The Art of Abundant Living:
From Shame to Grace
Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost •
October 1, 2017
Scripture Lesson: John 8:1-11
Scott Sprunger - Guest Preacher
Do you remember the first time you were made to feel like you weren’t good enough? Do you remember the first time you were made to feel like you didn’t deserve another person’s love? I remember the first time I was told I was undeserving of God’s love. When I was 13, my best friend and I went to an evangelical summer camp. I can still still feel the hot, humid air on the night when a preacher told me and a group of other kids that we were personally responsible for the death of Jesus. That we were born wicked. That every time we sinned, we were crucifying Jesus all over again. That our only hope for salvation was to repent and give our lives to Jesus.
Now I have a number of objections about what the preacher said that night. Chief among them is that I think it’s irresponsible to tell a group of young people, embarking on the already confusing journey of puberty, that they are born wicked and deserving of God’s wrath. At the time, however, the service ended in an altar call and I was the first one to stand up and give my life over to Jesus.
While I don’t think that way anymore, that night laid the groundwork for years of spiritual hardship. I believed that God demanded perfection of me. And every time I fell short of the goal I had set for myself, I believed an angry God was judging me. I felt ashamed before God. And that is the topic of my sermon today: shame.
I appreciate the divine irony that I get to talk about shame with you in church this morning. For myself, and many of my LGBTQ sisters, brothers, and siblings, church is the first place where we learned to feel properly ashamed of ourselves. And while shame is common in many religious settings, it certainly isn’t unique to them. We live in a society that is saturated with shame.
Now I want to be clear what I mean when I say the word ‘shame.’ I’m not referring to the nagging voice of your conscience when you do something that hurts another person. That would be guilt, or maybe regret. And as long as you don’t feel it too much or too little, it can be a healthy source of moral insight. But shame isn’t like that. Shame doesn’t tell you when you’ve done something wrong. Shame tells you that you are wrong.
And unlike guilt, shame can’t be appeased. We imagine that if only we got that promotion, or lost five pounds, or found a relationship- we would finally be happy with ourselves. But as soon as we get it, we discover that it doesn’t actually have the power to make us happy. So we work twice as hard to achieve our next goal thinking that’ll do the trick. And the same cycle continues.
American novelist David Foster Wallace described it this way in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God... is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you... Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
This isn’t a solitary process- shame begins inside of us, but it spreads outward into our relationships. Shame makes it hard for us to live in right relationship with each other because it puts us into competition with our neighbors. It makes us feel that we cannot be ourselves around them. I find that when I am annoyed with another person, it is usually an expression of my own insecurity. They either share some bad quality that I hate in myself or some good quality that draws attention to my own shortcomings Shame becomes the barrier that separates me from the people I love and leaves me feeling trapped. When I am ashamed, I feel afraid to be who I truly am because I think I’ll be rejected for it.
And this is rampant in our world. Because shame is one of the most powerful ways to control others. In this regard, shame is more potent even than love. Through shame, I can mold you into an image of what I think you should look like. But if I love you, that means giving you the freedom to be who you are. And our world is filled with far more shame than love. Have you ever heard that you're too heavy? That you don’t dress well? That you wear too little make up? That you wear too much make up? That you’re too assertive? Too shy? Too masculine? Too feminine? That you’re too poor? That your skin is too dark? That your gender identity is invalid? That your sexual orientation is sinful?
This is the water we swim in- constant voices reminding us that we will never be good enough. And when you hear those voices every single day, the voice telling you that you’re not good enough becomes your own. Now no one needs to put you down because you’ll do it to yourself. And when you truly buy into your worthlessness, it becomes that much easier to ascribe that same worthlessness to others. Why should she be happy when I’m so depressed? What right does he have feeling beautiful when I feel so ugly? Who are they to be so creative when I feel so uninspired?
Shame feels good to nobody and yet it’s so common. Why? Well shame is used to marginalize communities that our society has deemed unworthy of love. It’s a way of reinforcing hierarchies and power structures that privilege some at the expense of many. It’s a way of communicating that our society believes that some lives don’t matter. Of making you feel ashamed of the very things that make you special and beautiful.
