Monday, April 05, 2010

Sermon: "When Friends by Shame are Undefiled" (Delivered 3-28-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Connect - To connect on a shared spiritual journey. Click here for more information.

Reading Luke 22:54-62
Then they seized Jesus and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with [Jesus].” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later yet another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Last weekend, when you were suffering through an unseasonably late snowstorm, I had taken a road trip to Rockford, Illinois. (Business, not pleasure.) On the drive I was listening to a recording of the greatest hits by Nina Simone. And, she began to sing in her amazing voice a hymn that can be found in our hymnal, a hymn called “I Wish I Knew How.” We sang it here in church a couple of weeks ago. And, I want to tell you, I was grinning. You see, Nina Simone is cool, the coolest of the cool. And, so I felt like I had just touched the hem of the garment of coolness when I realized that just the week before I had sung the song that she was singing on my car stereo.

And, “Morning has Broken,” which we sung at the beginning of this morning’s service, is a good song. It is a good song. But it probably would not be one of our favorites had it not been recorded by Cat Stevens in 1971. Cat Stevens was cool in 1971. And, if Cat Stevens wants to sing about “God’s recreation of the new day,” who are we not to sing about it? Cat Stevens is so cool that he can sing the word “God” and most of us don’t blink an eye.

This morning I’m going to be talking about a different hymn. I am actually going to be talking about an idea, a concept, found in a different hymn. It is a hymn that was made famous by a popular artist, though I don’t think Enya is nearly as cool Nina Simone or Cat Stevens. But, the hymn has also been recorded by Bruce Springsteen. But, before I get to the concept, the idea, that forms the meat of this sermon, let me tell you something about hymn known as “How Can I Keep from Singing?”

Our hymnal refers to this hymn by its alternate title, “My Life Flows on in Endless Song,” and we falsely claim that it was an early Quaker song. Actually, the hymn was first published in 1868. The music was written by an American Baptist minister named Robert Lowry. Nobody is quite sure who wrote the original words, but the words for which Lowry wrote the music had a whole lot of Jesus in them. The first verse is essentially the same as it was in 1868. We sing a second verse that has been liberally reworded. In our version we sing that “love prevails is heav’n and earth,” not that “Christ is Lord of heaven and earth.”

But, it is the third verse that departs most radically from the 1868 version. The third verse was written by a folk artist named Doris Plenn in 1950 and she shared it with Pete Seeger who helped to popularize it. Thanks to Plenn and Seeger and Arlo Guthrie and Enya, we now finish the hymn by singing, “To prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging, when friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?”

“When friends by shame are undefiled…” Well, what the heck does that mean? I want to begin to parse it out, to break it up into smaller chunks. And, I want to start with the most loaded word in the whole verse: shame.

My colleague Christine Robinson reminds us that shame and guilt are different things. Guilt is feeling bad about what you have done. Shame is feeling bad about who you are. Guilt is specific; I don’t believe there is really such a thing as generalized guilt. Guilt has to do with a specific action and the subsequent specific feeling about that specific action. Shame is different than guilt. You don’t experience shame when you realize that you’ve done something wrong; shame is something you feel when you begin to believe that something is wrong with you. Shame tends to be general, internalized, and existential. But, while we might internalize shame, what we are often internalizing is a message that is external to us. Advertisers know that shame can be a powerful motivator. They offer us the opportunity for confession through consumption. Many people report experiencing shame as a part of a religious group with which they were involved. Shame is something that we might experience as a result of being reminded of the ways that we don’t fit within a whole set of narrow boxes of what is acceptable and normal.

I was recently commissioned to write an essay. In that essay I quoted an Evangelical Christian author named Donald Miller who describes a non-Christian community with whom he interacts. In this community there is a young man named Nathan who speaks with a significant speech impediment, but is welcomed thoroughly into the community. Miller writes,
“I never thought of [it] as an immoral place because somebody like Nathan can go there… and nobody will ever make fun of him. And if Nathan were to go to my church, which I love and would give my life for, he would unfortunately be made fun of by somebody somewhere, behind his back and all, but it would happen, and that is such a tragic crime. Nobody would bother to find out [who he really is.] He [belongs to a community] where what you are on the surface does not define you, it does not label you.”
This is a passage about shame. It is about the power of the external reality in which we live to define us, to label us. To brand us with a stigma: Normal or abnormal. Included or excluded. Insider or outsider. Friend or other. Okay or wrong.

So, what is a “friend by shame”? I want to suggest that friends by shame are people, maybe two or three people or maybe a room full of people, who are able to come together in spite of those external voices and messages telling them that they are inherently inadequate or defective. That passage from Donald Miller’s book just blows my mind. At first, what blew my mind was Miller’s description of the community to which Nathan belongs, a community where you are not judged by who you are on the surface. But, then I decided that what was really mind-blowing was Miller’s unflinching and brutally honest description of his own church. Nathan would get made fun of behind his back and that is such a tragic crime. Isn’t reading that like a punch to the gut?

