Book Review: Donald C. Posterski: ‘True to You: Living Our Faith in our Multi-Minded World’ (Wood Lake Books, 1995).

35659952_10156956550960400_7003163623187021824_nDon Posterski died last week (see this tribute from Tyndale College in Toronto). Don was the author of a number of excellent books and the news of his death has prompted me to revisit one or two of them. ‘True to You’ is my first ‘revisit’.

This is a book about living as a faithful Christian in Canada today. Note: I say ‘today’, but the book was written in 1995 and uses many illustrations that were contemporary at the time. The pace of social change has not been slow in the intervening years; same-sex marriage is legal now, and so is assisted dying, and many more Christians have made their peace with these realities than would have been the case in 1995.

Nonetheless, the topic is still a vital one. Older Canadians can remember a time when Christianity was the assumed frame of reference for questions of truth and morality in our society, but that is no longer the case. So what does it mean to be a faithful Christian in this strange new world? Or, as Don Posterski puts it:

  1. ‘How can we live peaceably and productively with our increasing diversity?
  2. ‘How can we construct a society that allows us to live with strong convictions while giving others the prerogative to do the same?
  3. ‘As God’s people, active in our different denominations and religious traditions, are there ways for us to understand and even appreciate our differences so that we can celebrate our common faith commitments?’

Two classification systems reappear regularly in this book, and I found them quite helpful. The first was taken from an Angus Reid poll about religious preferences conducted in Canada in 1994. it uses four broad categories:

  1. Committed participants (those who attend church weekly and are likely to help make it happen)
  2. Conditional participants (those who attend, but less often, and are less likely to get involved in other ways)
  3. Cultural Christians (those who claim a Christian identity but do not participate in organized religion)
  4. Religious ‘nones’ (‘no religious affiliation).

Percentages will have changed since 1994, but at that time two-thirds of Canadians claimed the ‘cultural Christian’ category. Posterski points out, however, that their actual values and practices were virtually indistinguishable from the ‘nones’.

The other classification system addresses how practising Christians respond to their current marginalization in western society.

  1. Reclaimers want to turn the clock back to the good old days when this was a ‘Christian country’.
  2. Tribalisers want to be sure there its room in society for their views and choices, but their approach to those who disagree with them is very confrontational (in 2018 North America, one can see very clearly just how nasty tribalism – and tribal loyalty – can be).
  3. Accommodators enthusiastically embrace divergence but have very little to offer in terms of distinctive beliefs and practices.
  4. Cocooners disengage from any real involvement with concerns that affect public life.
  5. Collaborators are quite prepared to give other people the room to be true to themselves, but are also assertive in claiming that right for themselves as well.

The seven chapters of the book go on to examine the issues raised by diversity in modern Canadian society. In Chapter Two Posterski defines different forms of pluralism: ideological pluralism is an enemy of faith, but cultural pluralism (everyone is entitled to believe and practice their own convictions) is a friend of faith. In Chapter Three he attempts to outline some common values and commitments for modern Canadian society (personally, I found this the least helpful chapter of the book). In the remaining chapters he explores what he calls ‘principled pluralism’ and what it would look like, both in terms of how Christians should live and how society as a whole should make space for people of differing convictions. One of his more telling observations is that toleration for different viewpoints in modern Canada is easily extended to those who do not believe in clearly defined beliefs and morals (tolerance for the tolerant), but is not so easily extended to people of clear conviction, who are often seen as ‘intolerant’ and are therefore not tolerated!

The conclusion suggests a program for Christians who want to exercise both conviction and compassion.

  1. Trust God and follow Christ – keep saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ invitation to ‘come unto me’.
  2. Be true to yourself: know what you believe, who you are, and how you aspire to behave.
  3. Give regard to others. ‘Rooted in the security of their own convictions, God’s people extend compassion to others who are different from themselves…They realize that, rather than coercing creation, God gives people choices; they aim to treat people like God treats people’.
  4. Relinquish rights for the common good. God’s people know that a society cannot be built exclusively on diversity; ‘beyond the requirement to live within the boundaries of the criminal code, all citizens must be willing to sacrifice private desires for shared public goals’.
  5. Fly your flag in the pluralism parade. A democratic society invites its citizens to participate and to influence public policy; we can take advantage of that right, while also respecting the rights of others to do the same.
  6. Love and lobby. We are called both to live a life of love and to lobby for the ways of God, in answer to Jesus’ prayer ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven’.

Despite the fact that its statistic and illustrations are now somewhat dated, I found this a very helpful book. Posterski believed that it was possible for Christians to be true to their own convictions and yet also respectful of the convictions of others. He believed that Canadian society could and should be a place where different convictions are respected and welcomed in the public square. Not all Canadians believe this, and neither do all Christians, today as in 1994. But this book gives solid suggestions for positive Christian life and witness in the context of our modern pluralistic society. I highly recommend it.

