What kind of king? What kind of people?

Notes for a sermon at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona), Edmonton
Reign of Christ Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021
Texts: John 18:33-37; 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8

Are you the King of the Jews?” may at first seem like a straightforward yes/no question. The Jewish authorities have turned Jesus over to Pilate, demanding his death. At first glance, Pilate is just seeking a quick resolution to the charge. However, I find myself hearing Pilate’s question on another level. Jesus has been accused of claiming kingship, and Pilate can’t quite believe it.

Are you the King of the Jews?” “Really?”

Whatever answer Jesus may give, he does not present as any kind of king that Pilate can recognize. What does a king look like? Certainly nothing like a Galilean peasant. Pilate knew kings – people who lived in palaces, dressed richly, surrounded by servants. Most kings in the ancient world got their positions through force or violence, whether an ancestor’s or their own, and they held on to those positions through force. Pilate can see none of this in Jesus, who is no kind of king that Pilate (or almost anyone else) understands. “My kingdom is not of this world,” as Jesus says. Living under Jesus’ reign is different from living under the rule of an earthly king. So…

       What kind of king is he?
       What kind of kingdom does he reign over?
       What kind of people inhabit this kingdom?

The Bible is ambivalent about human government, especially kingship.[1] There are texts that affirm its positive value, others that caution about it, and still others that are profoundly negative. Our reading from 2 Samuel points to this tension: someone who rules over people should do so “in the fear of God,” meaning that the ruler’s purposes should be God’s purposes. History has too many examples of rulers whose purposes were not aimed at the good of God’s people, but rather driven by self-interest, aggrandizement, and aggression.

Moves to limit the power of kings play an important role in our history. In 1215, Magna Carta sought to protect the rights of the church and the barons, but real steps in establishing rights for the wider populace came later, notably with the British Bill of Rights Act of 1689. In Canada, human rights, as enshrined in the first section of our constitution in 1982, have become a major factor in our lives, notably as part of some rancorous disputes around pandemic protection.[2]

The language of human rights has become commonplace, even finding its way into church life. At General Synod in 1998, we were asked to vote on a declaration of human rights for the church. The measure was narrowly defeated, but I found the debate instructive. I particularly recall one of the bishops saying something like “Human rights are a good thing to promote, but we in the church should remember that this is not our ‘heart language.’ Our heart language as followers of Christ is the language of responsibility, which is found in the Baptismal Covenant.”[3]

That one short speech has stayed with me ever since.

We are celebrating baptism today, affirming with the candidate and her parents and sponsors our own commitment to following Jesus. We are declaring ourselves to be citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom. Following Jesus is never about asserting rights and privileges, but rather about acknowledging and accepting our responsibilities as Jesus’ people. One of those responsibilities is related to human rights – we pledge to respect the dignity of every human being, but that has little to do with our own rights. It’s more about acknowledging others’ equal standing in God’s eyes.

Jesus could have claimed kingship for himself, with all the rights and privileges pertaining to that office. As the incarnate Word of God – the Truth walking among us – he was certainly entitled to due respect. But he never claimed it.

Instead, as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:5-8

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

Jesus’ kingship is not about him – not like Louis XIV of France, who famously said “L’état – c’est moi.” For Louis and many other monarchs, it is all about them. For Jesus, it is all about God and God’s people, and his self-giving love for all that led him to stand before Pilate, and soon after to die on the cross.

Christian life – the life expressed in promise form in the Baptismal Covenant – is not about us. It’s about our participation in the Reign of Christ, a Kingdom built on justice, mercy, and love.

Christian life is about us being and becoming a kingdom of “priests serving [Jesus’] God and Father.” We are not all priests in the ecclesiastical sense, but as a people we are called to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God,” presenting God to the world in all that we say and do – the essential nature of priestly ministry. This message will not always be received in joy by people, not least because it confronts all our self-driven agendas.

I once asked a young man who was considering Baptism as part of his preparation for marriage what he understood to be the purpose of life. His response startled me: “I guess to get power over other people,” a dramatic contrast to seeking others’ good, entailed in following Jesus. I don’t think he is unique – far from it! – but I had never heard this stance expressed quite so candidly.

