Sunday, 19 March 2017

Qoheleth: A Journey from Gluttony to Joy.

Hespeler, 19 March, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Ecclesiastes 2:1-11, 22-26, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Luke 18:18-30
      “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” This is the rather bleak view of life that seems to lie behind much of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible.
      Traditionally the book was said to have been written by none other the great King Solomon himself, but most scholars who have studied it have concluded that the book never actually claims to have been written by Solomon, though it might have been dedicated to him. Instead, the book seems to have been written by somebody named Qoheleth, but even that doesn’t come across in our English Bibles because the name, “Qoheleth,” usually gets translated, wrongly, as teacher or preacher, and so the name actually only appears in a footnote in your pew Bible.
      On one level it doesn’t matter who wrote the book, of course, but on another it kind of does. I mean, it doesn’t matter what the person’s name was, but it matters what kind of person he was. (I am going to assume that Qoheleth was a man but his gender is not really what matters either.) It especially matters what kind of a person he was for a book like Ecclesiastes because this book seems to come out of the very personal struggles of the writer more than almost any other book in the Bible.
      What, then, do we know about Qoheleth as a person? He leaves a number of clues in his work. The first thing we can say about him is that he is a man with some experience of pain. “For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest.” These are the words of someone who knows what he is talking about when he’s talking about pain.

      I suspect that, at some point in his life – at some key point in his development – Qoheleth experienced some very real, frightening and overwhelming pain. I don’t know what kind of pain. It might have been physical, but my guess is that it was emotional trauma that he went through, which can often leave even longer lasting scars.
      Now pain is, as Qoheleth says, a part of life. None of us goes through life without experiencing some trauma and all of it is painful and damaging. But there are some people for whom the trauma hits at a moment when they are simply not prepared to deal with it, maybe because of their age or their developmental stage. I believe that that is what happened to Qoheleth and that it left some deep and permanent scars.
      You see, there is a certain personality type that tends to arise in that circumstance – the personality type represented by Qoheleth. Certainly Qoheleth behaves in the way that people of that personality type typically do. The common response of a person who has been overwhelmed in early life by pain is to hide from any further pain. It seems the obvious thing to do. You have been hurt once and deeply so you decide that you really want to avoid any future pain no matter what you have to do.
      How did Qoheleth do that? How did he try to block out the pain? Well, he tells us, doesn’t he: “I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself. ...I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine... I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks... I bought male and female slaves... I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.” From this description it seems clear that Qoheleth is seeking to distract himself from his pain with an excess of, well, everything.
      To put this in traditional Christian language, Qoheleth is distracting himself with gluttony. You may have heard of gluttony, it is one of the church’s official seven deadly sins, but you may have thought of it as only having to do with people who overindulge on food. But the meaning of the word is much larger than that.
      God has given us so many good gifts in this world – things like food, drink, sexuality, dance and so many more. There is nothing wrong (and everything right) with enjoying these gifts in appropriate ways and in reasonable measure; the glutton is the one who goes overboard in indulgence in anything or perhaps in everything – so much so that it becomes harmful to themselves or to others. But please do not fall into the traditional stereotype of gluttony to think that it is always about overeating. Do not assume, for example, that people who are overweight always have this personality type. Nevertheless, this type exists and you probably know people who fit into it.
      The most common underlying cause of pathological gluttony is the avoidance of pain. That part of the struggle is what I hear Qoheleth talking about in our reading this morning from the Book of Ecclesiastes. And I don’t want to be too hard on people who are like Qoheleth. In general, they are terrific people to be around. They are always fun and usually very funny. Humour is, alongside overindulgence, one of the things they use to distract from pain. Indeed, I would suggest that some of the greatest comedians of all times fit into this type of personality: Curley Howard, John Candy, John Belushi, Chris Farley, John Pinette.
      There are all kinds of wonderful things about this personality type, therefore, but there is also a dark side underneath the jovial surface. In fact, all of those comedians I just named to you were not only extremely funny but also died tragically in ways related to their tendency to overindulge. Therefore, if this personality type describes you or somebody that you love, there is likely some work that needs to be done – work that God needs to do in a person’s life – in order that there might be wholeness and healing.
      In many ways, I think that Qoheleth’s book, the book that we call Ecclesiastes, recounts that man’s personal journey towards wholeness with God’s help. And I believe that he found wholeness at least in certain key places in his life. One indication of that is the passage that we read together responsively. It is the best known passage in the entire book and rightly so. It lays out a profound truth that is often very hard for people of Qoheleth’s personality type to hold on to: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
      You see, for people of this personality type, the strong tendency is to think that every time is a time to laugh, to dance, to gather, to love or to speak. There is, in other words, no time available to stop indulging in the gifts of life because, when you stop, you let the pain in and the last thing that a Qoheleth wants is to allow the pain to be felt. That is why this part of Qoheleth’s book is so important. In it we see the evidence that he did eventually find the balance that is a sign of wholeness for people of this personality type. The main task of such people is not to abandon the laughter, dancing and celebration that makes them such wonderful people to be around. The task is to make, alongside all of that, a time to deal with the pain of life in a healthful way.
      People of this type do often try to improve and complete themselves through things like encouragement and positive thinking and reinforcement. This can be quite helpful for other types of personalities, but it has limited benefits for people like Qoheleth. They will not find the healing they need until they develop the capacity to grieve and mourn and to process the pain that they have suffered in their past and that may still be part of their present life as much as they try to ignore it. The simple fact that Qoheleth can allow himself the time to weep, to mourn, to die and to lose is an indication that he is on the road to becoming all that God created him to be.
      There is one other task that a Qoheleth often has to work through, but it is not something that is easily seen in the Book of Ecclesiastes. There is one character in the New Testament, however, who seems to fit into this personality type. He is not named but is simply introduced as a rich young ruler who comes to Jesus to ask him how he can be a part of the kingdom of God. We are not told enough about him to observe his lifestyle but he is described as being extremely wealthy and so I don’t think that it is a stretch to imagine him living an extremely indulgent life.
      Whatever exactly is going on in his life, Jesus seems to be able to evaluate the man instantly and to see what he needs most to reach his full potential as a human being. That is why Jesus says to him, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” This is the most difficult but also the most redeeming thing that a Qoheleth can do. An abundance of wealth and possessions that provide the means to distract you with continual over-the-top consumption will only serve to keep you from dealing with the things that you need to deal with. Jesus is right that transformation will begin when you begin to get rid of all your stuff.
      The young ruler who came to Jesus was unwilling to take that step. He left upset and angry. The price was just too high. But if only he had been willing to take that risk, I think that Jesus knew that amazing discipleship would have followed.
      The greatest historical example of the potential of taking such a step is a man named Francisco who lived in Italy seven centuries ago. He was a very wealthy man who lived all his early life just like Qoheleth – a life of constant revelry, overconsumption and laughter. But one day he met a leper and heard the voice of Jesus challenging him to do the same thing that he had challenged the rich young ruler to do. Unlike the ruler, however, Francisco heeded that call and literally gave everything away. And with that act he started a movement that had a profound impact on the history of the world – an impact felt to this very day. Never underestimate what a redeemed Qoheleth can do – a redeemed Qoheleth like Francisco or, as we know him to day, Francis of Assisi.
      The particular gift of a redeemed Qoheleth is joy. So long as they are tied to their diversions and hiding from their pain, the best that they can offer is humour and levity (which is fun, of course, but it has its limits). But when they have gotten in touch with their pain and let go of their dependence on consumption, a powerful joy can be released that transcends the power of even the darkest times of life to destroy us. This was the remarkable thing that everyone noticed about Francis of Assisi. Such powerful joy can set so many free.
      I am so very thankful for all of the Qoheleths that I have known. They have made me laugh. They have taught me so much about enjoying life and all of God’s gifts. God loves them. And God doesn’t want to take away the things that make them who they are – especially not their enjoyment of life. God wants to make their joy complete, wants to help them to face their pain and free them from the power it has over them. If you are a Qoheleth, I pray that you would allow God to do that work in you. If you know a Qoheleth, you are blessed. Stand alongside him or her as they make that journey to discovering all that they were meant to be.
     