‘The Lord looks on the heart’ (a sermon on 1 Samuel 15.34 – 16.13)

‘I never knew a guy who carried a mirror in his pocket
And a comb up his sleeve just in case
And all that extra hold gel in your hair ought to lock it
‘Cause heaven forbid it should fall out of place
Oh-oo-oh you think you’re special
Oh-oo-oh you think you’re something else
Okay, so you’re Brad Pitt
That don’t impress me much
So you got the looks, but have you got the touch?
Now don’t get me wrong, yeah I think you’re alright
But that won’t keep me warm in the middle of the night
That don’t impress me much’.

Well, there’s a first time for everything, and that’s definitely the first time I’ve ever begun a sermon with a Shania Twain lyric!

And of course, what makes this song very apropos is that even after years and years of being taken in by shiny looking con artists, outward appearances still do ‘impress us much!’ The politician with the bright smile and the bubbly personality is likely to connect with people and win votes. The rock singer who conforms to the current expectations of beauty is far more likely to sell albums than the one who doesn’t. And, to frame the issue in the words of our Old Testament reading this morning, the Lord may look on the heart, but we human beings are still very, very taken with the outward appearance!

Today in our Old Testament readings we begin the story of King David, the shepherd boy who became the shepherd of God’s people Israel. Let’s give a bit of background.

For many generations after Israel entered their promised land they had no king. They didn’t even have much of a unified central government. They had twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land; in theory God was their king, and when they needed help, God sent them leaders. We’ve traditionally called them ‘judges’, and certainly hearing cases and giving judgements was part of their job. But they also led the people in battle against their enemies.

The last and perhaps greatest of those judges was Samuel, who was probably born around 1100 B.C. It was in his days that the people came and asked for a king; ‘We want a king like the nations around us, to lead us in battle’. On the face of it this was a smart request. All the other nations had kings, and that gave them a military edge: a strong central government with a unified purpose that could raise up an army and give it strong leadership.

But the request didn’t sit well with Samuel. To him, it was a rejection of God’s leadership (and his own as well). And the authors of 1 Samuel don’t seem to be of one mind on the issue too; I get the sense that the book incorporates several earlier accounts with different viewpoints on this subject. But eventually God agrees, and there’s a process by which Saul of the tribe of Benjamin is chosen as the first king of Israel. One thing we’re told about Saul is that his appearance was impressive. ‘When he took his stand among the people, he was head and shoulders taller than any of them. Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the one whom the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him in all the people”’ (1 Samuel 10:23-24).

It’s not entirely clear how much territory Saul was actually king of; it may be that it was just the central area of Israel, the tribes of Ephraim and Mannaseh and their neighbouring clans. But what is clear is that he very quickly became a disappointment. His appearance might have been impressive but his heart was not obedient to God. I don’t have time to go into the story in detail this morning, and some of it is actually quite disturbing to us as Christians; it involves what appear to be commands from God to commit genocide against an enemy of Israel. These are tough passages and hard to reconcile with the teaching of Jesus.

Be that as it may, eventually Samuel speaks a word of judgement against Saul: “You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:26). But of course Saul still was the king, and so from that day forward Samuel’s position became more precarious; he was highly respected as a prophet and judge, but he was obviously on the outs with the king, and that’s never a comfortable position to be in.

And so we come to today’s passage, where God sends Samuel to anoint a new king. It seems like a foolish and dangerous mission: Saul is still on the throne, and choosing someone else to be designated as ‘the LORD’s anointed’ would be to make both of them a target of Saul’s hit squads. We can hear that fear in Samuel’s voice as he replies to the LORD’s call: “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (16:2). We can hear it in the voices of the elders of Bethlehem as they meet Samuel trembling: “Do you come peaceably?” (16:4). They don’t want to get involved in this power struggle!

But the narrative focus is on David, and there are four things we learn about him.

First, he was an outsider. Samuel went down to Bethlehem at God’s command, with explicit instructions to anoint one of the sons of Jesse to be the next king. God already knew who the successful candidate was: “I have provided for myself a king among (Jesse’s) sons” (16:1). But when Jesse and his sons came to the sacrificial ceremony, they didn’t even bother to bring David with them. Jesse brought seven sons – ‘seven’ in the Bible is the number of completeness, so there was no need for any more. David was outside the number – he was the youngest, and he was out in the hills looking after the family’s flock of sheep. No one thought he was of any importance. No one considered that his attendance at the sacrifice would matter one way or the other.

But the God of the Bible seems to have a soft spot for outsiders. There’s a long Bible history of God choosing the younger son over the older, or the less impressive leader over the more impressive. Even Bethlehem itself was a strange choice; it was far to the south of Saul’s domains around Ephraim and Manasseh. It was a little village in the tribe of Judah, which seems to have been only loosely connected to Israel at the time. It would be as if we were looking for a prime minister of Canada in the days before Newfoundland joined confederation, and we decided to elect someone from a tiny fishing port in Newfoundland who wasn’t even really a Canadian citizen!

