ephesians week one

The word picture here indicates the number of times words are used in the letter to the Ephesians and portrays the letter's emphasis well. The heart of the faith, of the church, of the gospel is Christ who makes us one people. Our first week hosting this letter caught us up in its elliptical phrases and spiraling logic. Like an impressionist painting, its power is often experienced as a whole piece more than in the individual verses.


preacher's notes on ephesians 2:11-22

The following article was written to provide preachers with some suggestive options for a sermon that proclaims the message of Ephesians 2:11-22. If you were preaching a sermon on this text ... or listening to one ... where would you want the emphasis to fall? What is the Word from God from these verse for our time and place? for you at this point in your life?

This text is one that every congregation needs in its repertoire. Here Paul describes the shocking nature of the church. Reading these verses one guesses that it did not take long for the church to forget the radical nature of its life together. Yet Paul does not sound impatient. “So then, remember ... that you were at one time without Christ” (vs. 11-12) he begins. “So, then, you are no longer strangers” (vs. 19) he concludes. A sermon grounded in this passage will do well to adopt this moderate “so then, remember” tone as it unfolds the extraordinary story that it tells.


in the wilderness

(Written in November 2011, the following article appears in the February 2012 issue of Mandate under the title "Remember That You Are Dust". It was awarded first place in the Theological Reflection category of the 2013 Canadian Church Press Awards).

Last year my Lenten journey began at the hospital on the morning of Maundy Thursday. That is when my appointment for a bone marrow biopsy was scheduled. During the procedure the doctor was surprised to learn that I planned to go to work later that day. I told him that I couldn’t imagine a better place to be than preaching my way through Easter weekend while awaiting the results.

The test was, in my doctor’s words, just due diligence. Some odd results had appeared. It was unlikely that anything serious was the cause. But it seemed wise to be sure. That was the reason that I limped through Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. When asked, I said that I had a sore back. I didn’t explain the reason. Those first days awaiting the test results were difficult, lonely, and worrisome. It was good to be able to preach of death and resurrection to myself in the guise of preaching to the congregation.


choosing a fast

Isaiah 58:1-12; Mark 1:9-15

Mark tells the story of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness succinctly. It takes two verses: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mk 1:12-13). On these things all three synoptic gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - agree: that following his baptism Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. Matthew and Luke include the tempter’s threefold temptation of Jesus. They also claim that the Spirit of God did not drive Jesus into the wilderness but, rather, led him there. They are more polite than Mark. Mark alone says that Jesus was with wild beasts during his sojourn. Only Mark records that angels cared for him there. Given the wilderness journey that we are currently walking in the land of multiple myeloma I rather like Mark’s portrayal of the wilderness as a place of encounter with wild beasts - perhaps plasma cells running amok - and of being sustained by angels - even a congregation of angels. I also rather like the portrayal of the wild beasts on this morning’s order of service - a goat and a rabbit keeping an eye on a slumbering Jesus. Really?! I suppose the point is that even the wildest of beasts - a crack addiction, say, or a traumatized family or, well name your own dangerous beast - are about as dangerous to Jesus as a cute little billy goat or bunny rabbit. There is one other difference in Mark’s telling of the forty days in the wilderness. Did you notice it? Both Matthew and Luke make the point that Jesus’ did not eat for forty days and, at the end, was famished. Mark seems to know nothing of this. What fast does Jesus choose in his forty day journey into the wilderness? Mark does not say except to imply that Jesus does not stop eating.



On Tuesday I had an appointment with my hematologist. He has been following the results of my blood work - in particular of the free light chains (serum proteins) in my blood in the aftermath of the stem cell transplant (these are the key indicator of the state of the multiple myeloma and amyloidosis in my body). To his surprise the numbers did not drop to the level that he expected as a result of the stem cell transplant, nor have they remained stable. Instead, they are once again on the increase. This is an unexpected result, given that he had hoped that I would benefit from a lengthy period of remission (perhaps a number of years) before requiring further treatment. However, as all the information about multiple myeloma indicates, every case of this disease is unique unto itself. We are now discovering some of the peculiarities of my version of multiple myeloma and amyloidosis. That's the disappointing news.


declaring an emergency

“Sound the alarm” (Joel 2:1). Declare an emergency. So begins the season of Lent. In Lent the church hears that things are not well, that much has gone wrong and that now is the time to face the trouble. In Lent Jesus says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). In Lent the church enters into a forty day journey of catechesis, of formation in the way of God that it often forgets in favour of the ways of the world.

