Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

The Word and words of God – Br. Curtis Almquist

John 1:1-14

As a young boy I remember a great feeling of solace in reading the inscription on the cornerstone of our parish church. The inscription read: “Holding Forth the Word of Life.” Even by a young age I already knew that life was full of changes, most of which absolutely delighted me as I growing up. And yet I still needed the assurance that some things did not change, most especially God. It seems to me that there is an innate need, consciously recognized by many, for a sense of God’s identity and presence and provision amidst the changes and chances of life. The youngest of child will often grasp or cling after his or her parent when the child is unsure or frightened by the unex­pected. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in the scriptures we are con­sis­tently called “children of God” (not “adults of God” but “children of God”) and some of this need for steadiness and stability we simply do not grow out of, no matter our age. The Psalter is full of “predictable” images of God: “Though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea… the God of Jacob is our strong­hold.” [i] The Psalmist sings out how God is our “rock,” our “fortress,” our “shield,” our “tower,” “our light in darkness,” the one who “lifts us out of the mire and clay and makes our footing sure…” [ii] In the Psalm appointed for this eveing, Psalm 15, we hear that if we do what is expected by God, we “shall never be overthrown,” no matter what we have to face. God will be “there for us.”

Before I came here to our community I was a parish priest, and I recall having a conver­sa­tion with a distraught parishioner. She was terribly upset after some renovations in the church sanctuary requiring that the pulpit be moved. The parishioner was well-educated, much-traveled, and very successful in multi-national business ventures, but our moving the pulpit was more than she could take. She finally said to me in utter exasperation, “I can handle almost anything in my business and personal life, but don’t mess with my God!” And my heart went out to her. I per­sonally had little attachment to the physical location of the pulpit, but I knew very well what she was talking about.

Going back to that cornerstone on my childhood parish church – “Holding Forth the Word of Life” – the “Word” for me as a child was the Bible, which was a way of getting my hands or my handle on God. Not one dot, not one iota could change in the Bible. [iii] The ink simply did not bleed. I hesitate to tell you how old I was before I gave up the notion that Moses and the prophets and Jesus simply did not speak and write in leather-bound, King James’ English. Even in seminary, when it came to the “critical studies” of the Bible, I was ambivalent. I was simultaneously resistant to and fascinated by what the earliest manuscripts of the scriptures probably did (or did not) say about the Word of God. On the one hand, we worship a God who gives the word and things come into being. [iv] In the Genesis creation account, God simply says, “Let it be…” and it happens. [v] “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made…; for he spoke, and it came to pass….” [vi] The Psalmist satirizes other gods who are mute: “They have mouths, but they cannot speak….” [vii] But we worship a God who gives us his Word. We are reminded in a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures that ever since the begin­ning, this same Word remains active in the universe, ruling the stars, [viii] the waters of the deep, [ix] and the totality of the natural world. [x]

Now there seems to be a principle that, down through the centuries, what is to be remem­bered often gets codified. And so the Word (which is God) is remembered in word form (which is the Bible), revealed by the Word, which is another name given for Jesus the Christ. It’s sort of a pun in Eng­lish and in Hebrew and in Greek: “Word,” the “Word of the Lord.” When we say “word,” are we talking about the proclaimed authority of God, or are we talking about a text which we call “the Bible,” or are we talking about a person, Jesus the Christ? The answer is ‘yes’: all of the above. Which is exactly where the gospel according to John (appointed for today) begins. [xi] We read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word (Jesus) was with God and the Word was God. We read at the end of John’s gospel that many more words could be written about the things Jesus did, “if every one of them were written down… the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” [xii]

I mention all of this interplay around “the Word” because I have the sense that “the Word” – in all the Word’s forms or manifestations or metaphors – “the Word” is not static or immovable or un­changing, but rather I would call the image of “the Word” rather fluid, in process of becoming. And yet, I said at the outset that I think there is an innate need that many recognize for a sense of God’s steady iden­tity and presence and provision amidst the changes and chances of life. Is the Word clear enough or fixed enough or “there” enough to believe in? I would say yes, but not like I once thought.

