by Lea F. Schweitz
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology/Religion and Science, Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science
Grace and peace to you, Brothers and Sisters.
In our Gospel reading for this third week of Easter, we have a story in two acts. In the first act, we find the disciples fishing at night in the Sea of Galilee. Not surprisingly, they aren't catching anything. In act two, there is the appearance of the resurrected Christ on the shore at daybreak, full nets, and a warm meal.
It is easy to read act one of our Gospel as a story of shame. The disciples have abandoned their mission. They have returned, shamefully, to their old ways. They are fishing at night – naked, no less. We are so accustomed to linking nakedness and shame that the naked fishing of act one quickly becomes a symbol of shame. Even though the commentaries will tell us that it's unclear what the disciples were doing back in Galilee. Even though the commentaries will tell us that, in all likelihood, Peter was not completely naked. Instead, it’s likely that he had stripped off his outer clothes to work more efficiently.
Despite the exegetical space opened up here, our own context is saturated by connections of naked bodies and shame. From this space, naked fishing quickly becomes a symbol of the disciples' shame after the Easter victory. But is it? This year, on this side of Easter, I'm seeing it a little differently. This year, the disciples' naked fishing has become a symbol of vulnerability, and ultimately, the fulfillment of the Easter promise of the presence of the risen Christ. From this context, our Gospel in two acts is a poignant vision of what happens when we enter the spaces of risk to which we are called and go public with the gifts God has graciously extended. Bear with me for a moment as I paint the context for this transformation.
I am not a "give something up for Lent" kind of Lutheran. It can be a fine spiritual discipline for some, but my own practice has been to take up something for Lent. This year, I thought I was taking up a 40-day exploration of the creative life. I have always understood my teaching and my writing as an art, and for Lent this year, I went looking for wisdom about how to be a better artist so that I could apply it to the ways I've been called to create. I went in hoping for a poetic, romantic look at the creative life. Some quick tips about how to reign in the chaos and live more creatively. Of course, I should have known better.
Instead, I kept finding myself confronting vulnerability. Or, perhaps better, confronting vulnerability kept finding me. Lest you think this was too heady an enterprise - much of this exploration was by means of podcasts and TedTalks. I mean, even in a Lenten discipline, there's only so much time, right? Eventually, I found myself listening to Brene Brown's interview on Being with Krista Tippett (Available at: http://www.onbeing.org/program/brene-brown-on-vulnerability/4928 ) and her Tedtalk on vulnerability, which is approaching 9 million views. ( Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html ).
Brown is a social science researcher. Her work began by collecting thousands of pieces of data, mostly stories, about human connection. What she found was that shame is what dispels connection. Shame is that sense that we all carry of not being good enough, smart enough, strong enough, or beautiful enough. It’s not guilt – guilt is a response to something you do. Guilt is what’s felt when you do something bad. Shame is saying “I am bad”; guilt is saying “I did something bad.”
In her research on shame, Brown found is that everyone has these experiences but some folks marshal them in such a way that they are able to live more wholeheartedly out of them. The difference? The wholehearted had the courage to be imperfect, the compassion to be kind to one’s self and others, the wisdom to let go of who they thought they should be and just be who they are. In other words, they embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful – not that it wasn’t hard. Whereas shame finds vulnerability excruciating, wholehearted living embraces vulnerability as necessary.
That’s the ambiguity of vulnerability. It is at the core of shame and fear and a deep sense of unworthiness, and at the same time it is the very birthplace for creativity and love and belonging. At this point in her research, Brown takes a step back and realized that she had exactly the wrong relationship with vulnerability. Painfully, I have to admit that more often than not, I do, too.
This was the ah-ha moment for me when my poetic Lenten exploration became an existential confrontation with vulnerability. Vulnerability found me.
