We hear a lot these days about entitlement.
Much has been said and written about it in recent years. People accuse my generation in particular of being the most entitled generation in history. A minority of people older than I have for years imagined that we are a bunch of entitled brats, expecting to be handed things that we feel like we deserve. In reality, I have not experienced my generation to be particularly entitled — at least, not any more so than the entitlement I see in folks both younger and older than myself. In truth, we all think that we are entitled to certain things — whether it’s because we’ve endured something, because we are older, because we are younger, because of our educations, or any other factor — we all, to some degree, feel somewhat entitled.
But still, the stereotype of my so-called entitlement generation remains. It’s not untrue of young people in every age, I don’t imagine: young gunners are known for thinking that they know better than the generations before, that because they have obtained certain things — namely for my generation, an education — that we inherently deserve to be listened to. Young, ambitious people might imagine that they are automatically entitled to excel in whatever they choose to do. They feel they’ve earned it.
I have to tell you that I have found this particularly true of preachers. And not just young preachers, since many come to ministry as a second or third career. New preachers are known for it: a sense of entitlement that we deserve to be listened to, that we are inherently talented and can start writing good sermons immediately.
You see, after a year or two of seminary, one’s brain has been filled with so much information and preparation that one imagines that one is ready to tackle anything in the local parish, especially writing a simple sermon. By my second year, I felt like I’d worked so hard — from working at a local homeless shelter to studying in the library to the wee hours of the morning to going without sleep for a day or two because of the academic rigor — I felt like I’d earned the right to be listened to. I thought that, after tackling so much, writing good sermons would be easy. I’m not alone in that.
For this reason, this sense of entitlement and cockiness that new preachers sometimes have, one’s first sermon can be … how do I put this delicately … comically bad.
There is story after story of preachers’ first sermons. I would tell you the story of mine, but there isn’t much to tell. It lasted four minutes. And it was four minutes of literally everything I knew about Christmas. Unfortunately for me and the United Methodist congregation to whom I preached, it was only the first Sunday of Advent.
When I was at the festival of homiletics last week, one of the speakers talked about a pastor he knew who gave his first sermon after his first year of seminary who prepared meticulously for the occasion. He was ready to give them everything that the church needed: good theology, sound exegesis, Spirit-filled preaching. He was ready to tell them everything they needed to know and everything he had learned from his first year in seminary. Because of his merits as a rising second-year seminarian, he felt that he was worthy to deliver the best sermon that they had ever heard. He had studied and earned it, after all.
Just as he got up to give the sermon, the wind, or perhaps the Spirit, came through and blew his meticulously prepared sermon to the floor. (I suppose I’ve always been scared of this, so I have always numbered my pages every. Single. Time.) Knowing that he was unable to put the pages together in the right order in a timely manner, the rising second year seminarian simply stood in front of the congregation for the next twenty minutes and said, in the Southern and/or African American tradition, “Mmmmmmmhmmm. Alllllright.”
After about ten minutes of this, the first-time preacher heard in that congregation the one thing that Southern preachers never want to hear but so many first time preachers have: the woman in the back raised her hands and said “Help ‘im, Lord.” She continued, as he continued to intone “Mmmmhmmm… allllright,” to shout back and answer him as if he was giving the best sermon she’d ever heard. When he finished, after church, when he met the woman in the receiving line, he said, “That must have been the worst sermon you’ve ever heard. Why did you answer back so much?” “Honey,” she said in her sweet Southern accent, “Just ‘cause you didn’t do your job doesn’t mean I don’t have to do mine.”
Sooner or later, all preachers learn that it is not merits or education that entitles us to preach good sermons. Preach long enough and you will discover that your best sermons — those that would get you a sure A in preaching class — may go unnoticed. And by the same token, sermons that you are 100% sure are stinkers will make people weep and tell you they’ve never heard the Word preached like that because something in that sermon was a healing balm for them. The Holy Spirit is crazy like that.