Much as I would like to be a fundamentalist some days, and to be able to look at the Word of God (called the Bible) as some kind of final and “permanent” authority, I know too much, and you probably do, too. Part of my reticence in being a “biblical fundamentalist” is recognizing the extraordinary diversity within the Christian faith, where the Bible can be faith­fully under­stood in varying and diverse ways. Part of my reticence in being a “biblical funda­mentalist” is knowing how the Bible has been misused down through the centuries. One need only recall the genocidal atrocities and the most unconscionable kinds of prejudice, continuing even to this day and committed in the name of Christ, to know how one can make the Bible say and support almost any cause one chooses. We also know that not all the ancient texts are what we thought they were, nor say what we thought they did. (A good many biblical texts have been unearthed by archeologists in recent years.) We also, as Christians, believe that the Spirit of God continues to show forth God’s revelation and “to lead us into all truth.” [xiii] We do not worship a God who is “packagable,” but rather a God who is always More. And so as Anglicans we would recognize the Word as being alive. And insofar as the Bible is a faithful revelation of this Word, it seems to me that we need to offer both reverence and reticence in our interpretation of the Bible, using the complementary witness of the Bible, of tradition, of reason, and of our experi­ence in life to check each other. (That’s a typical Anglican formula for authority: the comple­mentary witness of the Bible, tradition, reason, and our experience in life to check each other.) I think that to look at the Bible as some kind of fixed and final Word of God is a canon firing in the wrong direction. The Bible is part of the movement of God’s revelation, which is continuous.

Likewise, I don’t think we’ll be satisfied to look at Jesus, who is called “the Word of God,” simply as a fixable person whom we can nail down in history. We know at least some of how Jesus continued to grow and develop during his earthly life: how he grew into his identity as Messiah. I don’t think he asked to be the Messiah any more than any of us asked for the deck of cards that was handed to us in our birth. But Jesus grew into the acceptance of his humanity, his gifts, his limitations, his mission, and his unfinished business, facing the same developmental issues that we all do in growing up. We say in our own baptismal vows that “we have been baptized into Christ,” and we believe that Christ has come to live within us. Which is to say, we see with the eyes of Christ, and hear with the ears of Christ, and speak with the words of Christ, and feel with the sacred heart of Christ. And so, when we hear Jesus’ saying from the cross that “it is finished,” in some other ways it isn’t. Jesus’ earthly life did come to a close, but the real presence of Christ continues to grow, develop and be lived out in all of us, his followers. Insofar as Jesus Christ is also the Word, well the word is… that we all somehow participate in the word and work of God. To simply picture Jesus as some iconic image which we hang on the wall, or to keep a picture in our mind’s eye of a Jesus on a wooden cross is too small a picture of what’s going on. We re-present Jesus, who is alive, still… and in each of us.

And insofar as the Word is also the God whom Jesus called Father, can we fix an identity on this God, whom we worship this evening? I want to say yes, but I think I now believe almost opposite what I would have told you not that many years ago. I don’t think that the God whom we worship and adore is mostly concerned about us. I don’t think that we, God’s beloved creations, are the focus of God’s attention and at the center of God’s heart. I think that God is at the center and that we belong to God. We have been created for God’s good pleasure, for God’s glory for the life of God. And God will do with us what God will. I’m not saying that we don’t matter to God. We are “the apple of God’s eye.” [xiv] I think we eternally matter to God insofar as God longs to be united with all that God creates. That is the nature of God: a God of union and communion. On the one hand, we’ve been created in the very image of God. On the other hand, we’ve been created out of the dust of the earth. On the one hand, we are a part of God’s becoming. (God is still alive and at work in us and with us and through us.) On the other hand, we are usable and “expendable” in God’s way and on God’s time. It’s a paradox. [xv]

It seems to me it’s not helpful to try to “do theology” inside a Martha Stewart-type box and pretend away the awful and messy things we read on the front page of the newspaper each day. This is a very complicated and tragic and incredibly beautiful and wonderful world that God has created and in which God is living and becoming. And what it comes down to, for me, something I can get my hands on or get a handle on these days with regards to God, is the very thing we are doing here at this Eucharist: the offering of our life and labor to the Lord. And even though I know this is troublesome language for some people – perhaps even for many of you here – the old language of the 1928 Prayer Book and of Rite I speaks truth to me: that what we are doing here is to “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.” God hungers and thirsts and longs for us . [xvi] This is what we do “in remembrance of Christ.” We are acknowledging what even the most cursory reading of history affirms: we are not in ultimate control of our lives. That we are participating in the life of God and the “becoming” of God who loves us as God’s own, and who will use us and expend us as God chooses, and that out of this crucible of life on this earth we shall be united with this God forever.

