Sermon for Sunday, March 30, 2014
“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” — I Samuel 16:7
For this morning’ sermon, I’m going to let you in on one of the secrets of the priesthood. No, it’s not some “hocus pocus” about the Eucharist; nor is it a secret handshake we all learned in seminary; and neither is it some Dan Brown-style secret that each of us has been sworn to guard. The secret is at once more closely guarded than that and yet at the same time an “open” secret. The secret is this: most clergy feel – at least some of the time – inadequate and unworthy of our calling. This sense of inadequacy and unworthiness may appear for some of us as we are chairing a meeting. For others it may come when we are preaching, or officiating at a funeral, or maybe wearing the collar around town. For me, my sense of inadequacy and unworthiness most often shows up during the liturgy, at the offertory, just before communion. There I am, up at the altar, the table set, waiting for the gifts to be brought forward (the bread and wine, and the offering plates). And a voice inside my head will say something like, “What are you doing up here?” “Think of how many people are more deserving than you to stand here.” “Where is that trap door where I can disappear, because I really don’t belong here?” I’ve learned over the years to expect this voice, and not to trust it. It may well be true – no, I’m sure it’s true – that there are others more worthy and competent to stand there than I am. But worthiness is not the point. The point is that God has called. God knows full well that that there are “better” and more deserving people to stand at the altar; but for whatever reason, God has called me. I’ve learned – I’m learning – to trust the call. “I don’t fully understand it,” I might say to God, “But, OK, here I am. Use me. And give me the grace you know I need.”
I’m willing to admit this because I have a hunch that we clergy are not alone. God calls each and every one of us to follow, to open ourselves to God’s love and to be open to what that love might work in us. And I have a hunch that most of us – if not all of us – when it comes to God, at least some of the time have feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. I bet that a lot of us have, somewhere inside us, an inner Peter who, upon seeing the miraculous catch of fish, say to the Lord, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
As I consider the feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy that I sometimes feel, I cannot help but think of Caravaggio’s painting, “The Call of St. Matthew.” Please take out the copy of this painting, on the half sheet handed out with the order of service.
It’s a striking painting, with strong contrasts between dark and light, with powerful lines made by the light, but also with legs and angled torsos and pointing fingers. And notice how, at the convergence of those lines is Matthew, sitting slumped at his tax table as if to say, “You can’t possibly mean me?!” You may recall that Pope Francis, when telling an interviewer what it was like to be elected Pope, referred to this painting. “That’s me,” he said. “I feel like him, like Matthew… No. Not me!… [I am but] a sinner on whom he has turned his gaze.” (Even the Pope sometimes feels unworthy!)
It’s worth considering these feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy now, in Lent, because Lent has a way of bringing us face to face with our shortcomings and brokenness, and bringing our feelings of unworthiness close to the surface. I don’t know exactly how – maybe it’s the readings, maybe the hymns, or maybe it’s just that time of the year – but I always feel somewhat “in the wilderness” during Lent. And… alongside Lent’s putting us in touch with our shortcomings, Lent also offers us hope in the forgiveness, the grace and the love that God wishes to give us. No matter how “in the wilderness” I might feel in Lent, God always comes through – always! – and gives the grace I need to get through.
As I consider feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy, my own or Matthew’s or the feelings I have a hunch we all at least occasionally have, I am greatly encouraged by God’s track record of calling those who, at least in our eyes, appear to be the least worthy. Throughout scripture, we find examples of God calling, not the person we might have considered the “best” for the job, but the one God wants for the job. Consider, for example, how God chose the Paul – formerly one who had persecuted the church – to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles and into Europe. Or consider how God chose Mary – young, obscure and unwed – to be the mother of Jesus. Or remember the story of Matthew’s fellow tax collector Zaccheus, whose house Jesus chose – of all people – to visit that day. Or in the Hebrew scriptures remember how God called Abram, a homeless wanderer, to be the father of his people Israel. And remember how God choose Isaac and Jacob and his sons – a dysfunctional family if there ever was one – to be the patriarchs of Israel. Or consider how God chose David, the youngest of the brothers, to be King over Israel. David was so “off the charts” in consideration to be king that Jesse his father didn’t even call him in from tending the sheep when Samuel arrived; they had to stand and wait for David to be brought. As Fr. Benson, the founder of the Society of the St. John the Evangelist, put it in a letter to one of his brothers in the 1870’s: “God delights to employ in his service those who are least fit for it.”
A loser look at Caravaggio’s “Call of St. Matthew” suggests that Matthew, even as he is slumping in his chair, is already beginning to follow. Notice his legs braced as if to stand. Notice, too, the slender line of his right foot, tilted outward as if about to slide out of his bench. I wonder if this might be a good instinct to practice: whenever we feel ourselves thinking, “No. Not me!” maybe we can at the same time take a step closer to God, letting God more fully into our lives. For whenever we take a step closer to God, we discover that God – whose generosity will never be outdone – is already there, waiting for us with open arms. God does not judge our worthiness or adequacy; he simply calls us as we are.
I wonder if we, this Lent, might open ourselves to receive more fully God’s forgiveness and love, a forgiveness and love not at all based on our perceived worth or competence, but rather results from God’s loving us as we are. I wonder if we, this Lent, might more wholeheartedly let this God in and respond to his call.