Sermon for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany: Never fear, none of us are good enough

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13) ;  Psalm 138 ; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 ; Luke 5:1-11
The Call of Isaiah

I’ve read and I’m told that the Church is in trouble.

According to George Barna, 3500 to 4000 churches close their doors each year in America.  Some agencies put the number at more like 7,000.

As one church planter put it:

“I foresee a quickening of churches dying in America over the next twenty years.  There are tens of thousands of churches filled with communities that have shrunk below 100, 70, 50 and are filled with an aging population.  Many of these churches will not know how to survive.” (Drew Goodmanson)

I’m told the Church is in trouble.

Only 15% of churches in the United States are growing and just 2.2% of those are growing by conversion growth.  In other words, many others are playing a shell game with the already-Christian, as they move from one congregation to another.

I’m told the Church is in trouble.

According to some estimates churches lose over 2.5 million people each year to “nominalism and secularism,” the majority of whom may never set foot in a church community again.  Perhaps you know some folks in this category, or perhaps you were in the category for a while.

Specifically, in the Episcopal Church, according to Dr. Kirk Hadaway (program officer for congregational research) in the most recent state of the Church report to General Convention: “The age structure of The Episcopal Church suggests an average of forty thousand deaths and twenty-one thousand births, or a natural decline of 19,000 members per year,” a population larger than most dioceses. The advanced—and still advancing—age of our membership, combined with our low birth rate, means that we lose the equivalent of one diocese per year.”  This is, of course, assuming that most of those 21 thousand babies grow up and continue to practice their faith in the Episcopal Church or elsewhere–a rosy expectation that experience has proven to be false in most cases. (click here to download the State of the Church Report as a PDF)

I’m told the Church is in trouble.

Our experience in the Episcopal Church is not unique.  The Southern Baptist Church–which, along with the Roman Catholic often acts as a bit of a foil in conversations amongst Episcopalians–The Southern Baptist Church has the highest proportion of members over the age of 70 years old of any denomination.

In 2008, their outgoing president Frank Page, warned that, should current trends continue as many as half of all Southern Baptist Churches could close by 2030.

And if the Church is in trouble, you might expect evidence to be visible among leaders.  Unfortunately it is.

According to Ashland Theological Seminary and the North American Missions board (also found on this blog):

  • Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • Fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.  Anecdotally at least, the number seems higher for second career clergy.
  • Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • 90% say their Seminary Training did not prepare them for what they face day-to-day in the congregation.
  • Eighty percent of seminary graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry after their first position and within the first five years.
  • Only 10% reach age 65 as a pastor.
  • Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.
  • Seventy percent said the only time they spend studying the Word is when they are preparing their sermons.

Pastors’ Wives/spouses:

  • Eighty percent of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose another profession.
  • The majority of pastor’s wives surveyed said that the most destructive event that has occurred in their marriage and family was the day they entered the ministry.

I’ve heard the Church is in trouble, and looking at these realities would seem to confirm it.

It would be tempting, even for me as a clergy person, to look at the evidence and say that it demonstrates dysfunctional and inept pastors or troubled congregations.

But the thing is, I think that the majority of people in those congregations that end up closing, and the majority of those pastors who ended up throwing in the towel on their ordained ministry are faithful people who had their hearts in the right place.

And maybe that’s an even scarier prospect.

There’s no easy scape goat.

But the fact of the matter is that there aren’t any qualified leaders in the Christian community–not the way we’ve been conditioned to think about it.

None of those pastors were “good enough” to be pastors.

Perhaps some of them made the mistake of believing that they were.

Our first reading this morning has something to say about that.  I’m thankful that it is a reading that I’ve heard at every ordination service I’ve been to.

In it, we hear the account of Isaiah’s call to be a prophet.

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.  And I said: “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!”

Consider Isaiah’s reaction to God’s presence.  He does not pretend to be worthy.  He does not presume to stand before God as a holy person, prepared for whatever task.

“I am lost,” he says, “for I am a man of unclean lips…”

One of my friends, quite an evangelical, explained his decision to prostrate or lay face down at his ordination service, something usually more associated with the Anglo-Catholic wing of Episcopalians/Anglicans.  Looking at Isaiah as an example, he said “when God’s in the house, you hit the deck.”

This is the proper response of humanity to holiness.

So no one is fit to be a pastor or priest without divine intervention.

And I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, and it may come as a shock–but none of you are fit to be Christians without Jesus Christ.

Consider the way Isaiah’s story unfolds:

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Isaiah’s confession to God, that he is a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips–is followed by God’s assurance of forgiveness: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed from you and your sin is blotted out.”

Having been made clean, Isaiah then hears the voice of The LORD saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And he responds “Here am I; send me!”

Do you see it?  Here, in Isaiah’s story, we are shown the template.

One who is unprepared hears the call of God and recognizes their inadequacy and even sinfulness in the face of the Almighty.

The holiness of God inspires the confession of sin, which is met by God’s assurance of forgiveness and being made pure.

