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God Took Our Shame
a sermon based on various Palm Sunday texts
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Philip Carey is a nine year old who’s just entered a private boy’s school in England in Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage. But all is not right with Philip Carey, for he suffers from talipes, a disease that has left one foot grossly deformed. His clubfoot fascinates the other boys and so on his second day at school, Philip ends up being "pig in the middle" and roams the playground trying to tag boys as they dash across the circle. He tries hard to tag them, but they’re too quick and he too clumsy. Then one boy decides to mimic Philip by clumping and dragging his foot across the playground. Soon all the boys are limping and hooting their way past frightened Philip dragging one foot behind them, choking with laughter. Later that night, three of the boys stand in the dark before Philip’s bed.

"Let’s have a look at your foot," says one of them. "No!" says Philip and jumps into bed and bunches the covers up around his leg. The three boys pin Philip’s arm and twist it. "Why don’t you show us your foot quietly?" When they add more pressure, Philip, gasping and horrified, thrusts his foot out from under the covers. "Beastly," says one. Another traces the outline of the deformity, as if the foot were somehow an object detached from Philip. When the headmaster appears, the boys scamper back to their beds but Philip turns into his pillow and clamps it with his teeth to contain his tears. He cries because he is ashamed of his foot, but also because he’s ashamed that others have gawked at his deformity.

Philip Carey is that kid in all of us. For we all carry within us this primitive human emotion called shame. We’re all Philip Carey because we bear on and within us, our own deformities and deficiencies. And worse yet are those painful moments when our shame is uncovered and exposed for others to see.

That’s the story of Adam and Eve redux. Once they stepped out of God’s order and cosmos, they discovered that they were naked. And for the first time in their lives, they could not stand up to the scrutiny. It wasn’t that they just flinched when they saw each other exposed, but that suddenly they realized that they were threadbare and vulnerable. Hard to look someone in the eye when you’re vulnerable.

Haven’t we felt something like that? So ashamed that we’ve wanted to flee, to hide, to pull the covers over us? Shame plagues all of us.

  • We’re ashamed for growing bald,
  • ashamed for doing a bad job singing a solo,
  • ashamed for being unpopular,
  • for being used in a relationship,
  • ashamed because we’ve been adopted
  • divorced
  • duped
  • or betrayed.
  • We feel ashamed because we’re not
  • smart enough,
  • rich enough,
  • accomplished enough
  • or beautiful enough,
  • Ashamed because our breasts are too small,
  • our hips too huge,
  • stomachs are too paunchy,
  • our conversations too boring,
  • our features too mousy.

But shame is more than just dips on our self-esteem chart. Shame happens whenever our dignity and privacy have been invaded. Shame leaves us feeling that our bark has been stripped off and that everybody can now see our innards. Thanks to Geraldo and Oprah and Phil and Monty, we’ve been told that everything about life should be exposed, demystified, and examined-much like Philip Carey’s foot was examined. Inquiring minds have a right to know. So very little in our life is sacred or private anymore. People are pried open, exposed, gawked at and shamed.

What does the Bible say about shame? Well, take the psalms. One moment we’re praising God with all of nature, but then comes this curious thing called the "Pit." The ancients were always on the lookout for the Pit, those uncharted traps, huge holes covered by grass and sticks into which one might tumble. Once inside the Pit, there was no way of escape. Without rescue, the Pit was an enlarged tomb-- already six-feet under. One thing was needed-deliverance. So the cries went up until the victim’s voice gave out. But out there in the wasteland, who’s going to hear cries from the Pit? So the Pit came to mean depression, corruption, shame, and death. But God, the psalmist declares, is the One who hears our cries and rescues us up out of the muck and crud of the Pit. God can be trusted to lift us up when we’re down in the pits. Even when we are ashamed and depressed.

In our gospel lesson in Matthew 27, Jesus is subjected to shame in the form of military treatment-one of the oldest and fiercest forms of humiliation. Our hymns might talk about sorrow and love flowing mingled down, but Matthew shows us someone being treated like a buffoon. Jesus is ringed by soldiers, draped with somebody’s moth-eaten bathrobe, and wears a mock crown of thorns on hair matted with spit.

Here, Matthew says, is the King of Heaven with a military boot in his back, lurching around a drill ground while soldiers laugh and giggle. Here, at the very core Matthew’s story is a deity who is shamed. Jesus bore the grief and carried the sorrows of all the Philip Careys of the world. He suffered not only for human sin, but also from it. Jesus suffered from the worst form of sin-mockery. Mockery mortifies us, strips our defenses. So wherever mockery is, crucifixion is not far behind. "After they had mocked him, they put his clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him."

Crucifixion was the Roman art form of shame. It was designed to humiliate a person. Crucifixion exposed a person by stripping, then by publicly assaulting their flesh and tendon and bone, and then by presenting the person as a spectacle. The crucified one knew that he was naked, and if he did not, the catcall of local jokers would remind him. So Christ’s crucifixion stripped him of his clothes, his friends, his disciples, and in the end he even lost the comfort of God. "My God, why have you abandoned me?" And when darkness moved in from noon till three, it was as if the good earth itself had become ashamed of him.

But hear the good news of the gospel this day. Our epistle lesson tells us that in this act of enormous courage and defiance, Jesus "endured the cross, despising the shame," and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God. In the going down and coming up, the Son of God opened the way for the forgiveness of our sins but also for the lifting of our shame. So on this dark side of Easter let us reflect the shame, the humiliation of God, who for us became one of us that we might be freed from shame. Amen.