To celebrate the powerful message of Eastertide, the days following Easter Sunday, I want to share a message I preached some years ago while pastoring a Progressive Christian Alliance congregation in Eastern North Carolina. I think its message speaks to the heart of the Easter message for today.
I will share some more resurrection themed writings in the next few weeks, to help us remember that the season of Easter is not just one Sunday but a whole season. I view this as a good reminder that we do not celebrate today the simple resuscitation of a man’s body (like happens when someone does CPR on one whose heart has stopped beating) but rather the gift of resurrection, which is so much more: new life breaking out in the midst of loss and death. This is something that is an ongoing reality available for people of faith in so many ways beyond mere physical restoration of life. What’s more, it is available here before our physical deaths in the way this sermon reminds us, while also promising us that even beyond the veil of death, new life is available in the next world.
Blessings on you all.
have a happy Easter!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
From Shame To Service
In the midst of our fallings and failings, we can be so overcome by shame we don’t know how to move forward. We can feel trapped, stuck, and powerless. Like a shadow falling overhead before a storm, all light and hope can begin to be eclipsed by our heartache, guilt, and shame.
Just such a moment happened to a young business named Bill Wilson. A real go getter, an up and coming star in the business world, Bill had a dirty little secret: to get through his day he had to turn again and again to the bottle. It began to wreck his home life and his marriage. Then the hold the bottle had on him cost him his job. Broken, not knowing where to turn, head hung in shame Bill admitted himself into a sanitorium, hoping beyond all hope for change. Yet what broke him beyond even his addiction was the life-wrenching shame. He was a drunk. He was a failure. He saw no hope, no goodness in his life.
Just such a moment came in the life of a young preacher named Troy. A married father of 2, this rising star in the preaching world had hidden for years his dark secret: he was gay, and no amount of prayer or sacrifice could take away his attraction to men. Like all well-kept secrets, this came out and he lost it all. His wife left him, taking the kids away. He was kicked out of the church, defrocked.
Jobless, with his marriage shattered and children cut off from him, Troy began a nose-dive of doubt, loneliness, shame, and self-hatred. One day, as life hit rock bottom, Troy took a knife, slit his wrists in the tub, and waited to die.
Though I can’t relate with these two men’s exact journey I know what it is to wake up, feeling you are powerless to move forward. Feeling that you have failed too much to move forward, and having the shame of all the ways I feel I am wrong fall over me like a dark winter chill.
Have any of you had such moments in your life you would be willing to share about?
Tonight we will be joining one final disciple in their encounter with the risen Jesus and the new life he makes possible. This disciple, Simon, has hit rock bottom, not knowing where to turn.
This is in John 21. Lets turn there together. We will start in verse 1 and go on to verse 19.
Later, Jesus himself appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius. This is how it happened: 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus[a] ), Nathanael from Cana in
Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.”
They said, “We’ll go with you.” They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they
caught nothing. 4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t
realize it was Jesus.
5 Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
6 He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”
So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. 7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.
9 When they landed, they saw a fire there, with fish on it, and some bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” 11 Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?”
They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of
John, do you love me?”
Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.” 19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.
After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”
Living Jesus, who promises us that you will never leave us and forsake us, whom we know is so present that if we turn over a rock we can find you there, and if we split a log, there you are, open our eyes. Help us to see your presence. Help us to hear your voice. Amen.
Does anything stand out to you about either how Peter experiences new life, or how the risen Christ responds to Peter’s moment of crash and burn?
There are a few things I want to focus in on: First, that Peter was immobilized by shame and guilt. Second, that Jesus confronts directly Peter’s failure and feelings. Finally, Jesus invites Peter to replace his shame with a life for others.
First, we see that Peter was immobilized by shame and guilt. We can see this because Peter has returned to fishing. If you go back and read Matthew 4, you will find out that when Peter was called by Jesus he was a fisherman. That is the old life, the old job Peter left when he answered Jesus’ call to fish for people.
What is amazing about this is that Peter knew Jesus was risen. John tells us that Jesus already had showed up to all the disciples, proved that he was risen, and commissioned them to go out and do the work Jesus did.
Peter’s response? He hung his head low. He sighed. He said “well, good for you Jesus. Glad you’re back. I bet the rest of you folks can do that just fine. Me? Let me do what I know how. Let me go fishing.”
At first glance, this may seem strange. But if you can think about what it is like for you when you are filled with shame, wracked by guilt, and failure you can see why he did this. When we are wracked with guilt and shame, we become stuck in the past. We are unable to image a better future or, if we can, cannot imagine ourselves in it. We begin to see ourselves as unable to do good, unable to make a difference. What we have done, and what it makes us look at ourselves as gets us stuck. When we are stuck and cannot go forward, we turn back. We go back to what had been comfortable before our failure.
