PHOTO TAKEN BY ME, NEAR LAKE NORMAN (NC), IN JUNE 2013.
Mark 8:31-38 (New Revised Standard Version)
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[b] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
*Sermon preached on Sunday, February 25, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), the second in a Lenten series drawing upon aspects of the “12-Steps” that form the basis for spiritual recovery. In this case, Step 4. Note, this is not the first time I have preached on the aspect of unhealthy “shame” being a hindrance in spiritual well-being and it will not be the last. We as “church” have shied away from it or just ignored it, leaving folks to struggle. In my experience in ministry, this is an issue which lies at the root of all addictive behavior… and it lies at the root of so much brokenness in families and individual lives. It must be tackled head-on. If something resonates and deserves a private conversation, I am always available. -Vinson
It is a testy exchange, what takes place in the reading from Mark.
Peter took Jesus aside and in the undercurrent of the Greek language in which the Gospel was written, Peter talked down to Jesus. He denied the path that Jesus would take that would pass through a cross, to a grave… in order for the resurrection to happen.
It was a private chewing out, but it did not stay private. Jesus used it as a teaching moment for all of the disciples, as to what it means to follow him, saying: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
In the season of Lent, in this reflective time on discipleship, the lectionary brings this tough love of Jesus into the room, as Jesus stages an intervention with Peter.
The call of all who follow Jesus is to take stock of ourselves, in the shadow of the Cross. In the language of the 12-Step recovery programs that emerged from a Christian men’s group some 80 years ago, it is the call to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of oneself.
What is a searching and fearless moral inventory? Basically, it’s an assessment of one’s life up to this point, a taking stock of the goods in one’s life and noting those characteristics that are troublesome – which are a hindrance to the movement toward God. It is tackling our resentments as much as our own role in problems with people, places, and things. It is spiritual honesty and letting the light in.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
I bring this up because true spiritual work raises difficult questions. It asks us to look not on other folks’ stuff, but our own deep wounds. It asks us to embrace the Cross on a pragmatic and challenging level. It asks us to wrestle with shame and/or guilt.
During the years when I worked within the Navy’s and VA’s substance abuse treatment programs, I began to look at how shame and guilt impacted spiritual recovery. It was before the term “moral injury” had moved from a phrase to an entirely new field of study and an explanation as to why some things are harder for folk to recover from.
During that time I realized that for all the “shame of the cross” language batted around, I could not recall ever hearing a sermon on shame, which seemed odd. So I’d like to pull us all aside for a moment for some clarity.
Who hasn’t gone shopping and had a tired or distracted clerk give back too much change. What if one kept it, instead of returning it? Hopefully, one would experience guilt and correct the wrong, by repenting – which literally means to turn, return to the business with the change and perhaps an apology. OK, that’s a softball, but the point is that guilt enables self-correction and forgiveness happens when we repent of wrong actions. We come to understand that while we are imperfect, we sin, yet we remain worthwhile to our God. We have done something bad, we repent, we move ahead. As the Psalmist put it so simply, “As far as the East is from the West, so far does God remove our transgressions from us.” Indeed, we are assured, that God “remembers our sins no more.”
Sometimes though, the feeling remains that one isn’t really forgiven. It can be because it really has not been fully surrendered to God. If it has been laid upon the altar, it hasn’t been let go, kinda like when one has driven down the road and wants to adjust the seat belt. We shouldn’t do it, but we ask our spouse to take the wheel a second. They do and our hands remain fast. They say, “I have it.” We say, “I know.” They say, “I have it.” Finally, we breathe deeply and let go. We are afraid. And then all is OK.
But say we get through all of that and still feel not worthy. That is shame. Put another way, guilt is saying “I did something wrong.” Shame is saying “I did something wrong because I am a bad person.” That label freezes the spirit in the cloudy past.
Now yes, shame has some functionality. The prophet Jeremiah’s most stinging condemnation of the people of Jerusalem [6:15] was that they had “forgotten how to blush.” They weren’t embarrassed anymore for their spiritual corruption, and their arrogance ultimately resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem. This was a failure to even perceive the wrongs committed, and no amount of public shaming mattered. And, in Mark, we see that Jesus shames Peter a bit with language has an instructive edge. Jesus is preparing the twelve for the time when he will be gone and they will carry the Gospel forward. It got their attention as a teaching moment – for them and for future followers of Christ.
