News Blog

Mature Christians

Posted by on Sunday, February 16th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 16 February, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

Crying Baby

How would you recognize an immature Christian – someone who was just starting out in their walk of following in the way of Jesus Christ? I’ll bet if you surveyed your average group of Christians, you would probably find a great variety of answers. Say you went to a fairly normal congregation like this one and asked people, confidentially of course, who they felt were the most mature Christians among them, they might say something like, “Well, brother Bob over there has taken many courses in theology and Bible study and he probably understands more about God than just about anyone. He is a very mature Christian.” And then someone else might say, “But look at sister Susan over there, she has served as an elder for so many years she has chaired many committees and even headed up that big building project. Now there’s a mature Christian for you.” Or someone else might point out brother Phil, who can pray like nobody’s business, or maybe sister Catherine who has taught generations of students in that Sunday school room.

Those are the kinds of things that we look at. We look at education, leadership, ability and service. We look at what people have accomplished and sometimes just it how long they’ve been around to judge whether or not they are mature in how they live out the Christian faith. And, I’ll be honest, that is generally how I think about it too. And I will say that I have certainly been blessed, down through the years, to have known many mature Christians according to those criteria. That is why I was kind of shocked when I realized what it was that the Apostle Paul was saying in our reading this morning from his letter to the Corinthians.

Paul speaks to the Christians in Corinth and sadly tells them that he can’t treat them as mature Christians. In fact, he says that they aren’t just immature, they are babies. He has to feed them milk, he says, and not solid food. Paul is speaking here as if he were a nursing mother with a little baby. Nobody knows for sure how long mothers nursed their children in the ancient world. There are some indications that they may have nursed them until they were at least three or four years old! But they still must have introduced solid foods well before that age. Perhaps they exclusively fed their children on milk for about the same period of time that modern mothers are recommended to do so by the experts today: about six months

So what Paul is implying to the Corinthians is not merely that they are immature. He’s suggesting that they are little more than newborn infants. He’s actually casting himself as a nursing mother with a baby who cannot even handle pablum. But what is really surprising is how it is that Paul knows that they are immature because he doesn’t look at any of the things that we would look at. He doesn’t look at education or experience or service or ability or any of that stuff. There is only one indication that matters to him. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” The fact that they are quarreling with each other is all Paul needs to look at to know that they are spiritual infants.

What would it be like if we in the church today had the same understanding of spiritual maturity as Paul? Because I’ll tell you that we don’t tend to think that way at all. We often go to the other extreme. What do you do, for example, if you have a person in your congregation who is, let’s say, really forceful when it comes to getting their point of view across, who has this way of making sure that everybody goes along with their plans? What do we do? Well, we usually let them do whatever they want because we are scared of how they might react if we don’t. We also tend to look at them and say, “Wow, there’s a leader for you; there’s somebody who knows how to get things done.” And so we advance them into leadership or put them in charge of some project.

And then, before too long, you find yourself in a position where almost all of your leadership team is made up of exactly that type of person and if you don’t watch out you soon have them butting heads with one another because, I’ll tell you, none of them are about to back down on anything. We behave as if these people are the spiritually mature, responsible leaders and not the spiritual babies that Paul would have seen. We act as if quarrelling and fighting are an essential part of being the church and even reward the behaviour.

And I know that we often excuse it. We say that people are not really fighting because it isn’t physical. We call it being passionate or forceful and often even push the blame onto those who complain or feel hurt by the process – tell them that it is their fault because they are being too sensitive. You know, maybe we ought to check with Jesus before we say things like that.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment,’” and we agree. We think, that because people aren’t murdering each other everything’s fine. We’d go even further and say that so long as nobody’s having fist fights in the parking lot or keying people’s cars, we must be all good. But here’s the thing. Jesus said that in order to reject it and say that it wasn’t good enough. He said it in order to say, “but I say unto you…”

Jesus is giving us, in this short passage from the Sermon on the Mount, some instructions on becoming the kind of mature Christians that Paul was looking for but didn’t find in Corinth – the kind of Christian who doesn’t give into quarrelling and fighting. And this first instruction is key. He says that it’s not just about not murdering each other. It’s not just about avoiding actual physical violence. We need to look at deeper questions about how we treat each other, how we speak to each other and how we behave. Words can hurt just as surely as blows can. Raised voices and aggressive movement can frighten and even terrify.

