Ask Andrew: How Do We Come to Terms with the Bloody Hands of the Church?

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for Knox folks to ask for their spiritual or religious questions to be addressed in a sermon.

Ask Andrew:

How Do We Come to Terms with the Bloody Hands of the Church?

How do we come to terms with the fact that the Christian church as an institution has hurt and even killed so many people? How can we keep supporting an institution like that?”

The writer of this question had been reading the book Sapiens in which Yuval Noah Harari noted that despite Christianity’s oft-repeated memories of Roman persecutions, like throwing Christians to lions, in actual fact history demonstrates that Christians have killed many, many more people than the Romans martyred of ours.

Even when we have been aware of some of this history, we have found ways to distance ourselves from it:

“I didn’t do that; I wasn’t even there” is common;

Witch burning, crusades, bloody wars between denominations are centuries ago, nothing to do with us, right?;

Well, except for the “troubles” between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland that still threaten to flare up again, but that’s over in Europe, right?;

So we Canadians can distance ourselves, right?;

It’s not like violence is ever directed towards religious minorities over here, right?

But then there are the Residential Schools. Our own church was part of a deadly system which kept some of those schools going until the 1990s. It’s tempting to keep trying to distance ourselves: “My congregation didn’t know! Someone in Toronto made those decisions”.

Narrowing the circle to distance ourselves doesn’t really work because it is fundamentally dishonest. What we really want to say is: “I’m a good person! I would never do those things! You can’t paint me with that horrible brush!”

But that’s the issue, isn’t it? As long as we are part of an institution that has done bad things, we have to acknowledge those bad things and sort out why we still support this flawed institution.

Since the 1970s, I remember “religion” being denounced as a source of conflict, often violence, for so long that some think that humans should abandon all religion as a destructive force.

The people who have stuck with their faiths have argued that approach is too extreme: “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.

Still, more and more people are abandoning organized religion. There is a whole adult generation alive today that surveys demonstrate simply don’t trust institutions of any sort: church, government, police, schools. They might be willing to participate in some activities, but they are very reluctant to officially join. They are not necessarily hostile, rather they are skeptical.

We should be trying to address that skepticism with honesty about our own struggles. The church is a human organization and subject to human failings.

Two readings today address situations in the bible where there is obvious corruption in the religious institution. In our 1 Samuel reading the sons of the high priest are cynically abusing their priestly authority. Not only are they stealing the tastiest bits of the offerings for themselves [understand: they were guaranteed a portion already but God was supposed to get the best bits], they were also forcing some of the attractive women who came to make sacrifices to have sex with them. This not only broke many of the laws of Moses but also resembled the practices of Canaanite fertility cults, like Ba’al worship.

The solution in that story was that God would curse them: they would lose their positions and even their lives. Samuel’s main job was to denounce them, to make public their abuse of power and position, to remind everyone that what the priests were doing was against what their beliefs represented.

Jesus did his own version of publicly denouncing religious corruption. The money-changers and sacrifice sellers he displaced had paid the priests for their booth spots in the temple. Obviously it made it hard to worship in an atmosphere that felt like a street market, but the temple’s restoration project had been huge and thirty years later the mortgage still had to be serviced. If you came in and made a donation an official promoter would announce in a loud voice just how much you had donated as a way of encouraging generosity.

That’s why Jesus taught us to be private about our generosity: the process had become a source of shame and abuse in the religious institution of his day.

Neither Jesus nor Samuel advocated giving up on their religion. Their focus was on cleaning things up, on reminding people of the difference between the baby and the bathwater.

That is the core message: God has given us something good here, with values that are worth supporting, with principles that can transform the world in really positive ways. Let’s not let corruption spoil it for everyone. Let’s reclaim the good and save it from the bad.

The author of Sapiens is not actually taking an anti-religious position. He makes the point that some of the greatest advances of human society happen when people have to struggle with the gap between their principles and their history.

In other words: it is in times like our own, when we look at religious violence and the history of residential schools and the other appalling things that happen when people sell out their principles for power and position; it is in times when we confront these issues that we have the chance to make real progress.

Yes, we are becoming witness to shocking things that make us feel sick as the truth is revealed. If we can get past the temptation to pretend we’re not involved perhaps our revulsion can give us motivation to make sure that things improve.

Yes, institutions carry inherent risks. People can rise to positions of power and then abuse them, if we let them. But institutions can also carry the testimony of time, the faith stories of generations of people who have learned some hard lessons over history and who have passed on their wisdom to us.

Institutions will change. The priests of Samuel’s day were killed and eventually replaced. The temple of Jesus’ day and its administration was destroyed forty years later. It is still in ruins 2000 years later and both Judaism and Christianity had to adapt to life without it.

I cannot predict whether the Christian church in Canada will still exist in 40 years. I suspect that will depend on the choices we make now. Today, when someone asks if I would call myself a Christian I say “yes” and then I talk about what “Christian” means, so that I don’t get identified with those people who preach intolerance and hatred in the name of God. We can no longer assume that anyone knows what we stand for. Our reputation has been badly damaged and we have to put in the work necessary to regain the respect we have squandered.

I believe that the principles and teachings of Jesus are worth saving and sharing. They point us towards the love of God and neighbour. As long as we can bring our institutions back to those principles, so the structure never again crushes the people it is supposed to serve, then it is worth the effort it takes to acknowledge our flaws and bloody history and take the lessons of our past and the principles passed down to us from Jesus to create a future that will benefit everyone. If people can see that we are trying to make things right, to make things better, then maybe, just maybe they will consider joining us on the journey. Amen.


Garden and Wilderness

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

This sermon was originally for the service to bless Gardens and Bicycles at Knox.

Garden and Wilderness

Scriptures: Genesis 1:28-31Genesis 3:17-19

The story of the Garden of Eden is very familiar but our modern understanding of the age of the earth and evolution of species had led us to turn it into a children’s story, something that adults mostly ignore or maybe consider cute, or harmless.

The story of paradise contains many rich images that have influenced us in ways we don’t think about, ways we take for granted.

The whole idea is that Eden was God’s garden, a place where God could walk and enjoy the cool shade and the wonderful scents and tastes of nature. Humans were created as company, innocent creatures, without knowledge of good and evil and they were given the job of gardener, to tend Eden and care for it.

