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God, The Center of Our Life and Love – Br. Curtis Almquist

Psalm 27

I entered the Episcopal Church as a young college student. At the time, the Vietnam War, with all its passions and protests and confusions, was raging. Something brand new, called “free love,” had been amazingly discovered by 20 year-olds or so, whom I very much looked up to. And the combined benevolence of the newly-founded Peace Corps and Head Start, of Lady Bird Johnson’s flowers and trees on highways everywhere, and the presumed-innocence of the United States and our much-acclaimed generous foreign aid would surely win over the world for the better, please. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. It was the epoch of credulity, it was the epoch of incredulity. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” [i] And I was on an insatiable quest as an overly-earnest young Christian.

One thing I was desperately searching for was some help dealing with “sin” in my life. There is a phrase in the opening prayer appointed for today – what we call “the Collect,” the collecting prayer, that I clearly understood (and understand) and desperately sought. The prayer: “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word Jesus Christ.” By the time I was in my early 20s, I had been born again, and again, so many times by that point, and it didn’t seem to helping. Honest: I loved God with all my heart… except when I didn’t, and that paradox I was trying to reconcile. I was looking for a sacrament that I didn’t know existed, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The other thing, related, I was looking for was a sense of rootedness or groundedness in the same kind of tradition that had informed the Psalms, a good number of which I had even memorized. Psalm 27, the psalm appointed for today’s liturgy, was very both familiar and compelling:

One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek;

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;

To behold the fair beauty of the Lord

and to seek him in his temple . [ii]

There was a word, often repeated in the Psalms, that kept hounding my attention. The word was unavoidable and undeniable and for me, inacces­sible. The word was “worship”: Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness . [iii] I craved worship, though I didn’t even know what all that meant. And yet this craving in my soul for worship was so deep, like an infinite vacuum. It was a longing for some­thing More, for some deeper sense of belonging to a God who had “created my inmost parts; [who had] knit me together in my mother’s womb” [iv] , whom I could acknowledge and praise and worship…. I des­perately had to find the Way. And with all that, I sort-of stumbled into the life and worship of the Episcopal Church. – I’m only guessing that my story might overlap with some of you here. The statistics at least used to be that a significant percentage of those now active in the Episcopal Church are not “cradle Anglicans.”

Sam Portaro says that “as Christian people, we Anglicans are distinctive. Other traditions within the body of Christ possess and make confessional statements and creeds inherited from history, derived from distant times and places. From our inception, our common prayer and worship have been the articulation of our faith. Worship is our central act of being together, our most consistent and convincing witness.” [v] L ex orandi: lex credendi, as we pray, so we believe. [vi] And it seems to me that it is the worship and glorification of God that we must ever keep at the center of our life and prayer… Not our own selves at the center. Not our own work, not our own causes. Not even our own like-minded friends and colleagues, but God. That is what it is to be “orthodox,” which comes from the Greek compound orthós , which means ‘rightful,’ and dóxa , which means glory. Orthodox – the rightful glory (not so much the rightful belief, but the rightful glorification of God). It’s all about God, about our participating and leading others to participate in the worship and life and love of God, who is the beginning and end of our lives, who gives us breath, whose praise we breathe.

In the Gospel according to John, we hear described what is “true worship.” True worship is the engagement in “spirit and truth” … which can create quite of bit of tension. [vii] Tension, though it is sometimes very uncomfortable, is quintessential or else there will be no freedom and no strength. Tension is necessary, and that is as true for muscles of the body as it is for matters of the heart. It seems to me that we must seek to live in the tension that the Incar­na­tion informs. The Incarnation: that God became human (just like us) in the face and form of Jesus. Jesus’ arms on the cross are open very wide, for all, “for God so loved the world.” [viii] Not just our own little world, but the whole world. I have sitting on my desk just now mailings from two different Anglican groups: one called “United Voice,” and the other, “United Religions.” They could hardly be more different. I don’t know if they would even be on speak­ing terms with one another, but they must, and we must help, because God is on speaking terms with us all: with this very mixed bag called “Anglicans,” with our sisters and brothers in other Christian traditions, and with those who would in no way call themselves “Christian” (which, of course, is the major­ity of the world). When we gather our focus to the altar, as we will momentarily do, when we “lift up our hearts,” we are offering our own lives and our labors to God. When we pray, “lift up our hearts,” we are also praying to God for the merciful enlargement of our hearts to have space for all to whom Jesus’ outstretched arms so generously welcome… including our enemies… including ourselves… who, some days, can be our own worst enemies. We do this in remembrance of Christ, and to the glory of God. We offer our worship: that to which we ascribe the highest worth. A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with someone who had come to talk about “the meaning of life.” And we ultimately came onto this theme of “worship,” worshipping God with our lips and our lives and our labors. And they said to me finally, “It sounds like it’s meant to be a ‘24-7′ experience.” I said I thought that was right on the mark.

Here a prayer of oblation – of self-offering to God – that comes to us from the Celtic tradition, centuries back:

I am giving Thee worship with my whole life,

I am giving Thee assent with my whole power,

I am giving Thee praise with my whole tongue,

I am giving Thee honor with my whole utterance.

I am giving Thee love with my whole devotion,

I am giving Thee kneeling with my whole desire,

I am giving Thee love with my whole heart,

I am giving Thee affection with my whole sense,

I am giving Thee my existence with my whole mind,

I am giving Thee my soul, O God of all gods.

Blessed be God, for ever and ever.

[i] From the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities , Chapter I , “The Period”.

[ii] Psalm 27:5-6.

[iii] Psalm 29:2.

[iv] From Psalm 139.

