Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.
Two summers ago I did a wedding at McMenamin’s Edgefield outside of Portland. I bet some of you have been to Edgefield. In addition to being a popular wedding spot, it’s a venue for everything from concerts to corporate retreats, a sprawling, rambling place with multiple buildings. On that gorgeous summer Saturday there were at least 4 or 5 weddings going on at the same time. Parking was impossible; I drove around and around, not relishing a quarter-mile walk from the farthest reaches of the huge parking lot. And of course I had planned a just-in-time arrival and so I was in danger of being a few minutes late for the time the wedding coordinator made us all promise to show up. So, I actually said to a parking lot attendant: “Don’t you have any VIP parking? I’m clergy. You should have VIP parking.”
As I hobbled across the gravel in my heels, carrying my vestments in a big, clunky bag over my arm, I reflected on my feelings and I realized I was guilty of seeking a place of honor. Busted. It wasn’t about honor (I told myself), exactly, but about convenience, as if I were more worthy of convenience than anyone else. I was amused enough by this that I told this story on myself at the table of people from my parish during the reception. Later the following week, a supersize postcard arrived in the mail. A wonderful guy named David who’d been at the wedding table and heard my sad tale had the postcard custom made. It said in big block letters: “This card hereby entitles Rev. Sara Fischer to VIP Parking anywhere.” I thought that was very sweet. And, it was a humbling reminder that I am as vulnerable as the guests at the Pharisee’s house seeking places of honor.
Jesus calls today’s teaching a parable, although it seems more immediately familiar and transferable to our own lives than many of the parables. Regardless of our context we all can relate to finding ourselves choosing a place at a table while others do the same. In our day and age, places of honor aren’t as much an issue at gatherings for meals as they were in ancient Palestine. (Perhaps more so in some parking lots.) I don’t think Jesus is asking everyone to rush to the end of the line at this afternoon’s parish picnic, but we might think about how we look at our place, and what that means for life in community, not just this faith community, but the whole human community in which we live.
One day last week on the way out of church after Evening Prayer a few of us had a conversation about what we call “The Prayer of Humble Access.” The prayer of humble access is in the Rite I version of the Eucharist which we haven’t used at St. Paul’s for a while. It is traditionally said by the gathered community just before the invitation to communion. It’s a prayer that many Episcopalians love, and that an equal number love to hate.
Some of you may still have this prayer inscribed on your heart. Others of you may be hearing it for the very first time. It begins like this:
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.
I have a hunch that the reason it’s the prayer people love to hate is because of our discomfort with saying: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”
I think particularly those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 80s bristle at being unworthy. We may not be grasping at honor so much as worrying about being overlooked or considered unworthy. But the question about worthiness is not as much about whether or not we are worthy as about the source of our worthiness. Worth does not come from what we do, the importance society confers upon us, or the number of affirmations we say in the mirror. (Remember those?) Worthiness stems from our creatureliness, the fact that we are all made in the image of God, beloved by God. This has implications for the communities in which we spend our days.
Let’s take this block—without crossing any streets, the block bounded by Roy, Queen Anne, Mercer, and First. We who share this block are a community. We experience the same temperatures, shadows, sights, and sounds. Depending on where we are on the block, we smell the same smells. Some people on this block sleep at the Marqueen Hotel. Others sleep in doorways, window wells, or the back alley between the bank and the sandwich shop. Some of us are commuters to this block for worship, or a coffee, or dinner, or to clean the bank in the middle of the night. And a hundred other things. When you consider all the people who come and go to and from this relatively small area, we really are a diverse bunch. Yet if we were all to sit down at a banquet together, I wonder what assumptions might be made about who sits where. And I also I wonder whether, in the Kingdom of God, these assumptions might be confounded, the differences between us less apparent, and the similarities more apparent.
There is nothing any of us can do to make ourselves worthy, and yet we are all worthy. This is the thread that ties together our lessons for today.
The reading from the letter to the Hebrews contains some of the most powerful language we have for transcending social boundaries and expectations. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; with those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Remember. Re-member. Re-make the body, to include those in prison, those being tortured, those excluded, those who live at the back of the line, those who suffer from not being in any community at all. Where are you being nudged to join with someone whose experience is completely different from yours? Part of this joining with, re-membering, is to give up any expectation of where our place might be at the banquet table. Jesus suggests that when we do this, all the surprises are good ones.
What I like to remind people who love to hate the prayer of humble access is that the line in the prayer, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” is followed by these words: “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” The reign of God is among us here and now, and we do not need to worry about our place at the table. We just need to show up for the party and look forward to discovering our table-mates.