficult truths. This will necessarily lead to disagreements, to fights, to people getting hurt and maybe even intentionally hurting others, thus sinning against them.
And so, Jesus offers methods for the church to constructively work through these things – methods that are indeed very useful and helpful and that we really ought to employ more consistently. But the implications of that are very clear. The church is not intended to be a place where we are merely nice to one another, but a place where we are not afraid to have the truly difficult conversations because we actually love one another.
Two or Three
But there is one more thing in what Jesus says about the church here that is even more important. I hope you don’t miss it. There is an underlying assumption about the nature of the church that I think we cannot afford to miss.
You cannot read this passage without noticing that a couple of words are repeated several times. Those words are “two or three.” He speaks of two or three witnesses in a dispute, two or three people gathering and of two people agreeing. In fact, I suspect that the reason why the author of this Gospel has gathered all of these sayings of Jesus together here is because they all contain those numbers.
And this tells us a great deal about the church that the Gospel of Matthew was written for, and about what Jesus might have anticipated about the future of his movement.
Our Expectations Around Numbers
We seem to have all kinds of expectations regarding the church when it comes to numbers. In fact when people say, “Well, it just isn’t church for me if we don’t have x,” the x often has something to do with numbers. There just seems to be an expectation that a certain number of people is essential in order for there to be a church and that until your church reaches a critical mass, it is just not really a church.
Now, I am not saying, of course, that numbers don’t matter. There is no question that the number of people in a church definitely contributes to what it can do, the impact it has and the programs it can carry out. Of course, we want to see more people participating in the life of the church. What’s more, I expect that we will as we are faithful to carry out our mission and ministry.
How We Prevent Growth
But the irony is that when we begin to define the essence of the church in a way that requires certain numbers, we can actually prevent that kind of growth from happening.
To put it in the simplest mathematical terms possible, if people fall into thinking that a church is not really a church unless there are more than, say, 10 people there, you just guaranteed that the church will never grow to that point. I’m not going, people will say, because there are only nine people there. It’s not a real church.
The only way that such a church will grow (no matter what number people consider to be the minimum) is if people are willing to love and participate in the church as it is – even with all of its flaws and even if it doesn’t quite fit their idea of what size a church should be. It requires faith in what the church could be, not merely liking what it already is.
How Many for Jesus?
So I think that it is significant that, if you were to ask Jesus how many people it takes to make a church, he would almost certainly respond “Two or three.”
I do believe that there is great potential for the church – and for this congregation – and what it can be. There are so many exciting possibilities. But I think it is also important to note that we may never discover that potential until we realize what really is essential to the church.
We must be founded on our confession of Christ. We must be witnesses to life in a world of death. We must love each other enough to have real conversations even if they are sometimes difficult conversations. And we must love the church that is – including whatever size it is – enough to give it the opportunity to become the church that is meant to be.
Hespeler, September 3, 2023 © Scott McAndless – 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28
Earlier this year, I did a sermon on the story of the binding of Isaac – the story of the time when Abraham was apparently ordered by God to sacrifice his son. Something struck me in particular in that story. Every time Abraham is addressed in it – by God, by Isaac and by the angel of the Lord – he responds in exactly the same way.
How we Respond
Abraham doesn’t answer like you or I would. If someone calls your name, how do you respond? “Scott,” or “Dad” I hear someone call out in my house, what do I say?
“What do you want?” I might say, assuming, of course, that the person calling me has some request of me or something they want me to do.
Or I might respond with, “I’m down in the basement,” or something like that if my assumption is that they are looking to come to where I am.
Or, and doesn’t this happen a whole lot in life these days, if I am right in the middle of something when somebody calls, I might respond, “I’m practicing my sermon,” or whatever else it is that I might be doing. This can be said, of course, with varying degrees of frustration or annoyance – never by me, of course, but I understand that there are people in the world who can get annoyed by interruptions.
Assumptions Behind How We Respond
So, to sum up how we respond, we tend to respond with an assumption that the person calling us wants something from us – either something we’ve got or something that we can do for them.
And we do all of that, mind you, without even thinking about it. It just comes naturally, probably because we assume that everything in life is about what you have got or what you can do that offers value or significance.
This is actually the central assumption of most capitalist societies – that work and possessions are the only things that give value to life. Because we live in such a society, we generally assume that that is how things have always been and how everyone else has always thought.
So that is why it really struck me how Abraham responded when God or others called him. He didn’t say, “What do you want,” or “I’m in the tent,” or “I’m washing the camel.” He responded, we are told, by saying, “Here I am.”
Now, presumably, he responded that way because it was a Hebrew idiom – a common phrase used by many people. But that fact alone tells us a great deal about the people who spoke ancient Hebrew – that they weren’t necessarily task or possession-oriented like we are and that they responded to people differently than we do. That might mean that they could have something to teach us about responding differently.