Being part of the people of God can sometimes be difficult, as that conversation showed. But the good news is that we are not alone.

We stand with Jesus, who stands with us, together accepting and sharing all the risks of proclaiming the Truth in a world that sometimes seems to despise it.

We are empowered by the Holy Spirit, who moves in our midst and in our hearts, driving out fear, and sowing within us the seeds of love.

We are all children of God, who created us in love, calls us to live in love, and welcomes us into the Kingdom in love.

Thanks be to God!


[1]Excursus: Biblical Ambivalence to Government”, in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon 2003, p.407

[2] A considerable body of jurisprudence has emerged in Canada, using the principle of “reasonable accommodation” in cases of competing rights.

[3] Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada, 1985, p. 158

Messiah – a credal oratorio

This article was first published in 1998 in the newsletter of Edmonton’s Richard Eaton Singers, with whom I sang from 1988 to 2002. I am reviving it in response to a conversation with a friend about Messiah, and its place in contemporary traditions, particularly as a fixture of the Christmas season.

Although by far the best-known of Handel’s (or anyone’s) oratorios, Messiah is not typical of the form. Most of his other oratorios are more like operas, with dramatic scenes, and characters portrayed by soloists. The choir often takes a lesser role, in some cases substituting for the action of a fully staged opera. (Mendelsohn’s Elijah is a good example of this type of work.) Israel in Egypt, almost without solos, was Handel’s other notable departure from the norm—and it was unsuccessful in his time.

Messiah is different. Apart from the “angel” scene (from the “Pastoral Symphony” through “Glory to God”), there is neither character nor action. In the libretto he put together for Handel, Charles Jennings drew on Biblical texts reflecting on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, known as the Christ or the Messiah. (The two titles are the Greek and Hebrew words meaning “anointed one.”)

If there is no dramatic development in its layout, what then is the organizing idea behind its structure? In the middle of a performance of the work, it occurred to me that Jennings’ choice of texts has close parallels to the Nicene Creed. It draws our attention to the whole of the Creed’s second article and part of the third. On reflection, this should be no surprise: the Creed is simply a summary of the Christian faith, and Messiah aims to depict and reflect musically upon the “kernel” of that faith, particularly with respect to the person and work of Jesus.

Each of the Creed’s three articles corresponds to one of the three persons of the Trinity. The first expresses faith in the one God, the creator of all. While this belief of course underlies the entire work, Messiah makes no specific reference to it. The second article deals with Jesus, telling of his birth AND making theological statements about his divine and human nature, his death by crucifixion, and his resurrection. It ends with an expression of faith in his return to judge “the living and the dead.” The first two sections of Messiah deal with Jesus’ birth, his passion and resurrection, ending with “Hallelujah,” whose text exalts the eternal Lordship of Jesus the Messiah, closely paralleling the credal statement.

The theological heart of the Creed is the proclamation “on the third day he rose again.” (Lat. et resurrexit tertia die). Mass settings typically make much of this text. For example, a critical turning-point in Bach’s B-Minor Mass is the joyful outburst of “Et resurrexit” after the darkness and grief of the “Crucifixus.”

Although not perhaps presenting it as vividly as does Bach, Handel gives us a similar turning-point at the tenor solo “But thou didst not leave His soul in hell.” The oratorio’s first reference to the resurrection, this aria brings relief and lightness after the stress and drama of the passion section, breaking in on the somber recitative “He was cut off out of the land of the living.” The change of mood is immediate and notable, and the sense of joy increases as the section progresses. Even the somewhat stern selections from Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations,” “Let us break their bonds,” and “Thou shalt break them”) are properly seen as expressing thanks and praise in anticipation of God’s victory. “Hallelujah” is a fitting response to these pieces, releasing the tension in a way that does full justice to the Creed’s affirmation “He shall come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.”

