The Giver

Sermon for Sunday, March 11, 2018 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21

God has blessed Leah and me in the past few months with the opportunity to participate in the Financial Peace University class here at St. Mark’s. The nine-week course is part lesson and part support group as singles and couples gather to examine and change their financial practices. We only have two classes left, and I can’t begin to explain how much the class has changed my outlook on money and on my family’s future.

But I must confess to a fairly large dose of hubris going into the course. I knew the developer of the class, financial guru Dave Ramsey, purported to use “biblical principles” to guide his thinking about money. I assumed such principles would consist of half-baked theology used to prove his points, or else his principles would rise out of the muck of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which is anathema to true Christianity. Boy, was I wrong. Continue reading “The Giver”

Humble Access

Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2015 || Lent 5B || Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13

HumbleAccessThis 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.

* I capitalize Pride here because I’m speaking of the word in its sinful connotation. There’s a reason that Dante placed Pride at the base of the mountain of purgatory in his The Divine Comedy. All other sins have their roots in Pride. That being said, of course it’s okay to say that you take “pride” in your children, and so on. That’s pride of a different order.
The version of the prayer we use in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has a few variations form the original form and the modified one still in use today in England. Check out this Wikipedia article to see the other wordings. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Humble_Access
Webb, Elizabeth. Commentary on Psalm 51:1-12. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2408 [accessed: 18 March 15]

5 Years: Snapping Turtles

This June is the 5th anniversary of Wherethewind.com, and we are celebrating by looking back at some of the best of the last five years of this website. Today we have the first article in my two year relationship with EpiscopalCafe. Thanks to Jim and everyone else at the Cafe for giving me the chance to be part of the team. (Originally posted August 1, 2009)

Snapping turtles live in the muddy water underneath a dock that extends into Lake Kanuga. I know this because I have been slowly fattening them up with Wonderbread since I was eleven. I’m 26 now, and (while I’ve doubled my body mass in the intervening years) the turtles remain – stubbornly – about the size of my hand. All but one. There is the “Big One” that rises Kraken-like from the depths and that you only ever see out of the corner of your eye.

Misty crossFor years during the last glorious week of July, my friends and I have gone down to the water’s edge to feed the turtles. We used to sprint to the dock. Now we amble. Once there, we untwist our ordnance and pass out the sliced, carbohydrate projectiles. Some employ the patented tear-and-toss approach, which maximizes the number of pieces for the turtles to eat. Others drop whole slices of bread into the water and count the number of bites necessary to consume each piece.

Within seconds of the bread hitting the water, the turtles surface. Plop. Snap. The first breadcrumb disappears, and ripples are the only evidence the turtle was ever there. Plop. Snap. The second piece vanishes. Plop. Snap. We keep a weather eye out for the Kraken. Plop. Snap. There he is, the Big One, the Leviathan that God has made for the sport of it. Plop. Snap. No, it was just the way the light hit the water. Plop. Whoosh. Snap. Missed him again. Maybe next year. Plop. Snap. Plop. Snap. Plop. Snap.

The turtles propel themselves out of the depths, eyes on the dark spots on the surface. They trap the bread in their little, beaky mouths, and they dive again. They stay on the surface just long enough to snap up their sustenance before retreating to the darkness of the brackish shallows underneath the dock. After years of dropping bread to the turtles, I’ve realized that we do the same. We never stay topside in the sun for too long. We prefer the anonymity of the murk. We prefer to focus only on that bit of bread, a floating shadow above us. We prefer to surface only at feeding time, lest the daylight expose us to all the pesky problems of the world.

Now, I’m pretty sure that the above metaphor is thinly veiled enough that my impending addition of the Holy Eucharist to this discussion will seem both appropriate and timely. Here goes. All too often, we approach our worship with a Plop. Snap. mentality. For an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning, we notice the Wonderbread falling from the sky, and we surface to snap up our fill. Then we dive until next week. Same time. Same place.

