“Praise the Mutilated World” – Sermon for memorial service of the Rev. Dr. Joe McLelland

I had the privilege, today, of preaching at the memorial service of the Rev. Dr. Joseph McLelland, former Professor of Religious Studies at McGill University and Faculty member of The Presbyterian College. I share that sermon here.
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Over these past few weeks, as I spent a bit of time surveying the life of Joe McLelland, it struck me what a relative novice I am in the world of ministry and in the world of the academy – wet behind the ears, really! In the year of my birth, Joe had already served fifteen years in ministry – in the year of my birth, he had already 15 years into his academic career here in Montreal. When Joe was publishing his early essays and was teaching his first classes at McGill, I was, as my wife and I have taught our kids to say, still only in the mind of God. This is to say, among other things, that his academic career was full, that his contributions to church and college were many, and that his faithful service to the church was long.

When I arrived in Montreal for theological studies at The Presbyterian College in 1999, I encountered Professor McLelland, as I have mostly known him. And the first memory I have of him comes from the community lunches held each Wednesday at the college. During those lunches Professor McLelland and Professor Bob Cully would sit across from each other exchanging smart-ass comments that kept all of us much entertained. There is a real gift in that, it seems to me – the theology professor as human – if I may, the theology professor as smart ass. This is a theologian, after all, who would write essays with titles such as “The Comic Society,” and “In Praise of Crocodiles.” This is a theologian who could write that “the art of clowning is the humane art in which we find our way to the center, the definite place at which God promises to meet us.” Continue reading

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jesus and snap decisions

Casting nets – let’s try our luck over there.

Sorting fish – too small; wrong kind; wow, nice big one.

Delivering fish – let’s get these out of the sun before they go off.

Repairing nets – agh, that hole we fixed has opened up again.

Simon and Andrew and James and John are fishermen. They work hard, and they work long hours, and they have strong calloused hands, and they know their way around on the water. They are fishermen, which is also to say that they have little power or prestige in their culture. One New Testament scholar describes the status of first century fishermen in these terms:

While the fishermen have some economic resources, their social ranking is very low. In Cicero’s ranking of occupations, owners of cultivated land appear first and fishermen last. Athenaeus indicates that fishermen and fishmongers are on a par with moneylenders and are socially despised as greedy thieves. Fishermen and fishmongers have a socially inferior and economically precarious existence under Roman control.

The work of fishermen is in some ways vital to their society, for without fish a significant part of the local diet and a source of nourishment is lost. But perhaps it will come as no surprise to us that those who did such vital work were not valued in themselves. In our own time and culture we outsource a great deal of basic and vital work overseas – and those workers or labourers receive levels of pay we would never consider acceptable for our own family members or friends. Continue reading

how big is your world?

How big is your world?

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 1.32.15 PMYou are an individual. And from your particular body – from your particular time and space – from your unique set of experiences – you look out onto the wider world. How big is your world?

You are not the centre of the world (most of us know we are not the centre of the world) but at the same time, from some kind of centre you take in the world around you:

You see the world looking out from where you are.

You relate to the world and to others from your body.

You identify people and institutions that are important to you.

You pay attention to certain things and ignore other things.

You may not be the centre of the world, but you are at the centre of something. And from that kind of centre, what do you see? What are the things that register for you? How far does your gaze reach? How big is your world?

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 1.31.49 PMAs we think about who we are and what matters to us, perhaps we think about our past – perhaps we think about grand parents and great grandparents and their influence in our lives – or about the towns or cities or countries that our recent ancestors came from. Continue reading

examination for life – a visit from Jesus

Image you know someone who has always dreamed of visiting the Great Wall of China. It probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that someone would want to visit the Great Wall. Parts of that wall were built as long as eighteen hundred years ago by the first emperor of China – most of it was built about 500 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. It’s an historic, long and winding wall that was first built for the purposes of security and defense, and later was used as a means of regulating trade along the Silk Road. The oldest parts of the wall were made of earth and stone and wood – while the majority was constructed from brick and stone. The Great Wall of China now measures 9,000 kilometers or more in length and of course is a UNESCO world heritage site. There are tens of thousands of people who dream of seeing the Wall – this amazing feat of human engineering – tens of thousands who dream of having those ancient bricks and steps beneath their own feet.

