Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16C)
August 25, 2019
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m a huge fan of Brené Brown. If you’ve never heard of Brené, do yourself a favor. Go home, and look her up on the internet. You’ll come to discover that Brené is a well-known author and public speaker. An added bonus is that she also happens to be an Episcopalian, but you may not find that by doing a simple, Google search. Brené and her family live in Texas where she works as a professor at the University of Houston. Perhaps the most important thing that you should know about Brené is that she has spent a significant amount of her life and career as a researcher and storyteller. Her research has led her to collect data and conduct interviews in the areas of vulnerability, courage, shame, and authenticity. You might recognize her name from one of the books that she’s written or from her appearances on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Or, perhaps you’ve seen one of the videos floating around on YouTube featuring one of her TED Talks. I haven’t seen it yet, but most recently, she did a one-hour special on Netflix entitled “The Call to Courage.” She’s remarkably tuned in to so many of the destructive feelings that we, as a society, suffer from on a daily basis- feelings like shame, fear, and insecurity- and she’s inspired countless people with her healing and uplifting words of encouragement.
In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené offers readers a helpful way to think about shame and how it has the power to prevent us from cultivating deep, meaningful relationships with other people and to make us doubt our sense of worth. She writes, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” In other words, shame is what we feel when we attach our self-worth to things that we don’t like about ourselves, and shame doesn’t discriminate. We can be ashamed of things that are beyond our control just as easily as things that we can control.
At one point in the book, Brené uses the character, Harry Potter, to illustrate her understanding of shame, describing a memorable conversation that she once had with a man from the audience at one of her public speaking events. In the conversation, she asked the man, “‘Do you remember when Harry was worried that he might be bad because he was angry all of the time and had dark feelings?’” The man responded, “‘Yes! Of course! The conversation with Sirius Black! That’s the moral of the entire story.’” “‘Exactly,’” Brené told the man, “‘Sirius told Harry to listen to him very carefully, then he said, “You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to.”’” The feeling that Harry was experiencing at that moment was shame. Harry was ashamed because of the anger that seemed to be building up inside of him.
For those of you who are familiar with the story of Harry Potter, you know that this is a pivotal point in Harry’s journey. Only after his friend, Sirius Black, offers him words of comfort and reassurance is Harry able to finally move from beyond the weight of his shame and reclaim a sense of who he is and his inherent goodness.
I think one of the reasons why the story of Harry Potter is appealing to so many people is because it’s relatable. Sure, we love the adventure, and we love to fantasize about what it would be like to live in a world full of wizards and magical creatures. But, at its core, if you strip away the exciting and fantastic elements, the story of Harry Potter is about a boy who overcomes his fears and defeats his enemies by accepting the truth of who he is, “a very good person who bad things have happened to.”
After reading the Gospel lesson appointed for today, I started thinking about how so many of us, like the character of Harry Potter, suffer from feelings of shame and self-doubt, destructive feelings that prevent us from being able to see our own inherent goodness. Like the crippled woman whom Jesus encounters in the story, so many of us spend our days bent over, unable to stand up straight because we’re afraid that people will see us and reject us because of who we are or what we’ve done in the past. But, God wants us to stand up straight. God wants to bring healing into our lives. God wants us to know that we were beautifully and wonderfully made and that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.
When Jesus sees the woman in the story who’s suffered with this terrible and debilitating condition for eighteen years, he calls her over and says to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Then he lays his hands upon her, and immediately, she stands up and begins praising God. To me, one of the most remarkable things about this passage from Luke’s Gospel is that the woman doesn’t even have to ask Jesus for help. Jesus is already there, ready to heal her and restore her to fullness of life. Yes, the healing is miraculous, but what’s also miraculous is Jesus’ presence in the woman’s life, gracious and unexpected.
My friends, Jesus is already at work in our lives as well, ready to heal us and make us whole. When we suffer from feelings that keep us bent over and weighed down, feelings that prevent us from standing up straight and seeing who we truly are as beloved children in the eyes of God, Jesus is already there, ready to set us free from the burden of our shame and self-doubt. When we allow ourselves to believe that anything other than the healing presence of God can fill our hearts and bring us peace, Jesus is already there, ready to remind us that nothing is possible apart from God.
The fourth century bishop and early church father, Augustine of Hippo, said it best when he wrote, “My soul is restless until it finds rest in you, O God.” I think that’s absolutely true. Nothing apart from God can fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts. We can try to fill it with worldly goals and aspirations. We can try to fill it with material possessions and other things that make us feel better, at least temporarily. We can even try to ignore it and hope that it fills itself, but nothing will ever be able to fill the empty place in our hearts where God so longs to dwell. Nothing can replace God and God’s love for us.
We need to know that, and we need to believe it’s true. As difficult as it is and as much as we wish we could depend only on ourselves, we need to know and believe that God’s love is the only thing that can release us from the burdens that weigh us down. Shame, fear, and self-doubt have no power over us when we allow God’s love to fill our hearts. God’s love is the only true source of healing and peace. If you don’t already know this and believe it to be true, I pray that you come to discover it. Like the woman in our Gospel lesson for this morning, I pray that you come to discover that Jesus is already near, ready to fill your heart with God’s love and set you free. Amen.