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Monday, December 13, 2010

Pray Tell

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory now and for ever. Amen.

There are three touchstones that keep me connected to the heart of my Christian practice: hymns, psalms, and collects. Of the three of these, the third is far and away the most peculiarly Anglican—if that interests you. If it doesn’t, you probably have no earthly idea of what a collect is. “Is he talking about the collection?” you might wonder. Or, you might have noticed the word c-o-l-l-e-c-t in the bulletin or Prayer Book and have wondered what it is, why it is called that, and where it comes from. Don’t think for a minute that I imagine this to be of enormous importance to anybody. But you would not be wrong in supposing that I am in the process of opening a door that I’ll bet you’ll at least want to look through if not walk through. But hold on a minute.

Back to collects. Collects are so called because they are a specific form of concise prayer offered over the “collecta,” the assembly, of worshipers. The one perhaps most familiar to us is the so-called Collect for Purity: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid….” Nearly always they comprise an invocation, (Almighty God), a description of the one being invoked (to you all hearts are open, all desires known…), a command (cleanse the thoughts of our hearts), a result (that we may perfectly love you…), and a conclusion (through Jesus Christ our Lord).

The reason I like collects is the reason that many people do, and maybe the reason they have outlasted many another feature of Christian worship. I like them because they are short, memorable, and useful. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child without any words to pray, even to speak under my breath to myself. And when I feel the need to connect to Something larger, I draw on the words of collects that I have known since I was a boy and hear myself saying, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts…” or “Remember, O Lord, what you have wrought in us and not what we deserve…” or “… that our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found….”

That brings us to today’s collect. For many years, and still in some parts of the Anglican Communion, the “stir up” collect was used on the Sunday Next Before Advent. It was one of a series of old collects which for a long time were used on all five of the Sundays before Christmas that began with the Latin, “Excita.” In many an Episcopalian’s kitchen on or about the Sunday before Advent, spoons and egg beaters began whipping and whirring overtime to stir up puddings and fruitcakes, which has about as much to do with the content of the collect as Jesus has use for Jacuzzis. But that is why “Stir up Sunday” grew in popularity. The collect is a prayer that God will “stir up” power, and with great might come among us. And, it notes, because we are sorely hindered by our manifold sins, we implore God to let God’s bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.

I want to side-step, just for a little while, the figure of John the Baptist and his message of preparation for Messiah long enough to look carefully at this collect. The door that I want to open is the whole matter of prayer. This is as good a prayer as any to initiate that discussion—to raise serious questions about what prayer is, why it is the quintessential religious practice, and why it is enormously important to Christians and to those of other faith traditions.

The most basic thing about the collect, it seems to me, is the phrase, “because we are sorely hindered by our sins.” Before you retch at the idea of sin actually being in a sermon, stop and consider. Don’t you know that it is true? Before you leap to cataloguing those personal thoughts and actions that you might call sin (either things that you are ashamed of or things that you think are nobody’s business but your own), think of the enormous power that seems to hold the world in its grip. Your list might be different from mine, but mine would include things like willful ignorance that tries to silence the truth of the global climate crisis, self-absorption that turns a deaf ear to the cries of the wretched, power hunger that tramples on the vulnerable, pride of race or nation that justifies killing and unspeakable cruelty, the delusion that any of us is able to be who and what we are without depending upon the rest of the human community, the thoughtlessness or worse that leads to the trashing of the natural world. That is enough to put me in clear mind of how it is that we—the world, the whole lot of humanity—are indeed sorely hindered. Tragically, we hinder ourselves and could easily let up if not stop the behaviors that defeat us. Add to those things the innumerable ways in which we as individuals allow our desires to take control of us so that we lose our balance, falling into various kinds of excess, fear-driven greediness, competition for affection, manipulating others’ emotions and usurping their freedom. Tell me we are not hindered by our sins!