Peter was wracked with guilt, shame, and failure. Peter had left fishing, his comfort zone and all he knew before Jesus, to embark on an adventure of following Jesus. To Peter’s perspective, that mission had failed when Jesus died. But it was more than the mission that failed. Peter had failed.
Peter had promised Jesus he would not leave his side, hat he would fight and die before letting the authorities. When Peter raised his sword to try and defend Jesus, he failed to chop off the head of the man coming for Jesus and only lopped of his ear – which Jesus promptly healed as if nothing had happened. When it was clear no amount of fighting could keep Jesus free, Peter ran for his life and hid. It wasn’t Peter, who the other disciples had treated like a spokesman and leader, who had the courage to stand by Jesus’ side, it was the women followers. Peter had shook in fear, hiding and afraid.
Then, just like Jesus had predicted, when Peter was approached he denied Jesus, saying he never knew the man – not just once but three times.
Peter was broken. He knew he was no hero. He knew he didn’t have the strength to lead like people expected him to do. He knew when the going got tough, he ran like hell.
So Peter, even after seeing Jesus risen, is so full of shame he can’t bring himself to move forward into the bright future his new life in Christ makes possible. He slinked away in the shadows, into that comfort zone that was the last place he remembered feeling safe before his failure – just as many of you have when you were immobilized by failure and shame.
This immobilization shows what shame and guilt are. Peter is struggling with both. Guilt is simply feeling bad that you have done something wrong. It hurts awful, but actually can be a positive thing. When I stub my toe I learn not to kick against a brick wall. When I feel guilt I learn which actions are wrong, and that pain helps me change by giving up bad action.
Shame on the other hand is immobilizing. While guilt is about what you have done, when you & I feel shame that feeling is about who you are. You no longer feel the remorse that you hurt a friend, you begin to say “I’m a horrible person who can’t keep a friendship. I don’t deserve support”. When you feel the guilt of having lied or cheated, you commit to be truthful and honest, not being pushed into closets again. But when this becomes shame you begin to say “I am lying good-for-nothing. No-one would like me if they knew me, and I can never do the right thing”. Guilt can bring remorse, and with remorse you can change your life for the better. Shame causes people to shut down and regress.
It is not Peter’s guilt that keeps him from moving forward – if anything his guilt makes him wish he could. It is his heart-wrenching shame. His hatred of who he is for denying Jesus.
It is shame that drives Peter back to fishing, making him unable to say “I will change, and become a person of courage, no longer hiding in fear by the fireside”, and keeps him from going sent as Jesus said he should. That same shame was what immobilized Bill Wilson when he knew he must deal with his alcoholism, and that was almost fatal to Troy Perry when he decided he was too filthy as a gay man to be worth living.
How does Jesus respond?
Jesus responds by directly confronting Peter’s failure head on. He does it by doing two things.
First Jesus brings Peter into a situation mirroring moments of Peter’s life with Jesus – where Peter gets a miraculous catch of feet as he did at his call to follow Jesus; and where Jesus makes a meal for the disciples like Jesus did on the night Judas betrayed Jesus & Peter abandoned him. And then Jesus asks Peter three times in that moment, does he love Jesus? These three questions are a chance for Peter to experience saying “Yes” to Jesus as many times as Peter had said no to him, when Jesus denied him at
Jesus’ trial. The risen Jesus confronts Peter’s failure head-on.
So often when we experience shame in our lives, instead of confronting it head-on, we try to hide from it. We may run from it by jumping into new work at our job, in a hobby, or even in the church. We may run from it by jumping into a new relationship, or into bed with someone. We might run from it by diving into a bottle or lighting a joint. Pushing down the shame, hiding from the shame only makes it worse, more immobilizing.
In our relationships with others – whether in our families, or in the church – we do the same thing. We see others slinking away from feeling shame about actions. We say nothing – why bring up the past? Instead of speaking directly to what is happening, we let it go. And people who are hurting slip through the cracks.
Yet Jesus directly confronts what is happening, and to borrow a phrase from Rev. Terry McGuire, Jesus initiates grace. He directly speaks to what has happened, but in a way that affirms to Peter that there is a future for him, that Jesus has place for him in his life, and that Peter can choose a path where the past doesn’t define him. Jesus directly invites Peter to embrace their relationship again.
In a real this is very similar to what Bill Wilson and Troy Perry experience. While in the hospital Bill Wilson cries out to God saying “God, if there is a God, show yourself!” and Bill Wilson has an experience of seeing blinding light and hearing the words “You are free now”. That moment is a turning point for Bill Wilson where he is able to let go of the past because he knows his relationship with his Higher Power, with life, and the future isn’t defined by his failings. He is not defined by them either. Likewise, when Troy Perry reaches near death, he has the experience of hearing what he feels is the voice of God telling him that God loves him, just as he is, and that God wants him to share with others who, like him, have heard God detested them that God loves them too. For both of them this experience gives them the sense that life is worth living, that they are not disposable, and that there is a future for them. They experience the risen Jesus confronting their shame and guilt initiating grace.
