Sunday, October 23, 2016

Proper 25C, Better Than We Can Ask, Or Imagine

Proper 25C, 2016, 

At the heart of the Eucharistic liturgy crafted by Thomas Cramner, was the prayer we refer to as the prayer of humble access.

“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 our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.” – (Book of Common Prayer 1662)

This prayer has been part of our common liturgies in the Anglican tradition since 1548 and can be found in our current prayer book on page 337 as part of the what is called the “Rite I” celebration of the Eucharist. This prayer is intended as a means of setting ourselves in a place of humility and gratitude as we prepare to receive the bread and the wine.  With reverence, it seeks to remind us that while we don’t assume God’s grace, it is granted; while we don’t deserve God’s love, it is given. 

It is a prayer that stands in sharp contrast to a culture that all too often is one of entitlemen--“Don’t I deserve?”, “I’ve earned it?”, “I worked hard for that!” or, as heard in the Gospel today, “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income!”

The prayer of humble access, is not often prayed in Episcopal churches nowadays. But, it is one that I find helpful as a counterpoint to the pride that, as theologian Karl Barth puts it, becomes idolatry when that pride confuses the Creator and the creation, the Giver and the gift—we don’t get to dictate who receives mercy, we don’t get to decide who God loves.

Because when we do so, we forget that we are all in need of mercy and to deny God’s mercy is to deny what scripture has made clear, that mercy is fundamental to the nature of God.

Which means that the petition, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” becomes a petition grounded in a deep trust in God’s fundamental nature.  These words presuppose both that one is underserving AND that God will be merciful.

This petition is one I learned in college. I did not learn it within the context of this particular Gospel text, rather I learned it within the context of my own pain and sense of unworthiness. I was really good at naming my own shortcomings, my own best critic and a harsh one at that. What I struggled with was extending grace to myself, and this prayer became a means by which I could remember that God had and would continue to extend grace to me. 

And I found that meditating upon this prayer, “God have mercy on me, a sinner” centered and grounded me upon three truths--truth number one, I’m a sinner; truth number two, God has mercy on me; truth number three, I am dependent upon God.

“God be merciful to me, a sinner” is a petition grounded in the tax collector’s awareness of his utter reliance on God. The tax collector knows he does not deserve mercy; yet he also knows that it is within God’s power to grant it. In contrast, the Pharisee, presumes God’s grace as something he has earned—and in his sense of entitlement forgets his own reliance upon God and denies God’s mercy to others, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” and in this the Pharisee’s prayer proclaims himself rather than God and denies the truth of God’s mercy for others.  The Pharisee’s prayer, in this way is divisive and stands in opposition to God’s grace filled nature.     

Roman Catholic Priest, Cyprian Consiglio, writes that “When I say, “have mercy on me, a sinner,” I unite myself with all human beings from the beginning of the world who have experienced separation from God. I realize that, as human beings, we are all separated from God, from the source of our being. We are wandering in a world of shadows, mistaking the outward appearance of people and things for the reality. But at all times something is pressing us to reach out beyond the shadows, to face the reality, the truth. The inner meaning of our lives, and so to find God… the mystery which enfolds us.”

United with all human beings from the beginning of the word…what a powerful understanding! And, this is an understanding that the Pharisee and the judge from last week’s Gospel have not yet reached—they do not see in other’s the belovedness that God has ascribed them.  In this they fall short…

Biblical scholar Sharon Ringe, notes that both parables, that of the unjust judge and the one we heard today, describe individuals who are “locked into the systems of social and economic competition and the hierarchy of honor and prestige that favor the dominant classes in their society.  In both parables, prayer is about the reversal of those systems.” (Ringe, Sharon, Luke, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knowx Press, 1995), 225)

God’s justice can neither be constrained or denied by those who have power in our culture.

And in both the parable we heard last week, and that we hear today, God’s justice is shown to be better than that which we, humans, can ask or imagine. 

And, hence our hope.

And, from this place of hope, I proclaim the good news of the Gospel. And, from this place of hope, I serve in this place. And, from this place of hope, I hear the vision set forth in Joel—a vision in which all those who have been denied justice by our own human institutions experience the vindication of God’s grace and mercy. 

The sentences of scripture suggested at the close of evening prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, includes the following from the letter to the Ephesians,

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Don't Make Them Beg

The scripture appointed for 24C can be found here


I have to fess up, I LOVE this parable.

I love the persistence, and the doggedness and the insistence of the widow in her pursuit of justice.  I love the encouragement to pray and maintain hope even when things seem hopeless. I love the commitment to justice we hear on the part of God.

This parable, fills me with rejoicing. This parable challenges me to do better, to be better, to listen and engage better. Yet, it also reminds me that this is done with the assistance and inspiration of the God whose hope for us is the hope of justice in a new creation.

