This morning’s sermon seems to have gone well, even among the people who helpfully noted before the service that they were expecting a strong one. The specially odd part is that (as you will see, if you’re so inclined) the sermon pivoted on the question of “self-esteem,” and whether Isaiah and Paul and Peter suffered from low self-esteem — so in commenting about how I felt about it, I have to observe a robust enough confidence that I can mention, in passing, that I see some rough patches.
Actually, my original draft began with a description of Chris Locke’s relentless polemic against bogus self-esteem-mongers. It got off to a great start, then modulated into the problems that arise when students arrive for study with a boatload of groundless self-esteem. But I try to be very, very cautious about saying things from the pulpit that I can easily imagine stirring up needless trouble, and if studetns were there it might have been problematic for me to suggest that I knew of over-confident students. Then too, the transition to the Scripture lessons wasn’t working out, so I scrapped that beginning and just started writing in the middle. Eventually a beginning paragraph attached itself to the middle, and I wrote the ending in the wee hours of this morning. Took a nap, walked to church, and — as I said before — people received it very generously.
All that being said, I’m pretty tired. I look forward to a comfortable night’s sleep, and I won’t bother getting to work by eight, the way I usually do. It feels good just anticipating it.
[Later: Kelvin has put the video of the sermon up — here it goes.]
Isa 6:1-8/Ps 138/1 Cor 15:1-11/Luke 5:1-11
5 Epiphany, 7 February 2010
Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips!
In the name of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — Amen.
If you ran into Peter by the lakeside — if you mended nets with him, told each other a few jokes, exaggerated about the size of the fish you caught — if you knew Peter before he fell in with Jesus, you would probably have thought he was a pretty regular guy. Scripture gives us no reason to think of him as a more or less good man than the next fisherman. Yet when Jesus gave him some unsolicited fishing advice, and it worked, the first thing Peter could think of was to recoil from Jesus, saying “I am a sinner!”
Little as we know about Peter, we don’t know much more about Isaiah. We certainly don’t know of some secret shadow life he led, about which he might have been particularly ashamed. When he recognises the presence of God in the Temple, he cries out “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips,” but he adds that the rest of the nation is in the same boat. So we don’t have reason to think that Isaiah, any more than Peter, was an especially wicked person.
About Paul, we know more; but most of what we know about Paul suggests that he was less wicked than your average man in the Street. He got First Class Honours in his religion classes; he belonged to the very most observant sort of Judaism; he studied hard, and if you pressed him he would admit that when it came to righteousness under the Torah, he was perfect. So yes, he persecuted the church, sought to destroy it, but even that arose from his unwavering commitment to doing the right thing on behalf of God and his faith. It’s hard to find fault with Paul for that; most organisations would regard Paul as their most valuable employee. Still when Jesus reached out to him, Paul thought not of all his obedience and accomplishments, but of his ill-fated determination to stamp out the memory of Jesus.
A twenty-first century observer might suppose that these three men all had self-esteem issues. Isaiah’s lips were no less clean than his neighbours’. Peter was a fisherman, but presumably no more sinful than most serial exaggerators. We can all agree that Paul oughtn’t to have tried to suppress the church, but that doesn’t make him “unfit to be an apostle,” “the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things.” Many folks would say these fellows ought to stand up for themselves and say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough.”
Good and smart and reliable as these gents may have been, it would be wrong to attribute their sudden spasms of self-abnegation as signs that they need to join a theological support group. While some people, some times, certainly do overstate their unworthiness, our three heroes do not usually display any morbid uncertainty. Isaiah prophecies for chapter after chapter, forthrightly telling the people of Judah about the spiritual and political dangers that lie ahead of them. Peter seemed to have been a willing leader among the disciples, the student who always has the answer (right or wrong). And although our friend Paul was sternly opposed to haughtiness, he firmly asserted his authority to serve as the chief pastor to his scattered congregations. These were not ancient Gloomy Gus-es, shoe-gazing and moping and doubting that they could possibly serve God as leaders; they were strong, active, resolute spokesmen for the Truth.
