Final Sermon by the Reverend Ginger Strickland

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

‘Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” These were men with families, responsibilities. And they left it all behind to follow a man who had no home, a lot of enemies, and a death wish. And in the centuries that followed, after the resurrection of Jesus, people continued to give up all they had and follow him.

Every one of those followers probably had a story of an encounter with the divine, his or her own unique reasons for following Jesus. But scholars suggest that most early Christians probably had one other thing in common. And that was shame.

Shame is a very particular sort of thing. It’s not just embarrassment, it’s deeper than that. It’s not guilt – guilt is the feeling that we’ve done something wrong. Shame is the feeling not that what we’ve done is wrong, but that who we are is wrong. That we are unworthy, undeserving of love. And there’s a public piece of shame – part of shame is the fact that others know of your failure. In other words, shame is the sense that you have lost value in your own eyes and in the eyes of those around you.

Anthropologists classify both the Gentile and Jewish cultures of the first century as “honor/shame cultures” – cultures animated by the desire to maintain honor and to avoid shame. When interacting with someone new, the first thing you do is figure out which of you is more honored. Often honor/shame cultures believe that honor is is a sign of divine favor, and shame of divine disapproval – and that those who have honor in this life will have honor in the next. These cultures tend to be highly competitive, hierarchical, and wary of outsiders. I’m not aware of any literature on the topic, but I think that Manhattan is an honor/shame culture.

Anyway, the early converts to Christianity seem to be those who had, in some way, incurred shame – they had lost value in their own eyes and in the eyes of their society.

Sometimes, their own choices had gotten them ostracized – like the tax collectors, prostitutes and notorious sinners that Jesus always sought out; or like the thief on the cross next to Jesus.

But often early Christians had incurred shame for things they had no control over: extreme poverty was a source of shame in Mediterranean culture. Slavery, disease, and handicaps were too. Widows, orphans, and migrants incurred shame when they lost their places in families. Through no fault of their own, people in these categories were seen as having lost their honor. They were seen as diminished and as shameful.

And then Jesus came along. And while claiming to be the very Son of God, he incurred excruciating public shame. He became homeless; he was declared a glutton, a drunkard, and a blasphemer; and then he underwent a criminal’s death. He ended his life in the most shameful way imaginable – naked on a Roman cross.

And then God turned everything upside down. When the Early Christians spoke of the resurrection, they didn’t talk about forgiveness of sin or eternal life. They talked about vindication. For them, the resurrection of Jesus was God’s definitive, public undoing of the shame he had endured. It was God’s reversal of the whole system of honor and shame. When Jesus was raised up from the shame of the cross to the place of greatest honor in heaven, he brought with them all those who had been ostracized, all those who had felt unworthy and unloveable.

God declared the honor comes not from social status, not from outperforming others, and not from mistake-free living. In Jesus, God declared our value comes not from our choices or our status but from God’s unconditional love, given freely to every human being. The message of Jesus was a rescue from shame, offered freely to everyone.

So if you have experienced shame – if there’s some part of your life that you’re ashamed of, if you feel unworthy or unloveable, Christianity is for you. God promises rescue from that shame; God promises truly unconditional love.

Now, why am I talking about this? Those of you who know me know that over my last three and a half years at Incarnation, I have come to have some experience with shame. Even though the accusations against me weren’t true, they were public and it felt like they were everywhere and would never go away. I felt profoundly ashamed and hopeless; I felt unworthy of being a priest, of being your priest.

The Saturday after it all happened, I knew there was no way I could come to church the next morning. And then Doug said to me, “Look, I’m not going to force you to do this, but you’re a priest of this church. Show up tomorrow morning at 8:30am and preach and celebrate the eucharist because that is what you were called to do.” And so I did. And you all let me be your priest. You encouraged and cared for me and you let me do the same for you. We had lots of coffees together, and women’s groups. We had 20s/30s drinks and discussions. We did Christmas Fairs and service projects. We went to the Galway a lot. You let me visit you in the hospital and at home. You let me be a part of your lives.

You let me be your priest. And in doing that, you showed me the Gospel that those early Christians knew. You showed me the Gospel is the story of rescue from shame and hopelessness, and that to rescue us, God uses the love of a whole community.

I am so very thankful for Incarnation, for you. Thank you for being the Gospel for me and for this neighborhood. This is a place that does not live by the same rules as the world outside its doors. We are not perfect, but there is grace and compassion here. There is freedom from shame. And there is love. And I am so thankful that for three and a half years I got to be a part of it. Thank you.

And if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to take a moment to particularly thank the Rector. You have taught me so much, from “Always pretend that you don’t know how to use the audiovisual equipment” to what it means to do the best thing for your community even when it is hard. When I was trying to decide what job to take before I came to ordination, a colleague gave me a very good piece of advice. She told me to stop worrying about where I could contribute and go work for someone who was the kind of priest that I want to be. I am so very thankful that I took her advice.

NOW unto God who is able to keep us from falling, to rescue us from shame, and to present us faultless before the presence of his glory, with exceeding joy, to the only wise God, our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 


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