The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Trinity XII 2005

by Fr. Carl
Cathedral of the Annunciation

Today we heard read one of Bp. Mercer’s favourite Collects. It seems that the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer also thought it important, as a variation of it appears at the end of the Service of Holy Communion as one of the Collects that may be said following the Eucharist, or by a Deacon if only the Liturgy of the Word has been read in the absence of a Priest or Bishop to celebrate the Eucharist. If you would all open your Prayer Books to page 236, the location of today’s Collect, please then follow along as I read the Collect on page 88 that expresses much the same:

“Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: We beseech thee to have compassion on our infirmities; and those things, which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

We here might also recall one of Bishop Mercer’s sermons from last fall. Remembrance Sunday fell on Trinity 23, the Collect for which implores God to hear our prayers. Bp. Robert reminded us of three essentially important facts that we should recognize as we pray, relating specifically to intercessory prayer: prayer is not telling God something that He doesn’t already know; prayer is not bending God to our wills; prayer does not empower or enable God. It would be difficult not to recognize the obvious link between the Bishop’s musings and the Collect for today, and the post-Communion Collect that I read.

In listening to the good Bishop, one might ask, “Well then, what use is prayer?” Of course, as he was often wont to do, he was planting a seed in our minds, encouraging us to do some thinking, to acknowledge that, while on one hand God is not our cosmic bellhop, neither on the other hand are we to ignore prayer as a useless exercise. First, the Bishop made the point that if his observations might suggest that prayer is not easily understood, we might also acknowledge that we can hardly understand the Trinity either, but we most certainly believe it. His exact words were, “To understand prayer, you must first understand the Trinity. You will never understand the Trinity. Therefore you will never understand prayer.”

Happily, he didn’t leave us hanging there. He went on to make the very important point that the highest purpose of prayer, some might argue the only proper purpose, is to share in the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. His concluding words were, “When you pray, ‘God bless Susie’, the will of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is expressed in your heart, mind and voice. You are not intervening between God and Susie on Susie’s behalf. The Trinity loves Susie, knows more about Susie, understands Susie, better than you ever could. Because Jesus has united you with His humanity, and taken you up into the Trinity, a little of the Trinity’s love for Susie is now in you. ‘I am the Ground of thy beseeching.’ Prayer is not your attempt to get God involved. Prayer is the result of God involving you in Himself.”

Why am I repeating all of this? Well, it certainly is topical as it relates to today’s Collect and our former Bishop’s acknowledgement of its importance. And it is also certainly topical when we ponder the world about us, both sacred and profane – churched and unchurched.

It doesn’t come as any particular surprise to any of us, I suspect, that the unchurched are very often motivated by greed. How often can we observe the mantra, “What’s in it for me?” Clearly that is very far from the lofty ideal of prayer of which the Bishop reminded us – to become absorbed into, annihilated in the love of the Trinity, which is entirely a love that gives. There is no sentiment of, “What’s in it for me” in the Divine Love.

And inside the Church; are our motivations always so pure? Perhaps our prayer life is exemplary, driven only by a desire to see God’s will in all things, to pray for the good of others within the perfect will of the Trinity for them, to become a small reflection of the Divine Love, never presuming to tell God what to do or to suspect that He is unaware of something.

I was prompted to think of the type and quality of prayer life early last week by a number of things:
• the first Lesson at Mattins on Monday (Monday, by the way, we commemorated John Mason Neale, translator and/or composer of the words of over 70 of the hymns in our Hymnal, including having translated our first hymn today), the first Lesson was from 2 Chronicles 15, which in part read, (RSV) “The Lord is with you, while you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you, but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you.” In one short verse we have encapsulated one of the most important messages in the Old Testament, both for individuals, and for entire nations. Many have often wondered at the seemingly endless episodes of Israel’s prosperity waxing and waning as they were either at peace or at war. This short verse succinctly distils all of that into a short but weighty explanation and exhortation. The wars in which the Jews were often engaged were real enough, but through the words of the Lord, spoken here by Azariah, we are to understand that all of that symbolized the struggle, the war within each human soul. “What’s in it for me?” Ultimately, nought that is happy unless we have been truly seeking God.
• that, coupled with today’s Epistle reading, particularly the statement, “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” prompted me to think forward to the time of Jesus, when the most zealous of the Jews, the Pharisees, had managed to create over 600 rules that must be observed to the letter, according to their teaching, or damnation was pretty much guaranteed. Of course, as we know from a few episodes with Jesus, the Pharisees were very much indeed consumed with the letter, often missing very badly the Spirit. To be focussed on a massive check list of do’s and don’ts would certainly be a significant distraction from the sort of prayer that seeks unity with God.
• then on Tuesday evening, the first Lesson at Evensong provided another brilliant encapsulation, this time, a bridge between the early Old Covenant mindset of animal sacrifice as a way to be right with God, and the later understanding of personal spirituality. God, through the prophet Micah, says (RSV), “‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Once again, a reminder that there is nothing better than for us to become immersed in God, to be annihilated in the Divine Love of the Holy Trinity.

