Grace, Preceding and Following (Proper 23, Year A)

I’ve been really late this week getting my lectionary reflection written.  This week’s readings felt somewhat disjoint to me, from Moses challenging God to save the lapsed Israelites because it would look bad from the Egyptians’ point of view, to the “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!” reading from Paul that earworms me viciously, to the wedding parable, in which the poor are invited to the wedding but the one man who wasn’t wearing a suitable garment got thrown into the outer darkness.  I keep scratching my head and saying things like, “WTF?”

For the third week in a row, the line that sang out for me the strongest came from the Collect:

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us,
that we may continually be given to good works;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

That bit about God’s grace always preceding and following us, I find that beautiful.   How would you picture God’s grace?  What does God’s grace look like?  It might be a shining light, clear and pure and beautiful.  Or it might be a warm, fuzzy blanket or a soft quilt, the kind that someone hand-makes for you, a gift of great love and prayer.  Or it might look like a person; maybe the grace preceding you has a harsh visage, to frighten away evil, while the grace following you shines with light and love.  It could be the columns of cloud and fire that guided the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert.

For a moment, I’d like you to hold in your mind the images you found of God’s grace.  With your inner eye, place yourself on a path – a sidewalk through a neighborhood, a path winding through a forest, a hiking trail in the mountains, perhaps a ford through a river, whatever path speaks most strongly for you – and visualize God’s grace preceding you and following you.  As you immerse yourself into this scene, this pathway along your journey of faith, invite in your other senses.  What do you hear?  The roar of ocean waves, the humming of insects, the random vrooms and honks of traffic, the chirps of industrious birds?  How does the air smell?  What do you feel on your skin?  Close your eyes and allow your path to soak into you, with God’s grace preceding and following you.

My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

The apostle Paul wrote those words while he was in a dark place on his journey.  He was in prison, knowing that he would only be released to be executed, and yet, he wrote words of great beauty and love.  God’s grace shone through his words so clearly that they were included in our canon of scripture.  Maybe you are in a dark place along your path.  I know that my path has felt rather dark of late, and perhaps that is why those words from the collect spoke to the deepest places within me – God, let your grace always precede and follow me – to help me know that even in those dark places along my journey, I am not alone.

It is a powerful image, and it may be difficult to remember in those dark places.  I may have imagined my path through a cavern, far under the earth, completely dark – and it’s so hard to imagine complete darkness, even when one has been in a cavern and experienced total cave-blackness before – alone and lost, almost smothered by the darkness and the weight of the earth above me.  But God’s grace precedes and follows me.  I am not alone in that cavern, in that darkest of dark places, and I do not have to be lost there.  God’s grace might be a light in that dark place, to help me see.  Then again, God’s grace may be something different, something I didn’t expect or ask for.  God’s grace may be pressed against me, enfolding me like a cloak, and guiding me through the cavern safely, even though I can’t see the way ahead for myself.  God’s grace may be the whisper of a breeze, blowing past me and gently kissing my cheek.  But when I know that God’s grace is there, then I can indeed stand firm in the Lord, as Paul said.

He said more, too, and it’s even more beautiful:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything
by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved,
whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
Keep on doing the things
that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,
and the God of peace will be with you.

In that Collect, we pray for God’s grace to precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works, and this is exactly what Paul says here.  The Lord is here, Paul says, and then reminds us to Keep on doing the things that are true and honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable and excellent and worthy of praise.  He closes the circle by saying that when we do those things, the God of peace will be with you.

God precedes us, to invite us into those true and honorable things, and God follows us when we do them, to give us peace and comfort and gentleness.  God is with us.  All we have to do is recognize that God is there, to know that God is always before us and behind us (and above us and below us and to the left and to the right and in and through and between and up and down and sideways and diagonal 🙂 ), and we will be invited and inspired to do these things, to continually be given to good works.

If Paul could write these words while he was on death row, then we can read them and take them in wherever we are on our own path.  In the alternate track through the lectionary, the appointed psalm is Psalm 23, and this resonates deeply with our image from the Collect and with the words of Paul.  I’ll close this week’s reflection by re-imaging this Psalm, to fit the images I found for myself when I closed my eyes and immersed myself in the vision of God’s grace preceding and following me.  I invite you to try out the same exercise.  You may just find a great gift there.

The grace of the Lord precedes and follows me;
I do not need to worry.
God reminds me to stop and take a rest from my journey
and invites me to eat heartily and drink deeply.
God revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for God’s Name’s sake.
When I wander lost in the darkness of the cavernous Pit,
I need fear no evil;
for God is with me;
God’s arms embrace me, in that embrace I find comfort and strength.
God guides me to the feast, with those I love and with those I find hard to love;
God’s hands bless my head,
and I have all that I could possibly need.
Surely God’s grace and gentleness shall walk with me through my entire journey,
and I will reach God’s house and live there for ever.

As you walk your path this week, my beloved friends, remember that God’s grace precedes you and follows you.  Remember to stop and close your eyes along the way, to bring back that vision of your path, to see and hear and smell and feel and taste God’s grace guiding you.

May you be blessed to find God near to you, so that you need never worry about anything.  May your gentleness shine through you to everyone, and may you find the things that are true and honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable and excellent and worthy of praise.  May the God of peace be always with you, and may the peace that passes all understanding guard and guide your heart and mind in our Christ Jesus.

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