Sarah Shelton: A Big Fish Tale: Worthy or Willing?


My brother, Jim, is five years my senior, and growing up, he was really cool. I guess I should say that he is still really cool, as our youngest son wants Jim to chaperone his fraternity brothers on a spring break trip to Florida! So, I should probably be thankful for his "coolness," but growing up, it did tend to get in the way.

For instance, when he was in high school, I was only in junior high. He could drive. I could not. He had clothes with logos on them. My mother made my clothes. While he enjoyed being out on Friday and Saturday nights, I was babysitting or watching TV with my parents. While I had one or two close friends, Jim had a whole posse of friends. Johnny Davis lived right next door but there were others: Bobby, Prairie Dog (whose real name I still don't know), Edward, Robert and Bill. They were well-behaved guests at our dinner table, but they were also the same crew my brother met up with when he snuck out of the house by climbing out of his second story bedroom window.

All of these boys had brothers except for Jim. Jim lived in a house full of over-achieving, over-functioning, bossy, but sweet, sisters. So, whenever he and his friends had to take or pick me up at school, they would roll their eyes as I spilled my books climbing into the back seat of a two-door car. I spilled them because I took too many home and because I was also toting a band instrument. Please note, I did not play the piccolo that is easily carried. No, I played the bassoon, and its case is the equivalent of a suitcase. So besides being "Baby Sister," being a member of the band is probably the thing that made me the most uncool in their eyes. Perhaps they were being playful when they nicknamed me "The Little Bandsman," but I heard it as a damning statement of judgment. It made me feel like I was not even worthy to be in their presence.

When have you felt unworthy?

Rather than guess at universal feelings of unworthiness, I decided to ask the Wednesday night crowd about their experiences. Here are some of their answers to the question, "When have you felt unworthy?" The first said:

  • I accidentally ran over our son's dog in the driveway. When I told him, he put his arms around me, patted me on the back and said, "It's ok that you killed my dog." I am unworthy of such forgiving love.
  • I felt unworthy when I couldn't complete all the tasks required by new job.
  • I felt unworthy when friends left me out of their plans.
  • My unworthiness comes from being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in a family of alcoholics. To make matters worse, my childhood preacher preached that this made me flawed and thus unworthy.
  • I was trying out for a role in a play. As I left, my mother said, "You'll never make it." Her statement of unworthiness is what I still hear to this day.
  • If you don't hide your intelligence, you will never marry a man.
  • If you were less bossy, people would like you better.
  • I felt unworthy after drinking "likka," the devil's tonic.
  • If you serve as a deacon, you will deprive a man of his place of service.
  • Gays are condemned to hell.
  • Women have their place, and it is not behind the pulpit.

Oh, I hear these statements and I want to wave a magic wand to remove the hurt and insecurity, the anger, the deep-seated resentments, the flawed perceptions of ourselves that color our world. What might help better than a magic wand, however, is to remind you of other statements that are not only balancing and grounding, they are scriptural and thus, they are true. Statements like:

  • We are created in God's image.
  • We are loved unconditionally.

God is not concerned with our unworthiness. God is concerned with our willingness.

In both the Old Testament and New Testament lessons for today, we find stories of calling. Both Simon and Isaiah, when they realize that they are needed in the service of God, immediately drop to their knees to confess how unworthy they feel. It is when Simon hauls in such a great catch that the boats are threatened with sinking, that he falls downs at Jesus' knees. "Depart from me. I am a sinful man, O Lord!" he says. And Isaiah, when the foundation of the Temple shakes and fills with smoke at the sound of God's voice; and the seraphim fly around his head singing "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts," he cries, "Woe is me! I am lost! I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of people with unclean lips." In other words, they both say, "I am unworthy!"

After acknowledging their unworthiness, almost immediately, they are conscripted for service in God's Kingdom. Confession seems to be the only prerequisite for God's service. God sends seraphim to Isaiah to touch his lips with burning coals in order to purify him. God says: "Behold, this touched your lips and your guilt (your unworthiness), has been taken away and your sin (your unworthiness) is forgiven." Luke simply has Jesus say to Simon, "Don't be afraid."

So much is tied to our fear, isn't it? It is fear that motivates others to say such things as "You'll never amount to anything." And it is fear that causes us to internalize such statements worrying "What if they are right?" So, imagine, what if Jesus, upon hearing Simon's confession, had said, "You are so right, Simon! What in the world am I thinking! You are a sinner. You will never do. You are no good to me. I will have to find someone else." Just think! There would be no Simon Peter, the rock, on whom the church is founded; no Simon who shows us over and over again that it is flawed individuals, those who boast of Christ and those who deny Christ - these are the individuals on whom Jesus depends to do his work in this world.

