I was home-schooled in high school. It was a decision my parents came to after the first school shooting in Columbine, a tragedy that has been repeated with terrifying frequency in the years and decades that have passed since then. It was a decision I was fine with but one that had an unintended side-effect—it left me with a fear that I might fall behind my peers, that I might not learn enough, that I might not be prepared enough when the time came for me to begin college.
When at last I did start college, I pushed myself hard academically. I strove to be excellent in my studies, sometimes to the neglect of other parts of my life. I did it to prove, time and again, that I was worthy to be there. I did it because, deep down, I was afraid that I wasn’t—that I wasn’t good enough.
Years later, in a church I was serving at the time, I had a youth member in whom I recognized a similar impulse to exceed academically. She placed herself under immense pressure to excel in coursework and extracurricular activities alike, to the point that it was adversely affecting her health. Her mother confided once that nothing would make her happier than if the school called one day to report that her daughter had played hooky and skipped classes.
I did my best to support this youth, and I knew that when I was her age, there was little that anyone could have said or done to deter me from my single-minded focus. Rather, I hoped she would discover the truth that I didn’t figure out until I was in seminary—that my grades did matter very much. It was the truth that my GPA was not the measure of my person. It was not even a measure of my preparation for ministry. And it was certainly not a measure of my worth.
I am hardly the first person to ever try and prove their own worth. People do it all the time. Sometimes it is with school work and other times is with the jobs we hold and the titles we collect. We try to demonstrate our worthiness with our homes and with our cars. Sometimes we do it with the clothes that we wear and the relationships we cultivate. In a city like ours, you do not have to look very hard to find many examples of these conspicuous indicators of value and worth.
To be clear, none of these things on their own are bad and some can even be good. But they get us into trouble when we use them to try and assuage that deep fear that we are not enough, when we use them to try and assure ourselves and others that we are worthy.
This impulse, this insecurity, even creeps into our faith and our spirituality. If I pray enough, if I am righteous enough, if I am devoted enough, then I will be worthy of God. Now, admittedly, it sounds a bit silly when I say it out loud. But believe me, it is there, buried deeply within so many of us.
Recently I was reading the reflections of some people who grew up in certain Pentecostal churches, churches where speaking in tongues plays a central role in identity. These people shared stories of the immense pressure that they felt to be able to speak in tongues and so prove that they had received the gift of the Spirit. They wrote of church members and family praying for them to receive the gift. They spoke of the shame they felt when there were passed over for leadership positions, and sometimes even jobs, because they could not speak in tongues. Finally, many of them shared the advice they eventually received from a trusted mentor or family member to simply fake it.
This is an extreme example, admittedly, but the same fear, the same insecurity is at work in so many of us. It betrays itself in our words and our actions. If you have ever told yourself or someone else to pray harder, then you have glimpsed it. If you have ever caught yourself evaluating whether someone is a good person based on whether they go to church, then you have seen that fear. And if you have ever felt guilt or shame because you don’t think your spiritual practice is rigorous enough, then you know of which I speak.
I was in a room full of clergy once, and the topic of personal prayer practice came up. “I don’t know how clergy can survive if they don’t say the Daily Office as a part of their spiritual practice,” one of them priests said. My friends, let me tell you, the room shut down. Looking at the faces of my colleagues, I could see the shame and the fear of inadequacy behind so many eyes. The conversation ground to a halt.
Yes, so many of us fall prey to this fear and insecurity, especially clergy. But none of it is true. Speaking in tongues is not a measure of our worthiness. The eloquence and regularity of our prayers is not a measure of our value. And the words of Morning Prayer are not a measure of our effectiveness in ministry or faith.
None of these external signs of value and worth are true because no matter how many of them we collect, whether secular or spiritual, they will never be enough. They are not enough because deep down we know the places within ourselves where we are broken and in need of healing. And no GPA, no matter how good it is, can change that. Deep down we know the places where we fall short, and no amount of devotion to the Daily Office will change that.
And Jesus said, “When you come to the great banquet table, do not exalt yourself, for it will be for naught. Rather, come as yourself and take your place, without pretense, so that the banquet host may raise you up and make you worthy.”
In a world that demands we prove continuously our value and our worth, Jesus’ words are radical. Come with your wounds. Come with your suffering and your fears. Come with your broken places and discover the healing and the wholeness that God offers to your freely. There is nothing that you need to do. Indeed, there is nothing that you can do. Come just as you are so that you might at last discover that you are enough. You are enough, not because you have earned it or proven yourself worthy. You are enough because God is enough.
That is what it means to live in grace. This is the secret of grace. You are enough because God is enough.
In just a few moments we will gather here at this table. As is always the case, everyone is welcome to take part at this feast. As you come forward, I invite you to come just as you are. Discover for yourself the healing and wholeness that God gives freely. Taste with your own lips the radical grace that God offers to all people.
We talk a lot about radical hospitality here at St. Faith’s and we put a lot of thought and effort into being an open and welcoming community. But it would be a mistake to think that radical hospitality is about being kind and friendly or to think that it is a church growth strategy. No, at the heart of radical hospitality is radical grace, the very same radical grace that we encounter every week at the altar table, the same radical grace that transforms, and heals, and makes whole.
Once we have found that grace, once we have experienced it for ourselves, the only thing that we can do is carry it from here into the world. The only thing we can do is offer it freely to others in the same way it was so freely offered to us.
You are enough, each and every one of you, because God is enough. And God is enough for the whole world; God’s grace is given freely to the whole world. God’s table is always bigger and there is a place for you there.