#140CharacterSermon Qoheleth is an example of someone who distracts from pain with gluttony & grew by learning to give space to process pain


Sermon Video:

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Simon Peter: A journey from fear to faith

Hespeler, 12 March, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Matthew 16:13-23, Matthew 14:22-33, Psalm 23
F
ear: there is not a single person here who has not felt it, struggled with it and conquered it in some area of your life. Fear is a part of life. As a matter of fact, it is often a very helpful and even a necessary part of life. If it is fear of what might happen that keeps you from jumping into the tiger cage at the zoo or running out into traffic, then it is probably a good thing and even a kind of wisdom. But that is not the whole story that we need to tell about fear.
      I would like to suggest to you today that fear can be a major sinful influence in a person’s life. I am not talking here about the normal everyday fear that we all experience and that is often useful and can make us wise. I am talking about what happens when fear becomes a central, destructive and driving force in somebody’s life. I’m talking about a fear that lies deep down at the root of a person’s life and manages to infect just about everything about how they see and interact with the world. When people are driven by fear, you have a problem and it is a sin problem.
      The church has traditionally recognized seven root sins that can infect a person’s life. The seven deadly sins are anger, pride envy, gluttony, greed, lust and sloth. I don’t know if you have realized this but over the past few weeks we have been working our way through that list trying to give a new perspective on an old concept. But I have added two more to that classical list of sins. A few weeks ago we added deceit to that list and today I want to add fear.

      I do not believe that this is true for everyone, but there are people for whom fear is a powerful and distorting energy in their life. They are so governed by fear that they will tend to act in certain unhealthy ways. They crave safety and security so strongly that they will cling to just about anything that will offer it to them.
      These people, for example, are great supporters of authorities and institutions. They look to authorities – government, civic, church or otherwise – to offer them safety. They have much the same attitude towards laws, rules and regulations. They are great supporters, in fact, of anything that maintains order because that makes them feel safer. And this, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Security is a good goal, but it is not the only one.
      One problem that occurs particularly when large parts of a society become driven by fear is that people will just latch onto the most powerful authority figure that they can find hoping that it can save them. That is how tyrants gain power. It was the kind of thing that happened in Germany and Italy in the 1930’s as marginal people (like, for example, the Jews) were portrayed as people to be afraid of and the society’s response was to give unchecked power to people like Hitler and Mussolini. As you may have heard, it did not end well.
      So this powerful motivating fear can have devastating effects on a society but it can also be pretty devastating on a personal level as well. People who are controlled by fear in this way often see the power of fear disrupting their course through life. They set out on a course of studies or a career path, but at some point they panic and are afraid that they won’t be successful and they drop out. Many will do this several times and continually regret what they see as their failures.
      Their fear also often makes them look on others with suspicion. They hesitate to trust them and often talk themselves into believing that others are thinking and saying all kinds of bad things about them even when it is not true. This, as you can imagine, can cause many problems in their relationships.
      You shouldn’t necessarily see these people as always completely paralyzed by their fears. That can happen, of course, but you can also see people who go to almost the opposite extreme. They become daredevils. They reject that deep internal fear by intentionally putting themselves in situations where they are in danger. This can become compulsive and, in the worst cases, extremely dangerous, though it can certainly feel pretty exciting until the paralyzing fear returns with a vengeance and at which point they will  shut down. So the issue with these people is not that they are stopped by fear so much as they are controlled by fear.
      You probably know people like this – people whose lives are controlled by their fears. They are actually a fairly common type in our society. And I don’t want you to think that I am here to badmouth such people. They are, in fact, wonderful people in so many ways. You know how I know? Because Jesus chose one of them for a key leadership role in the church.
      Look at the trials and the ups and down of a disciple named Simon whom Jesus called Peter. He demonstrates all of characteristics of the kind of person I have been talking about. For example, think of the time when Jesus was asking his disciples what people were saying about him. The disciples, I think, were just joking around. “I heard someone say you were a prophet,” one of them said. “I heard you were Elijah” said another and then someone else said, “Get this: I heard someone say that you were John the Baptist come back to life.” I think that they all thought it was kind of hilarious.
      But then, all of a sudden, Simon speaks up and he doesn’t think that it is a joke. He is all serious and he says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Now wait a minute, Simon, what are you all uptight about? Well, I’ll tell you what. This was serious for Simon because he was someone who was motivated by fear and the need for security. This was serious because he needed Jesus to be the ultimate authority figure and he couldn’t think of a more authoritative title than messiah.
      Now Simon was right, of course; Jesus was indeed God’s anointed one. Jesus praised Simon for knowing it and having the courage to say it. But just because Simon was right about who Jesus was doesn’t mean that he was approaching the question as he should. Clearly Simon was clinging to that title of messiah because it represented, for him, a figure of great power and authority.
      But when Jesus went on from there to explain that, from his point of view, being messiah wasn’t really about having lots of power and authority but rather about being rejected and suffering and dying, Simon got really mad because, as far as he was concerned, what was the point of having a messiah if he wasn’t going to take over and get everything under control. This is a typical reaction of someone who craves security and is motivated by fear, they will latch onto any potential authority figure as long as they project strength and power but are the first to rebel when they show any weakness.
      Simon Peter’s response to the fear that he feels inside is not usually to run and hide however. He is of the type that fights against the fear by living on the edge and becoming a bit of a daredevil. For example, when Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane and the authorities came to arrest him, all of the disciples, I am sure, were terrified, but only Simon Peter (according to the Gospel of John) was motivated by his fear to do a very foolish thing by grabbing a sword and cutting someone’s ear off. He was also the only one who put himself in the very dangerous position of following Jesus and staying close by while he was on trial at the High Priest’s palace.
      These are the kinds of overreactions to their fearfulness that people like Peter will often make. And it will often get them into trouble, as it did for Peter, as people began to ask him uncomfortable questions about who he was and why he was there until, in this mounting fear (and to his everlasting sorrow), he ended up denying Christ three times.
      But perhaps the clearest example of his fear at work is in the account of Simon Peter and Jesus out on the Sea of Galilee. It is another situation where everyone is terrified. “When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the sea,” it says, “they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.” They are all afraid but Peter is the one who has an over-the-top reaction to his fear. Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
      Peter may be attempting to defy his own fears but he soon finds that they are overwhelming. “When he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and [began] to sink.” No matter what he does, Peter cannot escape the power that controls him. He defiantly tries to master it by the sheer force of his will, but in the end it is about to undo him. This the pattern that people controlled by their fear go through again and again on their way through life.
      So we have, in Simon Peter, a perfect example of a person for whom fear is a powerful root sin – something that infects his life with a controlling and deforming power. I have known a number of people who share that with Peter – a deep hunger for security and a controlling fear. They are people who often struggle because of their makeup, but I think that is wonderful how Jesus, throughout the gospel story, deals with Peter and helps him become the man that went on to do such great things in Jesus’ name. It is the work, I believe, that Jesus wants to do in the life of all people like Peter.
      First of all, I would note that Jesus absolutely values Simon Peter for the man that he is. When Peter spoke up in front of the others and declared that Jesus was the messiah, I am sure that Jesus understood that he was speaking out of his insecurity and was looking for an authority figure of the type that Jesus was not interested in being. Nevertheless, Jesus does not only celebrate Simon’s correct answer, he also celebrates the man who gave the answer. Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” he says. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And 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.”
      By giving Simon the nickname Peter (which means rock) Jesus is doing more than honouring Simon’s insightful answer. He is recognizing that the man will make an excellent leader – the kind of solid foundation that you can build a church on – because of who he is. In particular, Peter’s life has given him a deep respect for authorities and power structures that operate in the interest of the people. His own fear has given him this character trait but Jesus is announcing that God can use it to accomplish much good in the world.
      So that is one way in which Jesus helps Peter. The second way is particularly on view in the story set during the crossing of the lake. When we last left Peter there, he was defying his own fear to step out of the fishing boat in order to pretend he wasn’t afraid to. Once he left that boat however, his fear began to overrule his recklessness and he panicked at the sight of the wind and the waves.
      But Jesus responded to who Peter was in that moment by reaching out in care and compassion. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” This is Jesus teaching Peter in that moment what he needed most of all, for Jesus knew that victory over the power of fear can only come through faith – by placing your trust wisely.
      Jesus taught Peter well. He never forgot the fear that he felt inside, but he went on to live a life of extraordinary courage and faith. In the end, it is said, when a persecution broke out in Rome where he was staying, Peter could have run away but he didn’t, he turned back and chose to be crucified like his master (though, according to the legend that grew up, he chose to be crucified upside down in his own personal tribute to Christ.
      Peter found his courage because people like him – people who mature in faith and understand their fears – have that ability. Their courage, when summoned, can be extraordinary – more than the rest of us can often muster. This is one of their gifts. So never underestimate what a person ruled by fear can become under the teaching of Christ.
      God does wonderful things in the lives of those who will trust him. He did it for Peter, he can do it for anyone who struggles under the control of their fear. Thanks be to God for such transforming love!
     
