At 4:00 PM on a recent Saturday afternoon, my cell phone rang. It was my pastor, telling me (our congregation's music director) that he had the flu and wouldn't be able to lead the next day's worship service. I thought he said his temperature was 105, so he had extra empathy from me. (I found out later that he had said "100-point-5.")

As Episcopalians, not having an ordained priest available meant we could not celebrate the Eucharist. So I offered to rearrange the hymns we had chosen for the service so they would fit into that old reliable Anglican standby, the service of Morning Prayer.

"Thank you. That would be nice," my pastor said, "but that leaves the matter of the homily."

Despite having spent 11 years as a pastor and having taught homiletics for a short while, I was not eager to begin a fresh sermon preparation so late on a Saturday afternoon.

"Would you like me to find a classic treatment of one of tomorrow's Scripture lessons?" I asked. "I could read the congregation a classic meditation on the passage."

He said he would be grateful for that.

And so I set to work looking for an old and authoritative commentary on Jesus' teaching on the Vine and the branches. I began looking where I knew I would find a rich trove of historic Christian material, the website known as the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (

Ach du lieber Augustine

CCEL (pronounced "Cecil" or "SEE-sell" by many users) contains about 700 classic writings, 500 of them coded with a special mark-up language called ThML (for Theological Markup Language). At CCEL I perused Calvin's comments on John 15 (good comments, but not in preachable form), and sermons by the fourth-century preachers Hilary of Poitiers and John Chrysostom, before I settled ...

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