Are You Worthy?

 A Sermon preached by Dean Paul B. Raushenbush on February 4, 2004

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13), Psalm 138, Luke 5:1-1

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you Lord.

Amen.

I have entitled this sermon “Are You Worthy?”  However, the original title was “I’m Not Worthy” which I took from the famous mantra developed by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey on the Saturday Night Live skit called Wayne’s World.  Whenever Wayne and his side kick Garth met a celebrity, especially if it happens to be a classic rock group like Aerosmith, they would bow down and moan “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy.”  One celebrity, Madonna, finally said to them – alright already – you’re worthy.

Kidding aside, the question of worthiness is raised in all of our scripture lessons today.  Very unlike, Wayne and Garth, the question is not worthiness in the face of pop heroes, but in the face of God and our worthiness to respond to God’s call on our lives.  In both the Isaiah and Luke passages we hear stories of individuals who have been chosen by God and Jesus to fulfill great destinies, and their immediate response is – I am not good enough.  In Luke, when Simon Peter realizes the true nature of Jesus he falls at Jesus’ knees and says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  And Isaiah, when given the vision of the Lord says:  “Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Both of these people understood themselves to be unworthy, and, frankly, we have no reason to disbelieve their self identification.  Who would know better than they if they were or were not perfect and righteous people.  In fact, if they had understood themselves to be perfect and righteous, they assuredly would have made that known to God and whoever else might have been around.  So, we are left with the puzzling question of why God, and Jesus in his earthly ministry, chose such flawed human beings to fulfill God’s purpose on the world.

The answer can be found in their Humility.

Humility is an uncomfortable characteristic to talk about.  It is described as a virtue but it isn’t one that most of us practice on a regular basis.   In fact, it is hard to figure out how to aspire to humility.  I was at a conference that was meant to talk about spirituality in higher education.  One of the presenters was from the Templeton Foundation and a lecturer at Penn.  He began to speak about teaching the value of humility.  He saw by my name tag that I was at Princeton and he screamed: “Princeton, Princeton, can you imagine them talking about humility at Princeton?!!”  My response, which I kept to myself, was that if Princeton decided to adopt humility as an important goal that we would soon have way more humility than Harvard or Yale.

But we do need to address the value of humility as we reflect upon our faith, and the way in which we are co-creators with God in the world and what our vocation and purpose in life might be.

I want stress that humility should not be confused with its ugly human derivative – humiliation.  Humiliation is coerced humility when one person, or an entire society uses degradation or oppression to devalue, or humiliating another person, or class of people and elevate themselves.  That is not humility, that is a sin.

True humility can never be coerced and arises out of the individuals personal relationship with God. Humility is a key, if not the key component to a true religious life.  

Thomas Merton, the Catholic Monk wrote: 

“It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of true humility and its power in the spiritual life.  For the beginning of humility is the beginning of blessedness and the consummation of humility is the perfection of all joy.  Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul.  It is the only key to faith, with which the spiritual life begins: for faith and humility are inseparable.”

Our psalm for today confirms the connection between humility and communion with God:  In vs. 6 the psalmist tells us: “For though the Lord is high, the Lord perceives the Lowly, but the haughty God perceives -  from far away.”   

It is not hard to understand this. If we know ourselves to be masters of the universe (a term which I learned from a cousin at Harvard Business School) then what place in our lives do we have for God, the true creator, sustainer and redeemer of the universe.  The only way we can create space for God in our lives is to admit that our amassing and admiration of our own power, for our own purpose is ultimately a futile and empty task.  If we are so secure in our own abilities, and in our own ambitions, how will we know how God has prepared abilities and plans for our lives.  In humility, we die to our individualistic self living and self loving and are reborn to God living and God loving. 

Humility is the way that we can approach the awesome question of what we are called to do with this life that we have been given.  It leaves open the idea that we may have God given talents and strength that we have not acknowledged yet, but that God sees and is trying to bring out.  As Merton said, the beginning of humility is the beginning of blessedness.  This is the story of the characters in the Wizard of Oz.   You see the Cowardly Lion protecting people, and the heartless Tin Man crying for his hurt friend, and the brainless Scarecrow figuring out every plan, and you realize that each one of these characters is blessed with capabilities that they didn’t realize they had until someone revealed to them that not only did they have these abilities - but that they were called to live them out in an intentional way. 

True humility opens the soul up to calling, or vocation.  Ultimately our scripture readings today are call stories.  It is the call of Isaiah and of Peter and the important work they are about to do that is being highlighted.  They are both people who, if you had asked them about their ability to be major disciples and prophets of God, would have been sure that they were not worthy of such task.  

