June 16, 2013

Prayer Book Parallels: Keeping House


Text: Luke 7:44: “....I entered your house...” 

Sometimes I really envy my Baptist sisters and brothers in the ministry. When you are a Baptist preacher, you get to choose what lessons the people will hear every week, and what prayers will be offered. There is no lectionary to tell you what you must read; there is no annual cycle of “Collects of the Day” to tell you what specific prayer will be offered as the way of setting the tone at the beginning of the service.

Now, I’m sure that is the kind of freedom that only looks good from this side of the fence. And more often than not I am glad for the reassuring routine, the familiar cycle, of both the prayers and the readings. The cycle of collects is a one-year cycle; what we heard this morning we hear ever year on the Sunday closest to June fifteenth. And the cycle of readings, as you know, is a three-year cycle; we hear these same readings on this same day every third year. A little boring, maybe, but reassuring.

For any of us who ascend the two steps to this pulpit, the temptation is to search for secret links between things that are ordained by these cycles. We want to unlock the mystery of why these particular readings have been set side-by-side with each other, along with this particular Psalm and this particular collect.

But it turns out there really is no reason for that. The collects just wheel through their cycle. At this moment in Year C of the lectionary we are simply proceeding sequentially through three different parts of the Bible: we’re getting a dose of Hebrew history from the first book of the Kings for these next few weeks, we’re going chapter-by-chapter through Paul’s angry letter to the Galatians, and we’re hearing Luke’s gospel.

It is always a dangerous tendency to look for connections where there are none. It is a condition just one step to this side of conspiracy theories.

But as I sat down to prepare my preaching for this month and next, I found myself often gleaning a new perspective or a new insight on the gospel reading by having first read the appointed collect of the day, the sort of “table-setting” prayer we say before we all sit down to listen to the readings. And so for the next few weeks I want to explore these Prayer Book Parallels, this notion that there may be something helpful in a prayerful intention with which we begin our worship to guide us in our thinking about Luke’s account of Jesus.

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First a little word about collects. The idea of a prayer appointed for a particular Sunday goes way, way back to the early days of the church, and certainly as far back as the centuries in which we were all praying in Latin, assuming we knew Latin. In fact the source material Thomas Cranmer used to create the prayers in the first English Book of Common Prayer were the Latin prayers found in the prayer books created for Salisbury Cathedral in England, a collection of liturgies known as the Sarum rite.

Today’s collect is sort of like that and sort of not. It was written specifically for this prayer book, now some thirty-five years ago. But it is patterned on a much, much older collect first written when the whole church spoke Latin. A more literal translation of that old prayer is a little different from what we have here, and so take a look at the Collect of the Day in your insert while I read you that translation:

“We ask you, Lord, to keep your family in constant holiness; protect and free it from all adversity, and through good works devoted to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Isn’t it sort of interesting, that original notion of “family”? “Familiam tuam, quaesumus, Domine.”

When I have that little history of these collects in mind, it makes me hear this story from Luke in a slightly different way. There is a lot here we could talk about, and this weekend the fellowship groups have been exploring the depth of this story about Jesus eating a meal in the Pharisee’s house.

But before we get to any of that, we have to start with the setting. And the setting is a family’s home. It is a household. It is a place where the most basic social norms of hospitality, of welcoming, are lived out. It is the place where people learn both the need and the possibility of forgiveness.

Family homes are our first school, not just for manners, but for spiritual life. All of the stones in the foundation of our faith—or understanding of good and evil, our encounter with the reality of our frailty and our capacity to hurt others, our experience of being both held to account and given forgiveness—all of that begins at home.

So this little scene unfolds on that stage—the household. Jesus is an invited guest. The weeping woman does not seem to be. We almost get the sense of a misunderstanding that opens for her the possibility of being there; the host may think she has come along among those who arrived with Jesus, and Jesus may think she was invited by his host. Whatever the case, she sees her chance, and she comes.

Her determination to be in this story is part of what gives the story such power. We cannot know exactly why she comes, other than that somehow she heard Jesus would be there.

Something about Jesus’s reputation, something about who he is or what he says, makes her determined to be there.

But here is an open question. Does she come simply because she hopes he might help her? She has a reputation. That much is clear. It’s less clear, but a good guess, that she wants to make a fundamental change in her life. She wants to be rid of a burden she has gathered by the choices she has made.

Whether she’s there because she believes Jesus can rid her of that burden, or just because she hopes he will, we can’t know. What we do know is that everyone else present at the scene is falling into a trap very familiar to all of us: they are letting her reputation, instead of her possibility, make up their minds for them about her worth.

This doesn’t exactly seem like a happy, easy dinner party. The only part of the conversation that gets shared with us is one in which Jesus, an invited guest, offers a sidelong critique of the hospitality he has received from his host. You didn’t give me water to wash when I came; you didn’t greet me; you didn’t anoint me. These were basic, expected expressions of welcome to anyone who came into your house. After being invited to dinner by the Pharisee, Jesus seems to have been brought in through the servants’ entrance.

But I keep coming back to the view we get of this story through the lens of the collect. Whatever else we can make of it as a story on its own, it happens in a household. It happens in a family home.

In fact we might go so far as to say that the Pharisee, so quick to judge that woman on the basis of her reputation alone, is running a household that, at least for Jesus, has its own reputation. It’s a place where people are invited, but not very welcomed when they get there. It’s a place where forgiveness is unfamiliar, or even suspect. It’s a place where your possibility matters much less than your past.


Our encounter each week with the Gospel is not meant only to be interesting, but challenging. When we hear the Gospel stories we are meant to hear in them a question about our own lives, our own walk along this path.

I want to offer the thought that the question in the Gospel this morning is a question not just about our own need forgiveness, not just our own readiness to recognize Jesus for who he is.

I think the real question for us in the story of the dinner in the Pharisee’s house is a question about our household. It’s a question about our family home—about how we are ordering our house.

We say that everyone is invited here. A while back the diocese was even pushing these bumper stickers that read “The Episcopal Church Invites You,” meant to be a more assertive take on the more reserved old tag line “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” But I think the old line was the better one. It is easy to invite. It is much more important, and more difficult, to be truly welcoming.

The questions for us in this story are pretty plain. Are we truly welcoming, when we have invited people into our household?

Do we offer people the things they need to feel welcome when they come?

Are we a household that puts more value on every person’s possibility than on their past?

Are we a place where forgiveness is familiar, and genuine?

Most important of all, are we a place that recognizes Jesus for who he is? Or do we simply invite Jesus to come for the purpose of giving him a chance to prove himself?

Each of us has our own experience of this place. I can only tell you that mine is of exactly that sort of household. I have found here a place where I have learned the true meaning of being welcomed, and the true and truly difficult lesson of being truly forgiven.

I have found here a place where whatever gifts were seen in me, whatever things I might have to offer, were allowed to characterize me more than all my old mistakes and failures.

And I have found here a household in which Jesus is not merely a guest, but the host; not just a picture in the windows, but the center of our community.

I hope you have found something like that here, too. Because I know with all my heart that people are looking for that kind of place. And if they hear about it, if they get the message, just like that brave woman they will show up and come in, invited or not. Amen.