(Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 15:3-10)
When I was a teenager, a dear friend gave me a copy of The Once and Future King, by TH White. The book is an imaginative and introspective re-telling of the story of King Arthur and his knights. I had never read anything quite like it before, and it became an important book to me.
I remember one tale that made a particularly lasting impression on me. A man comes to Arthur’s court because he is suffering from a terrible wound, that will not heal – the result of a curse. He has been told that only the greatest knight in the world can heal his wound; so he has come to Camelot.
Arthur assembles all the knights to have a try, but of course everyone knows that it will be Sir Lancelot who will succeed. Lancelot is known far and wide not only as the mightiest of warriors, but also as the noblest and purest of heart.
But Lancelot knows otherwise. He knows he has betrayed his King through his love affair with the Queen. And he knows, that when he places his hands on the poor wounded man, he will fail; everyone present will know the truth, and Lancelot will be exposed for the fraud he truly is.
Most of us will probably never find ourselves in so fantastical a circumstance.
But perhaps many of us can relate to that persistent doubt, that we are not the person that others have taken us to be, that we are not worthy in fact of their friendship, or their trust. Many of us are familiar with that persistent doubt, that we are not the person God wants us to be, that we are not worthy in fact of God’s trust. That we are, in a word, unfit.
We are in good company.
The lectionary for today sets before us three accounts, from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, of individuals who declared themselves unfit for duty. First, we have the prophet Isaiah, in the presence of God and the seraphim, crying out, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.” Then, we have the apostle Simon Peter, telling Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And finally, the Apostle Paul, writing to the church he planted in Corinth, telling them that he is in fact “unfit to be an apostle.”
The lectionary could have included other examples. Moses, at the burning bush, tells God to send someone else, for “I am not eloquent, I am slow of speech and tongue.” Jeremiah, called by God to prophesy, tells God that he is too young for the task.
Moses and Jeremiah were concerned about their skill level, their job qualifications, their ability to get the job done; but today’s trio of express a deeper doubt. Isaiah, Peter, and Paul insist that they are unfit for God’s service, not because they are insufficiently skilled, but because they are fundamentally unworthy.
Are all these Biblical figures just being excessively modest?
There is a psychological pattern known as Imposter Syndrome, in which a person persistently fears that they are not as competent as others perceive them to be. It’s fairly widespread; maybe some of you are prone to it. A person suffering from imposter syndrome carries a hidden anxiety, that eventually someone will realize that they are in over their head, that they are faking it, and they will be exposed as a fraud.
A key feature of imposter syndrome, however, is that this anxiety is unsupported by the evidence; the person in question may be performing quite well at their job, and still they fear they don’t belong in their position. A diagnosis of imposter syndrome implies the person is, in fact, quite capable. Hence a cartoon I saw recently, in which a woman is pondering, “I wonder if I’m good enough to have imposter syndrome?”
But what if our assessment is accurate? What if we really are unfit?
We don’t know much about Isaiah’s early life, prior to his prophetic call. We don’t know much about Peter’s life, either, other than his profession. But the Peter of the gospels is overeager, overconfident, and unreliable. The story of Peter in the gospels would almost be a comedy of errors, were the stakes not so high.
As for the author of the Letter to the Corinthians – he was not always named Paul. He was originally named Saul, and he was an aggressively, intolerantly devout Pharisee. In the earliest days of the church, Saul was part of an effort to quash the Jesus movement; in the Book of Acts we learn that he stood by approvingly as one of Jesus’ followers was stoned to death by an angry mob.
Then, one day, Saul was on the road to Damascus when he saw a blinding light, and heard a voice which asked him: Saul, why are you persecuting me? It was the beginning of his conversion, from Saul the persecutor, to Paul the evangelist.
So when Paul tells the Corinthians that he is “unfit to be an apostle,” he is not exhibiting imposter syndrome. He knows what he was, and what he is. “By the grace of God,” he writes, “I am what I am.”
For Paul, as for Peter and Isaiah before him, the experience of call was an experience of grace. His very calling meant forgiveness; and so the proclamation of forgiveness became, in turn, his call.
You might be wondering, what happened to Lancelot, in TH White’s story. White tells us, that after all the other knights had tried and failed, Lancelot came forward to lay his hands on the afflicted man’s head – whereupon his wounds “shut like a box” and his bleeding ceased. The people break into cheering; but Lancelot kneels on the ground, weeping. White writes, “This lonely and motionless figure knew a secret which was hidden from the others. The miracle was the he had been allowed to do a miracle.”
Before God, there can be no imposters. God knows who we are; what we have done, and what we have left undone. We can stop keeping up appearances or worrying that we have been called by mistake. God’s invitation is unconditional; you didn’t receive it in error, it was addressed to you. Go ahead, and open it, and read the good news.
Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp for The First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, January 30, 2022.
Sir Lancelot at the Chapel of the Grail, by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833 – 1898)