About welcome, not worthiness
When I was a student pastor at an inner city church New Haven, I met Luz.
Luz was about 40 years old, and near the church.
Her daughter Lora had been coming to church for two years when I met her.
Every Sunday morning I would see Luz braiding Lora's hair for church
on the street corner outside their apt. building.
Then she'd send Lora across the street to church.
Luz never came herself.
Luz was mother three kids.
She got little help from Lora's dad.
Her oldest son was out of the nest, but the middle one was in his early teen-age years.
He got in trouble frequently, and it seemed that Luz had given up on him.
Meanwhile Luz had lost her job as a nurse’s aide and was on welfare.
The Pastor invited her to church, but she always found some reason not to come.
Her reasons were just excuses.
The real reason Luz didn't want to come is that she felt like a failure.
She didn’t feel worthy to step foot into God’s house, into a community where people were supposed to have their lives together.
What is it that makes a person feel worthy?
What it is that people base self worth on?
Is it success in a career or that the kids are on their own?
Is it grades or education? Connections? Looks?
How about the size of a person’s house or paycheck, or where they went on vacation?
In our gospel lesson today, the Jewish elders tell Jesus that the centurion asking for help was worthy.
This is a surprising statement coming from the Jewish leaders,
for they had no love for the Roman army.
Roman soldiers could force a Jew to carry their pack or do other duties for them;
they could smack the Jews around without any consequences.
The Romans were the enemy, the occupying power in Jewish land.
And this man was not only a Roman soldier, but he was the captain of a company of 100 soldiers—
a man in charge.
Bu the elders nonetheless praise the centurion to Jesus, saying,
“He loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
Because of the centurion’s good deeds, the Jews see him as worthy.
But the centurion himself did not see it that way. “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,” he says.
The centurion knew he could not host a kosher keeping Jew in his non-kosher home.
He knew that the Jews lived a hard life because of the occupation by his people.
But something still gave him the courage to ask Jesus for help.
The word translated here as ‘worthy’ from the Greek literally means, ‘sufficient.’
The centurion knew there wasn’t anything he could do be sufficient, to be enough,
to do enough to deserve this gift he was asking for.
He asked because he believed that the issue was not about whether he was worthy or not.
The issue was that Jesus had power to heal, and the authority to do it.
All Jesus had to do was say the word, and the centurion knew his servant would be healed.
After all our striving to be successful or to live a good life or to do good deeds or be a good Christian,
this story underlines that to Jesus, it isn’t about measuring up.
How many brownie points with God would it take to deserve healing anyway?
What would the score board of our accomplishments have to read before we believe
that God accepts us and loves us?
There is no tally. These things are given to us for free because that’s who God is.
That’s who Jesus is.
And it comes to all of us, even though we are not sufficient.
We can let go of all that striving, and just for a moment, soak up the love.
Back in New Haven, little Lora kept talking about the people at church.
Luz could see how they cared for her daugther, how they accepted her and treated her with respect.
They even treated Luz with respect when they brought Lora home after church.
And so after four years, Luz finally came to church.
Lora led her by the hand, and proudly introduced her mom to all her friends.
It wasn’t that Luz suddenly felt worthy to come to church.
She hadn’t solved her life problems or gone through special spiritual cleansing.
She was there because she’d seen the gift of acceptance Lora had received and wanted that for herself.
Which reminds me of another story about Luz.
After church one Sunday not long after Luz started coming, we had a potluck.
All the good stuff: Red beans and rice, mac-n-cheese, fried chicken and deviled eggs.
As we were finishing up, two children off the street who couldn't be older than four came in.
I asked them what they needed,
who they were looking for, and they answered in Spanish.
I knew that they weren't kids from our church so I started to shoo them out.
But then Luz was there.
She greeted the children and directed them downstairs to the big Table
where the food was all laid out.
Maria knew that there was room at that Table for all God's children,
whether they were members or not.
She knew that admittance to our fellowship and God’s Table was a gift open to anyone--
that it was about welcome, not worthiness.
Luz taught me a lesson that day- a lesson I think we all need to be reminded of.
We belly up to the feast Jesus gives not because we are worthy,
but because Jesus has chosen to see us as worth saving.
What healing we find in this acceptance!
It’s a healing we can extend to others, as we let the masks of success fall off our faces
and accept others for who they are and meet them where they are—
even if, like Luz, it’s not in church.
Brothers and Sisters, there are a lot of lost people out there, trying to feel good about themselves
by buying more, earning more, doing more.
We got the real deal here.
We’ve got the love and healing and acceptance that comes without a price.
We have the acceptance of our whole selves, and we get past trying to prove ourselves
and get onto the important work of serving the community, helping other people,
and breaking down barriers.
What could we do to make that acceptance and offer of service more obvious to our community?
Just yesterday several of our members helped run the parade.
Others welcomed people into our building for bathrooms and a place for a cool break.
And still others gave out water bottles that quoted the book of Revelation,
“To the thirsty I give the water of life as a gift.”
One woman I talked to wanted to pay for the water.
I said, “It’s free!” She couldn’t believe it.
But that small drink of water is a metaphor for so much more we can do in the community.
For example, what if our church decided to march in the parade?
What if we marched in the parade along side some people who serve in the military
but are often overlooked?
I am seeing a big rainbow flag and OSLC yellow God’s Work, Our Hands shirts walking together.
I am seeing us walking with folks from the Berlin Mosque and Temple Sinai and Vallabhdham Temple,
because Muslims and Jews and Hindus also serve in our military.
I am seeing us standing in solidarity with veterans
whose experience may be very different from our own.
For them Memorial Day will never be about cookouts or candy lined parades.
We need to listen to their stories and learn from their experience.
We need to recommit ourselves to working for peace
so that the horrors of war and the stigma of serving in unpopular wars does not happen again.
We got the best gift in the world here: the knowledge that we are loved as we are.
We are doing a lot—but God calls us to more.
Jesus’ acceptance and the welcome we have here is not something to be hoarded.
It’s pure gift, free and clear.
Let’s give thanks for this amazing love.
Let’s keep on sharing it, in wider and wider circles.
Anyone know the game Simon Says? How is it played?
That’s a little what it was like in Jesus’ day, only the same people were in charge all the time. Do you know who they were? (the Romans, foreigners in charge of Jews)
The Romans stayed in charge because they had a lot of armies. If you didn’t do what they said, you could be jailed or hurt or worse. (Put on centurion’s helmet) Their soldiers wore these helmets, and were led by captains called centurions. The centurions had authority to tell others what to do, like Simon Says.
In our Gospel lesson, a surprising thing happens. One of these centurions notices that Jesus also has authority. Not to tell other soldiers what to do, but to command the evil spirits and illnesses to go away. And this centurion had a servant he really loved who was sick. So he asked Jesus to heal his servant. He said,
Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and let my servant be healed.
The centurion knew that Jesus was like the leader in Simon Says—what he said would go. All it would take for Jesus to heal his servant was to tell the illness to go away. And that is what happened.
Jesus has authority in our lives, too.
He has the power to heal.