"I'm Not Worthy" – Luke 7:1-10
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "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. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, "Go,' and he goes, and to another, "Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, "Do this,' and the slave does it." When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Now, in this day and age, it can be theologically risky for pastors and preachers to wax patriotic in worship, so please bear with me, that is not my intention. We do not worship our country here. We do not worship our flag. We do not worship the war that makes a holiday weekend like Memorial Day necessary. I want to be clear about that. And, while we honor them, we don’t worship soldiers or military men and women, either – our own or those of any other nation.
But it is a holy kind of coincidence that this Gospel reading shows up for us on a Sunday like this – this weekend when our country calls us to remember and give thanks for the sacrifice of all the men and women who have died in military service to our country. Men and women who have lost their lives – we hope and pray and trust – for the sake of, and in the name of, peace and justice in this world. And I’ll come back to this and try to explain myself in a moment. But first, this Gospel story from Luke, which speaks for itself well enough if we know some of the things Luke assumes we know about the players in this story.
See, Jesus is summoned today to the home of this Gentile centurion, having been asked to heal his slave. And, because neither Jesus nor the centurion himself are supposed to be all that inclined to like one another – let alone expect favors or perform them for one another – all of this humility ensues, this “I’m not worthy,” “I’m not worthy,” stuff from the centurion. (Do you remember that old Saturday Night Live, “Wayne’s World” sketch?)
It started when the Jews who summoned Jesus in the first place, try to explain to him why this particular Gentile centurion is worthy of Jesus’ help. Unlike so many other Gentiles, this guy was one of the good ones they say – he loved the Jewish people, he cared about his sick, suffering slave, he even helped to build the synagogue in town. See? He’d earned it. He deserved it. And the Jews thought their recommendation would help his cause and matter to Jesus.
And then, the Centurion himself gets into the game. Once he finds out Jesus is on the way, he sends his people out to stop him, saying something like, “I didn’t want to bother you. Please know I’m aware I don’t deserve this. I wouldn’t presume to impose upon you. I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy.” Again, he stated his case. He was appropriately humble. He apologized for imposing and tried to lessen Jesus’ burden.
And the truth is, this Gentile centurion was as worthy by the world’s standards as he was unworthy in the eyes of the faithful Jews of his day. To so much of the world, he was powerful, after all. He had slaves and knew what it was to tell soldiers to come and they would come, or to go and they would go. To the Jews, though, he was as unworthy as any Gentile – he was a Roman pawn, an outsider, a non-believer, not one of God’s Chosen Ones, a sinner, by every faithful definition of the day.
But somehow – and only in the eyes of God’s messiah – he was worthy. And Jesus proves it by offering up the healing of his slave, just as he knows the centurion desires.
The point is, of course, none of us is worthy when measured by our own standards, or the world’s – Jew or Gentile; Centurion or Slave; Capitalist or Communist; Saint or Sinner, no matter how hard we try. And yet, by God’s grace – and by God’s grace alone – every one of us is worthy, Jew and Gentile, Centurion and Slave, Capitalist and Communist, Saint and Sinner. And God’s love in Jesus Christ means to feed us and fill us and love us with such overwhelming abundance and grace and mercy and more, that we are called to practice receiving it and letting it change us into men and women and children of God who long to love others in return.
Which brings me back to Memorial Day and this holiday we’re called to honor. Just like that Centurion wasn’t worthy, for so many reasons in the eyes of the world around him, to receive what Jesus showed up to offer, when I consider all the lives lost so that I can live more freely and more comfortably and more safely and more soundly than so many men, women, and children around the world, the only honest confession I can find is, “I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy.”
[And, as if the thousands who have died in battle, in the act of fighting or preparing for or engaging in war isn’t bad enough, I read this week that nearly 30 veterans out of 100,000 commit suicide each year, which amounts to something like 22 veteran suicides per day. The sacrifices we remember on Memorial Day are not confined to the battlefield, that’s for sure. And “I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy.” I don’t know who among us could pretend to be.]
So I guess what I’m feeling this weekend, and in light of this Gospel story, is a deep gratitude for the ways grace finds us, in spite of ourselves. And I wonder if we aren’t being called to look for ways – with humility and gratitude – to receive the blessing and love and generosity that finds us in ways we could never earn no matter how hard we try.
And I’m feeling called to let all of that be a reminder about… a witness to… a celebration of… just precisely how God’s love and grace and mercy and forgiveness come into my life – worthy or not. And then hope it inspires some ministry or service, some generosity, gratitude and humility, at least – in me and in each of us – that will share grace with somebody else – anybody else – who doesn’t deserve it any more than we do.