But words will never hurt me.
If that is true then the following words will not bother you.
If you were a better teacher, your students wouldn’t be failing. If you were a better parent you kids wouldn’t be in trouble. If you were a better musician, employee, pastor, coach, friend, colleague. If you hadn’t messed it up. If you took better care of yourself. If you’d paid more attention. If you had done it right the first time. If you were a better daughter or son, you would call more often, visit more often. If you were a better sister or brother, you would forgive them, you would help more. If you were a better spouse it wouldn't be so hard.
If they really knew what you thought. If they could see who you really are.
It’s not that complicated. If you just prayed harder. Had more faith. Trusted God more. …But words will never hurt me.
I get why that little phrase came to exist, but truly, who are we kidding? We know that words DO hurt. Words shape how we relate to the rest of the world and the people in it. Words shape our identity and how we understand ourselves. We know words have lasting effects. I am confident that everyone here can remember a moment or experience when words made a difference in their life, how they viewed a situation, or how they reacted in a certain circumstance. Words can be the difference between a good day and a bad one, between laughter rising up and filling a room, or tears falling softly when no one is watching. Words can be the difference between I believe in you and I can’t believe you let this happen.
We live in a world that feeds off the power of shame and it has been that way since things fell apart in the Garden with Adam and Eve. It was shame and doubt that the serpent planted in the mind of Eve when she and Adam were faced with the decision about eating the fruit. It was shame, fear, and envy that came between Cain and Abel. It was shame that plagued Abram and Sarai when they couldn’t have children and led Sara to tell Abram to sleep with her maid in order to have children. Shame and jealousy drove a wedge between Jacob and Esau. Shame convinced Moses he could not be the leader God wanted him to be. Shame held captive countless men and women throughout the bible. Shame continues to be a key part in perpetuating the lie that we live in a world of lack; that there is never enough, we don’t have enough, we can’t get enough. It is the underlying message that we ourselves are never enough for the world, we can’t do enough to fix or change things. We are undeserving of some things but most deserving of other things like criticism, judgment, and ridicule.
When we look at the story of Jesus’ birth and in order to more fully understand its impact, we cannot ignore the shame surrounding the people directly and indirectly involved. We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the most life-changing, beautiful story ever told contains elements of pain, fear, shame, and unknowing. Perhaps it is for that very reason that the story of Jesus’ birth never gets old and always has something new to teach us.
Do you remember Mary’s first words when the angel told her she would have a son? “How can this be?!” I imagine Joseph had the same question…how could this happen? Why him? Why her? Why now? What does this mean?
We don’t know how long Mary waited to tell Joseph, but she eventually does and I wonder what happened the afternoon and evening after Mary told Joseph. Maybe I have seen too many movies, have a hollywood bent, or maybe it is because I read the story through today’s lens, but I don’t think Joseph swept Mary into his arms, twirled her around, sat her down on the chaise lounger, gazed to her eyes and said, “Oh Mary, its o.k., we will figure this out, all that matters is that you are o.k.. Who cares what everyone else thinks, this is about you and me, we will sit down, have a family meeting and work it all out, I’m sure our parents and my job will completely understand and offer support.”
On the contrary, everything was at risk of falling apart under the hand of private and public shame and humiliation. Joseph faced a huge decision and carried a massive weight on his shoulders. He was a carpenter, his job was to build and fix things but how do you fix this?
The emotions were certainly all over the place; disbelief, anger, confusion, doubt, and yet love, care, honor for this young woman he was to marry and her family. He was, we are told, a good, noble, and devout / believing man. I imagine it felt like a wrestling match between his head and his heart. Maybe you can relate. The pressure must have been palpable in the room as he laid down to try and sleep that night. The text tells us that before finally closing his eyes, Joseph resolved to dismiss Mary quietly and do what he could to take care of the situation with little attention or uproar. That was his way out, or so he thought. But God was all in and had other plans.
I don’t think God had other plans because God thought Joseph was wrong or that he was doing the wrong thing or had the wrong motives, but because God wanted to show Joseph (and Mary) that what God puts in motion, shame cannot stop. God wanted to show Joseph and Mary and the community that what God was doing was bigger than them and beyond the immediate.
The angel’s words gave the direction and certainty Joseph needed to open the door and walk from shame to hope. A hope born of the Holy Spirit. A hope centered in the God of all those who came before him. A hope found in God’s faithfulness. A hope that was bigger than the two of them, and was in fact for the whole world. A hope given by the God who created all things, is in all things, and is all things. A hope that would confront shame not with power, violence, and control but with vulnerability.
Here is what you need to know about shame: it cannot be beaten by just trying harder, doing more, working longer, or having more. You cannot outrun shame by staying busy, distracting yourself, or throwing yourself into another project. You cannot silence shame by making more noise or with more recognition, applause, status, or accolades. When all is said and done, in the quiet of the night, in the calm between the storms, or in the empty noise of a car ride, a hotel room, or the walk on your favorite trail, shame makes itself known.
Joseph invites us to open the same door he did long ago; the door that leads us from shame to hope. Where do you need hope in your life this Christmas? What parts of your life have been wounded by words of shame? When have you heard yourself ask, like Joseph did, “How can this be?” How can your words speak hope into the lives of others?
Perhaps your Joseph moment is now. Perhaps you feel the weight of a decision or choice to be made. The impact your choices have made or will make on those around you. The burden of not knowing what to do. The pressure of messing up or making a mistake. You feel the wrestling match between your head and your heart. You want to do the good and right thing.
Joseph didn’t have all the answers. He didn’t figure it all out before he spoke to Mary. In fact, if you think about it, Joseph was as emotionally and spiritually naked (vulnerable) as the baby God was about to bring into the world. Joseph found a way to trust God would get him through the door.
Dear God, may we do the same.
Rev. Dr. Jenothy Irvine