Shame and Regret

Throughout Lent, at LNPC we are exploring the Biblical Stations of the Cross.  We have the stations up in our sanctuary, and the congregation is doing a Lenten Worship Project, bringing in images that we find in media, our lives, art, etc. and helping to construct one of the stations during worship each week.  This week, we explored Peter's Denial of Jesus: Station 4.

Station 4: Peter Denies Jesus
Lenten Worship Images: Betrayal, Shame, Regret

I want you to think of a time when you did something that you are ashamed of.  For just a minute, remember something you've said or done that you regret.  
Now, show me shame.  Right now with your bodies, do regret. 
How many of you covered your face? Dropped your head, hunched your shoulders in, eyes closed to the world, hands hiding you?  When looking for images this week of shame and regret I was struck by the fact that that one thing was so common it was hard to find anything else.  Shame makes us want to hide.  To erase ourselves, to disappear.

We began our Lenten prayer journey last week with Jesus in the garden. We saw prayer as pleading, sorrow, raw and open before God. Not hidden. Exposed. Vulnerable. Deeply and frighteningly honest; not a smidgen of decorum or hint of duplicity about it. Utterly Transparent.
 Today we are seeing ourselves the opposite way. Hiding. Shame, Regret.  The need to cover ourselves because we are ashamed. We are aware of our own guilt, aware of what we’ve done and we can’t take it back.

I will never betray you! Peter says to Jesus. We say to one another. Our spouses. Our children. Our friends. Our neighbors and communities. The least of these.  
It’s the contract we make with the world.  I will be true. My word is my bond. I will never sell you out. But we do. The lies to save face.  The gossip about someone we love.  Sharing secrets that were not ours to share.  Saving our own skin at another’s expense. Sometimes it happens chillingly quickly, almost an impulse, like fight or flight response. Me or you? Me. Boom. Betrayal.

And there is nothing like that feeling of Guilt. Hot Shame that starts in your gut and rises to your neck and face, burning the whole way up. Horrible Regret. Who hasn’t felt this in their core at one time or another? That stupid decision you made that you can never undo. One little moment. One sentence. A look. Something you could have avoided but you chose not to.
It is never a hypothetical thing, betrayal, never an on paper, victimless crime, a private, individual sin. It is always about hurting another person. Directly. The guilt of it is precise as a laser and it’s all yours.  The sin of betrayal isn’t a clinical right or wrong misstep, it’s the brooding and churning darkness at the very heart of sin: saving me at the expense of you.

If prayer is, as we said last week, brutal honesty with God, opening your heart, being exposed in your need and pain – how in the world do we pray in experiences of duplicity? How do we pray when we are bathed in our own shame, wreaking of regret? Fresh off of a moment of betrayal? How do we pray when we knew better, when we knew what the right thing was and we did something else instead? How do we look God in the eye when we’ve just turned our back? If praying is baring your soul, splayed out before God in all trust and vulnerability, how in the world can we do that if we are curled in horror, frozen in self-protective shame?  We don’t deserve to have God hear us.  We don’t deserve to pray.

Look at Peter – arguably Jesus’ most passionate and committed follower. Peter in all his crazy and wild abandon, his whole-hearted love for Jesus, his ardent and true devotion. Peter, of all people… so confident in his loyalty!  Earlier that evening they were gathered at the table, Jesus saying all these terrible and confusing things…

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:  “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

Fast forward to the moment, when the random stranger said to him the third time in a crowd of people he might never see again, you were his follower, right?  And Peter denies ever having known him.
Is there ever a worse moment than this, in the history of the world?  God of all creation and your closest friend raises his head and makes eye contact. Sees you in the core of your soul. The cock crows and you are found out. It doesn’t matter if anyone else there knows, or if the whole world is oblivious, you know. What kind of person are you?  How could you?
It’s no wonder Judas hangs himself.  It’s kind of a surprise, frankly, that Peter is able to go on at all. 

I wonder what it was like in the garden before. I mean the very first garden. I mean before before. Before betrayal. And not just Judas’s kiss betrayal, I mean Adam and Eve’s apple betrayal.  What was it like before shame and regret? When they were free and unaware of their nakedness. Whole. Complete. Connected - to God, each other, the world around them. Responsible for each other. Responsible for creation. Accountable to God. In harmony. Fulfilling their purpose, embodying their identity.  Before they thought they knew better. Before they said the slogan of sin, decidedly, irreversibly, Me, not You.