In the New Testament, Mary the mother of Jesus sums this up in these words: ‘(God) has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’ (Luke 1:51-52). So don’t ever say “I’m not important, so God wouldn’t choose me”. If the world thinks you’re not important, that makes you a prime candidate for God’s choice! God isn’t impressed with the corridors of power; that ‘don’t impress him much!’ God works from the grassroots, with ordinary people like you and me.

So David was an outsider, and yet he was also God’s choice. Second, David was a shepherd. There are actually three different stories of David’s origins in 1 Samuel and all of them mention his role as a shepherd. Today’s passage has his father Jesse saying, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep” (16:11). In the next section David is chosen to play music for the king, to calm him down when he gets agitated; Saul sends a message to Jesse saying “Send me your son David who is with the sheep” (16:19). And the third story is the well-known tale of David and Goliath, where David specifically mentions his experience of defending the flock from lions and bears (16:34-35). Psalm 78 sums up this tradition:

‘He chose his servant David and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the nursing ewes he brought him to be the shepherd of his servant Jacob, of Israel, his inheritance. With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with a skillful hand’ (Psalm 78:70-72).

So God didn’t call David to oppress or exploit his people; he called him to care for them like a good shepherd caring for his sheep and protecting them. This is a reflection of the character of God who is sometimes called ‘the Shepherd of Israel’ in the Old Testament. Jesus, of course, says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Do you know how to care for people, to love your neighbour as yourself? In God’s eyes, that makes you a good candidate for leadership. God has had it up to here with leaders who are only in it to enrich themselves and their families; that ‘don’t impress him much’! He’s looking for people who know how to love others – not just in words but in actions.

So David is an unlikely candidate to be king – which, in God’s sight, makes him a likely candidate. David was a shepherd and he brought a shepherd’s heart to the throne of Judah and Israel. The third thing we’re told is that David’s heart was in the right place.

In the first few verses of the story there’s a funny scene as the seven sons of Jesse are brought before Samuel one by one, for all the world like a police identification parade! Samuel has apparently forgotten how easily he was misled by Saul’s impressive appearance. He sees Jesse’s oldest son Eliab and thinks “Surely the LORD’s anointed is now before the LORD”. But God rebukes this thought: “Do not look on his appearance or the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance but the LORD looks on the heart” (16:6-7).

The implication is that David has a good heart. Nowadays, of course, we usually use the heart as a symbol of the feelings: ‘You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t’, sings Bonnie Raitt, and we know what she means. But in the Bible the feelings are located in the intestines (hence the King James Version’s lovely term for compassion: ‘bowels of mercy’!). ‘The heart’ means the inner person, the choices, the will. In this passage it probably means the inner character. Despite being the youngest and the least likely candidate, David was a boy of good character, and so God chose him to be king.

The books of Samuel never pretend that David was perfect; far from it. He was a human being with a healthy dose of the human propensity to mess things up, and he did it spectacularly on a couple of occasions. But it was not in David’s nature to be stubborn about his disobedience. When he was confronted with his sin he confessed and repented and asked for forgiveness.

So when we say God looks on the heart, we’re not saying that God is looking for a perfect heart, a perfect character. God would have no one, if that were the case. But God is looking for a loving heart, a humble heart, a teachable spirit, a faithful character. He’s looking for someone who strives to be the same person when people are watching and when they aren’t watching.

Expertise is important, but it can be taught. Character takes a lot longer. A few years ago a friend of mine was contemplating a career change, and he went to another friend who owned an oilfield service company and asked about a job. “I don’t really have much expertise, though”, he admitted. The owner replied, “Will you come to work on time? Will you give me a full day’s work for a full day’s pay? Will you show up on time after your days off – and without a hangover? I can teach you what you need to know, but I can’t form your character – that has to be present already”.

This is what God prizes. He doesn’t favour the insiders – he’s far more likely to choose people from the margins. He places a premium on for a caring and loving way with others. He’s not impressed with outward appearances: he cares about your heart, your inner character. And lastly, David is filled with the Holy Spirit.In verse 13 we read, ‘Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed (David) in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward’.

In the Old Testament there is no general promise that the Spirit of God will fill every believer. Kings receive the Spirit; so do priests and prophets and judges. The Spirit makes them God’s special servants, God’s tools, God’s mouthpieces. Ordinary people like you and me aren’t equipped with the Spirit; we experience his touch second hand, through God’s chosen leaders.

But that changes in the New Testament. The prophet Joel foretells a time when God will pour out his Spirit on everyone – young and old, men and women, slaves and free. This happens on the Day of Pentecost, when a group of a hundred and twenty believers – most of them unlikely candidates, just like David – are filled with the Holy Spirit and speak God’s word with boldness. From that point on, this becomes the birthright of the Christian: if you know how to give good gifts to your children, says Jesus, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13).

My dad was a working class boy from an industrial city in central England; he left school at sixteen and never finished a university degree. Lots of people would have dismissed him, but God didn’t; my dad was called to ordination in his thirties and became a highly effective pastor and evangelist. There are many people alive today who became committed Christians because of his ministry, and I am one of them. He was an ordinary human being with weaknesses just like anyone else, but the Holy Spirit filled him and used him to bless others, and he became a good shepherd.