The third article of the Creed speaks of the Holy Spirit and the church, ending with the assertion of hope in the “life of the world to come.” (Lat. et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen, set especially dramatically in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) Rarely performed in its entirety, Messiah’s third section is an extended meditation on the promise of resurrection through Jesus Christ. The link to the Creed’s closing affirmation is clear. For Part III Jennings drew heavily on 1 Corinthians 15, arguably the New Testament’s most important statement about the hope of the resurrection.

The final chorus “Worthy is the Lamb … Amen.” sums up the promise of the first section, the drama of the second, and the hope of the third.

In Messiah, Handel and his librettist have brought theology and music together in an unparalleled and happy union.

A theology of money?

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity Strathcona, Sept. 25, 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-3A, 6-15; 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

At one time I was deeply involved in Stewardship in this Diocese, including 1½ years as Stewardship and Planned Giving Officer. In that capacity, I received many preaching invitations, most often to parishes that perceived themselves as needing help in their finances.

“Stewardship” has become an important word in church life over the last few decades. We did various financial programs before that, but an apparent overemphasis on money per se led us to look for a more “theological” term. It’s not a bad word—it has both biblical and theological import—but it seems to me that it has become a code-word for how we fund the church. I believe most church people, if asked, would now say that stewardship is about getting more money out of church members.

In my last parish, I got a strong negative reaction if I raised the question of Stewardship programs. Previous programs had used some strong-armed tactics. It ended up putting them in a worse financial situation than they might otherwise have been.

A few years ago the church renamed our national office of Stewardship and Financial Development as “Resources for Mission,” emphasizing that the main thing is the Church’s mission, which requires a variety of resources, including, but not limited to, money.

dollar-signThe church sits uneasily with money. I read of a recent meeting of national staff in which they had concluded that we need a new theology of money. I would agree, but I would drop the word “new”—have we have had any really coherent teaching on this subject? Historical church attitudes to money have veered between the extremes of seeking either great wealth or intentional poverty.

In my various parish visits for Stewardship preaching, the clergy often said to me that they were grateful that the Diocese had someone to come and talk about these things, things which made them very uncomfortable. I understand that: a parish priest speaking about money from the pulpit cannot help but be aware that his or her own stipend is a major line item in the parish’s budget—in many cases the largest single expense. It can sound like you’re begging—even if your theology of stewardship is totally sound.

This brings me to today’s lessons, all of which have something to do with money. Maybe they will help us (and maybe also Church House!) get a handle on a theology of money.

First, I Timothy, the source of one of the commonest and most erroneous Bible quotes. People often say that “money is the root of all evil,” but note what is actually written:

…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

It is not money that matters but what we do with it in our lives and in our hearts. Money per se is ethically neutral, a convenient means of exchange, a means to an end, whether good or evil. It has no real existence beyond that, but how we regard it and use it has immense spiritual significance.

…in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

And further on,

(The rich) are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

It’s what we do with it that counts. God’s Mission is the all-important thing. If we have wealth, we are charged to use it for God’s purposes before ours. Regardless of our own personal wealth or poverty, the challenge is to seek the good, to look to know what will help advance the Kingdom of God in this world, and to use our God-given resources towards that goal.

Sometimes it may be very unclear what will actually advance the Kingdom. The prophet Jeremiah lived in just such a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. The Babylonians were threatening the Kingdom of Judah, the kings were weak, and the people had retreated behind a triumphalist theology. (God had made a covenant with them and would not allow his holy city and temple to fall. All they had to do was invoke his name.) The prophet saw otherwise, understanding the reality of the threat, and the people’s confidence to be misplaced. So he does a prophetic action: he buys some land. This looks like madness when the invading hordes are at your gates, but he offers it as a sign of hope. This may not seem the right time to affirm God’s purposes (probably better to be getting all your stuff together in preparation), but Jeremiah asserts that now is the time to work for the Kingdom.

If not me, then who?
If not here, then where?
If not now, then when?

The answer he gives us is “Me, here, and now.” It is always the right time and place to do God’s work.

