holy, holy, holy

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

My earliest memories of worship are opening every Sunday singing: “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.” I didn’t know what the word holy meant except that it was associated with God. God was holy. The hymn taught me to sing: “only thou art holy, merciful and mighty.” So it is a bit confounding to open Leviticus and find that Moses is to tell the Israelites that they are holy (Lev. 19:2). On the same Sunday we find Paul writing to the little Corinthian church made up of the “low and despised in the world” (I Cor. 1:28) that it is a “holy temple” (I Cor. 3:17). The church of my upbringing has been careful to leave holiness to God. We are keenly aware of the danger of a “holier than thou” attitude. Say the word “righteous” and we instinctively add the prefix “self”. The truth is that we don’t talk about holiness very much. Then along come these texts which each say to the church: “You are holy”.


"spirit" or "the holy spirit"

Back in February 2011 I scribbled some thoughts about the trend to drop the definite article - "the" - when speaking of "the church". More recently I have noticed a similar trend when speaking of "the Spirit". Phrases like "not certain where Spirit is calling" show up with increasing frequency (as that one did on a local congregation's website this week). I am not sure what to make of this apparently minor grammatical shift. I think that it is intended to signal something. But what?


preaching revival

Travelers to Atlanta are inevitably drawn to the World of Coke, home of Coca-Cola. A tour through the story of Coke concludes at a massive indoor fountain with each visitor invited to receive an endless supply of the sacramental beverage. Coming to the font a chant can be heard over the sound system: “Life … life … life”. This is the font of Life? Of course, it is not only the World of Coke that promotes its products as replacements for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Contemporary culture is a crowded marketplace of idols, all vying for our service and praise.


we preach not ourselves

A couple of years ago I happened across a book on preaching in the Regent College bookstore. Stumbling across books at Regent Books is a habit of mine that comes from having an office so close to temptation. I had not heard of the book or the author before: "We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation" by Michael P. Knowles. Published by Brazos Press in 2008 the book cover reported that Michael Knowles is a Canadian, an Anglican priest and professor of preaching at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton. What most caught my eye is that the book is an offer for preachers rooted in a careful reading of II Corinthians 1:1-6:13. I continue to find myself drawn back to the book over and over again. In part, that is because I have been drawn to Paul over and over again in recent years. Paul's letters speak with power to the struggle to build up a sustainable, faithful congregation in a time when we are struggling to see the way ahead. But I also return to "We Preach Not Ourselves" often because it is the kind of book that I can open on most any page and find sustenance.

Here are a few quotes that spoke to me yesterday, while waiting in the hospital for my second weekly dose of chemotherapy to be delivered (on that score so far, so good). The nurses regularly ask what book I am reading, expecting the latest novel. I suspect that not too many patients arrive with books on preaching. The following quotes are taken from the section on II Corinthians 4:16-5:15 (the verses from which we have a lectionary reading upcoming on Sunday, June 10 and from which I intend to preach) ...


they know me at this cafe

"They know me at this cafe. When I come in from the vineyards they put a drink in front of me. As a sign of respect I take off my sunglasses whenever I speak to the proprietress. Here I can reflect on the Romans, their triumph, and the tiny thorn in their side that we represent. The owners are exiles too, scattered people, as are their customers, who all seem to wear dark suits and flash gold teeth behind their cigarette-holders. Our children go to the Roman schools. We drink coffee, and some kind of powerful fruit brandy, and we hope that the grandchildren will return to us. Our hope is in the distant seed. Occasionally the card players in the corner lift little glasses in a toast, and I lift mine, joining them in their incomprehensible affirmation. The cards fly between their fingers and the mica table-top, old cards, so familiar they hardly have to turn them over to see who has won the hand. Take heart, you who were born in the captivity of a fixed predicament; and tremble, you kings of certainty: your iron has become like glass, and the word has been uttered that will shatter it."

- Leonard Cohen ("Book of Mercy", #18)


making progress?

