Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 71:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 12:20-36
When praying with our scriptures appointed for this evening, one word kept grabbing my attention and has stayed with me now for several days. It is something that I have spent a lifetime trying to evade but continues to show up and rear its head at me no matter how much I try to control it, manipulate it, and cover it up. I have a personal and intimate knowledge of it, yet I know it to be a pervasive reality in all of humanity and I suspect that every one of us here has an intimate knowledge of this word. The word is: shame.
Wikipedia defines shame as: a painful, social emotion that can be seen as resulting “…from comparison of the self’s action with the self’s standards…,” but which may equally stem from comparison of the self’s state of being with the ideal social context’s standard. Both the comparison and standards are enabled by socialization. Though usually considered an emotion, shame may also variously be considered an affect, cognition, state, or condition.[i]
From the beginning of the canon of scripture, it only takes three chapters for shame to appear in the human condition. The last sentence of Genesis chapter two reads: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” In the course of chapter three we read that Adam and Eve act on their temptation to do the one thing their creator has told them they must not do, eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their eyes are opened and they hide themselves. When God moves through the garden and cannot find them he calls out to them, “Where are you?” The man answers, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” And from that moment, shame enters the human condition and continues to show up continually throughout our existence.
Certainly, the Psalmist knows something about shame for in the opening lines of Psalm 71 we hear his prayer: “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; incline your ear to me and save me.” And as we fast forward to the gospels we see over and over how Jesus encounters shame in the human condition: Lepers are separated from society and made to announce themselves and their condition to anyone who might approach;[ii] A man known to everyone as possessed by a legion of demons wanders around graveyards on the outskirts of town;[iii] a woman caught in the act of adultery is thrown to the ground in front of Jesus while the accusers wait for his approval to carry out the penalty of death prescribed by the Law. You may remember the reply Jesus gave them as he was drawing in the sand, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”[iv] They all dropped their stones and walked away because none of them in honesty could claim to be sinless, and I suspect each of them had been accomplices to the sins of others. They too had an intimate knowledge of shame.
Can you remember your first encounter with shame? Is there a particular instance that you can point to when shame entered your consciousness? There was a time when none of us knew shame, when we were toddlers running through the house naked after a bath with the innocence of Adam and Eve before Genesis chapter three. A time when we were not ashamed to sing in front of people, belting out songs in the car, at the dinner table, or in front of company with uninhibited joy as on-looking adults were smitten with our innocence, perhaps connecting them to a sense of time before shame. But along the way, something happened which taught us a sober recognition of its existence.
For me, my first memory of shame happened in elementary school. In the late 1970’s there was an explosion of interest in superheroes, and that was reflected in both the movie theatres and television. I remember my two favorites on TV were The Incredible Hulk (played by Lou Ferrigno) and Wonder Woman (played by Linda Carter). While the Hulk had incredible strength, I was not keen on his ‘monster-like’ persona. Wonder Woman however looked like a normal human being with a headband that could be used a boomerang, a lasso that made people tell the truth, wrist guards that deflected bullets, and an invisible jet that allowed her to move quickly by stealth. What was not to like? So at recess during the school day in second grade when we all went out to play and chose our favorite heroes to enact in make-believe, I chose Wonder Woman who I thought was awesome! It did not take me long to realize the error of my ways when I began to be teased. It was my first introduction to words like: pansy, homo, and faggot. How did my classmates know these words at such a young age and how had these words evaded me? This incident followed me around until my high school years when I began to attend a school in a different school system. Since then I have always tried to avoid shame, by trying to do the right thing. Not necessarily out of virtue. Many times I have made the wrong choices and have done everything in my power to avoid shame by covering it up and disappearing into the shadows undetected.
Maybe you can relate to this. If you have lived with any amount of shame in your life, you might know something about trying to maintain control through secrecy: something you have done that you are not proud of, a sensitive situation that has occurred in your family of origin such as abuse, addiction, or even a disagreement that has cause a tear in relationships. Or perhaps shame is bound up with low self-esteem because of how you look, what you like, who you love, your economic status, or your profession. Truth be told, sometimes it is not others who are instigators of our shame, but rather ourselves who cannot see the beauty simply in our creation. And so we stay in the shadows, keeping parts of ourselves veiled that we would just assume never see the light of day. We may even be guilty of collaborating with shame, just as the men who pushed the woman down at Jesus feet, raising our stones of judgment, casting doubt on others in order to avoid our own detection.
I think this is why I have always been struck by the metaphorical use darkness and light in the gospel of John. A few chapters before our gospel lesson for tonight Jesus proclaims, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[v] And tonight we hear this theme developed further: “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” But for those who spend time in the shadows, who are keeping a cover on all that needs to be healed, who work to control and manipulate in order to stay anonymous and undetected, the light can be extremely disconcerting. Last week my brother Curtis said it best when he admitted that often the gospel is bad news before it is good news.[vi] Even Jesus in his humanity experienced great anxiety and discomfort at the knowledge of what he would have to undertake in order to fulfill the will of his Father.
And so perhaps we can take some comfort in that. Jesus knows the experience of shame. Jesus understands why we are prone to hide and cover up. Jesus is aware that the pathway of healing leading to wholeness is often very difficult and painful before we find relief and wholeness. Jesus knows this because Jesus brought shame out of the darkness and into the light when he was crucified. He hung exposed and naked on the cross and bore the shame of our hubris as the ultimate expression of love. He took on our shame so that we would never have to experience separation from God if we would but follow him into the light where we can know him as he knows us. To take off the clothing of shame that we have dressed ourselves in and expose the beauty of who God has created us to be: children of God, children of Light. In his book The Kingdom Within, John Sanford says we can only experience salvation when we take off our masks and expose the real essence of our creation.[vii] He then includes this powerful passage from the apocryphal text, The Gospel of Thomas: “His disciples said, ‘When wilt Thou be revealed to us and when will we see thee?’ Jesus said, ‘when you take off your clothing without being ashamed, and take your clothes and put them under your feet as the little children and tread on them, then shall you behold the Son of the Living One and you shall not fear.”[viii]
We all have been that toddler, running naked through the house after a bath. We instinctually yearn for this intimacy with God, to be free, loved, nurtured, and to feel safe. God is calling us back to this moment. But we will have to be willing to step from the shadows and follow Jesus into the light of new life and resurrection. Pray with this image during Holy Week as we experience the shadows of Tenebrae, have our feet washed and partake in a holy meal together, witness the Passion and the cross, then wait in the wee hours of the morning for the sun to rise through these stained glass windows, exposing us as children of light, children of love, children of the resurrection, children of God! Amen.
[i] “Shame.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Mar. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shame.
[ii] Luke 17:11-19
[iii] Mark 5:1-20
[iv] John 8:1-11
[v] John 8:12
[vi] Almquist, Curtis. “Repentance: The Gift of a New Heart – Br. Curtis Almquist.” SSJE, The Society of Saint John the Evangelist, 22 Mar. 2018, www.ssje.org/2018/03/19/repentance-the-gift-of-a-new-heart-br-curtis-almquist/.
[vii] Sanford, John A. The Kingdom Within. J.P. Lippincott Company, 1970.
[viii] Gospel of Thomas, Logion 37
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