Eden was set up as a vegetarian paradise where every creature was given the plants for food. Bloodshed of any sort was not expected. It was like that song from Porgy and Bess: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy”. There was perpetual good weather. The heavy lifting of creating the garden has been done and the humans have the job of looking after it for God.

The contrast when the humans are cast out of the garden is striking: they are cast into the wilderness; they have to cover themselves, partly for modesty and partly because of the thorns, because of the heavy labour needed to convert the wilderness into another garden, a farm, ideally a place of beauty and refuge safe from the suddenly hungry predators but still requiring a lot more work.

It’s remarkable that this is the image of paradise embraced by the Hebrew people because they were not a settled people for much of their history. They self-identify by saying “A wandering Aramean was my father”.

If you read through Genesis, you see the truth of this. Until the time of slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people were nomadic. Their vision of paradise was settled land, ploughed fields, neatly planted orchards. There were sheep and goats, yes, but hopefully you don’t have to go too far from home to find grazing and water for them. They wanted to be settlers, wanted to tame the land.

And at the Exodus and invasion of Canaan they got their wish. They conquered an already settled land and they had to acknowledge in their worship that the first harvest they collected was the result of Canaanite hands. Like Eden, they were walking into a garden planted by someone else and even if God didn’t plant it personally, they still considered it a gift from God.

As nomads, the Hebrews were people on the margins. Their experience of the wilderness was tough. It’s hard to find water in the wilderness, to find good plants for your animals to eat. It takes a lot of wandering. If it was easy to live off that land, someone would have settled it already and would defend the land against these wandering shepherds.

It’s an ancient story going well back past the stories of the ranchers in the wild west hating the farmers who put up fences. It goes well past the European invasion of North America and the settling of nomadic lands and the taking of already settled lands by force. Different nations here had different cultures and some had farms that Europeans could easily recognize. The Wendat (Huron) were known for that: living around the great lakes, they were displaced to Eastern Quebec.

There are versions of this all through history including every continent (except Antarctica) and continuing to this day as the nomadic Masai cattle herders come into increasing conflict with the farmers who have settled their former grazing lands and as climate change forces them to find new pastures.

It strikes me as important to identify the biases we have cooked into our own origin stories and the assumptions we still make. We are starting to learn how important wilderness areas are and that they need to be preserved for a whole host of reasons just to keep our planet healthy.

There’s a story about the city person who visited a farm in the interior of British Columbia. The farmer was a child when his parents first settled that land and the visitor from the city was waxing rhapsodic over the lush fields and delicious fruit growing in the orchards. “Isn’t it wonderful what nature can do?” he asked, to which the farmer replied: “You should’ve seen it when nature was running it alone!”.

Farm = good; wilderness = bad: it’s a bias that has its roots in scripture and even before that, in our early struggle to survive.

We have new struggles now. We are not just a clever kind of ape, learning that cultivation can give us a steady food supply. We are the dominant species of the earth and it seems like we are intent on developing every green space we have.

Humans need to experience the touch and smell of the soil. We need to have a personal understanding of how things grow, of the rhythm of the seasons and what it means for food to be “in season”… or not. We need to understand that pollinators are bugs and that they are good and that some kinds of plants help other kinds of plants.

Gardens are our bridge from the cities we have built back to Eden: that wonderful image of a beautiful place where divinity and humanity can walk together and enjoy the beauty of living, growing things; where people can be active participants in God’s ongoing project of creation, giving new life to a world that has gone out of balance: where we have a hard time valuing any kind of life that doesn’t lead to profit or convenience.

We are here to bless our gardens and our bicycles too. Bikes can carry us to places of growth and life without burning fossil fuels and choking out anything that needs air to survive. We are here to bless these things but we should recognize them for what they are: they are blessings by their very nature and our involvement with them blesses us and brings us closer to God’s world.

Let us consider the blessing we have in the wilderness too. It’s not just a place of thorns and hard-scrabble soil that needs to conquered and settled but a place where bears can wander – hopefully without being shot by police or t-boned by overly-enthusiastic off-road cyclists – a place where bio-diversity can thrive and endangered species can be preserved. It’s a place where the uncultivated, unsettled parts of God’s garden can exist with all of their wonder and complexity and without too much human interference.

This Earth really is a kind of Eden, a paradise that feeds and sustains us. We can do things to live with a gentle foot-print: travelling with as little harm and pollution as possible at a speed that allows us to experience the living world; participating in the work of creation itself through planting, tending and harvesting gardens without poisons and in cooperation with natural pollinators.

These things that reduce our footprint also bring us into closer contact with the hand of God, who made this Earth, this Eden, and declared it very good, and who wants us to love it and to share the joy that God experiences walking in this garden.


Ask Andrew: What’s With the Blue-Eyed Jesus?

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for Knox folks to ask for their spiritual or religious questions to be addressed in a sermon.

Ask Andrew:

What’s With the Blue-Eyed Jesus?

Does Jesus have blue eyes and fair skin in all Christian churches?

When did Jesus first appear with Northern European complexions?

Scriptures: Revelations 7:9-10Acts 8:26-40

I would like to start this with the question: Why does anyone paint a picture of Jesus at all?

There are no clues about how Jesus looked from his own lifetime. Jesus took no selfies. So, every portrayal is a work of imagination. The artist is making an artistic statement of some sort. Each picture tells a story about Jesus and represents what the artist or their sponsor believed.

My favourite description of Jesus came from the author Parke Godwin who said in his 1988 novel Waiting for the Galactic Bus, that Jesus looked like an Arab taxi driver.

More recently, people have used Computer Generated Imaging to produce a face of Jesus that would fit a Mediterranean Jewish man: brown eyes, black, curly hair, dark skin. Not far off the Arab taxi driver image, really.

Most people paint Jesus to tell a story, not for historical accuracy, and the oldest Christian story is that Jesus is like us. That’s the theological point most important to early Christians. Jesus bridged the gap between humanity and divinity, between people and God.

Early Christians wanted to reassure others that God’s love is universal. As it is expressed in our Revelations reading, countless people were welcomed from every land and nation. That was the message for centuries, even after religious symbolism added details that only trained people could decipher,

One of the earliest portrayals of Jesus would have happened in Ethiopia when the Ethiopian eunuch went home and established the oldest Christian community outside of the Roman Empire. That painting, (or mosaic, or icon or whatever) would have shown Jesus with Ethiopian features, saying: “See, Jesus was like us. He understands our lives. We can approach God through Jesus.”

