A Home to Be In
by Timothy J. Mooney
Today’s sermon will feature several people playing characters. The stories are real, but the stories belong to the characters – Sheila, Robert, Mike, and Carl – not to the people playing these characters. I want to offer my deep gratitude for Billie Lusk, John Detterick, and Christopher Poche, for playing the part of these characters. So let us begin by listening to Sheila, and then to Robert.
My name is Sheila. I’ve attended for a year now. I’m 39, and have two teenage daughters. I’m a loan officer at a bank. I like the work, and I can play with the big-boys, but by the end of the week, I feel like I’ve been in a battle, fighting for self-respect. I don’t win that battle as much as I’d like. But I can’t afford to lose this job. It’s been two and half years, but I’m still not over the divorce. It’s almost as if I’ve not had time to process it with the commute, work, and trying to stay involved with my girls who are growing so fast and they’re giving me fits with their adolescent attitudes. I guess they’re like their dad. They can’t stand to be in the same room with me. Sometimes I can’t stand to be in the same room with me either. It’s not supposed to be this way. I can look in the mirror and see a well-put-together super-mom. But the loneliness is so sharp at times it takes my breath away. I’m such a mess and nobody here knows it. Knows me. There’s Gail in the choir. She seems so happy all the time. I almost asked Gail last Sunday if she’d have lunch with me, but I couldn’t open my mouth. I don’t want her pity. It’s my own stuff anyway. Who wants to have lunch with a ‘divorcee’?
I’m Robert. Next Sunday will be two years to the day that my wife passed away. Last Sunday it happened again: during the service I leaned over to tell her something. But she’s gone. I can still feel her presence. I’m retired, but it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be, and frankly I’m mad as hell about that still. I know it was just a sign of the times back then, but I bought into it lock, stock, and barrel that you put your nose to the grindstone for 40 years, sock the money away, go to church with the family like you’re supposed to, and then you live the good life. Well the golden years aren’t. I let my wife raise the kids, and now she’s gone and I don’t know them very well, and half of my kids are still mad at me for not being there emotionally. I thought I was doing it for them, but maybe I was doing it for me. It seemed easier that way. And I was somebody in the corporation. Who am I now? I don’t know what to do with myself half the time. Yeah I like golf, and telling jokes, but that gets old and with my kids scattered… Ah, who am I kidding? I’m half the man I used to be.
Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” What are our burdens? You just heard two people talk about their burdens. Our burdens are varied, but beneath our unique experiences lies a common burden: the burden of life itself. The Church tends to see this burden as guilt. But beneath guilt lies a greater burden. Shame. Guilt comes from doing wrong. Shame comes from being wrong. We can hear the shame in Sheila and Robert’s stories.
The experience of shame is difficult. Theologian Donald Capps, says shame has three primary effects. 1st, shame causes a divided self. Shame comes from not living up to ideals and expectations: ours, others, God’s. Our ideal self criticizes and punishes our real self. Or our false self covers over our true self. What we are ashamed of is pushed away, ridiculed, and repressed. We are divided against our self. 2nd, shame causes a defended self. To avoid shame we attack, blame others, and project our shame onto them, become perfectionists. Either way, we avoid our shame, and hide it from others. 3rd, shame causes a depleted self. Shame eventually wears us out, and causes us to become apathetic, tired, and depleted. So we come to church carrying the burden of ourselves, the burden of a divided, defended, and depleted self. In worship we might be inspired, or sense God’s presence. But often we return home, still carrying our burden of shame. What are we to do with it?
Shame needs to be born, shared, seen. And I have good news: it is! In Jesus, we are shown that God bears our shame. Incarnation is God-with-us, and on the cross God bears our shame. And even there, when Jesus experienced public shame, and the self-doubt of failing, being abandoned by his disciples, and by God, Jesus continued to trust and love. Some theologians say that Jesus has experienced everything we have, and then say Jesus was sinless: no guilt. But if Jesus was sinless, how can Jesus share my humanity? The answer is shame. Jesus knows the experience of shame, yet trusted he was God’s beloved.
