The Fifth Sunday After The Epiphany
February 10th, 2019
Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13]
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
There are moments in your life if you’ve been a priest for more than 20 years as I have. There are moments in your life where suddenly you realize that there has been a way of looking at the scriptures that you have become accustomed to, and you have gone with the grain, and gone with the flow of how people tend to see the scriptures. And then suddenly you read it, and you realize that the pivot point of that passage is actually different from what you had been led to believe for decades. And you realize that there is a moment in that scripture that is key. That is integral to everything that the gospel hinges upon.
And today, I had one such moment reading this passage from the Gospel of Luke. Because for years, people have seen this beautiful story of Jesus encouraging the disciples to bring in this haul of fish as an elaborate analogy for what it means to be in the church. So just as Jesus is preaching to this incredible crowd, He moves into the deeper waters, and people have thought, “Well, that is a metaphor for what it means to walk out in faith. You go into deep waters, and perhaps you’ve heard sermons with that kind of point, and then the great catch of fish is meant to symbolize all the people who are invited to be part of the church. And perhaps you’ve heard a sermon about that. And all of that is incredibly important and powerful, but it’s not really what the pivot of this gospel is about.
The pivot of this gospel, the most important thing for us to notice is not some kind of allegorical reading. It’s actually the moment that comes when Peter says to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord. For I am a sinful man.” And I have noticed in the studies I’ve done on this passage that people tend to gloss over that part in the passage. They focus on the fish, they focus on the calling, they focus on many things, but they don’t talk about that moment where Peter says, “Go away from me, Lord. For I am a sinful man.”
And as I said, that is actually the pivotal moment in this gospel passage. That pivotal moment reveals the good news of Jesus Christ. Because in that moment, Peter is experiencing something that is as real as our own emotions. It is something that you and I know here and now in the space we stand today, no matter who we are. Peter experiences shame. And part of his recognition of sin, which is truly a global concept, is the recognition of his own shame. He knows that he is a bad person. And he knows this internally, and so he tells Jesus to go away. And it’s in that moment that Peter experiences something that is as real as what you and I experience every day. Everybody here knows what it’s like to feel shame. Everybody here knows that experience of shame.
And as one great psychologist defined it in 1971, shame is a kind of global experience of the South. It’s a moment in which you recognize yourself as being totally of one sort or another. Shame happens as opposed to guilt, which is when you’re guilty, you believe that you have done a bad thing. But when you experience shame, you have a global awareness. You see yourself as a bad person. And that shame becomes a kind of internal council that keeps you from living into any kind of community of trust or vulnerability. Because when we experience shame, we experience ourselves as judged and cut off, and it doesn’t matter the source of the shame.
Shame can be triggered by the fact that we have a child that is getting lost. Or triggered by the moment in which we are let go from our job after 30 years of working faithfully. Or that moment in which an intimate relationship goes sideways, and there is betrayal. Shame can happen when we do something that we should not have done. And shame moves from guilt to shame in that moment in which we internalize, and make a global statement about ourselves. And shame is pervasive. And shame is powerful.
The popular psychologist, Brené Brown, tells a story that she was doing some research on people who had been in schools and churches. And she and her researchers discovered that 85% of the people who answered her questionnaire had experienced a moment of shaming that was so profound that it affected how they learned from that point on. It so affected them that they felt cut off, that they felt damaged as a result of their shame.
And having been a priest for more than 20 years, I have more insights than just about the Bible. Because I want to suggest to you that the 15% who reported no experience of shame, they lied. Because the more and more I get to know people, the more and more I see people struggling with shame. And this is a kind of irony in our age because in the old days, shame was a way of controlling people. If you could shame them, you would have them put in their place, and they would not dare move.
And so you would come up with a standard of beauty that they didn’t accommodate. Or a way in which they were uneducated, and only the educated people were permitted some place. Or a line that was drawn on the basis of race or gender, and anybody who crossed that line would be shamed.
Well, what’s happened today is that shame has proliferated. It no longer is a top-down relationship between the bishop or priest, and the penitent. Or the magistrate, and the criminal. What has happened today is that shame has proliferated. We all engage in shaming each other. This happens often in social media where someone says something, or does something, and it gets retweeted, and suddenly the shame piles on. And that person is vilified. And that person becomes a kind of scapegoat. And suddenly everybody exercises a bit of judgment, and they feel for that moment in the exercise of that judgment as if they are free for the moment from their own shame.
And the irony of this is that shame has become a kind of cultural power in our time. And it continues to actually erode the trust and vulnerability that we need to be together in any kind of community of care and well-being. Shame has a way of becoming an acid that eats away at every community. Whether that is a marriage, or a workplace, or a church, or a club, shame can destroy it all. And as powerful as public shame is, it’s even more lethal when it becomes private shame because it’s at that point that the shame becomes internalized. And we feel cut off, and we feel damaged, and we feel that no one could possibly love us. And that is exactly what happens when Peter says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Shame had done its work on Peter, and he felt unworthy of God. And it would be one thing if shame actually worked in what it intended to do. If shame was a way to get you better, that might make some kind of sense then for us to use it. But in fact, it doesn’t. In fact, psychological studies since this major breakthrough that happened in 1971 have shown time and time again that the people who experience shame in a profound way, they actually have more difficulty experiencing empathy. The people who experience shame in a profound way tend to actually blame others. They displace the shame onto someone else. The bad patterning of our parents, for example. Or things that are out of our control.
