Sermon: We are not what we do

Sermon for Western Heights Uniting Church
5th of July 2020

Romans 7:15-25a

One of the benefits of the three-year lectionary cycle is that I am repeatedly reminded of what I thought about a particular Bible passage three/six/nine years ago. Three years’ ago, when this passage from Romans came up, I preached about sin. I like to preach about ‘sin’ every-so-often because in our culture it has become a swear word, no longer to be mentioned in polite society. Today it is profoundly rude for a minister to suggest to congregation members that they might be sinners. There are good reasons for that; many churches misused, and some still misuse, the concept of sin to shame and control their members. In reaction to that much of the Uniting Church has swung to the opposite extreme and ministers refuse to discuss sin at all. I think that’s unhealthy, and there can be times and places when it is important for us to acknowledge that sin is still an unavoidable part of human experience. Three years’ ago in Williamstown I obviously thought it was the right time and place.

Things are different now. There is no way I’m going to preach that we are all sinners while we are separated, while I can’t make eye contact with you and check that I’m not hurting you by saying that. And, as I said last week, we are living through a natural disaster. The last thing people need in a natural disaster is someone telling them that they are sinners. When people are tired and shocked and scared and vulnerable, they don’t need to be told that they’re also sinful. So, instead, this time through the lectionary, I want to talk about shame and guilt.

Before I went to Theological College, I was very anti-Paul. For me, Paul could be summed up by ‘wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord’ (Ephesians 5.22) and ‘let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent’ (1 Timothy 2:11-12). So you can understand my issues with him. But at Theological College I was not only introduced to the idea that Paul himself did not write the Pastoral Epistles, I was introduced to the Paul who wrote the Letter to the Romans. And in Romans I found an Apostle Paul who just seems to get it. When we hear Paul say today: ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,’ and ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do,’ all I can do is nod my head in sad agreement. Paul is absolutely right. This is part of what it means to be human. We know what we should do, but we don’t do it. We want to be good and obey God’s law, but we find that we can’t.

Last week I talked about us being enough; made in the image of God; the beloved children of God; those for whom Jesus demonstrated his love by dying. Today’s reading from Paul, with its emphasis on our failure to live as we want, might seem to contradict that message of ‘enoughness’. But this is where I want to bring in the distinction between shame and guilt, and I’m again going to quote from Brene Brown. Her definition of ‘shame’ is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.[1] Shame is different from guilt. Shame says, ‘I am bad,’ while guilt says, ‘I did a bad thing’. Shame is about who we are, while guilt is about our behaviour.[2] We can apologise for something we did wrong, but not for something we are.[3]

The reason that shame is so scary, Brown says, is because it unravels our connection to others.[4] As human beings we are wired for connection;[5] in Christian terms we are made in the image of the God who is love, the God who in Godself is community. We are made for relationship. Brown writes that ‘connection is critical because we all have the basic need to feel accepted and to believe that we belong and are valued for who we are’.[6] Shame severs that connection. It tells us that we do not deserve to be loved and accepted.

If we keep the difference between shame and guilt in mind as we read today’s Bible passage, we can see that Paul is talking about guilt, about his behaviour, about his own actions, not about his identity. In fact, Paul makes a complete distinction between who he is and what he does. Who Paul is, is the person who wants to do good, the person who delights in the law of God in his inmost self. What he does, though, is evil and sinful. From my twenty-first century, female, perspective I don’t think that Paul’s complete split between his mind and his body, his ‘flesh’ and ‘members,’ is healthy; women in particular need to love our bodies, not dismiss them. But there is no doubt that Paul is distinguishing between who he is and what he does. He is expressing guilt, not shame.

Paul is able to do this because he knows who he truly is. He is someone for whom Christ died. Today’s passage ends: ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ In the very next chapter of this letter Paul writes: ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39). This is who we are, we are the people loved by God. We may do things that are wrong, but we ourselves aren’t wrong. As I repeated so many times last week, who we are is the beloved children of God.

There is a section near the end of Brown’s book on ‘Spirituality’ and of course I headed to that section almost immediately.[7] I wanted to see what she said about churches, about what we contribute to shame. What she writes is that ‘spirituality/faith/religion are sources of shame for some women and sources of resilience for others’. I found fascinating that she had found that women ‘who talked about feeling shame used the words church and religion more. The women who talked about resilience used the terms faith, spirituality and beliefs more’. But ‘at least half the women who used the terms faith, spirituality and beliefs attended church and were members of an organised religion’. So, churches can be places that tell us that we are not good enough, and contribute to our shame. Or they can be places that tell us that we are good enough, although as human beings we sometimes do things for which we need to apologise. You’ll know by now that I think the second message is the gospel.

Jesus said: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ Among the heavy burdens that Jesus takes from our shoulders are the expectations that we must be perfect or we are not worthy of love. We can rest our souls in the knowledge that God loves us. Even when we, like Paul, do not do the good we want, but instead do the evil we do not want, even then, we are still God’s beloved. It would be rude of us to argue with God, and tell God that we aren’t worthy of being loved! So, as Paul says, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ Amen.

[1] Brene Brown, I thought it was just me (but it isn’t), (2007), p. 30.

[2] I thought it was just me, p. 13.

[3] I thought it was just me, p. 66.

[4] I thought it was just me, p. xxv.

[5] I thought it was just me, p. 20.

[6] I thought it was just me, p. xxv.

[7] I thought it was just me, pp. 260-2.

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