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.
Does this prayer speak the truth? Do we not have power to help ourselves? Was Benjamin Franklin wrong when he said, “God helps those who help themselves"?
Are body and soul as distinctly separate as the collect has us tell God? Suppose body and soul are integral, of one piece.
As a small child I created an imaginary playmate, whom I named Bowback. Whenever my parents found that I had done something wrong, I said “Bowback did it! I didn’t do it. Bowback did it.” I found that my parents liked that so much that occasionally they forgot to scold me as severely as they might otherwise.
This collect invites us to try my childish game on God, and the prayer sounds so lovely, we might not notice our childishness.
Nevertheless, I will not remain mute when we pray this collect at Grace Church in Newark. I need all the defense I can get from evil thoughts and from adversaries. Real adversaries I have aplenty.
Occasionally someone says to me, “I don’t understand how you can be so gracious to those who abuse you and say all manner of evil against you falsely.” “Thank you,” I reply, “but I am glad that you don’t get to hear the first draft of my prayers.”
I have found that the prayers of others regarding me have far more efficacy than do my own prayers. There are times of extreme stress in which I have experience great calm, calm that I choose to account for as the answer to many friends' prayers.
I have always loved this story. The few times I have ever spent in or near a desert, I have longed for a bush to ignite, for God to show up with fireworks. I would dutifully hide my face. I would dutifully report what I heard. Moses was very lucky.
But of course, Moses was prepared for the encounter from the moment he, as a baby, was put in a basket for pharaoh’s daughter to discover among the bulrushes. He was raised in the house which now he must confront. God knows that Moses understands how power works in Egypt. Unlike most other Israelites, he has been an insider. He understands entitlement.
Moses’ first concern is whether, given such a background, his own people will consider him a Jew, whether they will be willing to follow his lead.
Recall how some in the black community distrusted Barack Obama, whose black father disappeared early in his life, who was raised by a white mother….. Recall Jesse Jackson’s rude dismissal of Barack caught on camera, much to his chagrin, much to the chagrin of many of us who revere them both.
Moses asks God for advice about how to get their acceptance. God gives him some code language that the Jews will recognize as authentic, as inside understanding of how God speaks. They won’t be impressed by images of God -- God who won‘t even allow paparazzi, God who is Word not Icon.
The Israelites expect to recognize God only by the basics. God tells Moses that God‘s name is I AM Who I AM.” Now that‘s truly basic. No fancy talk. No writers of Prayer Book collects to gussy it up -- not one “Almighty God” such as we have in today’s collect. "Say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" The Israelites will understand this minimalist identification of God.
Gays and lesbians understand that too. As one blogger put it, the lyrics of ‘I am what I am’ “should be required listening for anyone struggling to come out!” “I AM What I AM” is also minimalist, basic, sine qua non. All the other tags you might apply, all the other masks we might wear, don’t work, can’t change who we are.
Even Popeye the Sailor understood that: “I am what I am and that's all that I am.”
Gloria Gaynor wrote the lyrics for “I am what I am”. Hear her sing it.
I am what I am
I am my own special creation
So come take a look
Give me the hook
Or the ovation
It's my world
That I want to have a little pride
And it's not a place I have to hide in
Life's not worth a dam
Till I can say
I am what I am
I am what I am
I don't want praise I don't want pity
I bang my own drum
Some think it's noise I think it's pretty
And so what if I love each sparkle and each bangle
Why not see things from a different angle
Your life is a shame
Till you can shout out I am what I am
I am what I am
And what I am needs no excuses
I deal my own deck
Sometimes the aces sometimes the deuces
It's one life and there's no return and no deposit
One life so it's time to open up your closet
Life's not worth a dam till you can shout out
I am what I am
I am what I am ….
It’s probably not an exaggeration to claim that this song has helped as many through the Dead Sea of hetero supremacy and towards self affirmation as Moses led through that other Dead Sea.
The psalmist deploys many metaphors to describe intimacy with God.
- My soul thirsts for you.
- My flesh faints for you.
- My lips shall give you praise.
- Under the shadow of your wings, I will rejoice.
- My soul clings to you.
- Your right hand holds me fast
I am impressed by what words can do when we are not allowed to use “real” pictures.
Early in my career I sought counsel regarding depression from to an elderly colleague, whom I assumed to be gay -- we did not yet talk about such matters in those days. He was a defrocked priest. He had left The Episcopal Church for Rome, and had left Rome for an arduous pilgrimage not well charted.