And, they were right.  Alone, they were not worthy, but God and Jesus made them worthy.  In Isaiah, the angels brought a live coal that had been on the altar to Isaiah’s unclean lips and said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."  Jesus, basically ignored Simon Peter’s declaration of unworthiness and said in response: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people."  God knows that we are flawed, but that we are good and decent even if we have trouble being that all the time because of our basic humanness.  God sees past the flaws to the potential. God relieves our guilt, and encourages us not to be afraid.  That is where the transformation happens.  We are not the sum of our flaws in God’s eyes.  We are worthy in proportion to our willingness to respond to God’s call on our lives with humility and allow ourselves to be open to God’s transforming power and grace. 

That is worth saying again – You are worthy.  Every single last one of us.  Even me, is worthy to be God’s instrument on this earth.  What a miracle, what grace.  So the focus of the question changes from our underlying worthiness, to our humble willingness to  respond to the call like Isaiah did and say:  Here am I; send me!  To respond to the call like Mary did and say: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

Our life long task is to know what that calling is and how to respond from day to day.  In some ways, Peter, Isaiah and Mary are lucky – God and Jesus and the angels visually show themselves and instruct them on what their call is and how they are to go about it.  You and I are not so viscerally touched by the Divine on a day to day basis.  At least I am not.  So, what is the way that we can fulfill our purpose.

The psalm verse I read earlier says:  “For though the Lord is high, God perceives the Lowly, but the haughty God perceives from far away” that verse finishes with the line  “The Lord will fulfill the Lord’s purpose for me.”  This psalm instructs that we can count on God to have a purpose for us, and to help us fulfill it, but we still have to find out what that call is.

Like the characters in the Wizard of Oz, our purpose and calling is not some sort of radically external thing to who we are.  Our calling is the union between the particular gifts that God has given us and the need of the world that God has put us in, and the people that God has put us with.    So, if you are going to fulfill God’s calling on your life it means finding the passion that you have and lifting it up for the Lord’s purpose.  Your passion may be in the arts, the sciences, the humanities, in being a technician, a teacher, a care giver, a cleaner, a social activist.  All of these offer opportunities to fulfill the essential call on each one of us which is to Love God and to Love our neighbor.  Love is the final commandment and call on each of our lives and each of us is worthy of the call to Love.   As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his essay an experiment in Love: quote “Agape (one of the Greek words that is translated as love) is not a weak, passive love.  It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.” Unquote.  Love is the building blocks for the foundation of the kingdom of God.

Today’s scriptures outline a basic spiritual exercise in three steps. 

The first step is to practice humility.  That means emptying ourselves of pretense, arrogance and self-righteousness.  Humility allows us to take time out from the self-assurance that the world requires of us and to allow the grace of God-assurance to come into our lives.  As the great Sioux Indian Chief, Black Elk wrote:  “The Lamenter [who is seeking a vision] cries, for he is humbling himself,  remembering his nothingness in the presence of the Great Spirit.”   Humility is the ultimate statement of faith to God: Thy Will Be Done in my life on earth as it is in heaven.  Humility calls a halt to any activity that we may be engaged in, that exalts one’s self, or one’s group over another person or group.  Inherent in our practice of humility is our complete awareness of the radical equality of all people in God’s eyes. 

The practice of humility opens space for the second step of allowing God to transform us from unworthy to worthy.  I say, allowing God to let our worthiness be known to us, because so many of us wallow in a sense of unworthiness.  There is an arrogance in not accepting God’s grace and transforming power.  I have met many people, including young people who insist that they have done such bad things that God can never view them as worthy.  But that is absolutely contrary to the testimony of the Bible and countless of Christians living since biblical times.  God can transform each of our lives.  However, it is up to us to believe that and to accept it.

The third step is the acknowledgement of our transformation and hearing God’s call and purpose for your lives.  The third step asks that we step forward and say: “Send me.  Use me.  Help me to find my purpose in life and to accomplish your will of loving God and Loving my neighbor.”  This can be done in an ongoing examination of career choices, but also in very immediate and simple ways.  One way some people practice this is to wake up each day saying “God – in whatever way you need me, use me today.”  And that is their morning prayer.  While that is a very immediate way of knowing God’s plan for our daily life, reflection on our passions and how they can aid this hurting world is another way to humbly understand the way that God is trying to use your life, so that each day we are fulfilling God’s call and purpose for our lives and the world. 

I leave you with the prayer of a person who truly felt God’s transforming call and who has left an inspiring legacy.  The Prayer of St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

0h divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.

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Web Comments: orl@princeton.edu, Last Updated: October 5, 2004