6 September – Hoping for shame

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Pentecost 14

Ezekiel 16:53-63
Psalm 119:33-40
Matthew 18:15-20

In a sentence
God’s salvation comes in response to our particular type
of brokenness, and takes the shape of that brokenness

After five months of varying degrees of lockdown we are very much looking forward to putting Covid-19 behind us, however far away that might yet be.

What will it feel like to move out from under the shadow of the virus? For some of course, this will not be possible – the impact has been felt in the death of a loved one or some other devastating effect which will continue. Yet even for these, with most others, relief will surely be at the centre of emotion as things normalise, even if to an as yet unclear ‘new normal’.

Thinking about what a relaxing of the strictures will be like and what the new normal might be is, at this stage, not much more than speculation. But speculating does indicate at least the character of what we hope for: we hope for relief, in the form of freedom to move again, to be together, to work and to earn.

Ezekiel speaks into a context like ours, in that it is a time of loss, of deprivation, of suffering. Although most of the book has to do with condemnation of Israel (or other nations), hope for Israel – a renewed relationship with God in the form of a return to land and temple and kingship – this is also central to his preaching.

Yet this promise has a negative association which jars with our usual talk about forgiveness and grace. We heard this for the first time in the reading for today’s service, which comes at the end of a long diatribe against Israel, characterising the people as a wilfully and wantonly unfaithful wife to God:

16.59 …thus says the Lord God: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath, breaking the covenant; 60yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant. 61Then you will remember your ways… 62I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, 63in order that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God.

‘…I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, in order that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame…’

This is first of several times Ezekiel links God’s forgiveness to Israel remembering its shame (see also 36.26-32; 43.10f; 44.9-14. 39.26 has ‘forget their shame’ in NRSV, although an alternative reading is ‘bear their shame’, and is favoured by many commentators on account of the other ‘shame’ texts). If we were to ask Ezekiel what the Israel had to look forward to as it moved out of its own particular ‘lockdown’, he could well answer, ‘Shame’.

How is this good news?

Shame is a powerful emotion, and is often confused with its lesser cousin, embarrassment, which also features implicitly in our reading.

Both shame and embarrassment have to do with a disruption of relationships though a violation of the agreed rules of social engagement, but at different levels. Were you to wake up to discover that your nightmare about being naked in a room full of dressed people was not a dream but actuality, you would be embarrassed. Were you found naked in bed with someone you shouldn’t be with, you would – if you were paying attention – be ashamed.

Embarrassment arises from the uncovering of something which we know or suspect might be there but agree should remain covered. Shame is about the uncovering of something which should have not been there in the first place. And so, while embarrassment wants only to be covered up, shame wants to hide. Embarrassment might elicit sympathy but shame demands explanation. We are victims in embarrassment but held responsible in shame.

It is this last observation which locates the embarrassment implicit in our present reading. If it is Israel who will be ashamed, it is God who has been embarrassed. Something has been uncovered – in fact, in the unfaithful spouse metaphor, Israel has uncovered herself – and in this way exposed God who is so closely joined to Israel. (See Leviticus 18.6-8 for an account of the link between the ‘nakedness’ of a husband and wife in Hebrew thinking.) This ‘exposure’ of God is linked to our thinking last week about God’s action ‘for the sake of my name’.

These are some of the dimensions of the shame which features in Ezekiel’s account not merely of the punishment of Israel but, more strikingly, in his account of Israel’s salvation. Shame, by itself, reflects a deep sense of guilt. And yet, while there is much guilt being identified by God in these texts, it is not guilt unto damnation. This ‘shaming’ is not like our current sharpening of political correctness into ‘cancel culture’. There is grievous fault here but it is not named in order to crush.

The guilt and the shame to which it gives rise are part of the relief God holds out to Israel. This is to say that the relief offered here – the restoration of the people in their standing before God – is no mere relaxation of the strictures of exile, no simple putting behind us of what has been wrong, no easy ‘forgive-and-forget’. We might wish that it were otherwise – that the experience of guilt or weakness could be left behind – but this is to deny something about ourselves that God will not.

God loves us as we are – whether that be guilty or oppressed, arrogant or timid, proud or just afraid. Our stories – our histories – make us what we are and it with these stories that we are loved. And so God’s healing, and the knowledge which comes with it – ‘and you shall know that I am the Lord’ – comes with the memory of why healing was required, of what it is God calls us out of.

None of this is to say that the way to God is only through shame or the admission of weakness. The church has sometimes given this impression, whenever it begins with the need of humankind, however great or small, to which God is supposed to be an answer.

Ezekiel’s point is surely the opposite, that God moves first and that it is only in then looking back that we begin to re-evaluate who we are and what we are called to be.

This means that when God ‘gets’ us it will be both exactly the relief we desire, and yet also not. Israel hears that it will be restored, but also that this restoration springs entirely from God’s relentless grace and not from anything Israel has done to earn it. In the same way, the church – that peculiar way of being human which springs from the experience of the death and resurrection of Jesus – marks divine forgiveness with bread and wine as signs of the rejection of God‑in‑Jesus. Blood and flesh are signs in our midst in the same way as Israel’s shame is in Ezekiel: reminders of what has been overcome in order that we might again be this God’s people, and this God our God. Israel’s shame is to the renewal of the covenant as the gospel’s cross is to the resurrection.

To be true to who God is, we must remember the transition from what we were to what God has now made of us and calls us yet to become. In forgiveness, we might say, God forgets but we must not, for it is in our shift from less to more, from enslaved to liberated, from death to life, that we know who God is, and know God’s fundamental character as being for us.

In the strangest of twists, then, the people of God are those who could be said to be – in Ezekiel’s terms – ‘hoping for shame’.

This is not because shame or arrogance or pride or weakness or death defines who we are but precisely because, with the God who can overcome all such things, they do not.