That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Tag: Preaching

Walking Away: A Post-Retirement Meditation

I didn’t intend to walk away from religion when I retired from pastoral ministry, but it is sort of happening.

After decades of writing sermons (and posting most of them in manuscript form on my blog), I thought I would keep up the discipline of reading each week’s Lectionary texts and writing a brief meditation as if I were preaching. “If I were preaching,” I would write . . . and then follow it with some personal reflection on a verse or two from the readings. I’m not a theologian (any more than in the sense that we are all theologians) nor any sort of bible scholar; I’m just a guy who occasionally has some minor insight into the meaning, or at least the application, of Holy Scripture. So I thought this would be an exercise that would keep my faith focused and maybe be of some help to preachers.

I did a couple of those and then I stopped. I stopped for good reason; I had major surgery (total knee arthroplasty) and recovery and recuperation took (and is still taking) nearly all my energy and attention.

I stopped going to church, too. The first few weeks of retirement, my wife and I attended other nearby Episcopal parishes (nearby being a relative term . . . after 16 years of driving less than ten minutes to cover the two miles to church, a 40-minute drive to the nearest congregation doesn’t actually seem “nearby”). Then we visited family in another state. Then the surgery . . . and Sunday morning TV. I have on several earlier occasions commented on how I have come to understand those who stay home on Sunday morning to read newspapers, sip coffee, and watch Sunday morning television. I have found it much more restful, much more in honor of the sabbath prescription, much more spiritually uplifting than most Sunday morning experiences at church.

No longer burdened with the ministry of overseeing other people’s Sunday morning religious experience, I have tried (when attending church services) to relax into the experience of being a congregant. It’s practically impossible! My wife, no longer participating as a chorister or a eucharistic minister, has found the same.

Architecture, hymn choices, tones of voice, pronunciation of names, ritual gesture, the staging of choirs, inexplicable delays, inexplicable rushing, rubrics ignored, sermons with no point, sermons with too many points, announcements turned into sermons, prayers turned into sermons, the Peace that has become an intermission, too many people doing liturgical things, too few people involved in liturgical leadership . . . I could fill this page with all the intrusive details that capture our attention and fire our drive-home conversations, all the distractions that keep us from focusing on God, all the stage-craft and priest-craft errors (or, at least, questionable decisions) that leave us wondering what the liturgist’s point may have been. And, worst of all, the thought that for the past 28 years of parish ministry someone has been going away from every service I planned or led making those same criticisms, asking those same questions, wondering about those same worrisome details.

I was asked if I would like to take on a long-term supply gig, several weeks presiding and preaching (and attending committee meetings!) in a congregation from which a long-term pastor was retiring. After initially saying, “Yes, as soon as I’ve recovered from this surgery,” I talked it over with my spouse . . . and had to go back to the person who asked and say, “Sorry, but no.” I came to realize that after two long-term (one 10-year, one 16-year) pastorates, I need more than a few weeks to decompress. I need six months, at least.

I didn’t intend to walk away from religion. I just did. I need not to do that. I need to be intentional about it. I need to walk away from religion as a conscious choice, not simply as something that happened while I wasn’t paying attention. I need to be purposeful about ignoring architecture and rubrics and hymn choices and the liturgical decisions of worship leaders with other agendae and other sensibilities than mine.

I need to walk away on purpose. Not from faith, mind you, but from religion. On purpose. For a while.

Weddings & Marriages: If I Were Preaching, Epiphany 2, 20 January 2019

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. – John 2:1-2

I know that the natural inclination of preachers during the season of ordinary Sundays after Epiphany is to focus on the gospel stories of “manifestation” and we certainly have one this week, the miracle of water-into-wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. The story is ripe with focus possibilities: the miracle itself, the presence of the Holy Spirit as the activating force of Jesus’ power (suggested strongly this year by the lectionary pairing of this gospel tale with Paul’s listing of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12), the always popular look at the relationship between Mary and her son, Jesus’ attitude toward his public ministry at this time.