And I know that some people might find that to be too much to ask. How can we censor our every word and movement all the time? It is a lot to ask and I know that it is something that we will all fall short of at least from time to time. I fall short often enough. But Jesus never said it was supposed to be easy. He demanded more of his followers and it is the kind of maturity that we may sometimes fail to achieve but that we must always aspire to.

But that is just one part of the advice that Jesus gives to us as he encourages us to maturity. He also teaches us to, “Come to terms quickly,” when we are faced with such strife. That is (I suspect Paul would agree) what a mature Christian should do rather than quarrel and fight. Now, coming to terms is something that takes some work, it takes some communication and in some cases it might take some mediation. It might even take some give-and-take or what you call negotiation. Sometimes it’s really hard and sometimes it is nigh impossible, but coming to terms is something that we can all work towards together.

But I’ll tell you something that coming to terms isn’t; it isn’t what we often do. What do you do, for example, when you find yourself in a situation, whether in the church or someplace else in life, and somebody begins to act inappropriately with someone else – insulting them, making fun of them or maybe speaking in inappropriate racial or sexual ways? I know how people often react and I’ve done it, sadly enough, myself. People withdraw, look down as if they had suddenly become very interested in their shoes. And I understand why we do that, we are afraid to speak up, afraid of the discomfort of it or that maybe the person who is misbehaving will turn his or her attack on us. We hope that maybe, if nobody says anything, it’ll just be over and we can pretend that it never happened. And, indeed, that is exactly what we sometimes do afterwards as well. But let me ask you, is that kind of response what Jesus was thinking of when he said that we should “Come to terms?” No, he was not.

But, of course, that is just one way that we deal with the discord that sometimes arises among us. Sometimes, when somebody has hurt you in some way, maybe even without realizing that they have done it, you might respond by withdrawing from that person, becoming cold and even hostile in your reactions to them. I get that reaction. It can really feel so good, you almost feel as if you are getting back at them by doing it. But, let me ask you, do you think that that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said “Come to terms”? No, it was not.

Okay then, how about, “agreeing to disagree”? Is that what Jesus was talking about when he spoke about “coming to terms”? Sometimes, I will admit, that is a position that we’re going to have to take. The simple reality is very clearly that we are not always going to agree about everything. There is no escaping that. But sometimes I feel as if we can say that in a rather cynical way, as if we are grudgingly giving someone permission to be wrong from our point of view and somehow I really don’t feel that that’s what Jesus was getting at when he spoke of “coming to terms.” Surely there are ways to say that and to truly respect and honour that person who holds a different point of view, to be willing to learn from them even if, in the end, you don’t agree. I think that could be close to what Jesus was talking about when he said, “come to terms.”

But most of all, what I think Jesus was saying was that we need to truly love one another. And if you truly love one another and you run into one of those inevitable patches when you see something differently or are hurt by something that somebody does either intentionally or unintentionally, then you are going to put in the effort and the time to actually communicate what you feel and what you need. You will put in the time and effort you need to understand where somebody is coming from and why they might be feeling the way they are (which, I have found, often has little to do with the disagreement at hand but with something deeper that might be going on in their life).

It also means you are going to be willing to tell somebody the hard truth, like how they might have hurt others with their behaviour. That is a hard thing for anyone to hear, but when it comes from a place of love, it can be a transformative moment. I think that that might just be a piece of what Jesus was getting at when he told us that we should come to terms.

Is any of that easy? Of course it isn’t. Is any of us going to be able to do that all the time? Of course not. We will all fall short at least from time to time. But, as Paul makes very clear, our failures to do this do not mean that we are not followers of Christ or that we have no place in the kingdom of heaven. It means that we are immature Christians who can’t quite handle solid food. But full maturity is what we should all desire. It is what Christ has called us to. So let us all put in the work to get there.

