What do your want me to do for you?

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As both a courtroom advocate and civil mediator, I have learned through the years that there are few “declarative” statements more powerful than a tough honest question.

An entire trial can turn on the right question being asked of the right witness at the right time. Likewise, the most intransient “dug in“ positions of the most hostile opponents can be altered by a skilled mediator asking a probing question that has yet to be fully considered.

Blind Bart – Jesus asks him an “absurd” question of life-changing importance

It so happens that this past Sunday, many worshipers in many congregations worldwide heard one of the most important and insightful questions Jesus ever asked.   The appointed Gospel for this week was taken from the most earthy and direct of the four Gospels, Mark.  In its 10th chapter, the writer of Mark tells the story of Jesus leaving the ancient revered city of Jericho, where a few centuries earlier the city walls came a-tumbling down.  Jesus and the large crowd that followed him come upon a person who – before this episode – the world held in a little account, a “blind beggar” named Bartimaeus.

As the crowd comes closer, this sightless destitute begins shouting at Jesus, calling him by name and the messianic title “Son of David” and beseeching Jesus to “Have mercy on me!”  At first, the crowd tries to shut him up, but old “Blind Bart” yells all the more loudly, “SON OF DAVID! HAVE MERCY ON ME!!!”  Jesus stops and tells the crowd to call him forward. Bartimaeus immediately, springs forward, casting aside his cloak and somehow makes his way to Jesus.

It is at that moment that Jesus asks him the question.  On one level it seems absurd, maybe even a little mocking or cruel.  In reality, it reveals layer upon layer of insight, probing the depths of not only human nature but into the nature and mystery of Jesus himself.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks the blind beggar.

This question would be a lot easier for me and my cynical trial lawyer self if I could keep it at arm’s length, a rhetorical question asked to a different person in different circumstances “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”  But there is something nagging and gnawing, Some Thing beckoning within that will not let me escape the terrifying liberation of knowing that question is not just for Blind Bart.  It is for ME.   It is not only for me of course, but for anyone willing to listen and dare be so bold to answer. Regardless, I can’t answer it for anyone else, and no one else can answer it for me.

What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. For Bartimaeus, the answer was “I want to see again,” which I do not think for a minute he meant to be limited to the repairing of his optic nerves. What we do know is that Bart was in fact healed, probably had 20-20 vision (spiritual as well as physical) without benefit of Lasik surgery, and “followed Jesus along the way.” This blind beggar of little account became so important to the early believers that his story is included not only in Mark (10:46-52) but also later in Matthew (20:29-34) and Luke (18:35-43).

What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. I don’t have my answer yet.  Sometimes, I know my answer (at least in attitude, even if too fearful to express it otherwise) is to just leave me alone. 

That’s the one request Jesus seems to have no interest in granting.

Wombs and Tombs

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Every several years or so, I seem to get reminded from Lord knows where (a phrase that uncomfortably seems more literal sometimes than just a figure of speech) that March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation.

It always occurs exactly nine months before the ”Feast of the Nativity” a/k/a Christmas Day. (Go figure.)

The day celebrates the account in Luke’s Gospel of the young maiden Mary, and her surprising visit by the angel Gabriel…and his even more surprising message that she had been appointed to offer human birth to the son of God.

It usually comes in the middle of Lent, a few days or weeks before Easter. It is a time (as said so wonderfully by Canon Rose Duncan at the Washington National Cathedral this morning) of “wombs and tombs, beginnings and endings, births and deaths.”

Regardless of what faith we might profess, or if we follow no organized religion at all, it seems that in every life it is inevitable to face times of real decision, of moving one way or the other, of following a path pointed this uncertain way or that, or maybe just staying put – frozen and hesitant – and making the decision of no decision. And in that sense, the story of Mary and her annunciation is, in absolute fact, a universal human story.

A few years back, I was also totally surprised by the Feast of the Annunciation one March 25. It led me (as these things tend to do) to pour a nice single malt and start writing, and wondering how that same God who beckoned a young girl to change the world forever might also be beckoning me.