And do it we must, lest we end like the rich man in the Gospel. There’s much else that could be said about this story, but it seems that at least part of the message is the injunction to do good when the opportunity presents itself. The rich man had years in which he could have helped Lazarus, but he did nothing. As Jesus tells it, the consequences are clear.

Notwithstanding the current recession, we live in one of the most fortunate countries in the world. The vast majority of our people are well-fed, decently housed, educated, and in good health. We have been given great riches, as a people, and as individuals.

Let us then not fail to use what God has given us for the good of God’s people and God’s world.

Let us keep the eyes of our Spirits open, that we may see the need around us.

And let us keep all of our resources at the ready to do God’s work.

May it be so.

Visiting: ministry for all

Clergy get guilted a lot.
“You did this…”
“You didn’t do that…”
“You said…”
“You didn’t say…”
“You weren’t there…”
“You were there…”

Whatever they do (or don’t do), clerics have to expect that someone will be  annoyed with it.

sell ice cream

When I was in parish ministry, the thing I was most often criticized about was visiting. The model of ministry which I grew up with, and that most of my parishioners expected, was that the clergy would spent the largest amount of their time visiting their flock, in times of need and in almost every time. Just dropping in was totally acceptable.

Except…

When I started out, there were some people for whom that model worked, but far more for whom it didn’t. The folks for whom it worked were mostly older, very settled, and accustomed to receiving guests at the drop of a hat. Others? Younger folk had busier lives, fuller schedules, and were often not open to just welcoming someone into their home, even if they had nothing else on.

There’s a generational divide at work here, of course, but also a divide in lifestyles. My first parish was largely farm folk, for whom hospitality was a way of life. My second parish was mostly double-income families, at least one of them commuting. Commuter-suburb ministry turned out to be hugely different from farm-town ministry.

I have clergy friends who still regard visitation as the heart and soul of their work. That ended for me over 25 years ago. The change in my situation forced me to begin asking what parish ministry was really all about. Did it still mean that the pastor had to spend most of his/her time running around trying to find someone at home? Or did it mean that more time was spend building up the community so they could care for each other. and so be better equipped for mission?

I hope by now it should be no surprise that I decided that the latter was the appropriate course.

A community which is dependent for its existence only one person is no community at all. On the other other hand, if that one person has worked to enable the community to thrive through all sorts of tribulations and joys through the graces it possesses, that person has done something truly wonderful.

I didn’t do much visiting at all in my third and last parish. Do I feel guilty about that? Not at all! But I do feel gratified that I worked to  build up a team of people who were committed to reaching “in” to care for the people within the community, building up the Body of Christ in ways that one person like me could never do.

Visiting people is important. Read what Jesus said about it in Matthew 25:31-40:

 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

This is not a call to a specialized group of people, but to all of God’s people.Don’t guilt your clergy about who they haven’t visited. Rather, ask yourself who you have reached out to.

Guns or love?

I feel sick at heart. In some ways, I should be rejoicing: a major issue for which I have advocated for years has taken a huge step forward in our church. A big issue in the choir in which I sing and serve on the executive is very close to resolution. My personal life is placid, calm, full of blessings.

And yet…

I picked up this week’s issue of Maclean’s Magazine, to which  I’ve subscribed for many years, and was immediately discouraged by the cover headline: “The Republic of Fear.” I browsed through it, and promptly threw it to one side. So many of the stories had something to do with how badly things are going in today’s world. I may pick it up again and read some of it, but tonight it only served to remind me of how troubled I am about what is going on today:

There are so many violent incidents in the news: NiceBaton Rouge (twice), Minneapolis, Turkey, Dallas, Calgary, ISIL, just to name a few. Guns seem to the rule of the day, and for the life of me, I just don’t understand the gun-ownership mentality of

There are so many leaders preaching negative thoughts: in the wider world I thinkof Trump, Clinton (somewhat less), Teresa May, Putin. Locally, I read my newspaper, the Edmonton Journal, and see so much negative thinking in the people who write in it and to it, with the exception of Paula Simons.