Sounds simple, right? Be Seen. Love with your whole heart. Trust your gifts. Practice gratitude. Embrace vulnerability. However, putting it into practice was going to be excruciating. (Thankfully, I felt a bit emboldened by the fact that Brown felt this way, too.) For me, it meant saying yes to invitations to speak in places where I was going to be deeply uncomfortable, public, and vulnerable. And it was hard – actually it was terrifying – and the demons of shame were ever-present. But, in the end, these are moments of grace.
Don't hear me wrong. I recognize that this is an embrace of vulnerability from a position of extreme privilege. This embrace of vulnerability is a call to those of us who are privileged enough to know a measure of comfort and safety - but who forget that this isn't the goal.
So, what does any of this have to do with today’s Gospel?
From the context of my Lenten journey, I cannot see this story in two acts as a shameful abandonment of the disciples’ mission. In the world of the disciples, there is very little about fishing at night that could be read as a return to the "comfortable old ways." Fishing was a way to earn a living in a society of people living hand to mouth. An unsuccessful night of fishing would mean not just disappointment, but the possibility of going without the very necessities of life. ( See Raymond Pickett’s account of the Galilean fishing economy. Raymond Pickett. “Organizing for Mission: Luke 5.” Accessed April 13, 2013. https://sites.google.com/site/organizingformission/gospel-of-luke/luke-5 )
This isn't a scene of shame but vulnerability, deep vulnerability. The good news of this week’s Gospel is that this vulnerability leads not to shame but to the abiding presence of God and life abundant. In act two, the risen Christ appears with the rising sun; the disciples come ashore; and they share breakfast and have a chat.
During the chat, Jesus asks Simon Peter, three times: "Do you love me?" And, three times, he answers, "Lord, you know that I do." Admittedly, I cringe a bit at readings that hear this exchange as a "tit-for-tat" recompense for Peter's three denials of Christ. It's a reading that suggests that somehow Peter must confess in equal measure to his denials in order to justify himself before the Lord. God becomes a cosmic scorekeeper tallying up our wrongs and waiting for us to make the right affirmation and once we've settled the score, we will have earned our forgiveness. Reading act one as a symbol of the disciples' shame, encourages this reading of act two. But, God is not a cosmic scorekeeper.
God is faithfully, ever-present as the source and sustainer of creative, vulnerable lives. Lives which are invited into the fullness of God’s work in the world. Naked night fishing is a symbol of the vulnerable living into which we are called, and in whose midst, Jesus appears with a reminder of the abundant life. With nets overflowing with fish. With a warm fire over which a meal is shared with friends. Vulnerability is open space for the inbreaking of the infinite. In act two of today's Gospel, God's love is poured out and God's promise to be with us is fulfilled. As the chat continues, there is no promise that the way forward is going to be easy. The needs are great - Peter is told three times to care for the flock. The resistance will be strong - Peter is told that his future will not be one that he would have chosen for himself. But, God is there. Alleluia.
When we risk being vulnerable, especially in living out a life in response to a call, we, too, are doing a bit of naked fishing. And, we can trust that God is there, inviting us into the work of tending the sheep.
If you come by my office, you’ll see a post it note hung in the sightline of my computer. It reads: Gone Naked Fishing. John 21:7. It’s a tactical, slightly subversive, reminder of today’s Gospel message. Naked fishing has become a metaphor for choosing to take the risk, knowing only that God’s grace and a wholehearted life are on the other side.
For me, it included publicly debating a new atheist and appearing on an experimental internet show on faith and science. For some, it’s asking a question in class, or taking an internship assignment in a place you do not want to go, or performing in a musical, or making the first move to mend a relationship, or encouraging your son or daughter to go for it when in your heart you'd rather they play it safe, or preaching your first (or twenty-first) sermon. Naked fishing is about loving with your whole heart, showing up with your whole self and taking the risk of being seen doing it - and the good news is that God will be there, as reliable as the rising sun, to invite our gifts and to sustain us with a meal and community. Thanks be to God.
John 21: 1-19