It’s not the kind of clarity I longed for. But it seems to me that it has some integrity insofar as we participate in life on this earth with tens of millions of people, so many of whom suffer so greatly. What hasn’t changed about God is, I would say, that God continues to change. And we are a part of that change. And these days what I hear in the Word of God is a new word from God – to me and to you. And that word is: God is More, always More.

The great poet and pastor, Rainer Maria Rilke, speaks to this, about God being More. Rilke, writing as a prophet almost a century ago, predicts:

Everything will be huge and powerful again.

The lands simple and the waters rippled,

the trees enormous and the walls very low;

and in the valleys, strong and diverse,

a race of shepherds and tillers of the soil.

And no churches, which fence God in

like a fugitive and then harass him

like a trapped and wounded animal –

the houses hospitable to all knocking

and a sense of boundless self-offering

in every action and in you and in me.

No waiting for a future and no peering out to a beyond,

only the longing to keep death sacred

and to practice the serving of earthly things,

and thus to no longer be estranged from his hands. [xvii]

 

Blessed be God, for ever and ever.

 

[i] Psalm 46:2-4.

[ii] See, e.g., Psalms 18:2; 31:3; 40:2; 61:2-3; 144:2.

[iii] Matthew 5:18.

[iv] Isaiah 44:7f; Psalm 33:6-9; Lamentations 3:37 ; Wisdom 9:1.

[v] Genesis 1 & 2.

[vi] Psalm 33:6,9.

[vii] Psalm 115:5.

[viii] Isaiah 40:26.

[ix] Isaiah 44:27.

[x] Psalms 107:25; 147:15-18; Job 37:5-13; Sirach 39:17, 31.

[xi] John 1:1-14.

[xii] John 21:25.

[xiii] John 16:13.

[xiv] Psalm 17:8.

[xv] “Paradox,” from the Greek paradoxa : God’s glory revealed in a way other than we might have imagined.

[xvi] I would presume that our hungering and thirsting and longing after God is a reflection and response to God’s hungering and thirsting and longing after us, i.e., our experience of the “real absence” of Christ. See, e.g., Psalms 42:1f; 63:1f; 84:2f; 107:9f; 143:6f.

[xvii] Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).

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34 Comments

  1. Virginia McLeod on June 7, 2017 at 12:19

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your brave and honest statement that reflects your thinking at this stage of a lifetime of searching, learning, changing, and faithfulness: “I don’t think that the God whom we worship and adore is mostly concerned about us. I don’t think that we, God’s beloved creations, are the focus of God’s attention and at the center of God’s heart. I think that God is at the center and that we belong to God. . . . we are a part of God’s becoming. . . . we are usable and ‘expendable’ in God’s way and on God’s time.” At the age of 74, I sometimes wish I had the simplistic belief I had as a devout child, the excitement of the more ‘enlightened’ belief I experienced when I was a student at a liberal divinity school, or the comfort I felt when I lived two years in an Episcopal women’s convent. But my faith and understanding have constantly evolved and changed. Perhaps I have learned too much and experienced too much; I have certainly become impatient with doctrinal creeds, certainties, panaceas, and platitudes of all kinds. I had thought that my belief would have settled down comfortably in my later years. I have been surprised – and sometimes dismayed – that my faith (I am sure many would say my lack or loss of faith) has taken me to an understanding of a God that is beyond, that is “more,” than a static supernatural being whose favor we seek to gain and whose intervention we plead to obtain.  

  2. Susan McLeod on June 7, 2017 at 05:38

    Br. Curtis, you wriote and preached this sermon fourteen years ago and yet how timeless are these words in our ever-changing world today. What a comfort to know that God is always More! Thank you!
    S. McLeod

  3. Lucy Follk Nading on June 8, 2016 at 10:43

    Dear Brother Curtis,
    I look forward to reading your words and those of your brothers at SSJE every day. Today, I would like to comment, that Hebrews 13:8, a scripture that greatly comforts me, was sorely omitted: “Jesus the same yesterday, today and forever.” I do not think that God changes one iota; rather, His continuous and unique revelation of Himself to each of us is what ebbs and flows throughout our lives. He IS constant!
    With sincerest respect,
    Lucy

    • Susan Gorman on June 7, 2017 at 12:36

      Yes I agree that God does not change!!! Thank goodness!! How can we really trust God who changes? I think part of the good news that Jesus came to reveal to the world is a changeless God Who loves us unconditionally and eternally because He has forgiven us and gives us hope because he is making ALL things new.

