Passage: John 8:2-11
Date: March 18, 2018
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
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“Pray. Love your enemy and pray for those who harm you.”
Are you familiar with Brené Brown, researcher and writer? She studied shame for six years before she really began writing about it. In a TED Talk, she said: “Shame is a horrible topic.No one wants to talk about it.It’s the best way to shut people down on an airplane.
“What do you do?”
“I study shame.”
“Oh.”And I see you!
Most of us experience shame. It arises from our failures, from our mistakes, and the wrongs we have done. We feel shame about things we can’t control, and we are ashamed of what we have done or not done. We take it in and unconsciously believe that WE are a failure, a mistake, a wrong. Some of us carry the shame of family systems. Or of how we fit in (or not) into our social milieu. Remember middle school, junior high? When peer approval is primary, shame and embarrassment are constant landmines. We interiorize shame. But we also use it as a weapon. Our culture has become alarmingly good at throwing stones at others. If you spend time on social media, you will see the stone throwing: Memes that are funny in the meanest way. Name-calling. Shame is part of what drives bullying, polarization, and violence. We can’t mend ills like racism in our society until we address shame.
Brené Brown noticed in her study of shame that men and women in our culture experience shame differently. Women feel shame because they try to do it all and be all, and they are ashamed when they fail at it. Men feel shame when they perceive themselves, or fear that others perceive them, as weak. There are variations on this, depending on each individual, of course. But she found that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders.
Most of us can recall experiences of shame, large and small. What are the hidden things that we don’t want to see?
Think about the role of shame in this story of the woman taken in the act of adultery. The story makes clear that the religious leaders are using the woman’s guilt to trap Jesus so that they can bring a charge against him. Our resident Biblical scholar, Dr. Dick Rohrbaugh, showed me that from the Torah, in Deuteronomy 17:7, it says “the hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty.” And yes, the woman was facing the death penalty for adultery. Where the man was, we don’t know. But Jesus simply says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Was it shame that made the elders walk away first? Was it shame felt, that one by one,each person leftwith not a witness to throw a stone? As the woman stood with Jesus, was her relief and terror mixed still with guilt and shame?Jesus said, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on, don’t sin again.”
There are at least ten directions this sermon could go, but today, I promise to focus only on one: shame and empathy—because, as a people, we need to find our way back to one another. Perhaps the Spirit of Jesus can show us the way. To get out from under the suffocating weight of shame, we need empathy.Empathy is the antidote to shame.
When we think of those who seem the most undeserving of mercy, those who are guilty of the worst injustice and hypocrisy, we may flinch away even from the word “empathy.” The judgment that the other person is so wrong that we won’t talk with them is tearing us apart. Even if we are not overtly condemning others, our angry intention toward the enemy channels our focus in a destructive path. We need to soften the stoniness of our hearts toward the “other.”
What I’m about to tell you is something I’m ashamed of, but I share it as an example of how NOT to regard others. (Cover your ears if you don’t want to hear profanity. I apologize if I offend, but it’s integral to my confession.) Like many people, the shooting in Parkland a month ago has stirred up my frustration and fears. Recently, after listening to some news, I caught myself muttering quietly: “Damn them to hell.”
Now, I’d like to share a story of someone who managed similar feelings in a more Jesus-like way. Gloria Allred is a woman whose life and career has been dedicated to righting wrongs and seeking justice for women. She is a women’s rights attorney, notable for taking high-profile, controversial cases. She’s represented clients in civil rights and sexual harassment cases, among others. She is a hero to many but the devil in a red suit to others. A recent documentary about her showed the story I want to share. The camera showed Gloria marching with thousands of others at the Lincoln Memorial during the Women’s March. As she stood on the steps, a group of several male skinheads moved menacingly toward her. One man, his eyes covered by sunglasses, got up in her face and shouted, “God’s major courtroom is going to put you in hell, Gloria. Your gay friends are going to die, Gloria. You’re going to be giving eulogies. How do you feel about that?”
She took a breath, and without moving away, looking at him directly, and said in a clear, firm voice: “I want to thank you for expressing your free speech, which you and I both treasure. Even though we disagree, I want you to know that you matter.”
“I want you to know that you matter.” “Neither do I condemn you.” You matter.
The spirit of Jesus is mercy. The spirit of Jesus sees others through God’seyes, with love, and does not rank people by their appearance, their righteous actions, their chosen doctrines, or even by their worst acts. God’s mercy sees the weight of guilt and shame inside us then takes the stone from our hands so that we can change and reach out to one another.
We may not want to hear this story. We may, like the Pharisees, walk away quietly, unable to throw the stone, but still resisting the call to love the other, to pray for the enemy. Mystic poet Rumi put it like this:“Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”