February 10, 2019, Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany Year C, Luke 5:1-11
Our gospel today is a well-known biblical story that if you grew up going to Sunday School you likely know well as it is a favorite one to teach children about sharing the message of Jesus with others as it talks about fishing for people. I’m pretty sure there’s even a children’s song about it. Sometimes when stories are so familiar to us we stop hearing everything in them or we simply overlook aspects of them. I feel like that happened to me with this story because when I read it again this week I was particularly struck by Simon being so amazed at the catch of fish that he fell down in front of Jesus and said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” That he gave Jesus attitude about putting the boat back into the water because he thinks they are just setting themselves up for failure after an utterly non-productive night of fishing, is etched in my memory. However, for some reason this expression of inadequacy, unworthiness, and shame in the face of the awe and wonder of Jesus’ miraculous act had slipped my mind or at least seemed to evade my attention in previous readings of it.
I’m not sure why I was drawn to this part of the reading this time around. Maybe it was all the shaming that was going on in the news this week. There was Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world and CEO of Amazon, who claimed that The National Enquirer tried to blackmail him by threatening to publicly shame him by releasing compromising photos of him with a woman he had an affair with while he was married. Then the state of Virginia was a busy place for shame this week as the Governor and Attorney General were each caught up in scandals over using blackface in their college and grad school days and the Lt. Governor was accused of allegedly sexually assaulting two women years ago.
At this stage, I’m not sure we yet know the full truth about any of these situations, but many have been quick to jump on the shaming bandwagon as I think we live in a culture that thrives off of shaming others because of what we see as their faults, failings, sins, and inadequacies. And in this shaming culture I think many of us can internalize that shame, whether actual or perceived, that we feel directed at us. Brene Brown, research professor at the University of Houston and author, has even made a living off of the study of shame and vulnerability in our culture. With two TED talks with millions of views on the subject and multiple best-selling books including, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are and I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey From “What Will People Think?” To “I Am Enough”, Dr. Brown has made a name for herself by tapping into our cultural obsession with shame.
Perhaps like how I overlooked Simon’s shame-filled comment about his sin on previous readings of the text, we overlook, or try to overlook, or at the least would like to overlook, this problem in our culture. However, as seen in Dr. Brown’s many books on the subject and the news this past weeks alone, it is a prevalent problem in our society that is hard to ignore. After all, we live in a consumer culture that constantly tells us that we aren’t enough via any type of media or way it can. It tells us we aren’t smart enough, rich enough, thin enough, good-looking enough, successful enough, or popular enough. We simply aren’t enough, but it tells us we COULD be enough if only we buy the right products, go to the right schools, are seen at the right places, have the right friends, or eat at the right restaurants. And beyond the consumer culture, in many ways it seems we are simply a society that enjoys shaming each other for our faults, our failings, our sins, and our inadequacies.
It’s easy to buy into this cultural narrative of shame that tells us we aren’t enough. It isn’t really anything new though as we see from Simon in the gospel reading. Simon sees Jesus help them land boatloads of fish after he essentially told Jesus there was no way they’d catch anything after a night hard at work without even one fish to show for it. Faced with his doubts about Jesus and his own feelings of inadequacy in what he can offer in light of Jesus’ miracle working, Simon feels the shame of his sin and of not being enough. He doesn’t feel worthy to even be in Jesus’ presence, never mind help him in his work. Yet, that is exactly what Jesus calls him to.
Jesus sees Simon for all he is – imperfect, doubting, sinful, and ashamed – and loves him anyway. Jesus accepts him just as he is. He doesn’t agree that Simon’s sin makes him unworthy of even being in his presence. He doesn’t look at him and see all the ways he isn’t qualified to follow him. Instead, Jesus looks at him and invites him to join him in catching people. Jesus tells him to leave his fear behind – the fear that he’s not enough, that he’ll never measure up, that he should be ashamed for his sins – and he invites him to join him on an adventure that will leave him filled with awe and wonder at the even more amazing things that God has yet to accomplish through Jesus. Jesus could have chosen much more qualified followers, instead he chooses a motley crew of imperfect sinners and they are the ones we read leave everything behind and follow him.
We listen to this reading and wonder how Simon, James, and John could do this. How they could leave everything and follow because it sounds impossible to us to do such a thing, especially for this group. However, I think this exchange between Simon and Jesus tells us how it is possible. Because, after all, how could Simon NOT follow Jesus after this encounter? After Jesus sees him, REALLY sees him for who he is – good and bad, saint and sinner – and loves and accepts him for all of it. How could Simon NOT respond? Jesus has just set him free from his feelings of shame, inadequacy, and fear and invited him to join him in his mission to share God’s love with all the world. No longer trapped by the worry and shame that he isn’t enough, Jesus has set him free IN love TO love and Simon responds knowing that with Jesus he is enough to face and accomplish whatever is ahead.
With all the messages we receive in life that we aren’t enough either from ourselves, those around us, the media, or the world, Jesus’ message that we are loved, we are worthy, and we are enough is life-changing just as we see in Simon. In his book about his work of rehabilitating former gang members, Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle tells how he saw this in a twenty-five year old former gang member named Cesar who immediately upon his release from jail called him for help. He told Father Greg that he didn’t want to go back to jail, but he was scared and unsure of his ability to do what he needed to do to get his life together outside the prison walls. Waking Father Greg at 3am one morning with a phone call, Cesar asked him if he had been a son to him. Feather Greg assured him that indeed he had been a son to him and nothing could separate them which relieved and settled Cesar. Father Greg wrote of how this affected Cesar saying,
In this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having. The voice broke through the clouds of his terror and the crippling mess of his own history, and he felt himself beloved. God, wonderfully pleased in him, is where God wanted Cesar to reside.
Father Greg goes on,
Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, says, “How narrow is the gate that leads to life.” Mistakenly, I think, we’ve come to believe that this is about restriction. The way is narrow. But it really wants us to see that narrowness is the way.
St. Hedwig writes, “All is narrow for me. I feel so vast.” It’s about funneling ourselves into a central place. Our choice is not to focus on the narrow, but to narrow our focus. The gate that leads to life is not about restriction at all. It is about an entry into the expansive. There is a vastness in knowing you’re a son/daughter worth having. We see our plentitude in God’s expansive view of us, and we marinate in this. (pp. 31-32)
Knowing we are loved, knowing we are worthy, knowing we are enough, we are set free by Jesus. We are set free from being narrowly focused on what we aren’t, to narrow our focus to Jesus and see ourselves as he does in the vastness of all that we are in him. We are set free to be all we are and to catch people as we share the message that in Jesus they too are loved, they too are worthy, they too are enough. Trapped in our cultural mindset of shame we can get stuck in the narrow view, but set free by Jesus we can see the expansive view he offers and live into it, shedding our shame and embracing the freedom of life with him in all the ways we are more than enough. Amen.