#140CharacterSermon Simon Peter was largely motivated by fear and insecurity. Jesus helped him reach his potential by teaching him faith.

Sermon video:

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Zacchaeus: A journey from greed to wisdom

Hespeler, 5 March, 2017 © Scott McAndless – Lent 1
Luke 19:1-10, Hebrews 13:1-6, Psalm 112
Z
acchaeus was entirely comfortable in that tree. That is one thing that we fail to understand about Zacchaeus in his story in the Gospel of Luke. It says in the gospel that he climbed the tree because he wanted to see Jesus and he was very short – was a wee little man – and was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to see Jesus among the crowds that had gathered in Jericho to see him. And , sure, that was true enough as far as it went, but it fails to take into account the fact that, as far as Zacchaeus was concerned, from the branches of a tree was the perfect vantage point for the kind of encounter with Jesus that he wanted.
      Zacchaeus was, you see, a certain type of a person. He was what you might call an observer of life. He had an insatiable desire to perceive and study and understand whatever he could to the best of his ability. As such he had a very long attention span – could sit and observe the world for hours and never waver in his attentiveness. And so, when he heard that someone as unique and interesting as Jesus of Nazareth was passing through Jericho, of course he was going to arrange to observe him.
      And the tree was perfect for him because it allowed him to see everything. The fact that he had to run ahead and wait for Jesus to pass that way was no problem for him as he never lost patience waiting to observe something interesting. But there was another reason why the tree was so ideal. Zacchaeus was an observer but he was a detached observer. He didn’t want to be down there interacting with what was happening. As a matter of fact, he never really felt comfortable in a crowd situation like that where people might touch him or invade his personal space. No, it was just better to observe from a neutral vantage point. The tree was ideal.

      And there are people like that, like Zacchaeus, aren’t there? I’ll bet you have known some. They are the great observers of life but they often take a lot of persuasion to go beyond watching and thinking about what they see and actually engage with the world. They are often brilliant, often the very first to come up with new ways of seeing things. But it is often easier for them to observe and think and collect experiences than it is for them to do something with what they learn.
      There are also some other traits that are found in such people. Often they are people who are looking for some security in their lives more than anything. This is often because, at some point in their early development, they have gone through a time when they strongly feared that their basic needs were in danger of not being met. They weren’t assured that the food, shelter, clothing, affection or belonging would be there for them. This means that they do not feel entirely safe in this world and so they tend to withdraw from close contact, they hesitate to trust too much and are strongly protective of their personal spaces. They become content to merely observe the world and store up whatever knowledge of the world they discover.
      This same sense of insecurity also compels them to store up possessions as a kind of insurance against whatever may happen or go wrong in life. They keep everything and hesitate to throw anything out because it all means something to them and, as they always say, “You never know when you might need it.”
      If this particular kind of person has one big problem, therefore, it is avarice. Their root sin is greed. I am not necessarily talking about that in terms of them being stingy with money, though that can be part of it. They are stingy with many things: their knowledge and understanding, their space, their emotions and thoughts. They share none of it easily. And sometimes that can certainly also mean that they are greedy with money.
      I would suggest to you that Zacchaeus in this story in Luke’s Gospel is a perfect example of the kind of person that I am talking about here. Not only is he someone who clearly prefers to take an objective vantage point in order to observe and find out things and someone who would rather not mingle with the crowd, he is also described as being very rich and having many possessions, some of which he obtained by defrauding people. I don’t think that it is a big stretch to say that Zacchaeus likely had some issues with greed as well.
      So Zacchaeus is a good example of this sort of person, but chances are that you have known such a person yourself. They are wonderful people who have been able to bring much good into this world through their ability to observe and understand. But they, like all people have certain things that they struggle with. In this case, those things seem to be intimacy and greed. The question is what can be done to help such people?
      The traditional Christian answer to that question, by the way, has been to blame and to shame. We just tell people that they are wrong to be greedy and to store up possessions. We tell people that they should share with others more freely even if that is hard for them. This has been the traditional moralistic approach of the church to effecting ethical change in people’s lives in general. But I am not sure how successful that strategy has been in really helping people to change. We need a new strategy.
      So I would like us to climb up in our own sycamore tree and objectively observe what Jesus does for Zacchaeus in this story. It is quite clear that, when Zacchaeus meets Jesus, it does make a difference. He is a man transformed by the time Jesus leaves town. So what is Jesus’ secret and is it possible that Jesus’ approach may be just the kind of thing that people like Zacchaeus need to reach the fullness of who they were always meant to be?
      It is interesting to note that Jesus’ approach is not to attack Zacchaeus over his greed or tendency to store up personal possessions. Jesus does target something else – he targets Zacchaeus’ tendency to isolate himself in order to observe. Jesus comes to the place where Zacchaeus has set himself up in his nice safe tree and looks right up at what he thought was his perfect hiding place and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
      Do you realize what that feels like for someone like Zacchaeus? Jesus has just invited himself into Zacchaeus’ personal space, his sanctum and the place where he keeps all of the possessions that make him feel safe. Jesus just barges in, and invites himself into all of this. It must have made Zacchaeus feel very vulnerable and off his guard. But Jesus also knew that there was no way that Zacchaeus could refuse and that the discomfort was necessary. Zacchaeus would always opt for protection and safety unless the issue was forced. Jesus needed to get in.
      But once Jesus had broken through Zacchaeus’ layers of protection, something amazing happened. Something almost unprecedented in all the ministry of Jesus. We are not told the whole story and we kind of have to fill in the details. It says that Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus, which likely means that he brought him into his private space, fed him and put him up for the night or even for a few nights. Luke sort of jumps over that part of the story and only reports on the reaction that the time Jesus spent with him provoked in the town: “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” All of that part of the story gets skipped, nevertheless, it seems clear that Jesus must have spent at least some time when he had Zacchaeus’ undivided attention.
      And what did Jesus do with that time? Well, that’s obvious. He did what he always did – he talked to him about the kingdom of God. He probably told him stories and parables to explain what the kingdom was like and, when Zacchaeus asked him what someone had to do in order to be part of that kingdom, Jesus probably said something like what he said to other people in similar circumstances: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
      And Jesus, generally speaking, didn’t have a lot of success in asking that kind of level of response to the kingdom of God from people. When he said it to a rich, young ruler, for example, the young man just turned and walked away in shock, unable to even grasp what Jesus was saying.
      But here is where we see what is special and unique about Zacchaeus. Remember that Zacchaeus was an observer – someone who had incredible focus and was always ready to learn from whatever he observed. He was someone who was always ready to absorb new knowledge like a sponge. He now applied those talents to observing this Jesus who stood before him. And the result was that Zacchaeus was able to absorb what Jesus was really trying to say probably better than any other individual in the gospel story.
      In other words, Zacchaeus got the message of Jesus better than anybody else I can think of in the entire gospel story. He indicates that by saying to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Those are the words of someone who has understood what the kingdom of God is actually about better than all the priests, all the disciples and all the scribes you can find in the entire Bible. Zacchaeus got the message that they all missed.
      And so the wonderful gift of these extraordinary people who are like Zacchaeus is this: they can observe and absorb truth from what they observe to a degree that eludes most of us. Once you break through to them and get past the protections that they have ringed themselves with, you find a person who is able to listen, pay heed and absorb like few others can. We live in an age when the art of listening often seems all but forgotten. What a marvel a person like Zacchaeus is in such a world.
      We live in a world filled with greed, driven by greed and often destroyed by greed. Of course, our God doesn’t love greed and what it can do to people. But God is compassionate and willing to understand us. He doesn’t just condemn the sin, he seeks to heal the underlying problem. That is why, in the Letter to the Hebrews, the message of God is not merely, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” God is always willing to speak to our heart and remind us why we don’t have to seek security by storing up an abundance of things. And so the writer of the Hebrews goes on: “for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’”
      God comes to you as you are, understands what drives you and is committed enough to break through your defences and speak to your heart. We see Jesus doing that very thing for Zacchaeus; he will do it for all of us. If only we could all be as ready as Zacchaeus was to really attend to what God has to say to us.
     
