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The Miracle of Being Worthy
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
There are miracles and then there are miracles. In this passage, the
that is the most obvious is the great catch of fish. But, the miracle
affected me most profoundly is the one that is not obvious. Indeed, it
subtle. It's the miracle of Peter's worthiness in the sight of Jesus.
I count "being made worthy" no small miracle. It is an amazing,
event in the life of faith which defies explanation and cannot be
words. Because of that, it is also dangerous. It can be as easily
it can be put to use for the glory of God. But, I move too fast. Let
by talking about feelings of unworthiness, which can also lead to the
of one's soul, and even more powerfully, the damage of the souls of
Some of you may be aware of my work on the New Commandment Task Force.
over two years, I went right into the belly of the beast of controversy
among Episcopalians across the nation who described themselves as
Liberal/Progressive, Conservative/Evangelical, and Moderates. I learned
a great deal
about my own life and the life of the Church, but I also learned a
about the issue of worthiness and feelings of unworthiness.
I have come to believe that "unworthiness," like most categories of
sin, is a
social disease. Like most social diseases, is an "equal opportunity"
affecting people regardless of gender, age, race, social status or
background. Like most sins of prejudice, it has to be carefully taught.
us are taught by supercritical parents. Others suffer quietly in the
of "star siblings," and while loved by parents, never quite live up to
expectations of teachers or coaches. Still others are carefully but
by society that gender, race, age, physical ability, sexual
educational background or class status render us unworthy.
Those who have been carefully taught to feel unworthy fall beyond the
traditional understanding of sin as hubris, pride. Indeed, for those
unworthy, the sin is often not having enough pride in themselves,
many of their own needs in service of others that there's barely any
This can result in a secret hostility that is always concealed by acts
kindness - or as anxiety which is unnecessarily guilty about any
The church serves as a magnet for those who are plagued with
often exploiting the theology of servant leadership and deepening the
worthlessness - except in acts of service to and within the church. We
known church leaders - lay and ordained - who operate on guilt, fueled
anxiety, and harbor secret hostility just under the surface of acts of
It's the stereotype of the 'church smile' under grit teeth. "God loves
just the way you are, now come and change to MY understanding of who
God is and
how you should live."
My experience on the NCTF taught me that the most vehement cries for
conformity to "orthodox" belief and behavior, which eliminates certain
being seen as worthy of ordination or blessing, often has its origins
deep, dry, empty, bottomless well of unworthiness. Dip into that well,
will find your cup filled to overflowing with anxiety, guilt and secret
In common parlance, this dynamic is often referred to as "should-ing"
someone. We all know people like that. Indeed, we may, ourselves, be a
"should-er" if we stopped long enough to listen to ourselves talk. He
shouldn't. I should. We shouldn't. Should, should, should. We
"should" all over
ourselves and others. I am convinced that people who "should" on
and others are suffering from the social disease of unworthiness. If
undetected and untreated, can lead the unsuspecting soul to deeper,
Okay, hold on. I can see where some of you think I'm going with this.
saying that there is no sin of pride? That we should all put our own
first and to hell with what anyone else thinks or feels? By no means!
often in awe of God's miraculous interventions in my life, and wonder
how it is
that I am deserving of such unconditional love. Perhaps that explains
can never stop crying when I sing the hymn "How Great Thou Art," and
get to that
verse "And when I think/that God his Son not sparing/sent him to die/I
can take it in," I can never hold back the tears. You've heard me
before: God is God and people is people. Fr. Koumaranian said it, I
and that settles it.
What I am saying is that we would all be much healthier - socially and
spiritually - if we understood our own uniqueness, our own worthiness,
in the sight
of God. What I am saying is that our lives (and, indeed, the life of
Church!) would be better able to "repent and return to the Lord" if we
forgive ourselves FIRST for the limits of our own humanity. This would
enable us to
more readily forgive others theirs - especially when they don't live up
expectations and understandings of what Scripture says God wants.
Sometimes, our worst demons are the ones we create ourselves. Let me
you an example. I want to tell you the story of the life and death of
Bernard Healy, former rector of House of Prayer, Newark. Bernie was a
delightful Irish imp - full of practical jokes and laughter - who came
hardscrabble, blue collar, factory-working Irish Roman Catholic
Worcester, MA. He had entered Roman Catholic 'pre-seminary' in his
adolescence, but had been denied access to the ordination process when
he came to
understand the truth of his sexual orientation, and dared to share that
with his superiors.
