Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
September 5, 2010
There are four hymns in the 1940 Hymnal attributed to poet William Cowper. Cowper lived in England all of his life in the eighteenth century, and was a contemporary of John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace. In looking at the three hymns of Cowper’s in the 1982 Hymnal, I realized that even though I had heard his name before, I didn’t recognize any of them as ones I had ever sung. I’ll try and rectify that since his poetry is so beautiful and the lyrics quite powerful. However, neither the 1940 nor the 1982 hymnals contained the following hymn that bears a striking resemblance, most notably the last verse or chorus, with our collect for this morning.
No strength of nature can suffice
To serve the Lord aright
And what she has, she misapplies,
For want of clearer light.
How long beneath the Law I lay
In bondage and distress
I toiled the precept to obey,
But toiled without success.
Then to abstain from outward sin
Was more than I could do
Now if I feel its power within
I feel I hate it too.
Then all my servile works were done,
A righteousness to raise
Now, freely chosen in the Son,
I freely choose His ways.
What shall I do was then the word,
That I may worthier grow?
What shall I render to the Lord?
Is my inquiry now.
Chorus: To see the Law by Christ fulfilled,
To hear His pardoning voice,
Changes a slave into a child
And duty into choice.
If you look at page 209 of the Prayer Book I think you’ll see what I’m talking about. Our collect, which almost seems more suited for the Sunday before Lent when we hear the 13th Chapter of I Corinthians as our Epistle Lesson, begins with an appeal to God for an increase in faith, hope, and charity. This ancient collect does not draw any distinction between the three cardinal virtues, and seeks God’s gift of an abundance and increase of all three. As you recall from St. Paul, he says that the greatest of the three is charity, which of course true. St. John declares with conviction and clarity that God is love, and that above all else love of God and love of neighbor encapsulates the Gospel mandate of sharing the Good News throughout the whole world. It’s no mistake or coincidence that we would hear these words just one week after we heard the story of the Good Samaritan preceded by the Summary of the Law. It was with great care and precision that the early church framed the lectionary as you see printed in your Prayer Book. This sequence tells the story year-after-year in an ordered and concise fashion.
The collect’s petition that we seek is one that starts a sequence in motion for the ordering and living of our lives as disciples of Christ. For after we seek, and through prayer and supplication we begin to receive an increase of faith, hope, and charity, two things can begin to happen. First, we begin to receive a heart that is forever changed, and as William Cowper proclaimed in his hymn, “To see the Law by Christ fulfilled, To hear His pardoning voice, Changes a slave into a child And duty into choice.” No longer are we called slaves but sons of God, and what is seen as duty is transformed into choice. Second, we begin to comprehend the mysteries that lie ahead of us as we await the promises that God intends for us to enjoy. The nice thing about this second piece is that it isn’t just something we wait for on the other side of eternity. If that were so, our Lord would never had told to us to pray for our Father’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. There are pieces of those promises that are ours to enjoy in this life.
What makes this collect and the words of William Cowper so hard to comprehend is the thought of making obedience to the Law something to be enjoyed rather than a burden. This doesn’t make sense. Rules are supposed to be oppressive and something we hate aren’t they? I know for an absolute fact that school zones are the bane of my very existence. I’m sorry, and I hate to admit it, but I have somewhere I need to be, and school zones, and school buses with lights flashing brings out the exact opposite of charity in my mind. I realize this is an overly simplistic example, but it is one in which the law is seen as a burden rather than an opportunity. I could more appropriately use that time as an opportunity to give thanks for the children who will have or have had the opportunity to learn, for the teachers who give selflessly of themselves to teach, to the drivers who make sure that our children arrive at school and get back home safely each and every day. That would be an example of charity breeding charity. A simple change on my part would lead to an opportunity for prayer and thanksgiving, which would in turn lead to an increase of charity. The law that I would originally despise becomes a vehicle for prayer.
What are the areas in our own lives in which the law is continued to be seen as a barrier to charity? It is certainly something to ponder.