#140CharacterSermon Zacchaeus: detached observer who stored possessions to protect himself. Amazing to watch Jesus break through all that.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Joseph: A journey from envy to balance

Hespeler, 26 February, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 37:1-11, Genesis 45:1-8, 1 Peter 2:1-10
D
ifferent people are driven by different things on their path through this life. I think we all recognize that. Some people are driven by ambition or pride. Others are motivated by greed or envy or lust. But there are some people for whom all of that really means very little. There is really only one thing that matters to them: that they are unique and special.
      Now, I realize that we are all, in our own ways, special. We are all individuals who have a unique makeup of habits, traits and interests. So, in a way, these people aren’t any more unique than anyone else. It is more a matter of how such people want to be seen and treated. They want everyone to see and notice how unique they are. They need to stand out from the crowd in some significant way.
      If you want to compliment such a person – I mean, give them a compliment that will actually mean something to them – do not bother saying things like, “You look nice,” or “You did a great job.” They will hardly hear compliments like that. But if you say to them, “Wow, I’ve never seen anybody pull off a look quite like that before,” or “I didn’t even think that anyone could do that like you did it,” they will likely go away very happy and remember you fondly.

      There are not necessarily a high proportion of such people in any given group because most groups can only tolerate so many people who grab all of the attention. But I imagine that you have known some. When they are around, after all, you can hardly help but notice them. They are brightly dressed, doing something weird and probably making a lot of noise doing it.
      The great Biblical example of such a person is the patriarch Joseph, the son of Jacob. Throughout his long story, as told in the Book of Genesis, Joseph goes through many ups and downs. He goes from favoured son to slave to prisoner to prince. But at every point in his story, both in times of good fortune and of bad, you can always say one thing about him: he somehow always manages to stand out and get noticed.
      There are probably some people here who are like Joseph. There are others who may have a Joseph in their life or in their family. And there are still others who have a little bit of Joseph in them. I think I have a little bit. Somewhere deep down in­side, I do struggle with that desire to be recognized to be special and unique and I certainly have done some things in my life to get noticed for being different (and, no, I am not going to tell you what they were right now.) So I think it is worthwhile spending some time talking about Joseph and his incredible journey. God did something in his life – brought about a maturity in him over time that we should pay heed to and aspire to.
      We first meet Joseph as a very young man. He is one of the youngest children of his father but he is also his father’s favourite. And right away Joseph stands out as special and unique. Now, it may seem at first that this is not something that Joseph wants for himself but that it is rather something that his father does to him. After all, it is his father who gives him the rather unique coat. In some ancient manuscripts is described as having fancy sleeves while in others to be made of many colours, but clearly, however it had been made, it definitely stood out from the ordinary.
      But that was dad’s idea, not Joseph’s. Maybe that is how it all started with Jacob treating his son as special, but at some point Joseph clearly internalised that message. We see it coming out in his dreams. Joseph’s dreams are not hard to interpret at all. Unlike some of the other dreams in Joseph’s story that take a real expert to interpret them, the meaning of his dreams are immediately obvious to everyone. Joseph is having dreams that mark him as being extraordinarily special and unique – so much so that everyone else is bowing down before him.
      I know that dreams mean a great deal in this story of Joseph. They are generally understood as being key indicators of future events. These dreams of Joseph do indeed predict the future events of the story as, before the end of it, Joseph will be a powerful ruler in Egypt and the members of his family will literally bow down before him. But I don’t think that it is a stretch to say that these dreams are also an indication of Joseph’s internal psychology. They are about how he is coming to see himself.
      But even as Joseph begins to understand himself and what really matters to him, we realize that there is a negative side to being like him. It inspires envy in the people around him. His brothers start to hate him and even his father, who loves him, becomes concerned. Envy is, in fact, the big issue that people like Joseph will run into. They easily inspire it in others who can quickly get tired of them always stealing the spotlight.
      But the really deep secret of the Josephs is that they tend to struggle with envy within their own soul. You can maybe understand why. The problem with wanting to be different and unique is that there is always the potential that there is somebody else out there who has something that you haven’t. And so Josephs are constantly on the watch for anybody who might just be getting too much attention or praise. The deep, dark secret of the Josephs is that, even as they suffer as victims of envy (which Joseph certainly does) they may harbour more of it in their heart than anybody else. Envy is, in fact, the sin that lies at the heart of a Joseph and, if redemption is not found for that sin, they will never be the person that God created them to be.
      The entire story of Joseph, therefore, is the story of how God worked in Joseph’s life to bring about redemption, renewal and change. In the beginning, Joseph is an unredeemed Joseph. We see that in the way that he deals with his dreams. He is driven by envy of his brothers (who are all bigger and more important culturally than him) to boast of the contents of his dreams. And of course, his brothers are all very wrong in how they respond to this boasting. They plot to kill him and then tone down their response to merely selling him off into slavery! We, of course, condemn them for what they do. But at the same time, if Joseph had dealt with his envy differently, maybe they wouldn’t have reacted as they did.