Artists who painted Jesus used local models, sometimes wearing familiar local clothing. You could say a lot if you chose to paint Jesus in the clothes of a rich person or a street person.

The blue-eyed Jesus paintings would have started about 1000 years ago when missionaries took their lives into their hands and reached out to the Germanic and Scandinavian nations. Those missionaries, who were probably small and dark, would have wanted to convince the tall, blue-eyed people that Jesus loved and understood them too.

It was a mix of theology and marketing, and the goal was both honest and loving: to show people that Jesus was worth trusting; to give people a way of imagining Jesus that fit their lives, that didn’t have history and geography and genetics as obstacles.

The problem came when various European countries, who had all benefited from the industrial revolution, decided that they were civilized and that other lands were savage. (I know that “savage” is an offensive word today, and I am using it deliberately to underscore the attitudes that existed not that many decades ago).

When they went to other lands, it wasn’t to tell people that Jesus could empathize with their lives, it was to tell people that Jesus was like the Europeans and that the Europeans were coming as white saviours (and empire builders).

Europeans had confused culture with religion. How could Jesus really love people who dressed like that (or worse, ran around naked)?

In Europe for centuries paleness had been equated with privilege. The rulers tended to be whiter than the poor folks because peasants were tanned by the sun while the rich folk could stay in the shade and be pale. It even got into tales of King Arthur: When you “rescue a maiden fair,” she’s fair-skinned because she’s a princess; she’s rich and has never worked in the sun in her life.

By the time of the great European empires, the ruling classes were convinced that their own poor, who were darker because of tanning and dirt, were in desperate need of salvation and were more or less savages themselves. The whole society, rich and poor alike, classified the people of the places they were invading as even more savage.

It does make it easier to take land and gold and beaver skins if you don’t consider the people you are taking it from really human, if you don’t consider the people you are kidnapping and forcing to labour for free forever, as really people. After all, real people have proper clothing; they know how to set a table properly, with all the different spoons in their rightful places. What kind of good Christian can’t set a proper table?

That’s why the lands that have the blue-eyed Jesus pictures are the places who have been colonized by blue-eyed people.

One dimension of this is that the church turned Biblical imagery, which addressed natural human fear of the night and comfort of the day, into a dichotomy of black and white; darkness vs. light, where white represents purity and black represents sin. Still today, across the world in former colonies, cosmetic companies make a fortune on skin-lightening products for all the people who are still convinced that whiter is better.

One sad reality is that a lot of the white supremacists of today are descended from the poor white Europeans who were abused by their rich, entitled “betters”. They used to have the comfort of thinking that while they might be inferior to the rich and powerful, they were superior to anyone darker than themselves. The principle of equality takes that small comfort away from them and they are reacting with violence. A good Marxist would take that fury and aim it at the ruling classes. That’s not happening.

Where Christians have approached a new culture with love and honesty, you can find art that shows Jesus as Asian, African, Slavic, Peruvian, short, tall, and every colour of skin that humans have. Some of it has existed from centuries before any blue-eyed Jesus paintings ever existed.

And new art is being created. I saw a wonderful one where Jesus is clearly first-nations: dressed in traditional plains garb and welcoming three indigenous children, two of whom are dressed in the clothing of a residential school.

And there are the crucifixes, one at Emmanuel College in Toronto, that portrays Jesus as a woman. People are often upset at the gender challenge. Some are upset that the women are portrayed as topless, (as crucifixes always are) or sometimes completely nude (as real crucifixions always were).

One artist, making this feminist Christian point, painted a crucified female Jesus who was so white and even blond that I started to wonder what artistic point was being made.

The blue-eyed Jesus image started off as a way to persuade my violent ancestors to embrace a more loving way. Then the church made the mistake of thinking that our culture was the same as our faith. So, the blue-eyed Jesus became a symbol of oppression, racism, ignorance and hatred.

This is one of the saddest realities of modern Christianity. We have to accept that it has had terrible consequences and we must work to understand how we should really present Jesus to other people. We still confuse our culture and our identity with our faith. The only way we can show someone different that God loves them is to express it in terms and images they understand.


(Stay tuned for my next Ask Andrew sermon in a couple of weeks: How do we reconcile being members of an institution with so much blood on its hands?)

The Impact of Faith

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

The Impact of Faith

Scripture: Hebrews 11:1-3, 23-28

The coronation of King Charles III has put the word “faith” into the news, keeping the title “Defender of the faith”, but putting it into the context of a multi-faith society as happened in the UK, or removing the title by an act of parliament in the belief that we are a secular society, as happened in Canada.

Used this way, “faith” can refer to a set of beliefs: a collection of doctrines we are called to believe. Many people treat the words “faith” and “belief” as interchangeable.

The letter of James shows us the futility of equating “faith” and “belief”:

You believe that God is one; you do well.

Even the demons believe—and shudder.”

Belief is an intellectual exercise; James equated the two and then went on to say: “Faith without works is dead.”

Clearly, faith is more than belief. So then, what is faith? What does it do? The letter to the Hebrews sums it up in this famous line:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,

the conviction of things not seen.

The same Greek words could be translated even more concretely:

Now faith is the reality of things hoped for,

the evidence of things not seen.

That’s really strong language. This is a powerful claim about the power of faith. Chapter 11 of Hebrews goes on to list Biblical people of faith and what became of them. It wasn’t always good. Some faced terrible trials and tribulations and died without personal reward, although their trust in God was still justified. Others were triumphant over impossible odds, seeing results they never could have accomplished on their own.

The message is that faith gave people power; sometimes to endure through incredibly hard times and sometimes to overcome against impossible odds.

Hebrews suggests that faith and works are inextricable – that you can’t have one without the other: What you really believe will work itself out in your actions; What you do will expose what you believe in your heart; and what you do will always demonstrate the reliability of what you say.

The author of Hebrews gives us examples of faith that demonstrate trust, beyond the idea of individualized, personal trust. In the passage we read about Moses, he was set adrift in the bullrushes through the faith of his family, as he was too young for faith himself.

There can be an inter-generational component to faith, which is why we baptize infants and children: because we believe that the effects of faith can go beyond any individual and become part of a wider community, whether that be a human family or a family of faith.

