This is the sermon I preached yesterday at my mom’s parish. I have to credit Rev. Ginny Price for bringing the phrase “remember whose you are” to my seminary community. 🙂
Proper 4, Year C
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Amen.
I’m conducting a brief poll. How many of you spent more than, two minutes planning your outfit and/or dressing for church this morning? How about five minutes? Ten minutes? How many of you have calculated time into your Sunday morning schedule for figuring out which of your pantyhose didn’t have runs, or which of your shirts didn’t need to be ironed? How many of you have ever privately wondered, or publicly asked whichever family member is in charge of rallying the troops on Sunday morning, “Does God really care if I wear jeans and a t-shirt to church?”
I would like you all to know that I interviewed my mother in advance of this poll, and she has assured me that I was absolutely no problem to dress for church on Sundays. Except for that phase I went through where I refused to wear anything but dresses. Which was followed by the phase where I refused to wear dresses. Which was punctuated by the one Easter morning where I asked my mom to curl my hair for me, and then refused to leave my room once I saw what that looked like. Suffice it to say that my parents successfully instilled in me growing up that we dress nicely for church.
From an adult perspective I understand perfectly why my parents insisted on this. We dress up when we go somewhere important, and church is an important place to go. We dress respectfully in a house of worship because we respect God. Got it.
But part of the message I internalized as a kid was that I am supposed to bring my very best self to church, and derivatively, that my flaws are not welcome here. Just as my pantyhose must be without runs, so must my soul be without blemish.
Which is a weird but powerful notion in our culture. There’s still a pervasive expectation around Christianity: you have to be a good person in order to be Christian. Think about that for a moment. It’s like we believe that God is a credit card company: you have to prove that you don’t need God’s grace before you qualify for it.
This is not a new idea. In fact, it’s there in the gospel today. When you heard at the gospel today, maybe you heard that the question of this guy’s worth comes up not once, but twice.
And here’s why there’s particular concern about it: because the guy asking for Jesus’ help is a Roman centurion. That means that not only was he not Jewish, but he was a member of the Roman occupation force. This is not the kind of guy who you would expect to come to Jewish rabbi for help. And he’s not the kind a guy whose servant you’d expect a Jesus to place high on his healing priority list.
Which is probably why the centurion sent some Jewish friends on his behalf first. Not just Jewish friends, but leaders of the synagogue, who point out to Jesus that this guy loves the Jewish people, and helped them build their synagogue. He’s worthy of having you do this thing for him, they say to Jesus. He’s not a Jew, but he’s helped us out, and he deserves this.
Worth. Do you hear the assumption that lies at underneath what the Jewish leaders are saying? This guy has got to prove that he’s worth Jesus’ time.
Which is what makes the centurion’s second message to Jesus so remarkable: “I’m not worthy,” says the centurion. “I’m not a big deal. I’m not significant enough to even make it worth your while to come into my house. But I know that you have the authority to heal, whoever and wherever you want, so please, do it for this servant who I love.”
In other words, he says: “Don’t do this miracle because of who I am. Do it because of who you are.”
And the centurion, because he’s a soldier and a commander of soldiers, understands Jesus to be like him: “A man who is set under authority.” Except that Jesus’ authority doesn’t come from Rome. It comes from the Creator, from the God who’s known to Elijah as coming in fire, the God who is known to the psalmist in the seas roaring “Alleluia” and the trees singing praise and the fields exulting by giving us an abundance of food. This is a God whose proof is in the pudding: a god who is God for us not because of who we are, but because of who God is. This is a God who will heal the servant because healing, bringing together, making whole, showing hope, and loving all is this God’s nature.
Do you want to know the weird thing about this gospel passage? This same story is also told in Matthew, but in Matthew, the centurion comes directly to Jesus. In Luke’s version, there are all these intermediaries—and actually, it’s them who do all the talking. They relay messages, they vouch for the centurion, they become part of the crowd Jesus turns to at the end to reveal that the centurion has faith like he hasn’t even seen in Israel—they’re the main characters in this passage. Which leads me to believe that the good news doesn’t belong just—or even mostly—to the centurion’s servant, or the centurion himself. It belongs to the go-betweens between Jesus and the people outside the church. It belongs to the ones who are hung up on this question of worth. It belongs to us, and it tell us: “worth doesn’t matter. Faith does.”
That’s some gospel I hope we start sharing more often. A good friend of mine left the church because the place she attended told her she had to stay with her abusive husband—that was the Christian thing to do, they said. That’s an extreme example of a church that preaches a false gospel of being good enough for God, but it happens on a smaller scale all the time in our church. It happened last summer at the National Youth Gathering, when Nadia-Bolz Weber was invited to speak. Do you know her? Nadia is a Lutheran pastor of an emerging church congregation called House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO. And a lot of people didn’t want her to talk to their kids that night, because Nadia has a past. Here is what she said that night last summer:
“Some of your parents and some of your pastors were really upset that I was your speaker tonight. They felt like I was somebody who should not be allowed to talk to tens of thousands of teenagers, and you know what I have to say to that? They are absolutely right. Somebody with my past of alcoholism and drug abuse and promiscuity and lying and stealing should not be allowed to talk to you. But you know what? Someone with my present, who I am now, should not be allowed to talk to you. … I am a flawed person. I should not be allowed to be here talking to you, but you know what? That’s the God we’re dealing with, people.”
The gospel that says that you have to be good enough for God is false gospel. It is not true. It is true that the gospel is life-changing and calls goodness out of us and enables us to do it, but before we get there, we have to remind ourselves of this: we aren’t Christian because of who we are, but because of whose we are.
You’ve been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever. There’s no getting out of that. Sorry. It’s going to be uncomfortable and difficult sometimes, because amazing grace like that teaches us that being right with God isn’t built upon the foundation our own righteousness, but upon Christ, and friends, that is unpleasant. Because:
1) it means we aren’t as awesome and perfect as we’d like to think we are,
2) we aren’t as awesome and perfect as we’d like other people to think we are,
3) it means that we have to look at other people, and the messes that they are, even when they’re not Christian, even when they’re members of a Roman occupying force, even when they’re our terrible boss or annoying employee or neighbor who lets their dog bark endlessly, or the person who has really and profoundly hurt you, and know that God loves them like God loves us, and
4) that God enables and calls us through the Holy Spirit to love them too. And that is good news, even if we don’t like it all the time, because it means that God loves us not because of who we are, but because of whose we are. That’s the God we’re dealing with, people.
Now, if you’re willing, I’d like the Amen of this sermon to belong to all of us. As the Spirit moves you, please turn to the person next to you, or if no one’s next to you, to the person in the pew behind or in front of you…and as you and your neighbor are comfortable with it, make the sign of the cross on the back of your neighbor’s hand as a reminder of your baptism, with the blessing: “Remember whose you are.”