A couple weeks ago I mentioned the fact that I’ve worked in a variety of group homes and other residential settings for youth and adults with cognitive, emotional or developmental difficulties. Here’s a story from one of them, where I worked during my senior year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I love to tell this story. It’s one of my favorite parables of grace, so you may have heard it before.
During my last year of college I spent my Saturday mornings working at a group home for boys with emotional or behavioral concerns – kids who’d been removed from home and school because of violent or disruptive behavior. There were only about eight to ten kids in the house at a time, and two staff members charged with keeping order – making meals, planning outings, and creating opportunities for the boys to talk about their lives. In reality it often felt like refereeing a high-speed soccer match as the boys tumbled around the house fighting with each other and breaking anything that wasn’t nailed down to the floor.
The toughest kid in the house was also the youngest, a Native American boy named Kyle who’d grown up on a reservation in northern Minnesota and had seen his brother shot on the front lawn of their home. He was nine, but his anger at the world was so immediately palpable that all the boys made way for him when he entered the room. He was unpredictable and aggressive, and frankly he scared people.
I remember a morning that began like most others, but ended very differently.
Kyle started the day in a bad mood. He’d gotten a phone call from his family up north and he was upset. He didn’t know what to do with his feelings. He didn’t know how to talk about them, so he began picking fights with the other boys instead.
My co-worker and I were nervous for a couple of reasons. First, the other boys were having a pretty good morning and we were hoping to get everyone out of the house for an outing to the skating rink. That would keep everyone occupied and having fun, and would make our shift go faster. If Kyle started making trouble, the chain reaction of conflicts was sure to land everyone grounded in their rooms and kill any chance for an easy morning. Second, Kyle had a storm brewing behind his eyes, and we knew from experience that he could get so angry that the only way to keep him, and others around him, safe was to physically restrain him. Kyle was a biter and a scratcher, and restraining him was never easy. Understandably, we were nervous.
It didn’t take long for our anxieties to be realized. Kyle picked one fight after another with every boy in the house, and got everyone so upset that we had to send him to his room to keep the other boys from ganging up on him. Once in his room we hoped he would find the space he needed to calm down, but instead we heard the slow wreck of bookcases being pushed over and toys being smashed. Then, the sound of glass shattering as he threw a chair into the window. My co-worker stayed with the rest of the boys while I went to investigate.
Opening the door of the bedroom I saw Kyle sitting on the floor surrounded by shards of broken glass, catching his breath and looking for something else to break. He was the definition of a wild child, but beneath the anger I could see that there was also fear and confusion and heartbreak.
“Kyle, you’ve got to get control of yourself,” I said, “or you’ll get hurt.” He looked me straight in the eye, picked up a book from the pile he’d made and threw it at my head. “Kyle,” I said, “you can’t keep destroying the house and you can’t keep attacking everyone around you.” Of course, he saw right through me and we both realized that, in fact, he could keep destroying the house and attacking everyone around him. So I pulled out the final threat. “Kyle,” I said, “we can’t let you hurt yourself or anyone else. If you keep this up we’re going to have to restrain you.”
That was it, the threat he’d been waiting for. He picked up another book, a heavy one I seem to recall, and chucked it straight at me. He called my bluff. All my training told me that once you set a limit you have to be ready to enforce it if you want to maintain discipline and rebuild a sense of structure for the kids. He was so deliberate though. He’d worked the situation so methodically, escalating to the point where someone would have to step in and take control, and it occurred to me this may have been just what he wanted. Sensing a moment full of potential in front of me, I took a risk.
“Kyle,” I said, “I know you had a bad phone call with your family this morning, and that you’re really upset. I don’t want to restrain you if all you need is a hug. Think about it for a minute and let me know. If you just need a hug, all you have to do is ask.”
It was a long minute while Kyle thought it over. I sensed it could go either way as he fell silent, considering what I’d said. Then his answer came. “Really?” And I walked across broken glass and scattered toys and sat down next to him. He folded into my arms and started to cry.
Jesus approaches those who would be his disciples and says, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” The apostle Paul writes, “the appointed time has grown short…for the present form of this world is passing away.” What both Jesus and Paul are telling us is that we live in a time when the good news of God is trying to break through the ordinary time of our lives, when opportunities for seeing the holy wrapped up in the ordinary, or the beloved wrapped up in the enemy, are right before our eyes.
