thoughts on world interfaith harmony week

This morning I received a United Church press release in my email inbox encouraging participation in World Interfaith Harmony Week that begins tomorrow. I confess to being new to this special week on the calendar (the addition of such weeks by all manner of agencies like, in this case, the UN seems to be never ending). At first glance it seems a fine thing to endorse. How can one be opposed to interfaith harmony? It is like being opposed to motherhood or apple pie. So, no, I am not opposed to interfaith harmony. No one likes the sound of dischord. Harmony is much more pleasant to the ear and heart and soul. But I do find myself resistant to the seeming rush to resolve the problem of real interfaith differences by seeking to emphasize what religions have in common.


what is this - part two

Mark 1:14-39

What is this? That is the question that confronts anyone who opens the New Testament at the Gospel of Mark and begins to read. What is this? For one thing the text comes at you like rapid gun-fire speech. Mark is like a boxer whose sentences are a left and then a right, first a jab followed by an uppercut and then a hard body blow. His Greek is the language of the streets. Rough around the edges. Not the refined cadences of the academy. It is “and this” followed by “and that”. It seems that every second sentence includes the word “immediately”. Mark writes as if he is out of breath with excitement at the news he has to share. Which, of course, he is. It is Mark who invents the genre of the “gospel”. This is not a biography of the life of Jesus nor is it a historical account of Jesus’ ministry. It is, says Mark, “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). The word for good news in Greek is “evangelium” from which we get “evangelical”. It is such new news that in English we invented a new word for it: “godspell”. Yes “gospel”. Mark comes rushing in the door, out of breath, with extraordinary good news that he can not wait to share. Imagine a church that sounds like Mark in our day and age - a church full of energy that cannot wait to share the message. Imagine a church so full of urgency that others wonder aloud: “What is this?”


in the face of this

One of my favorite authors is Anne Lamott. She writes about life and faith with such a great mix of truth-telling and hilarity. And, besides, she writes really well. I dream of being able to write like her. In the meantime, I'll keep enjoying her words. Last year we sent Anne a Christian Seasons Calendar. A few weeks later we got a post card in the mail from her saying: "I love my calendar and have it up on the wall where everyone can see it - Thanks so much." It felt great to make that connection. Here is a sample of Anne's writing from her book "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life": "In general, though, there's no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we're going to die; what's important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.


what is this - part one

This coming Sunday we will read the gospel lessons set in the lectionary for three Sundays (Jan 22, 29 & Feb 5). Last Sunday we missed reading the gospel so that we could read all of Jonah. On February 5th I will be preaching from Isaiah 40:21-31 (such an awesome text). That leaves this Sunday to read all the way from Mark 1:14 to Mark 1:39. It will give us a chance to enter into the hectic pace of Jesus in Mark's gospel. We will hear Jesus preach his first sermon (a direct quote from John the Baptist now that John has been incarcerated for this same message); see Jesus begin to recruit/draft a movement of followers who will recruit/draft more followers; watch as he astounds the congregation on the synagogue with his powerful teaching that is accompanied by an extraordinary exorcism; then see as he heals and exorcises all manner of illness and demonic possession; seek him out with his disciples who find him away from the crowd in a deserted place in prayer; and then follow as he continues to travel throughout Galilee "proclaiming the message and casting out demons".


what pastors do

While preparing to preach on Jonah last week I had the opportunity to read Eugene Peterson's book on the pastor's calling titled "Under the Unpredictable Plant". Eugene is well know for his wonderful contemporary paraphrase of the Bible called "The Message". During his time teaching at Regent College in Vancouver I was fortunate enough to meet him on a couple of occasions. Now that he is retired and living in Montana I regularly wish that I could go back in time and seek him out as a teacher during his time at Regent. Fortunately, Eugene has been a prolific writer and so I am able to engage in conversation with him through his books. Here is an example of the kind of wisdom that he offers people like me ...


an open ending

Jonah 1:1-4:11

Jonah is a prophet who begins by saying no to God. He is not alone in saying no to God’s call. God regularly calls to a place and a life that is not what we plan or want or expect. That is how it is with Jonah. God sends him to Nineveh. It is the last place on earth that Jonah wants to go. He will have nothing to do with a ministry there. So he says no to God and heads in the other direction, to Tarshish. Tarshish is a much more attractive destination than Nineveh. Tarshish is exotic, adventurous, a distant paradise. It is a much more promising location for ministry than Nineveh. God calls Jonah to go. He goes. But not to the place where God sends him.



And in the book I read:
God is love. But lifting
my head, I do not find it
so. Shall I return


prophetic imagination

Recently I posted some thoughts about my rabbi, Martin Cohen. This is a post about my teacher. Well, of course, he is one of many of my teachers. Looking back there have been a number of teachers who have shaped my life, perhaps no more profoundly than those within my own family. Beyond the family there was surely Fred Lepkin, my high school history teacher. How to describe Mr. Lepkin? One of a kind! Among many others in seminary there was Ralph Donnelly who taught us about the life and identity of the pastor and the wonder of a local congregation. What did they have in common? They were passionate about their subject, they were totally engaging as people and they encouraged and challenged me to grow.


