At 15, Derrick* had already spent significant time in drug rehab and a psychiatric hospital. He’d been expelled from school and was meeting his tutor in a room down the hall from my office at an inner-city church. My study, its door almost always open, was adjacent an exit to a side street where Derrick made his way several times a day for a smoke. As time went by, his trips to the street became more frequent, and his pace decelerated.
Eventually, he began to linger, and even stop for a moment, his face, pinched with anger but notably softening, over time. Across my threshold, I knew I was being scrutinized: Derrick had no reason to trust adults. His father had abandoned him years earlier and his mother, who loved him deeply, had her own problems, many of which she treated with drugs and alcohol.
I gave Derrick a lot of space, but It wasn’t too long before he started wandering in, nonchalantly helping himself to a gum ball from my gum ball machine, at last lowering his lanky body into one of my office chairs. We talked. He talked; I listened. Mostly, he spoke about music and how it helped him express his anger and depression. He started bringing me pages and pages of printed-out lyrics to his favorite songs.
One day, after he’d gone missing for a while from my hall, I got a call from Derrick’s mother, who told me her son had again been hospitalized. When I reached the juvenile psych ward, he took one look at me and burst into tears. “I can’t do anything right,” he said. “I know I’m worthless. I’m bad. I’ll never be anything but bad.”
I shook my head: “No, Derrick, you’re not bad. You’re just hurt.” I sat with him, for over an hour, sanctioning his pain and rage.
After his release from the hospital, much to my delight (but also, in all honesty, trepidation), Derrick started showing up in church on Sunday mornings. He got into the habit of making a grand entrance after the worship service had already begun. With baggy pants showing off his boxer-shorts, he paraded down the center aisle to the very front pew. At post-worship coffee hour, I watched as many of the folks in that congregation engaged him. I was so happy when one of the ushers took him under his wing and asked him to help take up the morning offering. We were not deterred by those few who were worried Derrick might dip a hand into the offering plate.
What was it about that inner-city church that drew an awkward and angry adolescent boy into their midst?
What was it that caused the curmudgeonly fisherman, Simon, to walk away from his life in Galilee, and follow Jesus?
In Luke’s Gospel, the call to the disciples comes after Jesus’ ministry in Nazareth, where he has performed exorcisms as well as healing the sick from various diseases. One of those healed is the mother-in-law of a man named Simon. This is the first mention of Simon, but he doesn’t actually appear until our text for today, where he is on Lake Genneseret with other fishermen washing their nets.
Along with relating Jesus’ many healings and exorcisms, Luke tells us that Jesus has been on a preaching tour throughout Judea. As he preaches lakeside, the crowds press in on him, reflecting the rabbi’s growing popularity. Jesus has reached celebrity status and is so overcome, so overwhelmed by the multitudes of his followers, that he climbs into Simon’s fishing boat. The men put out a short distance from the shore so that more people can hear the sermon as Jesus’ voice carries across the water.
Luke doesn’t provide us with the actual words of this sermon, but I imagine it was formidable. When he finishes, Jesus compels Simon, who has clearly finished his own work for the day, to go back out into deep water. I envision these guys as burly, brown-skinned, smelly (after a long night out on a fishing boat), hungry, and completely exhausted - wanting nothing more than a hot meal and a soft bed. But, no. This powerful young teacher who is obviously in high demand and who has previously healed Simon’s mother-in-law, instead coaxes them to push themselves a little further; compels them to go deep.
Perhaps with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Simon responds, “We have worked all night in vain.” But: “If you say so, I will.”
You know what happens next. They bring in a catch so substantial that the boat begins to sink under the weight, and Simon, knee-deep in dead fish, plunges yet deeper as he falls at the feet of Jesus, proclaiming his unworthiness. Holding on to Jesus’ knees, unable to look him in the eyes, “Go away from me,” Simon pleads.
We do not have all the details of the interaction between Simon and Jesus, but Jesus’ response, “Do not be afraid,” shows us that Jesus knows something of the inner workings of this rugged and resilient fisherman.
I recently came across the enlightening work of Brené Brown [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bren%C3%A9_Brown], an American research professor in the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston. Brown has spent over a decade studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, shame, and empathy, and is using her findings to explore a concept she calls “Wholeheartedness.”
