If you’ve been around children for more than about five minutes, I’m sure you’ve gotten frustrated. They interrupt and question when you just want to have a nice conversation. They run ahead, or behind, or zigzag, or sit down when you just want to have a nice walk. Think about that behavior. Now imagine yourself doing it. Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you think about what other people may think about your doing or asking? Name that uncomfortable emotion. Is it embarrassment or, perhaps, shame?
The word in our Gospel reading translated as “persistence” literally means “shamelessness.” Your friend knocks at the door late at night, and knocks, and keeps knocking, without regard for what you think about him. He needs something. Like a child, he is unashamed of his need, unashamed to ask, unashamed to persist.
Children appear in both our readings this morning, and imagining a particularly shameless child helps us to understand not only what it means to persist in prayer, as Jesus exhorts us, but to persevere in a relationship with God. God, Malachi tells us, will have compassion on those who serve God, as parents have compassion on “children who serve them” (Mal 3:17). I imagine this group not just as obedient children, but as shameless children, unembarrassed to revere God, unconcerned by what others, who see no profit in serving God, may think about them. This is the shamelessness of the psalmist, who persists in giving thanks to God despite those who mock him. This is the shamelessness of Saint Paul, who is unashamed of the Gospel (Rom 1:16).
This is difficult. We face enormous personal and social pressures to care about what others think, to conform, to grow up. But when we apply this to God, how easily we complicate our relationship with God. What childlike shamelessness gives us, I think, is single-minded freedom. Think back to that child. How would she express her need, how would she pray, how would she relate to God? Where do you feel resistance in doing likewise? What would it take for you to turn to God like her—unencumbered, unembarrassed, unashamed? Ask Jesus to give you that freedom—the freedom to ask, to search, to knock . . . the freedom to be shameless.
If you are like me, the word love initially conjures a notion of sentimentality—of being enraptured with feelings of affection, attraction, and wistful longing particularly for another person. For instance, a couple entering into a romantic relationship might be said to be “falling in love,” and might say to one another, “I love you.” You might be familiar with the Song of Solomon in scripture which poetically expresses the inebriation associated with such love. Listen to these beautiful words: As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention towards me was love. And a reply: You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride![i]
But, eros, or romantic love, is not the only form of love that we are capable of feeling and expressing. We also express love filially. Filial love is not a romantic love, but a love that we express for our children, or for a favorite grandparent, aunt or uncle—those whom we nurture or have been nurtured. We love certain friends with which we have established a bond: perhaps someone we got to know in school, or worked closely with in our career, or even someone we have grown close to through a particular experience which created intense feelings of identification. Last weekend I enjoyed a visit from five of my closest friends whom I have not seen in a long time. What is striking about that experience is that no matter how long we are away from each other, when we do have an occasion to reunite, it is as if we were never separated—in a sense, we just pick up where we left off, sharing our experiences since we were last together while simultaneously enjoying each other in the present moment.
Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqLiH7AyU9A
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen[i]
I’ve been thinking a lot this past year about the prevalence of shame in our society. While I cannot remember my first encounter with shame, I can recall many instances of it throughout my life; moments that have been seared into my memory by the branding iron of trauma. From being bullied by older boys in the changing room at the local YMCA while participating in an after-school swimming program in elementary school—to being unable to finish my college degree as a result in part of a learning disability that eluded me until only three years ago—shame has been a regular character in the drama of my life, lurking behind the curtain until its cue to enter and take center stage. Shame manifests in my mind like evidence presented to a jury in a court of law, which after a very brief deliberation declares the devastating judgement, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Or, to put it simply: you are not enough.
In her book Daring Greatly, self-proclaimed ‘shame researcher’ Brené Brown defines this emotion as: the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.[ii] While you may not remember your maiden voyage on the sea of shame, my bet is that like me, you are able to recall instances of it throughout your lifetime. Brown goes on to say that we all experience the emotion of shame. And, even though it is universal, we are reluctant to talk about it.[iii] The insidious nature of shame insures that we dare not speak its name, giving it time to metastasize like cancer cells, breaking free from its injurious ‘ground zero’ and spreading throughout our lived experience.
