Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Truth about Shame

Matthew 5:38-48
Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
February 23, 2014

Prelude to Worship:
Once upon a time in Jacksonville, Florida, there was a white man who stopped at a convenience store so his wife could run inside and pick up a six-pack of Coca Cola. The man waited, turning up the volume on his gospel music sounds. Lifting his face upward, he joined the Blackwood Brothers, singing at the top of his lungs and lifting his hands upward toward heaven. He was in praise mode. 

A car parked beside the white man and he turned the volume up just a notch. Four black teenagers got out of the car. One of the young men spoke to the singing man. “Your music is too loud.” The white man ignored him. “I don’t like your music; turn it down!” the teenager yelled this time. The white man didn’t touch the volume on his radio but he reached under his seat-- to get his New Testament. 

It was just a small black book in his hand but the boy thought it was a weapon. All four teenagers felt afraid, threatened. The teenager shot at the man. Killed him. And the incident went to trial.

A jury heard the story. Will they call it murder? Will they be able to convict the shooter?

Jesus preached on a mountain side. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” This does not mean to keep your nose clean at all times, to have every hair on your head neatly in place. It does not mean that we are called to live free from any mistakes or wrong doing. What it does mean is this: God gives us a promise through the witness of Jesus among us. There is always the possibility that we, even we, may love the world as God has loved us: fully, richly, abundantly and completely. 

The Sermon:
“One of the most interesting and effective exercises we can give a child is to instruct them to make up their own games,” says Joan Chittister, feminist theologian.  By creating their own games they become inventors, writers, artists and problem solvers. Teach children to use and trust their imaginations and they will learn to create a better world. 

Carl Sagan taught: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere.” 

It takes a healthy imagination to work with our scripture text today. Imagine: turning the other cheek, giving the cloak as well as the coat, going the second mile, praying for persecutors and oppressors. Imagine being perfect?

John Wesley took seriously this verse from Matthew 5:48. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Why would Jesus command such a thing if it were impossible? Wesley wrote about the “third means of grace, entire sanctification.”  Because of the love of God and as a result of the sacrifice of Jesus, it is possible, according to Wesleyan tradition, to be perfect. 

In his journal John Wesley records an incident when he rode his horse all day long across the country side, having heard about a man who claimed to be sanctified holy and living beyond the struggle with sin. Wesley was having trouble imagining such a thing, having never attained perfection himself and having not yet met a perfect person. He rode for miles to see this model of perfection. Following that experience Wesley wrote in his journal, “I met the man for myself. And then I rode my horse back home, having not yet been satisfied, having not yet met an example of spiritual perfection.”  

That amuses us and we sigh with relief, relaxing our tense shoulders and reassuring ourselves, “Nobody expects me to be perfect, not even Jesus could expect that.”

Jesus is challenging us with this Sermon on the Mount. We are forced to think, to consider some significant things about ourselves, life and living freely among other people. Can we love those who do not make our life more wonderful?

I am sure of some things in this text. I am confident that Jesus does not expect victims of domestic violence to roll over on the kitchen floor, allowing themselves to be kicked again and again in the name of faith and discipleship. I am sure that Jesus is not telling oppressed people to be passive to the point of apathy. I am certain that Jesus is not telling us to accept persecution from others as if it were right and good in God’s eyes. That would be misconstruing the text altogether. 

I am sure Jesus is challenging us to take our faith seriously. Jesus needs every disciple to take the Christian faith seriously because there is serious reconciliation work to be done. 

There’s such a deep divide between the haves and the have-nots these days. Religion has us polarized around the globe as much or more than any other polarizing issue of our day. Matters of race are so painful that we have gone to our separate corners and stopped talking about the issues with each other. 

Maybe Jesus is on to something. Maybe this turning of the cheek and going the second mile would help. Seems like what we’re currently doing is only allowing more people to be killed in our streets and more prisons to be over-crowded. Anger is everywhere: in traffic, airplanes, theaters, parking lots, Walmart and home. Nobody is safe. Not really. No matter how sophisticated the security system, we are all vulnerable to attack. So if nobody is safe than all of us are together—whether we want to be or not. We’re in this dangerous place united by our fear. Maybe we should all stand our ground and together look fear in the eye.