As so many do, Bernie eventually found his way to The Episcopal Church,
he was able to fulfill his vocational call. He was a good urban
fashioning his life and his ministry on the Catholic Worker model. He
the poorest of Newark's poor and fashioned his life in solidarity with
Sometimes he didn't have enough to feed himself because he gave so much
his own food away to those who knocked at the rectory door. That never
him, though, because he knew he was only one or two phone calls away
mooching a meal from one of his clergy colleagues. We never minded, but
eventually we came to figure out the pattern to his mooching and
understood how deeply
committed he was to his ministry. Or, was he?
First clue: Bernie was a alcoholic. Why? What secret torment led him to
anesthetize himself? We would learn, eventually. When he was diagnosed
he was devastated, but he resolved that, with whatever time he had
would live his life as fully as he was able. He took advantage of an
retirement" which enabled him to live on disability, social security
and resolved to work without pay helping the poor and those with AIDS.
illness progressed rapidly, and within months, he was incapacitated and
When he could no longer care for himself, we moved him into our own
where we could care for him until he died. A group of four friends: Lyn
Moore, Fr. John Nickas, a Roman Catholic colleague from Newark, Pat
wife of the then president of Christ Hospital, Jersey City, and Bishop
McKelvey joined Barbara and me in caring for him. It formed a bond
that still remains strong, despite our differences.
As he grew closer and closer to the close of his life on earth, Bernie
developed something which was absolutely unnerving to witness. He
would stare off
at a particular place on the blinds of the window and his energies
very intense. After a while, it became very apparent that he was having
conversation with something or someone at the blinds in the window.
concerned enough to say something, I took a deep breath and said,
okay. You can go now."
He took a moment to move his gaze from his spot at the window blind,
at me and, grinning impishly said, "If you tell me to 'go toward the
may laugh hard enough to pee my pants." He grew quiet again and turned
attention back to the spot at the window blind. I took his hand in
after awhile I said to him, "Bernie, honest to God, you can go now.
He again took a moment to move his gaze and look at me, but this time,
was no impish grin but real terror on his face. "They won't let me
They won't let me in! Suddenly I understood. Images began cascading
my eyes: The little Irish kid from a poor neighborhood, wanting to get
college so he followed the path through the door of the church. They
me in! The adolescent boy in pre-seminary who understood that his
orientation was different from others. They won't let me in! The
who always struggled against prejudice about monetary and educational
class status. They won't let me in!
Suddenly I realized that so much of Bernie's ministry came out of that
well of guilt and anxiety and secret hostility. I came to understand
was his unworthiness which was the driving force of his
ministry. It also fueled his need to anesthetize with alcohol the pain
and secret hostilities about being so different in so many ways than
norm." I realized that he had suffered years of this untreated social
unworthiness, and he had transformed it for the good, doing a wonderful
ministry. Even so, it had also led him to create his own demons, which
now fighting even unto death.
And, just as suddenly, I found myself very, very angry. "Bernie
said, unable to control the fact that I was raising my voice, "You tell
people at the window that they MUST let you in. You tell them that you
worthy to pass from this life to the next and they can't stop you.
And, you tell
them that if they won't let you in, they are going to have to deal with
Without changing a muscle in his expressionless face, he looked at the
window, nodded his head toward me and said, "Be afraid. Be very
Bernie died 24 hours later - a peaceful death in the middle of the
all of us gathered round his bedside singing, "Amazing Grace," and "How
Thou Art." He died a holy death, spiritually whole and healed of the
his own unworthiness, surrounded by angels who carried him straight to
who loved him into this creation and accepted him back home again with
even greater love.
Bernie said, "They won't let me in." I hear this as an echo of Peter's
confession, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." Jesus
Peter, "Do not be afraid." It is a fearsome thing, indeed, to be so
loved. Sometimes, I scarce can take it in. Peter's eventual
his own worthiness allowed him to hear the worthiness of all people -
Gentiles - and to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. This kind
radical inclusion is at the very center and core of our faith; indeed,
it is its
There are miracles and then there are miracles. Some are obvious.
the most powerful ones are those that are hidden and subtle. Sometimes,
can not work miracles in our lives before battering down the doors of
with little miracles that tell us how much we are love unconditionally
how precious we are in God's sight. After St. Paul was knocked off his
horse, even he was able to say, "By the grace of God, I am what I am."
Eucharistic prayer assures us that "we are made worthy to stand before
How much stronger might we be - might the church be - if more of us
understood the miracle of God's love - before we labor to take our last
Rev'd Elizabeth Kaeton is the rector of The Episcopal Church of St.
Paul in Chatham, New Jersey. She and her partner Barbara, a nationally certified AIDS Clinical Nurse Specialist, have lived in faithful monogamy since 1976, raising six children of their own, and have been actively involved in the lives of six other foster children.
Copyright © 2004 by the author
All Rights Reserved
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