This allows them to learn the lesson of guilt and change the direction of their lives. You may not have had a visionary experience. In fact I hope you haven’t – a visionary experience is something God usually gives us only after God has tried to quietly speak, guide, influence us and we were too distracted by life’s busyness, too caught up in our own pain and angst, to listen. I challenge you to not wait for that, but instead take time to confront your feelings of guilt and of shame.
Take them to God. Look and listen for God’s response. I believe as you look and listen you will see Jesus reaffirming his relationship with you, letting you know that your failures do not define you, and carving out a bright future with you. As you experience this I think you will find that these broken places in your life that can create shame, when you open up them up to God can become the places where God’s presence shines through. As you let go of the shame, you will find God giving you the power to move forward, at times accepting what you felt was too broken to embrace and other times empowered to change course where mistakes have been made.
How can we as a church help people learn to reach out to God & others instead of letting shame consume them?
Finally after Jesus reassures him that their relationship continues, Jesus invites people to begin his journey forward by focusing on others. He invites them to get outside of themselves.
Jesus does this in a number of ways. First by inviting Peter to share his love for Jesus, Jesus calls Peter to focus on making amends in his relationship with Jesus. Making amends to others we have hurt can be a powerful way to mend our broken relationships and heal the pain of guilt. Shame however immobilizes us so all we do is beat up ourselves, as Peter has been doing to himself.
Next Jesus invites Peter to demonstrate a change by serving others – feed my sheep.
This call to make do something outside of yourself is part of what both Bill Wilson and Troy Perry are led to do in the face of their shame. Bill Wilson begins a process of making amends that later becomes a step in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement, because it helps him use his mistakes to learn how to become a healthier person instead of immobilizing him with shame. Then he finds when he helps others work through their problems with addiction, it helps him maintain his sobriety. For Bill this helps him move past shame to a new future, and gives birth the Alcoholics Anonymous movement.
Troy Perry’s experience where the living Jesus told him he was loved was linked with the call to tell others, particularly gay people who were grossly mistreated in his day, that they are loved. In helping others discover that they are loved, in helping work with them to find a place, Troy Perry begins to discover his own self-worth and replace his shame with being gay with a sense he is loved, loveable, and worth respect. His work to follow Jesus’ call births the gay-affirming Christian movement, and to his decision to choose service over shame our church ultimately owes its existence.
This movement the living Jesus invited Peter, Bill Wilson, and Troy Perry to – which we are invited to – is beautiful expressed by theologian Jurgen Moltmann, when he prays: “For a long time I looked for you within myself and crept into the shell of my soul, shielding myself with an armour of inapproachability. But you were outside – outside myself – and enticed me out of the narrowness of my heart into the broad place of love for life. So I came out of myself and found my soul in my senses, and my own self in others. The experience of God deepens the experiences of life. It does not reduce them. For it awakens the unconditional Yes to life.” (The Source of Life).
Jesus is standing in the midst of our shame, guilt, and brokenness. Jesus is calling us to open ourselves up, to share our unspeakable shame and pain with God, so that we can find those broken places becoming cracks through which God’s light can shine into our darkness. As we do so, we are challenged to reach out to God, to own our mistakes, and seek to turn our focus from how much we have failed to how we can be people healing the breaches for ourselves and others. We are invited out of ourselves, like Peter, into lives of service.
In closing, I want to ask you to listen to a song by Jewel entitled “Hands”. As you do so, I want you to talk to God about whatever shame or guilt is holding you back. Invite God into it. Open yourselves during this time of quiet prayer to God’s presence in the midst of it, and let God embrace you. Look for how you can move outside of yourself toward God and others, and maybe even let your experiences of seeming failure be transformed into a time of service.
After the end of the sermon, I want to invite you take part in a responsive reading as a prayer before communion.
Preacher: Jesus stands among us, in the midst of our heartache, shame and grief, calling out your name saying, “do you love me more than these?”
Congregation: “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Preacher: Jesus calls out, “Feed my lambs.”
Preacher: Jesus calls out, “do you love me?”
Congregation: “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Preacher: Jesus calls to you, “Take care of my sheep.”
Preacher: Jesus calls your name, asking, “do you love me?”
Congregation: “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”
Preacher: Jesus calls to you, saying “Feed my sheep. I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. But now, my love for others will lead you where you don’t want to go. But do not fear. I am with you always even to the end of the ages”