Luke 7:36-50 was movingly enacted before this scripture, around a table that had been set well by all that came before it.
(MCoB folks and Timbercrest folks, you’ll hear a version of this on sunday or next sunday. I suggest waiting to hear and participate in it together then.)
This scripture is so uncomfortable, right? My cheeks get red just thinking about it! I have these cheeks that show my embarrassment… any of you have those too? If you have them, chances are your friends have already discovered their power… It took about two months of my freshman year for my high school friends to discover that if they just said the name of the senior I had a crush on I’d light up like a stoplight.
But this scripture is blushingly uncomfortable. First of all, it’s incredibly intimate for a public setting. I can’t imagine anyone kissing anyone’s feet at any of the potlucks I’ve been at… But it’s uncomfortable for another reason – it brings up subjects we are almost hard-wired to try to avoid – shame, guilt, judgment, forgiveness. And Jesus does not make the discomfort stop, like we might want him to. Jesus blesses and forgives the woman, with all her sins, holds her up as the example of faith, and rebukes the guy who has been following the rules all along. What’s going on here?
As I’ve been wrestling with this cringe-worthy and yet beautiful scripture and the ways God might be speaking into our lives through it, I have been hearing a message about shame and guilt, so that’s what we’re going to explore tonight… but this stuff isn’t easy. We can do it, though. We’ve been building a foundation of trust and love, right? We’re being real with each other this week. And Jesus takes us into some real places, so let’s follow him into this one…
So just a little bit of explanation… Guilt and shame:
Guilt is “I did a bad thing.” “I acted in a way that was not true to who I am or who I want to be, and I want to make it better.” “I did a bad thing.” Guilt has a clear reference to an event and a fairly clear way forward – a remedy through action. If I feel guilty about something I did, what can I do? (pause for answers – make amends, do better next time, apologize, give back) When we feel guilty for a wrong committed, what lies before us is the choice to act. So we can DO something with guilt.
Shame, though…. Shame is stickier. Shame is “I am a bad person” and it has to do with my identity. Shame feels dirty, defiled, corrupt, stained. “I am a bad person.” When you feel shame, what does your body want to do? Embarrassment is a mild version of shame… (become smaller, protect vulnerabilities, hide) When you see someone else experiencing shame, what do you want to do? (look away)
We humans feel shame fairly often. Jill McNish, who wrote one of my favorite books on the subject, “Transforming Shame,” says that the human condition is such that we are inherently flawed and limited while at the same time we are created with the image of God in us. We reach for the holy, while also bumping up against things that keep us from that holiness we desire.
McNish says that shame is the feeling when those two things rub against each other. I desire perfect health and wholeness, but my body is often weak and rebellious. I desire full connection with God, but my ego and will often pull me toward distractions. I want to love like Jesus loved, but sometimes I … well, sometimes I just don’t.
Where divinity and mortality come into contact, we experience shame.
So, then, the capacity to feel shame is itself an indication of our yearning for God. But it is so incredibly uncomfortable. We want to dig a hole and crawl into it rather than face shame outright. Confronting shame feels like falling into the abyss. Instead, we run to escape-hatches and end up carrying our shame around, as an increasingly heavy burden. Rather than facing our own shame, we escape into judgment of others, perfectionism, arrogance, violence and aggression; we escape into withdrawal and depression, addictions, blame-shifting and scapegoating.
We can become so desperate that no one see our shame, that we erect walls around ourselves. And those walls keep us from expressing the full beauty of our true selves. Perhaps the saddest thing about shame is that ultimately, when not faced directly, it divides us from each other – when we hide our true selves away out of shame, we turn away from the very compassion and connection that is reaching out to us.
Another thing that makes shame difficult to deal with is this – shame does not respond to logic. When an infant is crying, you can’t reason with him, tell him all the logical reasons he shouldn’t need to be crying, give him a five point plan to make him stop crying… When an infant is crying, he responds to love and care that meets his needs. The same with shame… you can’t reason it away.
Shame can only be overcome by these words, embodied in relationship – “I see you and I love you.”
It doesn’t have much effect to say, “Aww, c’mon, you’re not a bad person!” – that rarely makes the shame go away. Even reconciling guilt, making amends will not completely make shame go away. Only this is the remedy for shame – “I see you and I love you.”