Today I want you to ask yourself “What’s stopping me from hearing God’s call?” Maybe you feel like an outsider. Maybe you think “I’m no leader”. Maybe you don’t think of yourself as a particularly impressive looking person.

But in the end, none of that matters. God doesn’t look on outward appearances: God looks on the heart. God gives the gift of his Spirit to people just like you and me, so that we can do things we never thought we’d ever be able to do. Most of all, God gives us his Spirit to make us like his Son Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd is always looking for willing sheepdogs to join his team, bringing his love and compassion to the world. Little David the shepherd boy became part of that team. You can be part of that team too. So don’t let a sense of fear or inadequacy hold you back. When you sense God calling you to some new thing, check it out with others to make sure you’re hearing it right, and then step forward in faith and say “Here am I, Lord; send me!”

‘Do Unto Others’, Mr. Trump


Warning: rant ahead!

Historians know that the beginning of WW1 took the form of a series of baby steps over a period of several weeks. The end result was not inevitable; indeed, the various participants had been to the brink before. All it needed was for someone to step back and say, ‘Look, we can see where this is going; is this really what we want?’

I’m not suggesting that Canada and the United States are going to go to war with each other. But a trade war could be devastating, and our countries are old friends. Many, many people in the Canadian government have tried to get the Trump administration to face facts. How is it to their advantage if they devastate the Canadian auto industry? After a few more years of this kind of thing, what happens the next time the U.S. gets attacked by terrorists and needs alternative landing sites for its aircraft? How is it to the advantage of the U.S. to be isolated on the world stage, with Vladimir Putin as its only friend.

Mr. Trump claims to be a Christian (although I have a hard time seeing any evidence at all of that), and many of his supporters are vociferous in making that claim too. Well, Jesus taught us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. He didn’t teach us to make ourselves great again; he taught us to look out for each other. He said ‘Whoever wants to be greatest of all must be the servant of all’. ‘My country first, no matter what it does to the countries around me’ can’t be supported by a single line of the New Testament. And especially when the country using that slogan is already the most prosperous country in the world, with the economic clout to force its will on others (as it is now trying to do on its oldest and friendliest neighbour).

Do you remember the great commandment, Mr. Trump? Surely your Bible knowledge extends that far. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. That’s meant to apply to every part of life. Jesus isn’t just Lord of our personal lives; he’s Lord of our political lives too. Maybe, Mr. Trump, you need to start thinking about what it would be like to be on the receiving end of the suffering you are already inflicting on others. And maybe you need to remember that the God of the Bible has an unbroken record of being on the side of the underdog. You should think about that next time you say ‘God bless America’. God has already told you the conditions on which he will bless America (or any other nation). You’ll find them in Isaiah 58.

‘He has gone out of his mind’ (a sermon on Mark 3:20-35)

I have a high school friend who became a Christian when he was sixteen, mainly through the witness of a group of young people who went to our church at the time. He had not been raised in a Christian family and as far as I know he’s still the only churchgoing Christian among his siblings.

My friend has always been attracted to the idea of living a simple life, uncluttered by lots of possessions, and even today, as a married man with young adult children, he still tries to practice that. His sister in law once gave him a scolding about it; she said “Your brother and I can’t figure you out. You’ve got a good job and you make enough money to live well, but you live in a tiny little house, you don’t own a car, and your best suit came second hand from the Oxfam shop. We can’t understand this; is it something to do with your religion?”

In our gospel reading for today Mark tells us that my friend wasn’t alone: people had a hard time figuring Jesus out too!

Mark has a little literary device he uses to draw attention to a theme; he tells a story within a story. He starts story number one, then pauses half way through and tells story number two. At the end, he finishes story number one. The idea is to highlight the theme the two stories have in common.

That’s what happens in this reading. In story number one Jesus has returned home and he’s immediately swamped by a crowd of people. We can read between the lines that they’ve come looking for healing, and at least some of them appear to have unclean spirits in them. Jesus’ family hear about all the things he’s doing, and they immediately decide it’s time to give him a good talking-to. So, Mark says, ‘they went out to restrain him, for people were saying “He has gone out of his mind”’ (Mark 3:21). Incidentally, where our NRSV translation has ‘for people were saying…’, the original language just has ‘for theywere saying’, and most translations take that to be referring to Jesus’ family members. In other words, they looked at all the things Jesus was saying and doing, and they came to the conclusion that he was crazy.

That’s where Mark leaves story number one. Then he inserts story number two: some of the scribes who’ve come down from Jerusalem accuse Jesus of being worse than crazy: the reason he can drive out the evil spirits is because he’s in league with their leader! Jesus and Beelzebul (another name for Satan) have joined forces! But Jesus replies forcefully to this accusation: it doesn’t make sense! Why would Satan join an alliance to defeat Satan! Jesus is waging war against Satan’s soldiers; why would Satan help him do that? No – if you’ve broken into the strong man’s house and plundered it, that must mean that you’ve already tied up the strong man! So if Jesus is plundering Satan’s house, what does that mean?

