not my job to defend, explain or comprehend jesus

I know that some people find the lectionary to be a pain. But this Sunday you have to love it. I wonder how many of us preachers would actually choose to preach Mark 9:38-50 if it wasn't set to be read this Sunday in the common lectionary? I think the answer is pretty clear. Not many! On first glance you would think that this is a natural for a Christian preacher. After all, it is among the few passages in Mark that include teachings of Jesus. Most of Mark's gospel is a narrative about Jesus' ministry, healings and encounters with disciples, crowds and opponents. Yes, there are a few parables told. Here in chapters nine and ten we find actual teachings just before he arrives at Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Heaven knows I have run into so many people who tell me that they aren't fans of the God of the Old Testament or of Paul and even that they struggle with Jesus' divinity and with the resurrection. That doesn't leave much but it does leave the teachings of Jesus. And many people tell me that it is Jesus' teachings that they find most powerful in the Bible. hmmm. That brings us to Mark 9:38-50. Teachings of Jesus that are not easy to comprehend. These are the teachings that leave me wondering if the fans of Jesus as a teacher have actually read his teachings. This Sunday we are in the shoes of the disciples who Mark has just said: "did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him" (Mk 9:32). The good news for me is that it is not my job to defend, explain or comprehend Jesus. For so long I felt that I needed to protect him and to make sense of him so that the congregation could be re-assured that this all makes sense, that our minister is doing his job and that all is well. Now I realize that my work is to not hide Jesus from the congregation but to let them be confronted by him just as the disciples were confronted by him. Yes, I may have some insights to offer and some helpful explanations or interpretations. But if I don't understand Jesus I will say so. I am also a disciple struggling to see and to hear. I expect that there may be someone in the congregation who sees and hears in a way that I do not. It isn't my calling to have it all figured out before preaching or to wrap the sermon up in a nice bow with a wonderful ending that resolves all of the problems. Having said that, I am working away on a number of parts of this text that are problematic and that will surely need to be addressed on Sunday ...


on being fortunate

Yesterday morning our weekly Bible at Breakfast crowd was continuing its ongoing conversation with the book of Jeremiah. At my age and stage it is a real delight to find a group of ten people who are eager to get together at a local restaurant at 7:30 once a week to engage biblical texts with passion and curiosity. In the midst of yesterday's conversation one member noted that we are among the most fortunate people who have ever lived (given the standard of living that we enjoy, the medical care we receive, etc). Before you know it we were deep into a discussion that wondered about how we deal with the privilege of our good fortune. Reading Jeremiah week after week will do that to you! Later in the morning I spent ninety minutes with a doctor at Inspire Health - an integrative cancer care centre - working on a life plan that will integrate a variety of life practices into my daily routine with the intention of increasing my immune system's capacity to work in concert with the chemotherapy I am receiving to manage the chronic myeloma and amyloidosis. He seemed quite surprised to discover that I am feeling calm and at peace with low anxiety, lower than at any other time in my life that I can recall. I suppose that I am surprised, too.


pretending not to speak english

Our oldest grandchild entered French immersion kindergarten this month. She was telling me about it last week when I asked: "Does Madame Peggy speak any English?" "Oh, no", she replied, "but I think she is just pretending not to speak English". It hasn't taken long for our young learner to realize that the teacher understands every word that she and her classmates say in English even though she always replies in French. Slowly but surely the class will learn to echo their teacher and to learn a whole new way of constructing speech. This helps me re-imagine my vocation as a minister. I once thought of myself as a translator, undertaking the bridge work of traveling back and forth between two language worlds in order to make the gospel relevant. My work was to speak an ancient story in such a way that it made sense in the modern world. I was trying to make things as clear and easy to understand as possible. But I no longer imagine my vocation in this way. Now I think that my daily work is akin to that of a language immersion teacher who consistently speaks using the peculiar grammatical rules and vocabulary called "Christian" or "gospel". Sure, the congregation has many folk who do not know this odd language well and who continue to speak languages such as "Canadian" and "Western" and "modern", to name a few. I hope that over time the congregation echoes back the peculiar speech and life that is announced and embodied in worship Sunday by Sunday. My life's work is to become such a proficient speaker of the gospel that a newcomer might take awhile to come to the conclusion that the pastor "is just pretending not to speak Canadian".


