Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; so that among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.
When we come to church there is set before us a groaning table of things to feast upon. Our eyes are invited to consider the windows, arches, carvings, and caverns. Our ears have choral music, organ music, hymnody, and the shuffle of people. Our souls are given the brooding mystery of sacraments, the beckon of symbols and signs. Our minds are offered the wisdom of our ancestors in the lessons, prayers and, hopefully, sermons. One morsel in this feast that is seldom given its due is the Collect of the Day, the prayer that comes just before the first lesson. It is called a ‘collect’ because it is intended to be a collective, a prayer for all of us, as opposed to more private and personal ones. They almost always include a problem, a petition, and a desired outcome. Something is wrong, so we ask God to help us address that wrong in order that something better can take its place. That is basic faith, not complicated but very important. If you are among the truly insightful, you may have begun to suspect that we are going to look at today’s collect and you would be right. The collect says that our unruly wills and affections amid the swift and varied changes of the world are the problem. It asks God to give us the grace to love what God commands and desire what God promises so that our hearts will know God’s joy. Let’s pause and taste that little bit of the feast together.
It says that we have unruly wills and affections. That word ‘unruly’ makes me think of something innocently rambunctious like Cub Scouts on a field trip, unfocused, wandering here and there. But the literal meaning is much darker. Unruly means un-ruled, uninformed by anything higher or deeper than itself. The collect accuses our hearts and minds of being fickle and feckless, insincere and incompetent—all of which can be as harmless as fashion trends and keeping up with Apple rollouts or as deadly as an addiction, a betrayal or even the chaos of a berserk soldier in Afghanistan, the tragedy of an overzealous crime watcher in Florida. Unruly wills and affections allow our nation to rush to defend the oppressed in countries with oil, but simply wring our hands over Syria, Sudan, and Sri Lanka and still think we are humanitarians. It allows us, in one writer’s memorable phrase, to “outsource our suffering” to the military, the poor, and the Third World, and not feel compromised.
Our unsteady relationship with principle is complicated by a context of swift and varied change around us, a point that is so obvious it does not require examples. The collect sees us clutching at straws in a swirling, tilting world. The image is especially true of some of us, but true of all of us to some degree.
In light of that reality, the prayer asks God to give us grace, a word that refers to the goodness of God. In other words, we are asking God to make us better people by giving us some of God’s goodness, so that we can love what God commands and desire what God promises.
There are many, too many, people who think that being in that kind of right relationship with God is easy, even natural, with no special grace needed. They are the people who claim to be spiritual but not religious, to have no need of corporate worship because they are quite capable of loving and desiring the right things on their own. They believe they can make a private feast for the eye, ear, soul, and mind from ingredients they have at hand. They will say that they do not have to come to this feast because they can worship God walking among the cherry blossoms. Which, of course, they can but the God they meet among the blossoms never tells them anything they do not already know or anything they do not want to hear. Ten thousand years of human history indicate that by ourselves we end up worshiping ourselves. We need the nudge of grace for our unruly hearts and minds to love and desire as God would have us.
We ask for God’s grace so that our hearts will be fixed on God’s joy. That is the result we seek in this prayer. First of all, note that fixed and steady hearts are precisely the opposite of unruly ones. We are not asking that the world settle down to predictable and manageable routines, just that we be on solid ground while life does its thing. Fixed and steady hearts have to live with the swift and varied changes of life. They just are not blown over by them.
The collect is a little more specific than just asking that we have something to hang onto. It wants us to grab onto joy, true joy, God’s joy. Take a moment with that idea because it is a big one. Jesus once said that the reason he came, the reason for the whole story from Christmas to Easter, was so that our joy might be made complete by having the joy of God in us. That’s big. The way joy is used in that context is not about having a swell time, although that is part of it. This joy means righteousness, a word we unfortunately associate with pompous arrogance but it literally means right-use-ness, doing what is right. It is about being a faithful servant managing time, money, and abilities in service to that which is higher and deeper than ourselves. It is about ruling our wills and affections with what we know of God.
Let me show you how it works. Think for just a moment about the people you know for whom the word ‘joy’ is most descriptive. I would be willing to bet they are ruled by something higher and deeper than themselves. I will also bet that you sometimes wonder how they manage to live that way with all that goes on in life. Today’s collect says that they have God’s grace and are fixed on God’s joy. And the collect asks the same for you and me so that when our friends are asked to think of someone joyful, you and I might come to mind.
That is just one bit of this morning’s feast. Amen.