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The fast that I choose

Posted by on Sunday, February 9th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 9 February, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20

God, I don’t mean to complain, but I’ve got to ask, what is the problem here? I mean, we Presbyterians, we have got it all figured out, don’t we? We believe all the right things. We have to because we work so hard at getting it right. We believe in God the Father the creator of heaven and Earth. We believe in Jesus Christ his only son and all the right stuff about his life and his death and his resurrection. We believe correctly about the nature of Christ and the nature of the trinity even if (if I can be candid here for a moment) it doesn’t make a lot of logical sense to us.

And empty plate with the words, "The fast that I choose."

We believe all the right things about the church and how it should operate. In fact, we are so careful about that that every time we even think of making any change in church policy we send it out to all the committees and go over the wording with a fine-tooth comb and make sure that we’ve got it just right before we adopt it. We don’t care if it takes us years, maybe even decades, we will not make that change until we get it just right.

We are so careful and so correct, and yet what do we see happening in our church? As our friend, John-Peter, shared with us a couple of weeks ago, we find ourselves today in a denomination that is undergoing a steep decline, a decline that has been fairly steady and straightforward ever since 1959. Day after day we seek you and delight to know your truth and be correct in all of it, and yet this is what you let happen to us?

Why do we work so hard to be right, but you do not see? Why convince ourselves that we’ve got the answers, but you do not notice? Well, I guess the only thing we can do is just try harder to be all the more right all the time. Surly you will soon come around and give us what it is that we most desire.

I puzzled for a long time over our reading this morning from the Book of Isaiah. In it, the people of Israel are clearly going through a difficult time. They are feeling as if God is not giving them what they think they need. Now, I could probably tell you what it was that they were struggling with. Biblical scholars actually have some pretty good ideas about the enemies that surrounded them, the hard economic times they were dealing with and things like that. But I really think that the point of us reading it today has less to do with the things that they were actually struggling with and more to do with the things that we today sometimes struggle with.

The main point is that they were struggling just like we sometimes struggle. But they were complaining to God specifically because they figured that they were doing everything right and so God ought to be giving them a better time. And, honestly, I think there are times when we also feel like that. So this passage suddenly seemed very relevant to me.

But here was my problem: the thing that they figured they were doing right was fasting. Now, fasting is something that does come up in the modern world from time to time, usually in the form of a diet craze. For example, these days everyone is talking about the 5:2 Diet where you eat normally five days a week and then fast two. But they weren’t fasting for health or because they were hoping to lose some weight. They were fasting because they had this notion that, if they went without food and suffered because of it, God should notice and give them what they really needed. And, what’s more, they figured that they had this fasting thing just right, that not only did they have the hunger pangs, but they were also bowing down and humbling themselves just beautifully. It was a perfect fast. That is why they thought that their complaint against God was so legitimate. They were doing everything right, but God wasn’t holding up his part of the bargain.

And I, honestly, have a bit of a rough time identifying with that. I mean, I know that there are some Christians in the world today who really get hung up over carrying out religious actions like prayers or fasting or rituals and doing them just perfectly, but that’s not really how Presbyterians or most Protestants think about these things. You would never catch us suggesting that the only way to solve some problem we are having is by finding a certain ritual and executing it perfectly. So, it really seemed like there was no way for us to relate to the people that the prophet is addressing in this passage.

But then I thought about matters of belief. Protestants, you see, have this obsession about believing all the right things. I guess that, when we understand that we access our salvation by faith, it does make a certain amount of sense. If faith is so key, then surely what you believe matters. What’s more, we all believe the truth matters and if truth matters, well, then it matters that you believe true things.

That is all fair enough, but there is a dangerous leap that we tend to make within that logic. We easily seem to fall into thinking that faith is just a matter of believing the right things about God, about Jesus, the Bible and a host of other things. And when we think that way, the stakes are suddenly very high. Suddenly, if I believe one thing and you believe something that’s maybe slightly different, that is not just a matter for discussion, it becomes a matter of salvation! Suddenly questions of belief become things to fight over, maybe even die over. We also begin to expect that God should reward us and give us preferential treatment because we happen to believe all the right things.