And the sad thing is, is that shame doesn’t then do them or us any good at all. In fact, people who experience shame tend to retreat into a kind of anger that is manifested in rigidity, grandiosity, secrecy, backbiting, backchanneling, gaslighting, so that they can somehow keep everybody imprisoned.
And the sad thing is again that shame no longer is only expressed from the magistrate, or the bishop, or the priest now to – shame no longer is expressed hierarchically. It’s more like a force field, like a field of electricity. Like a power plant. We’re all locked in in shame. And none of us are getting better. Speak to anyone you know who has struggled with addiction, and somehow found their way to sobriety, and they will tell you that shame was the largest impediment that they faced from getting sober.
So you and I have a real problem with shame. You and I have a problem with shame as a kind of public problem with shame. And you and I have an incredible problem with pain, and with shame as a kind of personal interior problem. And this is why today’s gospel is so incredibly important. Because for too long, religion has actually reinforced shame. But in fact, if you read the scriptures, and let them speak to you, it is clear that shame has nothing to do with the gospel. Because you and I have been born to be free in Christ.
And this of course, is the saying of the collect for today, which says, “Set us free, so that we can experience the abundant life of Christ.” And if you look at every one of our scriptures for today, there is a message of freedom, and a message that takes the shame away. And so in our reading from Isaiah, Isaiah experiences shame because he comes from a people of unclean lips. And God recognizes the shame, but establishes right relationship through an angel, and a ritual that empowers Isaiah, and gives him the words to speak.
And in our reading from 1 Corinthians, there is a moment in which Paul is speaking about the resurrection, and he says that Christ appeared to him, who is last of all Paul is admitting his shame. And yet he says, I am who I am because the resurrection has rescued me, and given me confidence and hope, and love and faith where there was none. Thanks be to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And so Paul can say elsewhere in the Book of Romans, “For I am unashamed of the gospel.”
And finally, we have in our reading in the Gospel of Luke this incredible moment in which Peter says, “Go away from me, Lord. For I am a sinful man.” And Jesus walks by that shame, pulls him up onto his feet, and says to him, “From henceforth, you’ll become a fisher of people.” Jesus establishes a connection, and he gives Peter a call.
Now popular psychiatrists and psychologists will tell you that the way you rescue yourself from shame, and I know this, as someone who struggles with it intensely, they’ll tell you to practice empathy. They’ll tell you to practice self-compassion. They’ll give you some ways of working with shame in which you suddenly can get a little bit of perspective on your feelings.
Now all of that is true. And all of that is helpful. But the good news of Jesus Christ is that God loves you in a deeper way. God loves all of you. And there is no place for shame in the gospel. And it is that right relationship with God that we have through Jesus Christ. That fundamental loyalty that says that Jesus is there picking us up off our feet. That is the gospel, and that is the antidote to shame.
So you and I have a moment in which we have to recognize the claim that shame has made on our life. And you and I have to have a decision moment in which we say to God, “Set us free.” And we become willing to experience that profound new birth that comes when we are no longer imprisoned by our shame. And you and I are called to be a community in which we no longer let shame have its day and place. And no longer let shame be something that keeps us away from each other, and that erodes the vulnerability and trust between us. You and I have an opportunity to make a new beginning today to let this gospel be the summons, the decision point, the moment in which we finally absolve ourselves, and step in to the grace that God has prepared for us in Jesus Christ.
And part of the way that we step into that is we begin to tell a different story about what it means for us to experience shame as Christians, and to no longer see shame as the great thing that it sometimes is seen to be, to lose confidence in that shame, and to place our confidence in Christ.
I looked for an example of Peter to share with you today. And one of the challenges that happens when we see the way the church has depicted a repentant Saint Peter, which is a long-standing image in the canon of Western art, is so many people depict Peter in his shame as a kind of commendation to us to revel in our shame.
So El Greco, a Spanish painter about 200 years before this painting I have before you by Goya, El Greco paints this incredible image of Peter in which it is probably one of the most beautiful pieces of Renaissance Art. And Peter looks like he does crossfit, and he is incredibly, beautifully adorned, and he’s got this kind of – the keys of the kingdom are hanging around his wrists, and his eyes are welling with tears, and he almost looks as if he is as one commentator says, “He looks like he’s on fire.” And Peter is ascending through his shame to God, which is probably why the church has for so long traded in shame because we believe the lie that it somehow made us better to be ashamed.
In contrast, the painting I have before you today is from Goya. Francisco Goya paints this sometime between 1820 and 1824. It was after he had lost his hearing, after he had retreated from the Spanish court, after he had realized that he was living in an incredibly corrupt country, and just before he leaves Spain finally to die in France. And this Peter is very different. He’s a little fleshy, he has lived a life, his face is broken up, he’s a little bit dirty, and the keys are not on his wrist, but the keys have been placed on a rock. And his shame is powerful, but the direction in this painting of grace is not moving up, it’s coming down.
And when Peter places the keys on the rock, that’s Goya’s message to us that the authority of the church is not in the hands of an individual. It rests on the rock of Jesus Christ. This is a Peter who knows shame, and hopes for grace, and believes that the grace will come down. And so Goya paints this unusual painting, and so you and I have this moment to step back and wait for that grace.
My friends, I say this with all that I can stand on today. I say this with the fullest authority I can speak of and with. Today is the day for you to let go of the shame that has imprisoned you, and to tell a different story that’s based on the rock of Christ, the one who loves you, the one who calls you, the one who will walk with you, and the one who will redeem your lives. May that freedom that we speak of today in the collect be truly yours today. And may we all be set free to know the abundant life of Jesus Christ.