In such a context, shame serves as a functional reminder of the bonds and responsibilities which exist beyond oneself. We become aware of not only what we have done or failed to do – the sins of commission and sins of omission as my Mom taught me when I was nine – but how such failures negatively impact others. Such an experience can foster within us a place for needful empathy to grow – the very kind that is needed in relationship.
BUT, then there is the unhealthy sense of shame that maintains a distance between us and God, and each other, creating soul-lingering damage and self-doubt, and barring the path to having become better for the confession.
Such deep roots of shame and lack of self-worth come from the visible wounds of: physical and/or sexual abuse, or the physical or emotional abandonment by one or both parents.
Such deep roots of shame and lack of self-worth come from the invisible wounds of: constant comparisons with high-achieving siblings, derogatory remarks about one’s weight, appearance, masculinity or femininity, constant reminders about past mistakes, being told one was an accident and therefore not wanted, being threatened that one will turn out like so and so…. I do not mean to say that these are all done with knowing malice, but they are messages about the self that become one’s view of self – and thus a barrier to the grace of our Lord.
You see, the unhealthy sense of shame is when we believe the lie that we have no value. It causes us to look backward in life and forever seek to fill a bottomless hole. It doubts the reality of God’s hope for us, even as it denies the word that has echoed down since Genesis – when we, at our first breath are called “good.”
I got interested in this challenge for so many who seek Christ, because quite frankly, I had to work through my own wounds. There was a reason that on his deathbed, my Dad asked my forgiveness. He named one particular act. It was one of number on his road to having become a much better person, once he had shed his injured child. [It made for some great teenage years.] It became the first movement in my own long path to working through the suffering.
In 1979, as I wandered the college library, I came across some old, beaten-up books tossed into the trash, no longer considered serviceable with their missing pages and covers. I love old books and their slightly musty scent, printed back when book paper was made from recycled rags. I asked if they were free for the taking and retrieved an 1859 edition of the New Testament and Psalms; its cover and the first half of Matthew long gone.
In 2006, it finally found its final use. I was working in the VA’s substance abuse treatment program, and every Thursday a group graduated from the intense, 3-week regimen. I would have come to know each of them quite well – and their stories of pain, of loss, of horrors – all of which had fed their addictive behaviors. I had come across the old New Testament while paring down stuff in storage. So it was for the rest of my time with the treatment program, as each member of the group came forward to shake hands with the treatment team, I parted a single page from the Bible to give to each. I spoke of how it had been retrieved from the trash and yet even a single page is a reminder of how God speaks to us and wills healing for us. No longer a Bible, but very much Scripture, I never knew who would get what page each week. I asked them to fold and tuck their page into their wallets, ready for the moment when they were tempted to spend money on self-destructive behavior.
One woman turned her page over, while waiting for the ceremony to end. I noticed tears formed and rolled down her cheeks. She had suffered for nearly two decades, abuse in childhood, more abuse as a young adult… she had turned to drugs to numb herself against the pain. After the ceremony she asked if I’d known which page I’d given her, which I had not. It was the story of the woman who had bled for 18 years, until in desperation she had touched the robe of Jesus. I ran across her months later. This woman was different. She radiated joy. She spoke of her lifelong habit — which had been to stand before the mirror in the morning. Over the years she had looked upon her worn face and had seen but failures and misery — Until that graduation day. She taped that tattered Word from an old Bible to her mirror. Every morning, the first thing she saw was that word – and remembered God saw her as a person beloved and worthy!
I invite you to behold Jesus’ answer to whatever woundedness we bring – his unconditional acceptance. Grace. Given freely to us simply because we children of God. The matter is settled. As Paul put it succinctly [Romans 8], “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
In this time of Lent, in this atmosphere of societal wilderness, I invite you to read the Gospels and notice the encounters real people had with our Lord; how he saw the true worth of each person beyond any wound from childhood or misconduct as an adult. Not just because a word is spoken, a prayer is offered, or a touch is given – but in relationship accepted.
Consider the woman who washes Jesus’ feet and lets down her hair to use it as a towel – so deep was her sense of shame. What is Jesus’ response?
Or, consider the reviled and guilty man who climbed a tree to get a better look at Jesus. He never expected to be noticed, and certainly not that Jesus would ask to come into his home, did he?
Said the Psalmist [Psalm 34], “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.”
In this time of Lent, in this preparation for welcoming a risen Lord, I invite you to consider that you and I are truly beloved by God, with a devotion that calls us to move beyond past brokenness. In this gathering we call worship, in the community of Christ, called to offer safety, acceptance, loyalty, sharing, and always – love – the miracle still happens.