      Now the work that God did in Joseph’s life took many steps. I cannot do his story justice in a brief summary and you really do need to read his story for yourself. It is one of the most accessible stories in the entire Bible – it almost reads like an ancient novel – so I would definitely suggest that you take the time to read it in Genesis 37-46.
      There are many ups and downs as Joseph deals with slavery (during which he stands out among all the other slaves in the household and ends up running it) and then becomes a prisoner (during which he stands out from the others in the prison population and ends up running the prison) and then becomes the Pharaoh’s advisor (where he stands out from all of the other advisors and ends up running the country). There is obviously a very clear pattern in all of this. God may be at work in Joseph’s life and taking him through some very serious ups and downs but God clearly isn’t taking away anything that makes Joseph special and unique and very much in the habit of standing out in any crowd. God, I believe, is not at all interested in taking away the things that make you uniquely you.
      But, at the same time, God is working on Joseph’s life and working, in particular on that venomous envy that coils at the root of Joseph’s life. We discover this near the end of the story when the dream that Joseph had at the beginning is finally fulfilled and Joseph, ruler in Egypt, reveals himself to his brothers and they bow down before him. This is Joseph’s moment of triumph – that moment we all hope for when we get to say, “I told you so.”
      But surprisingly, and seemingly uncharacteristically, Joseph doesn’t do that. Here is what Joseph says to his brothers at this key moment: “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 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.”
      Compare that to the way that Joseph described his dreams to his brothers at the beginning of the story. Back then it was all about “me” and how everyone would give attention to “me.” Now when he speaks about everything that has happened and even as everyone is actually giving all of that attention to him, he is not at all interested in revelling in that attention. God has given a new perspective. Now Joseph is able to see and speak of God’s presence and God’s action in and through everything that has happened to him.
      Now, of course, what Joseph says does not exclude consideration of himself and his part in everything that has taken place. He says, “God sent me before you to preserve life.” He recognizes, to a certain extent that he had unique talents and insights and abilities that meant that he was maybe even the only person who could have played a part in what God’s intentions were. Joseph is still special and he still knows it. This is such an important part of his personality that God is not interested in taking it away from him.
      But what Joseph has gained is an incredible insight into how he, in his uniqueness, can be an essential part of what it is that God is doing in the world. This allows him to give all glory and praise to God when he sees God working in and through his life.
      This is, in fact, the special gift that a mature and redeemed Joseph – a mature person who is motivated by that need to be unique – can offer to the church and to the world. When they finally get to that point in their life when God has worked on them enough to purge away their envy, they are uniquely able to see where they can fit in with God’s plan. Unfortunately a lot of us (who are not like Joseph) can miss that and wander through life with no clear vision of how we can be a part of what it is that God is doing in the world. The incredibly valuable gift that the Josephs give us is a new vision of how each one of us can be an essential part of the work of God’s kingdom on earth. And honestly, if we don’t have that, we will never reach our full potential as the church in this world.
      What are some practical applications of Joseph’s story therefore? Well, first of all, it can teach us, when we come across people like Joseph (people who seem to have this deep need to be recognized and valued for being unique) in life or in the church, we can value them for who they are and for the insight they can give us. And if, as must be the case for some of us, you recognize some of Joseph’s traits in you, it can teach you to be open to allow God to work on the envy that may very well be hidden deep in your life so that you may become truly open to see how you can work together with God to see transformation for good in this world.
     

140CharacterSermon Joseph was unique & stood out. He struggled with envy. God redeemed him & showed he could be part of what God was doing.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Jacob: A journey from deceit to hope

Hespeler, 19 February, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 32:13-32, 1 Timothy 4:1-5, Psalm 34:11-22
J
acob, the son of Isaac, was always driven by one thing: the need for success. It had started, for him, even in the womb. Jacob had been a twin with his brother Esau and, as it turns out, was fated to be born second in a world where the difference between being the firstborn and the second born was only everything. But do you think that Jacob was inclined to accept that second place position? Not that all! We are told that he fought for dominance even in the womb with his brother. And, even when Esau came out first, Jacob followed right after gr asping his heel.
      Faced with the seemingly overwhelming disadvantage of being born second, Jacob never gave up. First he persuaded his brother to sell him his birthright for the price of a few lentils and then, when for some strange reason, nobody would honour a contract made over seaming bowl of hot stew, Jacob went ahead and tricked his blind old father into giving him the blessing of the elder child instead.
      As a result, everybody hated Jacob (except his mother who was in on it with him). His big brother Esau even vowed that he would kill Jacob, but none of that mattered, you see, because Jacob had won. Sure he had to run for his life, but he had succeeded, that was clearly the only thing that mattered to him. While he was running, he had a famous dream about a ladder, a perfect symbol of the ladder of success that he was building his life around.