So imagine this person you know, who has dreamed of visiting the Great Wall of China – and imagine they are finally able to make the trip. They save up enough money to pay for the airfare. They put together an itinerary; they make reservations at hotels; they book a seat on a tour bus. And the day arrives when they finally get to the wall – they step out of the bus and walk up to the wall. Oh it is glorious. They see it stretch of endlessly in one directly and in the other – they walk up the few steps onto the wall, and for a few minutes they look this way and that.

And then they turn around, go back and get on the bus, and take their seat. “Okay, I’ve seen it, I’m ready to head back to the hotel whenever you are.”

Now that would be a very strange ending to the story, wouldn’t it? That great dream; that hope of seeing the Wall; those months of saving and planning. Only to get there, have a quick look, and turn around to leave. Continue reading

what you see – it’s who you are

What we see says a whole lot about who we are.

In fact: What we see makes us who we are.

In our daily lives, every situation and every person and every landscape can be seen differently. And what you see in a given situation or what you see in a specific person or what you see in a landscape before you – what you see, says a great deal about who you are. Going even further again: What we see in all of this makes us who we are. You just are a person who sees this, rather than that – or that, rather than this.

Perhaps we can get a little bit more specific. When you look out into the night’s sky and you see all those stars visible to the naked eye – when you see all those stars, which are just a fraction of the 300 billion stars that make up our galaxy – when you see all those do you see a universe that came from nowhere and is going nowhere? Do you see a universe that is accidental and meaningless? Or in seeing those stars do you see the mysterious and wonderful work of a God who gives the world as gift and grace. A universe within which we may find our own lives as gift and grace. What you see in those stars says a lot about who you are – it says a lot about the hope and peace that defines you.

We can bring this down to another level altogether, of course. When you see a dad dragging a screaming 7 year old through the parking lot at the grocery store, do you see a dad who has lost his temper; do you see a dad who is impatient; do you see child who is spoiled? Or do you see someone struggling to be a parent in the way that every parent struggles. Someone who knows how to love and is almost certainly learning daily how to love more faithfully? Continue reading

take your shoes off… put ’em back on

Like so many other things in our society, shoes have become a big business – there are so many styles of shoes, so many colours of shoes, such a broad price range for shoes. And even more than big business, like almost everything else in our culture, shoes have become a part of the way we define ourselves. The fact that there are so many shoe options means that you almost have to define yourself by your shoes – you have to make some choice about which shoes fit with who you are.

Do Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 8.59.10 PMyou wear comfortable black shoes that can be worn with multiple outfits – shoes that project “steady” and “sensible?” Do you regularly wear a good pair of running shoes – proclaiming your interest in fitness and your seriousness about health? This week on Twitter a philosophy professor I follow from Calvin College took a picture of his new Vans, and I thought, well maybe you’re a little old for skate-boarding shoes, but then again maybe not. Who am I to say?

And then I remembered that I’m really not one to speak, because a few weeks ago when I needed a new pair of shoes, I went for these ones. I sent this picture of my shoes to my mom – I knew she’d be impressed – and of she responded by asking what Becky thought about this. I’ve joked with a few people that since I couldn’t afford a new car for a mid-life crisis, I went with orange shoes – or maybe I’m just trying to keep up with Reuben’s orange shoes.

Needless to say in all of this, I don’t suspect that Moses or his wife Zipporah, or his father-in-law Jethro spent as much time thinking about shoes or talking about shoes or shopping for shoes as we do. Perhaps there was someone in the extended household or in the local community who was a competent leather-worker, who made the simple sandals that they would have worn. There were no local Aldos or Payless or Browns with a whole range of possible footwear. From ancient Midian to the modern west there is a world of difference – not only in terms of footwear of course, but yes in terms footwear. Continue reading

Seeing Jesus, with Simeon (4/5)

There is a kind of purpose in his steps as he walks into the temple. There is a kind of alertness in this old man’s body, as he strides across the courtyard. It’s almost as if he is looking for something, looking for someone. His body speaks of his confidence that he will in fact find what he’s looking for.