We are caught, today, in the tension between human nature and being children of God. Maybe we could consider Jesus’ sermon and his requests of us. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Brene’ Brown has written a book about her own struggle to be perfect. It is titled: The Gifts of Imperfection. A research professor at the College of Social Work at Houston University, Dr. Brown is a leading expert on shame, authenticity and belonging. Brown says the quest for perfection will lead us many places but nowhere that’s helpful or healthy. We can, however, learn to be perfectly ourselves.

That process begins with the courage to get honest about how imperfect we really are. Tell your story, she says. Tell it to someone who has earned the privilege of hearing your truth. Shame hates nothing more than our decision to reach out and tell our story. Shame cannot live with exposed truth. Out of our truth telling comes the realization that our flaws and imperfections are actually gifts, gifts that contribute not only to our health and to the fullness of our own life but also to the health and fullness of the lives of those around us.
Brown writes: “Every time we choose to courageously speak our truth, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.”

Telling the truth is noncooperation with shame. And shame flees when truth moves in. Our shame is not very courageous. It doesn’t take much effort to dislodge it once we shed light on it and see it as the enemy.

Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer, your persecutor, the oppressor.” 

When I see films of the lunch counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement, I am touched, emotionally moved and amazed at the courage, the training, the determination not to resist but to stay connected to the truth. Those African American students sat down at the counter knowing they had every right to be there, knowing they belonged at that dime store lunch counter, aware that they were as worthy as anyone who had ever ordered a grilled cheese sandwich there. They were authentically present on those stools at the lunch counter.

Drinks were poured on their heads. Lit cigarettes burned them. They were spit on, shoved, punched. The force that made it possible for those African American students not to strike back was their lack of shame, their authenticity and their own connection to the perfect love that was as much a part of them as their hands that could have become fists and struck back, their legs that could have started running for safety, their eyes that could have closed and shut out the brutality before them. Their eyes… seeing the contorted faces of the persecutors. Seeing the face of the oppressor and a lust for power over others. The shame visible to the persecuted. It’s an awful sight. They did not resist. They saw it all as something less powerful than perfect love. 

In 1932, Myles Horton, a former student of Reinhold Niebuhr, established the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee.  The school, situated in the Tennessee hills, initially focused on labor and adult education. By the early 1950s, however, it shifted its attention to race relations. Highlander was one of the few places in the South where integrated meetings could take place, and served as a site of leadership training for southern civil rights activists. Rosa Parks attended a 1955 workshop at Highlander four months before refusing to give up her bus seat, an act which ignited the Montgomery bus boycott. 

One evening in the late 1950’s, white thugs staged a nighttime raid on the Highlander School. According to Myles Horton that was the night when a new verse was added to the song, “We Shall Overcome.” Horton says:

A group of young people, a youth choir…was at Highlander. …They were looking at a movie called “Face of the South.”  It was dark. Suddenly, raiders came in with flashlights. They must have been vigilantes and some police officers, but they weren't in uniform. They demanded the lights be turned on, but they couldn't get anybody at Highlander to do it. The thugs were furious…running around with flashlights. In the meantime, the kids started to sing "We Shall Overcome." Singing together made them feel good. The raiders yelled, "Shut up and turn on the lights!" Then some kid said, "We're not afraid." That’s when they started singing, "We are not afraid. We are not afraid." A new verse was born. Amazing courage was born in the hearts of those young people. Perfection. No need to be afraid. Nothing for which to be ashamed. No need to resist. The power of perfect love was alive and at work within them.

Jesus challenged his disciples and the gathered congregation. Jesus challenges us today. Turn the other cheek. Give your coat and your cloak as well. Go the second mile. Pray for those who persecute you. Be perfect. Enter into a season of change. Let go of your own shame so love can come to stay, love that has no need to put up resistance because love is the resistance. 

Our call today is to have the courage to speak truth, tell our own story to one another and make way for perfect love.  Make this world a more wonderful place for all of us to live together in love.


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