What He Actually Says
So, I decided to look a little closer at what Abraham actually says. His response, in Hebrew, is actually just one word. When God calls he says, “hin·nê·nî” (הִנֵּֽנִי). And, while the best English translation is indeed, “Here I am,” the Hebrew phrase doesn’t mean exactly that.
For one thing, there is no verb in it. The word that Abraham uses is actually just a very common Hebrew word that is used to indicate things. It was the word you used, for example, when you pointed at something. Someone would ask you, “Hey, where is the TV remote?” and you point and say, “hin-nêh.” (הִנֵּה)
In the old King James Version, this Hebrew word was most often translated as “behold.” And one thing you notice very quickly when you read the King James Bible is that there are a lot of “beholds!” People said this all the time in Hebrew.
Of course, nobody ever says “behold” in English anymore so modern translations tend to use words like “look” or “see.” But the Hebrew word doesn’t really have anything to do with vision, it was just a way of indicating something – the spoken equivalent of pointing.
So, what does Abraham say whenever anyone calls him in that story? He points at himself and says, “Here me.” He says, “voila!” or maybe, “Ta da!” And I just want you all to understand how different that is from how we generally respond to somebody calling us.
Also in this Story
That same word, “hin·nê·nî,” appears in our reading from the Book of Exodus this morning. And this is a really important story because it is the story of what is probably the most important experience anyone has ever had of the presence of God.
In this story, God appears to Moses in a burning bush. And remember where Moses is at this point of his story. Despite growing up as a prince in Egypt, he has come to recognize that something is very wrong with the way things are in Egypt. Though he has apparently benefited from slavery all of his life, Moses has come to recognize the evil in it. As you can imagine, this creates a bit of a moral crisis for him.
And we are told that Moses did try to do something about what he saw was wrong with the world. When he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, he intervened and ended up killing the Egyptian. This, let me be clear, was not a good plan. It clearly took a bad situation and made it so much worse. And Moses ended up running away from the consequences of his actions.
And, at this point, Moses seems to have kind of given up. He recognizes that the world is not right, but he’s withdrawn into the desert because he’s lost any hope that things might get better. I think a lot of us can sympathize with where Moses is at this point in the story.
And, if Moses is going find the hope of a better world and he’s given up on making it happen himself, he is left with but one option. He needs to find God. And God does appear to Moses; that is the good news of this story. But God also appears, somewhat famously, in a strange kind of epiphany. God appears in a bush that is on fire.
A Timely Appearance
And oh, is there any other way that we could speak of God appearing that would be timelier than that right now? Haven’t we been talking about a whole lot of burning bushes and trees recently? We have just gone through a spring, summer and the beginning of a fall where we have seen so many out of control fires. This summer saw a record number of wildfires spread all the way through British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes.
And, for the first time that many of us can remember, these weren’t just fires that were way off in distant forests, but we all experienced the effects of them firsthand as the smoke enveloped our cities and made it dangerous for some people to breathe outdoors.
And, of course, it has not just been about Canada this year, as distressing as that has been. We have also seen how places all over the earth, including Greece and Hawaii have been devastated by such fires.
Can God Speak through Burning Trees?
And so, it seems to be a perfect time to ask the question if God can speak through burning trees. I personally think that God can. I think there is a powerful message in all of these burning trees – a message about our need to change how we live in relationship to this fragile earth.
But maybe I’m wrong, because there seem to be a lot of people who don’t hear any such message or, if they hear it, are much more concerned with what they call important things like keeping the economy humming along and allowing the rich to get richer. So, if God can and does speak through burning trees, how is it that so many don’t seem to find God or hear God’s voice today?
How did Moses Realize God was in it?
That’s the question I have to ask of Moses today. He saw a bush that was burning. And bushes have been burning forever. I mean, yes, it seems as if we are bound to break a record on wildfires this year, but I suspect that God has been present in and speaking in them a long time. So, how is it that Moses recognized God’s presence in that bush when a lot of other people could have gone by that bush and seen it and yet never suspected that God might be in that thing?
That is where I think that an understanding of how Moses replied when God called is so important. When God called, Moses replied, “hin·nê·nî.” He said, “Here I am! Voila! Ta Dah!!” In that moment, Moses simply proclaimed himself to be present. He didn’t reply like we tend to these days. He didn’t say, “I’m busy with the sheep,” or “I’m worried about the slaves back in Egypt,” or even, “What do you want?” He just said “hin·nê·nî.”
Why don’t we Experience God?
And it makes me wonder, is that the reason why we don’t have such experiences of God? It is not that God is absent or doesn’t appear. It is just that we are just so busy at being busy and concerned with what people are expecting from us that we can’t just stop and be present to God in the moment.
So, yes, maybe we do need to learn something from the Ancient Hebrews about how we respond to God in this world. The very fact that we are so task-oriented and materialistic may just be the thing that is preventing us from experiencing the very real presence of God that I do believe is active in this world. Maybe we need to develop the mindfulness and the self-awareness to say, “hin·nê·nî.” Here I am.
