“I have seen the Lord!”
It was nearly thirty years ago, in my office at First Mennonite Church of McPherson, Kansas, that I opened a piece of hand-written mail that had no return address, no name, no signature anywhere. Now, I don’t usually give the time of day to anonymous letters. But good thing I did this time, because it had a wad of cash inside, about $30 worth, not for me but for the church. The anonymous writer said that God had been working in his or her life, and that this cash was an act of repentance and restitution for money stolen during childhood from Sunday School offerings at our church. With this money, the writer hoped to now be free of the burden of shame carried all these years for those thefts.
Had there been a name, or an address to that letter, I would have liked to have replied with words of Psalm 103, that “as far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our sins from us.” I would also like to have said, “Thank God, and thank you, that your conscience was alive and well, sensitive to sin, and moving you to repent and make amends. May you now be truly, joyfully, vibrantly, alive and free of the guilt you have borne.”
Notice that I called the burden of the writer’s troubled conscience and his or her desire to make amends, “guilt.” The letter writer called it, “shame.” But it’s not the “shame” I have in mind, when I talk today about Jesus having, “shamed shame” on the cross, and at his empty tomb.
Nor do I speak of “shame,” as many parents and relatives of ours might use that word. Like whenever Mom or Dad ask their child, “Are you going out dressed like that? I would be ashamed to be caught dead looking like that.” Modesty, by which I mean restraining my attention-seeking and showing respect for myself and others in conduct and appearance, is not what I mean by “shame” either.
Parents would rather have something terrible happen to themselves than to their children, like getting hit by a car while crossing the street. The only way it could get worse would be to read in the paper, “The injured pedestrian was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he was found to be wearing socks that did not match, one of which had a hole in the heel, and ratty, tattered underwear. He was identified as the son of Mr. and Mrs. Edward and Sylvia Hunt, of 434 E. Harvest Lane, telephone number 497-565-7391, who really should have taught him better, don’t you think?” Our anxious preoccupations with status and reputation, from other people, compared to other people, is getting a little closer to what I mean by the shame that Jesus shamed on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
We get even closer with the song by Patty Loveless, entitled, “You Can Feel Bad If It Makes You Feel Better.” The song says that, try as he might to punish himself by feeling hang-dog bad for his cheating on her, her ex’s misery alone will neither excuse it nor atone for it. She would really prefer that he clean up his act or just move on.
The shame that Jesus shamed on the cross and at the empty tomb first appears in the Bible when God came into the garden looking for fellowship with Adam and Eve, and issues the very first question in the Bible, not just to them, but to all of us: “Where are you?”
“We hid from you because we were naked,” Adam says. A funny thing to say if you’ve never even seen or needed clothing before. But now that they know good from evil by having listened to some snake-in-the-grass and were bamboozled into distrust and disobedience, they feel vulnerable, exposed, probably worse about themselves than about what they have done. I say that because of how they hide their most sensitive, vulnerable and life-giving body parts with fig leaves.
If you know by experience the physical and emotional sensation of having your sense of self crumble apart, of the rush of blood to your face and your ears, the sudden weakness of body and mind, the fear, the sense of powerlessness and worthlessness when you are laid bare, exposed to analyzing, evaluating eyes and found wanting, or when you are targeted, or bullied or hated on, when you want nothing more than to hide, or just disappear, or even die, because not only do you have a problem, you fear and feel like you ARE a problem, and nothing but, that’s the shame that had Adam and Eve hiding from God, and covering their life-bearing bodies with fig leaves. They went from doing something bad, to believing that they were bad. Guilt alone would have said, “That action was bad; acknowledge it and fix it.” Shame says, “You are bad; there’s no fixing you. So just hide it.”
But doesn’t shame keeps us on the straight-and-narrow? some might ask. Well, from Alcoholics Anonymous, comes the story about the man who was asked, “Why do you keep drinking so much, and at such great cost to yourself and your loved ones?” His answer: “I drink so much to try and forget the shame of my drinking so much.” Shame actually blinds us and binds us to what we feel shame about. That binding, blinding shame is what Jesus shamed on the cross and at the empty tomb.
No one gets through life untouched by such shame. Whenever we feel shame coming on, giving ourselves the right, positive self-talk is certainly better than the alternative. But shame is too sly, subtle, slippery and shape-shifting to fight and fix on our own. Saying “You do you,” sounds good. But then we are bombarded by millions of messages and images telling us how you should do you, and who’s doing you the most cool and popular way. And shame on you if you don’t do you the way they do. There are even how-to self-help books listing all sorts of ways you can and should do you.
We can and should fight shame when it comes from religion, for not being righteous or pious in the ways some think we should, or from education for not being smart enough, or from sports for not being athletic enough, and still shame will come at us from Madison Avenue and the media, for not being young enough, thin enough, chic, wealthy, popular or fashionable enough, or, ironically today, not shameless enough, not “you” enough.
Shame is such a powerfully overpowering thing that God addresses Adam and Eve’s shame not with positive pep-talk, but with the first sacrifice recorded in the Bible: by providing animal skins to cover the nakedness that terrifies them.
We are so vulnerable to shame’s infection because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and because all of us are tempted by sin. But also because all of us have been sinned against. When people with greater power misuse their power against those less powerful, that stirs up feelings of powerlessness. Shame says that to have less power than others is to have less worth than others, and therefore, we are worth-less. I suspect that whenever people target others with shame, they are actually trying to shift their own un-recognized, un-acknowledged shame onto others. That explains a lot of today’s strident political and cultural polarization from all sides, left and right, conservative and progressive. We go from having legitimate disagreements with each other, from which we all have something to learn, to shaming each other, as a way of distracting ourselves from our own feelings of shame.
