Sermon: Not Worthy?
Texts: 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Luke 7:1-10
Date: September 8, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Jacob is the name of a sagacious baker in a little story book I have. One chapter is titled “When I can’t find my ignorance I have lost my wisdom.” (That title is a chewy proverb all by itself!) A student was waiting outside Jacob’s door one rainy day to ask him this question: “Jacob, what are the limits of a man?” “Ask the man!” said Jacob, striding toward the bakery. “And what if the man acknowledges no limits?” Jacob answers, “Then you’ve discovered his.”
“But,” the student persisted, “what then is the route to wisdom?” “Humility!” came the reply. The student asks, “How long is the route?” And Jacob answers, “I don’t know.”
If humility is the route to wisdom, it seems the centurion was well on the way to being wise. A little background on what a centurion was in Jesus’ day:
“The centurion was the backbone of the Roman army. Each legion was made up of sixty centuries, each commanded by a centurion. He was a veteran soldier and had a position of prestige – he was paid about fifteen times as much as an ordinary soldier – as well as authority…As an officer representing Rome, the centurion would often broker imperial resources for the local population. In this case, he has done so by building a synagogue and thus is recognized as a patron by the village elders.” A centurion was not the most powerful or high status person in the Roman military; they had more of a middling role in the hierarchy of the Roman army, put in charge of about 100 soldiers but situated below those who commanded cohorts (consisting of six centuries) and legions (consisting of ten cohorts). Yet compared to a poor vagabond son of a carpenter from the middle of nowheresville like Jesus, the centurion had considerable power and social status. But he makes no attempt to throw his weight around in this gospel story. It seems he knows his limits. He has a highly valued servant in his household who has become seriously ill, close to death, and he urgently wants that servant to be well again. Whether it was out of personal compassion for the slave or whether it was because the worker was an irreplaceable lynchpin in his household—I am thinking of the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes in Downton Abbey—we don’t really know. We do know that the centurion sends some envoys of Jesus’ own tribe, elders from the local synagogue he has helped support, to connect with Jesus and ask for help. The elders like the centurion, even if he is a representative of the putrid feds. They say to Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him.”
Jesus might have refused by virtue of the centurion being an outsider; in Matthew’s gospel when a Canaanite woman is begging for him to heal his daughter he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” [Matthew 15:24] Certainly the vast majority of his ministry was among the chosen people of Israel, his own tribe. He would have become ritually unclean by entering the centurion’s home in order to heal the slave. But in Luke’s gospel Jesus has already been preaching about the stories of Israel’s God crossing ethnic and religious boundaries to effect healing. You heard the theme of inclusion in Solomon’s blessing of the Jerusalem temple—a plea that God would hear the prayers of the foreigners who appealed to the One God for help. Jesus must have taken that text, and others like it, seriously. So Jesus goes with the elders toward the centurion’s house; by doing so he is “re-presenting” a solid theme in the Hebrew Scriptures wherein Yahweh freely shows compassion to those outside the tribal boundaries. Jesus agrees that both the centurion and the no-status slave are worthy of God’s healing power, which he carries within himself. They are worthy.
A couple of verses on the centurion sends further emissaries, his friends, with another message: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” Such an unexpected statement may have endeared the centurion to Jesus, even though they haven’t met. Biblical scholar and preacher Fred Craddock has a succinct way of describing the centurion’s attitude: “Regarded worthy by others, regarded unworthy by himself– not a bad combination of credentials.” The centurion goes on to express confidence that Jesus has the same authority over healing powers that he himself has over the soldiers and the slaves under his command. Jesus is impressed, even amazed at his faith, by his trust in God’s power embodied in Jesus. He may also be impressed and amazed that a powerful person could humble himself enough to recognize true power and ask for help. The centurion is wise enough to know his own limits, and wise enough to reach beyond them. Michael Card describes it this way: “He asks for what he knows he doesn’t deserve and faithfully expects to get it anyway!”
The paradoxical play of “worthy” and “not worthy” in this story is intriguing. There is a line captured in high church communion liturgies that comes right out of this story. In Roman Catholic liturgies, right before the bread and wine are shared, the people say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” In Anglican liturgies, right before communion this line appears in the prayer: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” I admit that when I am participating in those liturgies I choke on those words. I’m a child of the television generation, so I think immediately of Garth and Wayne in Saturday Night Live’s “Wayne’s World” sketches. Here they are doing their signature “not worthy” thing when they encounter Arrowsmith band members after a concert:
I’m pretty sure it’s not what the liturgy writers meant, but having to say “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!” at the Lord’s table just feels a little overdramatic. Such words also have the potential to verbally kick somebody when they’re already down. All of us some of the time and some of us all of the time feel that we’re not worthy. Not worthy of the love of others. Not worthy of the love of God. A person can sink so low into that conviction of unworthiness that they are practically incapable of receiving any affirmation. At its worst, a feeling of being unworthy can lead to suicidal thoughts or, God forbid, suicidal actions.