Something Unique about the Bush
There is one other thing that I haven’t mentioned yet that might also have allowed Moses to have that experience. We are told that he turned aside to see a burning bush, but it was not just any burning bush. There was something that he noticed that was very unique about it. “The bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.”
And I am not quite sure how you would even notice that peculiar fact about a burning bush. Anytime I have ever looked at something that was on fire – not to mention something as dramatic as a wildfire in the wilderness – the thing that usually strikes me is the power of it, the heat and the smoke.
I do not generally pay attention to how quickly the fire is consuming whatever is fueling it. It seems to me that that is something that you’d have to specifically pay attention to and watch for over a period of time.
So, it seems to me that another reason why Moses was able to have such an experience of God is that he was paying attention to things that we tend not to. We seem to have been trained to pay attention to the noisy things, whatever causes harm and destruction.
Why We Pay Attention to the Wrong Things
This is, by the way, exactly what most social media has been training us to do for some time now. The algorithms that control the content on Facebook, Twitter (or whatever it is called) and other sites are all tuned to present to you whatever stories are likely to get you upset and angry because that is what drives engagement.
But Moses has already tried anger and fiery deeds when faced with injustice in Egypt and look how that turned out. He seems to be ready for something different. And so, he pays attention to something else. He pays attention to what, in the midst of all the fire and destruction, is miraculously able to survive.
The Possibility of Hope
In the context of the situation in Egypt, on which he had given up, that means that he is suddenly made aware that despite the fiery trial of slavery that his people are suffering from in Egypt, they have somehow survived, perhaps even thrived to a certain extent. He is suddenly confronted with the possibility of hope.
And I think that that is the other thing that allows Moses to experience God by that bush. He is suddenly open to finding hope even in the direst of situations.
This also might be the thing that sometimes prevents us from experiencing God in this world. If all we can see are the flames, if all we can see are all the things that cause us to give up hope, I suspect that the experience of God will continue to elude us. But once we open ourselves, even just a little bit, to the possibility of hope, I believe the presence of God can shine through.
God is alive. God is here. God is acting in this world for hope and looking for you to work alongside. The only question, really is where are you, and will you say, “Here I am.”
Hespeler, August 20, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:21-28
Joseph’s story in the Book of Genesis stands out as an amazing piece of ancient literature. The story is told in eight chapters and is the longest continual narrative in the Old Testament.
In the course of this story, terrible things happen to Joseph one after the other. His brothers, out of jealousy and spite and as a result of Joseph tattling on them for their sloppy work, make a plot to capture and kill him. They throw him in a pit. They then think better of it, decide to sell him into slavery for profit and just tell his father that he is dead.
Joseph lands in Egypt as a slave. There, despite excellent work done for his master, he is falsely accused and ends up in prison. As some of his fellow prisoners are executed, he seems to be on death row.
And I think it is very important that we do not just breeze over that part of the story. These are simply horrible experiences for anybody to live through. Not only does Joseph suffer greatly but, and this point is stressed again and again, he suffers unjustly. He did absolutely nothing to deserve any of it.
The only negative thing that you can say about Joseph throughout this story is that he was a little bit boastful and insufferable with his brothers. He spoke to them about the dreams that he had that seemed to indicate that he would end up greater and more powerful than any of them. That’s it.
And sure, that would have created some friction in the family, but there are so many better ways of dealing with that than through attempted murder and kidnapping! Like can’t we maybe talk things out?
Before the Happy Ending
We didn’t read anything about the trials and tribulations of Joseph this morning, but I think it is very important that we do not lose sight of them as we read the ending of the story today. Because it is very much an “all’s well that ends well,” and “happily ever after” ending. And I like a good Hollywood ending as much as the next person, but I also need to acknowledge that this one is not without its problems.
At this point in the story, Joseph has definitely seen much improvement in his situation. By being in the right place at the right time, he has become a ruler in his own right. He is the Grand Vizier – sort of like a Prime Minister under the all-powerful Pharaoh.
And this is all very fortunate for his family because a terrible famine has struck the land of Canaan. People there and everywhere are starving because nothing is growing. But there is food in Egypt, and Joseph is in charge of its distribution. He is now in a position to save his entire family.
And that is exactly what Joseph himself says in our reading this morning. He says it like he is just realizing it himself for the first time as he explains it to his brothers. “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to keep alive for you many survivors,” He declares in wonder. “So it was not you who sent me here but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt!”
And let’s just pause here for a moment and celebrate what this is saying. There are indeed many people who have suffered unjustly in this world. I would even go so far as to suggest that it is a common human experience – that everyone has experienced at least some degree of unjust suffering.
Meaning in Suffering?