Shame isn’t new either. It was just as oppressive and just as pervasive in the Jesus’ time. In today’s scripture from the Gospel of John, a woman is brought before Jesus and publicly accused of adultery. I have a number of questions about this story. Was this woman truly caught in adultery or was she falsely accused by this crowd so that they could make an example of her? We never get to hear her side of the story. If she was caught in adultery, where is the other person she was found with? Why were they not also brought before Jesus to be stoned? And under what circumstances did the adultery take place? What are the facts of the situation? We never find out.
What we do know is that the scribes and pharisees are trying to publicly shame this woman. Why? What is it about her that they couldn’t stand- so much so that they felt the need to disgrace her publicly? The Pharisees and scribes expected Jesus to join their act of public shaming. It was the law. Instead, Jesus pushed the pharisees to look inside themselves. Why do you feel the need to publicly shame her? Why do you need to bring others down to elevate yourself? What are you ashamed of? “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
The response is predictable. None of them are without sin. None of them are without shame. The only difference is that when they sinned, the pharisees didn’t have an entire crowd around to put them to shame or threaten violence against them. Not only does Jesus refuse to to engage in shaming, he refuses respond to shame on its own terms. Jesus doesn’t speak that language. So when the last pharisee finally leaves, Jesus says to the woman accused of adultery, “Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she responds.”
“Neither do I condemn you.”
This is the God I spent so many years looking for. A God whose posture toward me was not one of shame but unconditional love. My own journey from a religion of shame to a religion of grace was not a short or easy one. Fortunately, I’ve had a community of friends, family, and mentors who have modeled for me what God’s love looks like in our world. But my journey isn’t over yet. I frequently find myself returning to self-judgement and judgement of others. Too often I attach my own sense of self-worth to the opinions of others. And when I don’t receive the positive feedback I crave, I feel like a failure.
But when that happens, I fall back on the truth that God thinks I’m good and beautiful and talented and every bit deserving of God’s immense love. That God made no mistakes when God made me. That my body, my mind, and my soul reflect the very image of God. And the same is true for each and every one of you. When I look around this sanctuary, I see nothing less dozens of reflections of God looking back at me. If I could just keep this truth at the front of my mind, if I really believed it, I would never feel ashamed again. I would never judge another person to be more or less valuable than me. I would never not feel worthy of love and happiness and respect. Author and researcher, Brené Brown, spent six years studying shame and discovered that the biggest difference between people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and those who are always wondering if they’re good enough is that the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging.
You are beautiful and smart and kind and powerful and gentle and wonderful and astonishing and courageous and good and every bit deserving of God’s infinite love for you. And that’s scary. Because your whole life you’ve been told in one way or another that you’re bad or ugly or cowardly or wrong. But that’s not how God made you. You are a living, breathing self-portrait of God. And that’s terrifying because we’re afraid of our own potential. We’re afraid to be the spectacular people who God made us to be. It’s far easier to stick with shame.
Do you mess up sometimes? Yes. We all do. But that doesn’t mean for even a single nanosecond God has stopped loving you. Even in your worst moment, Jesus is standing there inviting you to be the best version of yourself, saying, “I do not condemn you, now go and sin no more.” If you have a child in your life that is special to you, and I really hope you do, then you know that they can be rude, and inconsiderate, and disobedient, and impatient. And you also know that your love for them so surpasses the worst they could do that even at their lowest moment you never stop loving them once. And are we not all children of God? So it is awfully bold to think for one second that you even have the power to make God stop loving you.
Shame takes a long time to unlearn. In fact, it takes a lifetime. Because the world we live in is so saturated by shame that we are almost hardwired to accept it as a fact of the human condition. And in this way, God’s abundant grace, so recklessly distributed, without cost or expectation of repayment, is deeply subversive. It calls us into the kind of abundant living that disrupts markets, and white supremacy; patriarchy, and ableism; anti-queerness, and transphobia, and every other force that tells God’s children that they have anything less than infinite value. When we love others, when we love ourselves, we are standing with Jesus in bold defiance of a system of domination that is built on the oldest lie in the world, that you are not good enough.
And that is hard work. Loving yourself is hard work. But it is necessary. Because Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart. And the second one is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself. If you don’t love yourself then you fail to love all the work that God put into making you who you are. And if you don’t love yourself, how can you ever hope to love another person.
This is why we practice communion. To remember that Jesus lived among us and loved us. When we serve each other communion, it’s a way of extending that grace outward into our community. And when we receive communion, it’s a reminder that God’s love is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. When we gather around the communion table, we are building a community that chooses hope over despair, justice over oppression, and love over shame.