The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: June 23, 2013
1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalm 42; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Preacher: Jennie Talley, Summer Seminarian Intern at St. Michael’s Church and Senior M.Div. student at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church
Shame… It is such a difficult word to say and to hear. Shame… It is a painful sensation that we have all experienced, and some of us experience it more than others. Shame seems to have appeared early on — when Adam and Eve hid from God behind the trees in the Garden. A little dose of shame now and again is probably a reasonable amount, for people who don’t experience shame at all are thought to have no capacity for compassion or empathy.
But Bryan Stromer has probably felt far too much shame. Bryan who is 18 years old, just graduated from Lab High School in Manhattan. He has cerebral palsy and has endured many years of being ridiculed and mocked for a condition that he was born with. Bryan shared that at times he has told people that he was in a skiing accident in order to explain why he walked differently than other folks. He thought that having a skiing mishap was “cooler” than having a disability.
Karen Armstrong has felt a lot of shame in her life, too. Now in her late 60’s, Karen became a Roman Catholic religious sister at the age of 17. In an interview a couple of weeks ago with Oprah Winfrey, Karen reveals how impossibly difficult praying was for her. Karen confesses, “I was completely unable to pray. When I used to go in the morning to make my meditation, off my mind went wandering. A nun is nothing except the quality of her prayer, and my prayer was so bad it was off the charts.” Karen adds, “This was a source of terrible shame for me. … I felt like a fraud.” After seven years, she left the convent in misery and disillusionment, feeling like a failure.
And then there is Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, a fundamentalist Christian ministry and a leader in the “ex-gay” movement. For 37 years, Exodus has contended that gay men and lesbians can change their sexual orientation through the practice of prayer and psychotherapy. However, all credible psychological professional associations have denounced this so-called “reparative therapy” as not only ineffective, but potentially harmful. Alan, himself, having gone through treatment, admits to having “omitted [the fact of] his ongoing same-sex attractions” while at the same time, ministering to help gay people “overcome” their sexual attraction. From his own shame, Alan and his organization spread shame to those who had either sought therapy on their own, or who had been forced to seek it by their parents. Not only were gay people not “cured” of their inborn sexual orientation, but their shame of not conforming to the societal norm of heterosexuality was intensified by their feelings of having failed their prescribed therapy — a therapy that had no chance of being effective to begin with.
All three — Bryan, Karen, and Alan — share in common their experience of a deep shame. It is the intensely painful feeling of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brené Brown, an expert on shame and belonging, differentiates between shame and guilt. Guilt, she argues, is “I did something bad.” Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I am sorry, I made a mistake.” Shame is, “I am sorry, I am a mistake.”
The demons possessing the man that Jesus meets in Luke’s Gospel today seem very similar to those of shame. Sadly, the man has lost his true identity, for the only name he can provide when Jesus asks him is that of “Legion,” referring to the thousands of demons that possess him. Like one full of shame, the poor man feels separate from the rest of the community, not feeling like he belongs, and resides instead with the dead in the tombs. He is ravaged by the voices in his head. Perhaps they are the voices of his own shame saying, “You are not good enough, you are not talented enough, your spouse left you, you are not smart enough, you were never pretty enough, you never finished your MBA, you don’t struggle enough, you walk with a crooked limp, you don’t pray correctly, your sexual orientation makes you evil in God’s sight.” Oh my! What horrible voices he has to put up with — those same negative voices that derail us from becoming the fullness that we were created to be. And these are the same horrible voices that many of us have had to put up with, and are still dealing with, just like Bryan, Karen, and Alan.
But then Jesus comes to the man from the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee in a boat, to the Geresenes, to the land of the Gentiles. You see, the love of God extends everywhere. Even to people who are in the wilderness. Even to people who are wandering in their loneliness. Even to people who feel unworthy. Even to people that we ourselves might deem unworthy. It is as if Jesus has made a special trip just to remind the poor demon-possessed man that he, too, is a beloved child of God.
Just as the man has forgotten who he is, so we too often forget who we are. And as St. Paul so eloquently reminds us, that having been “baptized into Christ” we have “clothed ourselves with Christ.” There are no longer boundaries dividing us from each other, or from God. “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” And today, Paul might add: there is no longer gay or straight, there is no longer racial nor ethnic divides. We are to embrace each other in the one exquisite body that we are, the body of Christ, and open ourselves to the ever-reaching love of God.
So when we start to hear those negative voices of shame in our heads coming on too long and too loudly, what should we say? How should one address a beloved child of God? What should one say to oneself when the negative voices begin? Perhaps one could ask in prayer for Christ’s help, Christ’s healing help that was given to the man in the land of the Geresenes. And then one might begin to speak to oneself tenderly, as the beloved child that we are. As Brené Brown suggests we might try kind self-talk such as: “You made a mistake,” “You’re okay,” “We’re going to get through it.” And Brown adds that shame cannot survive in the presence of empathy. Perhaps the empathy comes through sharing our stories with a caring friend, or in a loving community, in the presence of a loving God, as we pull our shame out of the darkness of “secrecy, silence, and judgment.” We pull our shame out of the darkness and desolation of the tombs where the demon-possessed man dwelt, and into the bright sunshine of Jesus Christ.
Bryan, Karen, and Alan are all in the process of healing their shame. Bryan Stromer, as a high school senior last February, launched an anti-bullying campaign. He named it “Own It.” In an event to launch the campaign at his high school, dozens of students, some teachers, and even the school’s chancellor took turns admitting to their deepest secrets and publicly confessed their own stories of shame. “We all have these insecurities that we try to hide,” Bryan said. “I wanted to make a change, and I realized to do that, I need to be forward and honest about my disability.”
Since leaving the convent decades ago, Karen Armstrong, as you may know, became a leading religious scholar and acclaimed author. She rediscovered herself and her faith. She has learned and accepted that for her, prayer comes not through a meditative practice, but through holy reading. And today she puts emphasis on compassion as a vital teaching that links all religions in a common goal for peace. Karen says that she is still recovering from her bad experiences from her youth, but she adds “We all have brokenness, pains, sorrow. We all have things we are recovering from, and that is what helps to pull us together.”
And Alan Chambers, just on Wednesday, revealed the decision of Exodus International to close down its website and its current ministry, while he issued an apology to the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender community. Alan no longer believes that gay people can be cured, and he wrote of Exodus, “For quite some time we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical.” Alan added, “Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through shame and guilt that you felt when your attractions didn’t change.”
Yes, Bryan, Karen, and Alan, as well as the man of the Geresenes are part of a larger healing process, as they now try to help others heal. And whether we realize it or not, the inspiration for healing, for shedding our shame, is all from God. Jesus is the ultimate healer. And it is God’s voice that is the still quiet whisper that calls us each by name. God whispers to us that we are enough, that we are ever moving towards wholeness, that we are unconditionally loved. And as we heal, while we witness with empathy the healing of others, perhaps we might follow Jesus’ instructions to the healed man of the Geresenes, and express our gratitude to God, remembering as well as declaring loudly “how much God has done for us.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.