Nothing Good Without You

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We Episcopalians
are seasonal people.

We follow a certain kind of calendar
that shapes our worship,
our prayers,
and our whole lives.

It’s the thing that determines
the colors that we see,
the readings that we hear,
and yes, even the incense that we smell
on any given day.
All of it has meaning.

And right now,
we are still smack in the middle
of the season after the Epiphany.

Now what does the word “epiphany” actually mean?

Well, it means
a “manifestation” . . .
a “revelation” . . .
a “grasping of the truth.”

And so all these weeks,
all of our readings
have been trying to reveal something to us.

Number one,
they’ve been revealing to us
who Jesus truly is,
and number two,
they’ve been revealing to us
who we truly are, as well.

On the surface, today’s readings
come off a little lackluster:
these long lists of blessings and curses.

Most of us prefer our epiphanies
with a little razzle-dazzle.

We’re much more entertained
when Jesus walks on water
or turns water into wine.

But stick with me, because I think
more than of the other stories—
more than the miracles,
and the marvels,
and the mysteries—
these readings today
reveal all you need to know
about who you are to Jesus,
and who Jesus is to you.

* * *

First of all, let’s start with the collect.

Have you ever noticed that every Sunday,
I always pray a different prayer
toward the top of the service,
right before we all sit down?

It’s the one on the bottom
of the first page of your bulletin.

It’s called the “Collect of the Day”
because it’s meant to collect
all of our intentions
and all of the themes of the day.

So if you ever want to know
where we’re headed or
how all the readings tie together,
pay attention to the collect
because it almost always gives you a clue.
And in today’s collect, we get
an essential, bombshell, spiritual truth.

Let’s read it out loud together:
“O God, the strength of all
who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers;
and because in our weakness
we can do nothing good without you,
give us the help of your grace.”
STOP.

Because in our weakness
we can do nothing good without you,
give us the help of your grace.

Right up front, this is the
essential, bombshell, spiritual truth of the day.

Try as we might
to be as good as we might . . .
we’re gonna need a little help.

* * *

Have you ever tried to manage on your own?
I mean, you’re all human beings,
so the answer has to be yes.

We all try to manage:
manage the world around us,
manage the things we care about,
manage our businesses,
manage our government,
manage our families,
our spouses,
our children,
ourselves.

We all try to manage,
and in trying to manage,
almost all of us are trying
to make it all good.

But have you noticed
how hard that can be?

I mean, our culture is filled with
self-help books and now Netflix series
all about how you can bring order into your world:
how to clean your house
so it will never be untidy again;
how to raise your children
so they’ll never make bad choices again;
how to change your own mind
so it will never turn against you again.

And it’s not that these things
aren’t worth doing.
It’s not that they’re futile.
It’s just that they are incomplete,
and imperfect,
and hard.

You see, the tighter your grip on something—
even when you mean well—
the tighter your grip,
the more likely it is
to slip through your fingers.

Maybe this is part of what
Jeremiah and the psalmist mean today
when they talk about
the trees in the desert
and the trees by the stream.

Jeremiah says, “Cursed are those (cursed!)
who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert.”
Thirsty. Withered. Parched.

It’s easy to think,
“Well, he’s talking about ‘evildoers’:
despots and tyrants and such,”
but no, he’s talking about us . . .
he’s talking about the “good-doers,” too.

We all fall so, so easily into the trap
of relying on our own strength
and believing that we can make it all good.

But as that old collect says,
we can do nothing good without God,
which is another way of saying that
whatever comes our way—
the good, the bad, or the ugly—
we’re going to need some help;
we’re going to need
love, healing, forgiveness, and grace
from beyond ourselves
to help see us through.

This is the water that Jeremiah.
These are the streams
to which the psalmist refers.

This is what it means to be
“like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season,
with leaves that do not wither.”

* * *

So, that’s who we are,
and that’s what we need.

So who, then, is Jesus
in the face of all this?

Well if you look at today’s Gospel,
you see two more
essential, bombshell, spiritual truths.

First, notice those first three words
in the gospel reading:
“Jesus came down.”

Now, literally, that means
he was up on a mountain praying,
and he has come down
to teach the people.

But those three little words
mean much, much more than that.

You see, Jesus knew that we needed help.
Jesus knew that we couldn’t manage on our own.
Jesus knew that we would need
love, healing, forgiveness, and grace,
so what did he do?

He came down.

That by itself is Good News plenty enough.
He came down from heaven
to make a way through.

But then listen to what he says
in the sermon he gives today:

Blessed are the poor.
Blessed are the hungry.
Blessed are those who weep.

Woe to the rich.
Woe to the full.
Woe to those who laugh.

You see, Jesus doesn’t just come to help us.
Jesus comes to turn everything upside down.

Where all of us tend to honor and value
those who seem to have their life together,
Jesus says, “Nope.
Those who seems to have their life together
are actually like those bushes in the desert.
It’s when you realize that you can’t do it on your own—
it’s when you realize that you’re
poor, hungry, weeping, or in despair—
that God actually has a chance
to water your soul
and show you some grace.”

* * *

Throughout the ages,
often unintentionally,
the Church has tended to tell
one of two lies:

Either, one: you are wretched and vile
and must make yourself “good”
before God will love you,
or two: you are perfect just the way you are.

The essential, bombshell spiritual truth of the day
is that it’s actually somewhere in between.

You aren’t perfect, and there’s no way you can be.
But despite your weaknesses and imperfections,
God has decided to love you anyway.

Grace is the game changer
that has made life worth living.

So, drink it up.
Like those glorious trees
planted by the water,
give up on the task
perfecting your family,
perfecting your home,
perfecting your life.

Instead, send your roots down,
and drink deep of God’s grace.

And whatever fruit you bear
with those waters surging within you
will be a mighty blessing indeed.

Amen.