This morning I will be competing for the Billings Preaching Prize, a competition limited to 2nd and 3rd year M.Div. students here at Harvard Divinity. You have a total of 10 minutes for your reading and holimly. I’ve adapted a homily from my work at the hospital. The competition usually takes place in the Divinity Hall chapel, from the pulpit where Emerson delivered his famous “Divinity School Address.” Unfortunately, emergency repairs have closed the chapel, so we will be in our other chapel, Andover. Here are the reading and the sermon:
Luke 5:1-8 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
As a second career seminarian, you might think I came to my call late in life. And it is true that the decision was made in the days after the 9/11 attacks, in days when every breath carried the odor of destruction and death. But it was not a late call that brought me to divinity school. In fact, I knew I was called to ministry as a 12 year old. And over the next 25-plus years I flirted with a vocation in ordained ministry on several occasions. I always ran away, realizing that I was a wreck, unworthy, unable to serve the community of Christ. I realized that I was a sinner.
Simon Peter was a sinner too. We tend to make Peter into a very two-dimensional character, he can be a bit thick at times, and that whole “you will deny me,” who can forget that? Peter can proclaim Jesus the Messiah one moment, and be called “Satan” the next. I am convinced that Peter’s name, and remember that Peter is his nickname and means “rock”, is based on how hard his head is and how dim he can seem. A friend of mine used to use the expression about as smart as a box of rocks, and it fits. But Peter is part of the pastoral care team!
Peter the pastor heals and preaches and brings the presence of God with him. When Jesus is dealing with major issues, he brings that pastoral care team with him onto the mountain to pray. You can name them, Mary and Peter, and John, and even Judas. They are all on the pastoral care team that is Jesus’ teaching, preaching and healing ministry. They are pastoral care interns learning from the greatest teacher ever. And every one of those men and women walking around Galilee and down to Jerusalem had one thing in common. They were all sinners.
We forget Peter’s response to the call narrative in Luke’s gospel because the next line is so rich in meaning. Jesus tells Peter that he will make him a “fisher of humans.” That text we all know. But how many of us remembered what Peter said first? “Dude, go away, I am a sinner.”
Today, we are called to be ministers to one another, to pastor one another. We form pastoral care teams and we train one another in skills like listening and praying. We live as church. But for some of us, being a pastor comes far easier than being pastored.
What happens when someone tries to pastor you? You may be tempted to say, “Go away.” Because you are tired? Maybe. Because you don’t believe? Could be. Because you are not worthy? Not a chance. Because that pastor is a sinner too. And that pastor is loved by God, like you. And there is nothing you can do to get away from that love. Oh, you might try to drown it out. You might send the pastor back out the door. You might ignore the pastor next to you in the pew. But like Peter with his head hard as stone, God is going to ignore your protests and love you anyways, just as Jesus ignored Peter’s request, “Go away, for I am a sinner.”
They say there are few guarantees in life. I don’t agree. Here are my guarantees for today. Today, I guarantee I will say something that I shouldn’t, that I won’t mean, that will sound different than I intended. Today I will hurt someone’s feelings. Today I will fail to hear and to see what someone so much wants me to hear and to see. Here are my maybe’s for today: Today I might know that I have failed, have fallen short. I might see my mistakes. I might get a chance to apologize.
And there is a guarantee that isn’t mine, a guarantee made by Paul in his letter to the Romans. Nothing can separate me from the love of God.
I choose today to be in this community, to be fully present, even as the sinner that I am, even with the guarantee that I will fail. Like Peter, like you, I have chosen to get up and follow. What else can I do?
In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Razor’s Edge” there is a defrocked priest who explains to the protagonist Durrell why he is running: “It is not punishment I would have to face, for I could easily face execution or imprisonment. It is love and forgiveness which I must face, and which I cannot endure. […] God is the one who relentlessly pursues me and whom I forever flee.” And you know what: that priest is right. God’s forgiveness knows no limit. The only limit is our courage to accept that love, from God and from one another.
Today be open to the presence of God in one another, even in our mistakes and imperfections. I am a sinner and will be when I come to minister to you today. You will be a sinner when you minister to me. And yet we choose to love one another as God loves us, without condition, without hesitation, without giving up. May it always be so. Amen.