Try meditating on the phrase, “Leaning on the everlasting arms,” he suggested. He advised me in 1960. I have been leaning on them for fifty years now. I understand what the writer of Psalm 63 means when he says
My soul is content, as with marrow and fatness, *
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips,
When I remember you upon my bed, *
and meditate on you in the night watches.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
It seems to me that St. Paul cheats on his own theology a bit in this passage. In many times and places he has stressed that we are justified not by our good works, not by our following the law, but by our faith. We are saved by Jesus’ righteousness, not by our own.
Yet in this text Paul tries to scare the beJesus out of his charges in Corinth. He rehearses instances in which God delivers some, but not all. Sin prevents some from making it through the Dead Sea in the Exodus. Sin prevents twenty-three thousand from making it into the land promised even after they made it through the Dead Sea. Snakes killed a great number of them.
“These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
Whew! How safe am I? Even if I completely trust Jesus?
In prep school I went forward in a Billy Graham campaign. I had long ago accepted Christ as my personal savior, but each invitation called out to me again, especially in the wake of my sins since accepting the last invitation. The evangelists’ tallies reckoned subsequent appearances at altar calls as “rededication” rather than as “souls saved.”
I later learned that counselors for the rallies are trained to keep their eyes open when the evangelist prays, “With every head bowed, all eyes closed, I ask you to raise your hand if you feel that God is calling you tonight to give your life to him.” The counselors are told to wait 2, 3, or 4 more verses of the invitation hymn and if the one nearest who has raised a hand has not gone forward, they are to go to her or him and say quietly, “I am going forward. Would you like to go forward too.” To many, this prompt seems magical, as if arranged by God just especially for them. And come forward we did that night in Chattanooga in 1953, several hundred of us -- unaware that many in our number were counselors as decoys.
An organization called the Navigators worked closely with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusade to provide counseling after the service for all who had come forward. One of the things they gave us was a few cards with verses of scripture printed on them, and we were asked to commit to memorize them. Two of the cards were for John 3:16 and 1 John 5:11-12. Another was for the end of today’s reading from 1 Corinthians: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
They also gave us a booklet with lots of blank space on which to write out reflections on these texts. In mine I wrote about my homosexual temptations -- about which I had spoken to no one. A few weeks later I saw that another student had picked up my booklet and was reading it. I was mortified. His face lit up with a gentle smile. He came over to hand the booklet to me, saying, “Thank you. I too have been sorely tempted. I have even yielded.” I was even more mortified and tried never to speak to him again.
Twenty-four years later, I tracked down his address. He had become a prominent lawyer. I sent him a copy of my article Growing Up Gay in Dixie -- with a note saying, “Thank you for your comments when you read my private confession in the booklet following the Billy Graham Crusade.” He never replied.
While writing the last paragraph, I looked him up in the alumni page for our class: before his death a few years ago, he had become a billionaire and major philanthropist.
The “Problem of Evil” has long troubled Christian theologians. Christians believe that God is good and not responsible for evil. Yet, if God is God how does evil come into the world. John Milton wrote “Paradise Lost” to deal with that question, or, as he put it, “to justify the ways of God to man.” Basically, he blamed evil on Satan, much as I had blamed my bad behavior on my imaginary companion Bowback (see my comment above regarding the Collect.) Eve too shifted the blame. When God confronted her in the garden, she replied: Satan made me do it.
While misfortune is not ‘evil’ in the same sense, human beings have long been tempted to account for misfortune, especially the misfortune that falls on others, as a result of sin. Often that leads to blaming the victim.
In Luke’s passage today, people ask Jesus about the victims of Pilate’s massacre: “"Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And they ask about a similar episode: “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
In both instances Jesus denies the assumption that these disasters happened because of their sin. But Jesus is not willing to give up the opportunity with either story to preach about our vulnerability to sin. (“It’s the third Sunday in Lent. Did you expect to get off so easily!” -- Quean Lutibelle) To each example he replies, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
Then he tells the story of a fig tree that is cut down when it does not bear fruit. He extends the tree’s chances for another season, still under threat of being cut down if it does not bear fruit.
Are you wasting the soil of which you are made? What fruit are you bearing for the gospel?
I suppose we can be grateful that we do not normally use Lent to conduct our stewardship campaigns.