Worst Enemies

Sermon for Sunday, May 7, 2017 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10

There was a problem with the audio for this sermon, so unfortunately, it’s just text this week.

Whenever I watched The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, I would always fast forward through one particular scene because it terrified me. Luke Skywalker is training with Jedi Master Yoda on the swamp planet Dagobah when Luke feels the cold presence of death emanating from a nearby cave. “That place is strong with the Dark Side of the Force,” says Yoda. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.”

Luke enters the cave, lightsaber in hand. From the shadows appears Darth Vader. They duel for a few desperate seconds, and then Luke cuts off Vader’s helmeted head. The helmet comes to rest, and the black mask blows off, only to reveal Luke’s own face. As a child, this scene terrified me because Darth Vader was really scary, and the darkness of the cave and the tremulous musical score only added to my fear. As an adult, watching this scene still touches my heart with fear, but fear of a different kind: fear of the truth that Luke discovers in the cave and that I discover whenever I look within myself.

Like Luke, I am my own worst enemy. Continue reading “Worst Enemies”

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]

The Dragon’s Skin

(Sermon for August 28, 2011 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15)

Eustace Scrubb had read only the wrong books. The books he had read had “a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but,” says C.S. Lewis, “they were weak on dragons.” And so when Eustace accidentally accompanies his cousins Edmund and Lucy on a voyage aboard the ship Dawn Treader, you might imagine that he is, shall we say, out of his element. The further the ship sails from Narnia, the more ghastly becomes Eustace’s behavior. He is truly a horrible boy – lazy, selfish, dishonest, self-centered, and his attitude only goes from bad to worse.

So you won’t be surprised to hear that, when the ship finally comes ashore after a brutal storm, Eustace slips off by himself to avoid a day of hard work. And because he’s read only the wrong books, you also won’t be surprised to hear that, when he stumbles into a cave full of treasure, he has no idea that he has trespassed into a dragon’s lair. He has no idea that falling asleep on a dragon’s hoard turns one into a dragon. And he has no idea that he has become a dragon until he realizes that he’s running on all fours and that the reflection in the pool is his own. Now that he has become a dragon, “an appalling loneliness” comes over him, and he begins to see in himself the monster that his cousins and the crew of the Dawn Treader had tolerated for the entire voyage. How could Eustace possibly undo the enchantment? How could he shed the dragon’s skin?

Consider that your cliffhanger until later in the sermon. Before we return to Eustace the dragon, let’s turn our attention to this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture. Moses grazes the flock of his father-in-law far afield. At Mount Horeb, he sees a bush blazing merrily, but the bush isn’t turning to coals and ash. Intrigued, Moses turns aside to look more closely. And God encounters him there. “Come no closer,” God calls to Moses. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Remove the sandals from your feet. On the surface, this command reminds Moses that he and God don’t share the same position. Moses is a supplicant, and he comes into God’s presence unshod to show the vast disparity between the two. Okay, show of hands – which of you took off your shoes when you settled into your pew this morning? Yeah, neither did I. From a cultural point-of-view, removing our footwear signals informality rather than respect. So, we need to look at God’s command here from a different perspective.

On a deeper level than the simple removal of a garment, God’s command to Moses to take off his sandals presents a challenge to each of us who hears this story. This challenge begins with a question. What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter into God’s presence?

Our answers to this question build the wardrobe of costumes we wear all the time without realizing that we are dressed up. We wear these invisible costumes and affix invisible masks to our faces in order to set up buffers between ourselves and other people. If other people get too close, then they might impel us to change, to see the world differently than we desire, to remove ourselves from the centers of our existence. Our costumes are our first line of defense to remain the people we’ve always told ourselves we want to be. The trouble is that the costumes also disguise us from ourselves.

And so we stumble into God’s presence wearing carefully crafted costumes and masks that create barriers between us and everything that is not us. And just as God commands Moses to remove his shoes, God tells us to take off the costume.

What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter God’s presence? What makes up our costumes? Here I can only speak for myself, so listen for where your experience connects with mine. After praying with the question, I decide that the first piece of my costume to remove is Fear. This is the fear that forestalls any type of change. This is the fear that keeps me from entering into any kind of relationship because the other will cause some sort of transformation in me. This is the fear that keeps me from diving into a pool, not because I’m afraid of diving, but because I don’t want to get wet.

The second piece of the costume is Ignorance. When fear keeps relationships from beginning, ignorance is the necessary byproduct. I am blind to the situations of those I don’t take the time and energy to know. Again, this is part of the buffer. If I actively keep myself from developing an understanding of another’s plight, I won’t be putting myself in the position to have to decide whether or not to help, to relate, to get my hands dirty.

The third piece of the costume is Apathy. When ignorance fails, and I do find myself in the position to make a choice – to be in relationship or not – apathy sings the siren’s song. Apathy is the inertial force that keeps me complicit and complacent to the woes of others because I just can’t quite dig up enough empathy to care.

There are many more pieces of the costume, too many to talk about in this sermon, but there’s still the mask. My mask is Pride. When fear and ignorance and apathy all fail to keep me from being in an authentic relationship with another, there’s always pride to keep me living a disguised life. This is the pride that takes all the credit for my giftedness and assumes that I can get along quite well on my own because I seem to have done so thus far.

And this is where we return to Eustace, the horrible boy of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. After he becomes human again, Eustace relates to his cousin Edmund how he left the dragon behind. A lion had come to him in the night and bade him undress. Since he had no clothes, he began shedding his skin like a snake. He scraped off his scales and stepped out of the skin. But then he looked down and saw another layer was there. He peeled this off as well. And “exactly the same thing happened again,” said Eustace.

And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? …So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

Then the lion said… ‘You will have to let me undress you.’

The desperate Eustace lay down and

The very first tear [the lion] made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been.

When we stumble into God’s presence, God invites us to remove our costumes. Like Eustace, we might be able to slough off some pieces ourselves, but the real costume only comes off when God intervenes and pulls the invisible garments away. When we pray, “I will, with God’s help,” we acknowledge that we cannot take off our disguises until we stand before the God who is the only one who truly knows what we look like. We cannot remove our costumes until we ask God to take them away, to leave them lying next to us, thick and dark and knobbly-looking.

And when we participate with God in this removal, there is just so much room to fill. Hope takes the place of Fear. Awareness fills in the gap left by of Ignorance. Engagement replaces Apathy. And Humility settles in where Pride once kept the disguise wrapped around us so tight. Shedding the costume is hard work that takes a lifetime. But we are not alone. We are in God’s presence, and God is forever helping us shed the dragon’s skin.