( Annunciation 2014 –“…born of the Virgin Mary.” )

Will you proclaim the Good News?

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 (For the five weeks of Lent 2021, special focus will be given to each of the five individual questions in “The Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant”)

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Generally speaking, we Episcopalians are not particularly known for our proclamations.  Near the top of my list of favorite oxymorons  (slightly ahead of “corporate culture” and “military intelligence,” but behind “Justice Thomas”) is “Episcopal evangelism.”  It’s typically just not our style, which makes this third question of the Baptismal Covenant a bit problematic for many of us, at least for me.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has put out the call for some “Crazy Christians” to address the needs of today’s world. Does that mean we might have to be “tacky” too?

I’m not at all sure why that is exactly, but a story by southern novelist Clyde Edgerton that he read here in Charlotte a few years back from one of his books offers a humorous clue.  The scene was about an old man and a boy one Sunday morning on the front porch of a general store in Macon, Georgia.  The old man is rocking while reading the Sunday paper, as the boy plays with baseball cards on the steps and a church bell rings out to signal the end of the service of the church across the street.  “Look at them Episcopalians there, boy,” says the old man looking up from his paper and taking his reading specs off to watch the acolytes take the cross and candles around back to the sacristy and the priest in his vestments greet the parishioners recessing out into the humid air.  “You know, there ain’t nothin‘ Episcopalians wouldn’t do for the love of God,” the man tells the boy, “…exceptin’ if it was tacky.” 

That story is funny because in so many ways — at least in regards to this Episcopalian — it is so true.  Why else, if not for fear of my being “tacky” would I feel the least twinge about the commitment to “proclaim…the good news”?  It’s not that I am a particularly shy person, Lord knows.  Indeed, family and friends would “proclaim” that I am most assuredly not.  Nor am I all that shy about claiming to be Christian; I write this blog on the liturgy after all, and am a licensed lay preacher in the Diocese of North Carolina.

Why so shy?

The hesitancy, the twinge, the “shyness” (such that it is) in my proclaiming anything about Christianity is mainly because, I confess,  I just don’t want to be associated with “those” kind of Christians…you know, the ones with a lot of hairspray.

I try not to look down my nose at those good church-going folks who fill big NBA-sized arenas to hear the word of ”JEE-YAH-UH-ZUSS” shouted at them with all the cock-sure certainty of used car dealers whose sole task and desire is “closing the sale.”  I try, I really do. Those mega-churches do fill an obvious need for those that flock to them. Even so, I fail miserably most of the time.

And then there are the “Christians” for whom the term “tacky” seems for me far too benign.  These are the folks who seem hellbent (an adjective chosen with care) on making sure that the “club“ of Christianity remains exclusive. You are either “in“ (i.e., you have at some point repeated a magic prayer and have been “saved“), or you have not and are therefore “out.”  They seem not the least bit shy in proclaiming loudly their “Christian” views of what the Almighty most certainly dictated about a number of current issues — abortion, guns, welfare, the border, school prayer, child adoption by LGBTQ parents and a heavenly host of other matters not really mentioned specifically in Scripture.  The absence of specific, literal guidance does not at all prevent these “Christians” from offering specific and literal guidance as to what beyond all doubt and discussion Jesus wants.  The problem is, most of the time, those views do not sound a whole lot like the Jesus I read in the Gospels.

If “proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ” means being associated with those “Christians,” I just as soon take a pass on that part of the Baptismal Covenant.

The problem is…

There is a significant drawback to my timidity, though, besides the obvious flaws that it is snobbish and snooty, and well, timid, in a time when I believe our faith calls for boldness.  That huge flaw is the inescapable fact that being a true follower of Jesus, by today’s earthly standards anyway, is pretty damn nutty.  Let’s leave aside for a second the whole Nativity legend of virgin birth and heavenly beings appearing to Joseph (in one Gospel, but none of the others) and to Mary and Shepherds (in another Gospel, but none of the others).  Let’s not even dwell on the main point of the Baby Jesus legend — the Omnipotent Yahweh of Creation, now appearing as a helpless bastard infant born to a poor oppressed girl with confused boyfriend in a Bethlehem stable.