The trouble is twofold. First, the Wonderbread, heavenly manna, God’s grace – call it what you will – does not descend on us at predetermined times once a week. However, we condition ourselves to notice it only during those times we’ve set aside for God. We kneel at the altar rail. Plop. We lick the bread off our palms. Snap. In seven days time, we’ll commune again. In the six days in between, we are more than a little oblivious to the fact that God wants to commune with us every day. Indeed, we may say “daily,” but too often we mean, “Give us this day our weekly bread.”

Second, the surface is where the action is. The psalmist prays, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” God’s grace pulls us out of these depths, out of the brackish water underneath the dock. We surface in the brightness of day. As our eyes adjust, we notice all the injustice and desperation and fear that the murk makes easy to ignore. And as we share the bread and cup, we remember that the Body we ingest connects us to the greater body of Christ in the world. Jesus says to his disciples, “ If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” Being children of light means remaining on the surface, knowing we share our lives in a larger community, and addressing those inequities that the light throws into sharp relief. We can accomplish none of these if we dive back to the depths – back to anonymity and ignorance – immediately after receiving our nourishment.

When we begin to notice the abundance of God’s grace around us, which pulls us to the light of the surface, we can break out of the cycle of the Plop. Snap. mentality. Silent ripples should not be the only signs that mark our ascent to the surface. Just as God blesses Abraham, God blesses us so we can be blessings in the world. God nourishes us with the bread of heaven so we can nourish others.

At the end of July this year, I will once again amble to the dock to feed the turtles. I will toss the bread into the water. Plop. Ever vigilant for signs of the Big One, I will watch the little, beaky mouths spear the soggy pieces. Snap. And I will pray to God that we can all remain on the surface, paddle there in the light of the sun, and serve our Lord.

First Time, part 2 (Davies Tales #9b)

(For part 1, please click here.)

Aidan Davies and his father walked out of the sacristy. “Wait a moment,” said Alastor. “Let me look at you.”

Aidan stopped and turned in a circle. He had on more layers of clothing than any sane person would wear in the month of June. But he always joked that the psychological testing that candidates went through before becoming priests was done to make sure you were crazy. On top of his suit trousers and black shirt, Aidan wore a white alb, a garment which he used to pretend was a toga when his childhood fantasies built ancient Rome in the churchyard. On top of the alb, he wore a green stole, which more than a handful of people had called a “scarf” when they paid him compliments for its subtle patchwork design. And on top of the stole, he wore a green and gold chasuble, which weighed on his shoulders like a down comforter. Aidan flapped his arms to move the chasuble off of his hands. Of course I’m going to spill wine on it today, he thought. It’s a good thing, then, that it cost more than my first car. Aidan smiled ruefully and gave the chasuble a quick once over, looking for previous stains. There weren’t any.

Alastor stepped to his son and straightened the neckline of the ornate garment. Then his hands suddenly went to Aidan’s shoulders and his father gathered him into a strong embrace. “I remember when you wore a chasuble on Halloween. Your mother had to pin it to keep it from dragging.” He pushed Aidan back to arms length. “Now look at you.”

Alastor choked off the last words, seemingly as surprised as Aidan at his sudden show of emotion. Alastor kept his hand on Aidan’s shoulder as they walked to the back of the church where the early service crowd was trickling in. Churches fill up like movie theaters, Aidan thought.

His father stuck his head outside and clucked good-naturedly at a few stragglers. As they settled in to their pew, Aidan made a quick head count. Two dozen or so. Pretty standard for an early service in the summer. Well, if I do trip and hit my head on the altar only a few people will see it. He glanced at his watch and gave a thumbs up to his father. Alastor led the way as they entered the nave and processed down the center aisle. Aidan had never walked behind his father in procession. This is something new, indeed.

