Gene Cooley. You have probably never heard his name before. He was just an ordinary man. A hairstylist in Blairsville, Georgia, a town of 650 people. Gene was planning on getting married to his fiancé Paulette. But then tragedy struck. The police called Gene and told him that Paulette had been murdered by her ex-husband, who had then killed himself. Few of us will endure such tragedy in our lives and yet as the This American Life story The Hounds of Blairsville describes, Gene’s trial had just begun. After the murder of his fiancé Gene went to Florida to stay with Paulette’s parents for the funeral. But by the second day Paulette’s parents accused Gene of doing drugs and asked him to leave. Gene called his sister to inform her of this strange behavior. His sister informed him that bad things were being said about him on a local news/gossip website called Topix. Three anonymous users calling themselves Calvin, Mouth, and Bugs were hurling filth against Gene, accusing him of being a child molester, pervert, drug user, and somehow contributing to Paulette’s death.
Suddenly, Gene’s friends started treating him like a pariah, like a leper. All of his clients at his hair salon canceled on him. After two and a half months of being shamed Gene moved three and a half hours away to Augusta, Georgia. He continued to pursue the libel case against the anonymous posters that had ruined his life. And finally, thanks to a related Court decision, Topix was forced to release the name of the posters that had been saying awful things about Gene. It turned out that the three posters Calvin, Mouth, and Bugs, were the same person. A woman named Sybil Denise Ballew. At first Gene had no idea who she was. He learned much later that over ten years ago both he and Sybil had worked at a department store in town. Apparently, Gene had just rubbed Sybil the wrong way and she had decided to ruin his life because of it. When the reporter for this story asked Sybil if she was proud of what she did she replied, “Am I proud of what I did? I’m proud of standing up for what I believe in, for what I know. I’m proud of telling the truth.” Sybil was tried for libel and the jury awarded Gene $404,000 in damages. None of which Sybil is able to pay. But Gene got his name vindicated and got to move back to the town he loved. But the people who shunned him acted like nothing had happened and Gene is emotionally scared. To quote Gene, “I see everybody a lot differently now that I’ve been through all this. I just look at different people more cautious, instead of letting them into my life, letting them into my heart. I never thought that people could be so cruel.”
Maybe you have been to the place Gene has been. Cast out, ashamed, treated like a leper. Indeed, the analogy of being “treated like a leper” comes from today’s passage in Matthew. There are three healing stories in Matthew chapter 8. The second, the healing of the Centurion’s servant, we have already talked about, the third, the healing of Peter’s mother in law we will talk about next week, but today’s story, the healing of the Leper is different than the other two. The Centurion’s servant and Peter’s mother in Law were not cleansed from their diseases. Only the Leper was made clean. There is a moral element to the leper’s predicament. A level of isolation that is not present for the Centurion’s servant or for Peter’s mother in law. Indeed, the Law of Leviticus 14 is very clear how to treat lepers. They are to be cut off from society until a priest can affirm that they are cured. During a time when transmission of diseases were not well understood and medical care was limited this was perhaps not an unreasonable level of precaution. But for someone who contracted what would today be called Hansen’s disease, leprosy, meant you became an outcast. You were not even able to approach a healthy person let alone a well-respected teacher like Jesus. The skin disease may be awful and uncomfortable. But the plague of shame that the world tried to bring upon this man was far worse. And today, Jesus is saying to us that he is willing. He is willing to take away our shame.
Today I want us to understand three things.
- What is shame?
- How do we react to shame?
- How does Jesus deal with shame?
First, what is shame? We see that the Bible deals with shame from the very beginning. As our Old Testament text today tells us In the beginning God created Adam and Eve to have fellowship with Him in the Garden of Eden. The scripture tells us “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” Of course, many of us know that did not last long. The serpent entered the Garden and made them doubt that God had their best interests in mind when He told them not to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The scriptures tell us that when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit they realized they were naked, they sewed fig leafs together to cloth themselves, and they hid from God.
Before we answer what shame is let us ask what it means to be unashamed. I think our text from Genesis is clear. To be unashamed is to be connected. To be connected with God and connected with each other. To be unashamed is to trust and to be vulnerable. That was how we were meant to live. And when that was broken by the Serpent, by the Devil, by the accuser, shame entered into the picture. From this root of shame rises all sorts of sin and dysfunction.