  4. Elizabeth Hardy on June 8, 2016 at 10:03

    Br. Curtis: Your homily made me think of the phrase “who’s service is perfect freedom”. I am caught by God – but far better to be indentured to Him than the vagaries and frankly sometimes viciousness of my free will.
    The poem at the end gave me a word picture of eternal life. Thank you for this. Elizabeth Hardy+

  5. Cynthia Sand on June 8, 2016 at 09:47

    More and more you bless us.

    The idea of “re-present” rings as a bell.

    I especially love the Rilke poem which I have copied in my journal.

    Thank you for your divine gift of writing.

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  7. Magi on May 11, 2015 at 09:17

    Ah! A MOVEABLE feast of/with/in the God of MORE.

  8. Gary Davis on May 9, 2015 at 17:30

    Thanks to Br Curtis for your
    thought provoking witness concerning Gods willingness to
    continue revealing more of himself to we his children.

  9. Gary Davis on May 9, 2015 at 16:23

    In your witness this day, the statements concerning the nature of God and his willingness to reveal other facets of that nature should not
    surprise any of your readers. It
    seems TV evangelist, Billy Graham, some years back was
    quoted as saying, “let God be
    God!”

  10. Michael on May 9, 2015 at 10:40

    I too would like to be a fundamentalist and believe the Bible says what it says and that is it, but it is all too neat. The world and the messes it brings with it are our to do with as we can, and with God’s help that will be good enough. Even when our faith falters, it will be good enough

  11. Ruth West on September 2, 2014 at 15:11

    I keep remembering the words, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.” I think of God as the one true Absolute. He does not need to grow. We do. He does not need to change. We do. I find parts of your message confusing.

    • Sally grammer on May 9, 2015 at 21:51

      Right on! I agree with you

    • Lucy Follk Nading on June 8, 2016 at 10:47

      Amen!! I hold fast to Hebrew 13:8 as well as I have just read for the first time Br. Curtis’s sermon.
      Lucy

  12. Jack on September 1, 2014 at 10:09

    So thought provoking, challenging and comforting at a time of great need. Will ponder and re- ponder. Thank you, Curtis.

    I noticed this was first preached in 2003, and helps make more sense of much of what i’ve read of yours since. I wonder whether in 2014 you would still say what you said 11 years ago. How has God become More for you since?

    • Deirdre on June 8, 2016 at 07:53

      Jack,
      Your question of 2014 is exactly what I hope Br. Curtis will respond to in the future. This is very challenging thought and I would love to know where it has taken him since 2003.

      Thank you, Br. Curtis.

  13. Clarice Boyd on January 23, 2014 at 12:30

    These beautiful words of comfort came to me on the day that our beloved rector told us all that he was leaving us. It was as if you had been here in our hearts and minds, responding to our grief by helping us to remember all that we had been blessed with during Fr. David’s tenure with us. Once again, SSJE has spoken directly to me, lifting my spirit and strengthening my faith in all that the Lord has bestowed upon me. Thank you.

  14. Marilla J. Whitney on January 22, 2014 at 11:30

    Not commenting on the longer sermon but the snippet sent to my inbox.
    How odd. Do you mean that the second person of the Trinity, the Word, did not consent to the Incarnation with all its possible consequences?
    And also, do you know of evidence that we had a chance to request the gifts we are born with?

    • Marilla J. Whitney on January 22, 2014 at 11:35

      I thought the website was the subject line into which I had put “Dubious Theology” which is my overview about the daily message.

  15. Christina on January 22, 2014 at 10:00

    As I read this morning’s sermon, I knew that I had read it before. It was all familiar.
    However, I didn’t remember that I had responded to Br. Curtis’s words. But, here I am – sixteen months later – weeping again. I know not why.
    Thank you for all my early morning readings.
    Christina

  16. Patricia on January 22, 2014 at 07:45

    This notion of serving God, re-presenting God is for me both comforting and challenging. On the one hand, it offers comfort because there is no more questioning of the purpose of one ‘s life. But then it opens up many layers of questions about how best to do that? What am I being called to do? Am I listening? Can I hear?

    And it seems to be the place where psychology and religion intersect. What is healthy?

    I think ultimately you have to ask if ur life is”singing” with a few bad notes or if u r just out of tune? It is a question of how it feels. with the practice of each day, are things getting easier or not? If not, then u r probably trying to learn the wrong instrument. Be mindful that u just haven’t taken on a new more difficult piece of music. Knowing the difference is critical. Thank u for the post.