That is not to suggest, of course, that all such suffering is equivalent. A people suffering genocide or enslavement is not the same thing as an employee being unfairly passed over for a promotion. An abused woman is not the same thing as a person cheated in a transaction. Every experience is absolutely unique and brings its own particular suffering, but there is something that connects us all in the great tide of human suffering.
This story of Joseph holds out an enticing possibility to each one of us in the midst of the suffering of this world. Perhaps there is meaning in my suffering. Perhaps there is a purpose. Maybe, just maybe, I had to go through all of that because God had a plan to bring about something good. That seems to be exactly what Joseph is saying to his brothers.
Many Experience this
And I do believe that this is not an uncommon human realization. Many of us, when we have gone through a rough patch in life, have been able to look back on that difficult time afterwards and have seen how the lessons we learned or the decisions we made as a result set us up for success afterwards or put us in a position where we were able to do something really good.
It is wonderful when that happens. And we, like Joseph, might well want to jump to the conclusion that such a happy outcome means that all the bad things that happened were part of a divine plan.
And I will definitely agree that there is a great truth in what Joseph realizes and in what we may retroactively realize looking back at our own suffering. It is true that God has a way of working through even the worst events of our lives in order to bring about some good. That is an amazingly comforting truth.
Keeps People Going
Sometimes just holding onto the possibility that God might have a secret plan to bring good, even if you have no clue what it could be, is all that keeps people going through the darkest times. And sometimes that belief has also prompted people to use their pain to create a better world by mounting campaigns or changing policies for the better. Just believing it has allowed people to make it true by the sheer force of their own will.
But I also know from personal experience and from experience in counseling others that there is something in this that can absolutely mess us up and I do not want to lose sight of it.
Struggling with Why
Have you ever encountered someone who has lived through a horrible personal episode – the loss of a loved one, the diagnosis of a dreaded illness, the aftermath of a terrible accident – and they really struggle afterwards with that terrible question why? “Why did this have to happen to me or to this person that I care for. What is the purpose in it?”
People ask that why question because of what seems to be promised in this story of Joseph – that God only puts you through hard times because there is a plan to bring about something better.
And sometimes that only creates more pain for people. It creates pain because the answer to that why question is not forthcoming. And so, people engage in a fruitless and frustrating search for that sense of purpose.
In desperation they might settle on some sense of purpose that is deeply disturbing like, for example, when grieving parents are told that their beautiful infant died because they were too good for this world and so God took them because God wanted them.
Explanations like that only create an image of a cruel, capricious and selfish God who cares nothing for the very real pain that those parents are going through! That is a horrible explanation! But sometimes people are so desperate for a purpose that they will embrace such deeply flawed explanations.
So, let me be very clear about one thing. God doesn’t want you to suffer. Nor does God make plans that include or depend on your suffering. Above all, I know that God takes no comfort or joy from your suffering. I know that because God’s relationship to suffering is very clear in the Bible.
The Depth of Joseph’s Grief
There is an amazing description of Joseph’s grief in this story. It says that, once Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he wept. It seems that all of the grief and pain and sorrow that he had bottled up suddenly came out of him all at once – an incredible release of years of tension and tears. And so, this was no ordinary weeping, but an extraordinary display.
This is how Genesis describes his weeping. “And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.” Now, does that sound realistic to you – that Joseph or anyone could actually weep that loudly? I mean we are not just talking about a cry being heard by his next-door neighbours. The pharaoh didn’t just have a house, after all, he had a palace complex. Can the sound of weeping really travel so far?
This is an obviously and intentionally hyperbolic description. It is kind of like the trope you see in comics sometimes where the comic character is hurt and we hear them cry out, and then the scene pulls back, and you see their scream echoing over the whole city. Then it pulls back even more, and you hear it throughout the continent, and then the whole world and then from a small corner of the Milky Way galaxy. It is an illustration of an extreme reaction.
But I do not think that it is just a comic trope that the author is using here. He trying to illustrate to us just how extreme Joseph’s feelings are at this moment. It is as if everything that he has suffered over years of mistreatment is all concentrated and released into this one powerful cry.
This is certainly a warning that we should never take anyone’s suffering lightly and that, even if it does lead to a positive outcome that might never have been anticipated, that hardly makes the suffering just or worthwhile. Suffering is just suffering, and it is a part of the human condition. The author is inviting us all to respond to those who have suffered with deep empathy and love and support.
But he is also saying something much more important. He is saying something about God’s response. For, if the cry of Joseph reverberated in the household of Pharaoh, how much more was it heard in the halls of our heavenly father? He is reminding us that God’s first response to all of our pain and suffering is empathy. God feels our sorrow deeply.
That is, of course, what the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is all about. The reason why Jesus had to come into this world, the reason why Jesus had to be completely human and yet, in a way that defies all logic, entirely divine, is so that God might know our suffering. Jesus on the cross is a picture of God entering into the reality of human suffering.
