Monday Matters (September 11, 2023)


The Collect read in church on September 10

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

These days, Monday Matters offers reflections on the prayers we say in church on Sunday, the collect of the day. We do this based on the conviction that praying shapes our believing, that what we pray forms us. We do this hoping that the prayers we say on Sunday will carry us through the week.

Something to boast about

One day in Lent, a bishop kneels at the altar rail, and pounding his chest, says: I am nothing. I am nothing. I am nothing. A priest comes and kneels next to him and says the same: I am nothing. I am nothing. I am nothing. A seminarian walks in, kneels and repeats: I am nothing. I am nothing. I am nothing. Priest leans over to the bishop and whispers: Look who thinks he’s nothing.

The point? We can brag about just about anything. Yesterday’s collect (above) brought to mind one of the greatest hymns in our tradition, Hymn 474: When I survey the wondrous cross. In particular, I remembered this stanza: Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the cross of Christ my God.

The collect speaks of those who make their boast of God’s mercy. Consider the things we boast about, or are at least tempted to boast about. We boast about education, zip code, income, about where our kids were accepted for college. We boast about tennis serve or golf score or how fast we can run a mile. We boast about being woke or being anti-woke. We boast about being orthodox or progressive. We boast about how religious we are, how well we know the liturgy or scripture or music. We can even boast about how humble we are.

The collect also speaks of God’s resistance to confidence in our own strength. So a related reflection: think about where we place our confidence. Both how we make our boast and where we place our confidence speak volumes about what we think is worthwhile, what we value. They say a lot about our identity.

St. Paul spent a lot of time thinking about boasting, probably because in his life long struggle to be more Christ-like, he contended with his own ego. In several places he describes his upbringing that made him think he was really swell, that God should be really pleased to have him on the team. His family roots, his education, his moral uprightness, his commitment to tradition were all things he could boast about.

In his letter to the Romans, he talks about the ways in which boasting runs at cross-purposes to God’s saving intention. Perhaps looking in the mirror, he comes down particularly hard on religious people (translate: good church goers) who imagine themselves to be better than those profligate people out there, whoever they may be. Read Romans 2:17-22 to see how he speaks about people who boast about their relationship to God because they are so well instructed in religious stuff, so sure that they are guides to others based on their superior religious credentials. It’s not the most attractive quality of religious people.

The letter to the Ephesians, attributed to Paul, says in chapter 2, verses 8-10 that we are saved by grace, a gift from God. We are not saved by works (our accomplishments, religious insight, basic delightfulness) lest any person should boast.

So what does it mean to boast, to brag on God’s mercy? It means among other things that we don’t have to brag on ourselves. That can actually be quite freeing. It means as well that our confidence rests not in our own strength, great one day and fleeting the next. Our confidence rests in the fact that we are loved (and accepted) by a grace from which we can never be separated. Never.

So it becomes a boast that doesn’t divide us from other people, does not force us to compare ourselves with others, but invites us to see ourselves as “woven into an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,”, to quote Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday’s prayer invites us to boast in God’s mercy. So here are a few questions you might want to consider this week: Where have I experienced God’s mercy? How can I remember on a daily basis that I have received that gift? Can I see that mercy as the defining principle of my life, the thing that assures my value, my worth?

It doesn’t mean that others things we value, and are even proud of, don’t matter. It does mean that those things are set in the right place in our lives, giving us freedom to live into the way of love. To borrow a neighboring church’s tagline, in light of God’s mercy, we can celebrate our forgiveness.

-Jay Sidebotham

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