Each of these — the prophet, the rock, the apostle — each of them faltered not (so far as we can tell) out of some hidden weakness in his character. Their response derives not from their personality quirks, but from the stunning revelation of God’s tremendous majesty. Truth itself met them in the temple, on the road to Damascus, in the daily work of fishing; and when confronted with the truth, each of these men answered out of the undeniable awareness that even good, hard-working, well-intentioned prophets and apostles can’t stand toe-to-toe before God without flinching.
Holiness does that to you. Holiness unveils all the little petty stuff, the ill-tempered remark to a co-worker, the fleeting selfishness that withholds charity from need, the impulsive indulgence, the persistent pride. Holiness melts away the layers of painted-on self-sufficiency and displays our vulnerable spots — reveals, in fact, that we’re vulnerable all over. Holiness lifts from our shoulders the armour (and the burden) of self-sufficiency, and exposes our naked wounds, scars, stigmas, sores. Holiness opens us to Truth, before whose light no pretence of grandeur can prevail.
Holiness reveals us as we are, not to finger-wag or scold, but to heal and restore. And for those who face the truth about our wounds, our scars, our weaknesses, Holiness reaches out with grace, with cauterising fire, with blessed assurance to raise us up and restore and strengthen us.
That Holiness may come to you when you are least prepared. Peter was just wrapping up a long night’s fishing, mending his nets by the lake, when an peculiar stranger wandered up and instructed him to return to the fishing ground. It wasn’t this stranger’s appearance, or tone of voice, or even the teachings he offered from the boat, before he told Simon Peter to navigate to the deeper water; none of these revealed to Peter whom he was dealing with. Only when the nets came in bursting with fish did the penny drop so that Peter realised suddenly everything mattered in a way it had never seemed to matter before. And Peter understandably wanted no part of this change, at first. Indeed, in a boat sinking under the weight of an miraculous catch to which this man had guided him, Peter feared for his life. “Don’t do this to me” — but Jesus dispelled the fisherman’s fear, and made him the cornerstone of his movement.
That Holiness may come to you from the least likely direction. The Saul who set out to Damascus was no friend of Jesus, not even a neutral observer; he was out to eradicate the memory of Jesus’ disruptive version of Judaism. Jesus was Saul’s enemy, and Saul no doubt imagined that he was Jesus’ enemy. And the disciples’ preaching did not affect Saul, their dignity under persecution did not change him, their unwavering faith did not deter him. Somewhere between Jerusalem and Damascus, Saul encountered his enemy who, despite possessing all the power of divinity, did not attack him but simply greeted him with sympathy and gentleness. His enemy invited him to participate in the very movement he had set out to eliminate; and when Saul recovered his eyesight, it all looked different to him. The zeal of the persecutor thereafter fuelled the energy of the tireless apostle of grace.
Holiness might even — and here I am not joking, nor do I want to make you nervous — but Holiness might even overtake you, unexpectedly, unawares, when you’re in church. You might be here for Sunday morning worship, or Evensong, or choir rehearsal, or a vestry meeting, or just stepping inside for shelter from the blazing sunshine and scorching heat of typical Glasgow weather. You might be a lifelong member, or an innocent bystander, or even an opponent of everything the church teaches and believes. You might not know a thurible from an asperorium, but one day without warning the nave fills with glory, and the luminance flares from rafters, and the whole cathedral is filled with a brilliance that is only the dusty hem of God’s divine raiment of light. You might ask yourself, “My God, what have I done?” when fiery angels emerge from the smoke of the incense and await you. And then you might say, “Here I am; send me.”
Stranger things have happened. In fact, stranger things have happened in church.
I don’t know about that burning coal. I have the feeling that if a seraph were zooming toward me with a glowing ember in his tongs, I would probably say, “I am a man of an unclean shoulder blade back there.” I would kneel and confess, though, and not from a sense of low self-esteem, but from the utterly undoubtable awareness that before the holy throne of God, every one of my shortcomings was transparently, plainly, openly obvious; and I would be ashamed indeed. And yet I know as well that the Holiness who found fish for Simon Peter, who offered grace and forgiveness to Paul, who cleansed the lips of Isaiah so that he might speak with a prophet’s wisdom — I know that Holiness exposes my sins only to heal, to forgive, to illumine, to give grace, to give amazing grace. And I’d be in good company: with Isaiah, and Paul, and Peter; and, I hope, with you. Here we are; send us.