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Sermon for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

Feb 10, 2019

Passage: Luke 5:1-11

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Sermons for Year C (2018-2019)

Detail:

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (2018)
February 10th, 2019
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel at CCU) 

Isaiah 6:1-13 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Luke 5:1-11

So, I don’t know if y’all notice it week to week, but the lessons that the church has assigned for each Sunday don’t always have a common theme. I won't totally geek out here and talk about how the powers that be pick the readings, but basically the assigned readings are meant to expose us to as much of the scriptures as is practically possible over the course of the church year. As a result, there’s no guarantee that all three readings on a given Sunday will be thematically related. And this lack of a common theme is especially true during the “green” seasons, which - as you can tell - we are currently in! So when we do get three readings that do have a common thread, it’s worth taking note.

And this morning, we have three lessons that have what I’d call a pretty obvious common theme: unworthiness. If you recall - in the lesson from Isaiah, we are told that Isaiah has a vision of God, and his reaction is to say, “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 lesson from the First letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Paul is recounting the vision he had of the risen Jesus in which Jesus commissions him to be an apostle, and about this vision Paul says “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” And then in Gospel lesson, we have the story of a miraculous catch of fish in which Simon Peter says to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” In all three lessons, we see that people’s reaction to an encounter with God is to protest their unworthiness. 

And this theme of feeling unworthy in the face of holiness is common not just to the scriptures, but to human experience across the ages. I think it fair to say that it still applies just as powerfully today as it did several thousand years ago. And it’s not just a sense of unworthiness in the face of God that many of us struggle with. For a vast majority of the people on earth, the feeling of unworthiness is so pervasive that it touches almost every aspect of life imaginable. Many of us believe that, deep down, we are not worthy of love, not worthy of friendship, not worthy of happiness, not worthy of whatever good it might be - because we are convinced that we really are rotten to the core and that if others really knew just how bad we were, then they’d never love us; never want to be our friends; never allow us to be happy. And so, sadly, many of us live in a constant state of fear: fear that others will find out the truth of who we really are. 

And, again sadly, when it comes to faith in God, this fear gets amplified. Because if you believe that God is all knowing, then it follows that God knows just how bad you really are, and if God knows just how bad you really are, then there’s no way you can ever be worthy in God’s eyes. Some Christians take this belief to an absolute extreme and say that human beings are all so totally depraved that we deserve nothing but God’s wrath and condemnation. And so we are right to be afraid of a genuine encounter with God. 

But here’s where I believe that way of thinking breaks down: it assumes that there’s no such thing as God’s love or God’s grace. To put it another way, if we assume that we stand completely on our own and that our worthiness in God’s eyes is based solely on our own individual merit, then yes, not a single one of us is worthy of God’s love. Only, we don’t stand alone. God loves us not because of what we’ve done on our own. God loves us - full stop. 

And we do not stand apart from God’s grace. In fact, in the Christian way of thinking, it’s impossible to sustain any claim about human worth that does not depend first and foremost on God’s grace. And grace is a given. Grace makes us worthy. No matter how much we might protest our unworthiness, the simple fact is that if God’s grace is real, then our own sense of unworthiness doesn’t really enter the equation. If God loves us, that’s all that matters. 

If we look back at the lessons from scripture, we see how grace trumps unworthiness every time. For Isaiah, an angel touches his lips with a burning coal and declares that his sin has been blotted out. Isaiah doesn’t do anything to deserve it - by a sheer act of grace, he is made worthy. For Paul, after he says that he does not deserve to be called an apostle, he adds, “But by the grace of God, I am what I am.” It’s grace that made Paul an apostle, in spite of himself. For Simon Peter, Jesus doesn’t even address his protest of unworthiness. He just calls Simon Peter to follow.

And it’s the same for us. For all our fears and protestations of unworthiness, God’s grace and God’s love beckon us. And when God calls us, note what we’re called to do. We aren’t called to make God’s grace and love real. We’re called to be witnesses to it.

A mentor of mine once said that whenever you go to visit someone in the hospital, it’s important to know before ever walking through the door that you’re not bringing God’s presence into the room. You have to understand that God was there long before you arrived and will be there long after you leave. And if you appreciate that reality, then that’s really all you need to be an effective minister of the gospel. Because all you’re doing is witnessing to a truth that already exists.

There’s a tremendous relief in understanding that God’s grace can work in us and through us  in spite of our own sense of unworthiness. Because it relieves us of a burden that none of us can really bear. And it frees us to share the good news that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace and God’s love. 

My hope is that this church will always be a place where the message has a common theme: that God’s grace and love stand in stark contrast to the notions of unworthiness that many of us struggle with; that God has made us worthy to stand before him; and that we are called to share this good news with others. Because after all, by the grace of God, that’s what the church should be.