Saturday, August 1, 2015

Time for Collecting Ourselves…

I have been thinking about the place of the Collect of the Day in our tradition of worship recently, mostly because I have been on vacation and had the opportunity to share in the worship of God in various locations and communities, as well as hear others preach the Gospel in the liturgy. I have also been thinking of writing about this matter for some time due to the long-term trend in worship and spiritual practice occurring in my home diocese and throughout the Episcopal Church. 

This trend includes a gradual devaluing of the Collects as guides for preaching, liturgical planning, and spiritual reflection. The result has been to detach preaching from a dialog with the greater Christian faith over centuries and across cultures and to put too much emphasis on the preacher's opinion/experience, or the local customs of a particular community. The same trend also seems gradually to be introducing the notion that Monday, not Sunday, is the start to the Christian Week...with significant implications.

The Collect of the Day (either at the Eucharist or the Daily Office) in classical Anglican worship serves to express the focus of that particular service’s intention. Whether it be for a particular Sunday (“The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost”), Holy-Day (“The Feast of St. Mary”), or Special Occasion (“For Peace”), the Collect of the Day puts the theme of that particular occasion into words. In setting the theme, the Collect needs to put forth a clear theological teaching, one that will serve as a faithful guide to an authentic practice of Christianity—preferably with both economy and memorable beauty. The Collect for this Sunday is a fine example:

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

Traditionally, the Collect forms one of the essential parts of the Propers of the Eucharist—those parts of the Liturgy that vary from service to service (appointed in the Lectionary/The Book of Common Prayer or other authoritative liturgical source in the Church) proper to that particular observance. At minimum, the Propers for the Eucharist consist of the Collect of the Day, the Proper Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, and the appointed passages of Holy Scripture. The Propers form an essential part of the sermon’s basis. By preaching on these prayers and texts, in conjunction with the Creeds, liturgies, and the writings of the Undivided Church, the preacher is assured a foundation both sound and eternally new; unchanging and yet totally revolutionary.

I was taught to use the Collect of the Day as a lens through which to view the particular set of Scriptures for that service in composing a sermon. The Collect of the Day was presented to me as an essential part of the Propers and a valuable way to keep the sermon based on the Christian Faith as Anglicanism has received it, not simply my own opinion. One need not expressly mention the Collect (though often that is helpful, since the best Collects are so effectively written), but it should always be consulted in developing the sermon, being used much like a touchstone to assay the purity and worth of what is being preached.

Yet today I rarely hear the Collect of the Day in any sermon—explicitly or (perhaps more significantly) implicitly. While the scripture readings themselves are usually consulted, their theological context as expressed in the Collect usually is not. This may be part of the reason so many sermons I hear or read in the modern Episcopal Church tend to use the scriptures as a sort of springboard to what the preacher really wants to talk about, rather than as the determining factor in the sermon’s content and trajectory—in other words, what God wants to talk about.

It is fairly common now to get a sermon based on a very small part of one of the readings—say a verse or so—with little exegesis and a lot of political (or, rather, polemical) excurses. I rarely hear sermons today that present an Anglican approach to preaching: one made of a theme, exegesis of the scriptural passage(s) used in service of that theme, coherent theological reflection, contemporary matters, and some practical application of the now clarified-understood-enriched theme. Instead, I have heard quite a bit more personal opinion based on personal experience or ideological adherence to a limited set of bullet points from the pulpit over the last two decades—with all the limitations of that watered-down understanding of preaching.

For Anglicanism to be Anglicanism (and for The Episcopal Church to retain any validity as an expression of Anglican Christianity) a spiritual conversation-in-tension must be practiced: there needs to be an exploration of multiple poles at once in all we do. In practice, this means (for preachers in our tradition) the sermon really must contain elements of tradition and innovation, scholarship and personal experience, application and theological reflection. It won’t do to focus on only one part of the spectrum. Sermons that do this are not sermons (a “word” that builds faith) but dull monologues, vapid spiritual infomercials, or (worse) the latest installment in the preacher’s egocentric ongoing harangue. If that is what is being served up week-by-week, sermon-by-sermon, the spiritually-malnourished plebs sancta Dei will eventually tune out and then vote with their feet.

A full use of the Propers—Collect of the Day included—makes for a more balanced, long-haul healthiness in preaching. When the preacher learns to use the many tools of the faith, sermons become explorations of the vast terra incognita of life and creation and the Divine that we are all on together—yet experience individually. Having the “faith once delivered to the saints” at our side (as embodied in the best of the Collects) gives us useful, profound ways to interpret the Holy Scriptures; it also helps correct the errors and fills in the voids inevitable in any cleric’s preaching.

What got me started with this post was this week’s collect. I have been encountering it from Saturday night at Evensong (when the Christian week begins) through the Sunday Eucharist and all through the week at Morning and Evening Prayer. It is a beautiful, well-composed prayer. In addition, it makes one great point in the context of two affirmations of key Christian teaching.

The first affirmation is that our God is a loving, persistent, present-in-the-midst-of-suffering God: the use of words like protector, mercy, ruler, and guide together contribute to an experiencing anew of the Bible’s regular message of God’s care for those who remain faithful to Him and to His Ways. That is something every preacher needs to remember and to teach again and again in our world of anxiety, betrayals, and uncertainty. Jesus said: “Lo, I will with you always, even unto the end of the world.” There is no stint in his teaching on this. We need to hear it, again and again. Like waves assaulting a sandcastle, this notion of God’s tenacious presence is continuously being eroded in our secular world, mocked by those who have alternative message based on power, fear, lust, or ideological control to sell us. The People of God need to be renewed in this message regularly and it should be a primary obligation of every preacher.

