October 23- sermon- Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text...


October 23, 2022                                          Hamilton Coe Throckmorton

Joel 2:23-32                                                   The Federated Church, UCC


     “Shame on you!” “You should be ashamed of yourself!” “I’m ashamed of you!” It would not be the slightest bit surprising if one or two or maybe many more of us have been castigated in those or similar words, by a parent or a spouse or a sibling or a boss or even a child or a friend. And the message we hear is: “You have so badly violated the rules of the house or the workplace or the friendship that you should feel terrible about yourself.” Maybe a belt has been used on you. Maybe the punishment is to go sit in a corner and “think about what you’ve done.”


     I have a sense many of us live with shame, a deep-seated sense of our own unworthiness or even worthlessness. This is certainly not true of everyone here, and it may not even be true of most of us. But you can be sure it’s far more common than polite society acknowledges: “If you knew what was in this heart of mine,” some of us may well be thinking, “you would know what an awful excuse for a human being I am.” Shame is far more common than we know.


     Shame is different from guilt. Guilt is an appropriate remorse about something we’ve done wrong. If I hit you and then regret it, that’s a fitting internal reaction to having transgressed a boundary. I feel terrible about having hit you, or hurt you, or insulted you. And that’s a healthy reaction to a misstep or a bone-headed action on my part. I once neglected to inform a church member that a meeting had been canceled. They came to the church when they didn’t need to and were understandably hurt when they thought I didn’t care enough to let them know. I regretted that. I had neglected to do something I should have done, and it hurt someone, and I needed to apologize. That’s guilt.


     Shame, too, is about regret and remorse. But shame is far more encompassing. And it isn’t really about having done something wrong. It’s more about feeling as though we are wrong, that there’s something at our core that is awful and irredeemable. “If you only knew what was in my heart,” think many of us, “you’d know what a bad person I am.” That’s shame. Guilt is about an action—we did something wrong, and we likely need to make amends. Shame, on the other hand, is about our identity—we’re incorrigible and hopeless, and we’re always going to be that way. Nothing is going to make us alright. With shame,  we believe something fundamental in us is perverse and depraved and can’t be rectified.


     Shame arises for any number of reasons. It usually comes up, though, because it has been conveyed to us by someone in authority that we are never quite what we should be. The message comes from parents and others in power: ‘you need to measure up, you need to follow the rules, you need to meet my standards, and if you don’t, you’re a failure.’ Shame is a close cousin of disgust, says psychologist Rick Hanson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xa-owjcUT9E), and evolutionarily it developed as a way to keep people in line.


     Shame can have its way in any of a thousand different arenas. People of color may feel disparaged simply because they’re not white—shamed for their race. Women have been made to feel that they’re second-class citizens, that they don’t have the same power in a heterosexual marriage, and definitely shouldn’t get angry—shamed for their gender. Distinctly-abled people have felt shunned because they’re neurodivergent, cognitively impaired, or developmentally disabled—shamed for what is seen as lacking. Lesbian and gay people have been reviled because of the people to whom they’re attracted—shamed for their orientation. People who experience gender dysphoria—feeling as though they were born in the wrong-gendered body—are frequently the targets of loathing—shamed for their gender identities. Our society has a distinct and regrettable impulse for mass shaming. And that, in itself, is reprehensible. But it has the added effect on many that, if you belong to any of those groups, you may well have internalized the disgust shown to you by others simply for being what you cannot, and maybe would not even choose to, avoid. The world has conveyed that you are “less than” in ways that are difficult to escape. And that disgust may well have been stirred into you the way baking powder is stirred into cookie dough. No wonder you feel shame.


     And then there’s the sort of shaming that happens because of our own personal failures. A parent screams at you for dropping the fly ball or missing the penalty kick. A teacher rolls their eyes when you can’t solve the math equation. The teenage group you hang out with laughs at your dress or your totally dorky shoes. Social media rips into you for your hairstyle or your acne or your musical taste.


     October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. A notable part of our awareness of that epidemic is that violence in the home thrives on a shaming of the one who is victimized. ‘I can hit you because you’re such a lousy spouse and partner. If you were a better person, I wouldn’t have to keep you in line. You’re only getting what you deserve, because you’re worth so little.’ In situations in which one partner is hurting and demeaning the other—psychologically, physically, sexually, financially, spiritually—the abuse of the offender so often colludes with the deep-seated shame of the one being victimized. The one being abused doesn’t resist or get out of the relationship because, at some deep level, they’re ashamed—they think they’re only getting what they deserve.


     And then there’s the shame we feel about our bodies and our desires. You decide not to go to the party because you feel too fat or you’re having a bad hair day. You hate your nose or your lips or your hips. No matter how hard you try, you can’t stop smoking. And there’s the deeply internalized revulsion so many of us feel at what have chastely been termed “the desires of the flesh.” How many of us feel a shame that arose because we were once discovered exploring our bodies? How many of us feel like degenerates because of our sexual appetites? Imposing our desires on someone else? That’s totally unacceptable. But having those desires? That’s part of what it is to be human.