The reaction of some of our church’s bishops to the big issue, whether our church will allow clergy to officiate at marriages of same-gender couples, has been very depressing. They feel disrespected and abandoned by the rest of the church. I am sorry for that, but the language in which these statements have been made makes me feel disrespected

I could go on, but what’s the point? The world sometimes seems to be so full of negativity these days, when all I wish for is that people could love each other, care for each other, treat each other as beloved children of our God. And what I see is more and more hatred

Where is this leading? I don’t know, and sometimes (like when I tossed Maclean’s aside tonight) I don’t want to know. What I know is that God calls us to live in the love God has declared towards all people.

“Love your neiggood_shepherd-7135901hbour.” Yes!
And the lawyer asked , “Who is my neighbour?”
Jesus’ answer (the parable of the Good Samaritan) is basically this:
“Who is not your neighbour?”
We don’t get to choose who to love.
The only choice is whether or not to love — and that’s no choice at all.

Brothers and sisters, let us learn to love each other as God first love us. Without that, there may be no hope for the human race. For those who see guns as the answer to all the problems of the world, I can only say: “I love you.”

 

 

 

Holy Week … rediscovered

daliFor many years, this week has been the most intense, the most emotional, and the most stressful time of the year. For clergy in Catholic tradition, the observance of Holy Week is at the same time the ultimate spiritual experience and professionally the most demanding few days one can imagine.

I used to be responsible for making sure that a whole week of services happened, from the “light into dark” of the Palm/Passion Sunday liturgy through the gathering darkness of the week to the blackness of Good Friday — and then to the new fire, and the glories of Easter Day. One of the secrets of clergy life is that Holy Week is never complete until the priest has completed the final act — the liturgy of the Holy Face Plant!

I rejoiced to be a part of this for many years, even as it was so exhausting physically, but spiritually fulfilling.

This year is different. I am not responsible for anything except for a few assigned roles. The pressure is off! That’s a good thing, to some extent. Except… I am feeling this lack of pressure rather keenly. Holy Week seems a little emptier this year, and I have to realize that this will be the case in the future. This year, for the first time in a quarter-century, I skipped the Maundy Thursday service in favour of family commitments. I am happy to be with my family, but I look at posts of pictures from services, and I know what I am missing.

Professional or vocational responsibilities are one thing. My spiritual life is another. The years ahead will help me find a new balance, when the one that is now so much less has probably outweighed the other in the years past.

I will be part of the rest of the paschal liturgies: Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter, and the glories of Easter Sunday. That will be good!

I am an Anglican

I am an Anglican. It’s a historical faith, born out of the strife of the 16th century, committed by that strife to reach out to all people, bringing them into the reach of the love of God. We follow Jesus of Nazareth, who embraced the whole world by his death on the cross, and redeemed all humanity by that ultimate act of love.

In my early years in the church, I learned to love its ways — liturgy, scripture, prayer and service. In my latter years, I have come to question its historical identification of the Gospel with a particular cultural and ethnic orientation. Even though my forebears in this church have made errors, I stand with those today whose commitment to a new and Christ-like way of being are calling this Communion into God’s future.

We are a Church that has been in constant Reformation for almost 600 years, as we have striven to open our doors to all people in the name of Christ. Sometimes that has been successful, sometimes not. Sometimes the work we have done has borne appropriate witness to our Lord, sometimes not.

We are human, and like all humanity can only seek to follow Jesus in all or humanity.

This a warts-and-all church. Thanks be to God.

 

I Thirst—for What?

Text for a sermon given at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton
March 23, 2014
Lent 3, Year A
Lectionary Texts: John 4:5-42; Exodus 17:1-7

I hunger and I thirst;
   Jesus, my manna be:
ye living waters, burst
   out of the rock for me.[i]

The American author Gertrude Stein was dying. As she was being wheeled into the operating room for surgery, she asked her life partner Alice B. Toklas, “What is the answer?” When Toklas did not reply, Stein said, “In that case, what is the question?”[ii]

Some of you may have seen signs in various places proclaiming “Jesus is the answer.” It’s a saying that has been much used by some churches in recent years, and it is now the official slogan of one para-church organization.[iii] The first time I remember noticing it, the same thought came to me as to Gertrude Stein: “What is the question?”

