Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
June 27, 2010

It should come as no surprise that I am a fan of the Prayer Book Collects. I’ve preached on the collects before and I’m sure I’ll preach on them again, and this morning will be no different. The one appointed for today is one of the more familiar collects, and thus, one that many have memorized over the years.

There is an interesting story about this collect in relation to C. S. Lewis. In his book entitled, The Weight of Glory, Lewis speaks of a time when he was praying this very prayer, and gets a little bit tongue tied. Here is how he recounts the story.

Not long ago when I was using the collect for the fourth Sunday after Trinity in my private prayers I found that I had made a slip of the tongue. I had meant to pray that that I might so pass through the things temporal that I finally lose not the things eternal; I found that I had prayed so to pass through things eternal I finally lost not the things temporal. Of course, I don’t think that a slip of the tongue is a sin. I am not sure that I am even a strict enough Freudian to believe that all such slips, without exception, are deeply significant. But I think some of them are significant, and I thought this was one of that sort. I through that what I had inadvertently said very nearly expressed something I had really wished.

Very nearly; not, of course, precisely. I had never been quite stupid enough to think that the eternal could, strictly, be “passed through.” What I had wanted to pass through without prejudice to my things temporal was those hours or moments in which I attended to the eternal, in which I exposed myself to it.

Lewis, I believe, expresses a sentiment that we all share and usually don’t want to admit. What he’s referring to are those parts of our lives where we close God off, and tell Him, sometimes quite literally, “Hands off.” We remain tied to those besetting sins that always seem to make our list when we perform an examination of conscience prior to making a sacramental confession, or at a minimum, during the General Confession prior to receiving the Sacrament. Perhaps it’s that one aspect of our lives that we feel like we’ve got completely under control, and can manage on our own. It could also be some of the very possessions that we own that occupy an exorbitant amount of our time, and leave us little room for God, prayer, study, fellowship, etc., that is fundamental to the life of a disciple. We often don’t want to pass through those things temporal as our collect suggests and prays for.

Let us take a look again at exactly what the prayer is asking God to do.

The first thing that we ask of God is an increase of His mercy. What better thing to ask for considering what is to follow in the prayer, because our mortal nature is going to be quite incapable of adequately performing the task we are called upon to perform. Not only do we ask for an increase of God’s mercy, we ask that he might multiply it. It isn’t simply enough to have a little bit more, we actually need more and more of our Lord’s mercy for the numerous times that we will most inevitably come up short. An exponentially increased outpouring of God’s mercy helps nurture the longing that we have within us to please God.

The second thing the collect mentions is the acknowledgment that God is our ruler and guide. I think those are two most interesting words, because of the double meanings that they both imply. First, and this just happens to be the way those words come to me, is through in the more authoritarian context as God being our ruler and we His loyal subjects and that he will serve as our guide, directing our steps along the way. This is certainly one way to look at those words, and I see that as a most sincere, most beautiful request.

However, I see another way those words can be prayed that also exhibits a faithful interpretation to the text. Being an engineer, I immediately recognized ruler and guide in a building context. In many respects, this prayer also asks that we might see God for who He truly is, the ultimate standard by which all things are measured. He is Perfection whereby all else is compared.

In the book of Amos, we hear the following words: “Thus he shewed me: and, behold, the LORD stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand. And the LORD said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, A plumbline. Then said the LORD, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel:”

God wants Amos to see that the only way that a wall can be built straight is through the use of a plumbline, a standard by which one knows that the wall is straight and plumb. In order for the walls of our lives to be straight and strong is for us to allow God to test them to see how they measure up. I’ve heard it said that there are many angles by which one may fall, but there is only one angle by which we can stand straight. We must allow God, our ruler and guide in both senses of those words, to continue to fill us with his grace and mercy so that we might pass through those temporal things en route to those that are eternal.

Finally, we come to those words that C. S. Lewis juxtaposed, and the conclusion of our collect. We pray that we might pass through the things temporal so that we finally lose not the things eternal. There are two points of interest in these lines that I wish to elaborate upon briefly.

First is the fact that we are passing through the things temporal. I believe it’s important to note here that we’re not avoiding the things temporal, or bypassing them. No, we’re passing through them. The good things of this temporal world are meant to be enjoyed within their proper context of pointing to the God and Father of us all who created them, or gave us the capacity to create them ourselves. God created things good, and if they were created by a good God, who declared them to be so, should we not enjoy them as the gifts they are intended to be? We are not dualists here who believe that the things of this world are evil, or bad, but rather, extensions of the God we worship and adore.

Second, and perhaps the most interesting parts of this final clause, is the daunting reality that the things eternal could still be lost. Some aspects of very reformed theology say that once you are saved you can never lose your salvation. If that’s true, how do we reconcile the words of our Lord when he says, “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” The purpose of this phrase is to remind us that our eternal destination is always in front of us, eagerly awaiting us, as we strive toward the prize, which lies ahead. I don’t believe that it’s coming at us from the perspective of the fear of hell, but rather, the looking toward the joys of heaven. Far too many approach the Christian faith from the first perspective, and I personally have trouble with those who use fear rather than joy to extol the virtues of the Christian faith and life. After all, as we began this season of Trinity with the words of St. John in his first epistle we are told that, “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”

Over the weekend, William and I were watching some of the Star Wars movies, and as I was pondering my thoughts for my sermon and this collect, the following line struck me as quite pertinent to what we pray for in this collect. From Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Yoda says to Anikan Skywalker, who is struggling mightily between the good side and the dark side of the force, “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” So often we are too busy worrying and fretting over the things of this world that we don’t think we could ever live without. At times, I’m sure we’ve actually been caught in the grip of fear of losing something, or someone. Letting go of everything that we fear to lose, is not speaking of being callous, or indifferent, or unloving, or uncaring or detached and distant. Rather, it’s the recognition that in order to truly love, one has to learn how to let go. God exhibited that so perfectly in that he was able to let go of His only Son to a gruesome death upon the cross so that we might live with Him for all eternity. Through that sacrifice, all debts that we had ever incurred or will ever incur are marked, paid in full. Knowing that Easter lies upon the other side of Good Friday gives us the hope and joy and longing expectation that once we are able, through God’s grace a mercy, to pass through the things temporal the things eternal are awaiting us in all of the splendour, and majesty, and awe that befits the King of kings, and Lord of lords.

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this heavenly father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.

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