     Gabor Maté, who thinks and writes about trauma, in his book The Myth of Normal quotes the psychologist Gershen Kaufman as saying, “Contained in the experience of shame . . . is a piercing awareness of ourselves as fundamentally deficient in some way as a human being” (p. 30). This, again, is why shame is different from guilt. Guilt is about something we’ve done wrong. Shame is about our believing ourselves to be fundamentally wrong. Maté says, “The most common form shame assumes in this culture is the belief that ‘I am not enough’” (p. 31). It’s a sense of our basic inadequacy. We’re deficient. We’re not enough. Or so we think.


     And here’s the faithful, God-centered response to that: not a single shaming event or cause I’ve mentioned today is inherently wrong, inherently something to take away your precious value as a human being and a child of God. None of the items or conditions I mentioned earlier are marks of our deficiency. Not one. Not your race or your gender or your attractions or your gender identity. Not your unique set of mental and physical gifts. Not your missed fly ball or penalty kick. Not your dress or your shoes or your acne or your musical taste. Not your weight, or your hair, or your lips, or your hips. Not your smoking, not your bodily self-exploration, not your attractions and desires. Not one of those things and characteristics is enough to take from you the sense of your deep and abiding and fundamental worth.


     Some 2400 years ago, as the nation of Israel wrestled with what it meant to be the people of God, they had to deal with their own deep sense of shame. God had established a covenant with them, in which God would be their God, and they would be God’s people. God would watch over them and love them. And in return, there was to be a code of ethics by which the people were to abide. There was a clear sense of right and wrong, of what was acceptable and what wasn’t.


     So when the people Israel were carried off into exile by the Babylonians, they just assumed they had done something atrocious to deserve this severe punishment. They had broken the commandments and, as a result, were being cut off by God. Their sin must have been beyond the pale—how else could this exile be made to make sense?


     So Joel, a lesser-known prophet, comes along and speaks a word from God to the people who feel so totally inadequate. Joel reminds the people that, no matter how awful things may now seem, God has fresh and wonderful surprises to offer them. Into a land of drought and desolation, God will bring rain and fresh crops. In a land of poverty and starvation, the people will eat to their hearts’ content.


     And then the prophet says this: “And my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:26). Startlingly, Joel says this not once, but twice. In case the people haven’t fully taken it in, in the very next verse, Joel repeats word for word what he’s just said: “And my people shall never again be put to shame.”


     And if we’re taking in these words, I suspect Joel is speaking not just to those ancient Israelites, but to us, as well. “My people shall never again be put to shame.” That means you and me. Acknowledging guilt is one thing. When we’ve wronged someone, it is likely God’s expectation that we will at least apologize, and perhaps also make amends. Guilt is one thing—we should feel remorse for the ways in which we hurt each other. We should determine never to do what we’ve done again. Guilt is a good thing—it points us in a direction that is healthy for us, and healthy for the community.


     Shame, on the other hand, is always a violation of God’s intentions for us. It is never God’s wish for you and me to be left believing that we are unworthy to take up space on the planet. Take responsibility? Yes. Feel as though we’re dirt and we don’t matter? Never, never, never, never, never!


     Of course, it’s not at all easy to unburden ourselves of our shame. The shame story is often one that’s playing on an endless loop in our skin and bones, in our psyches and souls. Joel, though, declares to the people that those who seek God’s love and care will “be saved.” They will be saved. To be saved is really to be made whole. To receive God’s healing from shame is likely going to need our sustained attention. Maybe it will entail sessions with a counselor or therapist. At the very least, though, to be healed from shame asks of us that we be honest with ourselves about the ways we are shackled by shame’s tentacles. We’re invited to acknowledge the ways we feel “less than.” If we feel less than, this is light years from what God wants for us. And the first step is to notice it and to overcome our fear of looking that shame in the eye.


     If you are being abused in the home, it’s not your fault and you don’t deserve it. If your sexual and gender expression lie outside of what small minds consider normal, their take on you is inane and deserves to be shucked off. If parents or teachers or neighbors convey a phony standard of righteousness, one that imprisons you in narrowness and denies non-coercive bodily enjoyment that respects everybody else, then such body- and pleasure-shaming is wildly off the mark and deserves to be rejected. If so-called friends make it clear that you are not measuring up, then it may well be time for new friends.


     The only verdict worth a tinker’s dam is God’s verdict on you and me. Not worthless but glinting like a diamond. Not despised but adored. Not dismissed but treasured. Several years ago I wrote a short-form song to express this. This is it: “I am God’s child, full of love and light, and God will use me to change the world.”


     Guilt? Necessary and healthy. Shame? Unnecessary and unhealthy. The truth is that God’s “people shall never again be put to shame.” The truth is that God wants you and me to be made whole. The truth is that we are all God’s children, “full of love and light.” Shame? No. Abundance? Grace? Blessing? Peace? Salvation? Yes, indeed! May it always be so.