Sermons and Talks

“The Impostor Syndrome”: Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany – Sunday, February 6, 2022

Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 6 February, 2022.  Texts for this Sunday:  Isaiah 6:1-8; Ps 138; 1 Cor 15:1-11; Lk 5.1-11.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)

 Perhaps you’ve been in a meeting where a bunch of people say “So and so knows this, so and so is good at this, so and so can fix this, let’s ask them” and you suddenly realize that they are looking at you and you’re thinking “What, me?   I don’t even know how I got hired here!”  Or perhaps someone says to you “you’re such a good mother!” or “you’re such a good grandmother!”, and you think “what, me?  All I do is let the kids watch TV while I drink wine”.

If you’ve ever had thoughts of inadequacy like this, then you’re not alone and there’s even a term for it, the Impostor Syndrome.   Many people feel, despite their accomplishments, their diplomas, and their previous successes, that they are totally unqualified to do something, that they are frauds, and impostors.

 Even famous people feel this way.   The actress Jodi Foster told a magazine that ‘When I won the Oscar, I thought it was a fluke. I thought everybody would find out, and they’d take it back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, “Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.” 

 I think we can also suffer from the Impostor Syndrome in our church lives as well.   Someone may ask you, “You go to church, you read the Bible, tell me why God allows children to get cancer?” and “You go to church, you know how to pray” and inside you may be shrugging helplessly.  Or you may wonder, “Yes, I go to church, but I don’t really think I’m a good person.”

 I’ve been ordained for seventeen years and I’ve often felt like an impostor.   The collar doesn’t make me feel wiser, or holier, or closer to God than anyone else.   Sometimes quite the reverse.  When I was in uniform, and soldiers would salute me and call me padre, I sometimes wondered, “How did I manage to convince anyone that they should give me this job, this uniform?”

 Of course, the problem with all of our doubts and self-doubting is that we forget about God and we never think that God may have more confidence in us that we have in ourselves.  Why would God call us as disciples if God didn’t believe in us?”  Which brings us to this morning’s Gospel reading (Luke 5:1-11).

 I’ve read this passage many times, and much of it is very familiar.  The story of Jesus calling the fishermen and telling them from now on they will be catching people instead of fish is also told in Matthew (4:18-22) and in Mark (1:16-20).  In past I’ve focused on the boats, and the fish, and Jesus’ “fishers of men” comment, but until now I’ve never thought much about Peter’s reaction to Jesus.   Clearly Peter has a version of the Impostor Syndrome “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” but I’ve never really thought about Jesus’ response, or his lack of a response.   More about that in a minute.

 First, this passage is chosen as one of the traditional Epiphany gospels because it is one of those moments when people see something about Jesus’ true identity.    At first, when Jesus tells the fishermen to go out into deep water, Peter’s response “Master” seems politely respectful, the way one would speak to a rabbi.   It’s probable that Peter knew Jesus, at least from a distance, as this was a village society and Jesus had already built a reputation as a preacher and healer.

 Probably because of this respect for the teacher, Peter agrees to the odd request, even if he has to have a bit of a grumble first: “we have worked all night but have caught nothing”.   After the amazing haul of fish, the grumbling turns to wonder and some sort of recognition that Jesus is something more.   However, rather than focusing on Jesus, Peter looks at himself and sees his own inadequacies, recognizing that he is a ‘sinful man”.

 What has Peter done that he should be so sinful?   After all, he’s just a fisherman, how bad could he be?  But that’s not the point of the spiritual Impostor Syndrome.   Peter judges himself unworthy to be in God’s presence, and here he may remind us of people that we know who avoid church or faith because they don’t think they’re good enough for God.  Certainly Peter is no different from many other prophets that God calls in the old testament, such as Jonah and Isaiah.  

 In our first lesson we heard how Isaiah’s first reaction to God is a kind of horrified sense of his inadequacy.   After an overwhelming vision of God’s holiness, Isaiah is almost obliterated: “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (is 6:1-13).   The story of the coal touching Isaiah’s lips may function as a kind of act of forgiveness and absolution, but it also seems to be a symbolic  sealing of his new vocation as God’s spokesman, who will now speak only God’s words.

 But the story in Luke is so different.   One podcast I heard this week made the point that Jesus never actually forgives Paul.  I don’t mean that Jesus punishes him or denies him anything.   It’s just that there is no grand act of forgiveness or purification as there is in our first reading.  Instead, Jesus simply says “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people”.

 Jesus says “Do not be afraid”, which are words that we often hear in Luke’s gospel when heaven touches earth, but he never revokes the job offer because Peter thinks that he is unqualified.   In fact, Jesus acts as if Peter has accepted the offer, for his next words, “From now on you will be catching people” are spoken as if this is Day One of the new job.  Peter is now a disciple, whether he thinks he is ready, or not.

 I think this story is helpful for those of us in our faith lives who think that we are, well, impostors, and that some spiritual deficiency or flaw might somehow keep God from wanting or even needing us.   If that is you, or if that is someone you know, think about Jesus and Peter.   If Peter knew, in his own bumbling, blustery way, that he was less than perfect, how much more clearly would Jesus have seen him and seen through him?   And yet it doesn’t matter for Jesus.   Jesus sees the worth in Peter and calls him to this new life of attracting others to God.

 Some of us who suffer from the spiritual Impostor Syndrome may think that we need some grand, Isaiah-like vision or action to purify us so that we can be worthy of God, even if we aren’t keen on the hot coals part.   If so, then I submit to you that you’re not likely to get that grand act of forgiveness.   I would encourage you instead to think of how God knows you far, far better than you know yourself, that God loves you and believes in you, and that God has a use for you. 

 So the good news for us today is that we may are the only ones judging ourselves.  God’s already signed us up, we’re in the crew.  We may say, “But Jesus, we’re not good enough for you, we’re sinners”, and his answer is “Yes, of course you are, come on let’s go”.  

 “From now on you will be catching people”.   This line is often used in sermons on evangelism, a subject we Anglicans aren’t always comfortable with.  A final thought – what’s more attractive than quiet self confidence?   What’s more attractive than a confident church?  Not self-confidence as in self-righteousness or arrogance, but confidence that we are loved by a God who sees our value and potential.   I submit to you that a church embued with this quiet confidence, the opposite of the spiritual impostor syndrome, will be attractive to others, which is where evangelism starts.