The part of all this that people get hung up on in this modern, skeptical, secular age is that bold claim I mentioned earlier: Now faith is the reality of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

It sounds mystical. And the examples we are given stretch our credulity, with Abraham and Sarah believing that a baby will come when they are in their 90s.

This becomes a stumbling block of faith, with some people asserting that we have to believe literally in such things to be good Christians and others who toss the stories out as irrelevant.

The problem with those extremes is that one demands that we suspend our intelligence and the other demands that we become so rational that we lose any sense of connection with something mystical or divine.

Faith is the reality of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.

There are a lot of things we hope for, a lot of unseen things that we bring into existence as acts of faith.

What is justice? What is mercy? What is love? Can we find these things on the periodic table of elements? Can we measure them with the metric system or take their temperature on the Kelvin scale?

Of course not. They are not concrete things. We hope for them, but they remain unseen until we bring them into existence.

It is faith that makes these unseen concepts into reality. It is faith that lifts us and our society above the material world of measurable things into a realm where so much more is possible.

Faith is an ability we humans have, and we can choose to develop it or not. We can put our faith in God, in each other, or in an idea and it will work because any faith we put into action is a powerful thing. It carries us along with it and channels our energies into creating something greater than ourselves.

Our Hebrews lesson is trying to demonstrate the specific value of faith in God; faith in the God who promised generation after generation that good things would happen, that the world would get better, that things like justice would be created and grow, that love would motivate more and more of life and that hope could carry us even when the results of our faith might not be seen until future generations were born.

That author was saying: “See, it worked! Even though those faithful people didn’t all live to see it themselves, God came through in the end.”

The thing about having faith in God is that God provides us with the ultimate overview. God brings the super-meta perspective that is not dependent on a four year election cycle or a five-year plan or a promise that we will have peace within our lifetime. Faith in God allows us a glimpse beyond seven generations, to eternity itself.

That perspective is something we need right now as we face challenges like climate change or world leaders that believe that might makes right. Those challenges took centuries to create and they will take generations to unravel.

To take on monumental problems like that, we need something bigger than ourselves. We need faith: the kind of faith that can help us endure terrible things; the kind of faith that drives us to act and motivates positive change; the kind of faith that overcomes cynicism and despair, that pushes aside selfishness and empowers us to share, even when we think we have nothing; the kind of faith that visualizes the good we want to see and energizes us to make it real.

God gives us the gift of faith and shows us which intangible things are worth bringing into existence. Faith is how God gives us the power to create a better world.


Protestant Saints and Pilgrimage?

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for Knox folks to ask for their spiritual or religious questions to be addressed in a sermon.

Ask Andrew 2 (2023):

Protestant Saints and Pilgrimage?

Scriptures: Acts7:55-602 Corinthians 9:1-5

What Protestant denominations have saints? 

Are they the same ones as the Catholics?

Are Protestant churches still bestowing sainthoods today?

What is in the scriptures about pilgrimage and what does it mean to the protestant version of Christianity today?

I have combined two sets of questions today because the practice of Pilgrimage in Christianity has often been closely tied to particular saints.

I’m going to answer this collection of questions from the perspective of the Reformed Tradition. “Protestant” encompasses a number of traditions, including Lutherans, Anglicans, Mennonites, Baptists, Pentecostals etc., so I will address this from the direction I know best. Not every denomination will agree with what I say.

The word “saint” means “holy person”. Reformed Theology is based on scripture and as we can see from our 2 Cor. reading today, Paul uses the word “saint” to refer to the Christians at Jerusalem – all the Christians – the whole church, not just the apostles and certainly not the dead ones, like Stephen.

So, in our theology, everyone in this building is a saint. We are all blessed by God, made holy by God. Whether we deserve it or not, God has made us holy and so we are all saints.

Protestant churches don’t name new saints because we don’t believe in that kind of hierarchy. We believe that in Christ we have each been given direct access to God. We can pray straight to God in Jesus’ name and we don’t need some other person to intervene for us whether that be a saint, some admirable dead Christian, or a priest: someone in a church hierarchy with a special status between the people and God.

My ordination does not give me special spiritual status. God doesn’t listen to me more than anyone else. I am given special duties and responsibilities to ensure that the church functions well, like making sure that the sacraments are done properly, but I am not spiritually elevated. We don’t believe in that sort of thing.

It is the same with saints. We believe that we are each equal in the sight of God. We know that there are admirable people out there, people whose lives we take as examples of the best ways to live, but that’s as far as it goes. We resist the idea of putting their relics on display (although there is a Martin Luther museum in Germany) and we NEVER pray to them.

If you wanted to visit the grave of John Knox, you would discover that he is buried at St. Giles’ Presbyterian Church in Edinburgh under spot #23 in the parking lot. There is usually a car sitting on his final resting spot.

Protestant churches that are named after saints tend to fit a handful of categories: some are simply tradition – old ones were were named before the Reformation and later churches named after them; others are named for saints that are recorded in the Bible (and even that is pushing it, theologically but it’s hard to argue with someone whose name is at the top of a gospel); and saints that have political implications.

As a political example: St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland. You should Google how he got that position; it is fascinating, and complicated. He wasn’t the only candidate: St. Columba was popular on Scotland’s west coast where many Irish Celts had settled, while St. Andrew’s support was based in Fife. St. Giles was popular in other areas so there was an internal striving for dominance and St. Andrew won. It was, literally, political back in the days before political parties existed. That sort of thing can create deep loyalty, especially when a saint is associated with nationalism like St. Andrew, St. Patrick, St. George, and of course St. Jean Baptiste.

So there are no new Protestant saints. We don’t have a process to elevate someone to sainthood and we don’t consider it to be an elevation anyway because we are all saints!

In the Roman Catholic tradition there is a complex system to name new saints. It involves years of investigation. The person has to be associated with proven miracles and there is a trial with supporters of the candidate trying to prove that their person is worthy of sainthood facing off against someone called the Devil’s Advocate whose job it is to cast doubt on that worthiness, to disprove the miracles or challenge their mighty deeds.

Some version of this has been going on for centuries and each land was keen to have someone local named to sainthood. Not only was their local pride involved but it was usually a tourism opportunity.

People were encouraged to come on pilgrimages to visit sites considered to be holy, often where relics of the saints were kept, and the hope of miracles only built the anticipation.