That is how I know that God’s first and primary response to whatever you have suffered is deep, deep empathy. God weeps when you weep. God feels your pain deeply. That is what Jesus shows us.
That is how I know that God never plans or intends to put you through terrible suffering. Yes, God can and does indeed bring good things out of terrible episodes in your life, but that is simply a testimony to the greatness of God.
There was something in the news earlier this summer that I think is a good illustration of the principle I’m trying to state here. Do you remember all of the controversy that hit the news when the state of Florida published its curriculum on history and, as part of its coverage of the history of the institution of slavery, made a point of including the notion that enslaved peoples learned some skills as slaves that they were able to use to their own benefit when they were freed sometime in the future.
Now, I hope I don’t need to say all of the problems with a statement like that. A lot of it has already been said. It is rather ridiculous in a number of ways. After all, if any master permitted any slave to learn a skill, they did so in absolutely self-interested ways. They were only looking for how that skill might be used to enrich themselves. That’s what slavery is; it is using another person and any skills they might have to enrich only yourself.
And if, in spite of that intention and all of the inhumanity of the system, somebody survived and was actually able to build a future for themselves, that only reflects well on them and in no way on the institution of slavery.
Doesn’t Make it Okay
It is the same thing in the Joseph story. If Joseph was able to survive and save his family, that in no way makes what happened to him okay. It certainly doesn’t mean that God wanted and endorsed what Joseph went through. It only reflects well on Joseph and his character, and it reflects on a God who is able to perform the miracle of bringing something good out of the worst of evil.
But never forget that the cry of Joseph’s heart was heard and felt by God. Let us also be like God in practicing deep empathy for all who suffer.
Hespeler, August 13, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33
Ladies and Gentlemen, we begin this morning with a special report on the state of the church. We take you live to the Prophet Elijah who is standing by to give us this vital information. Elijah, where are speaking from to us today?
Elijah: “Good morning, Scott, though I’m not sure how good it is. I am reporting to you live from this cave where I have hidden out because of just how bad things are.
“Look, I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, but the people around here have forsaken God’s covenant. The pews are empty, the church buildings are falling into disrepair. People are not giving as much. and the church is no longer automatically given respect in society.
“We don’t get to just do whatever we want any more! And sometimes, when the church’s pastors and preachers say things that the society around them finds to be intolerant, they get cancelled! People actually unfriend them on Facebook and unfollow them on Twitter.
“Why, these days, it is as if I alone am left, and they are seeking to cancel me too! So, I have come on this major television network to warn you all that they are not letting us have a platform anywhere! Beware! Beware!
“We’re all doomed, I tell you, doomed! It is like they are trying to cancel God!”
Okay, Elijah, thanks for the report. Um, I think I’m going to talk to the head of the network about getting you a few mental health days, okay?
About Elijah’s Complaint
I don’t know about you, but when I read that famous story of Elijah in the cave recently, I couldn’t help but make the connection between his thrice repeated complaint and what we often hear in the church these days.
Now, I want to be clear, of course, that, in the Book of Kings, Elijah’s complaint is not entirely out of line. He actually has had his life threatened by a very powerful person – Jezebel, Queen of Israel. So, I can hardly blame the guy for feeling persecuted.
But let’s just inject a bit of realism into his situation. The reason why Jezebel threatened him was because he just finished engineering the slaughter of 450 prophets of her God, Baal.
And I know, I know, as far as the Bible is concerned, Baal is a false god and his prophets are false prophets. But still, if Elijah just managed to pull that off, he can hardly be as powerless as he claims when he cowers and whines in his cave.
Is his problem really that belief and worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel is suddenly illegal? Or is it just that he is struggling with the reality that his religion no longer has the unrestricted power that he thinks it once had to impose itself on everyone and maybe kill those who don’t go along with that? And is that really persecution, or is it just a loss of privilege?
It is enough to make me wonder if God, who must have had an understanding of the entire situation, was rolling his eyes at Elijah’s complaint just a little bit?
Reminds me of Something
But there is so much in that – in all of that – that really reminds me of where we seem to be in the church in the world today. We seem to hear a lot of people complaining that the church just doesn’t quite seem to be living up to what we think it should be. Across the board – on every part of the spectrum from left to right wing – the church seems to be struggling with its loss of power, influence and cultural clout. And often this is decried as a loss of religious freedom and even persecution.
And sometimes that makes me wonder, just like the story of Elijah does, whether the real thing we are decrying is not persecution so much as a loss of the privilege that we once enjoyed. Some of it is certainly about making a hard adjustment to living in a much more diverse society than we had been used to. Does God sometimes roll God’s eyes at our complaints? Maybe.
But, even if God might have been doubtful of some of Elijah’s complaints, he still did respond to him with compassion and care, and I believe that God does the same for us. The truth of the matter is that, even when we are inclined to overreact and over complain, we still have a God who is ready to meet us where we are and respond to us as we need.