Fair enough, but once again, in the world today, both within and without the Church, aside from the “What’s in it for me?” syndrome, let us consider aspects of being Christians outside of our prayer life. Most disconcerting I feel, is that, through almost certainly a complex combination of factors, people’s thinking has become dulled. We might even call it the, “What’s the big deal?” syndrome. This has penetrated all aspects of our life in western society, from human morality (witness the ready acceptance of murdering our unborn children and the inevitably unfortunate consequences that are going to result from the destruction of our understanding of family to name two on a large scale) to just plain politeness and decency on the part of individuals (what ever happened to men removing their hats when they enter a building as a show of respect?). “What’s the big deal, as long as it’s not (apparently) hurting me or anyone else?”

Sometimes the combination of our general lack of thoughtful interest, coupled with a “no holds barred” attitude on the part of others, can point towards some rather frightening conclusions.

On Monday, my first day back from vacation, I was catching up on reading email correspondence, and in a message from American Life League President Judie Brown I read: “We live in a world that is upside down, yet far too few people seem to care. And that troubles me. We go along, doing what we do, never stopping to question the media reports that suggest this topsy-turvy reality is the proper direction for culture, our nation and our very lives. Here's what I mean. Did you know that there are great apes and chimpanzees that will shortly be walking around with human brain cells in their little craniums? There was a time when ethical research scientists told the public that such a vision of "Planet of the Apes" would never happen. Not so, says a group of academics assembled by Johns Hopkins University. Oh, not to worry, these little human-apes won't be passing through the subway turnstiles any time soon, but watch out. When scientists start telling us that something they are thinking about could never be done without the strictest of guidelines, it a sure-fire bet that they are already wondering where to get started. There are far too many scientists who think if something can be done, it should be done — ethical considerations notwithstanding.”

That prompted me to think of other far more trivial episodes, but nonetheless telling in themselves, of those, not only outside the Church but also within. What sort of episodes, aside from the thinking about which Judie raises an alarm, “if something can be done, it should be,” even if that means rejecting the clearly revealed will of God?
• we might think especially of those situations that prompted our very existence – rejection of God’s authority as regards the Sacraments, “Because we are enlightened and know a better way,” and, “What’s the big deal? We’re not hurting anyone.”
• society’s moral standards are increasingly not those of the Church. Sometimes, not only new members, but even lifelong Christians, upon being made aware of God’s will vs. society’s latest fad, are unwilling to accept God’s will, often coupled with a shrug and a statement to the effect, “If it’s not hurting anyone, then I’m going to go with the flow, regardless of what God says.” Of course, “hurt” in this sense seems to apply only to obvious physical trauma; psychological, or even worse, spiritual damage seem to be of little concern.
• and some might say, even more trivial, but also telling nonetheless are those situations where someone is being trained for whatever duty around the Church: altar guild, servers, even candidates for Holy Orders. Upon being instructed how something, based on good logical reasons, is to be done, they go away and promptly establish a habit of doing it differently. This is often not terribly important, but there are very many things in which the physical acts or even the arrangement of things in the Church are highly symbolic to the extent that if done or arranged improperly might indicate a lack of care. Perhaps we should pretend that we are in the military: when we are instructed the proper way to salute, we make quite certain that we comply upon risk of being put on report. We are God’s army; let us try to salute properly. This last point of lack of attention to readiness and decency in the church is also topical in that yesterday was the Feast of St. Hippolytus, Doctor and Bishop, who was martyred in the year 235 AD. Among various of his writings, the best known work is a refutation of various Gnostic heresies. But he also wrote a commentary on the book of Daniel, and attributed to him is a work called The Apostolic Tradition, which complained that public worship was getting very sloppy, and explained in detail how church services ought to be conducted, and were conducted back in the Good Old Days. Hmm, have things really changed all that much?

Having said all of that, one might very correctly observe that there is always the danger of Pharisaism – being consumed with observance of rules. Bishop Mercer also delivered a wonderfully convicting sermon on that topic, observing that it is so very easy to be a Pharisee. Fair enough observation, but might we also recognize that there are proper ways to do things and not so proper. If we learn and practise the proper way, then it becomes second nature; we do it automatically, giving no further regard to observance of petty rules.

After all, the whole purpose of this exercise that we call Church, is not to be consumed by trivialities, offering burnt offerings, and calves, and rams, and rivers of oil, yea even our first-born. “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” in a life of prayer that seeks nothing but God Himself.