holy cross sermon for the eighth sunday after pentecost, year a, august 3, 2014

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In today’s Gospel reading, we have the feeding of the five thousand. Crowds followed Jesus and the Twelve out into the country, away from the villages, and they brought no provisions with them. When evening comes, it is easy to imagine that everyone is tired and hungry. So the disciples come to Jesus and say, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” (Matthew 14.15). But Jesus performs a miracle, bringing a great and nourishing abundance out of very little.

We have to see beyond a childish reading of this story, which would notice little more than a magic trick performed by Jesus. There is a spiritual lesson about our poverty, and indeed our need to BECOME poor, and the ability of Jesus to make much of it – about how Jesus can fill our emptiness to overflowing.

In another place, Jesus told his disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” (Matthew 19.24). A longstanding interpretation of this saying held that the phrase “eye of a needle” referred to a low and narrow gate in the city wall, in order to pass through which a camel had to stoop down and be unburdened of all the baggage it was carrying.

Whether or not this is what Jesus meant by his saying, the spiritual truth of this interpretation remains intact, and it corresponds with the lesson of the feeding of the five thousand: we must become unburdened of worldly things, of sins and cares and even of possessions, in order to receive God’s gifts.

Just so, today we come, in the series of sermons on the mass, to the part of the mass after the Nicene Creed: the Prayers of the People and the General Confession. And this seems to me to be the best way to understand these two components – the Prayers of the People being an unburdening of our best and most virtuous desires, and the General Confession being an unburdening of our worst, vicious desires.

I should pause here and note that the General Confession is something different from the sacrament of confession. On this score, and as I’ve said before, you may note the grammar of the General Confession. In it we confess THAT we have sinned, whereas Scripture tells us to confess our sins (cf. James 5.16). There is a difference. THAT we have sinned is almost a platitude, and as such it should come as no surprise that confessing THAT we have sinned is really an incidental part of the “difficult, narrow” road that leads to eternal life (cf. Matthew 7.13). And it is no substitute for the tedious, difficult work of facing your sins, one by one, and naming them, in all their horrible banality, in the presence of another person. The General Confession is an aspiration fulfilled in the sacrament of Confession, for which there is no substitute.

With that proviso, let us return to our consideration of the Prayers of the People and the General Confession, and their place within the context of the mass. Both constitute an unburdening of ourselves, of our desires. It is as though we are pausing and taking a moment, in the course of the spiritual journey of the mass, to kneel down, as it were, and relieve ourselves of what weighs most heavily on our consciousnesses. In the Prayers of the People, we lay down before God the things that clamor loudly for our attention: our concerns for the Church and other Christians, for the political life of our nation and world affairs, our concerns for our loved ones, and especially those who are sick or troubled or bereaved, and finally we lay before God our bereavements, our concerns for those who have died. And then, in the General Confession, we lay aside our sinfulness, acknowledging the “intolerable burden” of the desires – fulfilled and unfulfilled – that lead us away from God.

And note that this part of the mass – the Prayers of the People and the General Confession – come AFTER the “liturgy of the Word.” After, that is, we are illuminated by God’s self-revelation. Because it is the light of God’s Word that shows us how we really are, that shows us the NEED of unburdening ourselves in this way. On this score we may be mindful of the letter to the Hebrews, which says: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” (Heb. 4.12). Just so, in the mass, it is hearing God’s Word that leads us to the externalization of our burdens in the prayers and the confession.

Likewise the Prayers and the Confession come before the “liturgy of the sacrifice,” before we offer the Body and Blood of Jesus on the altar, and before we make our communion, mindful that communion with God, eating and drinking the Body and Blood of the Lord, is the event toward which the whole mass is oriented. The situation of the Prayers and the Confession shows us that this can only happen once we have dealt with and laid aside every other agenda – that we camels can only go through the eye of the needle when we have knelt down and been relieved of those things that burden our consciousness.

Finally, recall that the mass is a microcosm of the spiritual life. That is to say, the elements of the mass, their meaning and their situation relative to one another, are allegories of Christian spirituality broadly considered. And one of the things that such a consideration demonstrates is how meditation on God’s Word informs and impels the rest of the spiritual life. Just as we do in the mass, so in our private spiritual lives, it is through a prayerful consideration of what God has revealed in his Word, and more than anywhere else, in the person of his Son, that brings our spiritual vision into sharper focus, enabling us to intercede for the needs of others, and to see ourselves in a truer light, and to understand our need to confess and to seek forgiveness. In the words of the letter to the Hebrews, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” (Heb. 12.1).

And we can see, in the ritual of the mass, what happens when we have indeed laid aside every weight and sin: we are enabled to offer to God an acceptable sacrifice, and to come to communion with him. As Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me,” (Rev. 3.20). And as it says in the end of today’s Gospel reading, “And they all ate and were satisfied.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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