Jesus goes on to give them a stern warning: it’s a serious thing to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. To see the Holy Spirit at work through Jesus and to be so spiritually blind that you see it as the work of pure evil rather than pure love – well, a person as blind as that has probably lost the ability to admit that they’re wrong and ask for forgiveness. That’s likely what Jesus means when he says a person who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven. It’s not that God doesn’t want to forgive; it’s that they have wilfully closed themselves off to that possibility.

So ends story number two, and then Jesus comes back to story number one. Jesus’ mother and brothers arrive, and the house is so full of people needing help that they have to send a messenger in to talk to him. “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you” (32). And then Jesus gives a startling reply. He looks around at the crowd and says “Who are my mother and brothers?…Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (33-35).

So a dividing line has formed. On the one hand we see the scribes and Pharisees and the religious establishment from Jerusalem; that’s no surprise. But now – to our amazement – we see that Jesus’ immediate family appear to have joined them, although their motives are different. The scribes say Jesus needs to stop what he’s doing because he’s working with the devil. His family say he needs to stop what he’s doing because he’s going crazy; he needs to come home with them and get well again, and be the nice, inoffensive religious man he used to be.

But on the other side of the line there’s a different group. These are the people who have heard Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand and have believed him. They’ve become his followers. Many of them have been healed by him. And we know from other places in the gospels that they aren’t just respectable Jews. There are tax collectors, prostitutes, maybe even people who work for the Romans. There are women and men. But what unites them is a deep desire to do the will of God, and a belief that Jesus is showing them how to do that, because God is with him. This belief has become the deepest conviction of their hearts. And because it’s their deepest conviction, they form a new set of family relationships with others who share that conviction. And these relationships quickly become deeper than anything they’ve experienced before, even in their blood families.

And the same thing happens today. People fall in love with Jesus; they hear his story and read his words and they’re captivated by his vision of God and God’s kingdom. And as long as it’s just a belief, that’s fine. But then they start practisingit! They start giving generously to the poor and needy, and even agitating for a better deal for them. They start loving their enemies and praying for those who hate them, instead of joining the warmongers who traffic in fear and hate. They start treating all people equally, whatever their race or level of prosperity or political opinions or sexual orientation. They take the side of the weak and the defenceless and the marginalized. In other words, they seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And they can’t shut up about Jesus; they’ve heard the voice of God speaking to them through him, and they’re convinced that they’ve met God through him, and they long for others to have the same experience.

So their friends and family members start getting embarrassed around them. “Religious opinions are fine, but why do you have to be so intense about them?” “You were a lot more fun before you got so holy!” “Do you realize how crazy you sound sometimes?”

There’s hurt on both sides of this story. Family and friends feel like they’re being left behind. You used to be with them all the time, sharing their opinions and values. Now something new has come into your life and it’s stealing you away from them. They feel hurt and betrayed; what is this evil thing that’s come into your life and separated you from them?

But the new disciple feels hurt too. “Can’t you see how much this means to me? It’s not that I don’t love you, but I finally feel like I’ve found what I was created for, and I really can’t understand how you can’t see it too! Why can’t you understand how much sense Jesus makes? If we all followed him we’d have justice and peace around the world tomorrow! You call this ‘crazy’, but to me it makes more sense than anything else I’ve heard in my life”.

Why this difference? Well, let’s focus on the accusation Jesus’ family members make against him: “He has gone out of his mind” (v.21).

Sometimes this accusation is true. There are many people who suffer from genuine mental illnesses. They’re delusional about the world and about themselves. They see evils and dangers where there are no evils and dangers. They believe things about themselves that are not true. There are all kinds of clinical and psychological reasons for this, and I’m certainly not qualified to go into them here today.

But what I want to point out is that when most people say to someone “You’re out of your mind!” that’s not what they’re talking about. They haven’t sat down and done a clinical diagnosis of the other person’s mental state. It’s a lot more likely that they’ve gotten frustrated because they just can’t persuade the other person to see things the way they do. “You voted for Justin Trudeau (or Stephen Harper)! Are you out of your mind?”

What’s happening when the accusation is made in this way is that two people have completely different ways of looking at reality. We can see this with Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed that the Messiah was going to come to set God’s people free, but God wouldn’t send him until all Israel obeyed the Law of Moses and all the traditional interpretations of that Law. God is a God of Law, and when we all keep his Law scrupulously, he will reward us by sending the Messiah. And because the Pharisees believed this, they did everything in their power to encourage people to obey every little detail of the Law of Moses and their interpretations of it. They were doing it for the good of Israel, you see!