So let us take a look at how God responds to Elijah when he is really feeling at his lowest. The first thing I note is that God actually responds to Elijah in a variety of ways.
First of all, God responds through self-revelation. “He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’” Now, if you were to put yourself in Elijah’s position for a moment, and you’ve just been promised a revelation of God, what kind of revelation would you be looking for? You would be looking for the revelation of a powerful God, wouldn’t you – a God who would smash your enemies like a cosmic Hulk?
Not in the Wind
So, when Elijah was looking around for what was coming around the mountain to reveal God to him, I bet he was excited to see “a great wind.” Oh yes, here was the ticket. That was just the thing to destroy all of the people who were standing in the way of Elijah doing whatever he wanted, a wind “so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces!” Yes, surely God would show everyone who was boss with a mighty wind.
But, wait a minute, God wasn’t in the wind. The wind just seemed to be stirring everything up and unsettling things. Surely God could use such power to remake the world just as Elijah wanted but was choosing not to do so!
Not in Earthquake or Fire
So, then Elijah looked around to see what else was coming around the mountain and it was an earthquake. “Ah, here it is, he sighed to himself, this is how God is going to shake up all my enemies. But, no, God wasn’t in the earthquake either.
By the time the roaring fire came around the mountain, Elijah was not too surprised that God wasn’t in that either.
But then something very different started to come around that mountain. Elijah dismissed it at first because it really didn’t seem to amount to anything. It certainly didn’t seem to shake up or disturb anything. It didn’t make any noise, in fact it was kind of the opposite of noise; it was the sound of sheer silence.
And then Elijah realized something and he was so shocked by his realization that I think he spoke aloud: “Oh, great, this is it, isn’t it? God is going to come in the silence. How is silence supposed to smite anybody?” And with that he sighed, pulled his mantle around his face and stepped out to the entrance of the cave.
And so it was that God appeared to Elijah in the silence. And you would think that Elijah might have learned something from that mode of appearance.
Maybe this would finally make him realize that, when the world is not going in the way that you think it should, the proper response may not be to try and impose your will on the world with powerful displays of wind, earthquake and fire – that maybe, sometimes, when the world is not living up to your expectations, it might be time to stop and listen and maybe learn something in the silence.
Did Elijah Really Hear?
But no! As soon as Elijah realized that God had finally shown up, he repeated the exact same complaint with exactly the same whining tone: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
At this point, I assume, God just decided that this Elijah fellow was so committed to only seeing himself as the victim in this story that some other response was going to be needed. And so, we’re told, God gave Elijah something to do. “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also, you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel, and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.”
And to all of you who are saying to yourselves, “Doesn’t that sound nice, God is taking care of Elijah by giving him a friend, Elisha, to work alongside him,” let me explain a few things.
What do these Tasks Mean?
This is not really a good and certainly not a comforting job that God is giving the prophet. He is to anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Who is Hazael? He is actually a usurper who is going to engineer a coup against his predecessor. Even worse, Hazael will build an empire that will invade and bring death and slaughter to many people in the kingdom of Israel. To anoint Hazael as king over Aram is to anoint an instrument of chaos, death and destruction to be unleashed on Elijah’s own people!
And what about anointing Jehu as King of Israel? Well, he too will be a usurper who pulls off what is perhaps the bloodiest coup in the ancient history of Israel against his master, King Ahab. And, yes, Elijah is no fan of King Ahab, but the kind of chaos that Jehu’s coup will create is not good news for anybody. The Prophet Hosea, for example, soundly condemns it in the name of the Lord.
And finally, Elijah is to anoint Elisha as his prophetic successor. Here and here only is there any measure of comfort for Elijah in some companionship, but the message that he receives in the moment is hardly comforting to anyone but Elijah as it is stressed that Elisha is being put into place to slaughter anyone who escapes the sword of Hazael or of Jehu.
If you Demand Action
So here is what I understand God saying to Elijah in this moment. If you are not going to find an answer in silence, reflection and listening, if you’re going to demand action, then I am going to show you the cost of such action. If you want God to act in such a way as to bring about what you think is best, the result might just be a lot of chaos. So just be very careful about what kind of action you are asking for from God.
And then, after all of that, God gives one more response to Elijah that has got to be the most critical of all. All this time, what has Elijah been saying? He has been complaining to God that he and he alone has been trying to save God’s reputation. Why, the way Elijah tells it, God is really lucky to have him because otherwise God would be completely destroyed by the opposition.
A Final Word
But God’s final word to Elijah outside that cave tells a very different story, doesn’t it? “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel,” God says, “all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” In other words, God has been doing just fine without Elijah’s help thank you very much. God doesn’t need Elijah to save God or defend God’s honour. God is quite capable of taking care of God’s self and of those who are God’s faithful followers.