      And we all know people like that, don’t we? They seem to live a charmed life, going from success to ever greater success. They are attractive and charismatic. If they are in sales they can sell you just about anything. Many of them go into politics where they tend to advance to positions of ever more power and influence. You may be secretly jealous of them, of course, but you really can’t help but admire all that they achieve. They are the heroes of our modern age. They are the people that everyone wants to be.
      Of course, their need for success can run so deep that it becomes pathological. That can be devastating to them when success doesn’t come. Jacob went through that. When he ran away from his brother Esau, he landed in the country of Haran and he met this beautiful woman named Rachel. He fell in love with her right away which meant that he had to have her. His marriage to Rachel was to be his next success. But Rachel’s father, Laban, tricked him into marrying her less beautiful older sister, Leah instead.
      Oh, you can bet that Jacob was angry that he had been beaten like that! But a defeat like that will only make a man like Jacob more committed to win in the long run. And, in the end, after about fourteen years spent in his father-in-law Laban’s house­hold, he plundered the man of everything of value that he owned.
      Jacob left with both of Laban’s daughters (both Rachel and Leah) as his wives and their slaves as his concubines. They took the very best of Laban’s flocks and herds with them and even stole Laban’s family gods – precious idols that had been in the family forever. Even more important, Jacob left with the most important indicator of success in that ancient society: twelve fine sons. I am sure that, as Jacob watched Laban disappear in his rear view mirror, he said to himself, “Who won this time, old man!”
      The world seems to demand that we all set our hearts on the pursuit of success. After all, success in this world is often seen as the only measure of a person’s value. But there are some, like Jacob, who not only have a special gift for finding success but also a deep-seated need for it. The quest for success can be a very noble thing, of course, but Jacob’s story also reminds us that there is a dark side to being this type of person. It seems that Jacob’s need to win was so powerful that it pushed him to do things that were not exactly ethical.
      In particular, you have to admit, Jacob had a tendency to play fast and loose with the truth. He often got ahead by means of deception. It was by lying and pretending to be his own brother that he was able to trick his father into giving him the blessing. It was through trickery and deception that he was able to get control of the best of his father-in-law’s flocks and herds. In fact, when you look closely at every incident when Jacob made progress towards his goals, you will probably find that there was a point where he didn’t exactly tell the truth in order to get there.
      And that doesn’t just seem to be a part of Jacob’s story. It seems to be true of many people who, like him, are primarily motivated by the pursuit of success. I mean, think of it this way: what sort of professions do people go into who are driven by success? I think we would agree that a lot of them go into politics. Those who don’t often end up as very successful lawyers or salespeople or other kinds of high powered business people. These are the professions that will most feed people who need to succeed.
      Now, if I were to ask you what are the most dishonest professions, what do you suppose the answer would be? Chances are that, in any random group, you would come up with a list that included what: politics, law and used car sales. Now please understand me: I would never say that all politicians and all lawyers and all sales people are liars. They are not. I have known people in all of those categories who were nothing but honest, full of integrity and honour. But the perception is still there, isn’t it? At the very least, these are the sorts of professions that seem to push people to stretch the truth and speak in ways that only benefit themselves.
      Sometimes, these days, it seems as if we are all living in Jacob’s world – a world in which success is the only thing that matters and in which truth is usually the first casualty in the pursuit of that success. When I think of this in light of Jacob’s story, it actually seems inevitable. Once we had built our entire Western society around the goals of Jacob – the goals of worldly success – it was inevitable what we would sooner or later find ourselves in a society that had given up on the truth and retreated into the comfort and convenience of fake news, alternative facts and the post-truth world that we seem to be living in today.
      But the story of Jacob in the Bible isn’t just a story of a man, who is fairly comfortable lying and who is pursuing success with everything he’s got. His story is also about how God reached out to him and called him to embrace the fullness of who he had been created to be. As a result, Jacob isn’t just a representative of all those people who are driven by success but also a representation of who they can become.
      We meet Jacob in our reading this morning from the Book of Genesis when he has made a very momentous decision. He has made the decision to go back to where he came from – to revisit his own past. This can be a very risky thing to do for people who have lived their whole lives seeking success at all costs because you are likely to find yourself face to face with those you have deceived or hurt on the way up the ladder of success.
      That is, of course, the very thing that Jacob dreads in this passage. He knows that his brother Esau is waiting for him back at home. But Jacob has decided to do whatever he needs to do in order to seek reconciliation and make amends for the past. That is the first work that God wants to do in the life of you if you are like Jacob: help you to reconcile with the wounds you have caused people in your own past.
      This is not an easy process for Jacob – indeed he has to put everything that he has achieved in his life on the line for the sake of reconciliation (including his family which he sends on across the river ahead of him) but it is worth it, because it is the first step to the wholeness of that he needs.
      But there is an even more important task that waits for Jacob. Once he has done that – once he has determined to set out and confront his own past and put everything on the line – he is left all alone. “Jacob was left alone;” we are told, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” He now enters into the most important struggle: his own struggle with God.
      What is different about this wrestling match, however, is not how difficult his opponent is. Jacob has faced powerful opposition his whole life and triumphed. What is different this time, is what he is fighting for. Jacob, at this point in his life, is no longer fighting for the things he has devoted his life to: success, recognition, taking one more step up the ladder of life.
      This is how the climax of the wrestling match is described: Jacob is grappling with the stranger who actually appears to be losing. That is how powerful a fighter Jacob is. “Then [the stranger] said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”
      What is Jacob struggling for now? He is fighting for a blessing first of all: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And fighting for blessing is different than fighting for success. Jacob has finally realized that there are some things that God can give him that the world and success in the world cannot. He has realized the truth that Jesus put so well, “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves.” (Luke 9:25) This is the work of maturity that God has done in Jacob’s life.
      Jacob, therefore, is not just fighting for a blessing, he is fighting for his self-identity. That is why he is given a new name in the midst of the wrestling match: “Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’” Jacob, after all this long journey and struggle finally understands who he is – who he has always been meant to be – the one who struggles with God. His struggle will no longer be only for success and advancement because he recognizes that blessing and knowing himself means more. And for whose sake does Jacob struggle now? Not merely for himself, I think, but for his family. The blessing he seeks is for all of them.
      I look around at the world today, and I see many who are oriented towards the never-ending quest for success and advancement. Some of them pursue it so relentlessly that they’ll sacrifice everything, even and especially the truth, in order to get there. Some, when the success that they have oriented themselves towards, doesn’t appear, retreat into lies and hide from the truth. We seem to have heard a lot about politicians doing that lately.
      The good news is that God doesn’t want to leave the Jacobs of this world to their own devices. God will do a work of transformation in them if only they will open themselves to it. This is the promise of the gospel. If you are someone who has sacrificed everything for the sake of worldly success and you find that there is still something missing, God would love to meet you by the side of the river – to wrestle with you over the mistakes and even the lies of your past – but he will do it in order to bring you hope and a blessing. It will be a blessing both for you and for the people you love.
      I am thankful for all of the Jacobs and all the great things that they achieve. What would the world be without them? But I also pray that they would open their hearts to hear the deeper blessing that their God has for them.
     

#140CharacterSermon Jacob needed to succeed even at the expense of the truth. Jacobs still do that today. God has work to do in their lives.          

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Sunday, 12 February 2017

Martha: A journey from pride to freedom

Hespeler, 12 February, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Luke 10:38-42, John 11:17-27, Psalm 12
W
e all know a Martha. For that matter, many of us are Marthas. I hope you all recognize her type in our story this morning from the Gospel of Luke, but, just in case you’re not sure, let me lay out for you some of what I think that Martha’s backstory must have been.
      Martha was the oldest of three siblings. There was Martha, then her brother, Lazarus, and then the baby Mary. As often happens with the oldest child – maybe especially when the oldest is a girl – Martha was given a lot of responsibility early on. But of course, given the realities of the world that they lived in, the family pinned all of their hopes and dreams on the only son, on Lazarus. He was the one who had to succeed. Indeed his failure would destroy the fortunes of the entire family.
      And that was a problem because, from an early age, Lazarus was rather sickly. His lungs were weak; he always seemed to come down with fevers and spent as much time on his couch as he did learning a trade. Is it any surprise that Martha was the one who was always called upon to tend to him or to pick up the slack in the household when others were looking after him? Their parents, frankly, were at their wits end because of their worries for their son. If they lost him, they lost everything. And more often than not it was Martha that took care of them and helped them to calm down. She became like a mother to her own parents.