But Jesus had a completely different way of looking at reality. He believed that God is a God of grace who pours out his blessings on all people. God was not going to wait until all Israel obeyed the Law perfectly; God had already sent the Messiah, and Jesus was he! And because God is fundamentally a God of love and mercy, the heart of the Law is love and mercy. So Jesus taught people that if they loved God with all their heart and loved their neighbour as themselves – their brother or sister, or the needy person on the road, or the enemy who was trying to kill them – they were at the centre of God’s will for them.

This certainly came across as crazy to a lot of people. It still comes across as crazy to us today. “What do you mean, I’m supposed to love my enemies? Do you know what that S.O.B. did to me? Do you know how badly he hurt me? How can you possibly expect me to forgive and love him? And by the way, have you seen what the Islamic terrorists are doing to people? And you think we should just go and put flowers in their rifles? What sort of a crazy hippy are you, anyway?”

And what about Jesus’ attitude toward possessions. “Don’t store up for yourself treasures on earth”. How can I possibly live by that? Everyone around me has five or six computers and two cars and a house that cost them an arm and a leg, and if they can afford a holiday RV or a time share they go for it. Now you’re asking me to give up that dream and live a simple life? How can that possibly make sense? And you want me to give to the poor instead? Don’t you know how much those charities waste money?”

It’s not hard for us to find examples of what looks like irrational behaviour in the teaching of Jesus. And so we tone it down and make it more rational. “We’re not supposed to take him literally. He’s not really against us living comfortably. He doesn’t really want us to turn the other cheek – that was just a figure of speech. He’s not really in favour of loving the Romans – or the Russians – or whoever the latest evil people are. You know Jesus: he likes to say provocative things, but when you tone it down a bit he’s just a standard religious teacher who wants us all to be nice to each other, but in case not everyone agrees, we should hang on to our big bank balance and our firearms too”.

The problem is, that approach has never changed the world. It’s never brought us closer to the Kingdom of God. The world has never been changed by sane, moderate-sounding Christians whose message can be boiled down to ‘Let me suggest that we might all like to be a little bit nicer to one another, and then go to heaven when we die”. No: the world was changed by a Martin Luther King, who put his life on the line because he had a dream. The world was changed by a William Wilberforce, who said slavery should be abolished even if it brought the British empire to economic ruin, because it was a moral offence against the God who created all people in his image. The world was changed by a Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus because she believed in justice for black people. The world was changed by Jesus, who said and did the things he believed God was calling him to, even when people said he was out of his mind. And guess what: no one remembers the names of those scribes and Pharisees today, but around the world millions of people claim to be followers of Jesus!

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus refers to this incident; he says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” (Matthew 10:24-25).

In other words, if you want to be a follower of Jesus, you have to get over your addiction to the approval of others. People who don’t believe in Jesus’ vision are not going to be able to understand why you believe in it and work for it. But this is where the old fashioned virtues of courage and persistence come in. William Wilberforce and his friends fought for two decades to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Twelve times during those years they introduced a bill on the floor of the House of Commons, and eleven times it was defeated. British heroes spoke against it. Admiral Nelson, the famous naval hero, wrote this: ‘I was bred in the good old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West Indian possessions, and neither in the field nor the Senate shall their just rights be infringed, while I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies’.

What was that ‘damnable doctrine’? It was the idea that slavery was immoral and an offence against the God who created all human beings in his image. If that doctrine seems obvious to us today, it was because Christians like Wilberforce were not afraid to have people say “He’s gone out of his mind”. They weren’t prepared to be moderate; they were willing to be radical. They followed where Jesus was leading them, and they changed the world because of it.

Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v.35). That sounds like the family I want to be in. How about you?

‘The Gift of Sabbath Rest’ (a sermon on Mark 2.23 – 3.6)

C.S. Lewis once said that there’s nothing that gives you a more deceptively good conscience than keeping rules, even if there’s been a total absence of all real love and faith in your life.

I think this is absolutely true. A few years ago, Marci and I were attending a course at Regent College in Vancouver with one of the world’s great New Testament scholars, Gordon Fee. Gordon is a Pentecostal, but he was scathing about the rules-based religion he was raised in. “We knew the rules”, he said; “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t swear, don’t dance, don’t play cards”. And then he paused, and said forcefully, “A fence-post could be a good Christian by that standard!” As Lewis says, merely obeying rules about what you’re not supposed to do is not enough – it needs to be based on real love and faith.

Nevertheless, questions about the rules continue to pop up all the time in the world of religious faith. In the time of Jesus some of those rules clustered around the question of what it meant to keep the Sabbath Day holy, and I think that’s still a vital issue for us to consider.

Let me give you a bit of background. In the Hebrew scriptures the Sabbath was originally meant by God as a gift for his people. When the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, there was no sabbath rest for them. They were building Pharaoh’s cities, and the job needed to get done. When Moses came and challenged Pharaoh to let his people go, Pharaoh’s response was to get even more strict with the slaves. Now they wouldn’t be given any more straw to make the bricks they used; they had to go find their own, but they were still required to produce the same number of bricks per day. So they had to work longer and longer hours, seven days a week, and we can imagine that many of them died under the harsh treatment of their taskmasters.