before the gospel is a word, it is a silence

"The preaching of the Gospel is a telling of the truth or the putting of a sort of frame of words around the silence that is truth because truth in the sense of fullness, of the way things are, can at best be only pointed to by the language of poetry - of metaphor, image, symbol - as it is used in the prophets of the Old Testament and elsewhere. Before the Gospel is a word, it is a silence, a kind of presenting of life itself so that we see it not for what at various times we call it - meaningless or meaningful, absurd, beautiful - but for what it truly is in all its complexity, simplicity, mystery. The silence of Jesus in answer to Pilate's question about truth seems such a presenting as does also in a way the silence of the television news with the sound turned off - the real news is what we see and feel, not what Walter Cronkite tells us - or the silence the Psalmist means when he says, 'Be silent and know that I am God.' In each case it is a silence that demands to be heard because it is a presented silence, and the preacher must somehow himself present this silence and mystery of truth by speaking what he feels, not what he ought to say, by speaking forth not only the light and the hope of it but the darkness as well, all of it, because the Gospel has to do with all of it.


and even you, our sister death

Image from "The Green Canticle"
I am privy to a wonderful conversation that takes place most Wednesdays at Margaret & Lloyd's home. There Margaret, Gerald and I wrestle out the hymns for Sunday as we also wrestle out the sermon as best we can from the given text. Margaret leads The Singers, who accompany the congregation's singing. Gerald accompanies our song on the piano and organ. Both are keen readers of scripture. I always learn something. This week is no different, though I found it particularly surprising that I have been in ministry this long and have only learned it now. As we were looking for a strong opening hymn we noted that the weather is expected to continue to be glorious. I suggested a favorite of mine - "All Creatures of Our God and King" translated from St. Francis' of Assissi's Canticle of the Sun in 1225 (which given our denomination's apparent current fascination with music - and, I fear, with theology - written after 1990 makes this one of those "classic" hymns that are way out of date and out of step). One is hard pressed to find a more relevant hymn when it comes to concern for the creation as Francis invites all of nature to sing God's praise long before he invites humans to add their voices. In fact, the original begins with four verses of invitation to the natural world to sing the song of praise. In the United / Anglican hymn book of 1971 that section was reduced to three verses, in order to keep things moving along and to fit the hymn onto the page. Then there were (and still are, in our current hymn book Voices United) two other verses. The fourth invites those of "tender heart" to "forgiving others take your part". I have always found this a lovely move - equating praise of God with forgiveness of others; love of God with love of neighbour. We expect Francis to have us sing our praises but the first act of praise is "forgiving others". And then it is the call to those who "long pain and sorrow bear" to sing praise. We imagine that it is those who look outside at a wonderful day, living lives of relative ease, who can name many obvious blessings who would be eagerly singing praise - and they may be. But Francis also invites in particular those with chronic pain and sorrow to join the hallelujahs. Then there is a grand summary verse to close the hymn. Yet that is not all. That is not the surprise. Here is where my learning occurred. Gerald remembered another verse, gone from our hymnody since 1971 when it was dropped. Dropped why? Because of space concerns? Maybe. I will let you decide. You will find the verse below, the fourth verse in the version that we will sing together to open the service on Sunday:


the fulcrum upon which the gospel narrative balances

As I journey to the pulpit this week I am appreciating the accompaniment of Ched Meyers, who writes:

"We have arrived at the midpoint of the story. Once again, Mark's Jesus turns to challenge the disciples/reader. 'Who do you say that I am?' (Mark 8:29a). This question is the fulcrum upon which the gospel narrative balances. Not only that: upon our answer hangs the character of Christianity in the world. Do we know who it is we are following, and what he is about? Mark began the story by telling us who Jesus is (Mark 1:1); the reader, like the Christian church, 'knows the right answer' to this question. Thus we are shocked when Peter's answer, which is 'correct', is rejected by Jesus! With this 'confessional crisis' Mark opens the second half of his Gospel."