Let’s stop here for just a minute and take this in. Today, this morning, right now, God has drawn near to us – to you – to call you away from your rage, or your fear, or your shame. Can you find that place in yourself? The place where you still feel small, still feel helpless or hopeless. Still feel alone. It may not be difficult for you to find. You may feel like that’s the place where you live, day in and day out. Or maybe you’ve locked those feelings up, hidden them away, and tried to forget they exist. The nagging worry that you have disappointed your parents, your children, your friends, your spouse. The grief of a love lost, or not yet found.
What happens when those feelings are left to fester? Pain can only be tolerated for so long before it transforms into some more tolerable sentiment. Maybe apathy. Maybe anger. Is that how we come to hold such bitter grudges towards the people we love and care for the most? Is it easier to hate, than to hold out hope that change may yet happen?
Jonah is sent to Ninevah, the home of his worst enemies, to announce their need for repentance. He expects nothing from them, worse than nothing, but miraculously they hear God’s call to repent and the entire nation, from the king to the common subject, turns from its violence and realigns itself with God’s work in the world.
Who have you given up on? Who have you written off? What would it take for you to shake off your discouragement, your disgust, and go after the very people you’ve come to regard as your enemies seeking not vengeance, but reconciliation?
Jesus calls to Peter and Andrew, James and John, and they drop everything to follow him. These ordinary people, living at the economic and social edge of Empire, treated their whole lives like “the help,” like cogs in the machine; when Jesus looks at these people and sees the whole of them, inside and out, they immediately leave the lives they’ve known behind and follow him.
Jesus sees you as well. Not just the “you” you present to the world, but the you that sits in the middle of the room surrounded by the broken pieces of your life. Jesus sees your jealousy. Jesus sees your anger. Jesus sees your shame. Jesus sees your guilt. Jesus sees all of you, and Jesus loves you completely. There is need to wait for the other shoe to drop. There is no point at which the whole truth comes out and God can no longer love you.
God sees you laboring down on the shore of your life, trying so hard to bring in a haul large enough to justify your place at the table. Rather than counting the fish in your net, or the good deeds in your day, or the dollars in your bank account, Jesus is calling you to leave the nets behind and follow him. The mess that you’re in, that we’re all in, isn’t one we can clean up by ourselves. We will need more than ourselves. We will need each other, everyone, all together. That is why Jesus calls us to go fishing for people instead.
The call to repentance is a calling from God to turn away from our sin. Modern ears, ears like ours, hate this word sin. We tend to immediately shut down, as memories or stereotypes of a religion of guilt and shame come to mind. That’s not the ancient understanding of sin though.
Throughout the long history of Christianity sin has been understood less as a list of things that should not be done, more as a condition of the soul. A reality of human life. Like a doctor diagnosing you with pneumonia, it’s not something you do – it’s something you have. Sin is the reality of brokenness, like the shards of glass from the window that littered the floor, or the heart of the little boy whose family was destroyed by violence, or the children who gather in schoolhouses filled with bullet casings after the bombing ends. Sin is the web of brokenness in which we live our lives.
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says. Repentance, turning from sin, takes the form of discipleship where we are knit into a human net and cast out into the chaotic waters of life where people are hurting and drowning in their pain. “I will make you fish for people,” is God’s call on our lives to watch and to listen for those moments when hostility can be converted to hospitality. “Fishing for people” is not just a catch phrase for recruiting new members to the church, it is evangelism of a different order. Good news that looks like swords being beaten into plowshares. “Fishing for people” is another way to think about our relationship to the enemy, like Ninevah, which today lies across the river from Mosul, in Iraq. A way of relating to those who are not only different from us, but who we believe are irredeemably against us.
Jesus’ call to repentance is not a divine scolding, it is a divine invitation. It is an invitation to turn away from the web of brokenness and to be caught in the net of God’s loving embrace. God wants to catch us in our freefalling lives before we hit the ground, before we hurt ourselves or someone else yet again. God wants to restrain us with the freedom to be new people. God sees our suffering, our confrontational provocations of one another as individuals and clans and nations and wonders if, perhaps, we might be willing to trade fits of violence for evidence of love. Then God sends us out to be that evidence.
The invitation to Christian discipleship may be imagined as this: the assembly that gathers here each Sunday and joins hands as we pass peace, or joins hands as we bless one another for the week ahead, is the very tool that God has at God’s disposal as God sets out to heal the world with love.
We find ways to hold fast to each other so that the mesh of our interconnectedness will be strong enough to hold fast to the world as it gets caught in our nets. Hold tight to one another, sisters and brothers, and together we will fish for people.