Letting Ourselves Be Seen

Drew’s sermon from April 7th comes from the story of Jesus’ appearance in the book of John to Thomas and the other disciples. It’s about who we are as individuals and how we relate to each other as people of faith. The text is John 20:19-28.

Letting Ourselves Be Seen

There’s a new song that’s climbing up the country charts. It’s by Miranda Lambert. And in the song, she talks about having a breakdown after a breakup. She’s heartbroken and miserable and dealing with her heartbreak in all but the most inappropriate ways, she’s given up maintaining appearances, she’s waking up the neighbors with her crying, she’s numbing the pain at the expense of her liver, etc and of course word gets around. And the chorus is sung, as if her mother is talking to her: Go on and fix your make up girl/ it’s just a breakup girl/run and hide your crazy and start acting like a lady/cause I raised you better/ gotta keep it together even when you fall apart.

Maybe you’ve heard this sort of sentiment before. Maybe someone told you that you have to keep it together and look perfect on the outside even when your insides have collapsed on themselves. Or maybe you just picked it up on your own. I think most of us experience this on some level or another. We all carry around hurt that we are afraid to let others’ see. Part of it is the law of the jungle. If you show vulnerability people might take it as a sign of weakness. (In terms of vulnerability, High School may be the most dangerous jungle there is). But part of it is that we are afraid that if we let someone really and truly see us for who we are, they will reject us. We don’t believe that as our true selves we are worthy of love. And so we cover up. We hide the things about us that make us human, and we take our secret pain and we lock it up deep inside where we hope no one can find it.

This is where we find the disciples that night. They have hidden themselves behind walls. They have locked their doors and tucked themselves in where they think they are safe. And Jesus walks straight through their walls. Remember this. We can put up all the walls we want, and all the locks on our doors that we can fit, and Jesus will walk right through them, and he will see us at our most vulnerable and our most fearful and our most shameful. He will cut right through to the wounds in us.

There is a researcher, her name is Brené Brown, and she studies shame. She actually started out trying to study connection, that sense of belonging and value that is so fundamental to the human experience. Connection is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. But she found that when she asked about connection, people would tell her their most excruciating stories of disconnection and loss. And that lead her to shame.

Shame is the thing that unravels connection, every single time, she says. What shame is, is the fear of disconnection. It’s why we hide and cover and pretend, because we have this fear. Is there something about me, that if people knew it, they wouldn’t want to connect with me? Shame is this belief that we aren’t good enough (thin, pretty, manly, successful, athletic, smart, funny, rich, etc) to deserve the love that we so desperately need.  So we hide and pretend and build walls and lock doors. We try to present the persona of someone who does deserve that love (in our minds), and then we hide everything else in shame.

And as she did that research, she started paying special attention to people who seemed to have that sense of belonging, who didn’t seem to struggle as much with disconnection and shame. And she started to notice some things about these people. The first thing she noticed is that they believed that they were worthy of love and belonging. That makes sense, considering what we’ve learned about shame. But here’s where it gets interesting. She looked closer, and she noticed that that sense of worthiness did not come from being perfect. It came from being willing to acknowledge their own imperfection. They were willing to let other people see their wounds. People that were able to short-circuit this shame cycle were able to do so because they were willing to embrace their own vulnerability. They believe that what makes them vulnerable also makes them beautiful. And they would acknowledge that it was difficult and uncomfortable to open themselves up to being seen for who they are, but they went ahead and did it anyway, because they know that if they can push past it they can achieve this greater sense of relationship.

She uses the word courage to describe people who do this. Not courage as a synonym for bravery, she uses a more deeply rooted definition. Courage comes from the Latin for “heart,” it’s original meaning, she says, is “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart”

People who have that courage, who are able to accept and embrace their own vulnerability and tell the story of their own heart are able to live fuller and more connected lives. It is only when we can let go of the façade that we put out into the world and truly let ourselves be seen that we can be recognized and understood for who we are. It’s only when we allow each other to see our wounds that we can really be connected with each other.

There’s this moment in the Odyssey, the great Greek epic, when Odysseus is finally returning home. It’s been more than 10 years since he left, and he has come home a different man. So different, in fact, that no one recognizes him. When he comes into his house, Penelope, who doesn’t recognize him, offers to bring him a young maid to wash his feet, and Odysseus says, “No, don’t bring me a young serving woman, only an old maid, who has seen as much suffering as I have, would I not begrudge to touch my feet.”

And so Eurycleia is brought to wash Odysseus’s feet. Eurycleia is an old woman, old enough that she was a nursemaid to Odysseus when he was a child, but even she doesn’t seem to recognize him. But as she’s washing his feet her fingers meet a scar, on Odysseus’s knee that he got from a wild boar when he was a kid. The moment her fingers touch the scar, she recognizes him. She lets his foot fall, and it knocks over the bowl and spills water everywhere.

And her heart jumps up into her throat and she says, “Truly you are Odysseus, dear child, and I didn’t recognize you until I handled the body of my Lord.”

It’s only when we see each other’s wounds that we can truly see and be seen for who we are.

Which brings us to Thomas. Poor Thomas. Thomas isn’t there when Jesus first comes to the disciples that Sunday evening, and his response reveals the woundedness that he feels. He is afraid. He is hurt. He is suspicious. He came into Jerusalem with Jesus shouting Hosanna, but since then things have been scary and dangerous, and how do you know whom to trust or where is safe? All of Jesus’ warnings have come back, and he, like the other disciples, just wants to curl up and hide somewhere rather than risk following Jesus in the world that just crucified him. I think we’ve all been.

And Jesus passes through the walls a second time. And he doesn’t condemn, Thomas, he doesn’t say, “They told you so.” Instead of making Thomas ashamed, he makes himself vulnerable. He says, look, look at my wounds, in my hands and my feet and my side. And he sees Thomas’s wounds as well. I see your fear and your suspicion and doubt, and I am with you. And it isn’t until this moment, when Thomas has put his hands in Jesus hands and side that he recognizes the risen Lord. “My Lord, and My God” he says, the only time in the Gospels that someone explicitly says that Jesus is God.

What this means for us is twofold. First, it tells us all that we are declared worthy by God. Jesus cares about us so much that he sees our wounds and our hurts and our failures and he loves us anyway. We need have no shame, when it comes to our Lord. We don’t need to fear disconnection. The only thing that can separate us from God is ourselves.

The second thing that it means for us is that because we have a vulnerable God, we should be vulnerable with each other. If we are going to be one body, a connected community of people who are fully human. If we are going to reach out to the lost and alone, to the hurting, and the hopeless, we must embrace our own vulnerability. We cannot have compassion for others unless we have compassion for ourselves. Just as Jesus showed his wounds to Thomas that he might believe in the risen Lord, so we must show our wounds to others that they might see that church is not a place of shame and silent judgment, but a place of warmth and love, where everyone is deserving of love and acceptance. If we keep trying to tell people that we are perfect, people will begin to believe it, and they will think, “there’s no place for me there.”

One of the hardest things about accepting love is letting yourself be loved. We keep getting wrapped up in our own shame, we think we don’t deserve love. We have too many secret sins, too much unspoken pain, too many obvious flaws. But our Lord cuts through all that. He sees our wounds, and he shows us his. And he sends us out into the world to see and be seen, that all might know the grace of our Lord. That all might know that they are worthy and deserving of love.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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