But just as the prophet came to the people of Judah in our Old Testament reading this morning and said, “Do you really believe that God is going to give you all of these things that you think that you need simply because you do the right kind of fast?” so would God come to us today and say, “Why should I grant to you, as a church, all of these blessings and victories and growth because you think that you figured out all the right stuff to believe?” Just as they were focussing on the wrong thing by trying to get their fasts right, I believe we might be doing the same thing in our focus on belief and doctrine.

Again, this is not because these things don’t matter. Of course, they matter. They are of ultimate importance. But there is a great danger when we put all of our energy into working out these things that we miss the bigger aspects of our calling. What happens when, for example, we substitute “right belief” for fasting in the prophet’s diatribe?

“Look,” he might say, “you may get your beliefs all right, but you only seem to be serving your own interests as you do so. Sure, you do an admirable job in figuring out the right things to believe, but you seem to only do it in order to quarrel and fight with each other. Such good doctrine will not make your voice heard on high. Is this the right belief that I choose, creating perfect statements of doctrine and theology? Is this belief that is acceptable to the Lord?”

Now, to be perfectly clear, the prophet was not trying to suggest to the people of Judah that fasting and other similar religious observances and practices were bad things. On the contrary, he believed that fasting was a good thing. In the same way, the prophet would not chastise us for our quest to work out a belief system that is most perfectly aligned with the truth about God, the universe and everything. His caution was that the pursuit of that good thing was preventing them from seeking the better thing. Even worse, he was accusing them of substituting the good thing for that better thing that was absolutely needed from God’s point of view.

And what is that better thing? That better thing is justice. That better thing is the pursuit of a world and a situation where all are treated fairly, where outcasts and marginalized people are welcomed in and where those who are enslaved in any way are granted freedom. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

I can only imagine how that was a problem with the ancient Judeans – how they were so obsessed with pleasing God with their perfect fasts, piously going without food and feeling so holy for it, that they totally failed to notice the people next door or homeless in the streets who were going without food for anything but pious reasons. I can only imagine how it was for them, but I know exactly how it is a problem for us. When we get caught up in believing the right things, it can be so easy for us to reject certain people because they do not fit our idea of what a Christian is supposed to be or of what righteousness is and, even if we may not intend it that way, the result is often rejection and deep wounding.

Jesus understood and believed in the importance of right belief. Truly I tell you,” he said, “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” But he taught that compassion and care, especially for the outsiders, the rejected, the sinners and the forgotten, always trumped the importance of right belief. For what was the point of having the light of the knowledge of the truth if it did not shine before others. “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Our Old Testament prophet is very clear about how that could happen. It was only when you learned to prioritize justice, when you reached out to those living in the margins and when you shared what you could with those who did not have enough, that this promise was activated: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard… If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

Jesus understood that and agreed. It was what he was talking about when he spoke of the lamp set up on the lampstand and the city built up on the hilltop. It is still the only way for us to be what Jesus envisioned. So, by all means, do think about and joyfully discuss the things that you believe. They matter and it matters that you get them as right as you can (for none of us, I believe, will ever understand it all), but know that, far more than that you believe the right things, Jesus requires of you that you live out the faith in practical terms, that you act with compassion, love and understanding, because Jesus really does want your light to shine forth.

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Explorations in Music!

Posted by on Sunday, February 2nd, 2020 in

Explorations in Music starts on Sunday.  Everyone is welcome to join us at 11:30 am in the Fellowship Room (downstairs).  You are welcome to join us, even if you don't attend church.  This is a great program for children to learn about all kinds of music.
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Christianity under attack

Posted by on Sunday, February 2nd, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 2 February 2020 © Scott McAndless
Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15:1-5, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

My friends, my brothers and sisters, I have some dire news for you this morning. The Christian faith, the Christian church and everything associated with the name of Jesus Christ is under attack. What is worse, the forces that are attacking it are likely to succeed in destroying it because they are unlike any other foe that we have ever faced.

A fist punching through a wall.