Shame is so powerful that the fear of it will lead people into behaviors that shame others. Or, as Christine Robinson puts it, scorn is the flip-side of shame.

The great irony of so many Christian communities is that people perceive them as places of shame and scorn despite the fact that Jesus, the person on whom the whole faith is based, lived in direct opposition to scornful practices and shame-based social codes. Keeping company with tax collectors. Eating meals with prostitutes. Touching people with disease and mental illness. Befriending the poor. Transcending ethnic differences, class differences, religious differences. The story of the Good Samaritan is a story about there being no shame in differences in background. The story of the Prodigal Son is about overcoming the shame that gets attached to a family name. Around the world Christians this week are observing the Holy Week, beginning with today, Palm Sunday, the entrance of Jesus and his band of “friends by shame” into Jerusalem.

And one lens for viewing this whole week is as a trial, a contest, between the forces of shame and scorn and categorization and the forces of love and community. The disciples and the followers of Jesus were “friends by shame,” I believe.

And that is why I shared the reading from Luke about Peter denying Jesus three times. Peter is not just one of the twelve. He is the beloved disciple. He is the rock on which the church will be built. And, when the going gets tough, Peter gets timid.

I find this passage from Luke fascinating. After all, Peter’s threefold denial is often regarded as coming out of a place of fear, namely the fear of arrest, persecution, prosecution, torture, and execution at the hands of the Roman authorities. But, I want to suggest that Peter acts not only out of primal fear and an instinct for self-preservation, but also out of a feeling of shame. “Nope, I don’t know the guy.” “He is not a friend of mine.”

Shame is a powerful force. It can lead us to a view of ourselves that is distorted and disfigured. And, out of that sense that inside we are distorted and twisted, that deep inside we are ugly and monstrous, can come the urge to disfigure and defile other people.

Think back to that Donald Miller passage for another moment. When he was describing the members of his own church who would likely treat Nathan with cruelty, who are the people he is describing? It is possible, though doubtful, that they are all paragons of perfection, flawless individuals. But, you know that is not the case. It is a church after all, a bunch of people with flaws and blemishes and warts. That instinct to make fun is a textbook example of scorn that is bred from shame.

“When friends by shame are undefiled.” The word “defile” is an interesting choice. After all, the word is loaded with meaning. To defile something is not just to drag something through the mud, so to speak. You can only defile something that is holy and sacred. Shame can cause us to lose track of what is sacred within ourselves and to miss what is sacred within another person.

Let me try to make this plain. As a fact of our existence we are all broken in some way. As a fact of our human existence we are all broken in some way, and, at the same time, we each have inherent worth and dignity.

Some of us may be in deep denial about that brokenness, but I contend that it is there. We all have our sore spots, our regrets, our issues,our buttons that get pushed. We have all been hurt and we have all hurt other people. And, at the same time, we have worth and dignity and sacredness.

“To prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging.” This line from the song is not about prison ministry. It is metaphorical. We are all stuck within the prison of ourselves unless we dare to tear down the walls that keep us separated from one another.

So, as Unitarian Universalists we’ve all graduated from this shame stuff, right? We see the inherent worth and dignity in everybody. When we walk through the world we exclude no one. We know no stranger. We see the glowing ember of the sacred within each person we encounter. Probably not.

So, there I was, in my car driving to Rockford, Illinois (business, not pleasure) and the very, very cool Nina Simone is singing “I Wish I Knew How.” And I grinned because I felt validated about being a Unitarian Universalist. If shame plays out for us in any collective way, one of those ways might be the way in which we seek popular approval for and the validation of our faith. We’ll happily claim as a Unitarian Universalist any C-list celebrity we can find, even if the evidence is circumstantial. Even if the person just sounds Unitarian Universalist. Even if the person regards us with condescension. At least he has heard of us!

I would also say that within our tradition there is a tendency for many of us to avoid our own brokenness, to deny once or twice or ten-thousand times our own pain and our own shame. Sometimes this can lead us to speak or act in ways that defile another human being. But, most of the time, our avoidance of our own shame leads us to project an invincible exterior, to claim that we are the enlightened faith, the evolved religious people.

There is a cost to this. The cost is the inability to achieve true diversity in our faith communities. The cost is the inability to build community that truly crosses the lines of class, race, and nationality.

People who have been burned tend to be wary of people who are not in touch with their own woundedness. Coming to grips with our hurts and those things about which we feel shame not only allows us to grow personally. It also allows us to grow in our sense of community and connection. When friends by shame are undefiled—when we overcome our feelings of inadequacy born from shame and enter into relationships that are authentic and vulnerable—how can we keep from singing?