Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sermon: Christmas 1B

I rang the doorbell and a young woman answered.

“Hello I’m Pastor Kevin,” I said.

She let me in and we sat down on the couch. The baby was asleep in the crib by the window.

I got straight to the point.

“So, why a baptism?” I asked.

“Well, I think it’s important to have God in my child’s life,” she said.

“What’s the baby’s name?” I asked looking over the crib.

She muttered something I didn’t recognize.

“That’s an interesting name, “ I said. “What’s the story behind that? Is it a family name?” I asked because I hadn’t heard that name before.

“No, it’s not a family name,” she answered.

“Do you know what it means?” I asked.

“No, it doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just...(whole thing here) 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sermon: Christmas Day

Most of the travel guide books I’ve read before coming to Japan say that most people under the age of 40 will understand and speak at least a little bit of English. Especially in Tokyo, they say. So, an English speaker shouldn’t have any trouble getting his or her point across.

Having been here for almost two months I can now say without equivocation that this is absolutely NOT true!

I may have told you this story before, but bear with me. About a month ago I was at a Tully’s Coffee shop and I tried to order a large decaf coffee. The young university-aged barista looked at me puzzled and pointed to the small cup. I shook my head “No” and pointed to the large cup. She looked at me with the same puzzled gaze and help up the small cup. I again, shook my head “No” and tapped the large cup. She shrugged her shoulders and made my coffee.

She said something to the other barista who then looked in my direction with the same puzzled look her co-worker had, but with a glint of amusement in her eye. The barista smiled as she handed me my coffee. I peeled off the lid to smell the coffee like I usually do (the aroma is half the coffee experience).

And I noticed a little foam floating on the dark liquid. I smelled it, tasted it, and realized that she TOTALLY misunderstood what I was looking for. Instead of a large decaf, she made me a triple espresso! Pretty much the OPPOSITE of what I was looking for!

I had to laugh because I realized that I hadn’t communicated my order well enough. It wasn’t the barista’s fault that I couldn’t order in Japanese in a Japanese coffee shop. The language created a gulf that no amount of hand signals or slow english nouns could bridge.

And when I talk with some Japanese people they often say “Sorry” for their limited English. And what I always want to say back is “No, you’re not the one who should apologize for your limited English. I should apologize to YOU for my infinitesimally small amount of Japanese. After all, I’m in YOUR country! I should be adjusting to YOU. You shouldn’t have to accommodate ME!”

Which is why, in the...(whole thing here)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sermon: Christmas Eve

This being my first Christmas in Japan, one of the things I’ve found refreshing is that I don’t have to worry about people whining about the so-called “War on Christmas.”

If you follow the western news you might notice that every December a few commentators, pundits, bloggers, and blowhards decry the fact that some people offer the seasonal greeting by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of the more traditional “Merry Christmas.”

This makes some people’s heads explode. They’re worried that by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” Christ is being taken out of Christmas, thereby being denied his rightful place in our December celebrations.

But I won’t comment on the fact that Christmas doesn’t start when Costco decides to put up their decorations, or when the radio stations start playing Christmas muzak.

I won’t point out that Christmas actually starts tomorrow, December 25, the day when we actually celebrate Jesus’ birth.

I won’t mention that the song The 12 Days of Christmas alludes to the fact that Christmas runs from December 25 to January 5.

What I WILL say is that demanding that people bow down to the cultic consumer idol that Christmas has become, they are pushing people further away from what gives the Christmas story -the story of Jesus’ birth - it’s power.

They want Jesus at the centre of society. But they forget that...(whole thing here)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sermon: Advent 3B

To prepare for my ministry with and among you I read a series of books on small churches, and how they’re different from large churches. Many of the authors noted that many small churches function like they’re large churches. Especially if they’re part of a denomination that requires them to have certain core programming. They rightly note that when small churches mimic the programming, staffing, and worship of larger churches, resources are stressed to the snapping point. Members burn out. Bank accounts get emptied. And morale plummets.

And that’s true.

So, one guy - a small church pastor - in an effort to combat this phenomenon used a...(whole thing here)

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Sermon: Advent 2B

“Prepare the way of the Lord! Make the Lord’s path straight!” says John the Baptist.

I know what he means. In my first week here in Tokyo I decided to go for a walk, to get to know the area a little bit better. It’s hard to get to know a place from a subway car or from a seat on a train.

Still in Alberta mode, where the streets are a grid, I wandered from the office to, what I assumed was the area of the Tokyo Dome. It didn’t look that far on the map, so I charted my route, thinking that it was just a quick north east from the front door of the church.

Well, I kept walking, and walking, and walking, and walking. And walking. And no Tokyo Dome anywhere in sight. I looked on my map and none of the street names were listed.

Since I had a general idea of where I was I tapped on the compass on my iPhone, and I knew I had to go south west to get to where I wanted to be. So I followed the compass for quite a few blocks.