I will admit that it can be rather hard these days to be a person of faith in this world. The things we once took for granted about our place and our voice in society are just no longer true. Like Elijah, we might feel like hiding out in some cave somewhere and whining “I alone am left.”
God Meets you Where you are
And, on one level, I want to affirm that, if you are feeling like that, your feelings are valid. It is difficult to manoeuvre this world of change and uncertainty. I want to encourage you by assuring you that God will meet you wherever you are in your journey, even if it is hiding out in a cave somewhere.
But I would also encourage you, when God does meet you, to put yourself in a mind to listen. Perhaps God has been speaking, but you have not been hearing because God speaks in the silence, and you prefer to pay attention to the wind, earthquake and fire.
And above all, listen when God tries to tell you that you don’t have to be the one to protect and take care of God’s honour – that God can take care of Godself. That might just be the most freeing lesson that any of us needs to learn.
Hespeler, August 6, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21
Earlier this summer, the Southern Baptist Convention – the national body of the largest Protestant denomination in North America – made a controversial decision. The Southern Baptists voted to expel two of their congregations, one of which was their largest: Saddleback Church.
Amazingly, this did not have anything to do with the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked that denomination for the last few years. No, apparently the congregations were exiled for permitting something much, much worse. They were expelled because they had chosen to have women on staff as pastors.
And I would note that women pastors are not necessarily a new thing in such churches. Many Baptist congregations have had women employed as pastors for a very long time. In fact, one of the congregations that was expelled, Fern Creek Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky had had the Rev. Linda Barnes Popham as their senior pastor for three decades before being kicked out!
This decision is part of a reactionary crackdown within that denomination – a retrenchment as the church reacts to a time of crisis. You see, the Southern Baptist Convention might be the largest denomination, but it is also the one that is declining the fastest. I know that lots of denominations are in decline these days, including our own, and I do not rejoice or crow over any of it. But the decline they are facing is rather stunning. The Presbyterian Church in Canada is getting smaller, but the SBC loses more members than are in the entire PCC every few months!
And so, what has happened is that a reactionary conservative group has seized power and is intent on taking the church back to a time long before the decline began – back to a time when, they might say, women knew their place and it wasn’t in leadership.
It is not a new idea. It is a very, very old idea that has been with the church for a very long time. It is the idea that certain sorts of people don’t count, not when you really want to build a church.
An Odd Ending
Haven’t you always wondered about the end of the story of the feeding of the five thousand? The story is told in all of our gospels, and it ends in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark with a count of those who ate. The counting is obviously really important. It is a way of making it clear that a great miracle has occurred.
The story ends like this in the Gospel of Mark: “The number of men who were fed was five thousand.” (Mark 6:44) But the Gospel of Matthew ends with an explicit detail found nowhere else. He puts it like this: “The number of men who ate was about five thousand, not counting the women and children.” But I have to ask the question, why not count the women and the children? If the point of this story is to show us the great wonder that Jesus performed, why exclude so many people from your accounting?
Why Would You Understate the Numbers?
Every politician, every organizer and certainly every preacher I have ever heard has always tended to overstate, not understate, the size of a crowd. Donald Trump was kind of famous for it and if ever the media tried to correct the record with a more realistic estimate, he would attack them relentlessly for it. And yet here we are told that the gospel writer could not be bothered counting part of the crowd.
Interpreters have come up with various theories for how many people would have been in the crowd if there were 5,000 adult males. Not everyone agrees, but I’ve seen some commentators who’ve made a study of the demographics of early first-century Galilee estimate that this could mean a crowd as big as 15 to 20,000 people. If you knew that the crowd was as big as that, why on earth would you not bother to count three-quarters of them?
Is it Because Certain People don’t Count?
Why indeed? I believe that it comes back to the issue that I started with – an idea that is obviously much older than the most recent meeting of the Southern Baptist Conference. The idea has long been built into the very foundation of the church that certain people don’t count, or at least don’t count the same.
The notion that women don’t count has deep roots. And I feel that I must say that I don’t believe that it is something that comes from Jesus or from God or even the true nature of the church.
We see where Jesus’ concerns lie at the beginning of this story. He is going through a very rough time. He has just learned that John the Baptist who, to a certain extent at least, seems to have been a kind of mentor to Jesus, has been murdered by Herod. Of course this is hard and of course Jesus, who Christian doctrine teaches us is utterly human no matter what else he is, feels this deeply.
And so, he needs a little bit of self-care. He heads off to a deserted place on a boat, hoping, no doubt, for a little bit of time to reflect and meditate. But his self-care is interrupted by the needs of the great mass of the people who come looking for him, even though they have to walk a great distance to find him.
Jesus’ Care for All the People
And, as much as he may need some time alone, as much as he is aware of his own needs, Jesus recognizes the need to care for the people – all of the people. When he saw them, “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” And when he heals them and goes on to feed them, he quite clearly does not fail to count all of them. He does not simply provide for the most important or the most powerful. He certainly doesn’t feed or heal only the men. Obviously, for Jesus, the women and the children count, as do their needs.