These relics were typically bones of the Saint in question – although if you go to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, the relic you will find is the preserved heart of Brother André, now Saint Brother André. That same relic was stolen and held for ransom in 1973 and recovered in 1974.

My very Protestant parents took me so see the Oratory once and had some rather snide things to say about the claims of miracles, mostly to the effect that while they could accept miraculous healings in theory, seeing entire wooden legs hanging on the walls stretched their credulity to the breaking point. But the Oratory is a modern example of a place of pilgrimage.

In principle, a pilgrimage should take a person to a special place for spiritual contemplation. But an awful lot of people go on pilgrimage because they want something: a blessing from God, a healing, a change in their lives; and they believe that going to a special place, a holy place or being near a saint, a holy person, helps that process.

Protestants don’t object to the idea of going somewhere for spiritual reasons. Think of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock. They were Anglican Puritans very much like Congregationalists and Presbyterians. If you believe that all people are equally holy and all places are equally holy it is hard to support the traditional idea of pilgrimage. But THOSE pilgrims wanted to come to the New World and build a New Jerusalem (as in Revelations).

Biblically, there is not much guidance. The Hebrews were told to go to the high places, like Bethel and later to the Temple, for sacrifices. But most worship happened in the home, on the Sabbath. By Jesus’ day a tradition of pilgrimage existed which is why there were such crowds for Passover when he rode into Jerusalem. For Jews who lived in other places, there was a real sense that Judea was the holy land.

Christianity spread the idea that holiness could be found in all lands, that God would embrace every nation and all peoples.

I can give you an example of a Protestant place of pilgrimage: the Iona community in Scotland, formed in 1938 to bring together the Church of Scotland and unemployed workers to rebuild the ruined medieval abbey and develop a spiritual and practical life together.

People who visit today are encouraged to share the daily liturgy and reflect on, as they put it, “issues of importance: the environment, poverty, migration, equality”. It has loosened its ties with the Church of Scotland so it can be ecumenical but that very Reformed emphasis of spirituality combined with practical effort remains: no saints, no holy sites, but a place where spirituality can roll up its sleeves and get something done. They are also prepared to have fun – we use Iona’s musical arrangement for “Halle halle hallelujah” at the end of the service.

In theory, this practical spirituality could, and should, happen at home, or at church, but it is a fact of human nature that sometimes we need a change in order to see things with new eyes.

So while our tradition does not hold with saints and relics, and while it is wise to be aware that communities have commercialized pilgrimages for over a thousand years, there can be value in having our eyes opened by an unfamiliar place or a new experience of spiritual practise.

So if you decide to make a pilgrimage somewhere, that’s fine, but I hope you will be seeking enlightenment rather than miracles. And don’t go looking for saints, because you are already a saint by the grace of God, and God is always ready to show us new things whether we are far away or right at home.


In Deed and Word

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

In Deed and Word

Scripture: Luke 24:13-35

The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is one I have enjoyed since childhood.

Part of me wondered deeply why they couldn’t recognize Jesus; were they stupid? I mean, even if they joined the disciples late in the game and never got to see Jesus up close, why didn’t they recognize his voice?

Had the resurrection changed Jesus? Could he morph his new form into other identities either physically or by the power of illusion? [I was a Star Trek fan; I had no trouble imagining this!]

Eventually, I came to realize that the question here is not what concealed Jesus, but what revealed him. The obvious answer is that Jesus was revealed in the breaking of the bread.

People have used this passage to underscore the value of the sacrament of communion as well as the value of gathering as a community to share a common meal.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think it’s too narrow an answer. I like language, and it niggled at me that the disciples as they were describing the ministry of Jesus to Jesus himself, described him as a prophet: “Mighty in deed and word”.

The usual expression is “in word and deed” and we can’t dismiss this as a translation anomaly because the familiar phrasing is older than English and it follows the normal logic of Western society: the idea comes first, and then the action. The word happens before the deed.

What the disciples were declaring is that the impact of Jesus came from what he did; His words came second.

As a preacher, someone who deals in words all the time, I might find that message a bit discouraging. But I can’t deny it: the message is underscored by the action of the story itself. Jesus talked to the disciples. They said their hearts burned as they listened but they didn’t recognize him as he spoke. Only when he acted – as soon as he broke the bread – they saw him for who he was.

This morning we at Knox are going to step into the second stage of our process to discover our future as a community of faith. We will be trying to answer the question: “Where is God calling us to go?”

I recommend that we keep in mind the message of today’s gospel lesson.

If part of our calling is to show Christ to others, then we cannot forget the message that Christ is seen in what we do, so much more than in what we say.

We will be choosing words, of course, and those words will try to express the shape of the future to which we are being called. But we must keep in mind that to have a real ministry as God’s people, what we do makes all the difference.

Do we believe that the teachings of Jesus matter? Then how can we live them out in practical ways? When we figure that out, then people will recognize Christ at work in us, then they will see Jesus still active in the world today


What Happens to Animals When they Die?

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for Knox folks to ask for their spiritual or religious questions to be addressed in a sermon.

Ask Andrew (2023)

1: What Happens to Animals when they Pass Away?

Scriptures: Genesis 1:24-31 Matthew 6:25-30

Today’s question is one that many pet owners have asked, especially when they have lost an animal that has felt like part of the family, maybe even a best friend.

One challenge is that it presupposes that we know what happens to people when we pass away. The problem being that the Bible gives us very few details. Between the ideas of going to heaven, or being resurrected to a New Earth, or life simply ending, as was a common belief in the centuries before Jesus, I could write multiple sermons on this topic. I won’t do that now. Let’s start with the basic idea that people are given some kind of eternal life and then the question really becomes: Do animals have that too?

The bible does not tell us about animals in the next life apart from some horses in the book of Revelation. We do have some wonderful prophetic images of lions lying down with lambs, which are hopeful, but those are identified with this life, not the next.

Traditional theology usually denies animals a place in the next life, or even souls that could make the transition. I would argue that this comes from a very human bias in the people who were doing their best to write down God’s message in scripture.

In our Genesis lesson the bias is laid out very clearly: of all the animals on earth, we believe we were created in God’s image. No matter whether you interpret that literally or metaphorically, it sets humanity apart from the rest of creation. It gives us dominion, as that passage says: The right to dominate other creatures.