After walking for another hour or so, I thought to myself, “This is crazy. I really gotta figure out where I am.”

So I stepped into a 7-11 and asked the clerk, “Tokyo Dome?”

She looked at me funny as if to say, “Really?”

So I asked again, “Tokyo Dome”?

She looked at me quizzically and pointed. I looked in the direction she was pointing, and THERE it was staring down at me! I didn’t see it because I was concentrating on the streets and not the buildings.

I tried to figure out how I could have gotten so far from my mark. After all I had stayed on one street. But then I realized that the streets weren’t straight. And apparently they weren’t MEANT to be straight. I’ve been told that the streets here in Tokyo were built in such a way as to confuse the enemy.

And I say, Job well done! While I hope I’m not the enemy, the streets sufficiently confused me. And still do. I still get lost trying to find places. And it doesn’t help that the streets were designed for people to get lost in them.

You have to be from here to really get the streets. Or at least you have to be here a long time to understand how to get around without getting lost.

I wonder if that’s what it’s like to be Christian here in Japan. After all, Christians are a VERY small part of the population. Christianity isn’t indigenous to Japan and hasn’t been here very long historically. Christianity is still trying to find its way around the streets, and not get lost searching for its final destination.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” the John the Baptist says, “Make the Lord’s path straight.”

The people of God known as Israel knew what it was like to try to navigate the streets in a strange land.

Some have said that the...(whole thing here)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sermon: Advent 1B

On May 21, 2011 I was on a plane traveling from from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Calgary, Alberta, having just finished attending a five day preaching conference, when I remembered the date, and a bead of sweat appeared on my brow.

How could I have forgotten so easily? After all it had been in the news for months. Warnings had appeared in my email inbox, billboards were erected all over the world, the TV was overflowing with news stories sounding the alarm for us to be aware of the impending scene about to unfold. Houses and businesses were sold in preparation. Millions of dollars were raised in the effort to make sure that the whole world knew what was about to take place on May 21, 2011.

As many of us were told, May 21, 2011 was to be the Day of Judgment. It was the Day when Christ would return in glory. It was the Day when God would judge the nations, and the dead shall rise in judgment, the righteous to be lifted up into heaven and the unrighteous left behind for destruction. It was a day of salvation and chaos. Heavenly joy and earthly suffering. A day when the good receive their reward and the the bad endure eternal punishment. It was a day when history was to come to a screeching halt.

And I was on a plane wondering if the pilot was among the righteous, lifted out of his earthly existence at cruising altitude upon Christ’s return. I wondered if he would go to his heavenly reward at 38000 ft, leaving the plane’s driver’s seat empty. Being that far up I’m guessing he wouldn’t have far to go. But then what would the rest of us do?

But then, three hours later, the plane landed safely in Calgary, the pilot still at the helm. I looked out the window and earth bound existence seemed no worse for ware. There was no fiery landscape, no weeping and gnashing of teeth. No mothers wailing or blood soaked mountains anywhere to be seen. The sun had not been vanquished by the night.

When I stepped off the plane I saw that it was just another day in Calgary. Sunny. Warm. Nothing to get excited about.

“H’uh,” I thought to myself. “It looks like...(whole thing here)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sermon Pentecost 22A

So it makes me ask: where is God in this passage? The traditional reading is that God is the boss, and as the boss, God expects great things from us, or we’ll suffer the consequences.

But I have trouble seeing God that way. There’s no forgiveness, no mercy, and no grace here. If we read this story with God as the boss then God becomes a nasty, punishing, overlord, who demands high levels of spiritual performance from us.

The boss cannot be God, because God does not behave this way.

You might point out that is was the boss who gave out the talents, and isn’t God who gives us our gifts?

But I want to ask, who gave...(whole thing here)

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Sermon: All Saints Sunday

First. Class. Doormat. That’s what I said to myself as a little boy and heard this passage from Matthew for the first time.

And I’m not alone. American civil rights activist, Malcolm X once noted that oppressed people will continue to be oppressed if they follow this teaching. And US comedian Bill Maher likes to make fun of this “crazy” teaching that sets people up for abuse.

Those of us who’ve been around the church for a while might find Malcolm’s and Bill’s comments offensive. After all, they’re the words of Jesus, and their sharp edge might have dulled in our ears from years of hearing them.

But to fresh ears, Jesus’ words can sound astonishingly naive. Or even dangerous to our well being.

Blessed our the poor in spirit....blessed are those who mourn...blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemaker, and the persecuted.

Most of these are parts of ourselves that we’d rather keep hidden, aren’t they? These are human attributes that we’re trying to avoid. We don’t want to be on the same city block of mourning, or of meekness, or even of peacemaking.

We spend more time and energy trying to look strong. We put on brave faces to share with others, so we won’t look weak.