It’s ridiculously easy to find descriptions of and stories about feeling unworthy with a brief search of the human mirror that is the internet. Psychologist Gail Brenner summarizes the feeling I’m talking about like this: “There is something that plagues so many of us, and it breaks my heart. Call it low self-esteem, shame, or the inner critic – it doesn’t matter what the name is. What matters is that we secretly feel unworthy, and we are afraid to take the risk to let others see us as we are. We harbor pernicious beliefs that bombard us with insults that we would never, in a million years, say to someone else. The result? We feel disconnected, alienated, separate, and alone. We live our lives in the proverbial closet, believing that if we let ourselves be seen, we would be summarily rejected.
Then, we close ourselves off, feeling lonely even when we’re surrounded by people. We numb ourselves from these painful feelings of unworthiness by eating and drinking too much, overspending, and staying insanely busy. We get lost in a cycle of thinking and behaving that traps us into feeling even more isolated. We may even pretend that things are OK, while our soul screams in desperation.” Her article resonated with a reader named Joseph, who wrote in the comments, “I just found this. I am a 55 year old man. Reading this made me happy to know that I am not the only one who has felt this way. Damn near all of my life I have felt awkward and not worthy and like a failure. Even though at work I was always ok. A hard worker and fine. But my lack of confidence, money, feeling ugly, withdrawn from people, love, etc.…etc.…etc. has left me now miserable.
I screwed up a love that I was blessed with about 8 years ago. And she is all I think about every day….Which in turn makes me even more sad, lonely, lost, unworthy, angry, unsocial, distant, alone, etc.…etc.…”
Imagine Joseph at church in a setting where one is asked to say “I’m not worthy even to have you come under my roof…” or “We’re not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under the table” just before receiving communion. On the inside, one may already be screaming, “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!” Surely it doesn’t help to have the priest and the congregation affirm your shamed self-talk. That’s why I choke on those words, I suppose. Christ’s table is a demonstration, a re-presentation of the worthiness of all to come and receive God’s grace, just as we are. I imagine Jesus, hearing those words, would be like the rock star in the movie clip: “You’re worthy. Get up.”
On the other hand, the gospel is clear that the self-righteous, the self-aggrandizers, and the self-sufficient are among the lost, because they cannot grasp the gift of grace. A person who is entirely lacking in humility is not only obnoxious but impervious to much of what makes life rich—our need for God, and our need for one another. Brennan Manning puts it this way: “Although truth is not always humility, humility is always truth: the blunt acknowledgment that I owe my life, being and salvation to Another. This fundamental act lies at the core of our response to grace.” To confess “I am not worthy to have you [Jesus] come under my roof” is not simply toxic shame; it is also an honest reaction to the grandeur and the immense power of God’s love, which dwarfs our little souls.
Fred Craddock calls this story of Jesus and the centurion out as another example of God being not an either-or God but a both-and God. God’s grace, God’s healing power can flow both to the people of Israel and to the Roman soldier. In terms of our own personal sense of “worthy” or “not worthy,” perhaps we could see it not as an either-or choice but a both-and choice. We can have a very healthy sense of humility about the gift of life itself and about our own limitations as sinful, incomplete persons; and still feel and receive and believe the grace of divine love that flows our way.
“Not worthy” is like the bit of salt in the coffee cake recipe. Folks like Joseph who spoke of feeling entirely unworthy his whole life are like those who mixed up the sugar and the salt in the coffee cake recipe, putting in two and three quarters cups of salt and one teaspoon of sugar rather than cups of sugar and a bit of salt. The result: Yuck. No wonder some folks want to throw themselves away like a baking disaster going into the bin.
On the other hand, if you leave out that bit of salt in the coffee cake or the bread—that smallish but crucial ingredient—the result is also Yuck. Tasteless, flat. The chemistry is not right without that teaspoon of salt, that modicum of genuine humility.
Beloved, all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time get the soul recipe mixed up. If you’ve put too much salt in the mix as you contemplate your life—“I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!”—it’s time to take in a large measure of sweet, amazing grace to overwhelm what has become unpalatable. You are worthy. You are beloved. And if you forgot that teaspoon of salt, that crucial ingredient of humility, it’s not too late to add it in. “Truth is not always humility, but humility is truth.” The good news is that although we are not perfect, we are perfectly loved by God who holds each of us in Their favor.