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