Text: Luke 13:10-17
“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” – C.G. Jung
I begin this morning with a personal story of shame. Nearly 15 years ago this church began a conversation about a new model for pastoral ministry. It wasn’t exactly a “new” model for ministry but rather a model that was gaining new attention not only in churches but also in corporate America. It was the transition from one leader at the head of an organization or company to co-leaders. In the case of corporations, it was called co-CEOs. In the church, it was called co-pastors. Jack McKinney, the then senior pastor of Pullen, suggested that we move to a co-pastor model and that I become the other part of the “co” with him. As it is with any change at Pullen church, we spent a number of months discussing the advantages and disadvantages to this “co” model. At that time, I had been on the staff of Pullen for 10 years, thus my strengths and weaknesses were well known. And so the conversation became not only about the merits of co-pastoring but also, and appropriately so, about my ability to serve as co-pastor. A central question in the conversation became, “Did I possess the gifts and competence to be one of Pullen’s pastors?”
As I said, for a number of months the congregation engaged in a series of house meetings and church meetings to discuss both the merits of co-pastoring and of me serving as one of the co-pastors. Needless to say, I did not attend those meetings. People needed the space and safety and freedom to speak their minds without me in the room. But guess what? We are Pullen, and my not attending the meetings didn’t stop people from sharing with me directly their affirmations and/or reservations. Ten years of ministry—10 years of mistakes and 10 years of affirmations—dissected and studied under a collective microscope. It was not the best nor the worst six months of my life. But I can say it was six hard months.
In the midst of all of this conversation, I went to visit an elderly church member, whom I will call John, who was dying. He had been a loyal member of Pullen for a good number of years. Having outlived most of his family and friends, he had few visitors in the months of his decline. John had a flare and fashion about him that I always appreciated and admired. And while I didn’t have a close relationship with him, I liked John. One afternoon as I was visiting with John, he made this comment to me. He said, “Nancy, I don’t think you will ever be the pastor of Pullen. You don’t have what it takes to pastor a church like Pullen.” He didn’t say it mean. There was, possibly, a theatrical nuance in the way he said it, but it wasn’t mean. I didn’t follow his statement with any questions. Honestly, I don’t remember what was said after that or how much longer the visit lasted. But what I do remember, as clear today as that day, was the shame I felt at his words. How foolish was I to think that I could possibly be one of Pullen’s pastors? In that moment all I could feel was the shame and humiliation of agreeing to be a part of a conversation that I didn’t have a right to. Surely he was right. I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have what it would take to be the pastor of Pullen. I was nothing more than a country girl with a heavy southern accent from Shelby. There was nothing in my lineage that placed me in this position. Shame, that deep pain of believing we are not enough, that there is something inherently flawed about us, took over my thoughts and feelings as I walked out of that visit with John. As it would turn out, that would be my last visit with John. He died the next week. And the following week, I conducted his funeral service. We never talked about what he had said to me and what I had felt in hearing his words. In fact, today is the very first time I have spoken of this story of personal shame.
Experts agree that there are seven universal emotions – emotions that are experienced across all ages, cultures and generations. Shame is one of them. Shame, like all these deep, universal emotions, has power not just in a specific moment in time, but it has the power to connect us back to earlier, formative times when those emotions were formed. John’s words shamed me, but to be honest, long before meeting John, shame was a familiar emotion. Most of my adolescent years had been spent feeling shame—shame that I didn’t measure up as a girl, shame that I liked boy things more than girl things, the shame that I felt around body image, shame that my sexual identity was considered abnormal and immoral. From an early age the shame of trying to be someone that I was not was deep within me. And to be truthful, John’s words were so painful because they simply took me back to earlier experiences as a child of not feeling like I was enough and that something was bad and wrong with me. As one of the seven primary emotions, shame touches us all. From childhood through adulthood we all experience shame; some of it appropriate and justified and some of it not. And maybe that’s why the mention of shame in this story of Jesus and the religious leaders caught my attention.
In the past, as I have preached on this text, I have focused on the bent-over woman and Jesus’ actions toward her. And indeed, there is much to consider in her story; including the shame she must have endured having suffered from her ailment for so many years in a society that almost certainly rendered her invisible and worthless. To have been seen and called out and healed by Jesus is a story we need to hear. But I am convinced that Luke is not telling this story to highlight the bent-over woman and Jesus’ merciful act of healing her. Rather, I am convinced that Luke is telling this story in order to prod his listeners to reflect on the religious leader’s response to Jesus healing on the Sabbath—a significant violation of Jewish Sabbath law—and their attempt at shaming Jesus for placing love and mercy above the law.