Returning our gaze to the scripture for this morning… This woman comes to Jesus in the house of a religious leader who she knew would judge her to be unworthy. She’s seen it many times before – just her presence opens attack and judgment. She comes, though, despite her shame, both put on her from the outside – shame can be so easily weaponized – and also shame carried internally. She is notorious around town for her sinful, shameful life. Imagine what she had to overcome to walk down the street and enter this house. Her shoulders might have been a little hunched; maybe she was continually having to talk herself into doing this. Her shame wants to keep her hidden and disconnected. Yet she is courageous enough to risk connection, to risk offering this truth of herself to Jesus.
Where does she find the courage to come to Jesus? I think that there is some part of her that has gotten tired of her sin and shame defining her. Maybe her first step toward laying that burden down is the idea that someone might be able to forgive her, and she might even be able to forgive herself.
And I think she knows, in the depths of her heart, what Brene Brown wrote about: “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” The woman in this scripture is brave enough to connect because her soul whispers that belonging, joy, and light just might be possible… and she is drawn to claim her own story in order to get to it.
So she comes to Jesus at dinner, anointing and kissing his feet, washing them with her tears and drying them with her hair.
And by doing so she is making amends – she is enacting an apology, exhibiting remorse, and putting good into the world to counter the bad she has done. She is claiming her own story and expressing her true spirit. The risk here is the same as the risk for anyone with great shame – what if this person, when they truly see me, what if they will not be able to love me? What if, when Jesus sees it all, he will cast me out? The risks of exposing her deeper self to another are real. This act has taken incredible courage.
As a hospital chaplain, late one night I was called to a room of a man who couldn’t sleep. Ronnie had a surgery coming up, and one of the first things he said when I entered the room was that he was sure he was going to die the next day. And he followed that with “and I’m sure I’m going to hell.” I asked him why he thought that. At first he was very hesitant, but slowly he began to tell me of the horrors he had endured, entrenched in the Vietnam War. He was incredibly ashamed of the things he had had to do there, ashamed of the kind of person he feared that made him. He risked telling me of his shame that night before his surgery, maybe because he felt he had no other choice. But his aching desire was to hear me say – really to hear Jesus say – “I see you, I see both your humanness and your divinity, your heavy shame and your holy desire, and I love you.”
It is a way of saying “I forgive you. Jesus forgives you.” But it also reaches into the very core of a person – I see you, all of you, and I love you.
So this woman comes to Jesus longing to hear those words – I see you and I love you. Rather than withdrawing and nursing her shame, curled in on herself, she bravely reaches for connection, reaches for Jesus. She is making right her wrong, making amends for her guilt, seeking Jesus’ love to soothe away her shame, and finding a way to explore the darkness that she might come to know the infinite light of God’s purpose for her.
And then there is the Pharisee. He escapes immediately into judgment of the woman without choosing to truly see her. I imagine his arms folded across his chest, looking down his nose at her. He thinks to himself, “Jesus must not be much of a prophet, because if he were, he would know what kind of woman she is, and he wouldn’t let her do this.”
What kind of woman she is – that’s a shame construct.
Jesus is focused on what she has done – guilt and forgiveness. And from that place, he acknowledges both her sin and the gift of love she has offered in atonement. The Pharisee is stuck in “what kind of woman she is” – a paradigm of judgment and shame. When a person belittles another because of “what kind of person they are,” they are almost always stuck in their own shame. One of the escape hatches of shame is judgment and blame-shifting. So we can imagine that the Pharisee is stuck in his own shame, and he is allowing his shame to divide him from the woman, and even allowing it to divide him from Jesus. His crossed arms and tucked chin are his protection from facing his own shame. He chooses not to forgive her or see her as a whole and complex person, with dignity and worth loving, because he is carrying too much of his own guilt and shame.
What kind of shame might the Pharisee be harboring? He probably cares a lot about what his other Pharisee friends think about him. That religious group carefully followed lots of rules to make sure they were pure and holy. Inviting Jesus to his house, this man who was considered by the Pharisees to be a renegade “so-called prophet,” was risky because the jury was still out for the Pharisees about Jesus. So this man invites Jesus over, but he doesn’t give him the courtesies of an honored guest, because if he does, the other Pharisees might think he’s a bad person. And this woman certainly isn’t accepted by his peers… what will people think? Do you hear it? He’s worried about others thinking he is a bad person – that’s shame.
So instead of facing his shame head-on, seeking connection, opening himself to hear Jesus say, “I see you and I love you,” this Pharisee gets stuck in judging the woman as “that kind of person,” trying to pass his shame off to her.
Jesus isn’t fooled, though. He sees through the Pharisee’s defenses, sees him underneath his crossed arms, and invites him to see the woman as an example of faithfulness. “Simon, do you see this woman? Can you love her?” He invites the Pharisee to the same risky vulnerability that the woman had the courage to display; Jesus invites him to reach out for the same freeing forgiveness that the woman experienced; he invites the Pharisee to offer his guilt and hear Jesus say, “I see you and I love you.”
