Rolling Away Our Disgrace

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Lent 4
March 27, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : The disgrace of Egypt lasted for decades among the people of Israel. After they crossed the Jordan, God directed Joshua to roll away the disgrace. God heals us of such things as addiction, unhealthy religion and damage from racism, even though the effects can be long-term.

Joan Chittister, the Catholic sister and prolific writer, tells of pastoral counseling work with a 70-year-old woman. The woman had been abused by her brother as a child. Because of fear, she never told her mother about the abuse. While it happened, she wished she could die. Now, decades later, the guilt, shame, hurt and anger lingered.

As is typical with trauma survivors, some of her thoughts would strike us as irrational. She imagined that somehow, people could look at her, and know what had happened to her. Perhaps in her mind, they did not want to offer her comfort, but to blame her. Those feelings affected her ability to form relationships. Chittister held her in her arms while she cried buckets of tears. The abuse had ended, but the after-effects tormented her. Even near the end of her life, she could not shake them off.

Chittister worked with her to begin to restore a sense of wholeness, but the woman had lost years to her experience. She felt guilt and shame for something someone else did to her. She held no blame, but to her, it seemed like it had been her fault.1

The feelings from childhood trauma, from abuse, clutch on to our souls, refusing to let go. The past reaches into the present and continues the damage.

Disgrace among the people of Israel

With that in mind, look at our scripture reading for today. Whatever material provisions the people of Israel brought with them to this point, they certainly had plenty of emotional and spiritual baggage. As a collective people, they had endured slavery, abuse, deceit and discrimination, all before they left Egypt. Pharaoh knew all the tricks to break the spirit of a people.2 The escape from Egypt had looked at first like the beginning of better times. The people sang, danced and celebrated.3

Before long, however, what at first looked like a fresh start became pure drudgery. They faced hunger and thirst. They quarreled, complained and protested. Some of them wanted to go back. They challenged Moses' leadership. They fought battles. They disobeyed God and refused to learn from their mistakes. By the time we reach the book of Numbers, God has decided that the people had failed in their calling. God can't use them. God starts over with their children.4

In a scene that we should consider as dramatic and memorable as the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, Joshua leads the people over dry land to cross the Jordan River. The people have arrived at their destination. Now that they occupy the promised land, Joshua has an important task, as told in the earlier verses of today's chapter of Joshua. He circumcises the males among the people.

Typically, a male undergoes circumcision as an infant. The ceremony serves as an initiation rite among the people. Joshua circumcises adults who have known only the wilderness. They never made a single brick or felt a single lash of an overseer's whip. They had spent not one day in slavery to Pharaoh. They had not quarreled with Moses or disobeyed the command to collect only so much manna. They came into the world after those events. Yet, Joshua told the people that the circumcision rolled away the "disgrace" of Egypt. Even across generations, the shame and baggage had lingered. The people needed to begin to grow into their identity.

The circumcision itself created a need for physical healing, but it also provided a means of spiritual healing. God began the process of "rolling away" all of the spiritual damage from slavery, abuse and the confusion of the time in the wilderness.

Both the woman who brought her agony to Sister Chittister and the people of Israel found out that disgrace, or shame or guilt did not roll away easily. In what ways do we find the lingering effects of something where we need to roll away the emotional and spiritual baggage?

The disgrace of addiction, unhealthy religion and racism

People who have struggled with any kind of addiction know the lingering effects of what they have endured. Putting the alcohol, the drugs, the gambling or the pornography away takes every ounce of strength the person has. Yet, even after the last drink, the last snort, the last bet or the last video, the baggage clings on. The guilt over the way they have treated their families and others needs rolling away. The sorrow over the lost money and the damage to their bodies needs rolling away.

Even with years of clean and sober time, the temptation lurks around every corner. Can they continue to find the strength to resist? Can they cope in new ways with their pain? Can they shake off the labels and the negative ways they've identified themselves? Can they handle the anger of the people they have hurt?

We in the church can offer grace, support and understanding to those who have beaten an addiction. We can become part of the process of rolling away the disgrace.

Most of us think of our faith as something that helps us and heals us. Many people, however, have to heal from damaging religion. Some children grow up with a faith based on fear and shame, with heavy doses of guilt. The shame, fear and guilt put up a barricade that blocks God's love and keeps it on the other side. That kind of religion may have kept the children in line and made them easier to control, but it doesn't plant the seeds for healthy faith based on love and grace.

Decades later, the noise of condemnation still rings in their ears. The shame wells back up in them. They may give intellectual assent to God's love, but some part of their soul finds it hard to warm up to that love. The pain and the damage linger. They need the antidotes of Romans 8: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" and nothing can "separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."5 They also need some booster shots of Psalm 103, "as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us."6

Just as with addiction, healing from unhealthy religion needs an approach that includes the whole arsenal: counseling, prayer, support, healing sermons, reading and time. God's grace comes directly from the Holy Spirit, but also through other people, scripture and often, hard work.

The whole people of Israel needed the rolling away of the disgrace. The shame and guilt were not just an individual problem. Within the United States, people of color deal with racism. Across centuries, they have survived slavery, discrimination, injustice and cruelty. They're no more bear blame for these things than the woman who timidly sought out Sister Chittister. Yet, the slavery, the abuse, the discrimination has done its damage. They have harmed people of color financially. We know about the wealth gap, the education gap, the employment gap. They have harmed people of color in their souls. The name-calling and micro-aggressions have done their damage.

James Cone has written of Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights activist and voting rights champion. She endured violence and oppression because of her work. Her faith and her understanding of Jesus' crucifixion sustained her in her work. Cone says, "Hamer understood the religious meaning of the cross because she interpreted it in the context of being beaten and shot at and nearly lynched for her civil rights work. But no amount of affliction could stop her resistance work."7

The passage of time alone did not roll away the pain of Egypt for the people of Israel. Time alone did not heal the woman of the after-effects of abuse. Time alone has not rolled away the after-effects of slavery, Jim Crow and discrimination. The church should stand at the forefront of efforts to bring healing and concrete empowerment to persons of color. The process begins at least with the attempt to listen and understand. Repentance must form part of the effort.

God sees our long-term struggles. Abuse, addiction, harmful religion and racism present just a few examples. As we seek our own healing, so God works within us and in the world to support us. God offers the grace and the power to roll away shame, injury, struggle and hurt.

Just as circumcision created pain to bring healing, so facing our past can cause pain before it heals. Yet we trust God. We look toward the future God can create for us. We embrace the power of God to roll away the hurt from our past.


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