Jesus also shows us how to bear the shame of one another. We see this in the story of the woman at the well in John 4. She comes to the well at noon. Why? To avoid the other women who came early, when it was cool. Jesus talks with her. This counteracts her shame. She’s a Samaritan and Jews don’t talk to Samaritans. And she’s a woman. A Jewish man, a rabbi no less, wouldn’t be caught dead talking to a Samaritan woman all alone. Jesus could have shamed her. But he spoke to her as an equal, as a person of value. This helped her to be vulnerable and honest to say that she didn’t have a husband. Jesus does not condemn; he names what is true for her – she’s had five husbands, and the one she is with now is not her husband. We assume she’s a loose woman, but Jesus sees that her search for love is like her search for water: it’s a real need. She’s longed for it, but it has ended in failure five times, maybe six. By accepting her, listening to her, valuing her, Jesus demonstrates a love deeper than the love she craved in marriage. Jesus shares her burden, bears her shame. He didn’t condemn or shame her. He didn’t run from her. He emotionally held her and mirrored her value and worth. Her response? She runs into the city – “Jesus told me everything I had done!” This was not news – everyone already knew what she had done! But that she talked publicly about it is telling. She no longer felt ashamed.
Like Sheila and Robert, we come to church like the Samaritan woman. We carry the burden of our longings, our lives. We want living water. Bearing one another’s burdens, accepting one another without trying to fix, frees us from the power of shame, and taps into the deep well of God-with-us, the living water that flows in community.
My name is Mike. For you who have known me a while, you know I’m wound pretty tight, a perfectionist. I’m a lawyer after all. I’ve told this story to some of you, but it deserves to be heard by all of you. 10 years ago I underwent surgery for the first time in my life. And in the hospital one night, after surgery, I woke up to find I had completely soiled myself. Sh*t was everywhere. I was completely humiliated. I rang for the nurse, and I dreaded the moment. She walked in and I blurted out “I’m so sorry!” She didn’t bat an eye. She said, “Oh, this happens all the time. You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.” She started to clean me up. But I was so upset, so full of shame. I couldn’t look her in the eye. And then she said, “You think this is bad? You should see it when it’s really bad! We have a special unit: air-tight suits, masks, goggles, gloves, umbrellas, hoses for spraying down the patient and the walls. Do you know what we call it? A ‘Code BROWN’. I looked at her, and saw that glimmer in her eye, and I started to laugh. I laughed hard, I laughed harder than I have ever laughed in my whole life. And to my surprise and great relief, my shame was gone.
... we come to church like the Samaritan woman. We carry the burden of our longings, our lives. We want living water. Bearing one another’s burdens, accepting one another without trying to fix, frees us from the power of shame, and taps into the deep well of God-with-us, the living water that flows in community.
Hi, I’m Carl. When I was 10, my baseball team was in the little league playoffs. My parents, grandparents and 3 sets of aunts and uncles were there to cheer for me and my team. It was the last inning and we were down by one run. Our first batter, Joe, hit a single, and then Francesco hit a double so we had guys on 2nd and 3rd base with no outs! Then David struck out on a nasty curve ball, and Randy hit a first-pitch pop fly caught by their pitcher. Two outs, two on, and I’m on deck. The pitcher intentionally walks Felipe. The bases are loaded, and I’m up. I step into the batter’s box and take a deep breath. Here’s my chance to be a hero!
I swung at the first pitch. “Strike One!” the umpire yelled. I could hear my family cheering for me. “It’s okay, Carl! No problem. You’ve got this! You’re gonna clobber the next pitch!” I dug in. “Strike Twoooo!!” yelled the umpire. Pandemonium broke out! Both teams and their fans were yelling back and forth. My family was so encouraging, but I could hear the taunts of the other team’s fans. I stepped into the batter’s box, and furrowed my brow. I’m gonna crush this pitch. The ball left the pitcher’s hand, and it seemed like it took forever to cross the plate, but it crossed the plate, and I swung with all my might. “Strike three, you’re out!