Instead, let’s just look on the central message of the adult Jesus.  His word and example was — and to believers very much IS — a loud proclamation that God’s overwhelming healing Love for each of us is lavish, undeserved, illogical and radical.  And Jesus’ primary command to us — to love God and neighbor — means that followers who take him seriously must forgive attacks on them over and over and over again, and actually do good to any and all folks who abuse us.  We are instructed to pray to God like a neighbor banging on your door late at night wanting some beer and snacks for some friends who dropped by.  To “proclaim the Good News” we are told both requires and leads us to care about and show  love for our most hateful enemies.  In a world of self-esteem, self-image and self-actualization, we are told we must lose ourselves in order to save ourselves. 

Such counter-cultural thinking is not always appreciated in pop culture, high society or the academic towers.  So yeah, there’s a real risk of Christians in general and Lord forbid Episcopalians in particular of being seen as kind of weird, a little crazy, and even <gasp > tacky.  Episcopalians need to get over it.  To be more precise, I need to get over it.

Getting over it.

Ever so slowly, and with a lot of fake-it-til-you-make practice, I‘m finding my lawyer-brained, bet-hedging self more and more able to share in my crazy and tacky beliefs.   Presiding Bishop Michael Curry – Biblical scholar and firebrand preacher all rolled into one — is helping me “get over it” when he writes a book he unapologetically entitles, “Crazy Christians.” He helps me further with his latest book (written just before the latest pandemic and racial upheaval and civil unrest, and released during the midst of them) that is premised on the ”crazy” but somehow absolutely true — and even empirically logical — notion that “Love Is The Only Way.”

Regardless of all the twists and turns and causes along the journey, I find myself more able — sometimes even willing and eager — to proclaim  (even if more by word than example for now) that I have had these grand moments along the way, from “Lord knows” where.  And those moments have been so grand and have given a small glimpse of a Divine Goodness beyond all human goodness, a Universal Beauty beyond all earthly beauty, and most of all an Infinite Unfathomable Love far beyond my ability to comprehend, or to resist.  What small comprehension I can manage, though, inevitably leads me to person of Jesus of Nazareth as human embodiment of that Goodness, that Beauty, that Love.  And who even now — two millennia later and with countless generous of “Christians” who have done their damnedest to muck things up — remains still Jesus the Christ, the Unifier and Healer of all living things.

Just this morning, after most of the above had been written, I happened to see an online sermon from one of my favorite priests preaching about today’s Gospel (John 3:14-21) for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, focusing on what it means to live as a Jesus-follower “in the light” versus trying to be a Christian hidden “in the dark.”  He posed a question that his been gnawing at me all day, and seemed as good as any way to conclude:  “Who is protected by keeping your faith a private affair?”

Regardless of my constant misgivings of doubts, uncertainties and silly concerns, I would do well to ask, whenever I hedge or hesitate to “…proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ,“ … Who indeed am I trying to protect?  If I’m honest, I’ll have to admit it is probably me.

Make us love what you command…

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In the appointed collect for today the worldwide Anglican Communion beseeched (don’t you just love that word?) God to “make us love what You command.”

>> Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. <<

One of the things that I’ve always admired in our collects is the sense of immediacy and intimacy in most of them. In that sense, they tend to model The Lord’s Prayer, in that there’s not a “Please” or request to “help us to…” to be found. Rather the best collects — just like the prayer that Jesus recited when his followers asked him how to best pray — is filled with imperatives to a Loving Omnipotent God. These urgent urgings to our Divine Creator have a power implied in them that we are, somehow, worthy to lay such demands before The Almighty. Even more than that though, there is also a sense that we dare speak to The Source of All Caring with a faith that our God is not just able to do such good things for us, but is also eager to do them, and eager for us to ask for such bold and audacious things.