Image
Today’s Gospel reading shows us Jesus asserting a similar idea: he is the answer to all our thirst.

“…those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”[iv]

If Jesus is the answer to our thirst, then we may ask, “For what do (or should) we thirst?”

The woman in the Gospel story interprets Jesus’ offer very literally and physically. Her response shows that she is thinking of the kind of water she draws daily from Jacob’s well, the same ordinary stuff we expect to come out of our taps whenever we need it. You can almost hear her thinking, “Oh, great! Now I won’t have to come out in the scorching sun to carry this heavy water jug home…” Even today, there are millions of women around the world who would welcome such relief from this burdensome but essential labour.

Water: plain, old everyday water—the most basic necessity of life. That’s what she thought Jesus was talking about. But just as in Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, heard last Sunday, Jesus is using this word in a metaphorical or spiritual sense. Nicodemus heard “born from above” and thought of the physical impossibilities that phrase seems to suggest. The woman hears “living water” and thinks of cold running water from a never-ending spring.

In both cases, Jesus is pointing beyond the physical reality to something eternal and spiritual. We will continue to thirst for ordinary H2O – without dealing with that thirst we will die physically. The people of Israel knew that when they asked Moses,

Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?[v]

Likewise, without responding to hunger we will die physically, if somewhat more slowly than from thirst. Hunger and thirst are necessary to life, but we can have too much of a good thing: it is possible to die from over-consumption of water[vi], and severe over-eating can also be life-threatening.[vii]

We can be sure about this: Jesus is talking about something beyond physical thirst. Typically in John’s Gospel, the text does not spell out the full implications, but rather it points towards a deeper meaning. Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well leads us out of the ordinary and trusted into the realm of the sacramental and the risk of faith. We begin with Jesus in “enemy territory,” the land of the Samaritans, traditional religious antagonists of the Jewish people. Jesus shouldn’t even have been there, and then he goes on to break more boundaries, first by approaching a woman in public, violating social customs, then by asking her for a drink, violating religious imperatives.

The dialogue moves beyond the physical thirst into what the theologian Paul Tillich called “the dimension of depth.”[viii] The woman’s concerns progress from dealing with ordinary daily needs to making a declaration of faith and giving witness that brings many others to Christ – in this case both physically and in faith.

At the story’s start, the woman is dealing with ordinary physical thirst – she is getting water for her household. By story’s end, she is addressing the deep eternal thirst for salvation – however she and her people may understand it. Both thirsts are real and vital. Thirst is the awareness of the need for something essential to life.

Life becomes difficult, complicated, even unmanageable or dangerous, when we try to slake our thirst with that which will not—cannot!—satisfy. We can find this happening in addictions, in our personal and economic lives, and even (alas!) in politics, both locally and on the world stage.

No substance can ever satisfy—there’s never enough.

No possessions can satisfy—there’s never enough.

No amount of money can satisfy—there’s never enough.

No exercise of power can satisfy—there’s never enough.

There really is no area of life immune from this urge to slake our thirsts at the wrong wells.

There’s nothing new about this all-too-human tendency. As we read in Isaiah:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price. 
Why do you spend your money
   for that which is not bread,
   and your labour for that which does not satisfy?[ix]

Jesus blesses only one thirst: the thirst for a life lived in relationship with God through him. We hear later in John:

Jesus said…, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’[x]

And in Matthew:

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.’[xi]

Lenten disciplines help us to re-direct our hungers and thirsts, to turn again to the one who can satisfy all the yearnings of our souls. And so we shall enter eternal life:

The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.[xii]

Ask the right question, and the answer shall be given.

For still the desert lies
   my thirsting soul before;
O living waters, rise
   within me evermore.[xiii]

Amen.