We don’t know if the Pharisee does open himself to that transformation. We don’t know if the Pharisee moves beyond his shame to connect with the woman – to accept her at the table and be touched by her act of great love. But we do know that the woman leaves Jesus with her sins forgiven, whole and well, because of her faith. “I see you, and I love you. Your sins are forgiven. You have shown great love. Go in peace, for your faith has saved you.” She walks out of that house with her shoulders back and her head high, open to fullness of life and love.
I don’t know where the shame is in your life. There are times in my own life when shame is present like a cloud. And other times, when it just niggles at the edges. Naming it can be difficult.
Maybe for some of us, we have taken on shame in light of others’ judgments of us.
Maybe some of us carry the shame of not being truly seen by those we love.
Maybe there are shames we’ve been carrying for a long time, so long we’ve forgotten how heavy they are.
Maybe we are longing to leave all that shame behind.
I don’t know what shame each of us carries, but we are all human here, so we all have those places where we fall short of the vision God has for us, those places where our desire for God rubs up against our human limitations.
And I don’t know who in your life can be the presence of Jesus to you in your human moments. Maybe you have a friend or classmate who can say “I see that thing that you’re trying to hide… and I love you anyway.” Maybe you have a mentor or family member who can say, “I see that quirk you try to cover up…and I love you – all of you.” Maybe it’s a church member or teacher who can be the voice of Jesus to you – “I see you, including the thing that others make you feel bad about, and I love you, just the way you are.”
And I don’t know who in your life you need to welcome to your table – who it is that you need to forgive and accept, who you might have judged too quickly or too harshly. But we all have those people, too. And just as the woman became for the Pharisee his invitation to fuller life, life freed from shame and guilt, so the people we are tempted to judge and exclude can be God’s messengers of transformation in our own lives, if we are willing to allow them in.
All this does not mean that we will not deal with guilt, make mistakes and need to forgive and be forgiven. We will all continue to do that dance with sin and forgiveness. But that guilt need not make us small, it need not convince us that we are bad people. It need not convince us that others are bad people. Instead, reconciling guilt can lead us toward each other, toward love and fullness of life, toward God.
When shame wounds and separates us, here is some good news – Jesus stands ready to say to each one of us, “I see you and I love you. Go in peace, for your faith has healed you.” All we have to do is offer him our shame, choose to be brave enough to connect even when we feel like hiding. When the posture of shame tempts us to close in on ourselves, we can find the courage to reach for Jesus and one another. When we offer ourselves to Jesus, warts and all, we will hear him say “I see you and I love you.” We will sense Jesus inviting us to stand tall, free and open to all the beauty life has to offer.
And when we hear Jesus say, in our inner being or through others, “I see you and I love you,” the chains that have bound us will fall away, the millstone that has weighed us down will turn to dust. It will be our joy and our blessed responsibility to say to others who are burdened with shame – “I see you and I love you.” It will be our delight and our commission to accept those we have judged or excluded and find ways to express – “I see you and I love you.”
When we don’t allow our shame to keep us away from each other, as we no longer fear or judge “that kind of person,” we will become the messengers of Jesus to a broken world. We will become healers to a wounded people, connecting beyond all barriers, passing on the fire of love that we first received – “You may carry shame, but I see you and I love you. God sees you and God loves you. Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace, for your faith has made you whole.”
(attention back to the scripture setting for a silent moment)
In this time and space, with your brothers and sisters in Christ around you, you are invited to shape your body in a way that portrays your confession. Maybe you have someone you need to forgive; maybe it’s something you need forgiveness for; maybe it’s someone you need to accept at your table, or maybe it’s shame you’re carrying that you want to let go. In a moment, we’ll each make the shape of that confession with our bodies. Let that posture be your prayer until you feel yourself being invited into an open posture by someone around you. Once you have been invited into an open posture, our prayer of release, turn to people near you who are still in the shape of their confession, and invite them into an open posture. When you invite others into this openness, you might want bless them with a word or a hug, with good eye contact or a smile… We will be for each other tonight the presence of Jesus saying “I see you, and I love you.” I invite you to take up your bodily posture of confession now…
(the openness and release spread in Moby Arena like a mustard seed miracle, starting with the scripture actors and spreading out, until everyone was singing the confession song)
You are seen and you are loved.
May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Go in peace, to see and to love others, and my the God of peace go with us tonight and remain with us forever. Amen.