Sermon for Epiphany 5 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’ve always enjoyed attending Eastern Orthodox liturgies. They’re not for the faint of heart. They’re long, and the Orthodox generally don’t believe in sitting at church, standing being their proper posture for prayer. Even so, I’ve found the mystery and beauty of the Eastern Liturgy to be captivating.

There is, however, at least one element of the Orthodox liturgical life which I’m thankful we don’t have in our Western Tradition. It’s in the ordination liturgy. As soon as the bishop has ordained the new priest he proclaims in Greek “axios”: “he is worthy”, and all the people respond “axios”. Then the bishop holds up each vestment in turn and again he and the congregation proclaim “axios”, “he is worthy” as each vestment is placed on the newly ordained.

With apologies to the Eastern Church, there seems to me to be a bit of potential dishonesty, or at least some wishful thinking, in this proclamation of “axios”, for in a sense none of us is worthy to do God’s work, whether it be as an ordained priest or as a faithful layperson. To quote those two imminent theologians Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World “We’re not worthy!” This isn’t to say we’re not bound to do what God has intended for us, what God has called us to do, but that we shall never become truly worthy of the task.

Both this morning’s Old Testament lesson and Gospel point to this fact. Indeed, they both suggest that a recognition of or own unworthiness is the necessary precursor to doing God’s work at all. Upon seeing the glory of the Lord, Isaiah laments “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” It is only after this realization, after his recognition of himself as a sinner in need of God, that Isaiah is given the wherewithal to respond to God’s call by saying “Here am I, send me.” Thanks be to God that He chose a man of unclean lips to be His prophet.

Likewise, it is only after Peter says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” that Christ commissions him to be a fisher of men. God chose sinful Peter to be the rock upon which He built His Church. He chose sinful Paul to be His apostle to the Gentiles. He continues to choose unworthy, sinful people to be His agents of Grace and Love in a world which needs both so desperately.

It is remarkably easy to view our own unworthiness as a way out of whatever God calls us to do and be. A great number of my seminary classmates avoided entering ordained ministry for years and sometimes decades precisely because they thought themselves unworthy of the task to which God was calling them. I’m thankful that God shook me out of this temptation early on, because you can rest assured I wouldn’t be a priest if I thought being worthy of the vocation was a prerequisite. The same holds for all those who do God’s work in any respect. It’s easy to avoid doing God’s work because one think one has to be a pillar of purity and propriety before she or he can engage in the tasks incumbent on a Christian, that one has to be perfect before one can do evangelism or charitable work or hold a position of leadership in the church. Of course, this is all nonsense, because God only has unworthy people to choose from. If one had to be perfect to do anything in the church, nothing would ever get done.

All that said, once we begin to engage in whatever work God has set aside for us, we cannot wallow in our own unworthiness, our own imperfection. Rather, we pray that Christ may make us perfect even as His Father is perfect. My constant prayer is “make me worthy of the vocation to which you have called me.” I’m pretty sure it won’t happen in this life, but I believe that with God’s help I’ll make some progress in that direction.

And we can take comfort in the fact that though we can never become worthy by our own efforts, we have in another sense already been made worthy to stand before the Father. We have already been made worthy to engage in the work of the Gospel, not through anything we’ve done, not through any cleverness or quality of our own, but through Christ’s one sacrifice on the Cross. Just as God touched the mouth of Isaiah with the burning coal, so he has cleansed our own hearts by his Precious Blood.

This is the great paradox of the Christian life. We are not worthy, but we have been made worthy. Though I’m still grateful that nobody had to get up at my own ordination and proclaim “axios”, I think that God proclaims “axios” when any of His children engage in His work, for from the perspective of the Father we are worthy. He sees not our unworthiness, that predilection to sin and selfishness that none of us will be rid of in this life, but the perfect love and power of His Son which has made us worthy.

So, never let “I’m not worthy” be an excuse. Isaiah and Peter already tried it, and we know how that turned out. Rather, give thanks that though unworthy, Christ has made us worthy, and the proper response is to stop running, stop “wrestling with God”, and do whatever it is He’s calling you to do. He’ll put us all to work sooner or later, so we might as well get on with it.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.