I watched the other team go crazy, jumping in each other’s arms, dancing, laughing, celebrating. And I just stood there at the plate. I couldn’t look at my team, I just looked at the ground. I never felt so alone, I was such a loser.
Then I heard someone yell, “Play ball!” Startled, I looked up. Mom was at 1st base, Uncle David at 2nd, Dad was catching, and Grandpa was on the pitcher’s mound. My whole family had every position covered! “C’mon, Carl! Pick up the bat! Grandpa’s pitching!” I was so bewildered, but I picked up the bat. I swung at Grandpa’s first pitch and missed. And I missed the next 5 pitches, too! But I was determined now! The next pitch I hit towards 3rd base, and I took off running. My aunt fielded it and threw to Mom at first base, but she lost it in the sun! I heard everyone yell, “Run!” I headed for 2nd, but amazingly Uncle David was blinded by the sun, too, so I headed toward 3rd base, and I saw the ball sail over the head of the 3rd baseman! ‘Keep running, Carl!” I raced for home as fast as I had ever run, and just before I got there I saw the ball hit Dad’s catcher’s mitt! But it bounced out! I was safe! And before I knew it I found myself being carried around on Uncle David’s shoulders while the rest of my family gathered around cheering my name! Even my teammates gathered around me and cheered! I couldn’t believe it! I went from loser to hero! I went from alone and disparaged, to surrounded and loved. I lost the game, but something much bigger was won. (adapted from “Messy Spirituality”, Michael Yaconelli, 2002, Zondervan)
The important part of Carl’s story is not that he finally hit the ball and scored. Success does not rid us of shame. But his family, by sharing his ineptitude through misplayed throws and errors, shared his shame. They mirrored his failure and his value all at the same time. He was not a loser left all alone. He was a loser amongst nincompoops and misfits who know what it’s like to fail and still love and value him. His shame does not define him, his beloved-ness does. Shame does not and never has defined us. Our belovedness does.
Let us be that kind of community. It will take courage. The courage to speak of our burdens, to name the shame we’ve experienced. And the courage to accept, love, and hold – not fix or condemn or avoid – the real experiences of our brothers and sisters. Richard Rohr: “I believe vulnerable intimacy is the entrance into and the linchpin between all human and divine love.” (Immortal Diamond, p. 173)
Ben Curtis and John Eldridge, in their book Sacred Romance write, “From one religious camp we’re told that what God wants is obedience, or sacrifice, or adherence to the right doctrines, or morality. Those are the answers offered by conservative churches. The more therapeutic churches suggest that no, God is after our contentment, or happiness, or self-actualization, or something else along those lines. God is concerned about all these things, of course, but they are not God’s primary concern. What God is after is us – our laughter, our dreams, our fears, our heart of hearts.” “You” are not bad. “You” are loved.
This morning, I read Mark Nepo’s entry for July 21st in his devotional book titled, “The Book of Awakening.” And it fit perfectly with this sermon:
No bird can fly
without opening its wings,
and no one can love
without exposing their heart.
It is perhaps the oldest of inner laws, as inescapable as gravity. There is no chance of lifting into any space larger than yourself without revealing the parts you hold closest to your chest.
Any time you hesitate revealing who you are, picture yourself as a bird perched on a roof, wings tucked at your sides. To enter a relationship without opening your heart is to jump off that roof without spreading your wings.
It’s true that baby birds hesitate the first time out of the nest, but once tasting the air, it is in their nature to open and rise, and close and land. This is their life. It is ours too.
The paradox, of course, is that we must trust that the power to lift and land, for us, is in revealing what we hide. Once revealed, these tender things become our wings.
When we bear one another’s laughter, dreams, fears, hurts, illusions, doubts, struggles – the reality of life as we experience it – we fulfill the law of Love. Let us share, and bear, one another’s burdens, and in this way build a home for all of us to be in, a home with no shame. My name, your name, is Sheila, Robert, Mike, and Carl. Amen.