“The Difference Is Shame”

Pentecost 20

World Communion Sunday

October 2, 2016


Text:  Lamentations 1:1-11; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14


    Those last verses of Psalm 137 are very disturbing, to say the least.  Many times in the past when this psalm has shown up in the lectionary, I have used only verses 1-6 and not included verses 7-9. I recall reading somewhere that John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, considered verses 7-9 unfit to be used in Christian worship.  Yet they are in our Bible.  Those who decided what should be in Holy Scripture chose not to sanitize it of material like this.  So it seems to me that we need to find a way to deal with it.

    Remember that this psalm comes from the period when the Hebrew people were exiles in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem.  Our lesson from Lamentations paints a word picture of what that was like. It describes not only the physical destruction, not only the desecration of holy places, but also the shame and humiliation that had been experienced.  We can safely imagine all the worst acts of war happened.  Those in power had been taken captive.  Many people, including non-combatants, including even young children, had been slaughtered--indeed, we know from elsewhere in Scripture that when King Zedekiah was taken before King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Zedekiah’s children, all of whom were still young, were killed in Zedekiah’s sight, and then Zedekiah was forcibly and permanently blinded, assuring that horrible scene was the last thing he ever saw.  Women likely were raped.  The city was burned and left in ruins.  And those of the people of Judah who lived to see the aftermath were treated with ridicule and contempt.  I don’t know about you, but I cringe just thinking about it.

    Now the attitude of the author of Lamentations, traditionally thought to be the prophet Jeremiah, is one of grief and mourning.  This author believed that what happened was deserved because of Israel’s sins.

    But that is not the attitude of the psalmist.  The psalm tells about the experience of the exiles when the Babylonians made fun of them by demanding that they sing one of the songs of Zion.  I believe the Babylonians were wanting to poke fun at Judah's God, our God, whom the Babylonians would have seen as having been defeated by their gods.  The exiles undoubtedly found this experience humiliating, and when one has been humiliated enough times, the feeling that often comes next is anger.  This is what we see in Psalm 137.  The psalmist was not interested in repentance.  The psalmist was humiliated and angry and wanted revenge.  That is what is expressed in those last three verses.  The psalmist declares blessings on those who avenge the Babylonians for what they did, including smashing Babylonian babies on the rocks in retaliation for what the Babylonians did to Hebrew babies.

    If you ever have been so angry and/or humiliated that you wanted revenge, you can probably understand where the psalmist was coming from.  You may not like the fact that this is in the Bible, nor condone the idea of someone actually following up on that sentiment (I certainly don’t), but you can understand why someone might feel this way.

    It seems to me that behind all this humiliation and anger is shame.  Some of the Hebrews felt ashamed that they had failed to live up to what God wanted of them.  Others felt ashamed because their nation had been ruthlessly defeated and destroyed.  Shame is humiliating.  Shame at its worst tells us that we are unworthy, undeserving of anyone’s favor (including God’s), that we are rotten to the core and hopeless.  There is something in us that rejects that message.  It is that something that realizes we are created in God’s image, and created good.  Although we often fall short of what God intends for us, we also know that God loves us and wants what is best for us.  Consequently, when people shame us, we feel humiliation, which in turn leads to anger as we resist the humiliation.

    Is there another option for responding to suffering and defeat?  I think there is.  Let’s consider what Paul says in 2 Timothy.

    Paul wrote this letter from prison.  He was suffering for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.  But instead of seeking revenge on those who had placed him in captivity, Paul continued to proclaim the good news and encourage people like Timothy who were seeking to be faithful to Jesus in the outside world.

    What is the difference here?  Paul was not ashamed.  He first said that he served God with a good conscience.  Later he admonished Timothy not to be ashamed about the testimony of the Lord or of Paul his prisoner.  And later Paul says that although he was suffering because he proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ, he was not ashamed.  Instead, he placed his trust in God, confident that God has the power to protect what had been committed to Paul until the time of Christ’s return.  He felt unashamed because he believed he was doing what God wanted him to do.

    The difference between the angry call for revenge in the psalm and Paul’s graciousness in suffering is shame.  Shame leads to humiliation, which can lead to anger, which in turn can lead to seeking revenge through acts of horrific violence.  Being unashamed means we are confident in God, and trust that God can and will use even a bad situation for his purposes and glory.

    Now I need to point out that there is a significant difference between guilt and shame.  Although we often say we feel guilty, guilt is technically not really a feeling.  Guilt is simply the judgment that one has done something wrong.  A person can be as guilty as can be and not feel any shame about it whatsoever.  When we say we feel guilty, what we are really feeling is either regret or shame.  If we regret something, we are not judging ourselves to be the scum of the earth.  We only are acknowledging that we made a poor choice that turned out badly.  When we feel shame, we are judging ourselves to be undeserving of the love of God and others.

    Many people live with shame.  I still remember how humiliated I felt when someone in authority in my life said to me, “Shame on you!” when I was a child and did something I should not have done.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many of us have had a similar experience.  

    One would think the author of Lamentations would express shame.  I don’t see shame in that book, however.  Remorse, yes.  Acknowledgement of guilt, yes.  Sadness and suffering, indeed.  But even in the midst of lament, the author of Lamentations expresses this hope in chapter 3, verses 22-24:  “Certainly the faithful love of the Lord has not ended; certainly God’s compassion is not through!  They are renewed every morning.  Great is your faithfulness.  I think:  The Lord is my portion!  Therefore, I’ll wait for him.”  Even in the midst of the people’s suffering and disgrace, the writer of Lamentations does not seek revenge, trusting that God still claimed his people and would show compassion to them.

    So let us remember:

  • If we are doing what God is calling us to do, we have no reason to be ashamed, even though we may suffer for doing what God wants.

  • If we are not doing what God wants us to do, God does not reject us--God loves us and calls us to turn to his ways, even as we suffer the consequences for what we have done.

  • We need to avoid using shame as a tactic to get others to do what we want, for too often that leads to bad outcomes.

May God be our guide in all that we do.  Amen.

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