Sunday, January 8, 2012

Giving up shame

Sermon for The Baptism of our Lord

Normally I only do New Year's Resolutions retroactively; I look at what I did in the past year, and whatever I actually accomplished was clearly what I had resolved to do.  But this year, I did in fact make a resolution: I resolved to give up shame.

This came about because of a video I recently saw with Brene Brown. In it she explains that there's a difference  between guilt and shame.  Guilt is when you hear the message "I did something bad." Shame is when you hear the message "I am bad."  There's a big difference.

And so I resolved to give up shame. It's not going so well.  And what happened the first time I found myself feeling shame is that the voice that popped in my head said, "Man, you're so awful you can't even give up shame! What kind of idiot are you?" I was ashamed of feeling shame! Which was just so laughable that it became bearable because I could see the shame at work and tell it to get lost.

Because this is what I'm working on, I'm seeing this theme of shame everywhere, such as in the gospel this morning.  Here's John the Baptist saying he's not even worthy to untie the sandals of the one who comes after him; that he is, essentially, lower than a slave.  And without saying a word, Jesus comes along and undoes all that by having John baptize him.  Without saying a word, Jesus shows John, "Yes, you are worthy. You are worthy of far more than untying my sandals."(1)

Every time I try to talk to someone it's "sorry this" and
"forgive me that" and "I'm not worthy"... 
It's so difficult for us to believe we are worthy.  We tell ourselves we're not smart enough, we don't have the right credentials, we don't know enough, we don't have the skills, we're not holy enough, we're just plain not good enough.  But from the very beginning, God has called creation good.

In my first job out of college, I worked as a classroom aide.(2) In one of the classes with a kid named Tony who was difficult at the best of times.  One day there was a substitute teacher and Tony could not, would not settle down. Finally, when the substitute asked for the nth time for Tony to take his seat and start his work, Tony blurted out. "I'm doing it! So shut up!" The whole room gasped. The substitute took a deep breath, paused a moment, and then said, "Tony, can I talk to you out in the hall?" Everyone's eyes were wide as the two of them left the room.  Less than a minute went by before Tony came in, walked to his desk, sat down, and started working.  You can bet everyone worked diligently through that hour as we all tried to imagine what terrible threat the substitute had used to get Tony to settle down like that.

After class, I got to ask her what she'd said.  She said that she had gone out to the hall and said, "Tony, I know you're a good kid." And Tony had said, "I am a good kid." And the substitute said, "Then let's just move on from here."

Such a perfect example of guilt instead of shame.  The substitute started from the position that this was a good kid who had done something he shouldn't. But the baseline understanding was that he was good.

What about you? What messages are you hearing about yourself?  For all that the voice from heaven came to Jesus in his baptism, always remember that you too are a beloved child of God.

Jesus has found you worthy.  God has called you good. Do not be ashamed.

(1) I owe this insight to Mary Ann Tolbert who points this out in her commentary Sowing the Gospel, which is terrific, if you're looking for a good commentary for year B.
(2) OK, I was a sign language interpreter, but that would have taken too long to explain. This was close enough.

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