And this week, I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out why these readings have been assigned to All Saints Sunday.

To me it seems that we’re being asked to...(whole thing here)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pentecost 19A (Farewell Sermon at Good Shepherd)

...Good Shepherd is better than that. I know you’re better than that because I’ve seen you be better. You have worked too hard to build this church into the loving, caring, dynamic congregation that it has been through most of your history. You have prayed too many prayers together to allow this church to descend into division.

You have been to too many bedsides, visited too many shut-ins, attended too many funerals, danced at too many weddings, witnessed too many baptisms, sang too many hymns, ate at too many potlucks, and received too many eucharists, together to simply walk away from the life you have created, from the years of faithful service, from the love that has bound you together since the church began.

You are STRONGER and you are BETTER than anything that threatens to destroy what has been so carefully and lovingly built.

I know that you are stronger and better than your divisions because...(whole thing here)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 18A

You can almost feel the tension rising. The way Matthew tells the story is that time after time, Jesus encounters these religious leaders who were trying to trap him, condemn him, and reveal him as a fraud, and time after time Jesus humiliates them.

This morning’s reading was probably the encounter that broke the camel’s back for both of them.

The religious leaders probably thought they were going to trap him once and for all. They start by buttering him up, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you don’t show favouritism. Tell us then, what do you think, Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

But Jesus sees right through them. And uses some pretty strong language,” Why are you trying to trip me up, you hypocrites?”

Then he asks, “Who has one of those idolatrous coins on them, the ones that taxes are paid with?” One of the religious leaders fumbles in his pocket and pulls out a coin.

“Whose head is on this coin and what’s his title?” Jesus asks holding the coin to their noses and his eyes lazar-beamed into theirs.

“The emperor’s” they respond.

“The give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and the give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus snipes, throwing the coin back at them.

On surface, Jesus seems to be...(whole thing here)

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 17A/Thanksgiving

I have a confession to make: I find preaching on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians really hard. It’s not that there no content to work with. Like all of Paul’s letters, this letter is overflowing with wisdom. And it’s not as if I have trouble understanding what Paul is trying to say, although, I do gain more insight his message every time I read it.

It’s just that Paul seems to be writing with a perpetual smile on his face. He seems abnormally happy. Which is particularly jarring given his circumstances. He’s sitting in jail knowing that, at any time, the cell door could open, and he’d be taken away to die an excruciating death.

But he sounds almost giddy in this letter. Which I find unsettling. I don’t know if I’d be in such a good mood where I in his position. I don’t know from where I’d summon the strength to get through the day, much less write a hope-filled letter to a struggling church that I just founded.

Of course, we can say that...(whole thing here)

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 16A

One of the things they tell us in preaching class is to NOT use ourselves as positive examples of gospel living. The preacher should never be the spiritual superstar in the sermon.

It’s arrogant. It assumes that the preacher is on a higher spiritual plane than the listener. It suggests that its the preacher’s behaviour the listener is supposed to model rather than Christ’s.

It puts the preacher in the centre of the sermon, rather than God. And the pulpit is not the place to show off the preacher’s spiritual prowess.

Paul would have failed that class. He wouldn’t have listened to instructions. He’s not afraid to plop himself down right in the middle of his proclamation. He inserts himself into a story that he did not create.

Just look at...(whole thing here)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 15A

An article, by American preacher Lillian Daniel has been circulating widely among religious professionals. In fact I think half my clergy friends on Facebook and Twitter provided a link to it because it speaks to a common frustration among church folks.

The article has the provocative title “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” In it she takes on those who create their own spirituality on their own terms. She scolds those whose heartfelt theological reflections lead people to the deeply profound and radical conclusions that they “find God in the sunset” or “during walks on the beach” or “while hiking in the mountains” as if we Christians never thought of finding God in nature before.

She waves a finger at them chiding them saying “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself...”

I understand her frustration. As one who has...(whole thing here)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 14A

I have trouble believing Paul in today’s second reading. Not because I think he’s dishonest, but because, given his circumstances, I can’t see why he can be in such a good mood. This letter EXUDES joyful praise of God, and offers encouragement to a struggling church that he just started. His worry wasn’t for himself. His worry was for this new church in Phillipi that was trying to keep afloat.

I have trouble believing Paul because it sounds like he’s trying to talk himself into not being afraid of being executed. He’s sitting in a Roman jail, chained to the wall, and what does he have to think about all day? He’s thinking about when his end will come, and what it will look like.

“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death...” he says.

That’s a bold statement. Especially from someone who could be taken away and executed at any moment. Some might say that he’s masking his fear with heroic religious language, trying to convince himself that the promise of new and everlasting life with Christ was not a mere fantasy, but a present reality waiting for him just on the other side of the jail cell door.

