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.
Today is March 25, 2014. In the calendar of my church and many others, this is the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the story of the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, telling her that she would bear the Son of God. It’s 9 months before Christmas, hence the date. At one time, Europe observed the day as New Year’s Day: e.g., March 24, 1213 was followed by March 24, 1214. In traditions that emphasize her, it’s a day of special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It’s a special anniversary for me. Twenty-six years ago, on a Friday evening at All Saints’ Cathedral, Edmonton, two colleagues and I were ordained to the priesthood. It was an eventful weekend. The very next day the Synod of the Diocese of Edmonton met to elect a bishop — Ken Genge, who retired in 1996. Sunday was Palm Sunday, a big day in church life in any year, and the occasion of my first celebration of the Holy Eucharist. On Monday, I celebrated my first Requiem Eucharist, a service delayed by a week so that I could preside at the kind of rite that the deceased had requested.
I remember much of that weekend with almost startling clarity. Other events in my years in ordained ministry may have faded into the muddled mists of my memory, but not those four days. Something special happened then. All these years later, I believe I can honestly say that my ministry bore fruit, sometimes in the way I had hoped — and sometimes God surprised me! There are things I regret, of course. (Can anyone truthfully say that all we have done was to the good?) Nonetheless, the tumult of those days in March 1988 stands for me as a sign of what the rest of my ministry was to become: busy, committed, mostly fruitful, and always striving to be faithful to the promises I made that night.
Will you respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of your bishop?
Will you be diligent in the reading and study of the holy scriptures, and in seeking the knowledge of such things as may make you a stronger and more able minister of Christ?
Will you endeavour so to minister the word of God and the sacraments of the new covenant, that the reconciling love of Christ may be known and received?
Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom you are called to serve, labouring together with them and with your fellow ministers to build up the family of God?
Will you do your best to pattern your life (and that of your family) in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you may be a wholesome example to your people?
Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and in private, asking God’s grace, both for yourself and for others, and offering all your labours to God, through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit?
Today I recall those promises, reviewed so many times in the succeeding years, and give thanks that God has given me the grace to keep them to the best of my ability. At times it was very hard — and those are the times I recall as giving the greatest growth. As I reflect on this day, I find in it a deep connection of Mary’s call to a unique ministry to my own call to ministry. I am also reminded that ministry is grounded in human life, as Mary’s ministry was grounded in the totally human activity of giving birth to Jesus — the Word made Flesh.
Thanks be to God!
When I retired and moved to Edmonton, I brought with me a file of documents relating to a pending court case. It was very likely that I would be called to testify at any future trial. The Crown Prosecutor had advised me to retain the file, and to make sure that they knew where to find me. I have been watching the agonizingly-slow progress of the case ever since, anticipating that some time this year I would have to return in response to a subpoena. It’s been rather a lead weight on my spirit ever since.
Things changed this week. The Crown withdrew the charges, to give them time to do some ground-work that really should have happened last year. It is very likely that the charges will be reinstated at some time, but the details of that eventuality depend on many things. The effect for me is to put everything back by a year or so (frustrating — I’d really like this to be over!), but probably changing the nature of my relationship to the case. If the ground-work pans out as expected, the kind of evidence I might be asked to give will be quite different, and the testimony less onerous.
All this means that I can keep the file in my bottom drawer, and only take it out to read it when and if I am required to. In the meantime — let’s get on with life, for the near future without this burden!
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?”
“…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]
[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
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.
This past weekend was a great time, divided between two commitments. On the community front, my spouse and I had the great pleasure of singing with Vocal Alchemy, the community choir we joined last fall. The major work on the program was Schubert’s Mass #2 in G Major, a lovely piece with some very special vocal challenges. (It’s what sopranos and tenors call a “screech”!) I had the privilege of singing the bass solo in the Benedictus, which was a very wonderful experience. A great experience, no less than some of the concerts we sang with the Richard Eaton Singers in past years. One of the interesting aspects for me was standing in the back row, right up against the organ. You haven’t lived until you’ve sung a concert with a pipe organ right behind you!
That was a great experience, but the highlight of the weekend for me was a celebrating the Eucharist at Holy Trinity. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed this part of my life until I put on my vestments on Sunday morning. I fluffed a few words in the Great Thanksgiving, a sign to me that I was more keyed up than I had really allowed myself to admit. After the service, quite a few people complimented me on, which felt good and also a little odd. After all, I was only doing what I had done almost every Sunday for 26 years!
In my early years of ordained ministry, I often found myself in the same kind of situation — being complimented for something that I was doing out of my sense of vocation. It took me a while to learn simply to say “Thank you,” and then move on. Yesterday’s experience took me right back to those days. One of the things that my early years as a priest did was help to confirm my confidence that God had in fact called me to this ministry, and therefore the Church had not made a huge mistake, regardless of what various people around me had said throughout the process. This weekend was much like those early days in some ways.
(In case you hadn’t figured it out before, I have long suffered from intense self-doubt and the self-criticism that follows from that.)
It was a wonderful weekend, receiving affirmations from different directions, and confirming my sense that we are where God has called us to be. Our move to Edmonton was primarily motivated by selfish needs: this is the one place we have regarded as home for most of our married life, and our daughter and grandchildren are in this area. That made the choice of place quite clear, but recent events have helped to tell me/us that this is not just a place to live, but also the place where God has called us — into a ministry that is beginning to unfold in exciting ways.
So… what is coming?
Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday. Before heading off to a Vocal Alchemy rehearsal, we eat at Holy Trinity’s pancake supper, which I have been asked to open with grace.
Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. At 6 AM (egads!) I am scheduled to be at the Central LRT Station, participating in the Diocese of Edmonton‘s “Ashes to Go” program. Afternoon — the first session of a group study of Matthew’s Gospel. Evening — singing in Holy Trinity’s choir for the Ash Wednesday liturgy.
Thursday: church choir practice.
Sunday: for Lent 1 Holy Trinity has one of its very infrequent Sung Matins services. I have been asked to celebrate Eucharist in the chapel afterwards for those who really desire the sacrament — a great privilege!
I am settling in, finding myself a place in this city which I know and love, and in a faith community which I am coming to love deeply, even after only a few months.
The future looks more and more exciting all the time. I have come home to where God has called me.
Thanks be to God!