Living a Called Life: The Path of Imperfection
February 10, 2019
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
This sermon is the second in a series Living a Called Life. The theme of call rises from the Scripture stories we’re blessed to hear this month, stories that highlight this experience of feeling one’s life summoned either by external circumstance or by an internal, driving energy that all spiritual traditions attribute to the voice of God.
Last week, I reflected on the inner and external nature of call, how sometimes we are called to depth within ourselves or within an immediate circle of concern, and at other times we are called out, beyond our boundaries of comfort or knowledge, for the sake of adventure or service. These two calls are not in opposition to one another, but rather “in constant conversation,” to borrow a phrase from the poet David Whyte. We don’t really get to choose between them, for more often than not, one or the other is thrust upon us. Yet there is a choice, in that we can say no, that we can reject or resist the spiritual work required of us in a given moment of life; conversely, we can give ourselves wholeheartedly to what is before us, choosing to accept and embrace even those calls we would have done anything to avoid.
This week, inspired by the biblical texts we have just heard and that you have printed before you, I’d like to explore the path of imperfection that we invariably walk when living a called life. Feelings of inadequacy--and their shadow emotion of shame--can greet us the moment we hear a call. “Woe is me, I am lost.” The prophetic Isaiah laments as he felt summoned before God. “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” “I am the least of the apostles,” writes Paul about his call to follow Jesus, “unfit to be an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” “Go away from me, Lord,” says Simon Peter in the boat with Jesus, “for I am a sinful man.” Yet it’s that moment when we acknowledge our brokenness and our failings that we can lose whatever armor we’ve been carrying to keep others from seeing who we truly are.
This week I listened to Krista Tippett’s interview on her podcast On Being to a woman named Glennon Doyle, a best-selling author who began her public life with a blog she calls Momastery. Tippet begins the interview with this summary of Doyle’s life:
On Mother’s Day 2002, Doyle learns she’s pregnant and decides she is going to keep the baby and marry the father, whom she did not know well. She also realized that she needed to get sober. As part of her recovery she begins attending AA meetings. There she begins to wonder, “Why is that we can only be this honest with one another in the little dark basements of churches one hour a week? What if we could be fully honest and real with each other in everyday life?” So she starts getting up early in the morning to write in the voice she heard herself speak at AA meetings. Through Facebook and social media, her writings spread. What comes back time and again, from people all across the country, is a collective admission that the work of keeping up appearances was exhausting. “Why is it,” she asks, “that we feel we must keep from each other the very things we are meant to carry with each other?”
The Methodist pastor and author Adam Hamilton’s has just published a book about the disciple Simon Peter entitled Flawed but Faithful Disciple. Simon Peter is truly our companion on the path of imperfection (Adam Hamilton, Simon Peter: Flawed but Faithful Disciple (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2018)). From the beginning of his relationship with Jesus, Simon Peter felt himself to be unworthy even to be in Jesus’ presence. When Jesus instructs Simon to put his net down into the deep water even though they had been out all night and caught nothing, and the catch of fish is so large that his nets begins to tear, Simon realizes that he’s in the presence of someone holy. And he’s certain that if Jesus really knew what kind of man he was, he wouldn’t want anything to do with him. But Jesus did know him. He knew all about him. “Follow me,” he said, “from now on, you and I will be fishing for people.”
In that moment, Simon Peter gave his heart to Jesus, but he would never be a perfect disciple. He would be the one to get things wrong, say the most inappropriate things, try repeatedly to be faithful to Jesus and yet spectacularly fail. Still, Jesus turns to Simon Peter, more than any other disciple, as if to say, “I do not expect perfection from you. Embrace the path of imperfection.”
What makes Simon Peter’s example so compelling for us is his perseverance, his willingness to get up every time he falls, to acknowledge his failings and accept Jesus’ forgiveness, even after what was surely the most horrible failing of all, when he denies even knowing Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ arrest. How could he ever forgive himself for that failure, for not being there for his teacher and closest friend in his hour of great need? Even then, Jesus seeks him out, after the resurrection, to make sure that Simon Peter knows that he is forgiven, and still called to be a witness to Jesus’ way of love in this world.
Like St. Paul after him, the one who had to forever live with the memory of persecuting followers of Jesus until he himself became one, Simon Peter came to know and accept himself as a faithful and flawed disciple--faithful, flawed, and forgiven, loved and called. “By the grace of God I am who I am,” St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, and surely Simon Peter could say the same. “And God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.” Like Isaiah before them, both would go on to live lives of noble and imperfect service.
