May 29, 2016
Second Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Click on the microphone above right to hear the sermon.
A friend sent a video on Facebook with the comment, “So, is this what preachers really feel.” There’s organ music while the pious preacher comes to the pulpit. He starts to read his text from Proverbs. Then he just puts his head down on the pulpit. He groans and says, “If I may digress for a moment from my prepared remarks. I mean it when I say: You guys. Sometimes you’re bad. Don’t be jerks. You’re supposed to be good. People come to my office every day, and they’re like, ‘Hey, whoops.’ Don’t! Dan, what is your deal? If your want to know, Dan is the worst. I took a vow not to say who is the worst, but it’s Dan. You’re making me look bad in front of God. Let’s open this. Oh look, it’s Jesus, and he says, “Stop it. The word of the Lord.” The link to video here.
In this short video, we hear a summary of Christianity that most probably think is true. Be good. At least, don’t be the worst. And whatever you’re doing: Just stop it.
In the gospel text, it sounds like the Roman centurion gets that when he say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and my slave shall be healed.” Roman Catholics modify this sentence and say it in the liturgy as a kind of invitation to the table. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I suspect some of you who grew up Roman Catholic know that sentence by heart.
I have to admit, I love that sentence and have often wanted to use it in the liturgy. But mostly when I suggest using it, people hear that video summary of Christianity: You’re unworthy! You’re bad! The more you understand that, the better off you’ll be. And the more you can get in touch with your unworthiness, the more you will truly appreciate God’s love. The centurion seems to be the model. He announces his unworthiness, and he gets a healing.
I’d like to suggest that this particular interpretation is wrong.
If you notice, it’s the Jewish leaders that tell Jesus that this man is worthy. He has been a friend to the Jewish community in Capernaum. This wasn’t always true of the Romans. Usually, they were brutal. This general seems to genuinely care for, not only the town, but his own slave. Slaves were usually expendable. If one dies, you get a new one. What’s more, he shared his wealth with the town. He built the synagogue.
The man’s friends make the case to Jesus that he should go and heal the slave because he has demonstrated his worthiness. And, apparently, that’s good enough for Jesus. But the centurion, sends a message to Jesus, “Don’t come. I’m not worthy.”
He’s not saying, “I recognize that I’m a morally bad person and don’t deserve your help.” What he is saying is that he will not rely on the typical system of rewards and punishments based on behavior or simply being the one in power.
We might say today that he rejects the privilege that the entire Roman world gives him. He’s not willing to take advantage of his wealth, his ability to benevolent (which is actually a corollary to being the person in power), or his status. What’s astonishing, even to Jesus, is that the centurion understands that much of what he has–his wealth, his power, his disposition—isn’t his because he deserved it or earned it. Most of what came to him was simply because he was a Roman and a solder.
We hear so much lately about white privilege. We’re coming to recognize that there is something deep in our system, in our way of believing and thinking, that gives white people advantages that others have to work harder to obtain. Debby Irving, in her book “Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” which is going to be our summer book at Gloria Dei, calls privilege a tailwind. It means that people who are white tend to have the wind at their backs. It’s just easier to get ahead. White people tend not to see this. They assume that the playing field is level. It’s just not true. When you grow up in a poorer neighborhood with bad schools, or with parents that haven’t had a single advantage, you’ve got some headwinds blowing against you. It’s not to say that some persons can’t rise above. But it’s a lot harder.
Here’s the problem. The system of worthy and unworthy in American culture is that those with the tailwinds believe that they truly deserved all that they received, as if it was their own hard work or brilliance that got them where they needed to be. And those that couldn’t get as far must have some defect or lesser ability or intelligence. We tell those who achieve that they are worthy, and those who don’t that they are unworthy. These judgments are often so subtle and hidden that we hardly notice them.
It becomes very powerful for those who are labeled as worthy by the system to notice, to say out loud what people of color face every day. Bernie Sanders would say, “It’s rigged.”
Let me clear. Acknowledging this system of privilege, our modern form or worthiness, isn’t saying, “I’m bad. I’m a worm because I benefited from a system that’s not much different than imperial Rome.” It’s saying, “I can’t claim all that I have as of my own making. I have to acknowledge that there were other authorities, other forces at work here, forces that aren’t fair, forces that blow in favor of some and against others.
What the centurion does is place himself under a different authority, not the power of the empire that was designed exquisitely to benefit Romans, but under the power that he sees at work in Jesus. He recognizes that the authority that rests in Jesus is fundamentally different. It operates under its own logic. And it is a power that can heal; that can urge life out of death. It can even re-order the relationship of general and slave. The centurion places himself under the authority of Jesus. “Only say the word, and my slave will be healed.”
So maybe the little phrase at communion in the mass means something different than we hear immediately. Perhaps what’s being rejected is a kind of worthiness that is ascribed by the society around us, where race or wealth or talent or ability or beauty gives worth. In that system, most of us find ourselves unable to measure up. Under that system, we truly are unworthy. In fact, most of live by that logic. We look at what we have or who we are, and we’re convinced it’s not enough. We should have achieved more, or been better parents, or worked harder, or were thinner or more disciplined, or whatever the little voice in your head uses to tell you that you’re not worthy.
When we break bread and come to the table, we acknowledge that the tailwind we desperately need is the healing of God. The prayer means this: God, if you’re operating like everything else, I’m not going to be worthy to come. But if you say the word, if you break open the system, if you will take me under a different kind of authority, I know I can be healed. I know we can be healed.
The answer that Jesus finally gives to the man’s concern is the cross, that moment when the power of our reward and punishment system, our patterns of ascribing worthiness, are nailed to the past. And the resurrection opens a new way, a new way for seeing ourselves and the world around us. In fact, Jesus himself, his own body in bread and wine, is the word that heals, the free gift offered to every outstretched hand, worthy or unworthy, saint or sinner, outsider and inside.
Let me digress from my prepared remarks. You’re not worthy.
And now back to the words of Jesus: You’re loved. You’re loved.
Lord, only say those words again and again, and we shall be healed.
To read more about Gloria Dei’s summer read program, click here.