preaching jonah

This coming Sunday is the one time in the three year cycle of the lectionary when a reading from the Book of Jonah is included. Alas, it is a short reading from the middle of the book - Jonah 3:1-5,10. This highlights the strength and the weakness of the lectionary. On the one hand, left to themselves how many preachers would get around to preaching Jonah once in three years? On the other hand, given the wonderful narrative in this short book ((it takes up all of two pages in my Bible) this particular passage is underwhelming at best. So this coming Sunday we are going to read the book of Jonah in its entirety. A group of students are preparing a reading of Jonah that will include Jonah 2:2-9 as the responsive psalm for the day. It is not often that we have the opportunity to read an entire book of the Bible in worship on Sunday. Here is the book of Jonah from Eugene Peterson's paraphrase The Message.


do not stop them

In worship the church draws back the curtain on the kingdom of God. Here it enjoys a foretaste of the future present. Here we are reminded that it is not up to us to build the kingdom of God but rather to enter it and to live as citizens of God’s coming realm. And here Jesus reminds his church that the most vulnerable are crucial participants in the zone of God’s governance: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). At University Hill Congregation Jesus’ command has led us to adopt a number of liturgical practices intended to form a congregation that does not stop the little children from coming to him.


the heavens torn apart

Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

The good news begins with trouble. The texts are clear: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God ... John the baptizer appeared ... and people from the whole Judea countryside and all the people of Jerusalem ... were baptized by him on the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Before there is a creative Word from God, before there is any sign of a Saviour there is void and darkness and everyone knows that the trouble - the sin - is deep and unavoidable. It is possible to read too quickly and to miss the deep trouble that precedes the good news. But not today. Not here. Not this week. There is too much trouble for it to be ignored. Yes, we have been to the manger and sung the carols and greeted the child. Yes, we have celebrated his Epiphany. Yes, we have done all of this. But, somehow, it feels like we are still waiting ... waiting for the promised arrival in our midst. That longing text that began our year back on the first Sunday of Advent seems, in spite of our celebrations, to go unanswered: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1).


the ruminative rabbi

Martin Cohen is my rabbi. I did not know I needed a rabbi until I met Martin. Now I advise all of my colleagues to find a rabbi - and a good one - if at all possible.

It happened this way. I was a minister at South Arm United Church in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver. It was around 1990. One Sunday when I arrived for worship a member of the congregation confronted me with a copy of that morning's Vancouver Province newspaper. On the front page was a photograph of the Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Richmond showing a spray-painted swastika and anti-semitic slogans. She looked at me and said: "So what are you going to do about it?". We included prayers for the synagogue in worship that day. On the way home I remembered the concerns that Lloyd Gaston, my professor of New Testament, had instilled in his students regarding the interpretation of the New Testament in light of the Holocaust. The roots of the Holocaust included an anti-semitic reading of the Christian gospel. Ministers of that gospel must now be responsible to revisit these texts and to meet our Jewish neighbours in order to re-construct a faithful relationship. I realised that the question my parishioner had asked me was, in fact, a word from God. What was I going to do about it?


telling time

From the moment of birth we learn to tell time. The regular patterns of sleeping and waking, the rhythms of meals and bedtime rituals are quickly learned by the youngest in our midst. Our children soon develop a sense of past and of future. The story that is told about our past and our future becomes the underlying narrative of our identity. It tells us and others who we are. It guides our way of being and doing in the world. As Christians, the story of the Way of Christ is our calendar, our identity, our past and our future. The gospel gift that is stewarded and passed on by one generation to another is the inheritance of a past and a future shaped by the story of what God in Jesus is up to in the world.


the people of the epiphany

Ephesians 3:1-12

Today we celebrate the great festival of the Epiphany. Epiphany. What is the big deal about Epiphany? Well we, who have worshiped this past quarter century in the Chapel of the Epiphany should surely know by now. But just in case our memory fails we stop once each year to be reminded. What is the reason, we wonder? To which the lector responds by reading from the letter to the Ephesians:“This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles.” (vs. 1) Epiphany has to do with Jesus Christ. It has to do with being a prisoner. It has to do with Gentiles. Paul is the apostle of the Epiphany. Which is to say that he is the messenger of the great insight, the holy “aha”, the incredible revelation that is the mighty good news called the Epiphany.


epiphany preaching

This Sunday we will celebrate Epiphany. Yes, Epiphany is January 6. But, since we will not gather tomorrow we will mark Epiphany on January8. It means moving our celebration of the Baptism of Jesus - traditionally held on the Sunday after Epiphany - on to January 15. We will catch up with the lectionary of readings on January 22 (leaping over the readings for January 15 in this leap year). It all seems particularly appropriate since our congregation worships in the Chapel of the Epiphany. We, of all people, should be clear on just what "The Epiphany" is and why it is worthy of a celebration.


beginning at the end

The gospel always begins with an ending. It is easy to forget this. We are tempted to imagine otherwise. We are eager for a fresh, new beginning - a clean slate. The new year with its unblemished calendar holds a brief promise of newness. The Christmas story retelling of the birth of the Christ child can be like this for us. It can lead us to imagine that the gospel begins like a baby - with birth and newness and innocence and promise.

But then comes the Sunday after Epiphany when the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus. In the early days of the Christian church the celebration of Jesus’ baptism was one of the three large Christian festivals that marked out the Christian year: Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany. In those days Epiphany was a celebration not of the arrival of the Magi but, instead, marked Jesus’ baptism with the solemn blessing of the congregation’s baptismal water. Christmas was a later addition to the festivals of the Christian year, though it has since grown to dwarf all of them in our culture.