Scripture Text: Amos 5:21-24 & Psalm 51:1-17
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent – a forty day journey into the wilderness of our lives marked by disciplines of self-reflection, prayer, and various forms of fasting or spiritual disciplines in order to prepare ourselves for the anticipated celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. The journey begins with an act of repentance – which in scripture means “to turn around” or “to change your life.” Repentance does NOT mean “to say you’re sorry.” Because if you hurt someone, say you’re sorry, yet continue to commit the same actions that hurt them, you are NOT actually repentant. You’re just a jerk who’s not accepting responsibility for their actions.
That’s because we come to repentance through guilt. Guilt is something that we do not like to talk about – especially in the Church. People do not like to feel guilty – especially in the Church. As result, we’ve made guilt to be this negative, self-destructive feeling that should be avoided – especially in the Church. Yet that’s not entirely true. Sociologist, author, and speaker Dr. Brene Brown argues that guilt is actually “adaptive and helpful…” because guilt is actually the act of “holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort” as a result. In other words, guilt is not something that someone can put upon you if those values are not there to be violated. Guilt can only be experienced if the thing you have done actually goes against your own values. And guilt only goes away when we accept responsibility for betraying our own values, and repent – change our lives – so that we do not violate our values again. And so, without guilt, we would be unable to repent. We would see nothing wrong with what we’ve done and would continue living our lives as we always have – with no attempt at “turning around” or “changing.” Without guilt, we would never be able to accept responsibility for our actions, change our lives, and become better people.
Shame, on the other hand, is different. Shame is harmful and destructive. Guilt and shame are not the same thing. And often times the feeling we label “guilt” is actually “shame.” Dr. Brene Brown describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection” – with others, with ourselves, even with God. Shame labels us, erodes our identity, and redefines us according to these external labels. While guilt says, “I screwed up.” Shame says, “I am a screw up.” Guilt says, “I did something stupid.” Shame says, “I am stupid.” Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.” It’s a subtle shift in language that makes a world of difference – especially for the sake of peace and justice in the world.
There are so many people in our world – even in this very room – who are struggling, not with guilt, but with shame. Shame about the things they have done. Shame about the things they have failed to do. Shame about their very personhood. Shame about their race, gender-identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and so forth. And that shame has nothing to do with them. Nothing to do with who they are. Shame has everything to do with how those in power define worthiness. Shame has everything to do with the way we disconnect, distance, and dismiss people as “other” simply because they do not fit our definition of “worthy.” And what’s worse is that throughout the centuries the Church has been one of the greatest perpetrators of defining the “worthiness” of others. The Church is long been guilty of saying that because someone does not fit the Church’s definition of “Christian”, because someone who does not espouse orthodox theology, possess appropriate power, belong to the accepted social class, share the same mindset, have the precise skin color, or loves the proper person, are not only labeled as unworthy of belonging to the Church, they are also labeled as unworthy of God’s love. And that is one of the greatest injustices there is. That is shame that hurts another heart, mind, body, and soul. Any theology that shames people into feeling that they are unworthy of God’s love, and therefore unworthy of the Church, is a bastardization of the gospel.
That’s why Psalm 51 – this psalm of confession and lament – speaks to our guilt without shaming us. The Psalm is assumed to be written by King David after he murdered Uriah in order kidnap and rape his wife, Bathsheba. And in this psalm David openly confesses his guilt. Openly expresses that he has done wrong. That he has violated the values that he received from God. King David accepts responsibility for his guilt and throws himself upon the mercy of God. And yet, despite the extreme sins that David has committed – murder and rape – he does not feel shame. He does not feel shame because David does not fear that what he has done makes him unworthy of God’s love. That even the darkest of human sins can not separate us from the amazing grace and generous mercy of God’s redeeming love. It just can’t happen. Because you are not defined by your actions. You are defined by God’s actions. And God’s action is to create you as a beloved child of God, worthy of infinite love and redeeming grace. That is who you are and whose you are.
