Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Do We Believe What We Pray?


So often, when I've read the lessons for Sunday and feel myself pulled in too many directions for one coherent sermon, I turn to the collect and find an answer. Last Sunday, I read the collect and scratched my head: "Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him..." Why were we reminding ourselves that Jesus is the true bread?

There was vague reference to bread in the OT lesson, in which we heard that the manna ceased on the day that the Israelites ate the crops in the land of Canaan. Likewise, the wayward son mentioned that his father's hired hands had bread enough to eat and some even to spare, but that hardly seems like a reason to collect our prayers for the day into a clear focus on Jesus as the true bread. "Maybe there are clearer references to bread in the other lectionary years," I thought to myself. Nope. The readings for Lent 4A have absolutely no reference to bread, and those for Lent 4B include only a passing grumble from the Israelites that they were tired of manna. So, again, why?

I may have found the answer by looking back at the 1928 prayer book. The first thing I noticed was the collect, which has nothing to do with bread at all. Instead, on Lent 4, we used to pray, "Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully relieved..." How's that for old-school theology of total depravity and total dependence on grace? (Where have you gone, Thomas Cranmer? I could write an entire post about the lamentable loss of a good, gospel-based anthropology, but this is supposed to be about the collect for Lent 5, and I haven't even gotten there yet.) Just when I was about to give up on the '28 BCP for insights, I saw it: the gospel lesson appointed for Lent 4. Back then, we read John 6:1-14, which is the Feeding of the 5,000. Aha! And you know what? Under the BCP lectionary that story is also read in Lent 4B. Aha! So it was starting to make sense. The problem, of course, is that our lectionary has changed to the RCL but the collects haven't followed suit. I certainly can't see us switching back to the old collect for Lent 4, and, as a deputy to General Convention, I've publicly spoken against multiple lectionaries because I believe we all need to be reading the same lessons each week. Again, I don't have a solution, but I'm fascinated with the development.

So, now, on to Lent 5. After scratching my head last Sunday, I read this week's collect and think, "Dear Sweet Jesus, Thank you for the gift of Anglican piety!" I don't think it gets much better than this: "Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found..." Let those words sink in! God alone can bring into order our unruly wills and affections. God, please grant us the grace to love and desire what you command and promise because the world is a quickly shifting, changing place, and you alone are constant and true. Oh my!

Today, with the old, discarded pre-1979 collect for Lent 4 still on my mind, I wonder whether we believe what we pray. Do we? Do we believe that God alone can order our unruly wills and affections? Do we recognize that we are a ship lost upon the sea of life? Throughout the church year, we have several dominant-culture-questioning collects, and I wonder whether the congregation notices them. Does the average pew-sitter realize that, on her or his behalf, the presider in worship is saying these things to God? The "grant your people" bit means us--plural. It's not just the people who have promised in an ordination vow to "solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church" that are included in that prayer. It's all of us. Do we know that? Do we see that? Do we believe that? God, I hope so.

I don't think I'm preaching this week. My colleague Seth Olson is on the schedule for Sunday, but he's flying in from Texas late Saturday afternoon, and, well, spring storms can be tricky. So, if he gets delayed, I know where my last-minute sermon will come from. We've got a collect that almost preaches itself and an epistle lesson that backs it up. Still, I'm praying for safe and speedy travel for my partner in the pulpit.

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