[i] “I hunger and I thirst,” John Samuel Bewley Monsell, Jr., 1866, vs. 1

[iv] John 4:14a (NRSV)

[v] Exodus 17:3b (NRSV)

[vii] As in Prader-Will Syndrome: Characteristic of PWS is … a chronic feeling of hunger that can lead to excessive eating and life-threatening obesity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prader%E2%80%93Willi_syndrome

[viii] Tillich, Paul, “The Lost Dimension in Religion,” in “The Essential Tillich,” University of Chicago Press 1999

[ix] Isaiah 55:1-2a (NRSV)

[x] John 6:35 (NRSV)

[xi] Matthew 5:6 (NRSV)

[xii] John 4:14b (NRSV)

[xiii] “I hunger and I thirst,” vs. 5

Back to the future?

When I was in full-time parish ministry, I had a regular routine of preaching preparation. I preached most Sundays, and my week was structured around my discipline of sermon-writing. It began on Tuesday morning, when I would read the scripture selections for the coming Sunday and jot a few notes. On Wednesday afternoon, I would return to the notes, and do whatever exegetical work seemed to be called for — consulting commentaries and other references, in recent years more on the Web than through books. (Thank you, textweek.com!) Sometime on Thursday, I would try to sketch some general ideas for the actual sermon. On Friday afternoon, I would close the door and begin writing. I usually had a working copy done by 4:30 PM. I would do a final set-up of my stuff for Sunday, and go home to enjoy my Saturday day off with my spouse. On Sunday, I would re-read the text before services, correcting any obvious egregious errors, and then I was ready.

That was the essential structure of my week, something that became not just a way of organizing my vocational life, but the heart and soul of my spiritual life. I believe the essential discipline of preaching is “engaging the scriptures,” to use Thomas G. Long’s felicitous phrase. If the preacher has been immersed in the text, and has been seriously engaged in exploring its depths, it can not help but show in the pulpit.

Because I no longer have that scriptural framework for my week, I have been forced to re-discipline my spiritual life. That’s another story for another time — it’s actually still in formation.

The change in the rhythm of life has changed how I prepare for preaching. When I was a pastoral intern at St. John’s Cathedral, Saskatoon in 1986, my supervisor gave me preaching dates long in advance. I had the luxury of extended preparation time, and each of the sermons I gave there was pretty polished — perhaps too much so! I became aware that it was a little too easy to edit out spontaneity and feeling.

When I entered into full-time parish ministry the next year, the shock of weekly preaching forced me to develop the disciplined approach I already described. No-one told me how hard that would be at first… and no-one told me how much I would come to rely on it.

I’m preaching again, three times in the next two and a half months. I began working on the first of the three this morning, a date more than two weeks away. The long horizon reminded me of my internship, and the careful prep. that I did then. I pray that I will not be over-prepared for these dates, but will be free to speak spontaneously from the structure that my written text will give me. We shall see.

My internship was 27 years ago. I am certainly not the same person today as the rather nervous student who first stood in that pulpit in Saskatoon, Pentecost, 1986. And I’m not the same as I was on June 23 last year, when I last preached at St. Matthew’s in Brandon.

Things come in circles. I have the luxury of preparation time, and I also have the advantage of years of experience. All I pray is that I will be given the grace to be an effective minister of the word for the people of Holy Trinity.

My friend’s questions

It seemed appropriate to post the questions which occasioned my previous post. Here they are, in his words:

  1. Tell me about God: Is He a he? Is He in any way like a person? Is He conscious? Does He interact with humans? Does He hear and answer specific prayers? Does He have a plan? Is He all-loving? All-knowing? All-powerful? How do you know He’s real?
  2.  Tell me about the Bible: Is it the word of God? Was it written by men inspired by the God you told me about? Is it history? Is it mythology? Is it perfect? Are there errors?
  3.  Tell me about Worship and Prayer: What is it? What is it for? Does God need it in some sense? Is it a kind of meditation? Is it an art form? Why are some prayers answered and others ignored? Are 10 people praying for something better than one?
  4.  Tell me about Heaven and Hell: Is there literal life after death? Will I be aware and conscious? Will I remember anything of my life on earth? Are Heaven and Hell metaphors for what we do and experience in the here and now?