February 10, 2019 – The 5th Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
It’s flu season, and that means that it’s a good time to know the difference between a symptom and a sickness. Fatigue, runny nose, headache, body aches—is it the flu? A cold? Or are you just run down after a hard week? You can’t catch exhaustion, but you can catch the flu, and, if you get the flu, there’s nothing you can take to make the sickness go away. Tamiflu, if you take it early on, may help make symptoms less severe and shorten your recovery time, but, ultimately, with the flu, the body has to heal itself. You can treat the symptoms, but you can’t treat the sickness. And, as we see in all three of today’s lessons, the same is true for sin: we might be able to treat the symptoms, but the sickness itself is another issue.
In these three readings, the prophet Isaiah, the apostle Paul, and Simon Peter all have encounters with the holy that call them up short. When he saw a vision of Israel’s God sitting on a throne and the hem of God’s robe filling the temple, Isaiah cried out, “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!” Reflecting on his unworthiness, Paul described himself as “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because [he] persecuted the church of God.” And, when Simon saw the miraculous catch of fish that he and his companions had taken after letting down the nets where Jesus had told them to, he threw himself down on the ground at the rabbi’s feet and begged, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Since all three of these passages contain stories of sinfulness and inadequacy, you might expect our worship today to have a somber, perhaps even Lenten tone, but that is not the case. Instead, each of these passages is a story of joy, of forgiveness, of newfound fruitfulness. Likewise, when we hear a preacher start a sermon about sin, we expect to hear something that will either make us feel bad about ourselves or make us angry at the preacher’s hypocrisy. I hope you’ll find that isn’t the case either. And the reason that we harbor those expectations is because so often we are asked to feel guilty about the symptoms without ever being invited to address the underlying issue.
In that imprecise way that is so often indicative of church-speak, we use the word “sin” to describe two different things. It is both the laundry list of things done and left undone that we call “sins,” and it is also the inherent imperfection of our lives—the gap between our will and God’s will that we call “sin.” But don’t get caught up in the religious jargon. It doesn’t really matter what we call it. You don’t have to be religious to know that things aren’t the way that they could be—that, no matter how hard people try, the lives and communities we create aren’t perfect. In society, we’ve dealt with disease and poverty and exploitation and death for all of human history. And every single one of us, in one way or another, has dealt with dishonesty and infidelity and greed and self-centeredness in real and personal ways. That dishonesty is a sin, but the inevitability of it is also sin. One is a symptom, and the other is a sickness, and today readings, as well as the collect for the day, are all about finding a way to deal with the underlying problem.
When Isaiah lamented his uncleanness, when Paul explained his unworthiness, and when Simon fell down at Jesus’ feet, it wasn’t because they were overcome with guilt over something that they had done. It was because they recognized their inadequacy—their fundamental inability to reflect in their lives the perfection embodied by the one who had made them. When each one was brought into the presence of the divine, he crumpled in weakness not in fear that some secret misdeed might be discovered by God but because the presence of God had brought into stark relief the unworthiness that they embodied. And, in each case, what was God’s response? God took whatever was lacking and made it whole, commissioning each one for holy work.
“Now that this [coal] has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out,” the seraph said to Isaiah so that, when God spoke and asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” the would-be prophet could answer boldly, “Here am I; send me!” Paul might have been the most zealous persecutor of the church, but Jesus appeared to him not to condemn him to the same death to which he had condemned so many Christians but to redirect his zealotry and commission him as an apostle to the Gentiles. When Simon Peter cried out to Jesus, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man,” I suppose that Jesus could have taken him at his word and thrown him overboard, but he didn’t. Instead, he said to him and to all who had witnessed the miraculous catch of fish, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Those aren’t stories of shameful people being comforted despite their mistakes. They are moments when imperfect people are granted wholeness by the one who sought each of them out in love.
Much like the flu, we can treat the symptoms of sin, but there isn’t much we can do about the underlying sickness. We can say that we’re sorry when we do something wrong, but how long will it be before we need to apologize again? We can forsake the misdeeds of our past even before the photographs from our medical school yearbooks have been made public, but is that enough to remove every stain of prejudice from our hearts and minds as well as the institutions that have made us who we are? When we come to church and say the words of the confession and hear the priest pronounce God’s absolution, we start over with a clean slate, but do we really believe that God desires a people who will yo-yo-diet their way through sin and forgiveness week after week? Treating the symptoms is fine—even beneficial—but God wants more than that. God wants to heal us and make us whole.
God isn’t looking for perfect people who are able to make this world the place that God dreams it could be. Instead, God is looking for ordinary, broken, sinful people like you and me who are willing to be made perfect so that this world might become the place that God dreams it could be one person at a time. That is the power that God’s unconditional love has in our lives. The world needs all the goodness we can give it. We can and must fight injustice and poverty and disease over and over and over again. But our hope isn’t merely that we might add a little goodness to a cold and broken world every time we encounter sin. Instead, in order to truly transform this world, we must be set free from that part of ourselves that time and again stands in the way. We must be made perfect in love so that we might love others perfectly. And, when we love the world like that, we find that it isn’t we who are loving it but God who is loving it through us.