O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.
-From this Sunday’s collect
The collect assigned for for the Sunday closest to Sept 14 is one of my favorites. In just the few words above, it says as much as many thick theology books. And it also is an effective guide - a good mantra or intention - for our day to day practice of faith.
We teach young children to obey rules. We give them clear instructions and describe the rules in ways that are simple and easy to follow. We teach faith in the form of proverbs and commandments, because they are short, understandable sayings that give what seems to be clear instructions to follow in life. Our earliest understanding of practicing faith means being a good boy or girl and following God’s commands - God’s simple rules. Do not steal. Do not envy what others have. Love God and your neighbor as yourself.
However, as life goes on, we realize that sometimes things are not that clear and black and white. The rules seem to apply to some and not to others. Bad people get ahead. Good people suffer. In fact, lots of people suffer while only a very few seem to get way ahead. We discover that it’s not as easy to follow God’s commands as we might have thought. Sometimes the meaning or application of rules enters into a big gray zone, and it’s hard to know when it is right to stick firm or when its better to yield - when it’s better to have a strict interpretation or a rule or a compassionate one. We begin to realize that we don’t even have a clear view of ourselves at times, and are often not aware when we have hurt others, or have used our advantage unknowingly, or have offended God or neighbor without even being aware of it. As life goes on, one may well begin to wonder if it is truly within our ability to please God at all.
This Sunday’s collect reminds us that we can’t do a thing without God’s help, not even do what is right. Even though we were taught that we should please God by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps to obey the rules, we cannot please God, or obey God’s commandments, or do what is right at any given moment without God’s help. Any ability we seem to have to do something right has been given to us by God - it is not our own achievement. As a gospel song says, “Any good I manage to do is only because it came from you.”
So though we’re taught it’s up to us to be good, without God, we cannot please God. Even with our best efforts, we displease God a hundred times a day whether we want to or not. The only thing that really seems up to us is which way we turn our faces - either toward God or away. Being faithful is not forging out on our own, using our willpower and strength to do good things, working hard to get more perfect at following rules. It’s more like yielding - like losing our own lives to gain them - it’s remembering more often to give ourselves over into God’s hands, and praying that the Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.
Last Sunday’s collect said that God always resists the proud who confide in their own strength, but never forsakes those who make their boast of God’s mercy. Practicing faith means working on having more faith in God than in ourselves and our own abilities, trusting in God every moment, with all our hearts.
Our readings for this Sunday are HERE. Note that in ordinary time, we are using “Track 2.”