Anyone who has spent much time in the temple will know who this man is. His name is Simeon. And even those who don’t know him could quickly find out about him. He has a reputation.

Simeon is described using words that no one would use lightly – he is described as a righteous man. Do we even believe, today, that such a person is possible? A righteous person? In our culture we are deeply cynical about any claim to righteousness – we think it both naïve and arrogant to describe anyone as righteous. But that’s just how Simeon is described – a righteous man. He is someone who knows the law of God and follows it. Continue reading

Let’s not cheat ourselves. Encountering Jesus. 3/5

The gates of Jerusalem are busy places. There are so many people coming and going – whether for religious festivals, or for trade and commerce, or for administrative purposes. The flow of people is almost nonstop at these gates – through these portals into the city.

There is a pool near one particular gate of the city – and that pool near the sheep gate – is also a busy place. But this pool is busy not so much on account of the religious festivals, or on account of those traveling for trade and commerce, or on account or the administrative needs of the city or of that Roman colony more widely.

The area around that pool is busy because there is a tradition of healing associated with it. There is a tradition that when the waters are stirred – when there is some movement in the waters, as if stirred by an angel – the waters have healing or medicinal properties.

And so the area around that pool – the five porticos or porches that encircle the pool – they are filled with those looking for healing. This space is a kind of ancient hospice or hospital. By definition this is a group of those who are broken in some way; their bodies in need of healing in some respect. According to John’s gospel, those gathered around the pool are the blind and the lame and the paralyzed. And of course we know that in that culture, on top of their particular physical challenges, each of these individuals would also have faced a high degree of social isolation. So they seek healing in this pool – they seek healing in the stirred waters – they seek healing of their bodies and souls – a healing in their physical being and in their social identity. Continue reading

seeing Jesus, for the first time? (1/5)

Almost 7 years ago our family moved to a little cul-de-sac in the west end of NDG. And in that cul-de-sac we have developed great friendships over the years. But this week as I thought about it I realized that I couldn’t really pinpoint the first time I met any one of those neighbours. I know the general timeframe when I met them – it would have been around June or July 2008. But I don’t remember specifically meeting any of them for the first time. At this point we’re all just part of the neighbourhood furniture, whenever it was that we first met. That’s probably the case with a lot of people in our lives. If we stopped to think about it, we might not be able to pinpoint the first time we met them, or the first time we saw them.

Of course there are some people for whom we remember that first encounter. It helps if there was something memorable about the circumstances. It’s easy to remember the first time you met someone if it was at a job interview for example. Or it would probably help if they spilled coffee all over you the first time you met. That would make it memorable. For some people in our lives, there was something distinct or memorable about that first meeting, and so we can pinpoint it easily.

And then of course there are those first meetings that are so precious to us – and so much a part of who we are. Think of a first meeting with someone who became so special to you. Think of that first meeting with your child or your niece or nephew after their birth. A squawking, vulnerable, little baby, naked and then wrapped up tight in blankets – held so close and tenderly. Continue reading

convenient pieties — holding Christ at arm’s length

King Ahaz of Judah has a problem.

Actually, King Ahaz of Judah has a number of problems. But the most pressing problem is that two neighbouring nations are threatening war against him. The northern kingdom of Israel, under King Pekah, and the neighbouring nation of Syria under King Rezin have made an alliance and are threatening to attack. It is no idle threat. We read in Isaiah chapter 7 that when they heard about this military threat, “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

King Ahaz and the people of Judah are afraid. King Ahaz is not confident in the strength of his own forces. He’s not confident in the capacity of his soldiers to repel this military assault. He is deeply fearful that this will mean death and destruction and defeat for himself and for Judah. “The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

Into the middle of all of this comes Isaiah the prophet. And he comes with a word of challenge and a word of warning. His message from God to Ahaz is this: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” Continue reading