Keep Us, O Lord
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.
I thought I’d start with a little history lesson this morning. The collect for the third Sunday in Lent is from the Gregorian Sacramentary–a 10th-century illuminated Latin manuscript containing prayers for worship. A number of collects from our modern day prayer book come from this ancient source, actually. The manuscript carries the name “Gregorian” because its authorship was originally attributed to Saint Gregory the Great, the pope in the late 6th century. Although scholarship has determined that Gregory wasn’t the author, the misattribution is certainly understandable as Gregory deeply influenced the liturgical theology of the Church–and that influence is clearly present in the Gregorian Sacramentary.
This morning’s collect talks of bodily adversities and the assault of evil thoughts, harmful to the soul. I’ll admit that this language may be off-putting to modern ears. You don’t tend to hear much about spiritual warfare in the Episcopal Church these days–the unseen battle between good and evil that rages on just beyond the vail of this world. Understanding the idea metaphorically, or poetically, is just fine. Either way, it points to a deep truth about the human condition–the great distance we can feel from God, our neighbors, and even ourselves when we are assaulted or overcome by life’s difficulties. Personifying certain troubling thoughts is historically a helpful way to confront them when they arise. You’ll recall that when Jesus was tempted with hunger, greed, and pride during his forty days and nights in the desert, the troubling thoughts came to him in the form of the devil. He stood behind the shield of Scripture to ward off the assault: “One does not live by bread alone.” “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
One of Saint Gregory’s contributions to the Church is an evolution of an ancient way of characterizing these assaults. Gregory popularized the capital vices, or more commonly, the Seven Deadly Sins. And it is to these “sins” that this morning’s collect may very well refer: vainglory, envy, sadness, avarice, wrath, lust, and gluttony. Interestingly, Gregory and his predecessors in the vices tradition understood this infamous list to be less about spiritual crimes we commit and more about natural thoughts common to all. We all occasionally pine for “the way things were” (that’s sadness), we all have moments when our desire for money, things, or power can get the best of us (that’s avarice), and there are times when we convince ourselves that if we moved to another town, or dressed differently, or had our neighbor’s greener lawn, we would be happier (that’s acedia). Having these thoughts is actually not the problem, and certainly nothing we should feel guilty about. They’re just a part of who we are. Rather, the challenge is learning to shield ourselves from their potentially debilitating effects. Anger, for example, can drive us to say things and do things that we might later regret. We’ve all been there. And groups of angry people, be they congregations or countries, can make some disastrous decisions. Now, anger can be a powerful motivator for work against injustice, say, but in and of itself, wrath is something you don’t want to let the sun go down on.
The vice tradition has long considered anger to be a blinding sin or thought, and its siblings carry this description as well. When we’re consumed with prideful thoughts, for example, we are not seeing well. When we look through the narrow lens of pride, and filter it through some anger, others can look inferior to us, and we might even treat them as such, thinking them deserving of whatever trials or suffering they might experience in this life. Pride and the others blind us to reality. And this is reality (Are you ready for it?). We are, each of us, beloved children of God, valuable beyond measure. Full Stop. This is what the Christian tradition teaches, and this is the truth that can become obscured by “all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul,” in the words of this morning’s collect. A passage from Scripture that helps illustrate this idea is the bit in Matthew about fussing over the speck of wood in your neighbors eye when you have a log in your own. The logs are these thoughts, and it’s hard for any of us to see past them.
From Luke’s Gospel this morning, we encounter Jesus attempting to get this very message across to some individuals who were blinded by pride. They saw the suffering of others and assumed it to be justified because of the sins those others had likely committed. They were “less than” because of what they had done or how they looked or where they lived or who their parents were. Put another way, “people get what they deserve, don’t they?” And Jesus responded with a parable about a fig tree that had failed to bear fruit. When the man who planted the tree asked to have it cut down, the gardener–who we can assume is Jesus in this story–asked for more time with the tree. He wanted to fertilized it and give it another chance to grow–to show it more love. This is the way God behaves towards God’s children: always mercy, always grace. This is good news.
I think we can see this parable from a couple of angles this morning. On the one hand, we are the fig tree. God knows I need a second…and third…and fourth chance. When I am troubled by “all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul,” I need protection, shelter, and strength. And then when I act on them I need patience, forgiveness, grace. We are the fig tree. On the other hand, though, we are the frustrated vineyard owner who wants his fig tree cut down. From that man’s perspective, the tree is a failure that deserves the axe. How often do we neglect to see the value of another because of our own prideful judgements and prejudices? How often are we blinded by the log in our own eye?
Back up to this morning’s collect. The very first line reads, “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” I have a feeling that if the gardener, if Jesus, wasn’t there to vouch for the fig tree, the vineyard owner would have had his way. And this is the other piece of good news this morning. Jesus stands in the middle–comforting, protecting, and encouraging us over here, ready to water and fertilize, and at the same time holding us back from regrettable action over here. Jesus could overcome the assaults of the devil in the desert on his own. We need Jesus.
This third Sunday in Lent, as we continue our journey with Jesus to the cross, engaging in self-examination and repentance, I pray, quite simply, that each of us learns to see Jesus’ presence in our lives more clearly, both when we need protection and when others need protection from us. “Keep us…” the collect reads. Watch over us. Be with us. Know us. Guide us. “Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls.” Amen.
Lent 3, Year C