But one thing you do learn: no preacher’s education or holiness or merits makes the Holy Spirit show up. The Holy Spirit blows where it will. And sometimes it blows your meticulously prepared pages and your sense of entitlement right off the podium.
In the same way, people often talk about healing as if it’s something to be earned. When I was a hospital chaplain, I often heard it: “I don’t know why God isn’t acting, I’ve prayed all night,” or “I must have sinned, because God isn’t healing me.” They figure either that they’ve earned healing with their faithfulness, or that God has somehow turned God’s back on them because they weren’t good enough. It is a heartbreaking and constant common theme for the chaplain.
In today’s Gospel text, the Pharisees come out to meet Jesus with a special message: a local centurion has a slave who is in need of healing. Knowing how Jesus might view centurions — they were occupiers of Jewish land, after all — they go to great lengths to explain why this centurion is worthy of having his servant healed: he’s a good man, they say, who loves our people and helped us to build our synagogue. If anyone is entitled to a healing, they say, it’s him. He’s earned it!
And Jesus, for his part, gets up and goes towards the centurion’s home, presumably to heal the slave. Who knows why Jesus does so — I tend to think that it’s out of concern for the slave, since Jesus always tends to favor the least powerful and most vulnerable. Whatever his motivations, he never gets all the way to the centurion’s house. The centurion’s friends, presumably Romans themselves, come out to meet Jesus and to tell him that the centurion says that he doesn’t need to make a home visit, but that the centurion knows that he can heal his servant from where he stands.
I admit that I don’t know why the centurion doesn’t want Jesus to come into his house. Maybe he’s afraid of what Jesus will see — or afraid of his judgement. Maybe he just doesn’t have a clean house and doesn’t want the Savior of the world just walking in. Or maybe it’s as simple as we assume — maybe the centurion doesn’t want to trouble him. Whatever his motivations, this is another time in Luke’s Gospel where the outsider, the Roman occupier, in this case, gets it while the religious leaders do not. They were bent on convincing Jesus that the centurion was worthy, but the centurion himself did no such thing. He sent his friends out to tell him how unworthy he was to have him come under his roof. And Jesus is so impressed by his faith that he says he hasn’t found anyone in Israel, Jew or Roman, with such faith. (Which, by the way, is a major dig at the religious leaders.)
The Pharisees felt entitled to approach Jesus and to vouch for the centurion based on merits and accomplishments.For sure, we often try to justify ourselves and other people by talking about merits. We’re proud of what we’ve earned and what we’ve done. Seminarians and other new preachers are proud of their accomplishments, and they should be. But what we often fail to realize — or at least, I did — is that it’s God, not our accomplishments, that does the heavy lifting.
Jesus does the healing, not the centurion’s merits. None of us earns God’s favor, which is something we’re entirely unused to in this credential-obsessed world.
In a few moments, we will do a few acts of worship that we do not normally do. One is the lighting of candles to remember those who have served our country who have gone on the join the communion of saints. The other is a rite of healing, as May is Mental Health and Lyme Disease awareness month. In both of these rites, we are tempted to think that it is merit that is at play; that some are entitled to be remembered and some are entitled to be healed. But I want you to think of it like this: we remember the private as well as the general on Memorial Day, and we light candles for every saint on All Saints’. And just as Jesus healed in this story regardless of anyone’s merits, and in doing so healed the least powerful of all, the slave, so Jesus offers wholeness and life abundant to all of us alike.
Beloved, we serve a grace-filled God in a merit-based world.
We like to think that our education, experience, and good deeds put us above others, as they often do in the world. But in God’s kingdom, healing is offered to all. Wholeness is offered to all. And most importantly, grace is offered to all. Thank God.
My sermons today are longer than four minutes and now placed in the right liturgical season, but I am as dependent on the wind of the Spirit now as ever — to blow my merit-based entitlement to the floor so that I can preach the Gospel of a grace-filled God.
May the graceful tempest of the Spirit continue to blow through your lives, also. Amen.
Image: Pastor Anna preaching at her internship congregation, St. Luke Lutheran Church of Atlanta.