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Shame, Humility, and Freedom

A sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13.

[audio recording of sermon available here. Photo by philbo on Unsplash.]

When I think of the various biblical virtues that are also celebrated in American culture, I can’t really say that humility immediately springs to mind.

Describing someone as humble isn’t an insult or anything, far from it. But neither is describing someone as self-confident.

And it is the self-confident people who get held up as examples to imitate.

It’s the people who command a room who become celebrities.

It’s the people who are certain they have answers whom we elect to public office.

It’s the people who convince others of their intelligence and acumen who rise up the corporate ladder.

Speaking as a (hopefully) self-aware over-achiever, who - even after lots of therapy and soul-searching - still finds it far too easy to be lured by the attractions of achievement and success, America is a place where that kind of orientation thrives!

Nevertheless, back in 2009, a group of innovators in Silicon Valley, California decided to try something decidedly off-brand for the fast-paced, success-obsessed American tech-world: They hosted a conference all about FAILURE.

And they really meant failure. Not stories of near-ruin that got turned around by a brilliant, 11th-hour solution. Not ideas that started with no support and were rejected by 53 investors but finally made it because of the persistence of a forward-thinking entrepreneur.

Real failure. Ideas that tanked. Key hires that were disastrous. Pitches that failed to raise money. Any story of an unmitigated failure was fair game for this conference.

The very first year, more than 400 people attended.

Apparently, the organizers were on to something. They were not the only ones frustrated by the culture of success that forced failure into the dark corners where everyone pretended they didn’t happen, or hoped that if they didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t happen to them.

As it turns out… people WANTED to talk about their failures. They wanted to know that they were not alone when they faced major set-backs. And they wanted a chance to actually learn from their mistakes instead of trying to hide them.

Of course, the irony of FailCon (as it’s called) is its tremendous success! If you google it now the first thing you’ll see is how the conference has expanded to over a dozen cities on six continents. (It’s very off-brand!)

But… I still find this a meaningful illustration of the value of humility… because of its power to counteract shame.

I first heard about FailCon through a podcast years ago in which the originators were talking about how they had actually been stunned by how much their idea of a space to talk about failure had resonated.

They knew how much they longed for a conversation that could be unhooked from the perpetual drive to demonstrate value, and they knew there really was the potential for deep learning in that kind of space.

They just didn’t expect many people would actually sign-up because it would be too scary to invest time or energy in failure. The conditioned response to failure is fear and shame, and people are not generally attracted to that vibe.

But, it turns out, creating a space where failure was NOT taboo eliminated that fear and shame… and people were there for it.

It is this insight that I find helpful for exploring today’s biblical texts. Both the gospel and the reading from Philippians raise questions of humility and shame, although in very different ways.

The topic is raised directly in the letter to the Philippian church.

Paul exhorts the early Christians to embrace a humility that puts others above themselves, and then, quoting one of the earliest Christian hymns, he calls them to imitate Christ’s deliberate choice to lower himself:

not only relinquishing heavenly glory, but emptying himself of power and honor, taking on the vulnerability of our humanity, and then going even farther… humbling himself to the point of death on the cross.

It’s a horrible way to die in any context, but in the first century Roman Empire there was no deeper shame. It was a death of not only pain and exposure but also moral reprobation.

Scholars will tell you that this should have been a major problem for the early church.

You thought a conference celebrating failure was a hard sell? Try promoting a faith whose founder and Savior died in the most socially abhorrent manner possible!

But shame only works when we are afraid of it.

By making the cross the pivot-point of one of their earliest hymns, the Christian church defied the power of shame to turn the manner of Jesus’ death into something they should try to secrete in dark corners and ignore.

Instead, they celebrated it. It was at the moment of apparent utter shame and failure that God turned the tables, raising Jesus not only back to life but back to authority and honor.

And because Jesus was not afraid of the shame of being helpless and broken on a cross, he robbed both death and shame of their power…. So much so that Paul could call Jesus’ followers to follow his example without fear.

The message is more subtle in the gospel story, but the same themes are there if we know how to look for them.

On the surface, the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders is about authority.

But in a cultural context where honor vs. shame is a central societal value, and where authority is a primary way that men gain honor, the real issue for the chief priests and elders is protecting themselves against shame.

They are the ones who are supposed to be in charge of teaching about God, and their position in society depends on the people following them. To allow Jesus to teach in THEIR space without challenging him would mean their failure and humiliation.

So, they do challenge him to defend his status, but his response challenges them to demonstrate theirs:

As religious leaders, their authority should rest on their ability to discern what is and is not of God.

But the leaders are so caught in the shame-avoidance game that they don’t even seem to recognize this clear trap.

What is more, they don’t even question what the true answer to his question might be. Their discussion is about the strategic impact of different answers. They have abdicated their responsibility to discern the truth, and so… in their efforts to avoid shame, they give evidence of their own failure.

“We do not know” they say. They might as well be saying “we have no valid authority.”

These two readings offer us two radically different options for how to handle our own battles with failure, shame, and humbling experiences.

I hope it’s clear that we want to avoid the model set by the religious leaders: being so consumed by the fear of shame that we lose our focus, stop looking for truth, and think only about protecting our own status.

That way lies the kind of failure that isn’t looking for the chance to learn.

But, I’m also aware that - for all the visions of eventual glory after crucifixion - it’s not really as easy as Paul suggests to be of the “same mind” with Christ Jesus. Humility, suffering, and death is… a lot to contemplate.

So, how about… as a first step… we think about maybe being of the same mind as the pets we are praying for today?

You only have to watch a cat scale a curtain or a Christmas tree to know that they don’t let the fear of failure stop them from taking on challenging tasks.

And I’ve never met a dog who held back their affection so as not to embarrass themselves when their beloved human walked through the door.

Our animals are not controlled by shame and because of that their hearts are open in a way that few of ours are.

And that is the freedom that I think is at the heart of our scripture lessons today. So many things in our world and our lives condition us to be afraid of losing face, of suffering shame, of being failures.

But living lives controlled by such fear is already failing.

Jesus offers us a better way. A humble way that is not clinging to honor or authority or power… because those are just traps. In his way of self-giving love, we have freedom.

Thanks be to God.


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