Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11 (online here)
In the presence of God, Isaiah cries, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” In the presence of Jesus, Peter cries, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” In the presence of God, Isaiah and Peter are both overwhelmed with their own sense of unworthiness.
For the past 20-plus years, whenever I hear somebody in the Bible say, “I am not worthy,” I can’t help picturing a Saturday Night Live skit where Mike Myers and Dana Carvey grovel before Madonna, repeating, "We're not worthy!" Madonna impatiently responds, "Okay, shut up! You're both worthy," and then the groveling's over, and they start playing Truth or Dare.
We're not worthy!
Okay, shut up! You're worthy.
You know, the Book of Common Prayer says something like that too if you do a little cherry picking. There's the Rite 1 Prayer of Humble Access (on page 337 if you absolutely must check it out): "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table." Then there's the Rite 2 Eucharistic Prayer B: "In him, you have … made us worthy to stand before you." "We're not worthy!" says the Prayerbook, but then later it says, in effect, "Okay, shut up! You're worthy."
Now this sense of unworthiness is apparently natural. The Bible and other religious scriptures are full of stories like this: stories of people awakening to a power and presence so uncontainable, so valuable, that they can't help feeling immeasurably inferior. (Rudolf Otto famously called this a sense of the numinous, involvement with a mystery that is both fascinating and terrifying—mysterium tremendum et fascinans.)
Moses has to take off his sandals (Exodus 3:5). Isaiah cries, "Woe is me!" Peter says, “I am sinful.” In the Bhagavad-Gita the warrior Arjuna discovers that his chariot driver is actually Krishna, an embodiment of the God Vishnu, and he cries out, "O all-pervading Vishnu, ... I am afraid ... I cannot keep my balance ... In all directions I am bewildered.” St. Augustine prays, "When I first came to know you, [O God,] you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being. And ... I trembled" (Confessions 7.10.16).
"Woe is me!" “I am sinful.” "I am afraid, unbalanced." "I am not yet Being." "We're not worthy!"
When we awaken to the presence of God, if it's really God who's involved with us and not some imaginary buddy, we can't help noticing how un-Godlike we are. We start to feel utterly insignificant by comparison. In the presence of uncontainable meaning, we start to feel that even a grain of sand on the beach makes more of a difference to us than we could ever make to God. In the presence of boundless goodness, we start to notice how, no matter how much we lower the bar, we never live up to our own adjusted standards, much less live up to the standards of boundless goodness.
And that, folks, happens to us even before we turn on the news to see once again how determined we are to find new ways to tear ourselves apart. What we see around us confirms what we see within us—we're not any more ready to receive the boundless goodness of God than Isaiah or Peter. We're not worthy.
This is not our imaginary buddy. Yes, we speak to God the way we speak to another one of us, because God is so intimately engaging that we can't help being reminded of a level of intimacy that only happens with another person. But we know that God's engagement with us is immeasurably more than that. God is not a sub-personal, heartless force, but neither is God just another one of us. Every time we kneel or bow (we do a lot of that in my church), we’re reminding ourselves that this is God, the power and presence so uncontainable, so valuable, that we can easily feel reduced to almost nothing. We are so un-Godlike.
So it's only natural to respond with something like, "We're not worthy!" Isaiah and Peter are just doing what comes naturally, and so are we.
But notice, when Peter abjectly professes his own unworthiness, he’s doing this in the presence of Jesus. And Jesus is not doing what comes naturally. He’s doing what comes gracefully.
Getting baptized, washing smelly feet, inviting shady characters to break bread with him, getting executed, inexplicably showing up afterwards to embrace even his executioners—Jesus keeps refusing to do what comes naturally, or even what we think ought to come supernaturally. Instead he keeps doing what comes gracefully. We are so un-Godlike, we confess, but in Jesus we're dumbfounded by God's insistence on being so us-like—more us-like than we know how to be.
Here's one of our own whose post-mortem life among us embodies meaning and goodness that are so uncontainable, so boundless, that our own standards of significance and worth don't work anymore.
Yes, in the whole scheme of things, we're just tiny bits, like grains of sand, easily swept away. We're here only for a brief moment. But in the presence of uncontainable meaning and boundless goodness, even a grain of sand, even a quark, even a microsecond, is irreplaceable, significant and worthwhile beyond measure. There's no need to ask who's inferior and who's superior, because there's no competition here. In this whole, graceful scheme of things, you already matter more, you're already worth more, than you can ever imagine. Just when you feel that nothing matters less than you, you're astonished to realize that nothing matters more than you—or the person next to you, or the people you're not noticing at all.
Maybe it's only natural to feel unworthy when we first catch a glimpse of all this, but it's time to get over that. Like a knee-jerk we say, "We're not worthy!" But in Jesus' graceful life we hear God say, "Okay, shut up! You're worthy." Worthy beyond measure.
It's happening among us now. When Augustine realized how un-Godlike he was, he trembled. But he didn't remain stuck there: "I found myself far from you, [O God. Yet I] heard as it were your voice from on high: 'I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And ... you will be changed into me.' ... I heard in the way one hears within the heart, and all doubt left me" (Confessions 7.10.16).
That's what's happening here. We confess our un-Godlikeness. Sometimes we kneel and bow in awe and reverence. But in the bread and wine we bless and share, we're sharing the food of the fully grown, God, uncontainable meaning and boundless goodness filling and renewing the likes of even us. Whether all doubt leaves us or not, we are being changed into the likeness of the God who dares to be so us-like.
"We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table." "In him, you have … made us worthy to stand before you." You are worthy, right now, more than you'll ever fathom.
Commonly Asked Question: You keep talking as if a lot of us have this experience of uncontainable meaning, presence and goodness. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such an experience, and I think I speak for a lot of people.
Counter-Question: I’m in no position to tell you what you actually experience. But have you ever experienced this deep sense of your own insignificance or unworthiness? How would that experience even be possible without at least some dim sense of deeper meaning and goodness with which you are comparing yourself?