It reminds me of the quote by Marianne Williamson that Nelson Mandela made famous:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?" Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God, and your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

So, Jesus in liberating Simon, doesn't leave him on his knees. Jesus will not buy into his feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy. Jesus bids him to leave his fear behind and offers him a larger scope for experiencing wonder. (John Stendahl, "The Translation of Wonder," Christian Century, 1998) It seems to me that Jesus is inviting us to do the same - to use our imaginations rather than be stuck in ruts of believing that we are unworthy. You see, the power we place in the thoughts of our unworthiness is the biggest fish tale of all. Instead of the same old way of doing things - instead of the same false way of thinking about ourselves, Jesus says, "Go into the deep! Cast your nets on the other side! Be fishers of men and women!" And because Jesus has taken us into the deep to cast the nets far and wide, we are all caught up - the worthy and the unworthy, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, all caught by His nets of grace to do His bidding.

Oh, when Jesus hears Simon's confession - when God hears Isaiah's confession - a commission is immediately given. "Leave your nets. You will be fishers of people." And then, "Whom shall I send? Who will go?" Mind you, these are not rhetorical questions. We must each give a definitive answer based on our willingness in spite of our unworthiness. It is Isaiah who has imagination enough to say, "Here am I. Send me. Send me as I am. Use me as unworthy as I am. I am willing."

Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz Weber, is a recovered substance abuser. She is about six two. She has jet black hair and even in the pulpit, she wears vestments that put her tattoos on display. I think she does these things to keep her struggle with unworthiness visible. In her book Accidental Saints, she tells about a relationship with a parishioner in which she felt unworthy. (Accidental Saints, "Absolution for A--holes") It began when a man visited her church and immediately, she did not like him. She never did much to connect with him personally, and she never bothered to help get him connected with the rest of the congregation. She even purposefully left him off on an all-church email, because she didn't want him to come on the church retreat in his too-baggy pants and halitosis.

One day, he called to tell Nadia that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He and his girlfriend wanted to marry before he died, so would Nadia please perform the service? She admits, "If it had been anyone else in the church, I would not have hesitated to say 'yes.'" She would have rearranged her whole calendar to accommodate the asking couple, but not for this guy. She hid behind a convenient excuse and refused. And so, the couple enlisted another minister, they were married, and soon thereafter, he died. After the funeral service, the widow approached Nadia. And she said, "Thank you for having a church where my husband felt so welcome. He spoke so highly of you and your congregation, and I know that having you as his pastor meant a lot for him in his final months."

Nadia's shame, Nadia's guilt, Nadia's feelings of "I am not worthy," crushed her so intensely, that she went to her confessor, she told about her despicable actions of negligence and snobbery. But, the confessor imparted forgiveness for Nadia's sin. She says:

It feels like a strange and abstract thing to say, "Jesus died for your sins." ...But when [my confessor] said that Jesus died for my sins, including that one, I was reminded again that there is nothing we have done that God cannot redeem. Small betrayals, large infractions, minor offenses. All of it...God gathers up all our sin, all our broken...junk, he gathers it into God's own self and transforms all that death into life. Jesus takes our [stuff] and exchanges it for His blessedness. ...There is absolutely no justice in the fact that [the man] loved me and loved my church. ...if I got what I deserved in this life, I'd be [doomed] - so instead, I receive that grace for what it is: a gift. (Adjustments were made in the quote to omit profanity.)

It was at my brother's wedding that I next saw all of Jim's friends. They were groomsmen, and they all cried like babies as Jim made his vows of fidelity to his beloved Karen Ann. At the reception, it was Johnny Davis who greeted me with a hug. He immediately put me at ease when he said, "Wow, I guess even little bandsmen grow up!"

Johnny died of ALS in 2006. I officiated at his funeral, and then several years later, I delivered the eulogy at his mother's funeral. I officiated at the wedding of another of Jim's friends' daughter, and in December of 2015, just days before Christmas, I officiated at the funeral of yet another's wife. In all of that living and dying, my worthiness has been quite affirmed. Now, it is more a matter of my willingness: willingness not to be afraid, willingness to be bigger than the defining words that sound off in my head and heart, and willingness to answer the nudge of God with "Here am I. Send me." It is only in answering "yes" to God that I find the negative voices in my head go silent.

How will we answer when God nudges us? Will we readily answer with some mock appeal to unworthiness? Will we continue to allow untruths to define us? Will we attempt to mask our contrariness that causes us to refuse? Or are we willing to engage in the Divine imagination? God is not interested in our unworthiness. God desires our willingness. How willing are you to respond to God's call?

Let us pray.

We acknowledge our unworthiness before you, O God, and yet, we feel your nudging and calling for us to be live into the vision of who you believe us to be. So give us the courage to say "yes" to you as we live into the hope that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.