I would remind you, brothers and sisters, 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 to the message that I proclaimed to you–unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
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.
I’d like to speak about something familiar to all of us: the experience of coming to terms with our frailties and failures. It’s a theme that runs through our Scripture texts for today, but I could just as well tell you about my past week. On Wednesday night as I stumbled my way through a highly choreographed Anglo-Catholic worship service, I remembered something I heard the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr say. “To keep me from becoming too impressed with myself,” he told a journalist during an interview about his latest book, “I ask God to send me one humiliation a day. It’s a prayer that God is quick to answer.”
The stories from Scripture are particularly helpful for those of us who imagine we can somehow earn our way into God’s favor (or anyone else’s, for that matter). Each describes a situation in which a person feels summoned to do something brave. But in the presence of holiness, each feels exposed, seen for who they truly are, which surely disqualifies them for the task at hand.
“Woe is me, I am lost.” The prophetic Isaiah laments as he was 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.”
In each instance, God in essence replies, “I know who you are. I know everything about you. And I am asking you to step up anyway.” God could very well have added, “Spoiler alert: you won’t always get this right, what I’m asking of you. In fact, you may well fail. But perfection, and success, isn’t what I’m asking for; only faithfulness.”
Of all the biblical characters, Simon Peter is truly the patron saint of imperfection. From that first encounter in the boat, Peter gives his whole heart to Jesus. Still he never seems to get things right, and some of his failures are truly spectacular. Still, Jesus turns to Simon Peter more than any other disciple, as if to say to all of us, “Look. Following me isn’t a call to perfection, only faithfulness.”
What makes Simon Peter’s example so compelling is his perseverance. Every time he falls, he gets back up. He acknowledges his mistakes and accepts Jesus’ forgiveness, even after the most horrible failing of all, when he denies knowing Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest. How could he ever forgive himself for that? But after the resurrection, Jesus seeks him out, so that Simon Peter knows that he is forgiven and still called to be a witness to Jesus’ way of love.
Like the Apostle 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 comes to know and accept himself, in the words of Adam Hamilton, as a faithful and flawed disciple.1–Faithful, flawed, forgiven 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 have said the same. “And God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.”
I’ve been working on a writing project about courage, and how we learn to be brave. Among the people I’ve been blessed to learn more about is the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, who lived one of the most extraordinary lives of the 20th century. She was the first Black woman in nearly every educational and professional setting of her life, including becoming the first Black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. In honor of Black History month and in this theme of faithful imperfection, I’d like to tell you a bit of her story.
Pauli Murray was born in 1910, in Baltimore, to mixed-race parents. As a child, Murray experienced the dramatic constriction of Black life in this country with the rise of Jim Crow segregation, stripping away of civil rights, and vigilante violence against Black leaders and businesses. When her mother died and her father was institutionalized, Murray went to live with her maternal grandparents and a devoted aunt in North Carolina. Her Aunt Pauline was a teacher, and she encouraged Murray to pursue education.
Murray was proud of her family heritage, but the legacy of mental illness and poverty loomed large. Despite the formidable barriers of race, gender and poverty, Murray rose to the top of whatever class she was in. She was always poor, working for almost no pay as a writer, union organizer, and later as an underpaid attorney. She never stayed long in any position. Her romantic life was one tortuous relationship after another as she struggled privately with gender identity, until she met the love of her life in her late 40s. Murray’s passion was writing, and her legal arguments, crafted in near manic states of intense work and physical deprivation, are now part of the canon of civil rights law, though she was never adequately compensated or recognized for her efforts.
Pauli Murray entered Howard Law School in 1941. Fully prepared to take her place among the aspiring lawyers at Howard, Pauli was stunned by overwhelming prejudice against her because she was a woman. She had grown up surrounded by strong women, had attended a women’s college, been befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt, and worked in organizations where women held positions of leadership. While in her private life gender identity was a source of near-constant turmoil, this was the first time she experienced the full-on effects of gender discrimination becasue she was a woman.2 All of her energies to this point had been focused on the struggle against prejudicial laws based on race. Now, in a nearly all-male Black institution, she encountered what she described as the twin evils of discriminatory violence that she aptly called “Jane Crow.”
Marginalization at Howard galvanized Murray into action. Murray countered gender discrimination the same way she had racial discrimination: by proving her abilities. She quickly rose to the top of her class. It became her life-long quest to treat both race and gender equity as non-negotiable in civil rights law and societal practice.”3
While still in law school Murray first conceived of the legal arguments that would later prove decisive in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision on racial equity in Brown v. Board of Education and its 1971 ruling on behalf of gender equality in Reed v. Reed.4 It was an audacious vision, a direct attack on both racial and gender discrimination based on the 13th and 14th Ammendments to the Constitution that had abolished slavery and granted full citizenship to all persons born in the United States. No one at the time took her argument seriously, but it would one day garner the attention of Howard Thurman, and later still Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Murray’s accomplishments are all the more noteworthy given her on-gong struggles with depression and grinding poverty. Her personal experience was often one of failure, yet much like Simon Peter, she persisted. Every time she fell, she got back up. In later years, she took great satisfaction when her ideals were vindicated by victories, saying, “I have lived to see my lost causes found.”
About a year ago, Washington National Cathedral hosted a film screening of the recent documentary of Murray’s life (which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it). Afterwards there was a discussion with the producer and director, and someone raised the issue of Murray’s difficult temperament and mental instability, for which she was often hospitalized. The director was quiet for a moment and then said, “Well, it’s often the broken people of the world who change things for the better.”
His words went straight to my heart.
I hope that dwelling in the stories of our imperfect spiritual ancestors and the life of Pauli Murray has provided space for the Spirit to speak to you about your life–the goodness of it amid all that you would change if you could, and how the grace of God may be revealed most powerfully at times through your pain, brokenness and disappointment. Or perhaps it’s in the dance between the seemingly opposing realities of strength and weakness where grace shines through.
Either way, by the grace of God you are what you are, and God’s grace has not been in vain. So when God, or life itself, summons you to courage, why not step and say yes, imperfections and all, knowing full well that you won’t get everything right. For you are faithful, flawed, forgiven and called by the One whose love is unfailing. Amazingly enough, sometimes it’s through your failings–and mine–that love can shine.
1Adam Hamilton, Simon Peter: Flawed but Faithful Disciple (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2018)
2Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, Memoir of an American Pilgrimage (Liveright: reprint edition, 2018)
3Rosalind Rosenberg, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) Kindle Edition