A dear friend came to town this weekend, someone we’ve known for 25 years, whose children grew up alongside ours from kindergarten through high school. He knows a lot about my life story and I know a lot about his, and both our stories have their share of mistakes and regrets. We reflected on what we have learned through our mistakes; how we have grown through our failures. Now, as we watch our own children forge their way into adulthood, while as parents we would love nothing more than to spare them their own mistakes and failures, we know that wisdom and character are born of suffering, from falling down and getting back up, learning from mistakes and moving forward.
As we talked, I thought back to one of my early public failures as bishop. It was one of my first Christmas Eve services at Washington National Cathedral. The year before, I had preached a sermon that was very well received, which left me feeling rather anxious as Christmas came around again. Preaching on Christmas Eve at Washington National Cathedral for a preacher is a bit like being a field goal kicker at the Super Bowl. You have to do what you do every week, but in front of a much larger audience with seemingly higher stakes, or at least that’s how it feels inside. As much as I tried that year to find inspiration, nothing particularly inspiring came to me as the day drew nearer.
But because deadlines are deadlines, and Christmas Eve invariably came, I cobbled something together and offered what I had. It was, at best, a mediocre sermon. To make things worse, I said something that several people in the congregation took to be overly critical and even hostile toward the current state of Israel. That wasn’t my intention, nor was what I said about the Israeli government central to the point of my sermon. But what I said was interpreted to be so strong a political statement on Christmas Eve that one person contacted the Washington Post in protest, and others wrote the very next day some of the most strongly worded critical letters I have ever received. I was completely caught off guard by this flurry of harsh critique for a sermon that I was already disappointed with, and it shook my confidence to the core.
Now as public mistakes go, this one wasn’t going to end my career, and trust me, I have made far worse mistakes in both my personal and professional life. But for several days I was truly devastated, not because some people didn’t like my sermon, but because I had rather thoughtlessly caused unnecessary pain for some on one the most hopeful and joyful nights in the Christian calendar. Somehow I had to find a way out of my sense of shame and embarrassment, and come to a place of peace with imperfection.
It occurred to me that accepting my mistakes and failure was only one step on the path of imperfection. The next step was to take responsibility for their impact on other people. And the next step was to apologize and make amends. The step after that was to learn how I might avoid such mistakes in the future. In other words, I realized that my task was to move toward the pain I was feeling rather than away from it.
So I decided to respond to every person that had written to me. I apologized for the ways my words had offended and offered to meet with them. To my astonishment, every person accepted my apology and my offer, and I spent the better part of a week in personal conversation with people who wanted me to hear their stories. By the end of the week, not only did I feel humbled by what I had learned, I felt forgiven, free, and yes, a bit wiser. My learning wasn’t that I should never risk offending people from the pulpit, but to be aware of the ways certain words and phrases can trigger a whole host of reactions, and that part of my job is to be mindful and to choose my words carefully.
I also realized that part of the cost of my vocation as a public speaker--just like a field goal kicker--is the inevitable experience of public embarrassment when the best of what I have to offer simply misses the mark. I needed to accept that with both grace and humility, or I would simply freeze every time I had to preach a sermon. I still have the responsibility of doing my best, all the while knowing that mine was a path of imperfection through which, as St. Paul writes so beautifully, the grace of God can shine through, making it infinitely clear to all involved that it comes from God.
So it is in imperfection that we are called, and in imperfection we respond. There is freedom in that realization, and appropriate humility and wonder at the depth of God’s love and mercy. It also is a clarion call of responsibility, propelling us forward to act, to give, to offer what we have, even as we know it will be insufficient, rather than hold back in embarrassment or shame. For every day we are called to acts of courage and kindness, of intention and commitment--to live by the audacious conviction that our lives and our actions matter, and they matter, in the words of my colleague Bishop Jake Owensby, “on an infinite and eternal scale.” Nothing serves the forces of evil in this better than the hesitancy of those unwilling to fail.
What is true for us as individuals is also true for us in community. So I encourage you, St. Augustine’s, to walk confidently on the path of imperfection to which you are called, willing to learn and grow together, knowing that by the grace of God you are who you are, and that grace calls you to love and follow Jesus in his way of love. Take to heart these words from St. Paul from his second letter to the church in Corinth:
Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. . . For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ salke. For it is God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge in the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
We are indeed the imperfect vessels of God’s grace, not the grace itself. But without vessels, grace cannot be carried from place to another, from one person to another. So walk on, you noble clay jars, on the path of imperfection, and offer something of the love, mercy, and forgiveness you have received to those you encounter along the way.