Lent 1: Naked Forgiveness
A sermon on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]
The last line of our Genesis reading today makes me wonder if the biblical author has ever had that dream. You know the one I mean. The one where you are out in public somewhere, or at work or school, standing in front of a group, maybe giving a presentation, and you look down….and you realize that you are missing some rather essential elements of clothing.
At least in our culture, this is apparently a really common nightmare. So, I’m curious. What do you all think it is that makes this idea of suddenly realizing you are naked so terrifying?
Exposure… vulnerability… these are all things that make us uncomfortable, maybe even afraid. And at the root of all of these fears, I think, is the corrosive power of shame.
To be naked in front of other people means that we can’t hide anything. But we are constantly being told that we SHOULD hide all kinds of things:
We should hide our bodies… either because they are not attractive enough and we are supposed to be ashamed about that, or because someone else might find them attractive and that’s shameful too.
And we are also supposed to hide our family secrets, because the shame of feeling like we are the only ones can’t possibly be as bad as other people knowing the truth.
And we are supposed to hide how much money we make, or don’t make, or give, or don’t give… because it’s not polite to talk about those things, and we might be shamed if it’s not “enough” or “too much” or if it makes someone else feel “not enough” or “too much.”
And we hide our diagnoses. And we hide our bad habits. And we hide our histories of abuse. And we hide our past mistakes.
And every time we listen to those social expectations and choose to HIDE the things that hurt us, we are choosing to NOT seek healing. We are just dumping the pain into the deep, consuming well of shame where it festers and infects our very souls.
This is the pattern that has imprisoned humanity from the very beginning. We recognize our nakedness… and immediately we try to hide it. That is the truth captured in the Eden story.
The part of the story that we DON’T get in today’s reading is what comes next – what happens after we try to hide. Of course, part of what comes next is the natural consequences – the way that the pattern of hiding and shame distorts human-to-human relationships as well as our relationship with God. But the rest of the story – the rest of the Bible – is about God’ work to CHANGE the end of the story. And the way God does that is through forgiveness.
Throughout these 40 days of Lent we will be exploring Forgiveness – exploring how forgiveness works as a source of healing, and also how hard it is for us to engage with that healing. Because the truth of the matter is that forgiveness is hard. Whether we are the ones who need forgiveness, or the ones who need to offer it, forgiveness is no simple, easy matter. And that’s because an essential pre-requisite for forgiveness is vulnerability… emotional nakedness, so to speak. We cannot engage with the work of forgiveness until we get vulnerable, until we stop trying to hide the pain of what needs to be forgiven.
This is a challenge, of course, when we are the ones who need to BE forgiven. Because, who wants to admit that we have done wrong?
It’s no coincidence that the first things the archetypal humans in the Genesis story do, after they have violated God’s law, is to try to cover themselves, try to hide. As though that would work. As though God wouldn’t notice.
But this is the first step on the path of shame. We learn to lie – to ourselves as much as to anyone else – in the misguided belief that we actually CAN cover our shame. That it’s possible to pretend like the wrong we have done does not exist, or that it’s not wrong.
We think that we can dress-up our damaging deeds and words and make them something else. But that’s not how clothing works. Dress-up just covers. It doesn’t change what lies underneath.
There’s a painful irony in this story, because after reaching-out for knowledge, they can’t handle it and opt instead for self-deception. Because knowledge about ourselves can be painful – it can show us things we don’t want to know. And so we scramble for the lie that shame tells us. The lie that “covering” or “denying” our wrongdoing will keep us safe.
But the remedy for this shame… the solution to this fundamental human error starts with setting aside the covering… admitting we have done wrong. This requires exposure – honesty about our failures. It is a frightening challenge, but also a liberating one. Because it restores us to a more accurate understanding of who we actually are: We are creatures, not creator.
In acknowledging our mistakes, we can also acknowledge our need. We need forgiveness. And that confession is essential to setting aside shame for healing.
That same confession of need, and that same openness to vulnerability is also required when we are faced with the challenge of OFFERING forgiveness. Because, before we can forgive someone who has hurt us, we need to be able to name the hurt.
The healing we find through forgiveness is a process, and it means facing and working through our pain, rather that taking the easier road of replacing our pain with anger (or with what our anger seeks to feed: self-righteousness).
This pattern actually connects with the earlier part of the Adam & Eve story, the desire to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). The insight of this story into the brokenness of our world and our human natures is the recognition of how we get seduced by the desire for independence. When we reject that our essential nature is one of dependence on God and interdependence with Creation and other people, we seek to make ourselves self-sufficient.
And, of course, that desire creates for us an un-fulfillable need… the need to always be right. We think what we need is “the knowledge of good and evil.”
But the problem is: the knowledge of good and evil is just knowledge. It does not give us the ability to always choose good over evil, and it certainly does not protect us from the inevitable failures of other people to choose good and never hurt us.
And so, we are left with an awareness of harm that assaults our desire to be whole and perfect in and by ourselves. And thus, we need the path of forgiveness JUST AS MUCH when we are the ones who have been hurt as when we are the ones who have hurt others.
The path of offering forgiveness begins with our willingness to admit our injury – to say not only “that thing you did was wrong” but also “I was wounded” We have to admit our vulnerability.
At its core, the story of the Garden describes the fundamental challenge of the human condition: we are vulnerable and we don’t want to be. Our impulse is to reject our vulnerability. To try to cover our shame with a refusal to admit wrongdoing; Or to try to claim our independence by standing in self-righteous anger, rather than admitting that anyone has the power to hurt us. Both sides of the hurt leave us clinging to a lie that alienates us from God, from others, and ultimately from ourselves.
But the invitation of Lent is an invitation to burn away the lies shame tells us, just as we burned last year’s palms, so that we can find life in the ashes. To admit that no matter what we cover our vulnerability with, the pain is still there underneath. Our hope comes NOT from denying the wound, but from embracing the promise of God that forgiveness is real, and that it heals.
To close, I would like to speak a word of blessing over you that I have adapted from my friend, Pastor Tara Woodard Lehman. She spoke this benediction at her church’s Ash Wednesday service four days ago, but it applies to the journey of forgiveness on which we are embarking as well. Hear this good word:
There is no place God cannot go. God is with us in the fire. God is with us in the ash. God is with us at the beginning. God is with us at the end. God is with us every moment in between. So let us start our lenten journey, Not with shame- but with hope. Trusting in the promise: That we can make it through the pain when we travel together- and lean into the power and grace and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God.
Photo credit: Cristian Newman on Unsplash