Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In All and above All

Scripture portions for the sixth Sunday of Easter include Acts 10:44-48; I John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

As a preacher, I plead guilty to treating each Sunday’s Collect of the Day as if it were eye candy. The collect is that prayer we say together just before we start hearing the Bible portions of the day; its name suggests its purpose, to collect a hundred or so minds and hearts that otherwise might at that moment be rolling around this room like marbles, focusing our attention on the major theme of the readings we’ll hear. That’s a mighty important role, and, while I’m aware that the Sunday collects in the Book of Common Prayer also are eloquent little gems, I confess that I seldom bring them into the pulpit with me.

Today’s collect can be traced back to the Gothic Missal (or altar book) of the early 8th century French church, and has ancient roots also in Celtic worship. In both its Latin form and its later English translations, its words have been changed here and there by editors (Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, for one), but the long keeping of this prayer makes it one of the Christian Church’s family jewels, and in both this keeping and that editing we recognize the same family dynamics that gave us the Bible: We keep the texts we call holy. We call them holy because they effectively communicate God. And having saved them from the fate of obscurity that landed many another text on the cutting-room floor, we’ve been unafraid to edit, tweak, and tease their words not to change their meaning but to better reveal it.

This collect announces that the whole enterprise of Christian religion is based on a human power, the power to choose, the power to choose to love God. Which is, as the collect tells us, intimately bound to loving life.

The prayer opens with a promise: that for those who make that choice, God has prepared “such good things as surpass our understanding.” It doesn’t square with best theology to hear this saying that we earn those good things: they come purely by gift and grace. And it surely doesn’t settle with good theology to think that God doesn’t care for people who do not choose to love God. In as few words as a collect is built of, what is said is that the choice to love will be rewarded, and not in ways we can anticipate or logically explain.

You would think that what comes next would be a good dose of hectoring, like, “so you all had better try, harder and harder, to love God.” Instead, God is asked to pour into our hearts such love towards God that we, loving God in all things and above all things, may obtain those promises.

This reinforces what we heard last Sunday in the First Letter of John: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us, showing this love by sending his only Son into the world so we might live through him. We love because God first loved us.”

Go back to the 8th century Latin version of our collect and you’ll find two different words for “love.” (This is the sort of thing that interests a preacher, in a forensic sort of way.)

To show you what I mean, hear again the collect’s three phrases about love.

First, “O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding…”

Second: “Pour into our hearts such love towards you…”

Third, “…that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire…”

First is the love we choose to invest in God. This word for love is related to the Latin verb “diligere”, the root meaning of which is “to choose.” Diligent love, choosing and choosing and choosing again to invest our hope and trust in God, choosing to build and maintain relationship, this same word appears as a result of what we ask for in the “Pour into our hearts” petition: “that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises…”

A different word for love appears when we describe what we want poured into our hearts: that is “amore”, love rooted in emotion, “amoris affectum”, affection and more—passion. This is the love we cannot manufacture on our own, the love that we need to have happen to us.

Aren’t these the two poles between which swings our experience of loving God? At one pole, we need from God love that sweeps us off our feet, frees us from our fretful need to control, opens us to deeper powers and hallows our weakness. At the other pole, we offer to God diligent love, caring for people, recognizing our duty to love God by loving our neighbors, seizing opportunities to love one another as Jesus loves his disciples.

At one pole, God gathers us up to breathe new life into us. This is the very motion that frees us to go and see what we can do with that power, as we swing towards the pole of diligence. To love God in all things, we must receive what God has for us above all things.

A very dear couple in our parish have a quiet personal practice of loving God.

Each of them starts the day with three or four polished stones in their left pockets. They go their separate ways, but each has the same practice: As soon as one recognizes that something good has happened, a kindness experienced, a blessing felt, he or she takes a stone from that left pocket, fingers it, feels it, and moves it to the right pocket. This is a practice of counting blessings. It makes me think of the two poles of loving God, the welcoming of the Spirit of God and the going to see what can be done with it.

What had real impact on me was the setting and the moment for their telling me about their stones. We were in a crowded hectic hallway off the lobby of a hospital. This was a place where life and death were held in precarious balance. A place where people are swept along in events beyond their own control, a place where diligent care and relentless love play their part in working wonders.

It was a perfect place to reveal the power of human choice. In their practice, the choice to recognize and welcome love whenever and wherever it happens to them, even in the valley of the shadow, the choice to recognize God setting a table before them in the presence of all that could trouble them. And the choice to remember what a full pocket is for.