In that context, the sabbath commandment comes as a gift to the newly-freed slaves:
‘Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy as the LORD your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work – you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave…or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day’ (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

‘Remember that you were a slave in Egypt’. In other words, you Israelites can remember what it was like to be treated as an economic machine, with never a moment to call your own. Now you’re going to be delivered from that, because it wasn’t God’s creation intention for human beings to work like that. We need rest, and sleep. We need to form community and share love. We need to worship the one who made us. And so the Israelites weren’t just given permission to take a day off: they were commanded to do so. One day in seven they were to refrain from economic activity, so that they could rest and worship God.

But human beings being what we are, people wanted more guidance about exactly how to do that. So we’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath Day; well, what exactly is work? If we cook a meal, is that work? If we light a fire? If we clean the house? Are we allowed to go for a walk, and if so, how far? How many miles from home can we go, and by the way, what is ‘home’? If I go two miles the day before the Sabbath and dump a pile of my clothes at the crossroads, does that constitute an extension of ‘home’, and can I start counting the miles from there?

And so Jewish teachers, with the best of intentions, started addressing these questions. They knew people needed help with the practicalities, and so they gave it. By the time of Jesus, there were thirty-seven different categories of work that were specifically forbidden on the Sabbath Day, and many people took these human traditions as if they were themselves the commands of God – which they weren’t. By the time of Jesus many Jewish people had exchanged the tyranny of the Pharaoh for the tyranny of the Pharisee. Keeping the Sabbath had been intended to ease their burdens, but their traditions had had the opposite effect.

Jesus was aware of this, and he was constantly criticized by religious leaders for being too lax about keeping the Sabbath. We see this in our gospel reading for today, where Mark has brought together two stories about Sabbath observance.

In the first story Jesus and his disciples are wandering through some grain fields on the Sabbath day. The disciples start breaking off some heads of grain, rolling them in their hands to soften them up, and then eating them. All pretty harmless, but the Pharisees interpret this as ‘harvesting’ – ‘Look, they’re breaking the Law, harvesting grain on the Sabbath!’ So they confront Jesus with this: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (2:24).

In response Jesus reminds them of an Old Testament story. David is on the run from King Saul, and he comes to the sanctuary. He’s desperately hungry, and so he asks the high priest if he has any food. The priest replies that the only food he’s got is the sacred bread, which is baked fresh every day, placed in the presence of the Lord before the altar, and then taken away at the end of the day. Only the priests are allowed to eat it, but the high priest makes an exception in David’s case. And so the precedent is set, by no less a person that King David himself: the law can be broken in cases of human need. And then Jesus goes on to establish a principle about keeping the Sabbath: he says, “the sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath’ (vv.27-28).

The second story is a sabbath healing story. Jesus goes into a synagogue and a man is there with a withered hand. The man doesn’t ask for a healing and Jesus could have ignored him, but obviously Jesus wanted to make a point. So he pointedly calls the man to stand out in front of everyone, and then he asks the people a question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (v.4). They don’t reply, and Mark says ‘He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart…’ (v.5). So he heals the man then and there. The last thing we read is that the Pharisees, who have been criticizing Jesus for using the sabbath wrongly, then proceed to use the sabbath to plot with the followers of King Herod to murder Jesus!

How do we apply this teaching to our lives today in 2018? In the time of Jesus it was the tyranny of the Pharisees that was burdening the people. There were so many laws to remember about what you could and couldn’t do on the sabbath, and someone was always at your elbow watching you, ready to criticize if you broke one of them! There have been times in Christian history – in Puritan England or Calvinist Scotland, for instance – when that strict Sabbatarian spirit has been strong, and people have felt the Sabbath Day to be a burden and not a blessing.

But that’s not our story in Canada today. We’ve largely cast off any restrictions on what we do on the Lord’s Day. We’ve cast off the tyranny of the Pharisees and run right back into the tender arms of Pharaoh and his slave-drivers! Nowadays it’s the pressure of work, work, work – produce, produce, produce – that so many of us feel. According to statistics, our bosses are richer than they’ve ever been, but they still kick up a big fuss at any demand to raise wages. People have to work longer and longer hours just to keep their heads above water. We’ve all got our computers and cell phones, and more and more employers are expecting their workers to be available round the clock. Take the sabbath off? We have a hard enough time taking an evening off! That little electronic device in our pockets is keeping us securely tethered to Pharaoh and his demands.

So how do we recover the blessing of the Sabbath command – that was given to us for our benefit – without going so far that we fall into the opposite extreme of the tyranny of the Pharisees? Let me suggest three things from the words of Jesus in this passage.

First, let’s recover the sense of the Sabbath as a gift from God. Jesus says, ‘the sabbath was made for humankind’ (v.27). God did not design us to spend our entire lives in economic activity. He gave us bodies that need a cycle of work and rest. We need sleep. We’re social creatures, with families and friendships that need nurture. We’re created beings, designed to live in relationship with our Creator. The sabbath is meant to carve out a space for us to do that.