Others might say Paul is declaring his strong, confident faith in difficult circumstances, defiantly staring death in the face, proclaiming the mighty acts of God in a world opposed to God’s kingdom.

Maybe it’s a....(whole thing here)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 13A

I’m not one who believes that God is pulling the strings of a puppet-like universe, but I have to wonder how this gospel popped up on the Sunday which happens to be the 10 year anniversary of the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. I don’t know if I should read anything inappropriate into the collision of events, as if God had manipulated the lectionary to tell us something about how to process our memory of that September morning.

There are many who believe that there is no divine collusion between this morning’s bible readings and this particular event. Many of the worship planning materials and sermon help websites suggest changing the gospel for this Sunday into something more palatable.

After all, how can we talk about forgiveness after such a terrible and horrific attack? How can we read this passage in light of the hostility, violence, and death that took place that morning? How we hear Jesus’ call to reconciliation with our enemies when our enemies are filled with so much fanatical hatred?

This text cannot speak to this moment, they say. There must be a more appropriate text to mark the day.

Preach about God’s comfort for the grieving. Preach about the need for community and human connection. You can even talk about the human longing for peace. But you cannot talk about forgiveness. Forgiveness opens up a wound that was calloused over. So, they say, find a better text.

But I can’t. This text...(whole thing here)

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 12A

Freedom is something we like to hear about and talk about. But it’s often not something we welcome. We spend more time drawing lines, building walls, putting parameters  around our ordered lives, than we welcome the responsibility of freedom.

It’s easier to know our place, to know what we can and cannot do, rather than trust that God is guiding our lives, working inside of us, transforming us from the inside out.

We’re afraid of freedom because we’re worried it might descend into chaos, rather than build us up, make us grow, and help us reach the potential that God has given us.

We often shun freedom, and stay mired in captivity. We stay stuck in our painful pasts rather than look to God’s future. Our depression and grief can feel like chains we can never break.

Our feelings of unworthiness or shame keep us from grabbing on to the freedom that God has for us. We don’t trust God’s freedom because we don’t trust ourselves. And tyranny is often more comfortable than freedom.

And as the people of Israel found out, freedom isn’t...(whole thing here)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 11A

"...if you read between the lines on his resume, you’d see a different Moses. A Moses who was conflicted. He was a man caught between two worlds. The Egyptian world he was adopted into. And the Hebrew world he born into, and later embraced.

He was caught between wanting to follow God’s will into Egypt to rescue his people, and living the comfortable life he had built with his wife and family in Goshen.

He was caught between want to do the work that God put in front of him, and knowing that he was wanted for murder back in Egypt, and would probably be tried and executed upon stepping on Egyptian soil.

For Moses, his path was anything but...(whole thing here)"

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 9A

Joseph probably fantasized of this moment, the moment when he could take from his brothers everything they had taken from him.

What would the revenge be? Would he provide a quick ending to their betraying little lives. Or would he draw out the pain over time, allowing their cries of agony to nestle warmly in his vengeful ears?

As Joseph stood there, all the anger and hatred of his past came flooding into his present. His was a story of jealousy and betrayal. Of family dysfunction and sibling rivalry. It was a story that he thought he had left behind. But at that moment as he looked into his brothers’ eyes, that story, the story of his past, consumed him.

The stories of the past are...(whole thing here)

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 8A

Where does your life and faith connect? Is your faith something that you reflect upon only at church? Is your religious activity limited only to these four walls? How does what we do “here” impact what you do out “there?” Or even, more to the point, where is God’s best work being done?

In this story, known as the “Joseph saga” (Most of you know it as “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) the line between the earthly world and God’s world mists over to the point of being indistinguishable. God seems freer than what we might previously have thought. Which makes me wonder where God best work is actually being done.

On the surface this looks like a story of hard work paying off, with a little forgiveness and reconciliation thrown in to jerk a few theological tears. The stuff of good movies and snappy musicals.

But we have to look deeply into the details to see what God might be saying to us.

It starts with...(whole thing here)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 7A one really knows who this attacker is. Some say it’s an angel. Perhaps even Esau’s guardian angel. Others say it’s a demon out to prevent Jacob from reconciling with his brother. Still others see him as the personification of the dangers lurking in the darkness. And yet others say it’s actually God.

But I like what Rabbi Harold Kushner says. Rabbi Kushner notes that Jacob is alone. And that the attacker is exactly as strong as Jacob. No stronger, but no weaker. Which is why they can’t beat each other and they last all night.

The rabbi says, “The attacker, the angel, is Jacob’s conscience, the part of him that summons him to rise above his bad impulses. The struggle is between the part of him that wins by cleverness and fraud, and the part of him that feels summoned by God to climb a ladder to heaven, to become someone exemplary.” (Kushner, Living a Life That Matters p. 26)

In other words, Jacob is at war with...(whole thing here)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 6A

...when we talk about the “traditional” or “biblical view of marriage” what are we talking about?

