Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

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

This week’s humor section–“Shouts and Murmers”–in the New Yorker (which some of you saw that I posted on Facebook) was titled “Preaching-Team Tips for Surefire Sermons!” and it included some very amusing suggestions. I have two to add, though. First, “you might enjoy online word games, but have you heard the ‘Wordle of the Lord?’” Second, stand in the pulpit, microphone in hand, and shout, as if it were a boxing or pro-wrestling match “Let’s get ready to HUMBLE!” (This is why I don’t usually open with a joke.)

Joking aside, “let’s get ready to humble” might be an appropriate start considering this week’s lessons. The Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel all point to the fact that humility is the staring point for faithfulness. They all suggest that a recognition of or own unworthiness is the necessary precursor to doing God’s work.

Upon seeing the glory of the Lord, Isaiah laments “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst jof 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, Paul wrote to the Corinthians “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” I would propose that Paul’s ministry was so transformative, initiating the mission to the nations and opening the church to gentile sinners, not in spite of his dodgy past, but precisely because of it, precisely because he could recognize with humility that none of us is outside the reach of God’s grace, because it changed his life despite his sinful past.

Finally, it is only after Peter says “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” 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 regard. 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 nevertheless 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 hearts by his Precious Blood.

This is the great paradox of the Christian life. We are not worthy, but we have been made worthy. God does consider 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 Paul 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.