June 11, 2023: Second Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 71:1-18; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
We sat on folding chairs around a white plastic table in the park last Sunday. Children behind us getting faces painted; a few adults, too. Lively talk and laughter swirling around us. Potluck delicacies nearly gone from our plates, as we savored glorious picnic weather. Life abundant, maybe about as good as it gets. They chatted about fun and meaningful bits in worship that morning. Glad you liked it, I said, because next Sunday we’re talking about shame! That’s when she choked, coughed, sputtered! Truly. Her beloved looked a little alarmed. Glad we finished our coffee and donuts before we came in here. Next potluck, maybe y’all be avoiding me and my party pooping!
So, yeah, let’s talk about shame. Truth is, we’ve all wrestled with it in some way—about the way we look, the way our life has been, what we think it could be or not. Comparing ourselves to others or buying into cultural messaging, often trying to get us to buy some thing. Brené Brown is like the anti-shame shaman. Maybe we’ve read one of her books or joined 20 million others watching her TED talk. Good reason she’s popular—it’s personal for many. And she’s helpful. I appreciate how Brown differentiates guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, from shame. They’re more momentary, even fleeting. Something bad happens. We spill food. We say a faux pas. We forgot a meaningful date or duty. Embarrassed. We feel guilty about harm we’ve done, humiliated by someone else intentionally or not. Okay, not our finest hour, but life goes on. Here’s the difference. With grace, courage, maybe forgiveness we face the act, incident, hurt and move on.
Shame plunges deeper, more pervasive shaping how we feel about ourselves. All the ways we think or say: not worthy, not valuable, not good-enough. It’s more state of being than behavior. Bad test grade? Okay, says a guilty or humiliated mind. Lament and commit to do better next time. Not okay, says the shaming voice—I’ll never be able to do it, to be any better. I am not loved, not wanted. I don’t belong. I am just that bad.[i] It’s so sad. When children echo what they hear time and again if they don’t measure up; when other adults’ sense of fault or insecurity gets foisted upon kids, infesting the heart. It’s so sad. When people of all ages repeat that line trying to get sober or relapsing; hiding inability to read, disappointment at work; struggling to accept the end of a relationship or infertility or something else society defines as success. Shame can get masked or channeled as egotistical arrogance, pent-up anger, bullying others, or self-inflicting harm emotionally and physically. Shame can come out in rage, incessant criticism, substance abuse, other unhealthy choices and patterns. You know, when we hear some leaders, sometimes I wonder what sort of heart-bruise festers behind the bombast. Listening to others more intimately, it can help to sense through a surface issue, a deeper injury. Likewise, it seems shame can infest communities, even nations. A kind of collective psyche, breeding an inferiority insecurity complex; fueled by leaders, felt by others complicit with delusions that risk enflaming prejudice and discrimination, at least, war or genocide, at worst.
Truth is, with shame, like most things in life, what’s personal and communal inevitably entwine in how we both hurt and heal. Over lunch, he told me more about his life, working up to where he is with church. Trying to figure out who he was a child and youth. Not fitting cultural boxes and expectations. Bullying that led to school fighting. But not wanting that, not accepting that’s the only path, he worked a paper route to pay for his own tuition to a Catholic school. Admirable. Along the way, he also heard in churches variations of you’re going to hell, among other less than safe, welcoming experiences. No “you are loved,” yeah? Sadly, we know people often twist faith toward purposes of shame. Yet, here’s the tragic truth. Shaming other people never changes life in any good way. Somehow, still, even through dark times, by God’s grace, my companion didn’t lose faith completely. Kept seeking Holy Love with others, now among us.
