It is a bit unusual to focus a sermon on the collect of the day. While sermons usually develop
one or more of the lessons, the collect is an essential part of the lectionary
that changes each Sunday and plays a major role in conveying the overarching
message of that Sunday’s lessons and the liturgical season in which they fall.
I am going to suggest to you that how we pray and why we pray is at least as an important concern as what we pray. I am going to ask you to think about the words we say as a people and consider where those words touch our lives and the lives of those around us.
We Are What We Pray?
Orans prayer position, Catacombs, Rome
Almost from its very beginnings, the Christian tradition has operated out of an understanding that is summed up in the Latin phrase “lex orandi, lex credenda.” That which we pray is what we believe. It is an affirmation of our history as a religious movement in which the prayers of our tradition always preceded and provided a basis for all of the stated beliefs that would later follow.
Those beliefs which we later came to call doctrine inevitably reflected the prayers of the Jesus movement dating back to its earliest formative moments. The very liturgy we celebrate this day reflects the prayers from the gatherings of the earliest followers of Jesus that were ultimately collected and placed into formats that today we Episcopalians call the eucharist and our daily offices.
The collect is a special form of prayer. There is a reason it is said at the beginning of every liturgy. The title “collect” suggests the reasons for that. On the one hand, this prayer signifies the summing up of the prayers of the individuals who have been called to pray. Alternatively, it refers to the collecting of people at the start of the mass, calling the people to attention before the reading of the first lesson.
The church has created different collects for each week of the church year and the tenor of those prayers change with the liturgical season. Currently we are in the middle of Lent, a penitential season when we are called to reflection on our lives individually and collectively. Such themes are clearly present in today’s collect. Read the collect appointed for this day again and listen for the Lenten flavor of this collect:
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The collect begins with a rather stark assertion: We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. It then goes on to assert that both our bodies and our souls are in danger. Not surprisingly, it concludes with prayers for divine protection and defense from all adversities, particularly evil thoughts which assault and hurt the soul.
This is one of the oldest collects in our prayerbook. It arises from one of the ancient sacramentaries in use during the earliest years of the church which would eventually become the basis for our prayer book. The oldest existing manuscript of the Gelasian Sacramentary, from which this collect comes, dates to the 8th CE.
Placing Prayer In Comprehensible Context
If we truly want to understand a text, we always have to look at the circumstances under which that text came into being. A cursory look at the 8th CE readily reveals what may have animated the imaginations of the writers of this collect.
By the 8th CE, the Roman Empire has been gone for more than 100 years and Europe has collapsed into a period of conflict and chaos often called the Dark Ages. To the South, the armies of the Islamic caliphate have spread across North Africa and will soon threaten Europe itself. From the North, seafaring bands of Vikings will spread out across Europe as far south as the Mediterranean bringing death and destruction in their wake beginning with the sack of the great Celtic monastery at Lindisfarne. A mere century prior, the first of a number of deadly plagues, this one named after the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, swept across Europe leaving 25 million dead in its path.
Little wonder the dominant Christian theologians of the day with names like Augustine of Canterbury and Benedict of Nursia would look around themselves and see a very threatening world which required a rescuing deity. Some six centuries later, the dominant medieval theology would have come to see the world itself as a dangerous place where, as Ubertino would warn his fellow Franciscan William of Baskerville in Umberto Ecco’s masterpiece, The Name of the Rose, the devil is lurking everywhere just waiting for the opportunity to pounce upon us.
In that context, the pessimistic theology of our collect today beginning with the presumption of our helplessness in the face of evil and the need for a rescuing deity to save us from it makes perfectly good sense. But I want to suggest to you that such a theology has some major limitations.
Problems of Presuming G-d Will Rescue Us From Ourselves
To begin with the helplessness of the human race is rarely all of the picture. We have our own plague to deal with today in the form of COVID19. Like the plagues of the middle ages, it is deadly, ferocious and life-changing. I have two dear friends who were among the half a million Americans lost to this disease in the past year and several friends and family members have survived it with varying lasting effects.
But our context is different from the middle ages. We know a lot more about diseases today and the ways in which this pandemic can be successfully contained. It requires us to wear masks in public, to maintain social distance from others, to avoid super spreader events where those precautions will likely be ignored. And with the arrival of vaccines with high rates of protection against the disease, it means being willing to be vaccinated when the preventative medication becomes available to us. In short, one of the primary ways we can demonstrate our love of our neighbors as ourselves in an age of pandemic is to be responsible citizens. This is not a disease over which we are powerless.
