I want to begin with a question: What’s your story? We all have a story, but its more than the facts of our lives: when we were born, where we grew up, who we married. It’s deeper than that. It’s not only about the experiences we’ve had, but what we’ve been taught to believe about ourselves, and how those beliefs not only shape the story we’ve lived, but the story we’ve yet to live.
That is your true story. So what’s your story? What is the narrative you’ve been led to believe about your life? What were you told about yourself growing up? What did you not hear that made a difference? If you were to put your life narrative in a single word, what would it be? If you feel comfortable, write that in the chat. What is it? Good? Smart? Capable? Mean? Ugly? Failure? It will be interesting to see what everyone types into the chat, but without even reading them, I can predict a word that fits what many of you would say. It is the word Unworthy.
You see a year ago our young adults participated in a project through Fuller Seminary in which they were asked to write the narratives they are led to believe about their lives and what God’s narrative is for them. They brought this exercise back to us. Over 500 people responded with the false narratives that have impacted their lives. One of the most dominant themes was unworthiness. Look at just a few of the statements people in our church submitted…
A narrative of unworthiness can be a debilitating force.
Following my freshman year in college I worked on the summer staff at Lake Junaluska, a Methodist retreat center near Asheville, NC. They hired college kids from around the southeast to serve in the hotels and facilities teams to handle the conferences they hosted. So I was assigned a dishwashing job in the Terrace Hotel. I arrived two weeks early so most of the summer staff hadn’t arrived. I worked next to a local kid who was outgoing and friendly and we hit it off.
He was really smart but not going to school anywhere. I found out that he lived with his dad but was originally from a town several hours away. Apparently his mother had a very short relationship with his dad and got pregnant with him. At some point in his early childhood the mother brought him to the father and said, “You did this, he’s yours.” Well the dad wasn’t interested in having a child to raise but felt he had no choice. He often reminded his son how he was a mistake. He told him, “You’ll never amount to anything, you’re no good.”
Books became his refuge. He loved to read. He also found a home in the Methodist Church. When he graduated from High School church members helped him get a scholarship and financial aid so he could attend a Methodist College. He went to college, something incredible for a kid with no resources and little support from home. He was doing well, but by the end of the semester he quit school and returned home. Why?
Because no matter what the outer evidence of your life is, the inner voice is what casts the verdict.
Maybe that is why Peter reacted to Jesus the way he did in Luke chapter 5. This is Luke’s version of the call of Jesus’ call to Peter to be a disciple. Its radically different from the call stories in Matthew and Mark. In those versions Jesus comes to the Peter and others who were fisherman and asks them to put down their nets and follow him. And they do, which is a mystery because those gospels would have us believe that Jesus was a total stranger.
But Luke fills us in on some details. Luke makes clear that Jesus was no stranger to Peter. In fact, in the pervious chapter Jesus went Peter’s house for lunch. Obviously they knew each other. While there Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. Peter is now a witness to Jesus’ miraculous power. Then just a few verses later Jesus is teaching by the sea. Peter and his fishing partners are washing their nets. They are done for the day. So many people come out to hear Jesus that he steps into Peter’s boat in order to push out from shore and therefor be better heard. While Peter is washing his nets he’s listening to Jesus.
This scene reminds me of David Myers, our security officer on staff. A few years ago after several mass shootings at churches our Trustees hired David to provide security at the church. On his first Sunday I interviewed Carver McGriff for the message. Now David was working. He was moving around observing the church, but he was listening. After the last service, near the end of the line of people to greet Carver, David came up to me with a tear in his eyes and said, “Can I talk to him? He said some things that touched me. In my line of work, faith is not easy to have. I just want to meet him.” He did and today he’s an active part of our church.
It’s a good reminder that God is often speaking to us before we realize it. Sometimes people who grow up in church fall away from God. Life’s crushing loads seem to make faith an impossibility, but they can’t get away from God. They want to believe that this world is not all there is, that maybe there is a God and perhaps I matter to God. Peter was washing his nets, but he was listening.
