In the fall of 2021, the people of God at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are thinking about ways to emerge from the disruption, isolation, conflict, and pain that the world has experienced as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic and some of the political and civic divides that have accompanied it. We are turning for wisdom these weeks to the ancient leader Nehemiah, who led a contingent of God’s people from Babylon home to Jerusalem and helped them to regain their sense of identity and calling. On October 17, our texts included Nehemiah 1 and Romans 8:12-16.
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The first time I visited Africa, my plane landed in the Malawian capitol of Lilongwe. We then drove for several hours to Blantyre, where our hosts would meet us. Between the towns of Dedza and Ntcheu, the M1 Highway is virtually on the border between Malawi and Mozambique. As we drove, many of the structures on western side of the road were abandoned, half-destroyed, and pockmarked with bullet holes or even worse damage. I asked about it and was told that those were casualties of the Mozambican civil war that lasted from 1976 – 1992. Such emptiness and destruction was a haunting sight.
I suspect you’ve never been there, but I also suspect that you’ve seen something like that in the news. The images that have come out of Syria in recent years are similarly painful.
I’d like to begin our time together this morning by asking you to recall some image of a devastated community. Maybe it’s in the aftermath of a natural disaster, or maybe it’s a result of armed conflict. I bet that it’s not hard for you to call such an image to mind.
We’re going to spend a few weeks between now and Advent in the company of Nehemiah, whom you met when the scripture was read a few moments ago. His story begins with similar emptiness and destruction. Here’s the back story:
In 586 BCE, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem. The book of II Chronicles puts it this way:
Nebuchadnezzar carried off everything that was left in the temple; he robbed the treasury and the personal storerooms of the king and his officials. He took everything back to Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar’s troops burned down the temple and destroyed every important building in the city. Then they broke down the city wall. (36:18-19, CEV)
In many respects, this was the worst thing imaginable: the walls of the city destroyed, the fortified buildings demolished, and the house of God desecrated and burnt. It was a horrific time, and those who survived were chained and marched more than 800 miles to Babylon, where they lived as slaves.
Yet scripture makes clear the fact that God was calling the people back, and making a way for the restoration of God’s people.
The first wave of those who returned was led by a man named Zerubbabel, and it took place in about 538 BCE. Under his leadership, a team of people begins to reconstruct the Altar, to re-establish some of the forms of worship life, and lay the foundations of a new Temple.
Years after that, Ezra the priest led the second wave of returnees – in about 458 BCE. The work of this group is described in the Book of Ezra that immediately precedes Nehemiah in our Bibles. In fact, for many years, Ezra and Nehemiah were grouped into a single book in the Hebrew bible. Under Ezra’s leadership, the Temple is completed and furnished. They bring gold, silver, and precious vessels to Jerusalem. The Temple is open for worship – but it lacks the protection and definition of the city walls.
The third wave is led by Nehemiah, and takes place about 13 years after Ezra’s return. Nehemiah is tasked with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. It’s a construction project, but it’s more than that: the walls will secure the identity and offer protection to the people of God. The walls offer a framework that will allow for the practices necessary to maintain faithful living in that place.
I’m here to suggest that as a community of faith gathered in Pittsburgh in 2021 we have much to learn from Nehemiah about reordering, re-establishing, and re-gaining a sense of identity and purpose. I’ll further state, as explicitly as I can, that our situations are not the same. We are not survivors of war or slavery, and are nowhere near as destitute as the folks about whom we’ve read.
Yet we know something of disruption and political strife. Covid and partisan divide have affected many people’s incomes, employment, schooling, family life, and the ability to gather freely and frequently.
We are not stragglers returning to the ruins of our parents’ or grandparents’ homes seeking to rebuild, but we do know something about grief, interruption, and loss of identity. And now we gather on the edge of something new. We will never again inhabit the world of February 2020. Our schools, commerce, travel, and occupations have shifted irreversibly. We, like the folk of Nehemiah’s time, struggle with the question of how to move forward and reclaim our identity and sense of self in the wake of the pandemic.
As you heard, the book of Nehemiah opens with a description of the problem, and it is aptly summed up for us in verse 3: the community of those who have returned is trapped in a net of shame. “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.” There’s nothing else said about conditions in Jerusalem in that chapter: the remainder of Nehemiah 1 is a prayer in which the leader confesses sin, reminds God of God’s promises and character, and asks for God’s help in restoration and healing.
I want to point out this morning that the number one barrier to wholeness at the outset of Nehemiah is the shame that the people share. Shame is often defined as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress that is the result of doing something unwise. You know what it is to be ashamed. You’ve been in an argument, and you lash out in anger and say something that is deliberately hurtful. Or maybe you’ve had too much to drink, and you act like an idiot, and that brings pain into a relationship. A part of being human is an awareness of the fact that we all, from time to time, will blow it. We do stupid things, and we’re not proud of that.
But for the purposes of this morning and this message, I want to point out that shame is usually deeper than that. Brené Brown is a research professor and author who defines shame like this: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – [shame is being convinced that] something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Look: when Nehemiah first heard about the situation at hand, the people of God had everything that they needed to worship: there was a functional Temple, a furnished altar, and a faithful priest. And yet thirteen years later, Nehemiah is told that they are still paralyzed by shame and fear. In 586 BCE, God’s people thought that they had experienced ‘the worst’ – the day that Jerusalem fell and the Temple was destroyed. And yet by 445 BCE they had found that there is something more hellish than ‘the worst’: they are living in Jerusalem, unable to even move. This is the work of shame.