We tend to think that the bible defines marriage as one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others ‘till death do us part, amen. And yes, the bible DOES say that.

But the bible also DOESN’T say that.

The bible provides examples of MANY forms of marriage. The bible writers were not of one mind on how human beings are to enter into marital covenant. Which makes me draw the conclusion that...(whole thing here)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 4A

I understand twin brothers, since I am one and have one. I understand both the friendly rivalry and bare-knuckled competition between twin offspring.

My brother Keith was born 10 minutes before me, and you’d think, by the way he talks about those 10 minutes, that during that extra time, he’d gained a world of experience that I’d never possess.

Growing up we’d wrestle and fight. We’d tussle. We’d race. We once we competed for the same girl (I won). And when we started our careers we tried to “one-up” the other in terms of salary and status.

Most twins I know are the same way. That’s why I immediately understood what was happening between Jacob and Esau.

As most often in stories of twins, Jacob and Esau were different in every way you could imagine. It’s almost as if they needed each other to be a complete person.

Esau was...(whole thing here)

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 3A

Isaac ruled competently but charted no new course, he had no new vision for his people, and inspired no devotion. It wasn’t the force of destiny that compelled him to grab hold of the leadership reigns. It was like he was just taking over the family business and lacked the passion that gave rise to its institution. If Isaac weren’t Abraham’s son and Jacob’s dad, we probably would never have...(whole thing here)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sermon: Pentecost 2A

Where was Sarah? That’s what I want to know. Where was Isaac’s mom when Abraham took their son up the mountain?

Did Abraham even consult his wife before taking their son - their miracle child - to Mount Moriah, to stab him until he bled to death, before throwing his body in to the fire to be roasted and then eaten. After all, that’s what a sacrifice was; a holy barbecue where the sacrificial victim was served as dinner.

Did Sarah even know what Abraham was up to?

Many people, including some of the biblical writers say that God...(whole thing here)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sermon: Trinity Sunday

I’m guessing that the folks who put the lectionary together chose the first reading from Genesis because of a certain word.

You probably read this passage so often that you might have passed right over it. I know I did the first 1000 times I read this passage.

But when I read this passage with Trinitarian eyes, I can’t help but lock in on the fact that God speaks of God’s self in first person plural.

“Let US make humankind in OUR image...” God says. And this is not a typo. It’s in the original Hebrew. It’s like the lectionary folks wanted to remind us that God is a tiny community - and always has been, right from the beginning, if God can ever be said to have a beginning.

Maybe I’m...(whole thing here)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review: Small Groups With Purpose

Steve Gladen, pastor of Small Group Ministry at the Saddleback Church, has written a thorough look at small group ministry. I’ve always admired Saddleback’s small group ministry and I’m glad that Gladen has provided a design on how they’ve built and maintained this effective ministry.

Gladen’s book is practical, realistic, and useful. He doesn’t engage in fanciful theologizing (although his model is biblically and theologically grounded), but offers a blueprint for effective small group ministry.

Clearly, Gladen has drunk the Rick Warren Kool-aid. Which makes sense given his context. In fact, one the most helpful parts of this book is how he uses the Saddleback ministry model and mission statement as a way of building his small group strategy. Which probably why his small groups have been so effective.

This is a book that I wish I had when Good Shepherd was launching its ChristCare Small Group ministry, as supplementary material. Gladen provides insights that ChristCare does not.

If I were starting small group ministry over again, I’d definitely still use ChristCare Small Group Ministry, but would also use insights from Gladen.

(NB: Book has been provided courtesy of the author and Graf-Martin Communications Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Review: The Irresistible Church

I’m suspicious of formulas. Having spent the first part of my ministry looking for the “magic pill” that will make my church grow, which, by extension would make my ministry “successful,” I’ve encountered tons of books written by pastors of large churches offering strategies and tactics that will bring both bigger numbers and greater faithfulness to my congregation.

And I’ve found myself so frustrated by my lack of “results” that when a book that promises massive growth to my church in a few easy steps, some red flags pop up.

Wayne Cordeiro’s new book “The Irresistible Church” is a book that raised some of these rouge banners. In fact, his promise is that, using his model of church, your congregation will be irresistible to heaven, not just people. If you follow his blueprints, then God can’t help but bless your church.

His premise was where he lost me. While he has some good (but not particularly new) ideas, I was most troubled by the notion that God is simply waiting for Christians to do the “right” things before God will bless them. That we need to catch God’s attention by engaging in certain practices and behaviours.

Are we blessed because we are faithful? Or are we faithful because we are blessed? If we do all the right things would we not receive a “reward” rather than a “blessing”?