And then, after being made ready by God, the person is called to mission as a response to forgiveness.

God does not call the equipped, it is said, he equips the called.  He does not call the perfect, he perfects the called through the sanctification of the Holy Spirit.

God does not call the sinless, he washes their sins away through the blood of his Son.

And this story of Isaiah does not only apply to clergy but to all those who are called to follow Christ.

You should have noticed some familiarity with the pattern of Isaiah’s story.

Encounter with God.  Confession.  Forgiveness.  Mission.

This is a shape echoed in nearly every one of our Sunday services.

Encounter God through his word proclaimed.

Confessing our sins in response.

Forgiveness pronounced and then sealed with the physical sign of the Body and Blood at Communion…

Which is a sacrament of God’s grace that empowers us to do his work in the world.

All of us have been called.  As Peter says in his first Epistle: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

All this information, all these details may seem daunting.  The trends seem to be against us.

But it’s only through recognizing the way things stand in our culture, in our society, that we can hope to face the challenge.  It’s only through recognizing the changes in our world that we can reflect on the ways in which we need to change in response, or understand the unchanging truths that we need to proclaim with even greater vigor.

Change can be hard.  Humility can be difficult.  But it may be the only thing that can put us in the right place to withstand these challenges and to thrive in the face of them.

And we can take heart that we are far from the first people who have been called to this sort of humble obedience.

Consider our gospel reading this morning.

Jesus is out beside the lake of Gennesaret, and there was a crowd surrounding him and pressing in who wanted to hear the word.  Jesus gets into Simon Peter’s boat and asked him to put out from shore so that he could teach the crowds and be heard, the water acting as an amplifier.

Then he did something else.  He asked Simon to go out to the deeper water and let down his nets for a catch.

Simon’s incredulous response can be explained by the long hours he’s worked, as he says “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”  Simon has been working all night; he’s tired and ready to finish up and head home.  Along comes Jesus and he listens to his teaching for who knows how long only to have him tell him to put out a little farther and let down his net again.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Simon was a little frustrated.  Who’s the fisherman here, he must have wondered.

Despite this, He does not continue to protest, but responds:

Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.

Simon is willing to do something that he believes, on a rational level, based upon his own experience, will be fruitless.  But when Jesus asks, he responds out of faith, and his faith is rewarded, as “they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.”

When this happened, Simon had an epiphany and recognized Jesus’ authority and holiness, falling down at Jesus’ knees in an immitation of Isaiah in our first reading and saying:

“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Confession)  

Jesus sees his response and responds, telling him “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Forgiveness and mission)
When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (going forth to accomplish the mission, beginning with following Jesus).

There are so many things that stand out about this gospel reading.  The desire of the crowds to hear the word of God–a desire that I do not believe is any less in our own day.  Our task is to discover the best ways of reaching people “out there,” in a way that is faithful but is also expressed in a way they can hear and understand.

The willingness of Simon to take a risk, to go against what he presumed to be the case and step out in faith.

His confession, the grace offered by our Lord, and the promise and commissioning that  they would be “catching people.”

This is Jesus’ promise to Simon, and it’s his promise to us.  We will find ourselves fishing for people, if only we make the decision, and continue making the decision to follow him in the recognition that

This church,
Any church,
The Church–belongs to Jesus and no one else, because we–each one of us–belongs to Jesus and no one else.  That’s what it means to be sealed as Christ’s own forever.

Bought and paid for,

forgiven and restored by him.

You see, I’ve heard that the church is in trouble, and now so have you.  But I’ve also heard something else:

I’ve heard the words of Jesus that He will build his church and the gates of hades, of death, will not prevail against it. (Matt.  16:18).

I’ve heard the words of Jesus, “Do not be afraid.”

And I remember that when our Lord told us to go forth and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that he also said:

“Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

and so, as we reflect upon the ways in which we’re called to fulfill the mission that Christ has set before us, let us all strive for the humility that is the hallmark of the Christian life, but also for the confidence and joy that should characterize those who have seen the Glory of God in Jesus Christ.

Our goal is the same as it has always been.  To be able to say, with Paul, in the end:

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,”

We know our goal, we have our mission.  Our task is to discern, together, how to accomplish this.

Amen.

One thought on “Sermon for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany: Never fear, none of us are good enough

  1. Just a note regarding the issue of marital infidelity among clergy. I don't know the statistics, but one of my former professors was on the Title IV (disciplinary canons) review committee for the national church for a time, and he once commented that if the Episcopal Church had a problem with sexuality, it wasn't so much homosexuality as it was infidelity. He said they even knew the most popular time of day for such trysts–about 4:30 in the afternoon.

    Some might want to protest that this is not the the case, but the number of more conservative clergy who made high profile exits from TEC over issues of human sexuality who have later been caught up in situations of sexual impropriety seems to indicate that my former prof. was right, and that this problem cuts across theological lines. Not that this last fact should be surrprising.
    My recent post Anglican theological distinctiveness

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