February 6, 2022, The Haunting, Luke 5:1-11 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
If I’m honest, I have to admit that I’m not a very good housekeeper. I love my home, and I love being at home, and I even enjoy cleaning it, sometimes, but the dust and the dog hair and the dirty dishes always seem to be one step ahead of me at least, or maybe two. And I’m never more aware of my failings as a housekeeper than when I visit someone who is really good at it. I visit a perfect house – like when I used to go to my sister’s house, or Deacon Peggy’s house, spotless and shining clean, not a speck of dust to be seen – and when I come back home I am absolutely overwhelmed by my failures. I walk in to my house, and everywhere I look all I can see is dirt – smudgy windows and dusty bookshelves, crumbs and spills and fingerprints and pawprints.
And I can only imagine that Peter must have felt a little bit like that when he saw that miraculous catch of fish overflowing his nets. Suddenly his eyes were opened, and he caught a glimpse of who Jesus really was. Peter generally seemed to have a pretty good opinion of himself as we watch him bluster his way through the gospels, but on that day, when he suddenly realized that God himself was standing right there in his little fishing boat, he was absolutely knocked flat with a sense of his own unworthiness and smallness and sinfulness and foolishness. “Get away from me, Lord!” he cried out. “Don’t look at me, please! You don’t know who I am, you don’t know what I’ve done!”
Guilt and shame are a part of our human condition. How many times a day do you apologize, do you think? “I’m sorry if I’m bothering you,” we say when we call someone. “I’m sorry my dog was barking this morning. “I’m sorry I forgot to do that thing I promised.” “I’m sorry the house is such a mess.” “I’m sorry I can’t be of more help.” “I’m so stupid,” we say. “I’m such an idiot.” “I’m such a mess.” Most of us carry around our load of shame like that credit card in the TV commercials – we never leave home without it. How much more if we found ourselves standing face to face with the perfect, sinless, all-knowing, all-powerful God of the universe? What failures, what ghosts of our shameful pasts, would rise up to condemn us then?
There is a scene in the Shakespeare play MacBeth that depicts in graphic detail the unshakeability of the guilt we carry around with us. In the play, Lady MacBeth convinces her unwilling husband to murder the king so that he can take the throne himself. And he does it. When Lady MacBeth, tending to the details, takes the bloody knife back to the scene of the murder so her husband won’t be suspected, her hands get covered in the king’s blood, too, and she is filled with horror at her own guilt. There’s a very famous scene in Act V, where Lady MacBeth is sleepwalking, and she tries in vain to wash the blood of her guilt from her hands. Driven mad by her guilt, she’s talking to herself:
“Out, damned spot! Out, I say! – One, two: why, then ‘tis time to do’t. – Hell is murky! – What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?
– yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.
– what, will these hands ne’er be clean? –
Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!
Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale – I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he cannot come out on’s grave.
To bed, to bed! there’s knocking at the gate: come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone. – To bed, to bed, to bed!”
It’s an eerie and dramatic scene, but what really makes so very haunting to us, what has made it such an iconic scene, is that we are all, in truth, haunted by our own sense of guilt and shame. The image of Lady MacBeth, alone in the dark castle, desperately and hopelessly trying to wash away the blood of the murdered king, is the very picture of fallen humanity in its greatest need: “the people who walked in darkness”.
This past week my mother’s family held a memorial service – on Zoom, because the family is spread all over the globe – for my Uncle Wally, my mom’s older brother, who recently passed away at the age of 93. Wally was a brilliant man, a kind person, funny and creative and very successful. He was a faithful husband and a father of eleven children; he wrote and published numerous books; he managed TV stations and taught philosophy and ran an incredibly wide variety of businesses. And yet, with all of his accomplishments, at the end of his life he was seized by doubt and guilt, until, in his final days his oldest son, who is a pastor and a missionary in Thailand, came and baptized him, and he passed away, surrounded by his loving family, and at peace with God – and with himself.
We human beings are haunted by the inescapable truth of our failures and our unworthiness, and by our inability to wash ourselves clean of our shame and guilt by our own efforts. Sometimes we can outrun it for a long time, but it soon or late, it catches up with us. It caught up with Peter that day in the boat, when he suddenly knew he was standing in the presence of God. It caught up with Paul, when Jesus struck him blind on his way to find as many Christians as he could, to throw them in jail. It caught up with my uncle when he knew that his life was coming to a close. We are all haunted, and that’s why we call the good news the good news. Because when Jesus showed up, we found out that God didn’t come to tell us how messed up and worthless we were. Exactly the opposite – “God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world,” John wrote, “but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God sent his Son because he loved us and he wanted to set us free from everything that haunts us. And that is very good news.
“I would remind you, brothers and sisters,” Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, “of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly…” Notice Paul doesn’t just say the good news of the coming of Jesus saved us, past tense, as if all that mattered was that God should cancel our debt or declare us “not guilty.” To be saved doesn’t just mean God isn’t mad at us anymore. The Greek word that means salvation means so much more than that – it has to do with rescuing us out of danger and trouble, and it also has to do with healing us, making us clean and well and whole, healing the madness of our guilt and shame. Because salvation isn’t a kind of legal transaction – it’s an ongoing act of love.
That kind of salvation is what David wrote about, when he was haunted by his very real guilt – King David, who had committed adultery and murder. “Purge me with hyssop,” he wrote in Psalm 51. “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” David was praying for forgiveness, and for more than forgiveness; he was asking God for a lot more than a clean slate and a fresh start. He asked God to cleanse him from the innocent blood with which his hands were stained. He asked God to heal and restore his heart and his spirit. And he asked God for the light of joy that would dispel every shadow of the guilt that was haunting him. Those are the ongoing works of God’s saving love.
But I think maybe the most amazing thing about this encounter between Jesus and Peter in the fishing boat is what happens next. The nets are full to the breaking point, with wet, wriggling fishes. Everybody else is standing around, in awe of this strange and wonderful sign Jesus has done. But Peter, in a bit of mixed messaging, throws himself at Jesus’s feet while at the same time begging Jesus to get away from him. That’s not so amazing – it’s pretty typical Peter behavior, really. What is amazing is how Jesus reacts. In a word, what Jesus says to Peter is, “You’re hired.” Peter casts his haunted, impetuous, dismayed self to the ground at Jesus’s feet in utter shame and disgrace. And the reaction of Jesus seems to be, “I can work with that.” In fact, Jesus already has a job in mind for Peter. “From now on,” he tells Peter, who is probably still on his knees, “you’ll be catching people instead of fish.” Very often people, especially Sunday School teachers, like to use this passage to teach us that Jesus wants all of us to go out and evangelize, that we are all supposed to be “fishers of men” like Peter. But I think that Jesus looked down at poor haunted Peter, and Jesus saw Peter’s boldness and his honesty and his courage and his big heart. Jesus loved what he saw in Peter, and he knew exactly what he was going to do with this glorious fool of a fisherman.
You probably can’t even imagine what good things God sees when he looks at you. Don’t waste any more time in the shadows.
The first thing we might think about ourselves when we find ourselves in the presence of God in all his glory and goodness is how very worthless we are. But you can be sure that the first thing God thinks when you come into his presence is how very precious you are. And you can be sure he already has ideas about what you and he can do together. “I know the plans I have for you,” God comforted the people of Judah, living in exile in Babylon, ashamed and afraid and confused – “I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” +