“Today we are talking about guilt trips and grace trips. As I listen to people talk about their lives, what amazes me about guilt is how long that stuff sticks in us. We can recall the times when we were just little kids and had to suffer through someone putting the heavy weights of guilt on us, and the memory sticks in us long into adulthood. Or the times when we were just awkward adolescents and someone loaded guilt into our fragile identities, where it remained.
In her excellent essay on guilt, Nevada Barr writes, “I carry guilt from things I did when I was six and ten, fourteen, thirty-six, forty-five. There seems to be no statute of limitations on guilt, and it has a greater half-life than unrequited love. Erma Bombeck put it perfectly: Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving.” (Seeking Enlightenment Hat by Hat)
Even when the person who guilt tripped us is long since dead, the sense of guilt remains. As we get a broader perspective in adulthood, I sometimes hear people recognize the pain that guilt has caused them, and wonder, “Why did they do this to me? Why did they treat me this way?” I expect the reason is they wanted to make things better, and they turned to guilt because they couldn’t imagine any other way. If we dig deeper, it is usually that they too had been loaded up with guilt in their own past, and that experience is why they couldn’t imagine any other way.
The amount of damage guilt does is tremendous. More often than not, what drives children away from their parents is guilt trips. When school children are made to feel guilty it erodes their confidence, often permanently. Guilt trips in marriages corrode intimacy.
The damage guilt does to us affects all segments of society. Guilt about our sexuality causes all sorts of problems. Guilt is an enormous part of PTSD that drives so many of our servicemen and women to suicide. And it will not come as a surprise to anyone that people’s religious experience often includes a sense of guilt.
Shortly after I came to St. Stephen’s, I was at an ecumenical gathering with a clergywoman of another denomination, who has since moved away. She was talking about a book by a devotional author who is popular in some circles, and a passage that said that usually the reason God is disappointed in us is that we are not fervent enough. She said that this was helpful to her because it was true for her, that she wasn’t fervent enough. My immediate thought was that thinking of God as disappointed in us would throw cold water on fervor before it ever began. How can you feel fervent about someone who’s looking at you with disapproval? The conversation moved on without my saying anything. It was partly that at the time I didn’t want to confirm the stereotype that Episcopalians are lacking in fervor, and it was partly that I didn’t know a polite way to tell a nice person, “I think your theology is totally wrong” without violating the social norms of an ecumenical gathering. But I still think of her, and her guilt about not feeling fervent enough, and her sense that God is disappointed in her.
Every once in a while someone suggests to me that in order to motivate more people to do something about some noble cause, we ought to use some variety of guilt. While I agree that their cause is a noble one, I don’t want to inflict guilt on anyone. Yes, the problems of our society are very serious. But those who suffer from those problems often have to tolerate the efforts of well-intentioned do-gooders who come up with solutions that are ineffective, inappropriate, or even counter-productive. And when we are constantly dealing with our own guilt, we are most likely to miss seeing what would actually be useful to the people we are trying to help. The second reason I don’t want to inflict guilt on anyone is that once you introduce a poison into a system, there is no way to know how far its effects will spread. The third reason I don’t want to inflict guilt on anyone is that I don’t want to be the one who wants to make things better and uses guilt because I can’t imagine any other way.
The good news of the gospel is that God can imagine another way. And not only can God imagine another way, God provides another way. We do not have to rely on the guilt trip, because God provides us with the opposite: a grace trip. We do not have to suffer for our sins because Jesus has already done that for us. That’s the whole point of the crucifixion. The central tenet of Christianity is that God’s the one who’s doing the heavy lifting in this relationship.
Today’s gospel passage tells us that God is our shepherd and we are the sheep. The shepherd does not spend his time feeling disappointed that one of his sheep is acting like a sheep. The shepherd knows that the sheep are going to act like sheep, and that’s why the shepherd is the one who takes on the responsibility of caring for them. Our guilt comes from expecting ourselves to know more than we know, to be stronger than we are, to be more selfless than we are, to be more hard-working than we are, to be more righteous than we are. God, knows who we are and accepts us and loves us exactly as we are, as a shepherd loves the sheep exactly as they are without expecting them to be anything different. Our guilt is not from God, it is from ourselves. As Nevada Barr puts it, “This guilt is suffering because we somehow feel we are responsible for things over which we have no control, and, even more so, suffering because we haven’t the humility to accept with grace and goodness of heart that we are fallible.”
Today’s gospel passage also tells us something else, which is often overlooked. Today we get the verses in which Jesus says, “I am the gate of the sheepfold.” If we sheep are going to get to the safety of God’s love, it will not be because of our own unerring navigational skills, nor will it be because we sheep have the courage and prowess to fight off the wolves. If we sheep are going to get to the safety of God’s love, it will be because God provides the gate to the sheepfold. God provides Jesus.
The good news of the gospel is not only that Jesus died to save us from our sins. This is the main point of today’s sermon: the good news of the gospel is that Jesus died to save us from our guilt. We do not have to carry around our old guilt anymore, and we do not have to keep piling on new guilt. Jesus died to lift that guilt off our shoulders and to carry it for us himself. God assures us we are free.
Shepherds don’t motivate their sheep by guilt trips. Instead, they build trust from their sheep, a trust built on care rather than guilt. Today’s gospel talks directly about the shepherd’s voice and the trust it has built: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” When God calls his sheep by name and leads them out, this is the grace trip. On the grace trip God leads us by trust and care to the green pastures and still waters.
Now that we are adults, we can choose whether we would rather go on a guilt trip or a grace trip. Even if someone else tries to hand us a ticket to go on a guilt trip and packs heavy baggage for us to carry around the whole time, we can choose not to go on the guilt trip. We can be like a sheep who just settles down where it is and refuses to budge unless it hears the call of its shepherd to go on a grace trip.
At the beginning of today’s sermon we talked about why people send us on guilt trips, and the idea that they want to make things better and can’t imagine any other way. The reason that they can’t imagine any other way is that they have been loaded down with guilt themselves. One of the reasons that guilt stays with us so long is that after a while, without noticing it, we take on inflicting guilt on ourselves. Sometimes we are under the misguided impression that if we want to be a better person, adding a sense of guilt to our life is the way to do that. But now that we know we can take the grace trip instead, we don’t need to keep inflicting the guilt trip on ourselves. When we say, the guilt stops here, we can keep from inflicting guilt on ourselves and we can keep from inflicting it on others.
I have no idea how fervent people think is “fervent enough” and I expect that no matter how fervent you feel there is no such thing as fervent enough. But I know that God isn’t disappointed in you. I know that your salvation doesn’t depend on how fervent you feel; your salvation depends on how loving God is, and how much God will sacrifice to free you from your guilt.
If you have done something you feel guilty about, obviously the best thing to do is to confess to God and to the person you have harmed. Once you have done that, you are forgiven, and there is no reason to carry your guilt any further. You can set down the heavy baggage from your guilt trip and relax. Jesus carries that heavy baggage for you. The reason that God provides each of us sheep with a shepherd and a gate is that God already accepts with grace and goodness of heart that we are fallible. Whenever guilt comes up, remember to repeat this mantra: “I am fallible. And I am forgiven.” When we have the humility to accept with grace and goodness of heart that we are fallible, we hear the voice of our shepherd calling us by name, and we follow him on the grace trip into peace.”