[v] Quoted from Brightest and Best; A Companion to Lesser Feasts and Fasts , by Sam Portaro (Cowley, 1998), p. 95.

[vi] The phrase lex orandi: lex credendi comes from the writings of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 435-442), a monk who served as a secretary to Leo the Great. The phrase refers to I Timothy 2:1-6, where St. Paul calls for “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings,” because such things are “right and acceptable in the sight of God… who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” See Geoffrey Wainwright’s Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life; A Systematic Theology (Oxford University Press), 1980.

[vii] John 4:18.

[viii] John 3:16.

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16 Comments

  1. anders on January 19, 2017 at 12:00

    As I read and reread your sermons over the years, each time something new will hook me. Today it is about orthodoxy as “right worship”. I’m currently attending a Protestant church which meets my children’s needs where each sermon ends with the imperative to “be the light to share the love to change the world”. I cringe each time I hear it, believing God doesn’t want me to change the world, he wants me to change myself.
    It’s my experience as another overly earnest Christian to seek “right worship” only to find constricting “right belief”. I’ll continue to try to engage others in dialogue even as I am politely ignored for being out of synch with the prevailing trends of nodding enthusiasm. “Right worship” allows me to focus on expressing my heart in action as I dwell in the house of the Lord, the big wide world house which it is, which even includes defined houses of worship, and it’s all good.

  2. Carol W on January 19, 2017 at 10:59

    This reflection spoke particularly powerfully to my own experience seeking worship without knowing that was my quest. Is the Celtic prayer from the Carmina Gadelica? I would appreciate knowing the source of it, if possible.

  3. Tension | The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana on January 19, 2017 at 00:05

    […] To Read More and to Leave a Comment, Click Here […]

  4. Ruth West on May 9, 2015 at 20:05

    Br. Curtis, when you wrote this sermon I was in a very different place. (Weren’t we all?) I believe, with God’s help, I have grown in grace and have come to love our Lord God more than then. But I need His Spirit’s guidance more than ever.
    I love Psa. 27! Through the years, God has been my light and my salvation. I do not fear, for He is with me. Thanks for this good message.

  5. Martha Paine on May 9, 2015 at 17:42

    This homily has brought me back years to when I was 15 and the Episcopal Cathedral was across the street from my school. I joined the active church youth group and became enamored with the pageantry, incense , stained glass windows and the liturgy of the prayer book…..I left the family Methodist church and became an Episcopalean. My life has been involved in every phase of church life, teaching, retreats, altar guild, Eucharistic minister and now I am reading SSJE sermons each day. this past Lent was the most meaningful Due to the daily readings. Crossing the street to St. John’s put me on the right path for my life. Thanks be to God for showing me the way .

  6. Marta E on May 8, 2015 at 08:09

    Even as a “cradle” Episcopalian, I experienced similar doubts throughout life. I remember my confirmation at age 12: white dress and socks with lace, and patent shoes, waiting to hear what God wanted me to do. And, I still don’t clearly know, but just know that I am on the path, and each day brings a new discovery, event that “calls” me, etc.
    I have a close Christian (and Episcopalian) friend, and when we e-mail, we occasionally add an “acrostic”, that is a letter in the (English) alphabet connected with a (significant) word in scriptural passages. I have added PLHHHA and recently an additional “H” for Hosanah! (to always give praise and thanksgiving). (PLHHHA stands for Peace, love, health, happiness, and hope, and now HOSANAH!) It’s another little device to help me read more closely, remember better, and hopefully to integrate the scripture into my daily life more than occasionally.
    Always, Hosanah!

  7. margaret nunn on May 6, 2015 at 03:50

    I found this so inspiring. Thank you Brother..

  8. Claudia Booth on May 5, 2015 at 23:05

    What brings me back is the honost recognition of the need for reverence and the love of things of beauty which stimulate the senses, including the bells, the chanting of music, the measured Psalter, the pauses, the the Epistle and Gospel, holy liturgy, the vestments, the use of wax candles, the use of the incense, the holy
    silence, the sharing of heartfelt reflections on the readings, the prayer of the heart and the shared love of God and respect for one another. This brings me back.

  9. Kathy Trotter on May 5, 2015 at 10:27

    Worship……yes.

  10. tambria lee on May 5, 2015 at 10:03

    Brother Curtis….you might read the op ed piece in the Washington Post last week about what will bring millenials back to church….its worship and mystery. Loved your reflection !

  11. Kathleen Sides on May 5, 2015 at 09:50

    I can connect with the devotional.
    Kathleen Sides

  12. Lorna Harris on May 5, 2015 at 09:03

    What an insightful homily. Thank you!

  13. Polly Chatfield on May 5, 2015 at 09:00

    Dear Curtis, you taught me to say “thank you” as soon as I came to consciousness each day. It makes a good start, and I try to come back to it as the day goes on. Often i get swallowed up in things, but if you ask, the Spirit will prod one into remembering to say one’s thanks more often.

  14. Michael on May 5, 2015 at 08:20

    Being product of the sixties, I understand the atmosphere in which Brother Curtis found himself in his early years. Radical change gripped the nation and the world, and in the middle of all that a generation of American was supposed to find themselves. I searched and stumbled and then stumbled again. There is something in Christ’s message, but I’m afarid I have not heard the words as clearly as Brother Curtis. I will continue to listen

    • Elissa on May 5, 2015 at 17:38

      Michael – I had the same reactions and feelings with today’s commentary – as a boomer, a seeker, and late life believer. I appreciate this insight into considering how we might focus our worship on the greater glorification of the Lord than directing ourselves to rules and differences.

  15. Roderic Brawn on May 5, 2015 at 06:17

    I awoke today. How my day may be worship is a good question.

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