But just like the Pharisees and lawyer in today’s Gospel (Matt. 22:34-46), so too am I tempted to ask the evasive, miss-the-big-point, follow-up question: “Yeah, Lord, but what — exactly — fits in that category of ‘what You command’ that we are supposed to love”? (At this point, I can only imagine collective “shaking their heads” among the Heavenly Hosts.). Fortunately, especially for those “cut to the chase” types like myself, Jesus tells us with in essence a one-word answer, LOVE.

Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s pretty much it.

A transformative light-switch was turned on for me a few years ago. I confess to being an unapologetic Anglophile, with a deep affection for words. More particularly, I am enthralled and passionate about “the right word” that makes all the difference, as Mark Twain once quipped between “lightning, and a lighting bug.” Such a difference comes with the different meanings assigned to the same word – that poor, overburdened, little four letter English word, LOVE. So often, especially in modern American culture, “love” is a noun, describing a feeling of attachment or affection. But in the Jesus Movement, I have grown persuaded that “love” is a VERB.

Not sure about anyone else, but for me at least, when I began to fathom that for Jesus, love is about ACTION, things became much more fathomable. That is the only way that the clear command to “love your enemies” makes sense and becomes real. Warm fuzzy feelings have next to nothing to do with it. Even though I might be disgusted by, and pissed off at, someone (often myself), I am still able to love them, to ACT lovingly toward them.

Mama Gump told Forrest over and over, “Stupid is, as stupid does.” She might well have added the additional wise words that “Love is, as love does.”

Sometimes simple things are all I can handle. LOVE. That’s it. Love what God loves, and remember love is a verb.

…poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word.

The First Sunday after Christmas Day is often called “Low Sunday” because attendance in Episcopal churches is typically sparse at best.  Folks that amble into the wide availability of pews can be forgiven for wondering if “The Rapture” has come and somehow they’ve been “left behind.”

And that’s a pity, because there is an abundance of joyful reminders of Emmanuel, God With Us.  Indeed, the opening collect is one of the most meaningful in the Prayer Book, bursting with layer upon layer of truth and significance:

Light from light

“God of God, Light from Light Eternal”

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word:  Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

 

That image, of a “new light” being “poured upon us,” evokes for me here in the dead of winter the warm thoughts of simply basking in the brightest of sunlight that offer comforting heat but does not blister or burn, sunlight that leaves no shadow nor room for any darkness.

Such light, as we are told in the collect, is the light of the “incarnate Word,” echoing the word so expressively presented in the opening sentences of The Gospel of John, the appointed Gospel for this first Sunday following Christmas Day:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. (Jn. 1:1)

The writer of John was not so much a biographer as a free-verse poet, presenting the Oneness of Jesus with God and Creation more than promoting any legend about the man.  There are no shepherds in the Nativity story for John, no Wise Men, no “angels we have heard on high,” not even a stable.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus is not so much born as Jesus simply is, from before time and for eternity, the Logos Incarnate, the “Word made flesh.”  For John, to begin his version of THE Story — above  all stories — in this way, was meant, I think, to drive home the point that Jesus was present from the start, because logos was present from the start. The Jesus of John manifests the Highest and Best and Ultimate of humankind, merged with the Divine Force of the vast cosmos. Logos in the flesh.

And now that this Word has taken human form, shedding its “new light” on a dark world, this lovely opening Collect reminded me that it is lavishly, extravagantly, ceaselessly “poured upon us.”

Only on rare occasion do I allow myself to comprehend such a fantastic thing.  I’m not sure why that is exactly, except that if I take seriously the notion, allow it really to penetrate this hardened and scarred lawyer’s heart, I fear the sheer overwhelming Goodness of “the Good News” can cause my all too human heart to burst, not merely be “enkindled.”  This Incarnate Word made flesh reminds me that God is not the God of the far off.  God is the God of the here and now.  God of the gritty, smelly, sweaty muck of life.  God of the flesh.