And so just in case Peter hadn’t seen or heard enough, Jesus tells him to take the boat out to deeper water and throw the net on the other side of the boat. Several things are wrong with this picture. The other side was the wrong side. There was a correct side of the boat from which to throw out the net. Also, Peter had already gone out and caught nothing. Now he’s just washed his nets. He’s being asked to throw out clean nets and get them dirty again for what is clearly uninformed direction. But he does it! Why? Because he’s been watching and listening. And now what he’s about to discover is that faith doesn’t happen until he obeys.
He says, “If you say so, I will let down the nets.” That sentence captures what faith is all about. “If you say so, I will.” If you say so. Faith begins in listening. Forming habits that help us hear Jesus speaking to us. And the reason it takes cultivation is because Jesus will say things to us that make no sense. Things that seem counter to what we know to be true. But when we come to recognize the voice of Jesus, faith means, “If you say so, I will.” I will obey.
Peter throws out the net and brings in such a large haul of fish that it fills the boat, and this is where he gets scared. He kneels before Jesus and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (camera change?)
Not, “I have done sinful things.” Not, “I have sinful tendencies.” But, “I am a sinful man.” Whenever you start a sentence with I AM, be careful, because what follows doesn’t just describe who you have been but who you will continue to be. A sentence that begins “I AM,” is a defining statement.
Peter is saying “I am defined by my sin.” Where did he get that idea? Could it be because he grew up in a home that reminded him daily, “you’re a mistake. You’re a screw up. You never get things right?” Depart from me, Lord, I’m a sinful man.
Could it be because Peter had regrets in his life? He didn’t any help seeing himself as a sinner? He was fully aware of things he did that made him feel unworthy. Depart from me Lord, I am a sinful man.
Maybe he was just the product of religious thinking at the time. A person could not stand before God and live. God is holy and we are unholy. God comes to judge and punish bad people. So based on what Peter has seen and heard he knew Jesus was no ordinary person. “Depart from me, Lord, I am a sinful man.”
Many people live with narratives like that. They’re not always obvious. They don’t prevent you from going to work every day and living a productive life, just like Peter running a fishing business and going home to his family every night. But inside, we carry something with us that says, “If people knew the truth about me, if they knew my real story, they wouldn’t like me as much. They wouldn’t want to be around me. They would reject me.”
There’s a story about an actor in London some years ago who played a trick on a few of his friends who were staring in stage plays at the time. He sent them each an anonymous letter that read, “I know the truth about you and will give you one day to live the city.” Within 24 hours all of them had left London.
Have you ever felt that way? If people knew the deep, down truth about your life, they wouldn’t love you. They wouldn’t look at you the same. They wouldn’t want to be your friend. They would reject you.
We’re all in the same boat together aren’t we? But as Peter discovered, Jesus gets in our boat with us.
The word for sin in the New Testament is the Greek word hamartia. It literally means “to miss the mark.” Like using a rifle with a faulty scope. You just never hit your target because your sighting is off. The challenge of our human condition is that while everyone of us is created good, we also have faulty sightings. We just can’t line things up perfectly so we always hit our target. We miss the mark.
This is the meaning of sin. Sin is not about certain actions we commit, it’s an awareness that when it comes to God, and when it comes to being the people we really want to be, we all miss the mark. This is why Jesus comes.
You don’t have to look hard to see people missing the mark today. Just think of a Jeffrey Epstein abusing teenage girls. Or the two guys who gunned down Ahmaud Auberry from the back of a pickup truck in south Georgia. Or the rioters and looters who smashed windows and tore up our city and shot and killed Chris Beaty and Dorian Murrell. Or the person who shot those two police officers in LA this past week. We understand how humanity misses the mark, but those big projections are just a macrocosm of the little ways we all miss the mark of God’s best for us all the time. The careless words, the bad judgments, the ill-considered decisions. What if our worst moments were played out on a big screen. How would we feel?
And along comes Jesus who stands in our boat with his penetrating stare as if he can see right through us, knowing everything we’ve ever done and every thought we’ve had. Who wouldn’t say, “Depart from me, Lord, I am a sinful man!”