This is not just a religious bias. The scientific world, which often keeps itself quite distant from religion, has a strong bias in favour of humans being superior to other creatures. This shared religious/secular bias has permitted people to treat animals and nature in general in quite terrible ways over time despite clear laws in the Hebrew scriptures insisting that animals be treated justly.

We know the practical results of that human-centred attitude: the climate crisis we are now experiencing is a direct result of that kind of arrogance, that hubris, that pride that goes before a fall.

Scripture makes it clear that God loves “all creatures great and small”. Our Matthew passage today shows God giving love and care to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Yes, Jesus says that we are of more value than the birds and he says it again when he talks about the sparrow falling, but the fundamental point is that God sees the little sparrow fall because God cares deeply about that small bird. The point Jesus is making is that God’s great love, which encompasses even the smallest of creatures, is something that we can rely on too.

Jesus’ words are based in the understanding that God loves every living thing.

So, what about the soul? Scripture does distinguish between the spirit and the soul. The spirit is the source of life: the breath, the wind, the vital force that enlivens the world.

The soul is something more complex: it is the seat of our identity; it is the part inside of us where we live; it is our personality, our motivations, our self. In Hebrew it is called “Nephesh”. In Greek it is called “Psyche”, which is where we get the word “psychology”.

The Hebrew scriptures describe God as having a soul and part of the reason we ask today’s question is that we are witness to the fact that so many of the animals we know have distinct personalities. They have a sense of self, even if it is different than ours and it saddens us to think of those souls being lost.

The CBC this week has featured a scientific look at natural sounds beyond human hearing: infrasound and ultrasound and what we are learning as we use special microphones and algorithms to try to decode animal communications.

They have learned that at the deepest levels of the ocean whales whisper to each other. Why? What are they whispering about? And that bats use their ultrasonic voices not only to hunt and create a map for flying, but they talk to each other and even sing to each other.

We have learned that bats have economic systems. Some of them have lengthy conversations, basically negotiations, before trading sex for food, for example. And it is clear that they develop complex relationships with family, close friends, and even hold long-term grudges against some members of their communities.

The more we learn about our fellow creatures, the fewer distinctions exist that allow us to claim that humans are superior. Other animals have language and music; they have clearly demonstrated intelligence, even if we can’t always understand what they’re thinking and even if our own human motivations require us to develop more empathy if we want to understand them.

So, if we aren’t so different, if we aren’t as special as we like to think we are, how can we claim that we are the only animals with a soul? And if other animals have souls, how can we claim that God will not give them some kind of new life in eternity?

This is not a new idea within Christianity. George MacDonald, a Scottish Congregationalist minister, was a pioneering fantasy writer. He was a mentor to Lewis Carroll, a friend to Mark Twain and was called a “master” by C.S Lewis. He embraced a Universalist theology and preached that all people would be saved through God’s love, and that all creatures would be saved too.

His strictly Calvinist congregation didn’t approve and cut his salary in half after that. Maybe it’s not surprising that he switched from pastoral ministry to literature, where his beliefs would find wider acceptance.

After all these years of considering this question I think it is time to say that there is simply too much human arrogance in the traditional theology that reserves the next life for humans alone.

We should consider this an ongoing mystery that contains plenty of room for the hope that God’s deep love for animals – which is so profound that Jesus used it to prove God’s love for us – that God’s deep love for animals will carry them beyond this life into the next.

Last Sunday, Easter, we celebrated the understanding that God has given us the gift of eternal life. I hope we can be humble enough to consider that God will share that same gift with the other creatures God loves so well.


Going Ahead of Us

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Going Ahead of Us

Scripture: Matthew 28:1-10

There are so many wonderful messages in the events of Easter after the sorrow and drama of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Discovering the empty tomb is a miraculous ending, full of joy, where we would have expected tragedy.

There is the larger message of new life given to us in the promise of an eternal spiritual existence that will bring us beyond this physical form. This offers us personal joy, not only because of the hope we have for ourselves, but also our hope for the people we love who are no longer with us,

There is a message in the way Jesus’ resurrection is first revealed to the women who were his disciples. They showed courage and went to the tomb when the men were still in hiding. In a profoundly sexist society, the impact of this message cannot be overstated.

I’ve discussed those in the past. The message I would like to pursue is what we are told twice in this reading: “He is going ahead of you”.

Each gospel writer tells this story differently. Mark, the earliest gospel, ends with the empty tomb: no one meets the risen Christ but all are told to go to Galilee because he is going ahead of them. When Matthew re-tells the story, the women get the message from the angels just like they do in Mark’s telling, but then they meet Jesus as they flee. He greets them and tells them the same message again: “I am going ahead of you to Galilee”.

What is so important that this, of all things, is said twice?

Good Friday and Easter happened in Jerusalem, the holy city. Great and dramatic events of faith often happened in Jerusalem and Jesus had led his followers there in order to make the most dramatic prophet statement ever.

Galilee was their home. It was Jesus’ own home, where he had most of his ministry, where he gathered together his disciples. Jesus is saying that he will meet them at home and that he is going ahead of them.

They would be going back as changed people. That old saying about “you can’t go home again” says more about the ways we change        than it does about the way home changes. They hadn’t been away that long but the experiences they had just gone through were transformational.

And simply going back would be life-changing, too. The men, at least, hadn’t seen Jesus. Coming out of hiding and going to Galilee would be a journey of faith. They would have to risk arrest and death to travel home. An empty tomb was startling and impressive; the testimony of the women was unprecedented; but would it be enough that you would risk your life?

They did go, and Jesus transformed them even more. They went on from there to change the world.

Home couldn’t be the same. They were seeing it through the eyes of people who had seen miracles. They were accustomed to thinking that miracles were possible. Healings in their world were always acts of spiritual power, like casting out demons, and lots of people claimed to do this very thing with followers who claimed to be healed by them.

Even the resurrection itself could fit into their existing worldview although it was a spectacular miracle no one expected. They believed that a human’s spirit stayed near the body for three days before returning to God and Jesus coming back to life fit within that time frame. That’s the significance of the raising of Lazarus:  he had been dead for four days which attested to Jesus being able to do things way outside of human expectations.

What the disciples had experienced was the overturning of the world order. Jesus had defeated the mightiest empire of the world        by being something they could all be: weak, poor, disregarded. The Roman empire had squashed Jesus and his movement like a bug the way they had squashed previous groups and messages and now Jesus was alive again.

