This was the first sermon delivered by Father Kevin Morris as 9th Rector of The Church of The Ascension, Rockville Centre
My favorite prayer in the entire Book of Common Prayer is the one that we say right before we receive communion. It is know 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 we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
As our prayers go, its not terribly ancient, Archbishop Cranmer wrote it in 1548, with the intention that it would be a private prayer of the priest, not something that was said by everyone. Part of his inspiration for this prayer comes from today’s Gospel. The woman who throws herself at Christ’s feet and begs for even a scrap from his table. Kneeling down and saying this prayer before we receive communion is meant to invoke that image of the this woman who had no reason to expect anything from this Jewish preacher.
She’s a Syrophonecian woman, she’s greek. Different race, different religion. No one really knew at this point that Jesus’s mission was to the gentiles too. As far as anyone knew he was just a prophet, a preacher and a healer within Judaism. She had no reason to expect that this man would want to have anything to do with her. But she was convinced that he was a holy man who had the power to cast out demons. She doesn’t trust in her own worthiness or deserving, she trusts in Christ’s mercy and grace. She shows to Christ that she is willing to accept whatever he is willing to offer her, even if it is just a crumb, and to do so gladly. It is that profound humility that she displays that so moves Christ to grant her request.
We say the prayer of humble access every week. It’s short, but it says so much about who we are as Christians, what we believe (or at least what we should believe), and how we approach Christ and his altar. I say what we should believe, because even though we say this prayer weekly, we say that we are not worthy, we say that God’s property is always to have mercy, we say that Christ dwells in us and we in him, we say all these things but what we actually believe is revealed more by our actions than what we say. No matter what we say before we approach the altar, what we truly believe will show forth in our lives. Children are particularly good at picking up on this: if what you say is inconsistent with what you do, then there’s a problem. But its not my problem or your problem, its a human problem. We are none of us consistently good or righteous all of the time, not now, not ever.
That is precisely the problem that James was addressing in the Epistle that we heard today. James is speaking to a group of Christians who are letting their own judgements get in the way of their faith in Christ’s love and mercy. James begins by questioning this church about what it really believes: “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” it appears that they think that rich people are in some way more blessed than poor people; that is at least, what their actions seem to indicate. They give them preferred seating, they give them more attention, and for what? In the end they don’t turn out to be better people and in some cases, far worse, at least according to James. But James isn’t picking on rich people, that’s not the point of his letter.
He uses wealth as an example of how we often misjudge people and making judgements is the big problem in this letter. James says, in a sense, that you may think you have it all together, you may think that you are loving your neighbor, or that you aren’t committing adultery, or that you haven’t killed anyone or done anything really bad, but chances are there is some law that you are breaking, or something that you aren’t terribly proud of. We do well if we fulfill the commandments, and we should always strive to be just and holy people, but we must always remember that in some place in our lives and in some way we are bound to fall short; everyone, rich and poor.
The answer, is not judgment, but mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. It is more important for Christians to show mercy than good judgement. We may not be able to be consistently good, but we can be consistently merciful. It was not Christ’s good judgment that the woman in today’s gospel was appealing to, it was his mercy. And it was his mercy that moved him to grant her request, not her worthiness. The same is true for us. Each and every week we kneel down and acknowledge our unworthiness but more importantly we proclaim God’s mercy. The true joy in being a Christian comes from knowing that we don’t have to be worthy, we worship a God who is merciful. We do, however need to learn to receive this gift, this grace from God, so that we can then show it and give it to others. In that way our prayers will be consistent with our lives, and that way people won’t have to wonder, as James did, about what we really believe.
This is my first Sunday, and first sermon, as the rector of this fine church, and I am here to tell you today that I am not worthy of this calling, nor am I worthy of the priesthood, nor am I worthy to receive Christ’s body and blood at the altar. But before you begin to worry that you made the wrong choice, let me allay your fears: nobody else is worthy either.
Nobody is worthy of such great things. Who could be? If we were worthy or entitled to it it wouldn’t be such a great gift, now would it? It is all the grace of God. God’s love and mercy are free gifts, they are not things that we earn or buy. I give thanks to God for calling me to all of these things, to this church, to the priesthood and most importantly to the altar and Christ’s body and blood. It is the mercy and grace of God alone that allows us to evermore dwell in him and he in us. Thanks be to God.