Again this year University Hill Congregation responds to the emergency that is sounded in Lent by listening each day for God’s Word in our time and place. From Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday there are forty seven days on which to read forty-seven texts. Forty seven hosts from the congregation have each responded to the call to listen to a single text and to testify to the Word that they hear from God in it. The hosts are children and elders. Some have known the stories for a life time, others are very new to the faith. Each offers their humble witness as an invitation to you to join in hosting the text and listening for God in your own life as well as in our life together. Their offerings of testimony can be found online in this year's lenten devotional - "Declaring an Emergency".

We are grateful to God for such a company of witnesses in such a time as this and pray for the courage not only to hear the alarm but to act accordingly.


preacher's notes on ephesians 1:3-14

The following article was written to provide preachers with some suggestive options for a sermon that proclaims the message of Ephesians 1:3-14. If you were preaching a sermon on this text ... or listening to one ... where would you want the emphasis to fall? What is the Word from God from these verse for our time and place? for you at this point in your life?

Entering into the world of Ephesians can be challenging for a congregation at the best of times. Its language is ‘thick’. The first sentence of this Sunday's text is, in itself, a mouthful for the lector and surely an earful for a summer congregation more in the mood for a parable than for this densely worded phrasing. But the preacher will want to think twice before opting to preach on one of the other assigned texts for the day. Are there any in the congregation who struggle with shame, who know what it is to feel abandoned and of little worth? For that matter, does the congregation itself wrestle with despair when it faces the future? If so, this is a text well worth the challenge of hosting on behalf of the congregation that gathers to hear the Word on Sunday.


to dust you shall return

At University Hill Congregation our Lenten, Holy Week and Easter celebrations are becoming thicker as we rediscover ancient practices for a new setting. We now take it for granted that we will mark each Sunday in Lent with a celebration of the Eucharist. This reminds us that the Sundays in Lent - like all Sundays in the year - are mini-celebrations of the resurrection and do not count in the forty days of baptismal preparation that is the original purpose of Lent. Later, Easter will bring an even greater celebration - fifty days - of the resurrection and of God’s power to redeem, reconcile, save and make new.


the glory of god in the face of jesus christ

A sermon preached at a shared service of five United Church congregations on the west-side of Vancouver on Transfiguration Sunday, February 19, 2012.

Mark 9:2-9; II Corinthians 4:3-6

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart”. This is how the story of the Transfiguration begins. “Six days later”. It begins in the middle of the story. Six days earlier the gospel has reached a climax. It is the dramatic conclusion of the opening act. Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. To which they reply: “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets”. When Jesus asks them who they say he is Peter eagerly raises his hand and says: “You are the Messiah.” Jesus responds by “sternly” ordering them to keep quiet about this. Then he begins to talk in ways that they do not expect, in ways that they have never heard him speak before. Jesus predicts that great suffering lies ahead. He says that he will be “rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” He says it openly. They all hear him. There is no mistake. Peter is the one who takes Jesus aside and tells him that he is crazy to talk this way. Peter rebukes Jesus. He yells at Jesus. At which point Jesus turns to the congregation of disciples and rebukes Peter, calling him Satan to his face. It is the first recorded church fight. Not the last, but then we know that! Note that Jesus does not hold his temper. What would Jesus do if told the gospel does not lead to suffering and death? Apparently he would be as mad as hell. Peter is saying that a Messiah who suffers and dies will never gain a following. Jesus replies that Peter is setting his mind “not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus goes on to say that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it.” It is the first mention of a cross in the gospel. Take up a cross - take up a burden of pain and grief and illness, take up a death of hopes and dreams, take up the weight of injustice that leaves too many hungry and homeless. It is not only a cross for the Messiah. It is a cross for each disciple who says “yes” to Jesus. Then the curtain comes down. Act one ends. The audience is left abuzz.


beginning ephesians

On Ash Wednesday (which falls on February 22 this year) we at University Hill Congregation begin a six week lenten study of the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians. We will meet in three groups - on Wednesday mornings over breakfast at a local restaurant, on Thursday evenings over dinner in a member's home and on Sunday mornings prior to worship over coffee, tea and dough-nuts in my office. If you live in Vancouver and would like to participate in one of these groups you would be most welcome. You will find contact information at University Hill Congregation. If you are unable to join us you are welcome to participate via the related posts that I will make to this blog each week. The purpose of such congregational Bible study is, as it says in Ephesians 4:20, "to learn Christ". We will not so much learn about Jesus Christ as we will endeavour to learn the peculiar grammar of a communal life that is lived in Jesus Christ. Eugene Peterson calls this "practicing resurrection".