Similarly, like cancer, the longer it roams free, the further out of control it becomes. The loss of innocence to shame often results in the learned skill of taming this wild beast and wielding it as a weapon to our advantage through the instilling of fear in another. So fluent are we all in the language of shame that often times our employing of it is not intentional. Shame can be used as a method of motivation to steer others from engaging in behaviors we find questionable, unacceptable, or dangerous according to our own lived experience, which can be skewed because of our own experience of being shamed. Shame begets shame, fear begets fear. When we force shame upon others, we rob them of their dignity as we venture to recreate them in our own image. Brown continues, “Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.”[iv] Forcing a square peg into a round hole will damage the integrity of both.
In John’s account of Jesus’ passion, we observe a first-hand account of the destructive nature of shame. We watch as Jesus is abandoned by all but a handful of those close to him. We see Jesus as he is stripped of his clothes and his dignity; mocked, scourged, and spit upon. We stand with Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple at the foot his cross, gazing at His body: bruised, bleeding, and naked. Perhaps, it is in gazing at Jesus nakedness that we harken to another place and time: a garden where we hid ourselves in shame, hearing the voice of our creator asking, “Who told you that you were naked?” Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”[v] It is in this garden, called Eden, that we encounter our first experience of the shame that is so difficult to remember. The trauma experienced here was not the result of forbidden fruit, eaten and digested, but through the seductive language of shame: Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden? You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’[vi] Or, once again to put it simply: you are not enough.
It was then that we observed God’s first acts of mercy. God clothes the man and woman and then says, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.’[vii] The expulsion from Eden was an act of mercy, lest humanity live in perpetual shame.
The gospel news of the cross is that God took on our human nature in the face of Jesus and endured the shame of the cross for our sake. It is in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that God restored our nature, giving us the ability to stare shame in the face and eradicate it with a different language: the language of love.
But, we do have to face the cross as Jesus did. We have to summon the courage with God’s help to face what we know to be true, that we are worthy of love and belonging, that we are enough. How is it that you know shame? What is your experience of being weighed in the balance and found wanting? How have you wielded shame as a weapon for the sake of self-preservation? Who has been a source of shame for you in your life? In a few moments, we will have the opportunity to venerate the cross. As you approach, bring your shame, your experience of not being enough, your struggle for control, or the shame you’ve felt at another’s hands; and as you kiss the cross, imagine that shame being nailed to the cross and know that in Jesus victory over death, that shame will be transfigured. For those of you joining us online, you may want to take a cross you have in your household, pull an image of a cross on your screen, draw a cross, or simply pick a brother to enact the veneration for you.
I close with words from Hymn 162:
O tree of beauty, tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear
Gone is thy shame, each crimsoned bough
Proclaims the King of glory now.
Blest tree, whose chosen branches bore
The wealth that did the world restore,
The price which none but he could pay
To spoil the spoiler of his prey.[viii]
Lectionary Year/Proper: Year One
Solemnity or Major Feast: Good Friday
[i] Collect for Tuesday in Holy Week, Book of Common Prayer, p. 220
[ii] Brown Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery, 2015.
[v] Genesis 3:11
[vi] Genesis 3:1-5
[vii] Genesis 3:22-24
[viii] Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540?-600?); ver. Hymnal 1982
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.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are quite elderly when the angel Gabriel visits and says they will have a child. Zechariah doesn’t believe it. He becomes mute, unable to speak, for nine months until their son’s birth. About six months later Gabriel appears to a relative of Elizabeth, an unmarried young woman named Mary. Gabriel tells her she will have a son, the Messiah. Joseph, her fiancé, also receives a startling visit from an angel. Elizabeth does give birth to John, and Mary gives birth six months later to Jesus.
We will celebrate Jesus’ birth in six months on December 25th. So today, June 24th, we celebrate John’s birth. John was born to barren Elizabeth and Zechariah, who were old enough to be his great grandparents. Jesus was born to virgin Mary, almost too young to be a mother, and her husband-to-be, Joseph. These are improbable parents, impossible births, and wondrous stories.