As my friend Dr. Curt Thompson puts it in his recent book, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves,
… my problem is not just what I am sensing but that I do not feel adequate to respond to it. I perceive, beginning at nonconscious levels of awareness, that I do not have what it takes to tolerate what I feel. I am not just sad, angry or lonely. But ultimately these feelings rest on the bedrock that I am alone with what I feel, and no one is coming to my aid. Shame undergirds other affective states because of its relationship to being left. And to be abandoned ultimately is to be in hell. This terror of being alone drives my shame-based behavior and, ironically, takes me to the very place I most fear going—to the hell of absolute isolation.
Do you see what he’s saying there? That shame makes us isolated, and that isolation (or our fear of it) drives us more deeply into the hells of our own making. This kind of shame is what makes a person think “If people knew what I’ve done, they couldn’t love me.” And so we hide what we’ve done, or felt, or experienced – we internalize it, and somehow this thing that we have done or experienced becomes the core of our identity. Somehow the worst thing becomes the most important part of who we are, and we live in shame and isolation.
A friend of mine was a much-admired and respected Christian leader. During a bleak season in his life, he entered into an extramarital affair that wound up tearing apart not only several families, but a congregation. As his world was falling apart, he was hospitalized for panic attacks. When I visited him, he said, “Well, I’ve never had any respect for adulterers, and now I wake up to the fact that that’s who I am.”
Here’s another example: researchers at a college campus offered participants a chance to claim money from the university (money that they didn’t earn). One group of people was told that the researchers were interested in how common cheating was on campus. That group claimed a lot of cash. The second group was told almost – but not exactly – the same thing: that the researchers wanted to know how common cheaters were on campus. They claimed less money. In other words, people were willing to cheat as long as they did not have to label themselves as cheaters. Identifying as a cheater brought shame and guilt, and therefore fewer people were willing to engage in such behavior.
In both of these examples, there is a shift from “I experienced this thing” to “I am this thing.”
This is the work of shame: it drives us to embrace the worst of what we have done or the most painful thing that has happened to us and to claim it as the core of who we are.
Do you see how this is a recipe for misery and destruction? When we look at the worst thing that we have done and say, “Yep, that’s who I am and who I will always be”, it will drive us into the pit of Hell. Shame is a thief and a liar, and is what Jesus referred to in John 10 when he said, “the thief comes only to kill and destroy, but I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” God’s intention, and Jesus’ ministry, is to free us from shame.
How do we move forward through shame? Nehemiah gives us a pattern in his prayer. He engages in a time of confession. When Brené Brown said, “shame derives its power from being unmentionable”, I think she may have been echoing what Mr. Rogers said: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable… The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
That’s what Nehemiah does with his prayer. He affirms what everyone knows to be the truth: that God’s people have screwed up. Mistakes were made. Commandments were broken. He even identifies himself and his family as being among those who violated the Law. But in the same breath, Nehemiah goes on to say that central to God’s nature is forgiveness and hope. God is a gathering God. God is an establishing God. God is a redeeming God.
Why would such a God prefer that God’s people remain isolated, adrift, and lost? The very notion is preposterous.
I often address you as “Beloved”. Do you know that is the most important aspect of your identity? I call you that in order to remind you of who you are. You are made in the image of a gathering, establishing, redeeming God.
Now, have you been places that you regret? Of course. Have you done things that are destructive? Certainly. But those things do not define who you are. God has called you beloved. As Paul emphasizes to us in his letter to the Romans, “God’s Spirit reminds us that we are his children.” (8:16) That is your fundamental identity – one that can free you from shame and fear forever.
I think that this is the great power of Twelve Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. There is a deep recognition that the things I’ve done have caused pain at many levels. In a program like this, I then bring that awareness to a non-judgmental community with the expectation that healing is possible. The decisions I’ve made, the sin I’ve committed, the pain I’ve endured is not the only, or even the most important, aspect of my self. Confessing to you and to God disarms the power of shame and drives out fear.
There have been times in the past 18 months when in order to be good neighbors and protect each other from this virus, we’ve needed to maintain some physical distance. For public safety, some level of separation was, and still is, in the best interest of the community, our families, and ourselves. And yet we cannot allow these hygienic practices to alter our fundamental convictions about who and whose we are.
As we continue the work of re-engaging the world in a post-pandemic and politically divisive time, let us do so with honesty, with courage, and with the grace we have received from Jesus Christ himself. And let us do so together. Let us seek to create a reality wherein fear and shame have no place, and move toward the hope and healing that are always available in Jesus.
Oh, beloved – I know that there are those who are listening to my voice right now and who think that Poor Old Pastor Dave just doesn’t get it. You say, “I hear you, Pastor, but if you knew this thing about me, you’d say otherwise.” You know, far too well, the power of shame and the hell of isolation into which shame drives us.
The Good News is this: you were not made for these things. You were made beloved. You are – you always have been – an image-bearer. Today – this week – let me encourage you to take one step out of that isolation. Text me. Reach out to someone who loves you. Be free from shame, and walk toward the life that is abundant. Thanks be to God for the love of Jesus – the love that is stronger than any power to hurt or divide us. Amen.
 Blog post, “Shame vs. Guilt”, https://brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/
 The Soul Of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (InterVarsity Press, 2015), p. 109.