Sermon Archives

Sunday, February 10, 2019
The 5th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)
The Reverend Dr. Walter Brownridge
Not Worthiness, but Willingness

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people with unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5)

“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”  (Luke 5:8)

May I speak in the Name of our Ever-Living, Ever-Loving, and Ever-Leading God. Amen.

A few weeks ago, we had a training day for EM, Acolytes and Readers. During the session with EMs, a question was raised about being “worthy” to distribute Holy Communion. I said that even as a priest, I am not worthy, but that is the beauty and the mystery of the sacraments – it is only God who is worthy and that is enough.

Yet this question of worthiness is an existential matter. It is one that plagues us for so much of our lives. We feel that we are some how inadequate to be considered for  ______  you fill in the blank. Maybe it starts with us as children/ preteens/ teens / college. The desire for acceptance, of feeling worthy, can seep deep into our very souls. I recall that during some retreats, I had used an exercise where people both youth and adults would write anonymous notes/letters seeking forgiveness for what they perceive as their sins.  Often these confessions are heartbreaking: projections about how they are not worthy love, respect, a decent life.

Yes, we are all too wedded to the issue of worthiness. Yet we are in good company. Isaiah struggles with a sense of inadequacy. Like Jeremiah, he knows himself well enough to feel that he is worthy to be God’s prophet.  Peter in the Gospel according to Luke similarly displays a sense of unworthiness. In Isaiah’s case, this elf-perception is rooted in his awareness that he was in the presence of God Almighty. We are talking about the beauty, the majesty of God. And in that context, Isaiah hears the words holy, holy, holy. And he says, "I can't handle it." But God asks to his preachers and puts as they say, a hot cold on his lips and say, "It's all right. You are cleansed. I have made you cleansed. Go out and do what I told you to do. Who will go? Who will go for me? Whom shall I send?" And Uzziah can now say, "Here I am. Send me."

Then with Peter, James and John . . .. Well after reading the text for probably 200 times, I have finally realized that those three were fishing business partners. Thus now I can put into context some of the later developments with Peter, James and John (the sons of Zebedee). Luke points out that these guys have a back story - they have a history. The rivalries and issues probably between them started when they were in business together as fisherman. Probably argued over who would be first in the names.

Jesus, this Rabbi & Carpenter that they have just met. He's from up in Nazareth, Galilee. So he knows about wood and building things and structures. And he seems to have also studied his scripture very well. He is as they say now, they could call him master, teacher, rabbi. But he starts to meddle in their business, fishing.

So after Jesus uses their boat, as you will as a portable floating lectern, seemingly oblivious that they are bone tired having fished all night and caught not a thing, what do they do? They wanna go home. Clean up. After they clean their nets, they wanna go home, get cleaned up, get something to eat if they have anything and try again the next evening. But Jesus says, "Go out. Go out to the deep waters and go to this place and cast your net there." And Jesus says, "What is a carpenter telling me to do about fishing?" That's what he's really thinking. But out of respect, out of deference, he says "Okay. I'll show you there's nothing out there."

And then in the midst of the abundance that they witnessed and experienced, Peter is overwhelmed and he says, "Go away from me, Lord for I am a sinful man." And Jesus says, "Peter, you don't get it. You are encountering me and you aren't gonna be fishing anymore. You're gonna be representing me and bringing people to me." Again, it is the question of worthiness. And I would say that this idea of worthiness is an existential matter that plagues us all. At least most of us. We feel that somehow we are inadequate to be considered for, and you can fill in the blank.

Maybe it starts with us as children. We feel that we don't quite measure up. We feel that somehow, somehow, we're not good enough. Maybe in school we feel, "I'm not in the cool group. I'm not worthy to sit at this lunch table. Maybe I'm not good enough to get into this college. This law school, this med school, this graduate school. I'm nothing. I'm a nobody. Maybe I'm not good enough for this job. Maybe I don't deserve this person that I have this attraction to." That one we have to really think about, to try to live up to that person that we desire.

I've led a number of retreats and the most heartbreaking but holy experiences, whether they're with teenagers, young adults, midlife and older adults, is this exercise I like to do of confession. And it's confession in the sense that they anonymously write these notes to God. Bringing to God their heartfelt and most earnest desires. And in that context, they write things like, "I'm not worthy enough. I don't deserve a loving and kind spouse who doesn't abuse me." A teenager who writes, "I'm not worthy enough for my parents to truly accept me and love me as I am. There's something wrong with me. It must be, it must be. If someone treats me so badly, if I'm so excluded, there must be something wrong with me."

And sometimes folks who act out, students and children who misbehave, adults who don't seem to know how to get along with others, at the core is some deep sense of unworthiness. Those confessions I've heard over the years are yes, heartbreaking, but they are really projections of how we think about ourselves. Why we don't think we are worthy of love, worthy of respect, worthy of a decent life. Yes we are all too wedded to this sense of worthiness. But like Peter, like Uzziah, like the Great Apostles, we are in good company.

And if we take note of what happened to them, we can take note that it's not about our worthiness. No. It is about our willingness to follow Jesus. Our willingness to say, "Yes, send me, God." And that means in the context of us, his Christian disciples, "Yes, I go to school. Help me and somehow be an icon, a symbol, a beacon of your love in a fractured and broken world. Help me in my workplace among my folks that I deal with when they want to slip into gossip and dismissing of others that we can help them go high instead of low."