seeking a cure

II Kings 5:1-14; Mark 1:40-45

Naaman is a commander of the army of Aram and “a great man”. There is just one thing. Naaman has leprosy. There is no cure in Aram for his disease. It is a little Israelite servant, taken captive by the Arameans, who knows that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure incurable leprosy. So it is that the great Naaman arrives before the king of Israel with a bucket load of cash - ten talents of silver and six thousand shekels of gold - as well as ten of the best designer suits in exchange for the medical treatment that he cannot receive in Aram. The king of Israel has no idea what he is talking about and assumes it is a diplomatic ploy, an attempt to pick a fight with his government. Hearing of the king’s distress, the prophet Elisha sends word that Naaman should be sent to him. So it is that Naaman arrives with his retinue of horses and chariots, a great man with great power but with no cure. Elisha does not even bother to come out to meet the great man. He sends a messenger who tells Naaman “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” It is roughly the equivalent of saying “Take two aspirins and call me in the morning.” Naaman is not impressed. He expects better treatment after travelling all this way at such great expense. Doesn’t Elisha realize that Naaman is “a great man”? He deserves personal treatment. He expects Elisha to wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprosy himself. Besides, the rivers of Damascus are much more impressive than Israel’s piddly Jordan river. If it is a case of washing in a river he can do this at home. But before Naaman can head for home in disgust his advisors suggest a sober second thought. What is the harm in following this doctor’s orders? If Elisha had advised a difficult course of chemotherapy, wouldn’t he have obliged? Just because it seems so simple doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a try. At this Naaman immerses himself seven times in the Jordan as prescribed and he is healed - his skin is as smooth as a baby’s behind. Naaman is cured, healed, restored. It is a miracle. There is no explanation. There is only wonder and amazement and awe. Naaman wants to pay for services rendered. But Elisha will not accept the cash. The cure is the gift of God. Naaman returns home praising the God of Israel for the rest of his life.


a christianity without discipleship

"Discipleship is commitment to Christ. Because Christ exists, he must be followed. An idea about Christ, a doctrinal system, a general religious recognition of grace or forgiveness of sins does not require discipleship. In truth, it even excludes discipleship; it is inimical to it. One enters into a relationship with an idea by way of knowledge, enthusiasm, perhaps even by carrying it out, but never by personal obedient discipleship. Christianity without the living Jesus Christ remains necessarily a Christianity without discipleship; and a Christianity without discipleship is always a Christianity without Jesus Christ. It is an idea, a myth. A Christianity in which there is only God the Father, but not Christ as a living Son actually cancels discipleship. In that case there will be trust in God, but not discipleship."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from "Discipleship", Fortress Press, 2003, p. 59)


epic impact day - feb 8

Wednesday, February 8 is "Epic Impact Day" in the fund-raising for the Ride to Conquer Cancer. The goal on this day is to have every rider receive at least one donation towards funding cancer research. My good friend Janice Love has been training all winter in preparation for the bike ride from Vancouver to Seattle this coming June (a 200 km trip). As of today she has raised $825 towards her goal of $3,200 (26% of her target). Janice is riding on behalf of me and of Simon Higgison (the brother of the school principal of Janice and Jim's son Jameson's school). Because both Simon and I have been diagnosed with multiple myeloma the money donated in support of Janice will go towards researching blood cancers. In the past few years there have been a number of significant breakthroughs in multiple myeloma research which have resulted in new treatments that are proving to be very effective. A number of new drugs are currently in clinical trials and show promise. Money raised now for ongoing research is critical in continuing this recent progress. Every donation, small or large, means a lot to Janice, to Simon and to myself. If you have not done so already please consider contributing online by visiting Janice's Ride to Conquer Cancer page. As it happens Janice will be visiting in Vancouver this coming weekend. I am hoping that we'll have good news to share of donations that move her closer to her goal. If you miss donating on "Epic Impact Day" don't worry - any day is a good day to contribute to the cause. Thank-you!


jack shaver

Just now I was looking for a book on my shelves when I spotted a photocopied booklet that was created in 1982 to mark the retirement of Jack Shaver. "The Jack Word Book" includes a number of stories about Jack's life and ministry along with some of Jack's memorable quotes as well as some of his prayers. I flipped through the pages and, looking back thirty years, realized the connection I have with Jack.


a drop in a bucket

Landing in the midst of the fortieth chapter of Isaiah is like arriving half-way into a great oratorio. The prophetic speech of Isaiah is wondrous, complex, beautiful and terrible poetry. Just now we heard Handel’s famous setting of the verse that precedes today’s text: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; and he shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Is 40:11). And that verse, itself, follows on some of Isaiah’s - if not the Bible’s - most extraordinary promises: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Is. 40:1-2). The prophet sings Israel a lullaby, calming its terror with a daring song of hope.


the night-side of life

"Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place."

- Susan Sontag

(Epigraph of "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" by Siddhartha Mukherjee)