(Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48)
Each week, I go through a process to prepare to write a sermon. First, I check the Revised Common Lectionary to see what are the scripture passages for the following Sunday. I read through them and decide whether I want to use them for the service. If I decide to use them, I pay attention to what I am thinking and feeling as I read through them. Often, a particular passage will jump out at me. If it doesn’t, I go to my lectionary commentary and begin reading the commentary, again, paying attention to what I am thinking and feeling as I read what biblical scholars and theologians have written about the scripture passages. This week, while I was reading the lectionary commentary, a particular sentence jumped out at me regarding Psalm 4: “The psalm is the voice of one in deep shame who breaks the power of shame by knowledge of and trust in Yahweh.”
“The psalm is the voice of one in deep shame . . .”. Shame. The dictionary definition of shame is, “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.” Shame is a normal human emotion that lets us know when we have crossed a personal, familial, social, or religious boundary. It is the “psychological foundation of humility.” According to John Bradshaw – an American educator, counselor, motivational speaker and author, who died in 2016 – wrote, “Our shame tells us that we are not God. . . . It is the source of spirituality.”
Shame, as a normal human emotion, is not a problem. It serves a function in our personal, emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth. The problem with shame is when it becomes a state of being – when it becomes chronic.
Compare shame to a sore muscle. If we overdo physically, we can get a sore muscle. The sore muscle tells us that we passed our physical boundary and that we need to honor that boundary or we will injure ourselves further. So, we ice the muscle, we rest the muscle, we put Ben Gay or somesuch on the muscle, and, eventually, the muscle heals. We can return to our normal physical functioning. But what if the muscle never heals? What if the injury becomes chronic? We can’t return to our normal physical functioning. For the rest of our lives, we live with muscle pain. We are less productive than we could have been and we live in constant pain, so much so that the pain becomes normal to us. We no longer exist as we did before the injury.
Shame serves the same function in our emotional and spiritual lives that a sore muscle does in our physical lives. It tells us that we have crossed a boundary. We need to pull back and observe the boundary or further injury to ourselves or another will occur. But what if the shame never goes away? What if it becomes chronic? We can’t return to our normal emotional and spiritual lives. We are less productive than we would have been and we live in constant pain, so much so that the pain becomes normal to us. We no longer exist as we did before shame became a chronic way of being for us.
Bradshaw wrote this about chronic shame: “As a state of being, shame takes over one’s whole identity. To have shame as an identity is to believe that one’s being is flawed, that one is defective as a human being. Once shame is transformed into an identity, it becomes toxic and dehumanizing. , . . Toxic shame becomes the core of neurosis, character disorders, political violence, wars, and criminality. It comes the closest to defining human bondage of all the things I know. ”
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden crossed the boundary God had set for them when they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They wanted to be like God rather than be like themselves. Their true selves didn’t feel like “enough” for them. So, they crossed the boundary in order to be like God. The result was shame. All along, they had been naked and not even known they were naked. After crossing the boundary God had set for them, they became aware that they were naked and they felt shame. They covered themselves up and hid from God. Shame became the chronic human condition from that point on. We have been suffering from toxic shame since then. One only has to look at the conditions we’ve created in the world to recognize that toxic shame is at work: There is constant political violence, wars, and criminality stemming from humankind’s neurosis and character disorder. Toxic shame is the human bondage from which we all suffer.
Psalm 4 is a passionate prayer lifted to the God who can save the pray-er from the depths of shame: “Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer” (1). Verse 2 illustrates why the pray-er is suffering: “How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame” (2)? He has been shamed by his society. He has crumpled under the weight of the shame. He feels defective as a human being, flawed, unworthy. And, yet, there is one in whom he trusts: God! The shame that his society puts on him cannot crush or silence him completely because he worships a God who saves those who turn to him, the faithful: “But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; God hears when I call to him” (3). The psalm ends with the pray-er glad and at peace because he trusts in God: “You have put gladness in my heart . . . I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you, alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” (7-8).
Toxic shame is the heritage of the original sin that created the conditions of the world we now live in. As we are born and raised in this neurotic, disordered, and violent world, we can’t help but be infused with toxic shame. We carry this toxic shame in us, but we are, also, shamed by the world in the way that the psalmist was shamed. We live in a shame environment in which we come to feel that we are flawed in our very being.
Here is the good news, however: We are not flawed in our very being, nor do we have to live according to the norms of the shame environment that we have created in our world. The First Letter of John states, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now . . .” (3:1-2). We were created to be God’s children, then we lost our standing due to sin, then we were given it back as a gift through Jesus Christ, in whom there is no sin (3:5). We are God’s children, and if the world doesn’t know us as God’s children, it is because the world does not know God! The world may look at you, or you, or you, or anyone and declare that we are not enough, that we are flawed in our very being, that we are unworthy! But that is not true of anyone, and WE KNOW THAT because WE KNOW GOD! Like the psalmist, we may feel the shame that others want to put on us, but, like the psalmist, we know God and we trust that God will save us! No one can crush or silence us because we have a God who saves and will come to our aid in our distress. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer!
When Jesus was raised, what did he leave behind in the grave? What did the women and the disciples see in the empty tomb, other than the angels? They saw Jesus’ grave clothes, the linens that had bound him in death. Jesus’ dead body had been wrapped in linens, around and around, his face covered, his arms bound, and his legs bound. But, when he was raised, the linens that had bound his body in death fell from him in life and he walked out of the tomb unbound! The resurrection life is a life no longer bound by shame. Jesus has healed the shame that bound us and we have been set free to walk unbound. We are to leave behind our grave clothes as we walk in newness of life. The First Letter of John proclaims, “[A]ll who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (3:3).
And, here’s the other good news: Because we know God, we know that NO ONE deserves to be shamed and that EVERYONE can be healed from the shame that binds them, not only ourselves, but everyone who lives and breathes. In a world defined by toxic shame and shaming people right and left, we can see others the way God sees them: as beloved children who need only trust in God to be led out of the darkness of shame and into the light of redemption. We can invite them by word and/or action into resurrection life. We can unwrap their grave clothes and lead them out of the tomb into the light of day, leaving their grave clothes behind.
Shame is a normal human emotion that lets us know when we have crossed a personal, familial, social, or religious boundary. Normal, everyday shame is okay. We can deal with it through daily confession and repentance because our God is a God that will always forgive us when we turn to back to him. The problem is that humankind’s sin has created toxic shame, which has created a world that, in turn, shames us. To break the cycle of toxic shame, we must claim the resurrection life that Jesus has created for us. Let us take off our grave clothes and walk out of the tomb unbound by shame into the new life God offers us every moment of every day. Let us live resurrection lives! Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, April 15, 2018, the Third Sunday of Easter.
 Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, and James D. Newsome. “Third Sunday of Easter.” Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year B. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993, 287.
 John Bradshaw. “Preface.” Healing the Shame That Binds You. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1988, vii.
 Bruegemann et al., 290-292.