Let’s recognize a difficulty, though. The sabbath commandment was given in the context of an entire society of God’s people. All Israel acknowledged God and the Law God had given to Moses, so a whole society could observe the sabbath day. That’s not the case today. Most of our contemporaries are not Christian and see no reason why they should observe a Christian holy day. Many of our employers feel the same way too – they want their businesses to be open on Sunday.

So it may not always be possible for us to observe Sunday as our sabbath. No worries – Sunday isn’t the original sabbath, anyway! The Old Testament sabbath was Saturday. The first Christians began observing Sunday as a special day because of Jesus’ resurrection, but for most of them in those early days it wasn’t a day off work; they met for the Eucharist before sunrise, and then went to work. And I expect in the next few years we’ll be getting even more creative about holding services at times around the edges of the working day.

So applying this command today isn’t about how we respond to the obligation some of us may have from time to time to work on Sunday. It’s about the times we do have a choice. Working 24/7 isn’t how God designed us. He commanded us to take one day off in seven, completely free from economic activity, to rest and worship. This is not an option; it’s one of his commands. And it’s meant to be a blessing, not a burden. So why would we refuse that gift?

The second principle we see in the passage is that ‘the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath’ (v.28). So if we want guidance as to how to apply the command to keep a holy sabbath, Jesus is the one we can turn to. And one thing we know for sure about Jesus is that on the sabbath he went to worship with his people in the synagogue. Luke 4:16 says, ‘When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom’. Every available indication is that Jesus continued this practice his whole life long. So did his followers after his ascension; the Jewish Christians continued to attend synagogue on Saturdays, and they also established their own weekly pattern of celebrating the Lord’s Supper on the morning after the Sabbath – Sunday, the Lord’s Day.

In the days of the early church a very high premium was put on attendance at the weekly Eucharist. Christians saw this weekly sharing in the Lord’s Body and Blood as a lifeline. There are stories from the days when the church was a persecuted minority of how Christians would even sneak into jails to take the consecrated bread to their sisters and brothers who had been imprisoned there – risking their own lives and freedoms. That was how important they thought it was!

Nowadays that isn’t always the case. Many of us take the opportunity to get away on weekends, especially now when the weather turns nice. Nothing wrong with this, of course – but do we go to church while we’re away? Think of the benefits of this! We make contact with new communities of Christians. We receive the sacrament to strengthen us for the week ahead. We teach our kids that God is still important to us; he doesn’t take a holiday from us, so we don’t take a holiday from him. We get to hear a different voice in the pulpit from time to time. And our presence in the worshipping community is a witness to the fact that Christ comes first in our lives, even when we’re on holiday.

We can recover the sense of the sabbath as a gift. We can remember that Jesus is Lord of the sabbath and gives us guidance about how we use it – especially when it comes to joining with God’s people for worship. Finally, we can use the sabbath as a day for doing good. Jesus asks the rhetorical question, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (3.4). The answer is obvious – the sabbath is a day to do good and to save life.

So a day of rest is not necessarily a day to do nothing. We live busy lives and our weekdays are often frantic; we don’t often have time to do the good deeds we’d like to do – visiting a lonely relative, helping out a neighbour who needs some yard work done, visiting sick people in hospital and so on. I think of our team that goes to the Bissell Centre once a year to help serve a meal there to the folks at the Inner City Pastoral Ministry. I know of some churches – not usually Anglican ones, it has to be said – who cancel their regular Sunday service once a month and get involved in some sort of mission or outreach project together. These are all good ways of keeping a holy sabbath.

One more thing: I think it could be good to mark the beginning and end of our sabbath day in some way. In the Jewish tradition a day begins at sundown the night before, so the first meal of sabbath is actually Friday night. I’ve read of Jewish people expressing their sense of joy in the traditional observances at that meal – the lighting of the traditional sabbath candles, the special prayers that are said for the beginning of the sabbath, and so on. Customs like that can be very helpful and we might want to think of how we can develop some for ourselves. I know some Christians who observe the sabbath as a day free from electronic devices, which so often are Pharaoh’s tool to bind us to his service. A ceremonial turning off of your cell phone might be a very good way to start a sabbath day, don’t you think?!

So, to sum up: a sabbath day is a gift from God. It was given as a blessing for us, to bring us refreshment, rest, and reconnection with God and the people we love. It’s a day to worship, to put God at the centre of our lives, whether we’re at home or away. It’s a day to follow Jesus in living lives of love for others and doing what we can to be a blessing to them.

Nowadays a lot of people are trying to find ways to live a more balanced and healthy life. In that quest, I think the gift of sabbath might just be one of the best things Jews and Christians have to offer. But it has to start with living it ourselves. This is not about asking Canada to make laws about it. It’s about being willing to embrace it in our own lives and making it attractive to others. I know I’ve still got a long way to go on that journey, but I hope you’ll join me in it.