I expect he could’ve recited over the years the appeal in Psalm 71. In you, God, I take refuge; let me not be put to shame. I wonder what connections in our lives may come to mind; ways we’ve felt not good-enough, not worthy, not able to be any better. Maybe we, too, like the psalmist recall people wicked, cruel, unjust, enemies, even conditions like age, infirmity, losing an ability that so defines us—with mind or hands. Maybe we, too, struggle with some variation of ancient social norms—something isn’t right with life (illness, misfortune), then it must mean God’s mad. Punishing. Friends, here’s good news in Psalm 71. We belong to God, our hope, our trust, from before our birth until our last breath. Nothing in life or in death can separate us, as we affirm every week. That’s what defines us, shapes our most intimate inner being more than anything else. Sure, we don’t behave perfectly. That’s why each week we confess things aren’t quite right—with how we live, behavior, choices. Still, we make the turn Psalm 71 does toward living in praise of God. We commit to receiving that grace. We give our lives to trust in God / Jesus / Holy Love when we wake up every day. Maybe we consciously remind ourselves during the day, sometimes often. Feel that trust is real, and any need to prove, be worthy, meet a social standard … gone. No more descent into not good-enoughness and whatever escape from that darkness we might seek. No … more … shame.
Yeah, let’s talk about shame. You preaching today, he asked. Yes. Look forward to hearing. It’s about shame. Oooohhh (scary)! God frees us to accept ourselves and to live holy and joyful lives in the service of Christ’s love. And that’s how we praise God to all generations to come. Centered in grace, we know we’re blessed, belov’d as we are. We pass on that Sacred Promise living as a blessing to others. Friends, here’s what I give my heart to believe. In that holy symbiosis of grace, we dwell secure. In that human synthesis of love, we thrive unleashed to live! My lunch companion was blessed to have grandparents take him in, and family to love him as he is. Along with other friends, even people in this fortress of faith, at our best, among whom he can grow and give, as he seeks other ways to serve.
That’s what Jesus is always doing—healing, getting us to grow, give, serve. As he walked along a main road with everyone else he came to a toll booth. He saw Matthew inside. He said, follow me. Now this is no menial toil on the turnpike or leaving the parking lot, where amid what must be drudgery, I’m always grateful for any hint of smile. Here’s the deal. Tax collectors were among people most shamed and hated by ancient Jews. You see, they served as the Roman occupier’s outsourced oppressor. A regional Roman official commissioned them to collect a quota owed. Anything beyond what’s due, they keep. It’s corrupt collusion. Common people exploited for personal gain. In a society built on honor and shame, Matthew’s outcast. He doesn’t belong. And so were women in their menstrual cycle—deemed unclean, unrelatable, lest others get contaminated. After twelve years of such isolation can we imagine how lonely, desolate, rejected she must have felt? Take our Covid anxieties and realities and compound it twelve-fold. It’s shame embodied, what Brené Brown means about shame as a social emotion—hurt between people.
And so does healing get shared between people. It’s not accidental Matthew tells these stories so close together, framing the woman hemorrhaging with the girl being raised to new life. See, friends, that’s what all these stories of healing represent—resurrection made real. Whatever physical change, when the woman and girl are made well, when Matthew the tax collector joins the community, they get healed in ways even more deeply human. They get treated as though someone cares. However society may demean, they really matter. However even well-intentioned faith may debase, they belong. However they may feel unworthy, they are loved and connected. In some ways it’s what Jesus’ whole ministry is all about. He does many things society or faith deem shameful, to roll away the stone of condemnation, release a person from the prison / tomb they feel.
So, yeah, let’s talk about shame and share release, resurrection. You know, Brené Brown is a person of faith following Jesus. Though many in education or business may be inclined to make her St. Brené, she soft-pedals the faith bits, maybe in part to help others hear beyond any dogma a bit of hope. And I think Jesus is pleased with her witness. So, with her, let’s name things that shame, sensing triggers inside us all and others. Practice reality-checks about expectations and perceptions. Share struggles with others rather than hide in secret, as we connect through empathy, compassion, self-kindness.[ii] What I hope everyone feels when they come in our doors, see our church name on a shirt, click on-line or connect with us in whatever way. You see, friends, here’s the gospel miracle. As strong and long as the woman’s twelve-year bleeding, losing what ancients believed was our very life-force, stronger flows healing grace from Jesus to others he meet.
