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]

Run home, Jack

(Sermon for January 4, 2009 || Christmas 2, RCL)

In the 1991 movie Hook, the nefarious captain who lends his name to the film abducts Peter Pan’s children and brings them to Neverland. Once there, the pirate attempts to condition Jack and Maggie into thinking that their parents don’t care about them and that they are better off away from home. Maggie resists Hook from the start, but Jack, who is angry at his father for always missing Jack’s baseball games, falls victim to Hook’s indoctrination. To show his feigned appreciation for Jack, Hook organizes a ballgame.  When Jack comes up to bat, it becomes apparent that none of the pirates knows a thing about the sport. Instead of cheering for Jack to hit a home run, the crowd mixes up the words and chants “Run home, Jack! Run home, Jack!” For an instant, Hook’s spell is broken, and Jack remembers who he is and where he belongs.runhomejack

We live in a world of dislocations and disenchantments, and too often we forget where home is. We are constantly on the move from here to there or are stuck in traffic on the way from here to there. We are constantly harvesting the disappointments of a world that makes rash promises and fails to deliver. We are constantly sprinting, speeding, gorging, guzzling – but we rarely stop to catch our breath. We rarely pause to find our bearings. We rarely go home.

Few undeniable truths remain in this world, but one is this: you’ve got to know where you are to figure out where you are going. Look at any map at a rest stop or fire safety plan on the back of a hotel room door, and you will find a dot and the words “You are here.” Your destination is 140 miles up I-81. Your nearest exit in case of emergency is the stairwell at the end of the hall. These maps come in handy when you are trying to find your physical location.

But there are so many other ways to become lost, for which “You are here” stickers are nowhere to be found. You used your credit card to make your mortgage payment last month and now the Visa bill is due. Your new relationship burned fast and hot for a few months and now you are wondering if there’s anything left to fuel the fire. Your job is eroding your will to exist, but there’s nowhere else to work. I doubt none of us has to dig too deeply into his or her own soul to find a similar situation. When we are lost, retracing our steps to home will help us find ourselves again.

But only in the narrowest definition of the word is “home” a physical place. More expansively, home is where we center ourselves. Home refreshes us and reintegrates us. Home propels us to where we are going next by being the one space that assures us of where we are now. Do you remember that old keyboard tutor, Mavis Beacon? She teaches you to type by keeping your fingers on the middle row of keys, the “home keys.” With your fingers on A-S-D-F-J-K-L-semicolon, you always have a reference point for finding the rest of the alphabet. Your left index finger knows to go up for “R” and “T” and right for “G.” You don’t have to look at the keyboard with your fingers centered on the home keys. When we find ourselves “at home,” we allow ourselves the space to breath, find our bearings, and achieve the quiet stillness that nurtures new possibilities.

The people of Israel have been in exile in Assyria and Babylon for a long time – decades stretching into centuries. Their home is their identity, an identity they lost when they were taken by force to their conquerors’ kingdoms. They weep by the rivers and hang up their harps. They cannot sing the songs of Zion in the strange land. But in this morning’s reading, we hear a note of hope from the prophet Jeremiah: “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…With consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble…They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion…I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

The prophet tells of the imminent return of the people to their own lands and homes, where they will reclaim their identity and sing once again on Zion’s height. Today’s psalm would not be out of place on that long journey back to their home: “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord.” The psalmist sees the sparrow and swallow making nests and reflects on the happiness of those who dwell in God’s house: “For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room.”

The psalmist longs to be in God’s presence. In our world of dislocations and disenchantments, some deep, inexplicable energy drives us to seek this same presence. When we pause long enough to figure out where we are, we open ourselves up for an encounter with the presence of God. This presence constantly encounters us, but we rarely tear ourselves away from our sprinting and guzzling long enough to notice. But when we do, when we accept the God-given gift of stillness in our souls and embrace the encounter with God’s presence, we will find ourselves at home. St. Augustine says, “You have made me for yourself and my heart is restless until it finds rest in you.” We find that rest when we are at home in God’s presence, which refreshes us and creates in us the space to figure out where we are going next.

The wise men in this morning’s Gospel find this presence when they follow the star to Bethlehem. They enter the home of Mary and Joseph and find the Christ child with his mother. In the presence of the infant King, they offer their gifts. Like the wise men, when we notice the signs pointing to an encounter with Christ, we too can find ourselves at home with Jesus. In that shimmering moment of encounter, God gives us the opportunity to discern the gifts we can lay at Christ’s feet. Centered and nourished by God’s presence, we go out, use our gifts, and join in the work of building God’s home here on earth.

So run home, Jack. Run home and find Jesus Christ awaiting you there. Run home to God’s presence and find your rest. Come and sing aloud on the height of Zion. Let your heart and your flesh rejoice in the living God. Encounter that one day in the courts of the Lord that is better than a thousand elsewhere.