Updated: Aug 6, 2020
This sermon was delivered on June 21, 2020 At Common Ground Church In New York, New York. Text: Acts 1:8
Part I: Repentant Witnesses
For years now I have associated the word ‘repentance’ with following Jesus. Initially, this association produced a great deal of shame for me. I coupled the concept of repentance with the belief that I was inherently bad. Thank God, though, for Brené Brown who has been helping me understand the difference between guilt and shame.
Here’s how she distinguishes between guilt and shame:
· ‘I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.’
· ‘I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.’
The difference can be subtle, but it’s important to catch. Shame thinking often sounds like, “I’m the worst. I can’t believe I did that. I don’t know why anybody would love me. I’m just not good. I’ll never get it right.”
Guilt thinking is, “Wow, I messed up on that one. It doesn’t feel good. I realize that now and I can accept responsibility. I can own up to my mistakes, apologize, and find a way forward.”
Both are uncomfortable, but one disconnects and the other connects.
I have spent a large portion of my life in shame spirals. I believed that repentance was merely an affirmation of my shame.
Through a lot of inner wrestling and help from some wise people, I’ve begun to see repentance as a conversion of the inner life that transforms the way that we see, experience, and interact with the world (often it is prompted by new or different experiences that challenge our inner lives).
Our faith is filled with stories of repentance—stories of people waking up to reality in a new and different way.
The book of Acts is filled with repentance stories that have literally transformed my life. Acts begins with one of my favorite verses—chapter 1, verse 8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.”
In this verse, we are at that part in the story where Jesus is getting ready to leave his disciples once more. But he leaves them with a promise: the disciples will receive power once they experience the Holy Spirit in a new way. And with that power, they will be witnesses to the suffering of their beloved Anointed One, Jesus, who showed them that God actually suffers with humanity.
As the Acts story goes on, we don’t just see the disciples telling others who God is; we also see them witnessing God’s Spirit in places they didn’t expect. Their power from the Spirit is not just for themselves—it’s power to see God’s movement in the world and join in.
Seeing God’s movement in the world requires change on our part, because to be a witness of God’s presence is to actually realize that God is already at work in the world. This goes against what many of us were taught—what I was taught: I am the one who has found God and I have to go into the world and give God to people.
Being a witness is difficult, because it flips this idea on its head. Being a witness means that there are plenty of times when we realize that we are wrong as individuals and there are times when whole communities or groups of individuals are wrong.
This is when it’s really important to notice shame in ourselves.
Getting it wrong does not mean that we are forever cut off from connection as shame would lead us to believe. Getting it wrong is actually something that can lead to connection, because the truth is that we all get it wrong sometimes. We all have been guilty of believing something that wasn’t true that had harmful consequences for others.
These are the moments when we must make the choice to lean into the discomfort of guilt instead of the shame. This is when we need to say to ourselves, “I see you, shame. I recognize my discomfort. The truth is I am worthy of connection. I can see my behavior for what it is. I can learn, grow, and change.”
I believe this is a moment in history for us (particularly White folx) to do exactly this.
This moment invites a repentance that will have a lasting impact on the world that our children and our children’s children will inherit. If we remain in shame, we will perpetuate the sins of our ancestors.
The temptation in this moment is to believe that we are good to go and that we have no part to play in this moment. And I get it.
Part II: My Awakening
I remember my slow awakening to racial injustice. As a child, I was taught the phrase, “We don’t see color.” I know that this was well meaning. As I have woken up to racial injustice, though, I have learned that being “colorblind” actually prevented me from seeing injustices present in our world that are based solely on the color of people’s skin.
Sleeping in the dream of colorblindness feels nice for us as White folx. It’s a comfortable, easy story to tell ourselves. The problem is that it’s a nightmare for everyone who isn’t White.
I don’t remember the exact moment that I started waking up, but I do remember the moments of shock I felt when I learned that my friend (who is Black) was pulled over while driving home from work. He wasn’t just stopped and patiently questioned. He was slammed against his truck and handcuffed, because he “looked like the person they were after.” Fortunately, after realizing that he was not the suspect the officer let him go.
Later, I overheard a conversation between one of my beloved professors and my academic advisor about White privilege. Their words struck me, because I knew that White privilege was true in our nation’s distant past but I believed that we were “post-racial.” My unexamined, inherited beliefs around race were being challenged by the lived experiences of people that I knew and loved.
In seminary, I remember being scared when our campus security sent an email warning us about a tall, thin Black male in his 20s that we should report and knowing that my Black boyfriend easily matched that description. What would happen if someone called the cops, because they saw my boyfriend walking down the sidewalk? I never had to experience this fear, yet it was normal for my boyfriend.
It was also in seminary when I discovered one of my favorite theologians, Monica Coleman, who exposed me to the ways that our inherited theology has continued to disempower those being abused—especially Black women who are so often subjected to sexism on top of racism and classism. Beyoncé’s Lemonade album brought Monica Coleman’s words to life through song and poetry.
This journey has required me to say, “I was wrong.” It has asked of me to be a listener, a disciple, a witness to God’s Spirit and Christ’s suffering in the world in front of me. Humility has been essential—“Sure, I know some things, but I definitely don’t know everything. I have to listen and learn about what I don’t know.”
Through it all, I’m continuing to deal with my own inherited racism.
While I cannot pretend that I am without racism, I can learn to be an anti-racist.
I can learn to see my own beliefs and practices in light of how they affect those with less privilege than me. I can learn to see the ways that I benefit from policies and stories that we keep on telling and then work to change those policies and stories.
I can repent and be part of creating this more just, more beautiful, more grace-filled world where there is enough room at the table of Love for all of God’s children. To get to this table, though, we have to be willing to leave the table of White Supremacy.
Part III: The Invitation
So, to my fellow White family and friends, I invite you to join me on this journey.
I know that waking up from dreams that are familiar and safe is difficult.
But let’s make the choice to believe our Black siblings, because lives are at stake.
Do you hear the Spirit’s call today?
Will you join me in being a witness to the crucified Christ in the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and so many more?
Will you join me in this moment of repentance?
Surely there is a better world on the other side of our repentance. Surely there is a brighter future on the other side where we can see that Black lives are all divine, worthy of love, belonging, and care. And if Black lives are all divine, worthy of love, belonging, and care, we are all divine, worthy of love, belonging, and care.
Pray with me.
God who suffers with those who suffer, would you help us to see you when we look into the eyes of our Black siblings? Would you help us to hear you when we hear the cries for justice from our Black siblings? Would you help us to know you when we take time to really know our Black siblings? Amen.
Brené Brown quotes from https://brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/ (Accessed June 6, 2020)