There are weeks when it’s harder to write a meditation, harder to catch more than a single glimpse of Divine meaning within the Biblical texts assigned for the week—and God forbid using the same interpretation that I’m planning to preach on. So, here I sit in my office on a rainy Friday afternoon, pondering what else I could possibly have to share with the parish this week. As I mull over my options, my mind returns again and again to one of the collects secreted away within our Book of Common Prayer, this one “For the Oppressed” (826):
Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this
land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as
their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us to
eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those
who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law
and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of
us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Now, this prayer isn’t our collect for Sunday, but it seems especially timely nonetheless. As we close out June and what we have come to call “Pride Month” here in the United States, as we continue to struggle through a national discussion about what it means to be a refugee, a family, a Christian citizen, I cannot help but stumble over the second sentence: “Have mercy upon us.”
The majority of Christian prayer—at least, liturgical, Christian prayer—follows a ritualized form that can be found across cultures and religious traditions. It begins with invocation, emphasizing who one is speaking to and how one recognizes that deity. Here, we petition our “heavenly Father,” immediately setting the prayer within certain eschatological and theological (read: New Testament) contexts. The echoes of the Lord’s Prayer; of “Our Father, who art in heaven;” should ring in your ears as the words resound within your mind or from your lips. It is a reminder of how much greater God can be from us, entering into the moment of supplication by drawing tight the dichotomy between the Kingdom of God as we so often live it on earth and the heavenly Kingdom we strive again and again to midwife as a Church. Yet, at the same time, it comforts us, reminding us that the Almighty in all of God’s eternal goodness has sought out relationship with us, and that the history of our Faith is one of continued, intimate relationship. Even as the Divine is entirely other from our human experience, God is also as entangled in our lives as a loving parent anxious to see their child grow into the fullness of themselves. Even as we fall short, we are loved beyond measure.
As we continue the prayer, we admit to the realities of “injustice, terror, disease, and death” in the lives of so many individuals and communities around us, begging God to take pity on people burdened by so much that would seem to invalidate the fact of that holy love. Even as we name our own closeness to our Lord and Savior, we acknowledge the barriers erected for so many and their ability to live into their own fullness. And we immediately confess our own complicity in those barriers. Whatever difference there might be between the world as it is and the world as it should be directly corresponds to how little difference there is between pity for those struggles and mercy for our willingness to live into the systems that sustain them. Our wholeness (or lack thereof) and their wholeness are inseparable.
The prayer continues and concludes by focusing on the doing, how the fulfillment of pity for those “who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death” demands action on our part. It demands love for “our neighbors,” “equal protection of the law,” “equal opportunities,” and “a fair portion of the riches of this land” for one and all. It sounds almost impossible, sounds almost like a quixotic ideal. How would we even know what a fair portion looks like, let alone equal protection or opportunities? How could we ever love our neighbors like God does? It’s an oddly challenging, almost disruptive, prayer. But I think that’s what the life of faith ultimately is: disruptive. Our understanding of what God’s Kingdom should be will never be perfect, but the simple fact that we have been offered it demands that we turn again and again and enter into the world—offering a closer and closer approximation of that same love to our Divine siblings so desperate for it.