So, what is this enemy? What is this foe unlike any other? I know that some of you think that you know what I am going to say. You think that I might be warning of the dangers of secularism. You may be thinking that the greatest danger facing us has to do with the rising tide of people who are pleased to orient everything in their lives without any reference to God, without any reference to divine authority or writ. You may be thinking of the tendency of society itself to make every decision without giving any consideration at all to questions about God or religion.

Now, I will grant you that there are certain difficulties that the general secularization of society has created for the church in our times. Things were definitely easier for the church when the society deferred to it and when it reserved certain days of the week for the almost exclusive use of the church, for example. Things were easier when society and government listened when the church spoke simply because it was the church speaking. It was easier when being a Christian, in name at least, was the natural default for just about everyone. Oh yes it was easier! But surely the lack of ease is not possibly something that could bring about the destruction and end of Christianity. If it were as fragile as all that, Christianity would have passed away long ago. So, no, I do not think but the forces of secularization could possibly be the thing that is bringing about the demise of Christianity.

Ah, but some of you might say that the real threat that is destroying the faith today is the reality of pluralism. Pluralism is the name we give to the phenomenon of what we find ourselves in today: a society in which there is a plurality of religions and faiths. Where once, in North America, there was only Christianity in its various forms and almost nobody who belonged to another faith. I mean, there were a few Jews here and there but that’s about it. But today, it seems, it is far more likely that your new neighbours will turn out to be Sikhs or Muslims or Hindus than that they turn out to be Baptists or Catholics or Presbyterians. The mere fact that people who are followers of non-Christian faiths (or even no faith at all) are all over the place in our society means that Christianity no longer has that first place and the privileges that go with it.

So, is that the foe that will destroy our Christian faith? Is pluralism going to be what brings us down? No, that is not the danger I am talking about. I realize that the loss of privilege and a first place within society is hard. Sometimes it even feels like persecution. But actually, the simple fact that Christianity has to deal with some competition in the spiritual marketplace today should not worry us. Surely the Christian faith is strong enough that it can endure in the face of a bit of competition for the hearts and minds of people.

So, if it’s not secularism or pluralism, what is it? The true threat does not come from atheism or science or even from changes in societal morality. No, the true threats, the ones that are attacking the faith head-on, are Christians. And it’s not even that they are bad Christians – at least I don’t think most of them are – they are just frightened Christians. You see, they feel as if Christianity is under attack from all of those things that I’ve mentioned – the secularism, pluralism and other various trends that we see in the world. They feel as if they must fight against these things, must engage in what is called cultural warfare. The ironic thing is that by doing that, they are attacking the very essence of the Christian faith itself.

Let me show you what I mean. Just recently, Liberty University, probably the most important Evangelical Christian Education Institution in the United States created a new thinktank called the Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty. It is a way to bring together Christian intellectuals to set the theoretical basis for the church’s interaction with the outside world.

Here is a part of Falkirk’s mission statement: “Bemoaning the rise of leftism is no longer enough and turning the other cheek in our personal relationships with our neighbors as Jesus taught while abdicating our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield is no longer sufficient. There is too much at stake in the battle for the soul of our nation.” Now think, for a moment, about what it is they are saying there. They are saying that in order to defend the faith against the things that are attacking it, things that they collectively call “leftism” (which I think is a very unhelpful term) but which includes things like secularism and pluralism – that, because these things are attacking Christianity in their view, we basically have to abandon the very teachings of Christ in order to fight back.

Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek; they’re saying that that’s foolishness and we ain’t going to do that. So, what is the real threat here? Is it the forces of secularization or “liberalism” if you prefer, or is it the people who are abandoning the very teachings of Christ and teaching people that they must abandon them because they feel threatened by these things?

The Apostle Paul predicted that this would happen, as he wrote to the church in Corinth: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The simple truth is that the message of Jesus Christ is seen to be ultimate foolishness as far as the world is concerned. The message of the world is that the only way to defeat what is evil in the world is through strength, power and violence. It is the oldest story ever told but it is also the story that we keep telling all the time.

