SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D BETH MAYNARD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
THURSDAY, MAY 30, 2013, THE FEAST OF CORPUS CHRISTI
Some years ago, long enough that I have forgotten a few of the details of the story, an acquaintance of mine was speaking at a conference in, I think, the Bahamas. If it wasn’t the Bahamas, it was somewhere like that. He was a professional in lay ministry whom I’ll call Colin. At the end of the day, Colin and the other conference-goers trooped into the chapel, where it had been announced they were having Evensong. He found a place in the pew next to another of the presenters whom I’ll call John, and they all made their way through a lovely Evensong service, unhurried, quite traditional, really a delight.
At what should have been the end of the service, Colin, who was from a low-church background, noticed that there seemed to be some unusual business happening up around the altar, people bringing out new vestments and deploying objects, and he asked John what was going on. The reply was, as you may have guessed, “Benediction.”
What? said Colin. So John explained, “It’s Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. They’re going to expose a consecrated Host for adoration and then bless us with it.” My friend was completely scandalized. They can’t do that, he said; it’s not in the Bible, it’s not in the Prayer Book, it’s crassly literal, it makes God into an object, and what’s more, it says right in the 39 Articles…
At that point, John broke in. “Colin!” he said, “Shut up and kneel!”
I was almost tempted to take that sentence as my text that evening, but I suppose you can’t really take your place in a pulpit as august as this one and piously start a homily by announcing, “Shut up and kneel, in the Name of the Father….”
Now there is a small part of me that is just ever so slightly sympathetic to Colin’s point of view, but mostly for bad reasons. I’m going to leave whatever good reasons there may be aside this evening. If you want to consider them, you could go read some Reformation-era polemics or some 20th century Eucharistic theology. Either one could spark a conversation about what we’re doing here.
But I think the bad reasons for resisting this kind of honor paid to the Holy Eucharist are substantially more interesting than whatever good ones there may be. As Anglicans we confess, with roughly the same amount of unanimity that Anglicans ever confess anything, that via this sacrament we encounter the Real Presence of our crucified and risen Lord. In other words, in some meaningful sense, it’s Jesus. Responding to that truth with gratitude and adoration, even gratitude and adoration that may occasionally go a little over the top, would seem a natural reaction.
It’s Jesus. We worship Jesus. What’s the problem?
A few of you may know that I was brought up an atheist, and I was thinking recently about a comment a family member made after my conversion. She was concerned enough that I had become a Christian, but especially disturbed by my having entered the Episcopal Church, which she found superstitious and ritualistic and medieval. If only I could have chosen a denomination whose churches had clear windows and where people simply sat quietly and formed opinions.
She was particularly uncomfortable with the fact that our pews had kneelers. All this terrible kowtowing. People should never be asked to place themselves in a posture like that, she said, because it symbolizes submission and inferiority.
So I asked, “Inferiority to whom?”
There was a pause, and then she started laughing, and said, “Well, God, I guess.”
Indeed. It is rather more difficult to miss that point when you’re on your knees. Seated spirituality, if you’ll let me call it that – seated spirituality is not nearly as likely to offend, and that’s one reason why it’s so much more popular. Not only does it visually resemble the way normal people act in normal life, but it also challenges our self-centeredness far less. Rather than kneeling before God, acknowledging in our very bodies that we are created and redeemed and sanctified by One who is not us, we can sit and reflect on our spirituality.
Unlike kneeling, sitting and reflecting feels natural; we do it all the time. We sit and think about any number of topics, and what could be easier than to add spirituality to the list? And so that is what we do, and as we do it over and over, we are teaching ourselves that spirituality is another one of the facts about us, a mode, a set of opinions, something we engage in, a kind of meaning-making enrichment.
So much less embarrassing than kowtowing. Let God become something about which I have opinions. Turn the presence of Christ in the Eucharist into something about which I have a theory. That feels much more natural. Because it leaves me free to continue focusing where I’m most comfortable focusing: on what I think and feel.
That’s the default setting of the human species: we always want to make ourselves the focus. We default to making ourselves the non-negotiable point around which everything else has to be configured, the center around which we set forth our reflections and our carefully curated experiences and our opinions, opinions, opinions on everything.
Do I have opinions about Eucharistic theology? Sure I do. But really, who cares? My opinions are not going to sanctify me, my spirituality did not redeem me, and my meaning-making did not create me. I want to stop looking at all that stuff and start looking at Jesus. And that’s essentially what we’re doing here. That’s essentially why we’re doing it, whatever you want to call it, whether it’s in the Prayer Book or the 39 Articles or not. I’m just not very concerned about all that. I think Jesus can figure out what we mean. He’s quite intelligent.
I think Jesus knows perfectly well that we’re not naively making God into an objectified little thing. I think he knows perfectly well that what’s going on is that we are so overcome, so felled by his beauty and his generosity that we want to show our love. I think he knows that in our stammering, awkward way we are trying to testify that he is our center and our savior, and that it is we who must let ourselves be configured around him.
And if that is true, there is nowhere more appropriate for us to be than on our knees, looking not so much at but through. Looking through his work on the Cross, looking through his Word in Scripture, looking through the Blessed Sacrament in the direction of the most compelling reality in the universe which is, well, God, I guess.
And if you’re not felled by his beauty, if you’re not stammering in awe before your true Center, maybe you could get a glimpse of what that’s like if you were willing to kneel with us and look in the same direction we’re looking tonight. Even just turning your gaze away from yourself at all is so unusual these days. Don’t update your status for a minute. Stop taking selfies and turn the lens around. There is something more compelling than your spirituality to be seen.
For me, that’s why the first line of the Divine Praises is always the biggest wake-up call in a service like this one. Three little words. Wrapped up in that one line is a radical de-centering of self, an unconditional surrender to truth, an enormous yes to the One Who Was and Is and Is to Come. Blessed be God. Particularly in 21st century America, isn’t that just about the most revolutionary thing we can say? Blessed be God. Sometimes when I hear it I wait for the earthquake.
You get the chance to say that tonight, if you will, and to say it on your knees. Not blessed be my spirituality, blessed be my religious opinions, blessed be our tradition, blessed be our welcoming attitude. Not blessed be our goals and our mission statement, not blessed be the change we want to work for in the world. That’s all fine, sure, let’s bless all that sometime, but it’s so small.
What we’re doing tonight is blessing God. A God who is bigger than our theories, bigger than our high-or-low church traditions, and to whom I am frankly very grateful to be inferior. So what I’m going to do is this, and I invite you to join me: I’m going to shut up and kneel.