"Help me as I so beautifully witnessed last week, those volunteers who went down to crossroads to serve a meal. To offer a cold cup of water to God's beloved. Who definitely don't feel worthy." Willingness. Willingness. And at the root of recognizing, if you will, that yes we have this sense of inadequacy, this sense of unworthiness, but the desire to serve God means that we are willing to try to follow God, we understand something.

That besides willingness, the other W word today is worship. And that takes us to that hymn we just heard, and in fact if you know at all the hymns today, are about this idea of worshiping God. For the worship of God is one great, former and late Archbishop of Canterbury from the mid 20th Century, William Temple would say, "Worship is the fundamental business of life. The fundamental business of life is always worship," to offer up to God the best you can do and knowing it will not be perfect but that is all that we need to try.

Let me take this turn in the sermon, but a turn that gets to this point of being willing to serve God and not worry about what others may think. We still have a few weeks left and whether you've been able to attend and I'm so sorry that clergy like Father [Drew 00:08:46] and I and Father [Ron 00:08:47], we are in sales, not management so the weather and all the other things that have prevented us from getting together on Wednesdays, I'm sorry for. But this book we're reading, and I invite you still to come out, and if you can't come out, I encourage you to get the book. However, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, as Father Drew has noted in the current and a few weeks, next month, the author of this book, the author of in fact, two volumes. This is volume two, will come here.

And as so many people have said that in their background and their educational experience, they didn't know this stuff. This is a chance for you to realize now you know, and in a few weeks, to get to meet the guy who wrote the book. The book is of course about how King, yes, was this great and inventive and deep theologian, a PhD in systematic theology. In fact, the first African-American in the United States to get one. But it is also about those who mentored him, those from whom he took ideas liberally, contemporaries who helped him along the way in developing not only a theology but a sense of activism and a way of being.

And one of those was a role model for King, the reverend Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. Baptist, minister, a scholar, teacher of theology, history and economics. He began his career at the dawn of the 20th century teaching at his alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, economics and history. That's what first turned him on. But he was of course, the son of a preacher in Tennessee. The son of a woman, a mother who was deeply, deeply, wedded to God.

For the last 40 years of Mordecai Johnson's life, he was the president of one of the great universities in the United States, Howard University in Washington DC. An historically black African or African-American university and college. He was president for 40 years, and in fact he was the first African-American president of that institution. But in between, for about 13 years, he first went to seminary after teaching at Morehouse he went to seminary for three years and then he had 10 years of full-time, active, ordained ministry and he continued even after he was hired by Howard to preach and teach about God.

But as well as teaching, still about history and economics, as a university president. And he was in fact the one who made Howard great place where you could probably take two thirds of the great intellectual firepower in the African-American world who in fact changed the culture and the nature. Whether it was Alain Locke, the philosopher, Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer and I could go on, they all were educated and taught at Howard during the time with Mordecai Johnson.

Big things were always expected of him. But back when he was a young professor at Morehouse, he suffered a few emotional and personal setbacks that changed the course of his life. He was expected after graduating, he would, yes, he went and stayed at Morehouse and taught and they thought he would stay there and he could become a college dean and then eventually president. But he had a sadly, broken marriage engagement.

It's a great soap opera. And they broke up and he was mad and she was mad. It was misunderstanding all the way, and ironically this footnote in his life, so they both married other people and they were married for about 40 or 50 years to other people. And then when their spouses died, late in their lives, they reconnected and they got married. But, when he had that broken engagement and then at the same time, his beloved mother, Carolyn died and he was reeling.

He spent days and nights brooding and grieving and one night, in a dream he had a vision. And it was a vision of his life from the perspective of his death bed. And he saw these things of people coming up to him, thanking him for how he comforted them. Thanking him about how he came and helped them when they were in trouble. How was able to give wise counsel to them. And this vision was revelatory and confirmation of a message that had long been instilled in him that he had ignored.

"I knew that I had found the meaning of life." It was service. This means service to others, service to the poor and afflicted. "And to render this service, I needed to leave my scholastic work and enter ministry." He wanted to live up to his mother's dreams to be worthy of the high calling that he knew God had placed upon him. To him it was a special, holy and ethical calling. And he dared not rest content with teaching economics and history to college students.

But here's the deal. His friends were incredulous. "Why, Mordecai? Why would you throw away an expensive education and a promising academic career for a church pulpit? Anybody can be a minister, but only few can be who you are, Mordecai Johnson." And he replied that a true religious calling was nothing that we should denigrate. He understood that his name, Mordecai, comes out of the Old Testament of the one who was helping Queen Esther as the Jewish people were dealing with oppression and challenge.

His education would make him a better minister and he needed to go to seminary. And so despite friends saying that our shining hero goes pious, God's glamour boy, and W.E.B Du Bois, the greatest intellectual force of the 20th century, certainly in African-American world, if not the entire world. Dubois had a similar reaction. He said, "Another good man gone."

But Johnson went to seminary in New York, later Harvard. Chicago. His course was set for life. And those who know, know. That without a Mordecai Johnson, there would not be a Martin Luther King. Willingness to answer God is what we're called too, not worthiness. God will take care of that.

I'd like to conclude with a prayer. A prayer from the great Saint Thomas Merton who writes about this struggle to say, "How do we know we are following God?" Again, it's not willingness or certainty. Excuse me, it's not worthiness or certainty, but the willingness.

Let us pray.

O Lord, my God. I have no idea where I am going and I do not see the road ahead of me. And I cannot know for certain where it will end and nor do I really know myself and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that that desire, that I have that desire and all that I am doing and I hope that I would never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road. And therefore, I will trust you always and though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear. For you are forever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Or as Robert Robinson would say, "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here's my heart, O Lord, take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above."