It’s not that Corderio is offering anything wrong or bad for the church, he has some wonderfully practical ideas. But by framing his method in a way that puts people in control of the human-divine relationship, he creates not a gospel church, but one of human activity.

This book was useful in that it provided some good ideas, but I had trouble getting past his original premise.

(NB: Book has been provided courtesy of the author and Graf-Martin Communications Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sermon: Day of Pentecost

What I find troubling about the Christian church is that we too often seem to be facing in the wrong direction. We look backwards in history rather than forward in hope. We look to the past for inspiration rather than to the future with expectation.

This is especially true when we talk about our beliefs. We trip over ourselves trying to prove that what we believe is the same thing as what people believed 2000 years ago, or even longer.

We say that God is unchanging, which may be true, but we don’t know the whole of who God is. So we take our thoughts about God, freeze them in time, and present them as if by their very nature, their un-embodied truths will speak to all people in every time and every place.

It’s as if we think that the glory days of the church were “back then” when the faith was fresh and the Spirit spoke with awesome clarity. It’s as if we believe that today’s expression of church is a pale imitation of what God has done in previous generations.

I hear this all the time. People wax poetic about the primitive church, and how the early Christians were filled with fiery zeal, upon which we have...(whole thing here)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sermon: Lent 5A: A service of Prayer and Healing

“What bible readings do you suggest, pastor?” she asked as we sat across the table from the funeral director.

“How about Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...’”? I asked

“Perfect. Mother loved that psalm. She had a copy of it on her bedroom wall.”

“Also, what about Romans chapter 8, ‘Neither death nor life...nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“Lovely. I think she would have appreciated that message.”

“For a gospel reading, how about John 11?”

“Which one is that?”

“‘I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me shall not perish, but whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’ It’s the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.”

“Absolutely NOT! No one is raising mother from the dead. She is NOT coming back to life. How dare you suggest that story!”

She looked at me as if she couldn’t tell if I were a monster or moron. Or just some religious nut spewing biblical nonsense.

I was shocked by her vehemence, but could see her point. She was still trying to come to grips with the fact that her mother had died. She was drowning in details and trying to just get through the next couple of days. She didn’t have time to reconcile the Christian proclamation with her own secular scientific perspective.

“No one is raising mother from the dead. She is NOT coming back to life!”

They probably said the...(whole thing here)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Sermon: Lent 4A

“He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I see.”

Simple. To the point.

But that wasn’t enough. They wanted a fuller explanation. The religious types couldn’t accept his version of the story. There had to be more to it.

Jesus meets this blind man who has been blind from birth. With some spit and dust Jesus heals him. Praise be to God! A man who was blind can now see.

But not so fast. A controversy breaks out. Was this man really healed? How was he healed? If Jesus healed him, what does that say about Jesus?

Fortunately, a bunch of...(whole thing here)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sermon: Lent 3A

Last week, Jesus encountered Nicodemus. This week, he meets the woman at the well. And the two encounters couldn’t be more different.

Nicodemus is a man. She’s a woman. Nicodemus arrives at midnight. Jesus meet the woman at noon. Nicodemus is a highly educated, a greatly respected moral and religious leader.

The woman is an outcast, forced to retrieve her water from the well under the hot sun, instead of during the cool morning breeze, with the rest of the women.

He’s received honours throughout his life. She’s been rejected by most people who knew her.

I’m more like Nicodemus than I am like the woman at the well. I think most of us here are as well. We may have our fair share of rejection in our lives, but we managed to get through it with the help of friends, family, and fellow church members.

While the woman at the well has been the victim of her circumstance, she was also a survivor. She lived in a culture that placed woman in the same category as livestock. She observed a religion on the fringes of her world.

She was a member of a race that was met with hostility by the surrounding peoples. Her family was held together by the flimsiest of strings. She bounced from one bed to another, just to secure food and shelter for another night for herself and her children.

We know his name. We don’t know hers.

Like I said, I have no idea who this woman is. I can’t imagine what her life is like.

Despite the pain I’ve experienced in my years, I can’t measure it against her suffering. I can’t put myself in her dusty sandals. I don’t see my face in hers. She’s a stranger to me.

I’m guessing it’s the same...(whole thing here)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sermon: Lent 2A

“Ask me what I know,” he told me, “don’t ask me what I believe.”

This was from a well-known bible scholar, who, in a moment personal honesty, confessed that what he knew intellectually after a lifetime of dissecting ancient texts, was different than what he believed personally.

It wasn’t that he didn’t believe the Christian faith to be false, or that what he learned from studying the bible all those years turned out to be a fabrication or delusion. He had no malicious intent.

“Ask me what I know. Don’t ask me what I believe....Because,” he said, “I don’t know what I believe. I’m still searching.”

I appreciated his openness. It couldn’t have been easy for him to share his personal faith crisis with some young punk who had more answers than there were questions.