What is seldom preached on this Sunday is the context of the story: a wedding! So I think I might go there this week if I were preaching. The lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures positively invites us to do so; marriage is Isaiah’s metaphor (as it is other prophets’) for the relationship between God and Israel:

For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.[1]

I’ve been thinking a good deal recently about the nature of the marital estate. I recently had major orthopedic surgery (a total knee replacement) and find myself absolutely unable to attend to many of the everyday activities of life, some of them quite mundane, some quite intimate and personal. I am dependent upon my spouse to whom I have been married now for nearly 40 years. As she attended to one of my needs the other day, I quipped, “Ah yes, I remember well that part of the service where we promised to do this for each other” (which, of course, we hadn’t). We make formal promises in weddings to love and honor, to cherish and comfort, to faithfully keep one another “in sickness and health,”[2] but we don’t get into the nitty-gritty details. Perhaps we’ve been counseled in advance of the wedding as to what these vows mean and what that nitty grit might be, but no pre-marital instruction can cover everything.

My father-in-law probably didn’t realize in 1947 that those promises would commit him 50 years later to caring for an invalid wife suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the last eight years of their marriage, feeding her, bathing her, wiping her bottom, and all while she tried to fight him off because she didn’t know him. Those vows long before the onset of my mother-in-law’s disease had become water under the bridge, replaced by the fine, strong wine of human love and commitment. And though she hasn’t (I hope) had quite the same level of difficulty to handle, my in-law’s daughter follows in her father’s footsteps taking care of her temporarily invalided husband.

So . . . if I were preaching this week, I’d consider that context, a wedding. Weddings become marriages, brides become wives, grooms become husbands; those are transmutations, transformations, and differences as profound as water become wine. That alchemy of marriage manifests the Lord in our midst everyday.

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Isaiah 62:5

[2] The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 424

Murkiness: If I Were Preaching, Christmas 1 (30 December 2018)

If I were preaching this coming Sunday (which I’m not … but if I were …), I’d look at darkness. Strange choice, perhaps, for the Sunday after Christmas Day, but the Episcopal Church lectionary always specifies the prologue of John’s Gospel as the gospel lesson for this Sunday and it includes that verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[1]

My friend Scott, a scholar of all things Scottish (“If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” — Thank you, Mike Myers, for that memorable proclamation![2]) recently posted to Facebook the Scots version of the verse in question: “An, aye, the licht shon i the mirk, an the mirk dinnae slacken it nane.”

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Insecurity & Incarnation: If I Were Preaching, Advent 4 (23 December 2018)

They shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. – Micah 5:4b

If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.

Do not leave
without hearing
who you are:
Beloved,
named by the One
who has traveled this path
before you.

Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.

I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from danger,
from fear,
from hunger
or thirst,
from the scorching
of sun
or the fall
of the night.

But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.

I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.

I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
curious insistence
whisper our name:

Beloved.
Beloved.
Beloved.

That is the poem Beloved Is Where We Begin by Jan Richardson from her collection of verse entitled Circle of Grace.[1] It is a poem for Lent, but it also speaks to us of the Advent promise we hear in the prophecy of Micah, “They shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.”[2] On the Christian journey, as poet Richardson writes, wherever it may take us, there will be help; there will be the security promised by Micah.

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Today’s Vipers: If I Were Preaching, Advent 3 (16 December 2018)

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7)

I’m not preaching this Sunday, but if I were I would have to congratulate John the Baptizer on his social skills! He sure knows how to warm up and relate to a crowd.

What is John saying by greeting his audience thus? Is John speaking to the Pharisees and the Sadducees at all, or rather to the rest of the crowd? Or, more likely, is Luke saying something to us, his later readers?

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Changing Clothes: If I Were Preaching, Advent 2 (9 December 2018)

“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.”[1]

If I were preaching on the Second Sunday of Advent this year, I think I would select the first of the two options for the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, which is actually from the Jewish apocrypha.

Years ago (many years ago) when I was 18 years old, I worked in a small 100-bed community hospital in Southern California. Initially, I was a janitor (“housekeeper” in the hospital jargon of the time) but within a few months I was able to take the job of orderly.

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The Resistant Drape: If I Were Preaching, Advent 1 (2 December 2018)

If I were preaching this week, I would have to work with Luke’s version of the Little Apocalypse: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. * * * For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”[1]

Many read these words of Jesus as if they are predicting something which will be an act of God. The lectionary links this reading with a prophecy of Jeremiah: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”[2] To suggest that the apocalyptic scenes predicted by Jesus (and others elsewhere in the Scriptures) are the act of God would equate God’s promises, God’s righteousness, and God’s justice with destruction. If I were preaching, I would suggest a different understanding.

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