I’ve been hearing and reading about Progressive Christianity for the better part of a decade. What I have heard and read has not grabbed me. I grew up in the 1960s when the United Church of my youth was seeking to be a progressive church. I remember the great controversy over the New Curriculum that was intended to be an up-to-date, progressive Sunday School resource. I remember, too, the progressive politics of my father and many other United Church ministers like him. We cheered for the New Democratic Party on election nights. This was, as Dad believed, gospel politics. Now, three decades into the life of an ordained minister of the United Church, I have spent much of my ministry in re-discovery of Scripture and tradition as crucial components in the formation of Christian identity. In the process, my reading of the claims made for Progressive Christianity by its supporters has not been hopeful. Have I been guilty of breaking the ninth commandment by bearing false witness? Perhaps I have. So, when I noticed that a local United Church congregation invites those who visit its website to explore Progressive Christianity, I decided to put down my hermeneutic of suspicion and to take up the invitation. Perhaps this movement is not the enemy that I too often imagine. Perhaps, instead, it is the visit of a holy guest akin to those who arrive at Abraham and Sarah’s table. Since I trust in a God who is providential, might God be providing good news in this distinctive expression of Christianity?


the chapel

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.


day one, again

Today is day one of my first thirty-five day cycle on the chemotherapeutic drug called bortezomib (marketed as Velcade). It feels like my fourth "day one" since my diagnosis a year ago. There was the first day taking mega-doses of the steroid dexamethasone which began in late May last year. Then there was the mega-dose of the chemo drug melphalon which was day one of the autologous stem cell transplant in September. And then there was the first day taking the chemotherapeutic drug lenalidomide (Revlimid) this past March. Each first day is a mixture of anxiety and hope, curiosity and uncertainty. Having read all of the possible side-effects I wonder which, if any, will effect me. Knowing that the treatments have a good chance of being successful but also knowing that not every response is positive leaves me wondering what the results will be.


my way is hidden

On May 7, 2012 I was honoured to give the convocation address at the convocation of the Vancouver School of Theology. This is the text of that address which, since I am a preacher by trade, took the form of a sermon. My thanks to my friend Martin Cohen for his helpful translation of the Hebrew in Isaiah 40:27-31.

When Principal Stephen invited me to give the convocation address he said that the school is dealing with a very serious diagnosis which threatens its future. He said that this diagnosis will call for major intervention in hopes of survival. He said that perhaps my recent experience of receiving a terminal diagnosis and having a major medical intervention in hopes of extending my lifetime would provide a helpful lens through which to see things. It has been a year since the doctors discovered that I have multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer, and amyloidosis, an even rarer disease that leads to organ failure. The bad news is that there is no known cure. The good news is that, due to advances in medical science, these diseases are becoming chronic and manageable. Let’s see - chronic, manageable, incurable. It sounds a lot like life. This is what it's like on the other side of a serious diagnosis: it’s a lot like life, only now everything is magnified - including the faith.


the cross is laid on every christian

"The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every person must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old person which is the result of our encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death - we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther's, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time - death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old person at his call."
                                                             - Dietrich Bonhoeffer ("A Testament to Freedom", p. 313)


seven assumptions for preaching in a missional church

What difference is there in preaching for a missional church? The congregation I serve notices that my preaching has changed. But what has changed? It is not simply the way in which these sermons are constructed. The change has less to do with technique (with the 'how to') as it does with the intent (with the 'what for') of this preaching. The biggest difference in preaching for a missional church rests in the assumptions that are made by preachers facing this new context.

Missional preaching is not a new method of preaching. Missional preaching is a different genre of preaching (within which a variety of methods and styles may be faithfully employed). Once the preacher and congregation change their operative assumptions about the purpose of the sermon and the role of the preacher and the calling of the congregation, everything about the occasion of preaching shifts. The following seven working assumptions currently govern every sermon that I preach. And, according to the testimony of the congregation, this changed preaching accounts for significant change within our life together at University Hill Congregation.