The disciples didn’t have to be afraid anymore. Jesus had demonstrated that there was life after this life and that even when powerful people did their worst, God would bring them through it.

I’ve always been impressed with the way that these ordinary people, people who fished, and collected taxes, and had regular jobs, people who had spent the days after Jesus’ death hiding in terror suddenly were transformed into fearless speakers who travelled around into unfamiliar lands and places they knew to be dangerous, to share their excitement and their message of hope.

Most of them died in the process which is a remarkable comment on their level of courage and helps us appreciate that Biblical saying: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Today the church is afraid of many things: there are obvious challenges like COVID; more subtle things like the way society considers religion irrelevant or even childish; and worse, the way that some self-proclaimed Christians seem determined to spread hate instead of love.

We could deal with these challenges better if we could really embrace the message of Easter. We have nothing to fear! God’s love has overcome everything, even death. It’s not as if the scary things go away, but they are no longer the final word. We are given the opportunity to live our lives based on love, not on fear.

Jesus told his followers to go home and start living their new lives. In fact, he told them he would be there ahead of them, to meet them when they arrived. What the disciples were doing was a new beginning, an unfamiliar way of being but they knew they could, because Jesus had gone first, showing them the way.

That reassuring Easter message is one that we can take to heart. Jesus was reminding us that there is nowhere we can go that God is not already there. That includes the future, however uncertain or unfamiliar that may feel. Living a life free from fear, a life based on love starts at home, where we can see what is familiar with new eyes and imagine what transformations God can inspire.

And then after that? Who knows? As individuals, our lives have changed a lot in recent years and more change is likely to come. As a congregation, we are actively trying to imagine the future and wondering what unexpected things we will encounter.

Either way, our calling is to go forward in love, not letting fear put obstacles in our path but embracing love as our guiding principle.

The message of Easter, of new life overcoming even the most shameful death, is not just about dying, and the fear that brings. It is about living; it is about living our lives without a shadow hanging over us; living lives where even powerful assumptions like the might of ancient Rome don’t constrain us because we know that God can do something unexpected and overturn even the most well-established order.

In the resurrection we are given the freedom to live lives of love,      free from fear. Let us believe that message, and embrace that freedom.


Room for Subtlety

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Room for Subtlety

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

A lot of people want religion to be unadorned, to be plain-spoken and crystal clear about beliefs and doctrines. Many consider stark simplicity to be an important element of the truth. They want crystal clarity.

I can understand this desire. Clarity is part of the Scandinavian culture that produced me and very much part of the religious household I grew up in. When examples of subtlety appeared, my mother might admire them. Clever phrases with multiple meanings or even double-entendres would catch her imagination, although it might also be criticized as being naughty if that’s what she thought was going on.

Insisting on clarity is a privilege, really; something of a luxury. For some, it might even be laziness. We don’t want to have to work to interpret a lesson. We don’t want to have to think too hard. But when I say privilege, that’s not what I mean: only people who are accustomed to being in the majority can dismiss subtlety easily.

For people who are being oppressed, who have to live within a very dominant culture but are trying to keep their own identity, it is necessary to have more subtle ways of communicating. That’s where inside jokes come from: a small group trying to distinguish themselves from the majority, often in ways that fly under the radar as the majority carries on in blissful ignorance.

That was part of what was going on during the Triumphal Entry that Jesus made on Palm Sunday.

Of course, Prophets in Israel already had a tradition of using symbolism that required interpretation, not because they wanted to be obscure, but because they wanted the message to sink in.

You will remember a message better if you have to work to comprehend it. Sometimes they used other methods of being memorable, such as graphic imagery that sears itself on the imagination – remember the lesson of the Dry Bones? Or they might use high drama. Many prophets acted out their messages: Jeremiah bought a field; Hosea married Gomer, the prostitute. Sometimes humour was useful to get past people’s initial defences. The prophet Balaam being outsmarted by his own donkey was very funny and yet still managed to convey a deep message.

On other occasions, the prophets could be pretty blunt, especially when they were addressing some of the more stubborn rulers. Jesus was operating in the tradition of the prophets, so when he chose how to make a statement when he entered Jerusalem, he had a lot of options.

Jesus opted for a subtle, multi-layered message which has made this a challenging lesson for centuries. Jesus knew he had to hide at least part of his message from the occupying Roman forces who had been in control of Judea and Jerusalem for around 25 years. If he made too open a claim of authority, he would be arrested at the very gates of the city.

But Jesus also wanted to make a prophetic statement that people would hear, about God’s way being greater than any human empire. So, he rode in on a donkey.

It was a kind of code that the Romans would never get, but a Jewish person who read the prophet Zechariah might remember the passage about the king riding in on a donkey. The original Zechariah prophesy Jesus was referencing set the tone of his message well: it was an image of kingship that was tied closely to modesty, not a king on a warhorse but a king on a humble beast of burden.

Every aspect of Jesus’ ministry challenged standard human assumptions about power, worth, who was really “blessed”. Jesus talked about the first being last, so the image of a king on a donkey was perfect. It fit with his whole ministry.

It is hard to know how exactly the crowd was reacting. The branches and cloaks we hear about might have been welcoming Zechariah’s promised king, or they might have been mocking the Romans in power by celebrating this prophet on a donkey and playing along with Jesus’ challenge to worldly authority while the Roman soldiers looked down from the walls of the holy city, unable to intervene without starting a riot.

There are so many layers here that it has confused us over time. I can remember as a child in Sunday School that the excitement of this day was presented like people were really recognizing Jesus as king. It felt like it was really triumphant, worthy of royalty instead of a prophetic statement challenging the very core of the values that make Pomp and Circumstance possible.

It took the church years to transform this event from a day of triumph to a day of irony and challenge. In order to figure that out, we had to back away from the idea of Christendom: the idea of Triumphant Christianity where Jesus rules as king in a very traditional human way;

to re-discover the message Jesus brought from the beginning that denies all those assumptions of human power and glory and replaces them with equality, justice, grace and love.

Jesus’ prophetic message had to be subtle enough that the Romans wouldn’t arrest him right away. He had some things to do in Jerusalem

before he could afford being put on trial – more prophetic actions like clearing out the temple, which he did the day after Palm Sunday. There was no subtlety in that message. Jesus chose to be totally blunt in that holy place.