Sin drives a wedge between them and God, them and each other, them and themselves, their own bodies, their own wholeness.  And then shame keeps them there. So self-conscious that they hide in woods, wont show their faces, wont show themselves.  They’re stuck.  Shame locks your limbs in, seals over your soul. There is no escape.

It must have been worse for Peter than anyone else when Jesus died. To have turned your back on a friend in their moment of greatest need, and never be able to make it right again. Death separated them. Death made reconciliation impossible, and it ended forever Peter’s view of himself. His future. His legacy. It obliterated all that Peter had thought he was becoming when he was with Jesus. All that had existed between them. It was over for him. Done. Jesus was gone. Death made it final.

But we are not left there. Where Peter was, the darkest of all places, the place that drove Judas to hang himself and end his life, the place that led Adam and Eve to hide themselves from their Creator, and led Cain to bury his brother’s body and not come out when God called, and leads fathers to leave their families, and sisters to hide in drugs, and mothers to layer on bitterness and hardeness, and friends to cut off from one another permanently, and us to avert our eyes from the suffering of those around us, because after you’ve said Me, not You, there is no retracting it, the shame descends, regret takes hold, and there is no turning back.  But we are not left there.

God’s response to their shame in the garden, God’s answer to Adam and Eve, was to cover them. God covered them. God took away their flimsy layer of leaves and robed them in skins. God recognized their shame and met them there. Forgiveness does that.

We don’t see Peter’s forgiveness here - but it’s coming. After the resurrection, it’s coming. Out of death, life will appear. Into Peter’s life will come forgiveness. And not just that, but restoration, fulfillment of who he was meant to be, called by God, a friend of Christ.  Into Peter’s life will come grace – pouring in and lifting him up, opening his hands and arms to touch and heal and his mouth to speak. Upon this rock, THIS rock, this one who disowned me in my darkest moment, I will build my church.  This one who has known what it is to be utterly lost, who has felt the depths of disloyalty of which he is capable.  Feed my sheep. Jesus will say.  I want YOU to feed my sheep.

Resurrection is coming for Peter.  But resurrection always begins with death, death of who we thought we were, the death of relationships and belonging. Where shame and regret have calcified our sin and cut us off from one another and God.  It is into those places of impossibility that resurrection will come.

Lent, though, asks us to take it a day at time, one step at a time. Lent invites us to sit in the feeling of shame and regret. To stay with Peter in that week.  Exposed and aware.  To recognize that feeling, that you could have, should have, acted differently, and you didn’t.

We don’t practice the act of confession much. We don’t close ourselves in a little booth and slide open the window to dump our darkness on a hidden listener.  We are supposed to confess to one another. We are supposed to carry that for each other, that common burden of sin, the powerful message of forgiveness – to say it and share it and remind each other of both. But we don’t, at least, not often.
Instead we come to church and in unison we give a general confession. We’ve turned our back on you, ignored our neighbor in need. Sins of commission and omission blah, blah.  And our heads stay down, our arms crossed, our selves protected from the harsh light of grace that would demand we reveal our duplicity, that we be exposed as sinners.

But What would it be to live honestly, truly honestly? To find the places of confession in our prayer? To trust so fully that we could bare our souls even in our darkest shame – our betrayals of each other and God?
 What would it be if we stayed awake with one another in the garden of that kind of prayer? If we heard each other’s confessions and pronounced to one another that we were forgiven? If we were able to tell each other where we had hurt someone, and then hear that we are not defined by that sin or shame, but by the grace and love of God?

Return to the garden, Lent invites us, the place of honesty in prayer. Where God clothes us in our shame.  Where Jesus falls across a rock and cries out in despair.  Where we are not alone in our sorrow or our guilt, our betrayal or our shame.
Return to the garden. The source of our life, the place of truth.  The place of confession, of self-revelation. The place of acknowledging weakness and culpability.
Come sit in the garden for a while.  Sit in the darkness until we can open our eyes and lift our gaze just enough, to whisper, not Me, You. Or Not my will, but yours. And then wait.

The only way to wholeness is to live in our brokenness, and let God meet us there. Lent invites us again to the garden. May we have the courage to come.

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