And the word became flesh and lived among us…No one has seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is the closest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

(Jn. 1:14, 18)

…and above all, in the Word made flesh, Jesus your Son.

We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.

This opening paragraph from Eucharistic Prayer B, and especially its last seven words, has had a special resonance for me lately.

It started around Christmas, and all its seasonal references to “the Word.”  The author of John began that Gospel, of course, with the acknowledgment that “the Word” got this whole ball rolling, so to speak:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… (John 1:1)

It’s not easy for me, I must confess, contemplating the sheer foolishness of Christmas, and the whole concept of “Incarnation” — the act of the Divine somehow occupying flesh (or carnis, in Latin).  Think of it — the Ubiquitous Power of all Existence, choosing to appear in that Creation as a utterly helpless and completely dependent bastard infant of a poor, oppressed peasant girl.  Truly absurd.

logos

In the beginning was the Word...

But every so often, Grace breaks through. Continue reading

Upon another shore and in a greater light…

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(Originally posted December 22, 2013)*

One small voice, belonging to a 12-year old boy, begins to sing…

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

Other young boys join in, followed by the full choir, followed by the congregation, as the throng of Choristers and Acolytes and Priests make their way forward…

One small, young voice... ushers in the best worship service on the planet. One small, young voice… ushers in the best worship service on the planet.  (Click HERE.)

The place is Kings College Chapel, in Cambridge, England. The time is a minute or two after 3 p.m. London time on Christmas Eve. The occasion is “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.”  And for this crusty curmudgeon, it is, quite simply, the best worship service on the planet. Continue reading

We are bold to say…

In just about every Eucharist, worshippers are invited to pray the timeless words of “The Lord’s Prayer” with this phrase:

And now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:  Our Father…

And the thing is, when we consider the rather astonishing notion that we should and can communicate – – directly, intimately, instantly — with the Omnipotent Creator of the universe, we ARE being bold.

Yet, as we read in the Gospel from a few Sundays ago (Luke 11:1-13), that is precisely the posture that Jesus advises his followers to take, when one of them asks how to pray. After acknowledging the holiness of his father’s name, Jesus is all about imperatives. The words he uses to instruct those around him boldly include a list of directives: Come. Give. Forgive. Lead. Deliver. Jesus apparently doesn’t see the need to say the word “please” to “Our Father in Heaven” even once, given a relationship that is so pure and so thorough, and in which (and in Whom) he feels so purely and thoroughly known.

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Just to make the point inescapable, Jesus goes on to tell a ridiculous story that suggests that prayer may include being somewhat of a pest. When we pray, says Jesus, it is like a friend who bangs on a neighbor’s door at night, asking to borrow some food to give an unexpected guest. “Who cares if it’s late at night?” Jesus seems to say. Regardless of the chronological time of day, Jesus more than anyone knows the proverbial “dark night of the soul” can take place 24/7, and that just happens to be the Lord’s office hours.

The sleepy neighbor from behind  closed doors tries to rebuff the pestering nuisance from next door, yelling at him that he’s already in bed and his children are asleep,  and the dog and cat are in, and he’s taken his Tylenol PM, and the alarm system has been set, yadda yadda, yadda.  And yet, the pest keeps boldly banging the door, and because of his “importunity” (what a great word), the pesky fellow gets his way and the bleary-eyed and exasperated neighbor eventually lets him in, to serve him in his hour of need.

Again, Jesus seems to be saying “It doesn’t matter that you might be feeling rejected by the voice you think you are hearing on high, or you think God is asleep and you are hearing no heavenly voices at all, or you are hearing God’s voice loud and clear and all It is saying to you is ‘Go away and leave me alone!’,” Jesus assures them.  He explains that “…every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:13.)