The psychological and therapeutic community has often made a distinction between guilt and shame. When we feel guilty or remorseful we feel bad for something we have done. When we feel shame we feel bad about who we are. To quote Curt Thompson, author of The Soul of Shame, shame says, “ I am not enough; there is something wrong with me; I am bad; or I don’t matter.” Shame underlies other emotions like fear, anger, and depression. The root of the English word shame means to hide. And we see that in the story of Genesis. Shame makes us want to hide it makes us want to separate ourselves from others.
However, shame isn’t always a bad thing. Daniel Green & Mel Lawrenz in their book Encountering Shame and Guilt argue that there are three fundamental types of shame. Moral Shame, which is closely related to guilt, is when we are alerted by our conscience that we by our actions have broken relationship with God or with another human being. There are actions that we might perform that we are right to be ashamed of. Imposed Shame, “is the sense of personal disgrace or worthlessness that has resulted from the words or actions of others.” ( Green and Lawrenz, pg 44). Finally, natural shame is simply that acknowledgment that we as human beings have limitations and are prone to make mistakes. In Biblical terms it is recognition of our sinful nature and our need for God. Having a sense of shame, of our limitations, of what is and is not appropriate, can be a good thing. But when that shame becomes a fatal flaw, when it causes us to doubt ourselves, others, and God, then that leaves us trapped in a prison of the Devil’s design. Distrust, enmity, blaming, bigotry, hatred, anger, all of these are results of the Fall, results of the curse. We know it takes far less than a skin disease for people to be cruel to one another. Christians as well can get caught up so easily in the cycle of shame. I am sure Sybil in our story considered herself to be a good Christian. I am sure many folks in Gene’s town considered themselves to be good Christians. But that does not make us immune from shame and shaming others. We like to think that we would treat the leper like Jesus treated the leper. Thing is we never truly know what we believe till we are forced to put that belief to the test.
Second, how do people react when they are shamed or are dealing with shame. As Thompson points out in The Soul of Shame, shame uses judgment as its weapon to wound. Jesus has taught us that the sin of judgment is not the same thing as making a well thought out moral decision about something or someone, that is discernment. Instead, judgment as Thompson would put it is a “ spirit of condemnation or condescension with which we analyze or critique something, whether ourselves or someone else.” (Thompson, pg 28). Shame seeks to isolate us. So the solution to shame should be to seek to reconnect. To reconnect with God and with others. But that is not what happens. Shame makes us want to hide and it creates a vicious cycle. We may temporarily protect ourselves from the gaze of others but the very act of turning away causes more shame. To quote Thompson, “indeed this dance between hiding and feeling shame itself becomes a tightening of the noose. We feel shame, and then feel shame for feeling shame. It begets itself.”
Psychologists often point out that shamed people shame others. Often people dealing with shame will accuse others and feel contempt for others. That is why Satan is called the accuser. He can’t face the Truth of his rebellion against God so he takes his accusations out on God’s creations, on us. Jill Mcnish author of Transforming Shame argues that shamed people generally react with rage, trying to exercise power, and trying to be righteous (or self righteous) (Mcnish, pg 54). If we look at Sybil in our introduction story we can see elements of all these behaviors in the way she treated Gene.
So what is Jesus’ plan to deal with shame? Well the Bible tells us in Hebrews 12. He doesn’t tolerate it. In fact, he despises shame. Indeed, the cross is perhaps one of the most humiliating and painful ways to execute someone ever invented. But Jesus despised the shame of the cross for the Joy set before him. That joy is our salvation and our healing. It is the joy that we would walk with him in the garden once again. What I think this means for us is when we endure shame of the negative type, imposed shame, we must despise it, we must fight back against it. And the way we do that is not to close ourselves off but to seek connection. That is why I entitled this sermon Unashamed as opposed to Shamed. Because the world wants the leper in this passage to cut himself off. But the Leper refuses to be ashamed. As Jesus despised the shame of the cross, the leper despised the shame of his leprosy. He did not accept it. He did not allow it to keep him from God and from people. Instead, he sought Jesus out. He risked even more humiliation and rejection for the hope that Jesus could make him clean. And Jesus could have healed the Leper with a word. But first he touched him. Connection, touch, fellowship, community, so often these things must come before we can let go of our shame. We cannot pull away. We cannot hide in the shadows. We must be vulnerable. We must allow Jesus and those he has sent to us to touch us before we can be healed. For the promise of our Faith is that we are fully known by our Father who loves us and one day we shall know Him fully even as we are fully known (1 Cor 13:13).