A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid and Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2019
What is our place in the economy of God’s grace? Are we beloved children, lost lambs, or worthless slaves? Which is it to be, Jesus?
Text is famously lacking in the ability to convey nuances of tone (although writers and poets try their best). I sometimes wonder if the red letter editions of the Bible – the ones that highlight Jesus’ words – could use an additional colour or a pull-out fancy font particularly for irony. Because I get the feeling that this hard saying of our Lord and Saviour is full of it.
I grew up, as I suspect did a number of you, saying the Prayer of Humble Access before Communion (and even before I was allowed by Confirmation to receive Communion):
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 …
Soon afterwards, we responded to the invitation to draw near and receive the incalculable, indescribable grace of the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood with the words,
Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.
Elsewhere, Jesus told his first disciples,
“Whoever would be first among you must be your slave; for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:27-28)
There is so much work to be done, and when it is done, Jesus suggests, we should say,
“We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” (Luke 17:10).
This morning at Epiphany we wore orange stoles in lamentation and honour of the young girl who was asleep in her family home where she should have been, and where she should have been safe yesterday morning when bullets from the street invaded her bedroom. She was shot in the head and she died. Lyric Melodi (such music in her name) was six years old, and she lived and was killed three miles from our church.
We have certainly done no more than we ought to have done to deal with the gun violence on our streets, to protect our children, the children of God. Whatever we do at this point to combat gun violence, and to get guns off our streets, is no more than our Christian duty. No matter what we do, from lamentation to consolation, from activism to serious self-examination and the rooting out of anger and violence from our own hearts and lives; no matter what we do, it is no more than Christ has ordered us to do, no more than our baptismal promises to resist evil, to strive for justice and peace among all people, to respect the life and dignity of every human being; to become slaves to the love of God and of God’s family in creation.
But, “worthless”? God has numbered every hair on every body’s head, and knows each sparrow that falls. (Matthew 10:29-30)
That sentence that I used to say before every Communion, “I am not worthy to receive you…” comes in the gospels from the mouth not of a slave but of a centurion whose servant was sick. When Jesus offered to come to his house and heal the slave, the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” And Jesus answered him, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” (Matthew 8:5-13)
The Prayer of Humble Access itself alludes to the story of the foreign woman whose daughter was sick, who begged Jesus for healing, who abased herself, arguing with him, “‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.’” Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’” (Matthew 15:21-28)
Both instances come from petitioners who knew their dire need of mercy, who were prepared and willing and eager to humble themselves before Christ, but who also knew, or believed, or had faith that their child, their servant, their daughter, their slave was worthy of Christ’s compassion, his healing grace, his notice, and his love. They trusted in that love to overcome any unworthiness they themselves may carry.
In this vignette, this parable as it may be that we hear anew in today’s gospel, Jesus paints the picture of a landowner waiting for their meal, and the slave coming in from the fields after labouring over the stewardship of the land and its creatures. Perhaps we might call to mind the image of God in the Garden at the beginning, creating the heavens and the earth, and then setting the human to work to tend them.
If you were the landowner, then, asks Jesus, would you say to your underlings, “Come here at once and take your place at the table;” sit down, eat and drink? (Luke 17:7)
Maybe the slave has been plowing, Jesus says. Elsewhere, he has told his disciples,
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap not gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 7:26)
Your heavenly father feeds the sparrows. Come, sit down, eat and drink.
Or maybe the slave was tending the sheep, Jesus says. Elsewhere, he has told his disciples,
What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? (Matthew 18:12)
And elsewhere he exclaimed, How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! (Matthew 12:12)
And what’s more,
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” (Matthew 9:36)
and he told the crowds with a claim upon his compassion to sit down upon the grass, and he fed them on bread and fish until they had their fill. (Matthew 14:13-21 and elsewhere)
There is nothing we can do to earn our worth in the economy of God’s grace. It is too much. We can work our whole lives toward the gospel, plowing the fields, sowing them with justice and mercy as we are able, labouring toward the harvest, tending the sheep and the little lambs, even the sparrows with as much loving care as we can muster, and we will only ever have done what we already owe to God and to Christ and to one another. There is nothing we can give or give up or create to compensate Christ for his sacrifice, the offering up of his body and spirit for us and for our salvation. We are unworthy.
And yet time and again he comes to us in our weariness and our worthlessness and our work and our worship and he upends the heavens and the earth, inviting us to his table, serving us with his Body and Blood, feeding us with his mercy and the kind of justice that makes no sense in this world.
Here’s the dripping irony of Jesus’ words to his disciples, to us.
“Who among you” [asks Jesus] “would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?”
But the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
And on the night before he died, having loved his own who were in the world – he loved them to the end – Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him (John 13:1-5), and afterwards he told them,
“You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you slaves any longer … but I have called you friends.” (John 15:14-15)
“Come here at once, and take your place at the table.”
This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Lyric Melodi Lawson’s name.