To recap the story, Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. As he was teaching, a woman who had been crippled for years, 18 years to be exact, enters the room. She was bent over and unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her “my beloved, you are set free from your ailment.” When he touched her, she immediately stood up straight and began praising God. As is the case when oppressed people are set free, this didn’t sit well with the elite, specifically the president of the synagogue. And Luke tells us that when all of this went down, the meeting-place president became indignant—furious— because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, and he said to the congregation, “Six days have been set aside as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath.” As if to say, shame on you Jesus, you ought to know better.
But Jesus, who was known for speaking truth to power, said: “You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where she has been tied up these eighteen years?” And then we read: “When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame…”
Have you ever noticed that the common urges associated with shame are hiding, avoiding and withdrawing? Shame, deserved or undeserved, makes us feel small and embarrassed, and all we want to do is become invisible. But in this interaction between Jesus and the meeting-place president and the congregation, Jesus teaches us an opposite action* to shame. Instead of hiding or avoiding or withdrawing, Jesus actually goes public in the face of shame. Holding to his moral and spiritual values, he continues his interaction with those present, and he keeps a steady voice. Jesus teaches us an important lesson in the face of undeserved shame. He models for us that when our behavior does not violate our moral values and the shame does not fit the facts, our best response is to continue to participate fully in our social interactions, hold our heads high, and keep our voices steady.
There are those moments when shame calls us individually and collectively to face the music – to own those places where our behavior has violated our values and our morals. We have seen this played out this week with an Olympic athlete. Collectively, there may be no better example today than owning our shame around the systemic racism that is so deep within our national DNA, a shame that is causing great harm to our humanity. When shame is valid, when it fits the facts, we ask for forgiveness. We apologize and repair the harm. We avoid making the same mistake in the future. And we seek forgiveness. Sometimes, shame is deserved.
But when faced with shame un-deserved, individually and collectively, we are called to follow Jesus’ example, to take the opposite action that shame invokes, and as people of faith to go public—to stand firm in our morals and values, to fully engage in our social interactions, to hold our heads high, and keep our voices steady. There may not be a better example today of going public and practicing opposite action than in the face of HB2—a legislative bill designed specifically to shame the LGBTQ community and the working poor and daily laborers. But it is not the only example of undeserved shame in our collective lives. For many of our neighbors and fellow citizens there is the undeserved shame that comes with the new voter restriction laws. The undeserved shame of not having a photo ID. The undeserved shame of not being able to vote because you can’t take time off of work and your voting place hours have been reduced. All of these acts of oppression are politically positioned not just to limit access to basic rights, but to invoke shame – to shift the focus from actions of those in power, actions rooted in insecurity, greed and self-interest to the perceived inadequacies and sins of those of us who dare to stand outside the dominant narrative, either by birth or by choice or both.
Opposite action not only defends against false claims, it denies them – by going public against undeserved shame, we take away its power. If we cannot be shamed for being poor, then we can go about the business of being human. If we cannot be shamed for being queer, we can lobby for equal employment rights. If we cannot be shamed for being black, then we can call out the injustices we experience and demand that America fulfill her original dreams and her higher nature.
Why is this lesson on shame so important? Why, as people of faith, is practicing opposite action to shame so critical? Because as Carl Jung said, “Shame is a soul eating emotion.” Whether, deserved or undeserved, shame ignored damages our soul and our spirit. When we give into the urge to hide or avoid or withdraw in the face of shame, a bit of our soul dies. But when we take the opposite action and face the music—own those places where we have violated our morals and values, repair the harm and ask for forgiveness—or when we take the opposite action and go public and hold to our morals and values with steady voices then we hear those words of Jesus: “my beloved, you are set free from your ailments.”
In a world that often uses shame to keep people oppressed—bent over, unable to stand up straight—we, as people of faith, are called to follow Jesus. We cannot hide, or avoid, or withdraw. We must practice opposite action and “go public” standing on our moral and spiritual values, keeping a steady voice for the spiritual laws of mercy and justice-love, even if and when it demands that we set aside tradition for the sake of a new Sabbath.
*Opposite Action – See DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents by Jill H. Rathus and Alec L. Miller. Copyright 2015 The Guildford Press.