Something about this story has long touched me. The sort of poetic beauty—that is, people wore cloaks like a prayer shawl to comfort in trouble, to claim a faith identity. Those with a deeper sense of holiness, like rabbis, added tassels or fringe. She’s reaching, yearning for that Holy Love in Jesus to be part of her life. Something about the pathos, the real humanity in this story has long touched me. Because we’ve felt that. We know others who do, too. Trying to grasp any hope, purpose, power to live with joy and peace.
Don’t want to get too personal here. Except, yeah let’s get personal, break any taboo and talk about shame. No avoiding what may seem like party-pooping. We’re not wallowing. We name it, to find together a will to face and transform it. Yes, we’ve all got challenges. We’re not avoiding them. We’re opening to the divine power needed to meet them. No … more … shame. When we feel on the fringe of goodness in life, of being beloved among family, friends, society, ourselves … reach out and touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak.
Not pulling in enough money to pay the mortgage and credit card, to buy the latest tech toy, let alone put food on the table? Feeling not good enough for spouse, children? Regretting rage that comes out and fear in the eyes looking back? Reach out for Jesus. Sexually abused, seeking or accepting sexuality and gender identity … Reach out for Jesus’ cloak. Is it body fitness or something else about the way we look, or how we see or hear or not … reach out for Jesus’ cloak. Laid off, let go at work, retired early, medically unable to hold a job … reach out for Jesus’ cloak. In a swing or particularly strong period of mental illness? Never yet even accepted testing for a diagnosis because of pride, fear, cultural stigma? Been taking another drink, another hit, another narcotic pill when you so desperately want to quit and maybe others think you have? Reach out for the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. Got on the sex offender registry for internet porn? Been visiting the adult lounge on the other side of town? Is this tough stuff? Truth is, friends, I’m not making this up. These are realities I’ve shared with others over the years. People who one day in some way start reaching out to touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, and get made at least a little more well.
And here’s what Jesus constantly tries to get his followers to do. Make room for others to reach out, don’t make it harder. So, we’re talking about sensitive stuff here, right. And we all need to be aware of how we respond, what we say and do may either trample others kneeling and reaching, effectively worsening the shame felt. Or really see others, care for them, step aside, maybe even get on our knees beside them and call out to God with them if Jesus seems to be moving away, out of reach. Do it in part, because though our tendencies toward shame may be unique, it’s never something we feel and face alone. It’s part of our common humanity. So treat others humanely, far more than condemning.
Jesus says, “Take heart, dear child. Your faith has made you well.” So let’s end with imagining what life the woman, the girl had after being healed, Matthew the tax collector had after being healed. What has that looked like, felt like for us? Shortly after I came to serve among you, he came to me, released from prison on the registry, but wanted to find a way to connect here and serve. So that catalyzed or Child Protection Policy – to help him and others, all together. Going to AA for years—for himself, he was humble and gracious and centered enough to help others, accept them wherever they are, even welcome them into the safe shelter of their home. And at Celebrate the Vision, we gather every week, some among us who’ve been in recovery for years or recently moved from unhoused to a roof over their head … there to welcome and eat and serve with others, sharing a humane moment of respect and goodness. Ready if someone wants to appeal for another step toward healing. And every Sunday we gather here in this place, these pews … yeah, let’s about through and beyond whatever may cause shame about how belov’d we are.
Lord, let your Spirit meet us here to made, the body, mind, and soul (no more shame) … peace from pain and make your wounded people whole. Then we’ll live in praise of God in all we say and do, our lives flowing on in endless song. Through all the storms to that Rock of love clinging, how can we keep from singing?!
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] See Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart (New Yor: Penguin Random House, 2021), 134-137.