Being Good Enough: May 29th, 2016

May 29, 2016

Year C, Pentecost 2                                                                   
Luke 7:1-10                                                                         

            Before I begin, I am going to provide a little explanation, because I am about to unload some Episcopal jargon on you.  You will note in our Prayer Book that we have two rites.  We essentially have two different versions of the words that we use in the service (our liturgy).  Rite 1 is similar to the 1928 prayer book. Some of you will remember the 1928 prayer book with great fondness, some of you do not know that our prayer book has a date.  The Rite 1 language sounds a little more old fashioned.  It is more penitential, meaning it talks about sin and our need to be forgiven.  We use that rite during Lent and Advent.  Rite 2 is what we use the rest of the time.  I did not grow up with the 1928 prayer book. I became an Episcopalian long after the 1979 prayer book became standard.  Nor did I grow up using the Rite 1 liturgy.  I grew up with the Roman Catholic liturgy, which is pretty similar to our liturgy. 

While I did not grow up with the Rite 1 language, I find myself longing for it at times, especially one prayer in particular that was left out of Rite 2.  It is called the Prayer of Humble Access.  We say it right before we receive the Eucharist.  It starts like this, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under thy table.”  I think one of the things that appeals to me about this prayer is that it reminds me of one of my favorite prayers in the Catholic Church.  “Lord we are not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and we shall be healed.” [1]

            Both of these prayers reference parts of today’s Gospel story.  In today’s Gospel, we hear a story of a centurion who asks for Jesus’ help with his sick servant.  A centurion is a Roman soldier.  This meant that he was not Jewish.  He was a Gentile.  The Jews and the Gentiles did not get along most of the time.  A Jew could not enter the home of a Gentile nor could a Jew welcome a Gentile into his home. Not only was this man a Gentile, he was a Roman soldier.  He was a member of the army that was oppressing the Jewish people.  It was odd that he was even requesting the assistance of a Jew.  What is even stranger is that he was appealing to his Jewish acquaintances to petition this other Jew.  He was a high ranking official.  He could have just sent some soldiers and had Jesus brought to him.   That is not what he did.

            Already we know that the centurion was unique.  The Jews proclaimed that he was “worthy of having you do this for him.”  According to the Jewish elders, he was worthy not only of Jesus’ presence, but his assistance.   He had been a friend to the Jewish people.  He had even built them a synagogue.  For those reasons, the Jewish elders proclaimed him worthy.  We do not know whether it was the recommendation of the Jewish elders or simply the request of the centurion, but Jesus did not hesitate.  He immediately went to this man’s home.  However,  before Jesus arrived at his home, the centurion sent a message saying, “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 my servant will be healed.”  This statement left Jesus amazed.  Jesus was amazed. 

Often times we hear about people being amazed in the Bible.  However, it is usually people being amazed by Jesus…not the other way around. The centurion’s words by themselves don’t seem that amazing.  They were respectful.  They were humble.  But come on- that seems appropriate given that he was speaking to the Son of God and asking for a miracle. 

            I have often heard people express that they are uncomfortable with some of the language of our Rite 1 liturgy, particularly the Prayer of Humble Access.  The statement, “We are not worthy….” brings up all kinds of negative feelings.  It might remind us of our own insecurities.  It might remind us of a Christian somewhere sometime who made us feel bad about ourselves.  Surely, God loves us all unconditionally.  If so why are we using this kind of language?  Why do we have to feel bad about ourselves in order to receive the Eucharist? 

            Here’s the thing.  We aren’t worthy.  By ourselves, without the grace of God, we aren’t worthy.   No one likes to hear that. You are all probably regretting telling me that you missed me the last couple of months if this is what I am going to tell you.  But it’s not about feeling bad about ourselves.  Much like the centurion- it’s about approaching God with humility.  It’s about asking for things instead of expecting them. 

            One of the others words for worthy is sufficient, or enough.  The centurion was admitting to Jesus that he wasn’t quite sufficient to receive Jesus into his home.  This is something that really resonates with me, the idea of not being enough.  I struggle with that often and I don’t think I am the only person who does.   That notion of feeling as though we are not good enough can have a devastating effect on our soul. We are constantly trying to please others and please ourselves.  We have to be better than others.  We have to be better than we were the day before. As a result we are constantly disappointed that we aren’t good enough.  We could be so much more content and at peace if we stopped trying to be enough.       

            Now you might be thinking, hey you just told us we are not worthy, what’s the deal?  Here it is. What if we could accept the fact that we are not quite good enough, but that recognizing our unworthiness amazes God?  Let me say that again. What if we could accept the fact that we are not quite good enough, but that recognizing our unworthiness not only pleases God, but amazes God?  We can amaze God not by being good enough, not by being worthy, but simply by displaying humility and admitting that we need God.  Like the centurion we can admit that God has the power to make up for whatever we lack. We are not sufficient without Jesus.  But with Jesus, we are more than enough. 

            Here’s the other amazing thing.  We pray the Prayer of Humble Access right before we receive the body and blood of Christ.  Immediately after we admit that we are not worthy, we kneel at the rail and receive the body and blood of Jesus.  We never say that prayer and skip communion.  Because when we approach Christ with humility, when we ask for his presence in our lives…he always says yes.  Saying that we are not worthy is not about beating ourselves up.  It’s about freeing ourselves so that we can truly appreciate the gift that God has for us.  It creates space in our heart and our souls to receive Jesus.   

[1] The Roman Catholic Church has changed this portion to better reflect the text.  I use this text as that was what I grew up with.