Test our Minds; Search our Hearts
Speaker: The Rev'd Jim Quigley
At the 9 and 11:15 services during this season after The Epiphany we’ve been using alternative versions of the Prayers of the People which are taken or modified from a new planning guide for worship published by the Episcopal Church. These versions of the prayers always include versicles and responses gleaned from some portion of the scripture readings appointed for the day, most often the reading from the Old Testament.
The versicle and response in the example appointed for today, the sixth Sunday after The Epiphany, was taken from the reading from the prophet Jeremiah. After each petition in the prayers the litanist would say these words: “Test our minds; search our hearts,” to which the congregation would respond, “Hear our prayer.” When working on this week’s form for the prayers, I consciously used a different versicle and response, the reason being that there was something in me that reacted quite negatively to the suggestion that we would actually invite God to do such a thing as that – test our minds and search our hearts – perhaps because of what my unconsciousness was telling me that God might find in each of us if our Lord were to take a good look, and what Jeremiah seemed to know so well: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” Let’s not pray for that! I thought!
In choosing a different versicle and response for the prayers of the people in this morning’s liturgies I successfully avoided what I later found to be inescapable as I began preparing for this week’s sermon, namely that today’s lessons portray a God that just doesn’t seem that appealing – a God who curses those who trust in mere mortals, in those whose hearts turn away from the Lord; a God who in the laments of the Psalter watches over the way of the righteous but allows the wicked to perish. That kind of God seems just, perhaps, but also cruel and unforgiving.
It seems to me that the compilers of our lectionary chose this particular text from Jeremiah because it so closely parallels the theme of the first Psalm, not to mention the reading from chapter six in Luke’s Gospel, yet another passage of scripture that in Jesus’ own words doesn’t provide people blessed by circumstance with power and privilege – people like us perhaps – very much relief from the supposed “angry God” of the Hebrew Scriptures: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”
Blessings and curses, these are called, and we can trace them from Jesus’ lips back to Moses and the substance and style of Deuteronomistic tradition and the Wisdom literature of the bible: “Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting and strife. A slave who deals wisely will rule over a child who acts shamefully and will share in the inheritance as one of the family. The crucible is for silver, and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart. An evildoer listens to wicked lips; and a liar gives heed to a mischievous tongue. Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished,” etcetera, etcetera.
If there is any relief at all to be found in today’s scripture (you know that I don’t really mean this) one might look to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and the odd debate about the resurrection from the dead, an argument that to me has as much to do with how one makes one’s way in the temporal world as it does with inheriting eternal life after death: Saul himself was one who prospered in the way of the wicked until he was knocked off his high horse on his way to Damascus and by God’s grace and forgiveness was given not only a new name but a new life. He, by virtue of the resurrection, was raised from death to life. That’s a notion that comes from Deuteronomy too!
We too, by virtue of the resurrection, fact or metaphor, are also raised to new life in Christ, and yet this reality doesn’t relieve us from the responsibility of ethical living, and of the covenant made in our baptism – of our own dying and rising to new life in Christ – in our striving of and for peace and justice for all people; in our respecting of the dignity of every human being; in our renouncing - as well as acknowledging – “the” Satan and all the spiritual forces that rebel against God; in renouncing the evil powers in the world and all that which destroys the creatures of God (including the creation itself); and in our turning, our accepting, our trusting and in our promising: In our turning to Jesus; our accepting of Christ as our savior, in our trusting in God and God’s grace and love and by our promise of discipleship, despite what heretofore we have left undone, and all while knowing that God’s anger and God’s grace are not mutually exclusive, both are necessary components of the divine will and of our call to and need of conversion or transformation.
More and more in the coming months and years members of St. Alban’s will become familiar and hopefully be able to articulate in their own words, the phrases Geoffrey has been planting in our ears since his arrival; we discussed this at our annual Vestry retreat last week: Christian formation is not merely a matter of obtaining information; there is no grace, nor is there forgiveness, in even the best of this or that church program, but there is grace and there is forgiveness in turning toward that which is good, to what really matters, to a life worth living and a life defined by and devoted to prayer, and service, and the personal and corporate generosity of and in our hearts, our minds, our spirit and our financial resources. And because our minds do play tricks on us, and while hopefully for none of us is this a supreme reality beyond all else – the bible is nothing if not hyperbolic – our hearts can be devious Lord… so “test our minds and search our hearts,” and listen to our prayers: Heal us and remake us ever more in your image.
Hopefully you have noticed the small (?) change in the beginning of our celebrations of Word and Sacrament at St. Alban’s. We no longer join together to recite The Collect of the Day, the prayer which contextualizes the day’s lectionary readings, but instead, we begin the service by acknowledging the blessed TRINITY and then saying together the beautiful prayer otherwise known as the Collect for Purity: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts and minds by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. With regular attendance at worship, one of our lifelong endeavor as Episcopalians, before long your sometimes-devious hearts will know this prayer like you do the Lord’s Prayer – by heart that is! – heart being a word that biblically speaking – lav in Hebrew and kardia in Greek – refers not so much to the biological organ but rather to what we call imagination. The biblical meaning wonderfully illuminates the use of that word in in the Eucharistic liturgy: “Lift up your hearts.” While beginning the service by confessing that to God all hearts are open from whom no secrets are hid, at the Eucharist and by God’s amazing grace we are called to lift our hearts; to lift up our imaginations, open them toward God (Davis and Hayes – The Art of Reading Scripture).
In our customary time of silence in response to Holy Scripture, use this time as you will, perhaps we can open our hearts toward God and with the Holy Spirit as our guide, imagine our way into a holier way of living; a more devoted life of prayer, service and generosity, a strengthened striving for justice, peace, and a more radical commitment to our care and conservation of the natural world. Farewell for now, and let us pray:
May God bless you with a restless discomfort
about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships,
so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression,
and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for
justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer
from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may
reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that
you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able,
with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
And the blessing of God the Supreme Majesty and our Creator,
Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word who is our brother and Saviour,
and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, be with you
and remain with you, this day and forevermore.