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.  

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