One of the greatest preachers in American history is Harry Emerson Fosdick. He was the preacher at the famed Riverside Church in New York nearly a century ago. In his book of his most popular sermons he preached is one based on this story from Luke called Taking Jesus Seriously. I want to read a portion of the opening of that sermon, and because you may want to reflect on these words yourself, you’ll see them on the screen. You may even get ready to take a picture of them so you can read them again and think about their meaning. This sermon forever changed the way I see this story. Fosdick writes…
I love that thought. Peter was taking Jesus seriously, because he understood Jesus takes sin seriously. He takes the evil of our world seriously. So much so he was willing to go to the cross. But it wasn’t just to forgive us….
You caught that didn’t you? Jesus didn’t come just to forgive us. Just to ease our conscience. Just to make us feel better. He came to make us a part of God’s narrative. Sometimes we so personalize Jesus I think we pervert his message. Just look at the index of hymns in our hymnal sometime. The most often used word in Hymn titles is “My.” “My faith,” “My God,” “My hope,” “My Jesus,” “My Soul.” My, my, my. We lose the larger narrative that God redeems us to be a part of the grander, greater story of the hope God brings to the world.
Peter says to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, I am a sinful man.” Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Your sins are forgiven.” He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry about it. You’ve done anything that bad.” Jesus doesn’t address Peter’s sin at all.
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. From now you will be catching people.” By giving him a job to do, Jesus in essence said, “You’re good enough.”
New Testament scholar Eduard Schweizer says, “Nothing is said of forgiveness; sin is overcome through service. Service brings close to God those who are distant.” This is the power of discipleship, not people talking about what Jesus can do but what Jesus has done for them. Its not people who try to proclaim salvation like Jesus, but proclaim Him and that what he has done for them is salvation.
You know what Jesus shows us in this story? He shows us that there is something much scarier than having our true stories exposed. It’s keeping our truth hidden and never having it changed. Its to feel unworthy but never know our worth. Jesus comes to give us the truth about our lives, that their value is found in being a part of God’s narrative.
Let me go back to my friend James I told you about earlier. I talked him into joining me at Pfeiffer College. I sensed at times the old voices haunted him to quit and go home, but he showed courage and stuck it out and got a criminal justice degree. Not long after he became the chief of police at a small town outside Charlotte, NC. He understood people who get caught in the undercurrent of life. He wanted to help people.
I lost touch with James over the years. We had a few conversations out of the blue ever now and then, but as I was working on this sermon I decided to call him. He’s now a city manager in small town in NC. I had no idea that he’s a grandad now. In fact he was in Boston visiting his daughter. She works with homeless mothers and their children to help them make it. All of his kids are in some kind of public service work. His son is a professional firefighter. His other son is in politics working to improve our world.
Where did this come from? It came from a changed narrative, a new narrative he came to find in Jesus Christ, letting him know he is worthy, and God wants to use him. He even said he’s now an adjunct professor at Appalachian St. University teaching a masters program. He said to me on the phone, “Can you believe that. Dumb ‘ol James from the nowhere NC teaching at a university.”
I asked him, “Do you still battle the old voices, the old narrative about your life?” He said, “All the time. I did the first time I got up in front of students to teach. Right away I heard in my head, “You don’t belong here. You’re not smart enough. Once they find you out, you won’t be back for another semester.” He said the old narrative never fully goes away. I just remember that I am a child of God, and Jesus says I’m worthy. And I look out at those students and think, “Perhaps He can use me to help them.”
That’s a good story. What’s your story?
Lord, I’ve always had a hard time believing this, that my life is important, that it has value, that I am worthy. But don’t let me wait to believe in order to live the truth I seek. Help me understand that in living that way I come to believe. Today, I commit to listening to you and doing what you say and going where you direct me.
And for those of us Lord who have grown comfortable in our faith, who are tempted to reduce the Gospel to what soothes our consciences and keeps life satisfied, we give you permission today to shake us up. Forgive us when we get disturbed and allow that to create disturbance for others. Help us to listen before speaking, and to do what you say even when it doesn’t make sense, because we really want our narratives to be about your kingdom’s goals for this world.
We pray this in Christ name. Amen.