O God, who show the light of your truth to those who go astray, so that they may return to the right path, give all who for the faith they profess are accounted Christians the grace to reject whatever is contrary to the name of Christ and to strive after all that does it honor. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time –
O God, who cause the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose, grant your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, amid the uncertainties of this world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found. Through our Lord Iesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
I know the path to Christ is often convoluted and winding. The new translation of this particular prayer for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time zigzags and twists us even more along the path to Christ Jesus. I fear that aspects of this prayer may be misinterpreted. This opening prayer runs the risk of creating judgment from the assembly toward other people I who may be struggling with their place in life and within the church.
I usually cringe when I hear from someone that a person has ’’gone astray.” That phrase for me implies judgment of someone’s life, and rarely do people know the real story of any other person’s journey. The path to the Crucified means entering into personal suffering, which no other person should judge or condemn.
I learn through my years of ministry not to judge people who leave the church or who struggle with faith. In fact, I usually learn the most from people who sit in the dirnly lit last pews of any church or others who take a break from going to church until they sort out the issues of life. I learn from people who face tragedies such as a stillbirth and who fall deeply into depression and cannot commit to believing in God. I am in awe of people who struggle through a family suicide that takes them on a journey of nonbelief, even for many years. In so many cases, people judge others for the action of not participating in Christian community without realizing the pain that has settled into their hearts.
This prayer invites us to consider the correct path to Christ. The real path leads to the way of the Crucified. Suffering in life is never easy and creates paths that are treacherous and foreboding. Faith is awakened when we all invite God into our suffering. Many people cannot find their way beyond this blind curve. When suffering overtakes them, they may turn to alcohol, drugs, and destructive behavior. This is when the path really becomes steep, with unknown outcomes. I learn in our fragile community to remove the blame from my interactions. I cannot blame people in the confessional for the ways in which they deal with mental disorders or past abuse. I do not blame people in any conversation for the outcome of their lives. People need to take full responsibility for their actions; however, I do not add to their burden by blaming them for their pain. This opening prayer is a bumpy road for me.
I desire more than ever for people to find their way to Christ. This is the only path to real joy and purpose in life. The goal for every parish community is to invite people into desiring God. This is the message of the collect of the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. I weep when people cannot desire God, who can heal them. The pain of divorce, suicide, drugs, and mental illness often ‘strips people of the basic desire for God. We cannot blame people for their suffering, but we can teach people how to pray in deeper ways. Every community must help remove the obstacles people face in order to truly desire God in their lives. God is here to heal and reconcile, no matter our suffering, no matter who we are in the world.
Every worshiping community needs to take these opening prayers to heart. We need to invite people into experiences of setting our hearts on the love God has promised for every person. We need to give action to our conviction of love. This means getting our hands dirty and learning how the issues of justice challenge us. We need to be in relationship with people who live outside, others who may never be released from prison or people who suffer severe mental illness. We need to understand the family issues of the immigrant. We need to interact with our neighbors in nursing homes and care for babies born addicted to drugs, as well as for the mothers who birthed them. We all need to fix our hearts on the place of God’s love for people, so we may all find true joy and hope in his world.
Answering the challenge of these collects takes time and faith. Every parish community needs to risk stepping beyond their gossip and judgment of people. Every parish needs to find new ways of inviting people — in every form of prayer — into a deeper hunger for God in the Eucharist. Prayer and service lead us on the exact path of Christ Jesus. Experiencing the place of true gladness within our parishes is the mission for us all.