So, if it didn’t start with Jesus, where does it come from? Why, by the time that this gospel was written, had people stopped counting the women and the children? Well, it had everything to do with the society and culture in which the early church found itself. There is lots of evidence that shows that the early church did count women. It counted them among the leadership, with women named as apostles and leaders of churches. That is why the Apostle Paul could say things like, “There is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
A Patriarchal Society
But the early church found itself in a culture, dominated by the Roman Empire, that was extremely patriarchal. Such a culture found the very idea of counting women – or at least giving them any significance – to be offensive.
And, by the time that the Gospel of Matthew was written and by the time that some of the later letters of the New Testament were written, that attitude had begun to drift into the church as well. Basically, the church began to feel that it needed to go along to get along. And, in many ways, that attitude continued to affect the church for many centuries. And, as we see in recent decisions by the Southern Baptist Conference, among others, it hasn’t really gone away.
Who We Count
It does mean a lot to me to be part of a church, and a denomination, that has done some serious work on counting women, on truly recognizing and appreciating their contribution, over the last few decades. I also appreciate the steps that we have taken to count others who were excluded from our accounting for way too long.
But I do not think that we can or should just lean back and put our feet up and assume that the job is done. I believe we will always encounter a cultural tendency not to count certain kinds of people, and as long as we do that, we will be missing out on a true picture of what God is doing among us.
People Sitting in Pews
For example, for a very long time, the impact of a church such as ours was measured by only one metric – by the number of people sitting in pews for one particular hour on a Sunday morning. Congregations that had lots of people sitting in the right places at the right time every week were considered to be successful congregations that were having real impact.
Even back then, this was not necessarily an accurate measure of the liveliness of a church. There were lots of people who were vital to the church who were not counted – people who were teaching Sunday school, people who had some pretty good reasons for why they couldn’t be there at that time, but that were great supporters of the church in other ways.
Old Assumptions No Longer Work
So, it was never quite accurate, but these old assumptions have become even more problematic because of recent developments. Now we have people who attend our worship services online through Zoom or through Facebook Live. Others watch the videos of sermons and other elements of our worship at another time than that extra special hour that was once the only one that mattered. Some of them do that from great distances away – all over the globe, in fact. Do they count? Are they part of the life and work of our church? Of course they are, but we do not often count them.
But there is more than that. There are all kinds of people in this community for whom this church is part of their spiritual life and for whom this congregation helps to meet both their spiritual and physical needs, and yet we have never seen them during the magic hour on a Sunday morning. Maybe we never will.
Who is Part of our Church?
I’m talking, for one thing, of those who come in for a good meal, to pick up some food from the Food Bank or our Community Cupboard. I’m talking about people who need help to get decent clothing for their families. This church is their church too and it meets their needs. The very fact that they are welcomed warmly here and treated without judgement absolutely feeds their souls as well as their hungry stomachs. If you asked them what they know of the church, they will speak well of St. Andrew’s. But do we count them? We do not.
I am also talking, by the way, about the amazing army of volunteers that keeps our ministries operating. Many do not worship here but they also have formed an amazing society of mutual support and encouragement and surely that is what the church is supposed to be about. Recently, for example, one of our Hope Clothing volunteers suffered the sudden death of her spouse. I know that she found the support that she received from her fellow volunteers to be invaluable.
I was talking with the people from the Food Bank recently, and they were noting just how seriously we undervalue the contribution of such volunteers. If you were to put a dollar value on it – and they are working up some models to help to put a dollar value on it – it works out that this church is making an additional contribution of thousands of dollars every year to this community. This is the mission of the church.
These are all people who are living out the mission of the church and doing it admirably. Are you going to tell me that they don’t count because they have never sat in a pew? That would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? And yet we seem to assume all the time that that is how things are.
A History of Not Counting Some
The church, sadly, has a long history of not counting certain people. For centuries women didn’t really count, even as they often did the greatest part of the work in many churches. For centuries members of certain minority racial, ethnic or language groups didn’t count.
Oh sure, we were happy enough to include them in our statistics when it made us look good, but we didn’t seem to believe that they could really contribute anything of value. Their theological reflections were often simply dismissed.
Work Yet to be done
I’m glad to say that our church today has learned better about such things. But we still do fall into the temptation of not counting certain people. We say we would love to welcome families with children, for example, but can have a hard time making space for families that don’t quite fit into the pattern of families that we are used to.
Imagine those people who went out to find Jesus when he set off to be alone after he heard of the death of John. Those people are a picture of the whole of the church. They are gathered, as we are gathered, for one reason alone – because the compassion of Jesus met them where they were. Each one was met according to their need. Each one given a role in the ministry according to his or her ability. And they all counted. They all count. So, we must always be careful about who we don’t count.