The first half of the service came and went. Aidan kept stealing glances at the altar, wondering how something he used to play under could seem so imposing now. At the Peace, he shook hands with the two-dozen parishioners and embraced his father once again. Then he turned to face the altar and his parents’ advice from earlier that morning came to him. Go to the bathroom before you put your chasuble on. Check. Remember that God’s there too. Aidan looked at the cross and out the window to the misty morning sky. He looked back at the altar and at the people assembled. His mother’s advice had seemed so obvious when he sat perched on the edge of her bed. She might have said, “Remember that gravity will keep you from floating away.” But here in the church, with that special table in front of him, Aidan could not remember, could not see how he could go and stand behind that table and invoke God’s presence.

Aidan pulled his father to one side. “I don’t think I can do this,” he said. He tugged at the collar of his alb. “I don’t think I can consecrate communion.”

Alastor steadied his son with a look. It was the look the veteran paratrooper might give the new recruit before pushing him bodily from the plane. “And what makes you think that you’re the one doing anything,” he said simply.

Aidan stared blankly at his father. “You’re just the hands and the mouth,” said Alastor. “No delusions of grandeur. God’s doing the heavy lifting.” Aidan nodded and turned back to the altar. Alastor stepped up behind him and whispered, “And God does the heavy lifting whether or not you realize God is here.”

Once again Aidan let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. God is here. God is here and that truth has nothing to do with me. No delusions of grandeur. “Okay. I’m really ready this time,” he said.

He mounted the steps to the altar and unwrapped the chalice. He folded the veil and laid it aside. He put the burse on top of the veil. He dumped a few dozen wafers onto the paten. He took the two silver cruets from the credence table and set them next to the chalice. Then he froze and his eyes went wide. He looked at the two containers: they were identical and they were solid metal. One held wine and one held water, but there was no earthly way to tell them apart. He pulled the stopper from one and glanced inside. Too dark. The liquid could have been either. He checked the other. Looks the same. He picked them up to feel the weight, hoping the cruet containing the wine would be fuller. No such luck. He put them down and gave his father a sidelong glance, along with a half grimace that he hoped communicated, “Help me!”

Perhaps, his father didn’t understand his attempt at telepathy. Perhaps, his father was trying to loosen him up some more before the Eucharistic prayer began. Perhaps, his father was getting him back for all those times that Aidan held up his watch to signal that a sermon had gone on too long. Whatever the reason, Alastor Davies gave his son a shrug, and not just any shrug, a comically expansive shrug, like one you might use while playing charades.

Aidan did his best to hide a scowl. Then he did the last thing he could think of. He tipped just a bit out of one cruet. Water. Of course. He switched cruets and poured. A more experienced priest wouldn’t have panicked. A more experienced priest would have known that less than ten percent of the congregation would have any clue that something was amiss at the altar. But Aidan had been a priest for less than twenty-four hours.

And yet, as his panic subsided, Aidan noticed something else filling its place. What is it? Aidan searched within himself before beginning the prayer. Ah, there it is. Peace. And what’s that next to it? Yes. Joy. Aidan lifted his head and smiled at the two-dozen people scattered around the church. “The Lord be with you,” he said.

In the end, he didn’t spill wine on the chasuble. He didn’t trip and bang his head on the altar. He didn’t have a panic attack. All he had to do was jump and pull the ripcord. And the wind caught his chute and brought him safely to ground.

Back at the kitchen table later that day, Aidan paused in the middle of eating his grilled cheese sandwich. Aquinas was curled up on his lap, sleeping soundly. Lucy and Alastor sat across from their son. They hadn’t stopped beaming at him since they arrived home. “So, Dad, I have a question,” he said.

“The Sox have a day game. Starts in about half an hour,” Alastor said.

“No, that’s not it.” He took a bite. The cheese stretched as he pulled the sandwich from his mouth. “How do you tell which cruet holds wine and which holds water?”

Alastor smiled at his wife, who reflected it back at him. He put on his best professorial tone and said to his valedictorian, Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude, Master of Divinity, seminary-trained new priest of a son, “You smell them, of course.”

