Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Am I Good Enough?” (Luke 14:7-14)
September 1, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
September is here which means football season is here—nothing like football in the Deep South. While the opening games of high school, college, and professional football teams are exciting for many people, it is a different experience for players who do not make the final roster, players who get cut, players who could but probably won’t watch those games on TV. In the NFL yesterday over a thousand players, who did everything they could to realize their dream of playing professional football, were told they did not make the final roster.
As I was doing my daily ESPN online devotions last week, I learned that more often than not the players being cut hear these ominous words, “Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook.” Duke Preston, who is on the staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, says, “It’s the worst day of the year. It’s just bad. On Thursday after the final preseason game you’re on the plane and you know that there are 37 guys whose dreams will end in a matter of hours.” Doug Marron, current head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, experienced this multiple times as a player:
Marron has received the phone call and the reminder to bring his playbook. He has been on the other side of the desk in a head coach’s office and heard the clichés. He knows what it feels like when someone tells you that you’re not good enough, and what it’s like to walk back into the locker room, throw your stuff in a bag, and walk past former teammates trying not to make eye contact (ESPN.com, “What It’s Really Like to Be Cut in the NFL”, 8/29/19).
There may be a few of you here today who have been cut by a football team, or perhaps cut by some other team. Or perhaps some of you know what it is like to be cut from a job search process. Many years ago I was one of two finalists for an associate rector position at a large downtown city church out west. Like many church search processes, it had been a long one, many months. During those processes you ask yourself the same “what if” questions again and again, and you have the same “what if” conversations with your spouse again and again.
I finally got a phone call from the rector of that church informing me that the other finalist had been offered and accepted that job. Of course it really stung. Then it just got weird as this rector began telling me what an amazing guy this other candidate was—so talented, so gifted—and asking me did I know him. I replied in a fake upbeat voice, “Wow, sounds like a great guy. I’ll have to meet him sometime. Congratulations!” Some of you could share a similar story.
Every year high school seniors, and their parents, undergo the nerve wracking college application process and experience the joy being accepted by some colleges and the pain of being rejected by others. Like football tryouts and job searches, college applications are stressful because they touch a deep nerve directly connected to a vulnerable question that ricochets in our minds, “Am I good enough?” Making the team, being offered the job, or admission to a college communicate that you are indeed good enough—while being cut from the team, or passed over for the job, or not admitted to a college does the opposite.
On an even deeper level this internal question “Am I good enough?” can pop up in our most intimate relationships like with our spouse, or with a parent or child, or with a boyfriend or girlfriend. I cannot tell you the number of times people have poured out their heart to me in my office with a stressful relational dynamic in their life that ultimately boils down to that question, “Am I good enough?” They pour out their hearts about the unceasing need to prove themselves to those they love in order to be told by them in some way that they are indeed good enough—or pretty enough, smart enough, athletic enough, successful enough—fill in the blank.
Many years ago a brilliant lady in her late 30’s who was on the faculty of Harvard Medical School was crying in my office because as accomplished as she was, she still did not feel like she was good enough for her mom. Her mom had never shown her approval, and this professor did not know what else she could do to prove herself to her mom. And of course this distraught professor is not alone. There may be more than a few of you here today who are constantly trying to prove yourselves, constantly trying to earn an affirmative response to the question “Am I good enough?” It is from this starting point that many people act aggressively or throw their weight around in an effort to prove themselves not only good enough, but better than others. This occurs from the crib in the nursery all the way to the mechanical bed in the nursing home, and everywhere in between.
In today’s gospel passage Jesus was attending a dinner at a Pharisee’s house when he came face to face with this very dynamic:
When (Jesus) noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:7-11).
Out of the desire to feel good enough, or the desire to demonstrate their superiority over others, guests at the dinner that night made sure to take the seats of honor. But Jesus warns against that and instead commands “go and sit down at the lowest place.” And Jesus does not stop there. He continues with a word of grace for those who think they are not good enough:
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:12-14).
In other words, when you have a party, invite those who are usually not invited, those who are usually left out, those who are convinced they are not good enough.
Earlier this summer Netflix released a documentary entitled Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, about Bob Dylan’s famous 1975 to 1976 concert tour, filled with fascinating footage and interviews. Although he could have sold out stadiums and raked in much more money, Dylan intentionally chose to play smaller venues in cities where big musical acts rarely went—places like Patrick Gym in Burlington, Vermont and Lundholm Gym in Durham, New Hampshire. Dylan played in places where people often did not feel good enough.
In footage from that tour people on the street were asking, “Why would Bob Dylan come to our little town? Why would he come here?” They just did not get it. There is a particularly moving scene where at the end of one concert the PA announcer thanks everyone for coming as the lights go on. As people are filing out, one young lady just stands there, completely overcome by the awesome concert she has just seen, completely overcome that someone as famous as Bob Dylan would come to her little town and sing to her. And she just starts crying. It’s very moving. One of the songs frequently played on this tour was Dylan’s 1962 classic “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, which sounds like an Old Testament prophecy:
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
(On his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)
Throughout his earthly life and ministry Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world, was often considered not good enough. He was not good enough at his birth, so he was born in a barn. He was not good enough in his hometown of Nazareth, so he was dishonored there. He was not good enough because he hung out with lepers and notorious sinners and “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” and so was often disparaged by others. He was not good enough because he was not a Roman citizen, so he was crucified.
And yet, throughout his earthly ministry, over and over again, instead of proving that he was indeed good enough, Jesus intentionally reached out to those who felt like they were not good enough…not good enough because of their sin, or because of their sickness, or because of their poverty, or because of their disability, or because of their past, or because of their failures.
Jesus intentionally reached out to players who had been cut by the team and said, “Of course I want you on my team.” Jesus intentionally reached out to those who had been passed over for the job and said, “Follow me. I have a job for you.” Jesus intentionally reached out to those who were not accepted by the college and said, “I accept you. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”
Jesus metaphorically played concerts at small venues in little towns and sang songs of hope to the hopeless, songs of joy to the sad, songs of love to the loveless. Jesus walked “to the depths of the deepest black forest where the people are many and their hands are all empty…where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten.”
Jesus always took the lowest seat and instead of being lifted to a better seat, he was lifted up on a cross, where he died for the world, including you. Scripture assures us, “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). This same Jesus who died in the lowest place on the cross, the place of disgrace, was raised on the third day and later ascended to the highest place, the right hand of God the Father in heaven (Philippians 2:8-9).
In other words, the good news of the gospel is that even though you may not feel good enough, or think you are good enough, it is not your opinion that carries the day—but the opinion of Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world, who considered you good enough to die for—and he still does.
And even now Jesus comes to your little town and invites everyone, especially those who do not feel good enough, to the banquet of his grace, the banquet of his unconditional love.