Of course, many of us may think about this situation, about the injustice enacted upon Uriah and Bathsheba, and say, “But David should be ashamed. David didn’t just commit murder and rape. David IS a murderer. David IS a rapist. Where is the justice in this?” And while this is true in the context of our culture’s way of retributive justice, it is not the case in the context of God’s way of restorative justice in Jesus Christ. This is where we must recognize how truly difficult it is to be a Disciple of Christ within our culture. This is where we must recognize that God’s righteousness transcends our righteousness. This is where we must recognize that God can make beautiful things out of the dust and ashes of a horrific situation.
God brings about justice in the midst of tragedy through the actions of everyday people like you and me. These everyday people are often not experts or professionals about injustice the are challenging. They people who recognize the injustice of the event, receive the call of the Holy Spirit in the midst of that event, and respond by doing something about it. They re-cognize that they must first repent of the meaningless and passive “thoughts and prayers” approach we often take in our culture and turn towards their lives towards meaningful and active engagement with injustice – heart, mind, body, and soul. And throughout this Lenten Season, you will have the chance to hear from some of those people. People who have recognized the injustice in our community, received the Spirit’s call in the midst of the tragedy, and responded by turning away from their old life and turning towards a new life modeled after Christ’s own life of active resistance against systems of injustice within the world. A life where one speaks truth to power, stands up for the oppressed, cries out for the voiceless, embodies the liberating spirit of the gospel, and its good news of justice for all people. And these individuals have done so because they, re-cognized their gospel-centered values, accepted re-sponsibility for betraying them, and re-pented of their old lives of passive, non-paritipation.
Over the next six weeks we will hear from several different people in our area who are working for social justice. We will hear from people like Tara Meuller – a special education teacher who also heads the local Mom’s Demand Action group here in Jefferson County – a nation-wide movement that works for common sense gun safety legislation so that school children and all people can be safer from gun violence. You’ll hear from Doreen Page, Executive Director of Finding Grace Ministries – an organization that works to educate our community about human sex trafficking and how to identify it happening in your own community. She will also be giving a special presentation on April 6 here at Grace to talk about the risk factors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation of teenagers. She herself was trafficked as a child and knows this need for justice on a level no one wants to understand. We will also hear from our own Suzanne and Diane DeWitt Hall and their work towards justice and full inclusions of the LGBQTIA+ community within the Church and the wider Christian community. They will be speaking this Sunday during worship. After each speaker presents their work for social justice, I will preach briefly on connecting their work with the gospel.
Tonight, one of the ways we will respond to this call for justice will be through our support of a local organization called H.E.R.O.E.S. Care which is an acronym for Homefront Enabling Relationships, Opportunities, and Empowerment through Support. HEROES Care is an affiliation of local program partners working together to provide emergency financial aid, employment opportunities, and mental health care service and support to military families in the communities in which they live; before, during, and after deployment. So often when our soldiers return from war, they have experienced trauma and injuries that leave them disabled and scared in mind, body, and spirit. And it’s not just the soldier who suffers, but their families as well. It’s estimated that veterans make up 12% of American’s homeless population. And many more veterans struggle with food and job insecurity and limited access to mental health services for them and their family members. The organization partners with local resource organizations to help get veterans and active duty military the help they need within their own communities. So know that the money you donate to the offering tonight will benefit military families here in Jefferson County – providing them with the justice they deserve after the sacrifice they made to secure justice for others.
So as you come forward to receive your ashes today, do so with a repentant heart – a heart that may experience guilt because of your sins, but seeks to turn towards a new and fuller life in the way of Christ. At the same time, receive your ashes knowing that Christ liberates you from the painful labels and fear of unworthiness caused by shame. Despite the dust of injustice left behind by your sins, God will make something beautiful from it. Justice will spring up from the dirt. And these ashes are a reminder of the transcendent justice and generous love of God – of which we are always worthy. AMEN.