But then we pray that God will stir up God’s power and with great might come among us. It is not a request. It is an imperative. The collect doesn’t fool around with a nice address to God, nor with the customary descriptor. It just goes straight for the verb, the command: “Stir up your power!” What on earth is that about? What do we mean when we pray such a thing? Do we seriously think that God is like some dragon hiding in a cave at the end of the world, snoring through the centuries, ignorant of all that is going on in the universe? Do we think that our prayers, for example, are sharp darts we shoot between the dragon’s scales to arouse her so that she will roar to life, snort some fire, wing her terrible flight through time and space, come to wreck our world, rid it of evil, fix it for all time? Is such a prayer in fact a piece of fairy-tale fiction? Suppose it were true that God is the Being that we hope to heaven will intervene and fix things (we are used to believing that about politicians, for example). Who do we think might suffer, if not we ourselves who are our own chief hinderers? Are we really sure that we want that? There are those that we would laugh to see punished for their wickedness. But are we ready to pay the price we might ourselves owe were our hands pried loose from all we grasp and squeeze and cling to?

This is not what the collect envisions, however. We find ourselves praying that God’s power having been sufficiently stirred up, God will with great might come among us not to beat us up, but with bountiful grace and mercy to help and deliver us. What do you think that might look like were the prayer “to come true,” as my six-year-old daughter once put it? The truth of the matter is we do not know. We can dimly imagine, perhaps, what it might be like if the world were really at peace, if people learned to get along, if we did not go around picking fights with one another, if people were courteous even to strangers, if in short human beings lived on an even slightly higher level than we generally do.

You may take me to task here, voicing the position of the orthodox Christian, claiming that of course we know what it would be like if God came among us with great might because that is exactly what God did in Jesus. Well, yes. And look what happened to Jesus. All that grace and all that mercy that Jesus embodied and modeled and talked about just seemed to evaporate like the dew under Good Friday morning’s sun when the forces of darkness revved up and got poised for a crucifixion. In a sense that is exactly what the gospel today is telling us. It is not only possible for the seriously wicked to miss the point and presence of God’s might in Jesus. Why it was none other than John the Baptist himself, Mister Forerunner, Prophet of the Kingdom-of-Heaven-is-at-hand who was shaken by Jesus’ performance! “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is enough to tell us that we would not necessarily recognize God’s great might among us, especially if that might did not match our preconceptions, as clearly happened when Jesus appeared.

Now I must tell you. This sermon will not fully answer the question of what we think we are doing when we pray. I don’t know that any sermon could. But my purpose today is to crack open this subject so that we can begin thinking and discussing what we think we are doing when we pray. To some of you that is obvious. To others of you it may be pointless. But to many of us, skeptics and believers, agnostics and orthodox, prayer must have a point or else it, and the God it is addressed to, deteriorate into utter triviality, leaving us mired in the stuff of sin and shame (though we may try to excuse it), or else trapping us in a silly religious charade that only pretends to be real. I want to spend at least from now until Pentecost pushing us to be ruthlessly honest about prayer; to look at all the various pieces of the Christian story through the lens of prayer—healing and prayer, forgiveness and prayer, desire and prayer, art and prayer, ethics and prayer, resurrection and prayer. I want to see if we can come to understand prayer as less about words we say or even ideas we form than it is about living and behaving in the presence of Truth, that Truth we see most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ.

So this is only the beginning of the discussion. But it is a beginning. Which is to say that this is a kind of Advent in itself. And at its core Advent is not just a season of the year but a season of the heart. Advent is when the heart yearns, sighs, groans, prays, prays, prays to God, please for God’s sake, stir up your power and with great might come among us. Come among us. We have made a royal mess of things, but we know deep down that we can do better. On our best days we know that we do unimaginably splendid things, like giving up ourselves for the sake of others and treating other people as if they are sacraments of your very own divine presence. Come among us with great might, dear Lord. And let your bountiful grace and mercy—which we see in various ones among us, like the Schweitzers and the Mother Teresas and the Buddha and the Prophet and most clearly in Jesus and occasionally in the pew beside us and in the mirror––let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us. So we pray.

So we pray.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

1 comment:

Fletcher Wells said...

Frank, this sermon was great! The idea of fleshing out what prayer is in a world sorely in need of it is...well, appropriate and needed. I love what Anne Lamott says about prayer:

There are two types of prayer: Help me! Help me! Help me! and Thank you.

How you will ever get several sermon out of prayer, well I guess I will find out ;)

Merry Christmas!
Fletcher