SHAME: A SERMON FOR PASSIONTIDE
Given by The Revd Dr Cindy Wesley on 6th April 2017 at the closing Holy Communion for DMin students.
If Jesus’ trial and crucifixion were happening today, I wonder how these events would play on social media. What tweets would go out about his trial, his refusal to defend himself, his scourging by the soldiers or his crucifixion itself. ‘Hey, he saved others but he can’t save himself – #nomessiah’ or ‘#nokingbutcaesar’. I wonder if there would be a livestream of his torture just to add to the public humiliation of Jesus and anyone who had a relationship with him. Now my daughter, who is nearly sixteen, told me that I shouldn’t start my sermon in this way. My budding critic of preaching suggested that I should instead choose a contemporary example and talk about that instead of painting images of tweeting Romans. ‘We millennials are intelligent human beings, not just tweeting machines,’ she told me. Oh well, too late, no time to change the sermon. Still, she challenged me to consider how Jesus’ image had already been shaped in the early first century. After all, every age of history has its own court of public opinion, its own spin masters of public image, and its own ways of shaming people who offend powerful people.
Perhaps we also need to consider that the fact we remember the trial and crucifixion of this one man is unusual. Jesus is unique in who he is and the purpose of his death and resurrection, but his trial, torture, and execution are not unique. Much as we might like to make Jesus’ suffering extraordinary in the sense that no one every suffered the way he did, maybe the good news is that his suffering is rather ordinary. Countless individuals have been taken away in away in darkness, tried in kangaroo courts, shamed and humiliated by their powerful captors, and then killed without further thought. Even now, we see whole groups of people in our society publicly labelled by our xenophobia and racism, or publicly shamed because of their bodies, their gender, or because they dared to speak out about abuse.
What Matthew describes in the torture and mocking of Jesus could be summed up in the word ‘Shame.’ Jesus endures shame that others will attempt to inflict on him. He takes Shame to himself. The soldiers put him through what is intended to be a dehumanizing experience of social, emotional, physical, even – one could argue – sexual shaming. By offering his own back to those who strike him and taking this shame to himself, Jesus touches something primal within the human experience. Who among us has not had some experience of shame?
Shame was a deeply embedded concept at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. His cultural context was less focused on ideas of guilt, sin, and redemption than they were on honour, shame, and restoration of honour. We see the beginnings of this honour/shame dynamic in the account of Adam and Eve who forego the benefits of the Tree of Life through their disobedience and turn to hiding their body parts with fig leaves. In Genesis, we read that they felt ashamed of their bodies and their nakedness. The story of humanity walking in the presence of God then changes to one in which humans feel shame and God’s face is hidden. Shame will appear again and again in the Old Testament. How many times does the Psalmist lament and pray – ‘Let me not be put to shame, O Lord’ or beg with pathos ‘Do not hide your face from me.’
We see the concept of social shame, as well. The prophets will denounce the iniquity and downfall of God’s people because they have acted shamefully by turning their faces from the vulnerable. When the time of their restoration comes, they are redeemed from their experience of shame. As Isaiah says:
Because their shame was double,
and dishonour was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs. (61:7)
Many of the miracles of Jesus could be interpreted as restoring people so that they are no longer an object of shame within their communities, or so they need not feel ashamed of themselves.
A common way of talking about shame is ‘losing face.’ Inasmuch as shame can make a spectacle of people, it can also deface them; they are dehumanized by the experience of being ridiculed and rejected by other people. We might think of leper Jesus meets after the Sermon on the Mount. A leper’s face could be genuinely disfigured but Jesus touches him – gives him the gift of his own touch -and makes the man clean. People would look at him again, rather than turning away in fear or disgust. This is so important because to lose face also means losing contact and relationship with others. Jesus, though, makes contact with him. Think of some time when you wanted to tell someone important news or give that person a gift in person. Why? What is it you say? ‘I just wanted to see the look on your face!’