It is the plot of about half of the movies that are made. When there is something wrong, some evil that is being done, somebody is called upon to make it right. And whether that hero is James Bond or Iron Man or the Mandalorian, how do they make everything right again? Generally, they come in with guns blazing and start blasting away until all of the enemies have been destroyed. That is the wisdom of this world: only violence can answer violence, only power defeats the power of evil and the only way to win is by fighting back.

And, you know what, if that is how you see the world then, I’m sorry, but the message of Jesus is complete and utter foolishness. I’m not surprised that Christians who feel that they’re on some sort of battlefield have decided that they need to abandon everything he stood for.

But that is the very thing that threatens the foundation of the Christian faith, not only because it is a denial of everything that Jesus stood for, but even more because it robs us of the true power and wisdom that should be ours. For the kingdom of God will never be realized until we learn to live up to what Jesus called us to be.

We read one of the most famous passages in the Gospel of Matthew this morning: the beatitudes of Jesus, part of the Sermon on the Mount. The ideal of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus presents here is another example of the approach to the faith that some Christians are rejecting because they feel that they cannot afford it because the faith is under attack. But it is also more than that. What we have in this passage is the antidote to the line of thinking that led us into this problem in the first place. In many ways, the beatitudes represent the height of foolishness.

The key word, “blessed,” is a translation of the Greek word Maka,rioi. It is a word that indicates a state not only of blessedness but also of happiness and good fortune. Many years ago, when the Good News translation of the Bible first came out, they actually translated the beatitudes like this: “How happy are the poor in spirit...” People reacted to that translation at the time and said that they didn’t like it. I was just a kid at the time, but I still remember someone reacting to that translation and saying, “That doesn’t make any sense; being ‘poor in spirit’ means that you are unhappy! How can you be happy to be unhappy!”

But since that time, I grew up and studied Greek and biblical translation and I can absolutely tell you that “How happy are the poor in spirit” is actually a pretty good translation. It is what Jesus meant to say. He was congratulating these people. And he also meant for people to react in exactly the same way that that man from my church did; he wanted them to say, “this doesn’t make any sense.” That was the point of all of these teachings; none of it made sense according to the philosophy of the world.

But, by telling people to be happy because they were poor and meek and hungry and thirsty and despised, what Jesus was doing was redefining victory; he was redefining winning. You see, the mistake that defenders of the faith are making today is that they are defining the success of the Christian faith in the way that the world defines it. They are defining it in terms of power, in terms of dominance and in terms of influence. Jesus taught the opposite. He taught that the victory that mattered would come through service, through submission and through vulnerable weakness. When he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” What else could he have meant?

That is also what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” But think about what that means, it means that every time we think of the church getting ahead in terms of exercising power and influence within society and the world, we are actually self-defeating. Every time we try to win in the way that the world works, we move farther away from the success that God actually wants us to have. And the reason why this is so hard for us is because for something like the last sixteen centuries, that has been exactly what the church has been doing in Western society.

And, what’s more, the church was pretty successful at it as far as the world was concerned. We had the power and we had the influence and it was great! We even actually did do some good with all of that power and influence. The church created some of the best education systems, health systems, some of the most beautiful music and art the world has ever seen, just to name a few things. We should not be overly critical of that legacy, but that was never how Jesus defined success for his church.

Today it seems as if that has all changed and the church struggles with that loss of power and prestige. Of course, it does create some hardships, but it also creates a great promise. For the first time in over a thousand years it would seem as if the church has an opportunity to seek the kind of victory and strength that Jesus had in mind all along.

There are places in the world where Christians are under attack or facing persecution. Of course, we should do what we can to support them and help them and pray for them. But, generally speaking, North America is not one of those places where the faith is being threatened. It is not under attack except by those who would betray who Jesus was and what he stood for because they feel threatened by some of the ways in which the world has changed. The church is and always been in the hands of its only King and head, Jesus who is God’s anointed one. To suggest that Jesus cannot preserve his church despite some changes that may be occurring is the failure of faith on our part. And if we renounce the message of Jesus because of our fear and failure of faith, that will be the greatest failure of all.

