Proper 17, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Any given day, Anglicans all over the world might be attending mass and many of those liturgies include a prayer that was in the very first prayer book of the Church of England in 1549. We have preserved that prayer in our own Rite I service, and I’m surprised to find out that other denominations including Presbyterians and Methodists use a form of this prayer. It is, in fact, one of my favorite prayers we have. I’m referring to the prayer of humble access. For our 8am Sunday service, we are no stranger to this prayer, but there are very possibly folks at our 10:30am service that may have never heard it. If it is unfamiliar to you, I encourage you to grab a prayer book and turn to page 337 to have it handy. And, I think in light of part of today’s Gospel reading, we should spend a little time reflecting on the prayer of humble access and what it means to us.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is at a dinner and is doing some really good people watching. He notices that the guests are choosing the best seats for themselves. Now, it’s probably important to understand that at this time, in the culture of Jesus’ people, when you went to a dinner party, you would be reclining on pillows at a table. This would be all men gathered around the table, and generally, you would arrange yourselves as a matter of prestige. For the most part people knew where they fit in society and didn’t try to push too far. But sometimes, people who felt that they should be given it, or perhaps wanted to manufacture their own move in society, might go to the places of honor at the head table. How embarrassing then, when the host has to ask you to move because someone more important should be sitting there. By and large, we Episcopalians tend to be fairly good at humbly taking the seats far away from the front.
But this isn’t just an etiquette lesson from Jesus. He’s not acting as Miss Manners for first Century Jews. This has as much to do with the Kingdom of God and our Theology of salvation as it does with how one should act. Now sure, it is a wonderfully humble thing to do, to seat yourself in a lower station, and what joy when you are invited forward. But how often do you think someone seats themselves in such a way without some hope that they get that invitation? How often would we seat ourselves in low station without any desire or hope to be recognized for such humility?
‘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.’ A very basic tenet of the Christian faith is that we can do nothing to bring about our salvation. We, as humans, have no power as great as to attain escape from judgment. That is the primary good news of the Gospel. That has been taken care of for us. This parable from Jesus is saying the same thing. We cannot presume, of our own righteousness, to go and sit at the head table in a place of honor.
The prayer continues, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” I’ve have known people who do not like this prayer because of the language in which it describes our cosmic relation to salvation. I get it. There are a lot of people in this world who have spent far too much of their lives being told that they aren’t good enough to be loved, that they aren’t smart enough to be worthy, or that they simply aren’t holy enough to ever escape the fires of Hell. It’s understandable why saying that we are not worthy to gather up crumbs from God’s proverbial table would be distasteful. But ultimately this is the truth. We are human. We aren’t that great. We ruin our planet, we pretend that it’s okay to murder people if they are carrying a different flag than we do, we fail time and time again to live up to our promise to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The joy comes in knowing that we are invited to the head of the table by God. We are assured of our salvation, we know that something far greater awaits us. It is only in the midst of this joy do we acknowledge that we are human and fail to live up to what God offers us. But we get to have it anyway. We don’t have to earn anything or qualify for it. Salvation is freely offered to us and only because of that does it make any sense to be reminded that we fall short and it is God’s grace that bridges the gap. Is it not better to sit at a lower place and be invited up, than to be asked to move down?
Our Gospel lesson continues with Jesus teaching a different lesson to hosts, rather than guests; a more practical lesson about living the values of the Kingdom. This has to do with how we treat others. In some ways, it also again echoes salvation in the same way that God offers to us something we cannot repay. So also, Jesus says to invite to dinner those you know cannot repay you. Do so because we should be acting out of love and not out of hope for benefit. We are emulating the example of God to invite others into a joy they cannot repay. This is radical stuff that God calls us to. Here, unlike other places, Jesus isn’t talking about us providing for the needs of the less fortunate. He is literally saying we should invite them to dinner. You can translate the word, ‘hospitality’ to mean ‘love of a stranger’. This is a moment where host and guest are together, not the host sending out food to those who are hungry.
We are called to remember, not through pity or self-depreciation, but through joy that our salvation is at hand. Of course we are not able to attain it ourselves. Our good news is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that tells us God has taken care of that. We are invited to that head table, because we would never get there ourselves. Knowing that, then, shouldn’t we be sharing that joy with others? Inviting in especially those that need to be reminded that there is something better for us all? Our liturgy uses phrases and prayers to remind us that we are not in control, and that we should not be living lives bent on control. Our collect today asks God to bring forth in us the fruit of good works. Now when we leave here today, how will we live in to that? How will we heed the call that Jesus gives us to live in the midst of God’s Kingdom?
“He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Let us go then, and do likewise.