Shame tells us that something about us is unworthy of life and love. Human beings wield shame as a weapon to control one another, but Jesus teaches us that there is no room for shame in the body of Christ.
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 23, year A
Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Let us pray. Loving and living God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of every one of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of the Father, and the + Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Shame is a powerful weapon. It tells the shamed person that there is something about themself that they should hate. When we wield shame against someone else, we tell that person they are somehow unworthy of belonging, respect, or even life itself. And we are living in a golden age of public shaming. Our world loves to use social media to subject wrongdoers to the judgment of millions. On facebook and twitter, we define ourselves and our values by the objects of our scorn. The internet has made this easy, but the cross, the pillory, and the scarlet letter all testify that human beings have long known how to use humiliation to control each other. The history of the church shows how often we try to demonstrate our righteousness by what, and who, we reject. We’ve long acted as if we could exorcize our own sins by pinning them to a scapegoat and casting that person out of our midst.
But Jesus says that shame and rejection have no place in the church.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus recognizes the power of people to hurt one another. We might be knit together by the Holy Spirit, but we too often treat each other in ways that have little to do with patience, humility, and love. So Christ says that, when someone in your community hurts you – because someone in your community is going to hurt you – you shouldn’t air your grievance with them in the court of public opinion. You shouldn’t avoid that person, or gossip about them, or work to drive them out. Your sacred responsibility is to approach them in private, and to lovingly try to repair the hurt together. If the other person won’t accept what you are saying, then invite in a few other trusted people, who can help the two of you discern the nature of the problem. If the other person truly is doing harm, and if they still refuse to acknowledge it, then you need to engage the church to try to fix things.
That all sounds great, but then Jesus drops this scary-sounding line: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Historically, that’s been read as though Jesus is telling us to kick the unrepentant person out of the church. In living memory, we have used this text to excommunicate people. But Jesus doesn’t say anything about exile or excommunication. He doesn’t say anything about public humiliation, or the severing of ties. He says to treat the wrongdoer as a Gentile or tax collector. And how did Jesus treat Gentiles, tax collectors, outsiders, sinners, and everyone else whom the world said he should reject? He reached out to them. He ate with them. He healed them, and he loved them, and he died for them.
In his words and in his life, Jesus teaches us that change has to grow out of relationships. It is only in love that we can become something new. If we go about it in any other way, if we try to bludgeon someone into repentance, we will only further wound the body of Christ. There is no room for humiliation, isolation, or expulsion in the church. If we act from a place of judgment and shame, instead of a place of fierce, persistent love, we will destroy ourselves.
Because we see in Ezekiel that shame is paralyzing. When this passage takes place, Ezekiel had already been a prophet for seven years. For seven long years, he had been trying to convince his people that they were headed down the wrong path, but they weren’t ready to listen. They didn’t want to believe that they bore some responsibility for the way that things were going terribly wrong in their world. They covered their ears to Ezekiel’s hard truths. But in this passage, we see the reality finally sinking in. Ezekiel’s people at last acknowledge that they have sinned. But then, they get stuck there. They cry out, “our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?”
How then can we live. The weight of their shame is destroying their very will to go on. They feel so ashamed of themselves that they aren’t working to change their lives, they aren’t trying to return to God – they just want to curl up and die. Ezekiel has finally achieved his goal, he has finally opened the eyes of his people, but his long-awaited victory rings hollow. He witnesses that shame doesn’t work, because a message of shame is a message of death.
Shame kills because it tells us that there is something about us that can never be fixed or accepted. It tells us that we have something to hide, that there’s something that could reveal that we’re not really worthy of life or love. Shame is that thing that, when we face it, makes us cry out, “How then can we live?” Shame chokes human spirits, and shame has ended far too many human lives. It leads us only to death and despair.
So God gives Ezekiel a new message, a word of love to temper his words of judgment. When God’s people are hurting, God says, no, I don’t want you to hate yourselves. I don’t want you to suffer for your sins. I don’t want to lose you. I want you to return to me and find abundant new life. Because God’s forgiveness is so much bigger than our shame. The terrifying, wonderful truth about grace is that there is nothing about us that God finds irredeemable. There is nothing about us that God finds unlovable. God sees both our shining goodness and our ugliest, most secret places of shame, and God loves us in our entirety. God doesn’t want us to keep making the same mistakes, but there’s nothing we could ever do to make ourselves the least bit more or less worthy of God’s love. And that means that shame has no place in our relationship with God. In Christ’s resurrection, we are free from the power of death, and so we are free from the power of shame.
This is the way that the gospel calls us to love one another – for if God does not shame us, then how could we ever shame each other? As Paul writes, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” God’s law may call on us to change, to confess, to repent, but the entire purpose of that law is love. Only love has the power to truly transform us. Only love brings healing and wholeness to the body of Christ. This means there is no room for shame in our shared life in Christ. There is no room for shame with God, and there is no room for shame with each other.
Christ says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” We encounter the good news in each other. When we witness to the saving love of Christ, we have the power to free one another from shame. When we love each other in all our sinful humanity, we loosen our bonds of death and despair, and bind ourselves together into a community of life.
And that is what it means to live as the body of Christ.