Passing Through

As I’ve cast about for a new blog series, I kept coming back – often against my will – to sermons. I say against my will because I honestly don’t want to preach here; I mean, let’s be honest, we’ve already reached peak white-bearded-thirty-something-bros-who-write-about-God. But I can’t help it. I’ve wanted to be a preacher since I was six and you just can’t turn something like that off.

So here’s what I propose to do in this space for the time being: I want to treat these as “sermons” in that I will attempt to teach and maybe even inspire, to share my understanding of a biblical text and how it relates to following Christ in reality. However, I will not be deeply researching or storyboarding these as though I were spending a week preparing for Sunday. Rather, I intend these more to reflect the sort of conversations I had with my campus ministry students, riffing on a passage or concept they had questions over and providing resources for further study.

In order to keep these short and to keep the choices for the texts out of my hands (as they would be when a student came to talk), I will be using the weekly lectionary passages according to the schedule my tradition follows. Lectionaries are one of the oldest traditions in the church’s worship, stemming from the Jewish table of readings whose roots, like so many things in the Jewish faith, claim to go back to Moses and at least find their formal roots in the Babylonian captivity.

For the unfamiliar, the lectionary is a schedule of short Bible readings that follow the thematic cycle of the Church year, typically including an Old Testament selection, a psalm, a passage from the New Testament letters, and a Gospel reading. Again, lectionaries have been around since the beginning (our oldest surviving one is from the 5th c. I believe, though the tradition puts it further back), but the cycle we’ll be following here is from the Revised Common Lectionary, which is the result of an ecumenical process from the second half of the last century.

The other primary resource I’ll be making use of will be the collect for the week. Found in the Book of Common Prayer, the collect is the communal prayer that summarizes, gathers, or “collects” the prayers of the worshiping community for that week. In my own daily meditations, I have found these weekly-changing prayers to work on me slowly – that in the daily recitation of these carefully crafted words, I find a type of mantra governing the week.

So, for example. Were I to have “preached” about this week’s readings, the passages would have been as follows: Ps. 119:129-136; I Kings 3:5-12; Rom. 8:26-39; Matt. 13:31-33, 44-52 and the collect for the week:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Were I to preach, I would have spoken about the Kingdom of Heaven as Jesus frames it: operating out of a position of fundamental lack and weakness, calling upon us to see ourselves as “conquerors” in the sense that God’s unconquerable love holds us and refuses to be parted from that which it created and intended to bring to itself finally and fully.

We conquer because we are conquered. This is the only way Christ’s Body will truly work its way through the world like yeast through dough. When God’s people have sought to be powerful, to be in the center and upon the top, they have failed utterly time and again, for they have been using the power of the Divine for purposes other than which it was given. The Church has all too often made the opposite choice of Solomon, asking for long life, riches, and the lives of its “enemies,” rather than the soft splendor of wisdom. It would prefer to rule culture than reanimate it after the nature of Christ.

I might have mentioned C.S. Lewis’ sermon “A Slip of the Tongue,” when he recounts using this week’s very collect in his daily prayers, only he accidentally flipped the final request, saying instead, “So to pass through things eternal that I finally lost not the things temporal” – a slip which caused him to meditate on the sundry ways we withhold corners of ourselves from God, the ways we cling to our lifeline to the shore, content to “Neither dive nor swim nor float, but only dabble and splash” rather than be subsumed by the oceanic love of God, which brooks no rival to its final conquering of all things 1

When it comes to the demands of the Christ life, we are very much like Lewis’ “honest but reluctant taxpayers”: people who value all that our civic investment goes to support but are willing to pay experts to find every loophole that might save something back for ourselves. We stumble upon the treasure in the field, but choose to merely take whatever we can carry, unwilling to make the sacrifice required to purchase the field.

I might have closed speaking about this sacrifice: about our glorious weakness in the face of the Absolute, leaving us bereft of even prayer; about how sometimes all we can do is, like the psalmist, ask for protection from that which would otherwise overwhelm us. That the strength we beg for with groans that words cannot express is the weakness to move through this temporal life (the only life we are guaranteed) not seeking to “pass through” it as though simply trying to make it to the other side, but to walk with unbowed vulnerability up the dreaded hill, bearing our cruciform burdens and so to daily pass through death into true Life here and now: passing through the pervading belief that this physical life is simply that, but into the kind of Life that receives the gifts of Christ, however we stumble upon them, as something deeper and more sustaining – which we then turn and offer through our very battered bodies and souls to an equally battered world.

At least, that’s what I might have talked about.

 

1. From The Weight of Glory

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