Maybe Jesus was influenced by that sublime story of Jewish bargaining that was the Old Testament lesson (Genesis 18:20-33) for that same Sunday when the Lord’s Prayer in Luke was the Gospel.  With no shortage of truly comical buttering up, Abraham talks Yahweh back from the ledge, striking a deal to spare Sodom from fire and brimstone if he could find some “righteous” folk there.  At first, The Lord’s bottom line is 50. Then 45. Then 40. Then 30. Then 20. We can’t be sure of whether it was Abraham or the Lord who grew more tired of the bargaining, but both went their separate ways after the bargain basement price got to 10.

Jesus’ point to his disciples (and I am both comforted and poked when I get the fact that this group includes me) seems to be to keep asking. Even if I am not sure what I should be asking for…keep at it! Keep seeking, even if the right words (or the right requests) elude me. Keep searching my heart, and for God’s Heart, even if I sometimes I question the relevance — if not the existence — of either or both.

In short, Jesus is telling me — KEEP KNOCKING…BOLDLY!

God can take it.

Hosanna! (Revisited)

Updated Friday, March 27, 2015   Once again, on this Palm Sunday, we will all proclaim this “song” that has echoed through the generations.

A year ago, I wrote of how this word — this unique and solitary word — expresses an ineffable awe of, and to, the Divine.  Tradition holds it is both a salutation and a lament.

Sometime shortly after writing that blog post (see below), I was blessed to hear a song of the same name.  Although most of modern “Christian rock” music leaves me cold, “Hosanna” by Hillsong United is a gracious and gorgeous ballad of contemporary worship.  And like the ancient Hebrew expression itself, it is both an expression of thanks and praise for what is, and a lament for what is yet to come; a “new revival” for here and now, and a deep yearning for what has not been accomplished.

Maybe it was just what I was going through at the time, but the words of the “bridge” pierced as deep as I’d heard in a while: I was simply overcome:

Heal my heart and make it clean
Open up my eyes to the things Unseen
Show me how to love
Like You have loved me.
Break my heart for what breaks Yours
Everything I am for Your Kingdom’s cause
As I walk with You into
Eternity

On this chilly Saturday before we enter into this Holy Week, I gladly share it:

Originally Published April 14, 2014 — We say or sing it every Sunday, as part of the “Holy, holy, holy” acclamation to begin each Eucharistic Prayer.  But today, on THIS Sunday — Palm Sunday — “Hosanna in the Highest” takes on “passionate” significance. 

But, like so many of my prayers, I’m not really sure what I’m saying a lot of the time. To confidently proclaim “Hosanna in the Highest!” is to speak in words rarely used other than in a liturgical context. (Seriously, do any of us ever utter it outside of worship? “Hey honey, can you pick up [fill in the blank] on your way home?  You can?!? Hosanna in the highest…!”)

Even when we speak it in church, its true meaning is less than clear. 

An old Biblical Commentary text --  part of the "hot discussion" over the meaning of a strange but wonderful word.

An old Biblical Commentary text — part of the “hot discussion” over the meaning of a strange but wonderful word.

The derivation and definition of “Hosanna” in old Aramaic and Hebrew texts are apparently matters of some hot discussion (at least among those who lead such lives that allow for the hot discussion of such things).   

Is “Hosanna” a form of great praise, as the Jerusalem crowds seemed to suggest as they welcomed Jesus in today’s “Palm Sunday” Gospel?  Or is it more of a cry for help for The Lord to “Save Us!” as suggested by the Old Testament, such as in Psalm 118?  I’m not convinced there is that much of a contradiction.  The Psalmist’s cries of “Hosanna” in Psalm 118:25 are pleas that are exclaimed in the midst of celebration and triumph.  I suspect that the multitudes crowded in Jerusalem for Passover had the same mixture of hope, praise and desperation, as they cheered this charismatic young carpenter turned preacher who came riding into town.

Ultimately though, for me at least, “Hosanna in the highest” is a phrase of ineffable joy, spoken uniquely to The Divine.   Perhaps more than any other phrase in the liturgy, it is what we bring to it.  