Dr. Brown asks: “How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness? How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to recognize that we are enough - that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy?”
In one of her Ted talks, Dr. Brown describes her experience of exploring the concept of “connection.” She has found that, as she begins to ask people about love, they tell her about heartbreak, when she asks people about belonging, they tell her their most agonizing experiences of being excluded, and when she asks people about connection, the stories they tell her are about disconnection.
What Brown learns is that what unravels our connection to one another is shame. Shame is “the fear of being unworthy of love,” the sense of “not being good enough.” When we are in that place of shame, we avoid connection, we keep intimacy at arm’s length because we fear being seen as who we really are . . . which might indeed lead to our rejection.
After six years of researching shame, Brown has discovered that people belong to one of two groups, those who feel worthy of love and belonging, and those who do not. Shame is the one variable, the one and only. The group who have a strong sense of love and belonging, those without shame, believe they are worthy of love, both giving and receiving it. That’s it.
“Wholehearted” folks are connected to others precisely because of their authenticity, their willingness to embrace what Brown calls “excruciating vulnerability.” Wholehearted people, somehow understand that what makes them vulnerable is exactly what makes them beautiful. They recognize that vulnerability is neither good, nor bad: it just is. But it is essential in order for real connection to occur. First must come . . . the willingness to say “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to invest in a relationship, even when there are no assurances that it will work out, the willingness to breathe into the uncertainly of waiting for a doctor to call with the results of a biopsy. This kind of vulnerability is fundamental to the “wholehearted,” to those people who believe themselves worthy of love and connection.
It seems from our text, that Simon is part of the group that feels unworthy. On his hands and knees in the bottom of a fishing boat, he blurts out, as only Simon can, “I am a sinner! Go away! I am not worthy!”
Then, Jesus uses the very words Luke has used at other times in his gospel, the words that change everything. The words first uttered by an angel; a messenger of God, to Zechariah, then Mary, the mother of Jesus, and then to the shepherds. Now, Jesus himself utters the powerful phrase, “Do not be afraid.” It is a pivotal moment. It is something about these words that transforms the moment. Simon, so completely diminished, reduced to his knees there amidst a boatload of dead fish hears the words from Jesus, “Do not be afraid,” and everything changes for him.
I think it was divine energy swirling in that moment. Call it unqualified validation, call it unconditional love, call it Grace. Call it whatever you will, it was and is life changing.
So powerful is this encounter, this connection, that, as Luke tells it, Simon along with his business partners James and John, leaves behind everything. Leaves everything and follows Jesus.
I have always thought the miracle in this story is not the great haul of fish but, rather, the notion that three brawny, well established fishermen would walk away from home, family, and livelihood to follow Jesus.
And yet, think of it in terms of connection; think of it in terms of three grown men being seen, being really seen, really known for the first time, ever. Think of as a moment of amazing grace. That, my friends, is a powerful thing. To have your story heard and accepted and cared for in a tender and loving way is no small commodity. In fact, it is what gives purpose to our lives.
Perhaps the real miracle is the elimination of Simon’s shame, which enables him to move to a place of self-worth, a place where he can be wholly and holy connected to himself and to Jesus. There, in that boat full of lifeless fish, Jesus says, “From now on, you will be catching people.” The word “catch,” as used here, originally meant “to take alive” in the sense of rescuing from death. Simon’s connection to Jesus will lead him to a boatload of life-giving connections with people.
Simon, in his willingness to be imperfect, his excruciating vulnerability, becomes Peter, the rock on which the church is built. Our church, your church, all Christians--with all our insecurities, all our feelings of unworthiness, all our imperfections. And, like Simon Peter, we recognize, experience that divine swirling of energy. We are moved and changed by that mysterious and magnificent grace. Isn’t that the reason we are here?
One Sunday, back in my inner-city church, as we sang the opening hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” I noticed the 92-year-old matriarch of our congregation, Susan,* weeping as she struggled to stand; Her husband of 70-plus years had been buried just a few days earlier. At about the same time, I saw our troubled Derrick making his usual grand entrance. As he sauntered up the aisle, he must have caught sight of Susan out of the corner of his eye. He stopped and, before I knew what was happening, he had slid into the pew beside her and wrapped his long arm around her frail and trembling body. He held her and she cried as we sang “God’s kingdom is forever.”
*Not their actual names.