That’s what Adam did to Eve, and to God, when he said, “That woman, that you gave me, she gave me the fruit….” That’s also what the Romans and the religious leaders did to Jesus on Good Friday of Holy Week. They cast our shared shame upon Jesus in a devilish, gleeful and gratuitous theater of shaming. The cross then was not only an instrument of torture and of execution, it was an instrument of shaming, by displaying publicly, ruthlessly, with neither respect nor restraint, the nakedness and powerlessness of its victim. The cross was as much like a lynching tree as a guillotine or a gas chamber, meant more to put people in their place for who they are, than just to punish them for what they did.
And not only for those who died on it. The cross also served to inject and infect everyone who witnessed it with a sense of worthlessness, powerlessness and hopelessness. It shamed anyone or everyone who had ever known the victim, or sympathized with him, or who identified with his kind, his class and his cause, or who, simply, was unable to do anything about such wanton, gratuitous cruelty. Witnesses to a crucifixion would even feel ashamed about their own compassion and the restraint that would keep them from ever doing or approving of such a thing, because the crucifiers had no such conscience, compassion or restraint, and look! They are the winners! Your choice then was either to dwell half-dead in the eternal twilight of shame, or you could identify with the crucifiers and idolize them, their power and their shameless, unrestrained cruelty.
That was the point of this morning’s coordinated bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka: not only to kill the two hundred-plus people and injure hundreds more, but to intimidate and to shame everyone, everywhere, who shares anything with the targeted people. It says to all Christians, “Shame on you for believing that way; shame on you for being powerless to prevent this or to stop it; shame on you for having the kind of compassion, conscience and respect that would restrain you from doing like we are willing to do.”
But when Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” and “do not return evil for evil,” he is not saying, “Just take it because you deserve it.” He’s saying, “Base your honor in relation to me, not to your aggressors and enemies.” He’s saying, in effect, “Declare your infinite worth by imitating me, and not your persecutors.”
Mary and all of Jesus’ friends and followers were collateral victims of the shaming heaped upon Jesus. They were so weighed down, blinded and bound by grief, fear and shame over their Master’s crucifixion, and their powerlessness to do anything about it, that few could see the evidence of resurrection right before their eyes. Evidence like the grave cloths and the head scarf, lying neatly where the body had lain. And the heavy stone laying beside the mouth of the tomb, left open and gaping. Mary sees the evidence and assumes the worst: that the body of Jesus had simply been moved.
If that was all that had happened, why then would the grave cloths still be lying there? Anyone who wanted just to move the body would not have unwrapped the cloths; he would have moved the body, shroud and all. Grave robbers would have taken the perfumed shroud and left the body. And they would have rolled the stone back in place, so as not to draw attention to their crime. But a shroud left neatly in place, with the body gone? With the mouth of the tomb left open, just begging to be investigated? You would think that merited some consideration, especially after Jesus own predictions about “rising again on the third day.”
At first, Mary cannot even recognize Jesus standing next to her, she is so blinded by shame. But suddenly, Mary becomes Exhibit A of what a life freed from the burden of shame looks like. Her sudden, surprising release from the living death of shame began when the Risen One drew near and called her by name, not harshly, to shame her for her shame, but lovingly, to rescue and release her from the binding, blinding grip of shame. She then experienced her own resurrection of sorts, a resurrection from shame. Hers then is the honor of being the first witness and preacher of Christ’s resurrection, the apostle to the apostles, as she runs in joy and boldness to bring them the good news of Christ’s victory over the cross of shame.
Conscience is a gift of God. Shame, like what I have described, is served up from hell, by the Accuser of the Saints. Against the savage, subtlet and shape-shifting forms of shame, our only hope are the power and the victory of him who on took the full force of hell’s fiery shaming and turned it back with invincible love and life. That, and his kindly, merciful approach to the prisoners of shame. With tender mercy and love, he still calls each of us by name, to awaken and invite us out of our twilight tombs of shame.
In the events that we observe and celebrate this weekend, Jesus shamed shame, not just for himself, not just for Mary, but for all of us. The rolling of that stone from the mouth of that tomb was also the turning of the table on the power of shame. This is what I believe the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote to his Colossian friends and said that Jesus, “having disarmed the powers and authorities… made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
He made a public spectacle of human and demonic evil first, by enduring the wanton, reckless, unbridled cruelty of these powers without responding in kind. Thus, these human and hellish powers revealed themselves for who, how and what they are. Like the Russian proverb says, “The Czar smiled, and we saw his iron teeth.”
Secondly, Jesus made a spectacle of these brutal, shaming powers of hell and humanity by walking out of his tomb alive. They gave it their best shot, they did their worst to shame and suppress him, and it wasn’t enough. Death didn’t stick. And there was nothing else left to try. How many times should they execute a man for refusing to stay dead?
It’s as though the main actor of a tragic play, in the last act, suddenly goes off script, turning the tragedy into a comedy. And the shocked, surprised audience, actors, directors and producers are powerless to stop him from changing not only the ending, but the very meaning and the message of the play. Nor can they stop the audience from giggling at first, and then busting out laughing, just when they were supposed to be crying into their Kleenexes. So did Jesus shame shame, by pulling a surprise ending on the theater of shame.
At the cross, God again offered a sacrifice to cover completely and fully our shame, this one a final, perfect sacrifice. At the empty tomb, he condemned the condemnation against us, and issued a liberating word on our behalf, beginning with each of our own names. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Conscience and conviction, yes, but condemnation, no. We need fear nor hide anymore, because the Risen Christ still comes to us, not to shame us, but to call each of us by name, tenderly, lovingly, and so invite us to enjoy and to share his everlasting, all-conquering love and life.
“To the One who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.”