  17. Beth Ann Maier on January 22, 2014 at 07:42

    I have opened and read this homily several times, seemingly by chance, but always at the most serendipitous moments (once when I was preparing a homily for a congregation that included Episcopal seminary professors as well as a visiting choir of 30 from the local synagogue and the lectionary text was John 3:16). Every time I read it, I find More – more understanding, more resonance, more recognition of authentic truth. Thank you for consenting to re-present the living Word.

  18. Bruce on August 14, 2013 at 08:27

    Thank you for your good work. A real keeper.

    A lot of truth to review over and over again. PTL!

  19. Bindy Snyder+ on August 11, 2013 at 21:47

    love your offerings, especially today’s!

  20. Eben Carsey on March 18, 2013 at 23:42

    Dear Brother Curtis, I very much appreciate your open engagement with us in this joyous and playful work to fashion some understanding in the midst of this mystery of the Word of God as God’s will, authority, revelation, and incarnation. I especially like “we are part of God’s becoming.” As God, of course, is part of ours as each of us is “hidden with Christ within God.” Even in the beginning, God’s word was one of consent (“Let there be….”) as much as or more than command. And God does not want to control our wills anymore than we want to control those of our children.
    Similarly, I have always appreciated Thomas Keating’s comment that “The chief act of the will is not effort but consent.” It is not that we are to eschew effort but that it needs to be preceded by and done out of consent to God. So we are involved with God in a collaborative dance of mutual consent that creates a becoming of All in One, and “we offer our selves to be[come] a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice [into] thee.” Amen (so be it).

  21. Margo on March 18, 2013 at 06:03

    Br. Curtis, Always inspiring challenging great fun to get up to every day for which I thank you,
    but have you completely ditched the idea of individual feedom of will and personal choice? Verges on an anarchic, indifferent Divine to me.
    Where is my incarnate Jesus? Margo

  22. Anders on March 17, 2013 at 07:38

    Thank you for putting the Anglican formula for authority in a useful context as I have suffered at the hands of a church which preaches a “personal Savior” Christ while also promoting a short but changing checklist of what “having faith” means. Sometimes the personal has meant believing God is mostly concerned about me, a consumer God. It is a step in realizing that God is concerned for us, ALL of us in the creation. For a God who is always more, it’s worth remembering that I may also be here to be desired and consumed by God to God’s will. Here I am, LORD.

  23. Christina McKerrow on September 5, 2012 at 09:11

    Thankyou Brother Curtis: I weep as I read your words, and thank God for the gift you have received to write so many wonderful sermons for all of us.
    The Brothers’ daily homilies mark the beginning of my days – something that I began this year with the Lenten entries.
    Thank you again. Blessings. Christina

  24. Joe Stroud on March 12, 2012 at 10:17

    Br. Curtis: Thank you for several “touchstones.” I have struggled with the concept of an “unchanging” God. But, to me, that very concept places God in that “Martha Stewart box.” Like Libby, I think I will be reading this semon over and over, and I suspect that each time I read it, I will find more and more about which to ponder and pray. Thank you.

  25. Melanie Zybala on March 11, 2012 at 11:26

    I learned of your website and online work through the pastor of my church,
    a liberal urban Mennonite congregation. Yesterday, our social justice committee
    somehow found ourselves talking about prayer– with many diverse views, including
    antipathy to prayer, frustration, rejection, interest but doubt, and so on. The pastor
    suggested that I look at your site, which had a reflection on prayer yesterday, by
    coincidence. It was good.

    This didnt surprise me, because I am familar with Catholic(and Anglo-Catholic)
    monastic prayer practices. Though I left the RC ch. long ago, I find Catholic writers
    onprayer, like Merton, deeply stirring. When it comes to prayer, I have benefitted
    much more from Catholic tradition–and from Christian Science writing–than from
    most Protestant teaching, including my own current church.

    I am now a subscriber to your daily reflections. Please include more essays in
    the spirit of your essay yesterday, 3/10/2012. Thank you to the writer.

    • rodney williams on May 9, 2015 at 10:08

      That vital sense of mystery is lost with most mainline Protestant approaches to prayer.

  26. andy on March 11, 2012 at 11:16

    thank you your word our very help for for live thank you and god bless you for your work

  27. Libby on March 11, 2012 at 09:50

    Beautiful – you have touched on so many wonderful ideas, I will have to read it over and over. Thank you very much!

  28. Ted Edwards + on March 11, 2012 at 08:42

    Continuous and growing, yes.
    But never contrary to itself.
    The Holy Spirit will never contradict the Word of God written.

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