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That ain’t fair

Posted by on Sunday, January 26th, 2020 in News

Hespeler, 26 January 2020 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

Zebedee was getting old. He’d been at this fishing trade for a long time – maybe too long. His hearing wasn’t what it once was and that was probably why he didn’t hear when the man came walking down the shores of the Sea of Galilee and spoke to his sons who were sitting at the other end of the boat. He didn’t even look up from the rather difficult knot that he was struggling to get out of the net.

Old man alone in a boat

Besides, he was busy talking – something that he seemed to do all day every day – something that his two sons, James and John, were so accustomed to listening to that they generally responded with nothing but nods and the odd grunt.

“Have you heard about what happened up Capernaum way the other day,” he had been saying to them. “You know Peter and Andrew, the two brothers who have a boat up there? Well, they were out casting their nets just a little off from shore when that new young man – you know, the one that just moved down from the hills in Nazareth – came along. He apparently called out to them across the water and he told them – get this – he told them that they should stop fishing for fish and start fishing for people instead.

“But that’s not the really crazy part, oh no! The really crazy part is that they actually listened to him. They jumped off their boat, leaving behind a pretty decent catch of fish in the process, and swam to him and then started following him. Can you believe that?

“They left everything behind. I mean, I realize that there’s not a lot of good money in fishing these days. I know better than anybody how hard it is to get by, but these are men who have people depending on them. Peter’s got a wife and a couple of kids. Andrew is taking care of his mother and his sisters. I mean, it’s just not fair that they should leave those people behind and go off after somebody just because he’s got these crazy ideas that maybe mean something to them. It’s just not fair that Jesus would even ask them to do something like that.

“Well, at least I know that something like that is not going to happen to me. I know that I can count on my boys to be there for me and to keep this old fishing boat going when I get too old to go out there on the water day after day. You boys know that it wouldn’t be fair for you to leave me and… boys? Jimmy, Johnny? You guys are being pretty quiet back there in the stern. You wouldn’t be playing a joke on your old man now would you? Boys, boys?”

Now, obviously I don’t know if it went down like that. The Gospel of Matthew tells the story very briefly with little detail. Maybe James and John did have a good talk with their father before they got up and left and the old man was in agreement. But I certainly don’t get that impression from reading the gospel story. The point of the story seems to be that they just got up and left. And I can’t help but think about what that meant for their father – how he must have thought it was all unfair.

Last fall in the auction, I put a sermon up for the bidding. I said that I would give the person who bid the most the opportunity to tell me what to preach about one Sunday in January: this Sunday. The winner was Andy Cann. And after, I am sure, that Andy flirted with the thought of making me preach something that would probably end my career, he finally suggested to me the title of this morning’s sermon: “It ain’t fair.” Which, frankly, could still end my career if I don’t watch out.

Now, Andy was thinking about some particular things that happen in the church when he suggested that topic. He spoke about some of the ways in which the burden of the work of the church tends to fall unfairly on certain people. He spoke, for example, about particular case (that I won’t spell out because I don’t have permission from everyone involved), but it was a case where a small group of people were supporting an important mission of the church – something that we are all supposed to be part of – mostly out of their own pockets. That, Andy pointed out rightly enough, that ain’t right.

I don’t really need to get into specific cases in order to explore what Andy was getting at because this is actually something that happens in the church all the time. I don’t know how many times over the years I have had somebody come up to me talking about some very similar situation – a situation where somebody feels as if they (or somebody else) are unfairly loaded with some burden, cost or duty in the church. I don’t know how many times I have heard people complain that others aren’t pitching in and doing their part. And of course, there generally is a lot of truth to what is being said because it is almost never true that the burden of being the church is evenly distributed among all the people.

And part of me wants to use Andy’s question to stir people up, to get them to all step up and pitch in – to make sure that we all collectively own and support the good work that the church does. And, of course, that is a noble goal. But I do generally find that, before we ask people to act differently – to share the load differently – we need to ask why it is that people behave the way that they do now. If you don’t understand that, chances are you will not be successful at bringing about the changes that you would like to see.

