Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2015 || Lent 5B || Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13
This is the last Sunday of the year in which we are worshiping according to the older, Rite I format of our liturgy. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the reason we’ve been using the more traditional language was so we could say that beautiful line about inclining our hearts towards God. But there’s another reason, one that I didn’t mention then because I was fairly sure I was going to preach about it today. There’s a special prayer found in the traditional rite that is not duplicated in the modern one, a prayer we’ve been praying directly before communion for the last several weeks. Today, we will pray it one last time. The “Prayer of Humble Access” goes like this:
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”
Before we dive deep on this prayer, let me tell you why I’ve been wanting to preach about it. For the longest time, I detested this prayer. I never wanted to attend a Rite I service because I did not want to say this prayer. I had my reasons: it felt too much like gratuitous self-flagellation; like I was groveling; like I had forgotten to put on my hair-shirt. It didn’t seem to mesh with the joyfulness of receiving Holy Communion. But, to be honest, those reasons were a smokescreen.
The real problem I had with this prayer was that my Pride* would not countenance me saying these words. The sin of Pride is the sin of forgetting who made you; the sin of reconstructing your life so that all of the good things that happen to you happen because of you. My Pride made me trust in my own presumed righteousness. My Pride generated a false sense of worthiness to sit at the Table. And so I never could get to the part of the prayer where we stop talking about ourselves and start talking about God. I’d be willing to bet, for one reason of another, that some of you have had similar issues with this or other prayers we say in the Episcopal Church.
Somewhere along the way, thanks in large part to my mentor and former rector Margot Critchfield, God engendered a change in me, so that, instead of embracing my Pride, I started to fight it. I still lose a lot of the time, but the Prayer of Humble Access has turned from a stumbling block into a reliable source of defense against my Pride.
So let’s take a look at what we are actually praying when we say this venerable old prayer, the words of which go all the way back to the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549.† What we will find are words that put us in right relationship with God and teach us about the mystery of this Holy Communion we share.
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord…” The first thing to notice is the owner of the table behind me. The altar does not belong to St. Mark’s Parish. It does not belong to the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. It does not belong to you or me. The table is God’s Table. Whether this is your first Sunday with us or you’ve been worshiping here forty years, you are still God’s guest when you come forward to receive Holy Communion. Therefore, when we do come forward, we are practicing our acceptance of God’s invitation again and again. This is one of God’s more obvious invitations, so accepting it each week helps train us to accept the less obvious invitations God sends us when we aren’t surrounding God’s Table.
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” These words answer the question: “Where do we put our trust?” My old prideful answer told me to trust in my own righteousness, but the prayer places our trust in much more secure hands – in God’s “manifold and great mercies.” So what we’re really saying with this first sentence of the prayer is that we cannot hear God’s invitation to the Table until we relocate the object of our trust away from ourselves. The invitation has nothing to do with how good or righteous we are. We come to the Table because God’s mercy draws us there.
This is good news, especially when we are mired in the darkness like the writer of today’s psalm. The poet cries out, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin.” Even in the midst of the deepest darkness, God’s mercy and compassion can draw us back home. In Hebrew, the word translated here as “compassion” has the same root as the word “womb.”‡ Thus, God’s compassion can bring us back to a moment of glorious togetherness like when a mother feels when her baby kicks. We find this togetherness, this connection, when God’s mercy draws us to the Table for our sacred meal.
“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” This is the sentence that always made me cringe so much in my Pride. But the next sentence turns the camera around: “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” So what these words lay bare is not our unworthiness, but God’s great generosity in having us as guests at God’s Table. This is the same generosity God extends to the people of Israel through the voice of Jeremiah the Prophet in today’s reading. The people have strayed again and again and again, and still God calls them back, makes a new covenant with them, and writes God’s law on their hearts. Like those ancient people, we are unworthy, except that God’s grace makes us worthy to receive God’s gifts.
And what is the greatest of gifts? The last words reveal all: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” We reach the crux of the prayer, the part my Pride never let me reach in days past. And just look what that Pride barred me from asking for! With these words, we reveal our deepest longing for a mutual indwelling with Christ. Dwelling in him means touching the peace that passes all understanding. And to have him dwell in us means feeling our hearts resonate with the yearnings of his heart, the yearnings that lead us to love and serve and sacrifice and rejoice.
In the end, this beautiful prayer that we will pray later in this service speaks to our longing for the deeper connection with God that Holy Communion offers. So today, when you come up to receive the gifts of bread and wine, which are the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, keep the Prayer of Humble Access on your lips. And remember what it teaches: God has invited us to the Table. God’s compassionate mercy allows us to accept this invitation. God’s generosity grants us the grace to connect deeply with God. And this connection blossoms as a mutual indwelling between Christ and us. Praise God that we have the opportunity to connect with God so closely, so intimately. Praise God for the gift of such Holy Communion.