Thursday, February 9, 2017

Impossible Possibility

Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:21-37) is packed full of over-the-top statements that demand the preacher's attention. Unfortunately, that means the other lessons are likely to be ignored from the pulpit, and I think that this week's collect and Old Testament lesson present a classical Grace vs. Law tension worth exploring in the current culture of "my success is my own doing" that the gospel demands that we reject.

Near the beginning of the service, we will pray, "O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed..." It's a complicated prayer that's easy to misunderstand. The good news is that we have a few more days to study it before we say it in front of our congregations. The key to understanding the collect and not praying it with an intention other than the one expressed in its text is to separate the petition from the aspiration.

The petition is the thing we're asking for, and it comes in two parts: "mercifully accept our prayers" and "give us the help of your grace." Read the collect again and focus on the things we're actually asking God to give us. We're asking him to hear our prayers and give us help. Isn't that the focus of all our prayers? Tucked in there along with those two pleadings is a bonus statement of need that isn't actually what we're asking for: "because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you." It's more of an acknowledgment buried within the petition. It's the reason why we're asking for the thing we're asking, but it stands in direction tension (perhaps even opposition) with the aspiration of the collect, and that's where things get confusing.

The aspiration is the reason we're asking for the thing we're asking for. It's the vision of the way things could be if God grants us our prayer. In this collect, the aspiration is a statement of our fulfillment of the Law: "that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed." The vision behind this prayer is a world in which God's people are faithful. "What a world that would be!" the author of the collect seems to suggest. But don't forget that this isn't the petition. It's the aspiration. We're not even asking God to help us keep the commandments. Perhaps that would be too forward, too bold. Instead, we're asking God to give us the help of his grace because we cannot do anything good without God's help. Then, once the grace has been given, it becomes possible for us to keep the commandments. Only and always in that order!!!

And then we get to the lesson from Deuteronomy. In it, Moses presents to the people of Israel a choice. I don't blame Moses, but the choice he gives them--at least on the appearance of it--is an impossible temptation to be perfect: "If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous...But if your heart turns away and you do not hear...I declare to you today that you shall perish." That's like telling a six-year-old that if he can behave for the next twelve years you'll love him. What trickery! But, of course, there's more to it than that.

God's people need God's help. And God always, always gives it. Deuteronomy 30 cannot be read in isolation. It must be read along with the story of the Exodus, the shepherding of God's people through the wilderness, the establishment of the kingdom of Israel, the dissolution of that kingdom through exile, and the reestablishment of the presence of God's people in Palestine. Our prayer--"mercifully accept our prayers...and give us the help of your grace"--is the prayer of God's people throughout the centuries. Jesus taught us how to pray that prayer with renewed focus--that God's love transcends our misdeeds and that, through the gift of God's grace and only through that gift, we can be the children God has called us to be. In short, we cannot choose good on our own. But,with God's help, we can choose the good God has set before us.

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