Maybe some additional insight into the meaning of “Hosanna in the Highest” can be gleaned by a phrase that is even more prominent in Psalm 118.  “Steadfast love” appears four times in the first four verses, when we are told that God’s steadfast love “will endure forever.”  Such a powerful word is “steadfast,” and by using it, the Psalmist conveys to us an even more powerful and enduring love.  Thus, “Hosanna” becomes a uniquely powerful and enduring response.

That love — powerful, unique, enduring — is of course on radiant and heart-wrenching display this week. And at the end of the week, even a word as joyous and mysterious and wonderful as “Hosanna” will take a backseat to one even better.  An old friend we Episcopalians haven’t said in quite a while…

“Alleluia!”

  

    

    

    

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs…

Sometimes I feel like I am just turning into that crotchety old man who complains about everything. At 58, I’d like to think I’m a little young for that, but still, I look forward to becoming a curmudgeon.  It is, after all, one of the benefits of aging.

The older I get, it seems the more I find myself missing the 1928 Prayer Book. Not all of it mind you. Parts of the older liturgy can be stilted and drone on with Thee’s and Thou’s, but many of those prayers are just stunning.  And, by damned, I MISS THEM!!!

The so-called Prayer of Humble Access (which in itself is a name so quaint it belongs in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations) is one of them…

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.

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs…”

This collect is still a part of Rite One in the 1979 BCP, but hardly anyone uses it these days.  In the older liturgy, as well as the more recent, it is cited just before the congregation is invited to the altar — the “Lord’s table” — to receive bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ.

In the Gospel from this past Sunday (Pentecost – Proper 15; Matt. 15:20-28), there is a lot of talk about gathering crumbs. A woman comes to Jesus who has a daughter “tormented by a demon.” (How many of us aren’t, at some point in our lives?) In response, Jesus — our loving, compassionate Savior — ignores her. And then, after she kneels before him, imploring and begging him, he compares her to a dog.

Not a pretty picture.

But again, she persists. She cries to Jesus that even the dogs get some crumbs. Only then does Jesus appear moved.

Most Thursday mornings, I try to stumble my way to a small 7 a.m. Eucharist at my parish, followed by breakfast and scripture discussion of the lessons for the next Sunday. That group really wrestled with this Gospel last week. Some folks thought that Jesus knew all along what he was doing, and was simply putting the woman to a test. That would be something typical of the Jesus that often appears in John’s Gospel, but this was in Matthew.

Maybe Jesus was just being a jerk to this poor woman to prove a point. But tears of unworthy joy begin to fill my eyes not so much from a know-it-all Jesus, but rather, in those rare times of vulnerability when I let myself fully surrender to the belief that I have a Savior who was fully capable of having a bad day.

I mouth the words of historical church teachings, that Jesus was “fully human and fully divine.” But how often do I truly allow the notion that he had the capacity of getting tired, of getting ticked off, of flat-out “losing it” over the fact that even his own disciples often “just didn’t get it”? That may well have been the case here, when this poor woman — yet another desperate and lost soul cast his way — was coming to him to solve a problem that was not his. In that regard, the response of this fully human Jesus is a lot like mine would have been (and often is).

But totally and completely unlike me, this Jesus of Nazareth, sweaty and dusty itinerant preacher, son of the village carpenter, was — and IS — fully divine, and capable of compassion and forgiveness and miraculous healing beyond my wildest imaginings and expectations. The desperate mom that came to him must have known that — or at the very least wanted it so much that she refused not to believe it.

Whenever we say the “Prayer of Humble Access,” we honor this woman, and her persistence and “great faith” that moved Jesus so.

This Gentile mother moves me too, and offers me an example — especially during times of aridity and utter cold silence when I am imploring my Lord for an answer (or even just the crumb of a damned clue might be nice) — that I am in blessed company. 

Persistence.  Faith.  Patience.  Trust.  But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy…

The Lord moves, when The Lord moves.