But on Palm Sunday there was room for subtlety, enough that his own disciples were not sure what he was doing. That wasn’t really new, they often didn’t understand his parables and had to ask for help in understanding them.

But this is all a good reminder that not all of our faith is plain and obvious. Many messages require interpretation. We need to look deeply, beyond the surface, if we want to get the full picture of what God wants.

Churches that offer simple answers are doing both God and their members a disservice. When we have to work to understand a message, when we have to dig deep and work through a mystery, we will have learned something that will stick with us, something that goes beyond lists of rules and commandments, that goes beyond black and white simplicities.

Jesus still invites us to dig into the deeper message of Palm Sunday: the challenge to human assumptions about power; the claim that God has something better in mind; that real authority begins with something as basic as a donkey; and that understanding should roll out to influence everything we do, and every relationship we have.

We do have one advantage over the people who saw Jesus ride in on that first Palm Sunday. We know about Good Friday. We have seen Jesus challenge the power of the mightiest empire of the world by dying on the cross.

That challenge looked like a defeat until we saw the message of Easter: that out of the humiliation of death on a cross comes new life that has no end; a spiritual life that casts a new, transformative light onto every part of this material world. It is only in that light that the subtlety of Palm Sunday reveals its message.


Look Inside

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Look Inside

Scriptures: 1 Samuel 16:1-13    Ephesians 5:8-14

I have mentioned before how often scriptures show God blessing someone unexpectedly.  It is often the second son over the privileged first son: Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; or someone farther down the list like Joseph, eleventh of 12 brothers, chosen over all the rest.

Today it is David, eighth son of Jesse:

David the shepherd boy;

David the gifted musician, who is credited with writing many of the Psalms;

David who would kill Goliath with his sling;

David the dear and faithful friend of Jonathan;

David who would replace Saul as king of Israel and displace Jonathan’s hopes of the throne;

David who would conquer Jerusalem, making it an Israelite city for the first time;

David who wanted to build the temple but was not permitted because he had too much blood on his hands;

David who would dance wildly before the Lord and disgrace himself before his wife (Saul’s daughter);

David who would abuse his power to have sex with Bathsheba and then would arrange the murder of Uriah, her husband, to cover it up (unsuccessfully) and marry her, becoming a poster boy for the “Me Too” movement;

David, whose eldest son Absalom would try to seize his crown (Absalom died in the rebellion and David went into anguished mourning);

David, who was called a man after God’s own heart.

David lived a passionate life and that included a passion for God. His passions could also distract him into selfish and hurtful behaviours. He wasn’t someone who did things by half measures and he needed people like the prophet Nathan to call him to account when he overstepped.

Nobody knew that all of this drama would be ahead. When Samuel went down to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, the people couldn’t see the future, but they did know that God had rejected Saul and that they needed a new king.

Samuel had the same kinds of assumptions in his mind as everyone else when he looked for a new king. When he looked at Eliab, David’s eldest brother, he saw someone tall and good looking, muscular and fit: a suitable look for a soldier. And since Kings were primarily responsible for defending the land, Eliab looked like someone who might command the respect of the men who would be fighting.

He looked like someone who might have charisma: that leadership quality that can persuade people to follow and to work together successfully. They weren’t stamping out coins yet in those days but having a monarch who looks good on the money can help a nation’s self-image.

Samuel was clearly surprised when his assumptions were wrong and even more surprised when six other brothers were also rejected and they had to send for David, the child minding the sheep.

He wasn’t fully grown yet. Clearly, God was more patient than the people since David couldn’t replace Saul right away. He’d have to grow up before he could lead. They could see he was healthy and good looking but he was not yet fully formed, had not reached his full stature yet. He was like any child: full of potential, but also full of unknowns.

The core message of this passage can be found in God’s words to Samuel: For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Humans seem to have built-in prejudices when it comes to looking at both people and situations.  We know what we find attractive and it may be caused by what we’ve grown up with: what is most familiar and comforting.

It may be caused by certain biological imperatives if you can believe certain branches of science: balanced and regular features suggesting good health and the prospect of healthy offspring.

There are all kinds of theories about what helps us develop our assumptions and prejudices but wherever they come from, they are mental and emotional short-cuts that save us from having to think too deeply in our day-to-day dealings.

The challenge of this reading is to resist those short cuts. If God looks past the surface, if God looks inside to see the truth, then it is our calling to learn to do the same. The writer of Ephesians refers to this as being children of light: walking in the light and overcoming what is hidden.

We’ve heard this lesson before as we’ve tried to apply it to our dealings with other people. We are called to look past the surface, to get past racial, cultural, linguistic and other differences, to see the real value of the person standing in front of us.

That is a good lesson but it’s not the direction I wish to take today. Rather, we should consider what the anointing of David says to us in our current situation as we consider the future.

That’s exactly what was at stake for Israel in the anointing of a new King – their very future.

Samuel went to Bethlehem with the expectation of a quick fix to find a young, strong, charismatic new king who could step in and replace Saul right away.

What God showed him was a new leader who would take some time, who defied expectations by being too young and smelling of sheep. Later, when David went to fight Goliath he was still too small to wear the armour. As an adult he proved himself as a general but he used unconventional means, not only against the giant but by becoming a guerrilla leader long before that word was ever invented. David could think creatively and move in circles when everyone expected straight lines.

Yesterday, Knox went through a visioning exercise to determine where we are now. The next step will be to discover where we want to go. As we look to the future it will be important for us to recognize our assumptions and prejudices, to look beyond the surface, to look past the quick fixes that might seem to offer solutions.

We will need to look inside: to discover the truth of what we can become; to find the unexpected inspirations that change the way we do things. This will take some effort – we are usually quite blind to our own assumptions. Samuel had to be prodded by God to overcome his, and we will take some prodding too.

We can discover our blind spots by listening to the voices of people who don’t usually speak up, or the people who present uncomfortable ideas. And instead of simply rejecting what we hear, we can stop and ask ourselves: “Why does this bother me?”; “  What assumptions am I bringing that I should examine?”.

It doesn’t mean we have to accept every wild idea that comes up but it does mean we have to look inside and see ourselves as clearly as possible, including all those invisible bits that need fixing.

We have gone through lots of visioning exercises before and while we have gained some benefits, we have not really been transformed.

I believe that we can be transformed and become the community God wants us to be, but only if we learn to look inside, discover what is truly within and take the time to realize the potential that God sees within us.