The first question, I think, is whether or not fairness is actually what we should be striving for. The answer to that question might be no. When Jesus came along and stole Zebedee’s two sons away from him, the two sons that he had been depending on to take over the family business, do you think that Jesus was aware of the hardship that he might be causing for the old man? I think that he was. I think that he was aware that, to a certain extent, it was unfair of him to deprive Zebedee of the family supports that he had been counting on.

But why was Jesus there? He was there to proclaim a message, and that message was, Matthew tells us, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus was announcing that something so big had arrived that it had changed everything. What’s more, he declared that the arrival of the kingdom demanded a particular response: repentance. The word that Jesus uses there – the word that is translated as repent – is a Greek word that actually means to change one’s mind and one’s heart. Jesus was saying that, because God had turned up on the scene to do something grand, that it was time for everyone to start thinking about life and just about everything else in completely different ways. Apparently, that included thinking differently about things like the expectations that society placed upon you.

What James and John did, getting up and walking away from their lives, may have broken all of the expectations that society had placed upon them, but it was actually the perfect response to the new reality that Jesus had brought into being. All of that is a way of saying that our human notions of fairness, that idea that everyone else should live up to the expectations we have of them, may have been superseded by something greater, something more important, by the kingdom of heaven which blasts everyone’s expectations out of the water – apparently literally in the case of Peter and Andrew.

Now, does that mean that there should be no expectation of fairness in the life of the church? Of course not. But it does mean that we are supposed to look at the bigger picture and not just the fairness of a particular circumstance.

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by our reading this morning from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Addressing the church, he says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But then, only a couple of lines later he says, “for all must carry their own loads.” Now just wait a minute here, Paul, which is it? Do we carry other people’s burdens or just our own? Surely you cannot have it both ways.

But, of course, Paul knew exactly what he was doing when he put those two contradictory sentences so close together. He was trying to get our attention. He was actually trying to show us that, when we focus on what other people are doing or contributing, we will go astray. That is why, in between those two contradictory statements, he slips in this little gem: “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride.”

You see, if we only focus on what other people are doing (or failing to do), the church can never become what it needs to be. Focussing on what other people do, Paul warns us, is the cause of pride. Pride is a difficult concept for us to understand sometimes. Pride can sometimes be a good thing like, for example, when someone takes pride in doing a job well. When you set out to do something and you put everything you can into it and get the results you are trying for, of course you should be able to feel good about what you have accomplished.

Paul is not here warning about that kind of pride because it is a pride that that is related to testing your own work, focussing on what you can do. The problem comes when you try to feel good about yourself by focussing on other people – by putting someone else down so that you look better or by criticizing somebody else’s best efforts. That, Paul is saying, is what is very destructive for the church and in many other areas of life. And I will say that, yes, that is something that I have seen often enough in the life of the church.

Sometimes, for example, the very people who carry the heavy loads at the church, and occasionally righteously complain about it, are trapped precisely because they have this problem. They might well say, for example, that they want somebody else to take on their burden, but what happens when somebody actually steps up to do so? Well, they don’t do it right, do they? They don’t do it in the way that it has always been done, so they can’t take over. And so the person who tries to take on their burden gives up in frustration and they end up still carrying that burden and (even better) still being able to complain about how unfair it is. That is all about a dangerous kind of pride, all about feeling better about yourself by criticizing others and it has no place in the logic of the kingdom of heaven.

Paul suggests that the only way for you to avoid this kind of pitfall is to focus on what you can do, how you can contribute by bearing the burdens of others rather than on who ought to be bearing your burdens and who ought to be doing what and how and so falling into the pride that puts others down. The result of all of that is not always going to be fair in the sense that the burdens will always be equally distributed. But the kingdom was always about more than what feels fair in the moment, it is about changing the way that we look at everything because God has suddenly shown up on the scene.

I feel for poor Zebedee left alone in his boat. The aftermath of all of that cannot have been easy for him. But he also had his role to play and a burden to bear in the great thing that God was doing. I have to believe that he came to realize that, even if it took some time. We all have our roles to play and our burdens to carry. As we all focus on what we can do to carry the loads of others, we will come to find the true strength of the message that Jesus brought.

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