      And so it was that Martha, from a very early age, learned that there was one thing that he needed above all things. She needed to be needed. It was the one thing that gave meaning to her life, the one thing that she could not do without. And so Martha went to work to make sure that absolutely everyone needed her. No one could cook or clean or organize things better than Martha. In fact, she set things up so that nobody but her could figure out her system and do any of her work in her place. She made herself completely indispensable.
      When Martha’s parents fell sick, it was she who took care of them, of course. And when, in spite of her excellent care, they died, both of them within the space of about two weeks, she just automatically stepped into the parental role for her siblings. She did everything for Lazarus and Mary. And she was so good at everything she did that soon lots of other people were depending on her too – friends, neigh­bours, more distant relations. All any­one had to say to Martha was that they needed her and she could not resist. She served them.
      Don’t misunderstand me, she often regretted it later. She cursed herself for taking on too many tasks and trying to please too many people. How often did she berate herself? How often did she vow that next time she would just say no? But when she was there, faced with someone who needed her, she just couldn’t do it. Martha just needed… to be needed.
      So, now you know a little bit about Martha, do you recognize her? I’m that sure you have met her before. Some of you may even be her. I have certainly known many Marthas (and not all of them were women, by the way). I have especially known them in the life and the work of the church. They are the people who tend to do the lion’s share of the work in a given congregation. They are the people to whom you only need to say three small words, “I need you,” and they are there. The church, quite frankly, would probably not survive if it weren’t for the Marthas and I am frequently thankful for them.
      And we see Martha in action in our reading this morning in the Gospel of Luke. There are guests in her house – not just any guests, mind you but only the most famous preacher and wonderworker that has ever arisen in Galilee. And Martha is doing what she does best. She is bustling around the kitchen and the dining room and taking care of everyone, making herself indispensable. But there is a dark side – a bit of a bite to Martha in this story, isn’t there? And it is, in fact, the dark side that is common to all Marthas.
      In this story, Martha seems to snap suddenly. She has been taking care of everyone’s needs all afternoon – just like she always does – when she suddenly stops. She directs her complaint at Jesus even though she says she isn’t mad at him. “Lord,” she says, “do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
      I have known enough people like Martha to interpret what she says here. It may sound like she’s asking for help, but she isn’t exactly. First of all, Martha knows very well that, even if Jesus tells Mary to help her, that won’t make her happy because, let me tell you, Mary can’t do it right. She has never been able to do it as well as Martha. She’ll just get in the way. No, her message isn’t in the request for help, it is in her opening words, “Lord, do you not care?” She’s not looking for help, she is looking for sympathy, recognition and maybe even flattery. “Don’t you care that I am doing all this work all by myself because you’d better care!” She doesn’t just need to be needed, she needs the appreciation that comes with that.
      And I realize that appreciation is a good thing and that it is something that does us all good. (Always be generous in giving people appreciation; it will only sow good will.) But there is something dark going on in Martha in this passage. It is not just that she desires some appreciation, it is that she needs it. Her identity has become so caught up in being the one who helps that she needs the appreciation to know who she is.
      The problem at the heart of Martha’s life, in fact, is pride. I hesitate to call it by the name of pride because she does not suffer from the kind of egotistical self-centredness that we often associate with pride. Martha is the opposite of self-centred; she is selfless to a fault! But there is pride in what Martha is doing. She has taken on the self-image of the helper so completely that she has begun to believe that she and she alone is able to bring help. Everyone needs her but (and this is the sad part) she doesn’t need anyone. To believe that you don’t need anyone and that you cannot receive help from anyone is a particularly dangerous kind of pride, and it is the kind of pride to which Marthas are particularly susceptible.
      But it is even worse than that for Martha. It becomes clear that she has even concluded that she does not need God. If she had any inkling of how much she needed God, after all, where would she be? She would be right where Jesus tells her she ought to be: right beside her sister Mary at Jesus’ feet absorbing everything that he says like a sponge. But Martha, in her pride, has decided that she doesn’t need that.
      I have been deeply blessed throughout my life by many Marthas. Their service has so often been there to make life and work in the church bearable and meaningful. I would never presume to criticise a Martha because I do indeed appreciate them. But I have also known a few of them well enough to know that they often struggle as well. They struggle when they do too much, help too much and serve too much and so neglect their own needs. They struggle when they don’t receive the appreciation that they often deserve. And it can make them lash out like Martha does in front of Jesus. I also know that they often struggle to ask for help and mean it and that they have a hard time accepting help when it is offered.
      But do you want to hear something wonderful? I think that Jesus understood and appreciated Martha better than she even knew. He didn’t just rebuke her that day, he began to work in her for transformation. He didn’t seek to take her serving heart away from her, but he did help her with the pride that threatened to destroy that heart.
      These two sisters, Mary and Martha, are never again mentioned in the Gospel of Luke after that incident when Jesus was in their home, but they do surface later in the Gospel of John. The story in the Gospel of John must take place sometime later than the one in Luke because it comes near to the very end of Jesus’ ministry. So it turns out that we are given two distinct episodes out of Martha’s life: an earlier one when she had just started to know Jesus and another one very close to the end of his life. We get a chance to see what a difference Jesus had been able to make in her life.
      So what do we see in the more mature Martha in the story in the Gospel of John – the Martha who had had Jesus working in her life for a while. Jesus comes along this time at a much more difficult time for Martha and Mary. Their cherished brother, Lazarus, has died. Not only have they lost someone that they love, they have lost the one who is the security and hope of the family. If ever they needed help, they need it now. And the old Martha, the one we met in the Gospel of Luke was not very good at receiving help. What do we see now?
      When Jesus finally arrives, what happens? This time it is Mary who stays in the home but it is Martha who runs out of the house and straight to Jesus’ side. It is Martha who confesses to Jesus just how much she needs him – needed him four days ago in fact: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Even more important, it is Martha who proclaims an amazing trust in Jesus: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
      What has happened to this woman? Rest assured that this is that same amazing woman that we met in the Gospel of Luke – a woman who knows how to take care of everyone’s needs. Why, I’ll bet that she has spent the last four days organizing funeral lunches and taking care of everyone who came to pay their respects. She still knows the joy that comes in serving others and being there to provide for them to the best of her ability. But her dealings with Jesus have also taught her something new – a humility that does not oppress her but actually makes her free to rest in being able to need another – in being able to need and trust Jesus.
      And, because she has grown so much, Martha is even ready to receive a fundamental truth about Jesus – one that few others were ready to hear at that point. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus says to her. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” To this, Martha is also able to reply with a remarkable statement of faith: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
      Yes, the Marthas of this world are a wonderful gift to all of us. If you have a Martha in your life or in your circle of friends, you are truly blessed. Make sure them you appreciate them; it will mean a lot to them. But never forget that Jesus also has work that he wants to do in the life of the Marthas – in your life if you are one. Jesus wants to set you free from the burden of helping, that you might rest in him, learn to receive when you need to receive, and live in the joy of who God created you to be.
      Jesus did a marvelous work in the life of Martha. He still does that work today in the life of people like her. If you are a Martha, then practice trusting Jesus and admitting that you need Jesus. If you know or love a Martha, be patient with him or her as they learn that lesson. Expect miraculous transformation and I think you will see it.
     

140CharacterSermon Some people have a deep need to be needed. They’re wonderful but may struggle to need God. Jesus works in their lives too

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Paul of Tarsus: A journey from anger to compassion

Hespeler, 5 February, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Galatians 1:13-24, 2:11-14, Philippians 3:4b-11, Psalm 37:1-13
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aul of Tarsus was a very angry young man. When he first blasts onto the scene of the early Christian church in the Book of Acts he is described as “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9:1) His persecution of the church, which, by all the accounts, was ruthless and brutal, is probably the clearest example of what could happen when he allowed his anger to run away from him. But his anger was not, as we often assume, just connected to his rejection of what he saw as the new and heretical Christian faith.
      Even after Saul encountered the risen Jesus for himself, embraced the Christian faith and even changed his name and started to be known as Paul, his anger could still burn very hot and could be destructive even though his passion was now directed towards the positive message of the Christian gospel.
      We read this morning, in Paul’s own words, the account of the time that he got very, very angry with a man who may have been the most important person in the early church. Paul calls him, in his letter to the Galatians, Cephas. But that is just the Aramaic form of a nam e that you might be much more familiar with in Greek: Peter. Paul was arguing with none other than Simon Peter, one of the most revered leaders that Christianity ever had but Paul didn’t care. Peter had done something wrong and Paul didn’t hesitate to blow up at him in front of the church.