- "Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus" by Ched Meyers (p. 235)


a scandal to the natural mind

I have begun the journey to next Sunday's sermon which will host the text found at Mark 8:22-38. On the way to Sunday I received a copy of "Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World" by Lee Camp. The book fell open at a page that quotes Mark 8:34-37 ("If any want to become my followers ...). By way of introduction to the passage the author includes these two provocative quotations:


it takes every word

Well, so much for posting the written text of yesterday's sermon. I had good intentions but just could not get a written draft down on paper before it was time to preach. While I knew that there was a sermon waiting to be born it would not arrive in time to line out before the congregation gathered. In the end it felt as though this was how things were intended. The sermon felt fresh, engaged, connected. And, like manna, it is now gone. No written record. No video. No notes. Just the memory, for now, until it seems forgotten. It leaves me wondering about the impact, over time, of such preaching events in the life and mind of the congregation. There are two things that I do want to remember from yesterday, so I'll post them here.


jesus beyond borders

The gospel lesson for this coming Sunday is Mark 7:24-37. It will be the first of our four ventures over the next four Sundays into the heart of Mark's gospel. The gospel turns from Act One to Act Two at the end of chapter eight. Mark's gospel is written in street Greek, and seems rough around the edges. But it is a carefully constructed book, with two halves. The first half portrays Jesus as a powerful healer and teacher. It is not clear to those who meet him where his power comes from. When, at the end of chapter eight, his disciples realize that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus commands silence about his identity (known as "The Messianic Secret Motif" in Mark). In the second half of Mark's gospel Jesus reveals that as the Messiah his destiny is suffering, death and resurrection. Peter and the disciples struggle to understand, accept and follow such a Messiah. The next four Sundays take us through this crucial turn in Mark's gospel.

Here are some things that strike me in the text as I host it in expectation of a living Word for Sunday. I am grateful for your comments, insights, questions, suggestions and prayers.


an act of relentless hope

I was up early this morning in order to beat the traffic on my way to my weekly chemotherapy treatment. It was dark, reminding me that the sun is working its inevitable way towards the southern hemisphere. On the way out the door I remembered to grab something to read while waiting for my treatment. A dog-eared book on my shelf called out, its binding no longer any use, with the pages falling out - "Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation" - Walter Brueggemann's 1988 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School. It is not uncommon for me to seek inspiration - to be reminded of the reason that I take up the call to preach - in the midst of the full weeks of ministry that arrive in September. The tattered state of my copy of "Finally Comes the Poet" reminds me that I have returned over and over to its pages. It is not alone among published volumes of the Beecher Lectures. Three others in my collection are underlined, dog-eared and well worn. I remember being captivated by Frederich Buechner's "Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale". Reading it again now I can see the arc of my ministry prefigured in its pages. Along the way my apprenticeship included learning from Fred Craddock whose Beecher lectures were published as "Overhearing the Gospel: Preaching and Teaching the Faith to Persons Who Have Heard it all Before". Then in recent years a new favorite came along in the form of Richard Lischer's "The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence". These books are trusted companions on the way, friends that remind me of the challenge and gift that is the call to preach the good news of the gospel in this time and place. In the midst of what may seem a time of dispirited decline in the church these voices remind me of the vitality, energy and wonder that is present among the company of preachers for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

When I opened "Finally Comes the Poet" once again this morning I was not disappointed. For one thing, I had forgotten that the first chapter - "Numbness and Ache: The Strangeness of Healing" - is an extended meditation on the way in which Jeremiah provides preachers with a model of poetic speech that opens the community to the painful yet needful path to healing. Reading Jeremiah, chapter by chapter, in our Wednesday morning breakfast conversation is, at once, painful and instructive. We are tempted to turn away from the harsh rhetoric and, yet, are drawn in by the longing and grief of God. But, before chapter one's meditation on Jeremiah, Brueggemann situates his argument in this way in the Introduction ...


the trouble with jesus

Jesus. It always gets back to Jesus. That shouldn't be so surprising. After all, the one thing non-Christians surely know about Christians is that they are followers of Jesus. But you might be surprised at how often the church wanders off in search of something other than Jesus, some God better suited to our inclinations and biases than the one who is enfleshed in Jesus. So, as the summer ends and the regular rhythms of life return, it is good to see that the lectionary has us deep in the heart of Mark's gospel where we are again confronted by Jesus. It reminds me of returning to class in elementary school and spending the month of September going back over what we had learned in the previous year (and half-forgotten over the summer). In Canada we will mark Thanksgiving on the first Sunday in October. Between now and then there are four Sundays, four opportunities to learn in the school of rabbi Jesus.