With this in mind, how might our Gospel lesson of the healing of the ten lepers bear this out? We heard a few moments ago a familiar story of the healing of a group of ten lepers who were considered the outcasts of society. A leper in that day and age could not come anywhere near someone who was “clean” and they lived their entire lives with a label as they would go through the streets crying out for all to hear that they were “unclean.” This was to ensure that those who were not afflicted with this skin disease would not inadvertently get to close and contract it. The only comfort a leper could enjoy would be the company of other lepers with whom they could congregate and commiserate. A group of lepers encounter Jesus as he was journeying toward Jerusalem and make a simple cry for mercy. We certainly don’t know what kind of mercy they hoped to receive, but if nothing else, they cried out for the very thing that they and we need to seek each day of our lives. They asked for and received mercy. In our collect, their simple cry was an embodiment of the first two theological virtues – faith and hope. They had some sense of faith and hope that calling out to Jesus, Master, something might just happen. They went out on a limb as we are called to do.
Then Jesus does something most remarkable. He doesn’t enter into a discussion with them; he doesn’t touch them; he doesn’t tell them they are healed; he tells them to go and show themselves to the priest. He has just interjected a portion of the law. Only a priest could examine someone who was ritually unclean and issue a proclamation that they were now considered clean and could return to the fellowship of society. Why does he do this? This seems so out of place and strange.
I believe he does this to show that the keeping of the law is still important; it is still a part of our lives as his disciples. He wants us to make sure that we don’t think that we can simply bask in God’s grace without understanding its depths and implications. It’s almost like the adage that says, “I like to sin, and God likes to forgive, that seems like a pretty good arrangement to me!” It doesn’t work that way.
So Jesus sends these lepers away to go and show themselves to the priest. The Scripture even says that they went away and as they went they were cleansed. What faith and hope that they would not question what they were asked to do. Not exactly the same as when Naaman was asked to bathe in the Jordan River seven times by Elisha.
Then we come to the portion of this story when duty becomes a choice, and something for which we rejoice rather than wish to reject. One leper, a Samaritan, who recognizes what has just happened turns back and falls on his face in thanksgiving and adoration for the gift he had just received. In some way, this Samaritan who was already the outcast of outcasts, returns in a spirit of joy to our Lord and thanks him for the gift he had just received. In actuality, he received two gifts if not more that day. In a physical sense he was given his life back. At a deeper level though he was given the opportunity to worship God as a changed person. Going to show himself to the priest wasn’t a burden, but a joy. He wasn’t going to be admonished for his condition as an outcast, but to receive the proclamation that he had received healing.
Oh that we might come in that same manner to our Lord’s Table. That is why the Confession of Sin and priestly absolution are where they are in the service, and why they are there at all. Hopefully we approach that part of the service like the lepers with the only appropriate words on our lips, Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. Then, and only then, can we fully appreciate and understand the words, “have mercy on you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness.” These words ring hollow if we fail to understand the words grace and mercy.
The message of the Gospel should first reduce us to “jelly” as Dr. Paul Zahl once said. The 1979 Prayer Book removed the words, “miserable offenders” from the Confession in Morning and Evening Prayer. What a terrible omission because the only way that we can ever come to grips with what grace and mercy mean is if we come to recognize who we are in that light. Only when we have been reduced to jelly can we then begin to lift up our heads and cry out to Jesus our Master and say have mercy on me. We have received the promise that when we come in a posture such as this that our Lord does show us both His grace and mercy.
That showering of grace and mercy then begins a process that is called sanctification. It is where we see pleasing God as something that we look forward to out of profound thanks for what he gives to us. Only when we ask for an increase of faith, hope, and charity can we begin to see this change begin to take shape. When this change begins, the cycle continues moving us closer and closer to the person that we were created to be. And then as William Cowper declares, “To see the Law by Christ fulfilled, To hear His pardoning voice, Changes a slave into a child And duty into choice.” Lord Jesus our Master, have mercy on us, and help us to see our duty to serve and follow you as a choice that we willingly embrace, and strive to embody each and every day of our lives.