The Collect then goes on to make a second reaffirmation, a development of the first: that God alone brings strength and holiness. Again, preachers need to explore this point in faith regularly. Humans are always prone to attempts to “go it alone,” subtly (or not so subtly) trying to manufacture our own strength or holiness…with disastrous results.

On a smaller scale, this mistake about initiative can pervade our worship in such simple matters as beginning the liturgy with a hearty “good morning” (putting the focus squarely on the “folks” gathered rather than on God who has created us and called us into being). When we begin the liturgy with the familiar words of the Opening Acclamation “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” we are acknowledging from the start what the Collect teaches: holiness and power begin with God, not us. In addition to being true…what a relief! I remember some time ago being at a Eucharist where the Presider prefaced the Opening Acclamation with the reminder that the worship begins “in our hearts.” Ack! This was in direct contradiction to the Collect of the Day (which happened to be the one under consideration here), undercutting the liturgy, the sermon, and the Presider. Ooops!

Having made these important affirmations of what a whole and life-giving faith contains through the classic Anglican notion of “conversation-in-tension” (the first affirmation emphasizing immanence and the second transcendence), the Collect applies—with glorious economy—the teaching to our own lives: that “we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.” Here is a moment of spiritual profundity and great beauty.

The lessons at the Eucharist, when viewed through the prism of this Collect, suddenly leap from the page of antiquity into our lap. The issue of being so caught up in the matters of our own day and time…even if these matters are worthy and important…that we lose an eternal perspective in temporal concerns is an ever-present one. In our own time, with its deeply secular bias, celebrity culture, and social media campaigns, this problem has taken on myriad, insidious forms.

The lessons from Scripture that accompanied this Collect on Sunday gave many opportunities for a preacher to be both grippingly contemporary and at the same time compellingly grounded in the catholic faith. That is what the Collect of the Day can do for us as Anglicans; just as in Jesus’ own teaching, there is a creative tension between the contemporary and the eternal, the local and the global, the individual and the collective. It is sometimes astounding to realize—as with the Scriptures from which most of them come—how much substance such a relatively short prayer can have, and how much it can yield upon further consideration.

And this brings me to one final point about our current practice with the use of the Sunday Propers, the one about how we use the Collect of the Day through the week.

Having the whole week to think about what the Collect of the Day drawn from the preceding Sunday is saying is another benefit of classical Anglicanism. Many contemporary liturgists have recommended dropping this, but I think the old practice very wise and worth continuing. It shows very well the reflective, contemplative side of our tradition, something very attractive to the many victims of consumerized Christianity, with its disposable spirituality.  Perhaps one of the reasons we are less inclined to do this today is that many newer Collects contain much less substance to chew on, often being nothing more than dull restatements or chiding mini-screeds conjured up from one or another trendy attempt at illusory relevance.

Another reason (it seems to me) for the tendency to focus on what is coming, rather than what is currently happening in the Liturgical Calendar is that many of us have become closet secularists. For a great many Episcopalians, the week seems to begin on Monday, not on Sunday. The difference is very significant.

If we believe and practice a Monday-Sunday faith, what we are saying is that the work-week, not the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is what matters most to us. Business calendars may begin on Monday, but for us the week begins with the New Creation accomplished in Jesus’ triumph over sin and death at the Resurrection. One way we mark this is by using the Collect of the Day for that particular set of Propers at Evensong on Saturday (in most weeks), which really marks the beginning of the Sunday cycle, and continuing to use it (outside of Major Feast Days, which take precedence) until the next Saturday evening. This helps frame our entire week—immersed in secular concerns are we are—within the embrace of Christ’s rising (Sunday), institution of the Eucharist and giving of the New Commandment to “love one another” (Thursday), dying on the Cross (Friday), and resting in the tomb on the Great Sabbath (Saturday), the Collect tying it together in prayerful continuity. The Daily Office in the current Book of Common Prayer makes provision for this through having collects that can be applied to each day of the week, as well as allowing for the use of the Collect of that Sunday. Each week is then a complete unit of spiritual content in the midst of a society of fragmentation, competition, and random “identities.”

Over the years I have seen a lot of parishes adopt the practice of having weekday Scripture study that focuses on the lessons for the coming Sunday, not the one in whose week they find themselves. Occasionally this is used by the clergy as a way to get ideas for the coming Sunday sermon (a venial and “follow the crowd” practice if not carefully watched), but it helps contribute to the perception of a throw-away Christianity, one where there is no time to reflect, consider, apply, or go deeper. I would suggest that congregations used to such a pattern try reversing it: take time during the week to reflect more on the Sunday’s content and apply it more broadly; see the sermon not as the end of the journey, but the beginning; understand the week you are in as being lived in the light of Sunday, not the rat-race of M-F.

I believe it is just this kind of faith Anglicanism can bring to bear on a polarized, reductionist, and ideological American Christianity—if we care to practice it. At this time, so much dismantling has occurred in our part of the Church’s vineyard that we find ourselves in the awkward position of the person trying to fund a car trip by selling the wheels. Instead of using the gifts we have received in our tradition, we seem bent on running after other more “relevant” models that we are not fitted for and that never seem to work out. The promise that by being more “relevant” the Episcopal Church will grow by leaps and bounds never—never—actually works in the long-haul or the bigger picture; it is by authenticity to the Gospel that is happens, every time. By collecting ourselves through a deeper appreciation for the best in our inheritance I believe we will be suited to the true task God has for us, and be found worthy to continue on as a part of Christ’s Body, the Church.

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