      There was another incident, reported later in the Book of Acts, when Paul got so mad at Barnabas, his very oldest Christian friend and separated from him over a disagreement. (Acts 15:39) These are just three examples and I could find more in Paul’s letters and in the stories about him, but I think that they do suggest an overall pattern of someone who had issues with anger.
      Now anger is something that all of have to deal with in our lives. We all get angry sometimes. And, I’m sure we’ve all said things or done things when we were angry that we’ve regretted later. But, for most of us, I’d even say for the majority of us, that is only an occasional problem. We may have other issues we struggle with in our lives, but anger is not at the top of the list.
      But there are some people for whom anger is the big issue in their life. It just always seems to keep coming up, messing things up and even influencing things like major decisions and the course of their life. For these people, anger isn’t just a sin; it is the sin – the sin that lies at the root of their life.
      Chances are you know or have known someone who has this kind of powerful anger in their life. Maybe, especially if their anger has brought a lot of destruction into their life, you have not been able to maintain a relationship with that person, but you have probably known one. Not everyone who struggles with this kind of anger necessarily sees it destroy their relationships. It is possible to find conversion and develop the fruit of cheerfulness and tranquility as did, I believe, the Apostle Paul, but the temptation to give into anger may yet persist.
      But you also need to understand that, when someone has anger like that, it doesn’t come from nowhere. People who really struggle with anger generally have certain things in common. For one thing, they tend to be perfectionists. They live with this really strong sense that the world ought to be a certain way – ought to be perfect – and the anger is often provoked by the world’s failure to live up to those, frankly unrealistic expectations.
      But, again, where does that need for perfection come from? Not all of us have that need or expectation. Well, often it begins with the expectations that were put upon such people from very early in their life. Maybe as children they were held to unrealistic standards of performance or behaviour. Maybe their parents or other key people in their life told them (either in words or in other ways) that their love for them was conditional on their performance which had to be perfect. Over time, that need for perfection becomes internalized and they begin to demand perfection from themselves and the world and get very angry at both when it is not found.
      So, generally speaking, there is a link between this root sin of anger and an internal drive towards perfection. If Paul is, as I have suggested, someone who had anger issues, can we see evidence of that perfectionism in his life? Absolutely! Paul himself admits as much in some of his letters. He writes this about his early life in his Letter to the Galatians: “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” What is he saying? Not simply that he was a good Jew or even an excellent Jew. He is saying that he was like the best Jew that had ever been. That is the voice of a perfectionist.
      And that perfectionism wasn’t only present in Paul’s life, it was something that caused him endless trouble and even threatened to drive him mad sometimes. He speaks often about how, though he kept the Jewish law with excellence, he felt it as this great burden that overshadowed his whole life. He says that, if you are going to keep any part of the law then you have to keep all of it even down to the most insignificant regulation and that, if you even fail in keeping one small part of it, you are condemned and in a worse situation than if you had never tried at all. That is, in my mind, borderline crazy. But it is the kind of thinking that makes sense to a perfectionist.
      So Paul really does seem like a perfect example of someone for whom anger is the root sin in their life. And that is, I believe, good news for anyone who struggles with anger or who has someone that they love who struggles with anger. Sometimes we assume that there is no hope for such people – that their relationship with their anger brings too much destruction. Unless they basically stop being who they are, there is no hope. But here we have Paul, a saint, someone whom God clearly used to do much good and someone without whom the church would have been very different.
      And Paul didn’t need to stop being who he was in order for that to happen. Anger was still a part of his life, but now God used it in some positive ways – like in that disagreement with Peter when Paul’s anger at what he saw as Peter’s hypocrisy (for treating the Gentiles in the church one way when alone with them and another way when Christians from Jerusalem were visiting) gave Paul what he needed to forcefully confront Peter and take an important stand for the inclusion of Gentiles in the church. The anger itself wasn’t evil and Paul was learning to use it in constructive ways.
      Even more important, Paul didn’t lose that impulse towards perfection. It is something that comes through again and again in his letters to the churches. He doesn’t just ask for a good effort from himself and from the people he is corresponding with. He expects excellence. And, without that drive to perfection and where that drive led him in his conversations with his God, I can’t imagine that Paul would have been able to find the extraordinary insights into God and his relationship with that he did.
      Sometimes, when we see this tendency to explosive anger and perfectionism in someone, our reaction is to want to get rid of it. To tell someone (or yourself as the case may be) that anger isn’t allowed, that it must be suppressed or hidden or cast outside of a life. To people driven to perfection, we just tell them that they have to accept that the world isn’t going to be perfect. But I would like us to note that that is not how God did his work in Paul’s life. God didn’t ask Paul to stop being Paul but he did take the man that he was and his tendencies and brought about a conversion.
      The conversion of Saul of Tarsus to Christianity is recounted several times in the New Testament. We are told that he had this dramatic encounter with the risen Christ while travelling on the road to Damascus that turned him around from being a persecutor of the church to an enthusiastic supporter. But I am not just talking about that one dramatic day of conversion, I am talking about the work that Christ did in him over time – work that transformed the anger that lay at the root of his life.
      First of all, and starting in that Damascus Road encounter, Christ confronted him with grace. Here was Paul, pursuing what he was so sure was right and perfect for the faith of his people, and Christ confronted him with the fact that he was wrong – that he had gotten everything exactly wrong. Do you know what that feels like for a perfectionist? It was like Paul’s whole world fell apart in an instant. Falling short of perfection meant that he was a failure, that he would never be acceptable. Paul felt like a little boy who could never please his father – just like that little boy he had once been.
      But Christ didn’t leave Paul there. Christ accepted Paul at the very moment when he was most unacceptable from his perfectionist point of view. And not only that, Christ even called him to be his apostle and take his message to the far edges of the world. That shook the foundations of the assumptions that Paul had built his life on up until that point. If he didn’t have to be perfect in order to be acceptable, then what else was possible? Was it even possible that the most unacceptable kind of people to the Jews – that even the Gentles – could become acceptable too? Was it even possible that they could become acceptable without having to follow all the laws and the rules of the Old Testament – without even having to be circumcised?
      Yes, Paul was surprised by a grace so powerful that he dedicated the rest of his life to bringing the Gentiles into the faith. These people, whom he had once seen as outsiders, he now embraced as brothers and sisters. In a way, because of who he was and, especially who he had been, he was able to do more to make a place for them than anyone else ever could have. The anger never really went away from his life, but now it was directed against those who would treat these people as anything less than beloved children of God – even if those people were as important as the Apostle Peter.
      Paul didn’t stop being who he was – he became who he had always been meant to be. If you struggle with anger or if you love someone who struggles with anger, you need to understand that there is hope. God wants to do a wonderful work in your life or in the life of your loved one. Such people have the capacity to offer more in the way of grace and compassion and acceptance to outsiders or people who just don’t seem to measure up than anyone else. God uses them for a mighty work.
      And the only thing that is required for that to happen is for people to open their hearts up to God’s overwhelming grace – to learn that you are acceptable even though you are not perfect and never will be. You continue by learning to trust in God’s acceptance of you and by practicing accepting those that you meet – especially the ones who are far from perfect.
      I look around at the world today and see the power of anger and hatred especially of people who are different. Anger drove a young man into a mosque in Quebec City with a gun a week ago. Anger and fear caused chaos and more fear in airports around the United States. We can’t ignore the power of anger, but we don’t need to fear it because we have a God who, through Christ, can turn even the angriest into advocates of acceptance and inclusion that God can use. Just look at the Apostle Paul. Just look at yourself or the person you love. God needs you as you are, and redeems you as you are and converts even your sin into wonderful potential because God can do amazing things through you. This is the message and the promise that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel.
     
140CharacterSermon If you struggle with anger have hope. God’ll work through you to bring compassion and acceptance like he did with Paul.