Sharing his doubts was his way of saying that a lifetime of searching doesn’t necessarily mean a lifetime of finding.

Just ask...(whole thing here)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sermon: Lent 1A

In a sermon a few months ago I asked you, “How would you recognize God’s voice if you heard it? And how would you know it was God’s?”

Today, I want to adjust the question a little, and ask, “How would you know the Devil’s voice if you heard it? What does the voice of evil sound like? How would you know evil if it was sitting across the table from you?”

On the surface, the answer may sound obvious. Just listen for the sound of the guttural voice, growling under your bed at night.

Or you look for the goateed fellow in the red pajamas and pitch fork standing on your shoulder, whispering naughty suggestions in your ear.

Or the guy with horns growing out of his forehead, laughing at you while you try to follow the bible’s moral guidance.

Is that what you hear when you listen for the voice of evil?

Or maybe you’re not so fanciful. You know that there’s evil in the world and it bears no resemblance to a cartoon character. You’ve seen it. Heard it. And felt it.

Maybe for you, the voice of evil is...(whole thing here)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Today is about death. Your death. My death. There’s no sugar-coating or watering it down. We are dust and to dust we WILL return.

And you came to hear this message. Many of you were here last year as well, so it’s not as if this was a case of bait-and-switch. You knew what you were getting into when you laced up your boots, put on your coats, and negotiated the dirty streets to get here.

You arrived expecting to hear that “you are dust and to dust you will return.” And if you didn't hear that message, you might just turn around and walk out.

And it’s not as if you didn’t have other options. Especially when we’ve had the first beautiful day in months and an evening walking might have been mighty tempting

But something drew you to this place to hear this specific message, a message that you probably wouldn’t hear anywhere else: “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Maybe you’ve come because...(whole thing here)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sermon: Epiphany 8A

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Jesus makes it seem so easy; so cut and dried.

No doubt Jesus was right. Serving God and wealth is impossible because they demand two very different things from us. God puts us on a mission for the healing of the nations, for justice, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.

What does money ask us to do? I think it’s different for everyone. God puts us in a common mission. Money pulls us inward.

What is money to you? What’s your relationship with it?

For some, it’s...(whole thing here)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sermon: Epiphany 7A

Those of us who’ve been around the church long enough have probably forgotten the punch that this passage from the gospel packs. Some of these phrases have made their way into peoples’ everyday language.

“Turn the other cheek.”

“Go the extra mile.”

“Love your enemy.”

But if we take Jesus’ commands seriously, we might worry that we’d become a first class doormat.

If someone punches me in the face, I’d probably hit them right back. I wouldn’t point to the other side of my face and say, “missed a spot.”

If someone hijacked my car, I wouldn’t drive them to the border. I

f someone sues me, they better have a good lawyer because I’m going to protect what is mine.

And I have enemies for a reason. Loving them is not one of them. Especially since they don’t have my best interest in mind.

And then comes the command that puts all the others in their place...(whole thing here)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sermon: Epiphany 6A

I was tempted, to acknowledge the difficulty of this text, then move on to preach from the easier Old Testament reading. This is one of the harder passages of scripture to bundle our brains around. It seems like Jesus is more interested in placing barbed-wire fences around our moral behaviour than setting us free with the good news of the Kingdom of God.

After reading this passage, I can only say with irony that “This is the good news of Jesus Christ” because I don’t find any gospel relief for my anxiously sinful soul. All I find is burden piled upon burden, rather than grace heaped upon grace, as the bible promises.

I would guess the same is for you. Who HASN’T committed at least one of the sins that Jesus identifies? Who HASN’T perpetrated one of these crimes?

Gotten angry? Burnt your bridges with someone close to you? Killed a friendship? Then have the temerity to come to church without repairing the relationship? Then, sorry, no...(whole thing here)

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Book Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; Righteous Gentile vs The Third Reich
 By Eric Metaxas
Thomas Nelson, Inc

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a theological Rorschach test. We read into him what we want to see. I’ve encountered preachers who saw him as a Martin Luther King Jr figure, a theologian who believed that Bonhoeffer was a so-called “pro-family conservative," a colleague who says that Bonhoeffer would be a crusader for gay rights if he were living today, and a writer who said that Bonhoeffer was simply a tweedy academic who was in over his political head.

If there is anything resembling a Lutheran saint, Bonhoeffer is it. And as a Lutheran myself, I know that Bonhoeffer’s shadow looms large over our collective identity. Most Lutherans see Bonhoeffer as a righteous martyr, bearing witness to God’s vision of justice during one of the most unjust regimes in history.