“If we only had a wheelbarrow…”

princessbrideThe situation looks hopeless. The odds are twenty to one against, and one-third of their party has just been revived after being mostly dead all day. Westley, Inigo, and Fezzek peer furtively at the newly improved defenses of the castle gate. They have only Westley’s brain, Inigo’s steel, and Fezzek’s strength against 60 men. “If I had a month to plan I might come up with something,” says Westley. Then, half to himself, “If  we only had a wheelbarrow, that would be something.” It turns out, upon second thought, they do have a wheelbarrow; and, upon third thought, a fire-resistant cloak. With this rather odd pairing of materials, they break into the castle, save the princess, steal the prince’s beautiful horses, and make a daring escape. On the walltop over looking the castle, the three heroes make their plan. Here’s the progression as I see it: they state the problem (breaking into a castle guarded by sixty men); they say what they do not have (a month to plan); they re-examine their assets (a cloak and a wheelbarrow); they overcome the problem even though their assets are meager.*

A similar progression, with an all-important extra step, happens when Jesus feeds the five thousand people (as told in Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John). A large crowd is following Jesus because they like a good spectacle. Jesus has just healed the man at the pool of Bethzatha, so the crowd knows they won’t be disappointed. Jesus goes up the mountain with his disciples and looks down, surveying the vast multitude spread out below him. They could ignore the crowd, and, judging by Philip’s response to Jesus’ question the disciples probably wanted to. But Jesus does not give them that option. Instead, he states the problem: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip (characteristically for this Gospel) answers a different question than the one Jesus asks. He says what they do not have: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Then Andrew re-examines their assets: a little boy has five barley loaves and two fish. Notice how wildly inadequate this amount of food is for so many; I bet Andrew felt foolish even bringing it up.

But Jesus seems to think this very foolishness is just the sort of thing needed to solve such an intractable problem. So he takes the loaves and fish and then adds the all-important extra step in the progression. He gives thanks. He gives thanks even though he has a loaf per thousand people. He gives thanks even though the situation seems impossible. He does not let the apparent meagerness of his resources dictate whether or not he offers thanks to God. He gives thanks, and the crowd eats, and the disciples gather up twelve full baskets. The crowd is looking for a spectacle and they get such a grand one that they try to take Jesus and make him king.

Let’s take another look at the giving thanks. The special word for The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion is “Eucharist.” (N.B. “Eucharist” comprehends the entire Sunday worship experience, but we are focusing here on the second half, the meal.) When we worship God by sharing this meal, we pray to Christ to somehow enter the bread and wine. Then we break the bread and share the cup, thus sharing Christ with each other. And our eyes are opened to the reality that the love of Christ is inside us and is made known in the sharing of community and love with each other.

The fancy word “Eucharist” is a much less fancy word if you happen to be both from Asia Minor and two thousand years old. This strange looking word simply means “to give thanks.” So, when we come together to share the meal, we are coming together to give thanks to God for all the blessings God has bestowed upon us. The fact that this intentional thanksgiving happens in a community reminds us that we must share our blessings just as we share the body and blood of Christ. And it is the very dwelling of Christ in us and we in him that sustains us as we share with others.

When I give thanks to God for the blessings and gifts God has given me, I must remember that thanksgiving is the catalyst for sharing. If I do not share my gifts with others, then I have not truly thanked God for them. Let me say that again, make it plural, and italicize it so you don’t miss it: If we do not share our gifts with others, then we have not truly thanked God for them

Sometimes, these gifts may seem meager or inadequate. But those are the times we must remember that Christ is there with us, giving thanks for us, and breaking us so he can share himself through us.

Footnotes

* The Princess Bride (1987); dir. Rob Reiner. Watch this film ASAP if you’ve never seen it. In fact, just go home right now and watch it. I’ll lend you my DVD.