So, yay, quite simply YAY!  God’s way is better than ours and for this I give such deep and profound thanks.

I am grateful that we serve a God whose way is better than the way we can hope or imagine.  I am grateful that this passage exists to remind us that justice is breaking in.  And tho’ that justice may not come quickly enough given the terms of my own human existence, it will come.

So, now that I’ve gotten that big, extroverted hurray out of my system…

Let’s dig deep into this parable.

Luke is the only Gospel that includes this particular parable. Why? What about this story compelled the Lucan author to include it?  I imagine, that given Luke’s focus upon the marginalized, that it made sense. It made sense to detail the unjust justice system devised by humans and the persistence of a widow over and against that system. 

His Jewish audience would have been familiar with both the unjust judge and the widow as types. In the social, political and economic system of the day, a widow was someone who had neither husband or son to provide for her economically.  Having outlived the men upon whom she would have relied for her financial stability, she was vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Jewish custom would have dictated a level of communal obligation to care for women in this position. However, the reality, like the reality today, was that all too often the informal systems of care were inadequate to the need of those at the most risk.  When survival is tentative, it can become incredibly difficult for people to look beyond their own immediate circle of care and provide for the needs of those to whom they have no kinship connection. 

Hence, the need for legislation and leadership that prioritizes the needs of the marginalized. In scripture we hear how some of this was legislated in religious circles. Care for the widow and orphan is mandated throughout Judeo-Christian Scripture. 

From the book of Deuteronomy chapter 26:12, “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns,”

From this passage, the standard is set that a tithe, 10% of people’s produce, which in a agricultural community was the sum of their livelihood, was to be given to those at risk of starvation.  There is an understanding, that sharing the fruit, the literal fruit of one’s labor was something to be done out of obedience, love and praise of God. 

If you feared God and had respect for people, this was made manifest in direct social action and in the support of those most at risk in the community. 

In the parable, the judge neither fears God or has respect for people—and hence, the widow is forced to beg for justice.   It is tempting to look at this parable and correlate God with the unjust judge. However, I believe that this temptation comes out of our inability to imagine the vastness of God’s mercy.  The unjust judge is not God—and that’s the entire point…

The unjust judge, is us.

And we, we are being challenged, to look at ourselves and our human institutions and ask the question, will we speak up only for ourselves, or will we speak up for those who plead for justice? Will we hear the voice of the widow and the orphan and respond swiftly, or will we make them beg for our help?  And, only when they have groveled and inconvenienced us and embarrassed us—is it only then that we’ll act?

Or, will we respond like the God who first loved us, and participate as members of the body of Christ in the inbreaking of God’s swift justice?  Not because they begged, but because we stand in awe of the God, the lover of souls and creator of all.

Will we make our faith on earth, reflect the righteousness of God? 

As part of my ordination vows I made the promise, that with God’s help, I would pattern my life in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that I may be a wholesome example to my people.  I have found this commitment a daunting one, and one that has driven me to prayer. 

But, as I strive to model this way of life, I have found myself inspired by the witness of others--others whose cries on behalf of the people of God have assisted in the inbreaking and manifestation of God’s love, mercy and justice.  And, in looking for these witnesses, those who fear God and respect God’s people I have found hope for who I can be, and who we can be together.

In one of my favorite children’s books Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” the protagonists are taken to observe a planet that is being overcome by the forces of evil, and as they watch they see bright flares of light.  These flares spark and then fade.  They ask what they are seeing and they are told that the lights are the moments in which stars sacrifice themselves in the ongoing battle against the darkness. 

As they watch, the lights spark and flare, a litany of names of those who have brought light into the world is proclaimed, “Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteaur, Madame Curie, Einstein, Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, Beethoven, Rembrandt, St. Francis, Euclid, Copernicus” and I would add to her list Ruby Bridges who braved mobs in her pursuit of an equal education; Jonathan Daniels who martyred himself in pursuit of racial justice; Ta-Nehisi Coates whose writings illuminate the sin of racism; Sarah Super who has created space for rape survivors to share their stories…so many lights, so much hope and God’s justice draws nearer!

These are some of the many sages, saints, musicians, scientists, prophets and children of God who have proclaimed the message, the persistent and uncompromising message of God’s love for all creation.

And, I am so profoundly grateful for their witness. In the face of so much that seems evil, I am so grateful for these reminders of God’s abiding grace. In the face of so much that troubles the soul, I am so grateful for the truly, blessed assurance, that we as human beings can be active participants in God’s will for all of creation.

We are not powerless.

And we are equipped with the teachings, the witness, and the promises we need to bring light, hope and the sweet taste of God’s mercy to those who hunger for justice.