Noting that Eric Metaxas’ massive treatment of Bonhoeffer was published by Thomas Nelson, I worried that the author would turn the theologian into an American-style evangelical. My fears weren’t soothed when I read the preface by Timothy Keller:

In talking about Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between 'cheap grace' and 'costly grace' Keller writes:

“We still have a lot of legalism and moralism in our churches. In reaction to that, many Christians want to talk only about God’s love and acceptance. They don’t like talking about Jesus’ death on the cross to satisfy divine wrath and justice. Some even call it 'divine child abuse.' Yet if they are not careful, they run the risk of falling into the belief in 'cheap grace' - a non-costly love from a non-holy God who just loves and accepts us as we are. That will never change anyone’s life.

“So it looks like we still need to listen to Bonhoeffer and others who go deep into discussing the nature of the gospel.”

Keller hasn’t done his homework. Bonhoeffer, as a Lutheran, wouldn’t have been terribly enthralled with the “divine satisfaction” and “penal substitution” atonement theories that Keller has combined and presented as normative for orthodox protestant theology. Bonhoeffer knew his historical theology too well to be swallowed up by simplistic theological explanations of Jesus’ saving work.

And Keller’s observation set the tone for this book. There was an attempt by Metaxas to turn Bonhoeffer into a theological conservative because of his rejection of Harnack and nineteenth century (and it’s 20th century incarnation at Union Seminary), and by his connection to Karl Barth.

But Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, which defies the categories of liberal and conservative. At least the way they’re presently understood.

Bonhoeffer reached back to the Reformation and its re-emphasis of scripture as the “norm for faith and life” to find God’s activity in the world. And not in a simple “the bible says it, I believe it, that settles it...” childish hermeneutic. But a nuanced exploration into the proclamation of salvation through Jesus, which he believed - as a Lutheran - was the purpose of scripture; what Luther called “The Living Word.”

What I liked most about this book was that Metaxas let Bonhoeffer speak for himself. The book is loaded with quotes from his books, letters, and sermons, and the author expertly navigates the reader through Bonhoeffer’s life using the theologian's words to put his experiences in context.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; Righteous Gentile vs The Third Reich is a useful, if flaed and limited addition to Bonhoeffer studies. This book should be read along side other treatments to help get a fuller view of the man.

(NB: Book has been provided courtesy of the author and Graf-Martin Communications Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller)

UPDATE: Sojourners has a much more thorough review of this book. (free registration required)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sermon: Epiphany 4A

I was once asked to provide what they called an “Invocation” at a political event a few years ago. So I chose for the bible reading the passage we just heard from Matthew’s gospel, popularly known as “The Beatitudes.” I wanted to offer the crowd a different vision than what usually passes for political discourse.

Later that evening, a politician came up to me and thanked me for reading the “softer” Beatitudes rather than the “harsh” Ten Commandments.

I held my tongue, but what I was thinking was, Were you paying attention? There’s nothing SOFT about the beatitudes! The Ten Commandment are a mile easier to live by than these 12 verses in Matthew.

I guess somewhere along the line the beatitudes became domesticated. Pretty little religious words that offer comfort without challenge. Spiritual poetry to calm our anxious hearts.

How we hear the beatitudes depends largely on where we’re sitting when we hear them.

Where are you in Jesus’ list? Are you the poor in spirit, struggling to find evidence of a loving God in a harsh world? If you are, then Jesus says that you are blessed?

Are you mourning? Jesus promises comfort...some day.

Are you being persecuted? Then rejoice in your pain! You must be an awesomely faithful person!

That’s where it gets a little weird, and probably where the he lost the crowd. But he may have lost others a long time before that. Who wants to be blessed the way Jesus says to be blessed?

Theologians struggle with the beatitudes. They wonder what they could possibly mean. Lutherans have...(whole thing here)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sermon: Epiphany 3A

How would you know God’s voice if you heard it? What it be so clear that you could respond with great joy in knowing that you’re part of God’s saving plan for the world? How would explain that call to others? How would you describe that voice?

That’s not an easy question to answer, is it? Most stories of hearing God’s call are met with suspicion, or even laughter. It takes some guts to talk about the voice of the divine. Not everyone will believe you. Few people will take you seriously.

I should know. That’s been my experience.

When I first heard the call to ministry I was...(whole thing here)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sermon: Epiphany 2A

In reading today’s gospel, it’s clear that we shouldn’t be looking to John the Baptist for advice on how to grow a church. He sends his best people over to another preacher, who looks surprised to see them.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks these strangers at his door. “What are you doing here? What do you want from me?” are questions that he was probably really asking.

But it’s a good question, isn’t it? It’s perhaps THE question. Especially for those who have a sense that God is doing something in their lives. And for those who have a gaping God-sized hole inside.

“What are you looking for?”

That could be the question for us here at worship. We come to worship looking for something, perhaps we can’t put that something into words.

We come looking for God, or an experience of God. Or we come looking for community. Or we come looking for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world.

Or we just come, not knowing what we’re looking for, but hoping to recognize it when we see it.

I’m sure it was the same with...(whole thing here)