G-d will not rescue us from our own stubbornness.
While the devil may not be lurking in cleverly concealed places ready to pounce upon us, we are increasingly likely to be victims of catastrophes brought about by climate change. While the enormity of this problem may tempt us to lapse into helpless mode, throw our hands up and pray for divine intervention, in fact anthropocentric climate change is a result of human behaviors. Limiting its impact and mitigating its destructiveness turns on our willingness to change those behaviors in terms of energy production and consumption.
G-d will not rescue us from our addictions to comfort.
One of the lingering impacts of the theologies of depravity which the middle ages took for granted is the tendency to see our own Shadow content in the face of the other. When we talk about a society that is deeply polarized, bear in mind that polarization is the consummate form of dualistic thinking. Those within the circled wagons of our tribe always bear the persona of the good guys and those outside those wagons inevitably bear our projected disowned Shadow content. It’s a lot easier to see our own shortcomings in the face of the other than in the mirror. Indeed, that which we most detest in the other, that which causes a burning anger in even talking about them, is most likely that which we most deeply fear and loathe within ourselves.
G-d will not save us from our unconscious self-loathing and our projection of our Shadow onto others.
There is a reason why virtually every religious tradition on our Earth observes a period of intentional reflection and penitence like our Lenten season. They offer us the chance to reflect on our own lives, our lives together with others and the way we relate to the world around us. They provide time to reconsider the areas of our personal lives, our familial lives, our lives as parishioners and as citizens, to determine the places where our own efforts to love our neighbors as ourselves have fallen short and the places where we need G-d’s help to live into that calling. We are wise to take such penitential seasons seriously.
Baptismal Covenant Promises: Not For Spiritual Couch Potatoes
The problem with the pessimistic theologies of Augustine and Benedict is not that they are wrong, it’s that they are only part of the story. Sister Helen Prejean who ministers to inmates on Louisiana’s Death Row and the families of their victims continually reminds us, “Everybody's worth more than the worst thing they've ever done.” As a Franciscan, I have learned to seek the goodness of G-d which is all around me all the time waiting to be noticed. And as an Episcopalian, I have come to take seriously the words of our Baptismal Covenant.
At the end of this long six weeks period of fasting, reflection and penitence, we will celebrate the triumph of life over death in the Feast of Easter. As a part of that liturgy, many parishes will include the sacrament of Baptism welcoming new members into our communities. An essential part of that sacrament is the communal affirmation of our Baptismal Covenant.
The Covenant contains a number of promises. We promise to enter into community life by engaging its teaching, fellowship, eucharist and prayers. We promise to resist evil and repent from it when our resistance fails. We agree to witness our faith in the Good News through word and deed. We commit to lives of service, seeking and serving Christ in every person. And we commit to work for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.
These are not the promises of the spiritual couch potato. They require us to actively engage our faith, to look beyond the circled wagons of our tribe and to work hard to see the image of G-d on the face of every living being even when they hide behind distressing disguises of poverty, addiction, disease and, yes, partisanship.
When we are posed those questions in our liturgy, we will answer with the following: “I will with God’s help.” Our own effort is central to these endeavors and thus comes first in our response here. But we also are humble enough to recognize that, while we may not be helpless or powerless, we always need the help of the Holy One in living into our callings. We’ve come a long way from the world and the worldview of the 8th Century. But our call to be responsible people of G-d will always need G-d’s help.
Yongsung Kim, “Hand of God”
I wish you well in these weeks of Lenten journey into the joy of Easter. I pray that I have given you some things to consider on that journey. And I pray that the presence of the Holy One be so near you in the days ahead that it is palpable.
I close with the Chorister’s Prayer of the Royal Church School of Music. It is the prayer I prayed for years as the member of a cathedral choir and often offer for the altar party waiting to begin the eucharists I lead. I believe it has something to say to all of us this day. Let us pray:
Bless, O Lord, us Thy servants, who minister in Thy temple. Grant that what we proclaim with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[N.B. Primary source for history of the collect is Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (NY: Harpers, 1995)]
A sermon preached via Zoom for St. John's Episcopal Church, Taunton, MA on March 7, 2021, Third Sunday in Lent
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2021