People are shamed when we turn our faces from them and when we refuse to face them or to value them amidst our common experience of brokenness. They can identify all too painfully with the words of the Psalmist:
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
When Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified in John’s Gospel, he turns away. He turns his face and washes his hands of the whole scene. Pilate is a good example of someone who participates in shaming others by refusing to use what power he or she has against injustice. When we allow expediency, pragmatism, self-interest, or just plain indifference to turn our faces, we participate in injustice. From whom do we turn away: the homeless person, the person who begs along the pavement, the faceless dead in Syria? Have we shamed and devalued people by turning our faces from them in our indifference or our judgement?
What does all this talk of face have to do with Jesus? He has a face – perhaps even a thousand faces, and yet, the gospel accounts of Jesus give him no face. There is no physical description, no note of how his forehead wrinkles when he thinks, the shape of his nose, the setting or colour of his eyes, not even how his face may have beamed when he spoke with children; of hollowed cheeks from long days of fasting, of a beard, or skin tone or even of dark circles from loss of sleep. When the soldiers twist the thorn branches into a crown and shove it hard onto Jesus’ head, they disfigure his face with the marks and the blood. They deface him and try to make him one who is devalued. He is stripped to nothing in the presence of other people. Mocked, spat upon, and tortured. For a man to be stripped publicly has connotations of sexual shaming. (Jesus can grasp even this difficult matter that we don’t like to talk about in church.) People would turn from him now, not wanting to look at him except to make fun of him and devalue him. Like the description of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
They are intent that he will be shamed. It is significant, I think, that the Lord grasps this basic part of our humanity. It is this shamed face that Julian of Norwich sees in visions that reveal God’s immeasurable, sustaining, redeeming love of the world. It is the face of Christ in anguish, tired, with the crown of thorns pressed into his head and thick, heavy drops of blood rolling down and masking his features. Yet, he is the one who in suffering his shame, is giving birth to a new and redeemed humanity.
In her book for pastoral caregivers, We Were the Least of These, Elaine Heath describes the sense of shame with which survivors of abuse often live. Elaine is a survivor herself, so there is some elements of autobiography that include her own journey to faith and exploration of a vocation to ministry. She describes a critical moment in her life that occurred in her theological training. A convert to Christianity as an adult, she’d struggled to reconcile the shame and abuse she suffered as a child with the idea of a loving God revealed in Jesus Christ. As she sat reading writings on Christ for her doctrine class, she experienced a flashback to her childhood. Overcome again with the feelings of shame, her doubts about Jesus’ love flooded her mind. She’d always felt that Christ had rejected her, turned his face from her. Then, she writes, ‘I saw him.’ The flashback to her childhood became more like Julian’s spiritual vision of the face of Christ; she saw Jesus there with her. He had not abandoned her. The one who endured stripping and scourging, He would never turn his face from her. He shared her shame. He took it from her and took it to himself. She knew then how much she was valued and loved by God. It was a vision that gradually transformed her self-understanding and shaped the focus of her ministry and teaching.
This is who Jesus, the Saviour, is – the bearer of our shame. Christ came to take to himself all of humanity’s shame, so that humankind will again see the glory of the face of God. We see this so clearly in Matthew’s gospel. The human body, so magnificent, so vulnerable, and something about which humans often express so much shame becomes through the incarnation the living image of the eternal God – in Jesus we see God with us. As his body is stripped, despised, whipped, and stripped again, Jesus takes on the profoundly human matter of shame, of our shame, for the sake of our healing. His abusers exemplify the wages of sin, the lack of goodness, in their inhumanity toward him. People who were created to love and glorify God torture the one in whom the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. And yet, he takes even this for the sake of redemption – for the sake of their redemption. He will ascend the cross for humanity’s healing so that we may see God face to face.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his body over to suffering,
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure
the trials of this present time,
and grant that we would not see any person
as unworthy of our attention and compassion.
Restore within the whole of creation the desire to see you face to face,
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit.