A sermon preached on September 23rd, 2012 based upon Mark 9:30 – 37.
As you may know, the disciples don’t come off too well in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus can be downright harsh with them at times, saying things like, “Why are you so afraid?” “Why do you have so little faith?” “Do you still not understand?” More often than not they seem clueless – a bunch of knuckleheads or bozos. It would be funny except for the serious stuff involved.
A common reaction to this repetitive theme is, “Oh, come on!! You’ve got Jesus right there with you! Why is so hard to see what he’s up to?” But as I thought about the recent lectionary readings, a word came to mind that sums up what’s going on in Mark’s Gospel, and with this word in mind, the disciples inability to catch on to what Jesus doing made sense. We wouldn’t have been any better.
The word is “vulnerability.” Jesus is taking a path that intentionally makes him extremely vulnerable, and he is inviting his disciples to make themselves similarly vulnerable. What he’s talking about is the total opposite of what our survival instincts demands, which is to avoid taking risks, opening ourselves up to danger, putting ourselves in situations where fear rises up within us.
I looked up “vulnerability” in Webster’s Dictionary to make sure I understood what it meant, and yep – nothing in the definition implied there was anything good about being vulnerable.
So with the theme of vulnerability in mind, let’s look again at the story Mark is telling. Our passage is the second of three times in the middle of Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer greatly, experience rejection and finally death on a cross, and then on the third day rise again.
We heard the first of these passages last week. When Jesus first tells them what’s ahead for him, they are stunned. Nothing up to that point would have led them to anticipate him saying such a thing. There only reaction is expressed by Peter when he tells Jesus, “No, you’re wrong!” which leads Jesus to explode, screaming, “Get behind me, Satan.”
So Jesus is saying that the fulfillment of his mission will occur in the not-to-distant future when he will make himself vulnerable to the people in authority in Jerusalem when he speaks the truth to their power, knowing that in spite of the love offered in that truth, their reaction would in all likelihood be to snuff his life out.
There’s vulnerability for Jesus in the future, but there is also a kind of vulnerability in the present in his even saying these words to the disciples. Think about it: up until this point Jesus has been holding inside him the burden of his dawning awareness of the cross that awaits him. He is all alone in this horrifying knowledge, and naturally he would want to share this realization with his friends so as not to feel so all alone. But up until this point it had been clear to Jesus that they simply wouldn’t be able to understand this burden he carries.
But the disciples have been with him for a while, now. Along them the way he has been coaxing them into experiences of vulnerability. There were those nights out in a boat in stormy weather – that was a pretty risky thing to do. There had been the time the crowd of five thousand people had followed them out into the wilderness, and as the sun begins to set, and the issue of all these people’s hunger arises, it was Jesus’ idea that the disciples should offer up all of the food they had brought with them – little though it was – as an offering to the hungry masses. That was making themselves vulnerable. And then there was the little mission trip he sent them out on two by two, explicitly telling them not to take the sorts of things people usually take along to protect themselves with – no money, or weapons, or even extra clothes. Perhaps they were getting a little bit more comfortable with the concept of vulnerability that was at the heart of his mission. So he takes a risk, making himself vulnerable by sharing his burden the burden he was carrying around with him.
What sort of reaction was Jesus looking for in that moment? Perhaps simply meet him in the vulnerability. Simply listen, ask questions perhaps — maybe give him a hug. Be there with him in this inward struggle he is going through.
Instead, though, Peter and the others simply refuse to go there with Jesus. The words Jesus speaks are so shocking and terrifying that they run as quick as they can towards a posture of invulnerability. Peter plays the part of the know-it-all who is certain he knows what’s right and tells Jesus he’s wrong. And that is what made Jesus so angry.
If Peter, had simply said, “Jesus, what you’re saying – it really, really scares me. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Please, tells us what all this means.” Jesus would not have lashed into him. He would have appreciated such a response. What pissed him off so was the fact that Peter tried to cover up his vulnerability – the fact that he was clueless and afraid – with a pretense of certainty.
So that was in chapter 8, and now we’re in chapter 9 and we heard this morning the second time Jesus tries opening his heart to the disciples, telling them what lies ahead. There’s one thing and one thing only they’ve learned from the last time he said such things, and that is to not tell Jesus he’s wrong. But they still can’t really join Jesus in the vulnerability of the moment. This is how Mark puts it: “But they did not understand what (Jesus) meant and were afraid to ask him about it.”
Of course they don’t understand — this is very hard stuff of which Jesus is speaking. But why don’t they ask him questions?
Perhaps the answer is pretty simple. Maybe you can remember a time when you were a student in a class, and somewhere along you didn’t grasp what the teacher was talking about, and since then everything the teacher has been talking about has been predicated on that original concept you didn’t grasp, and so now you’re totally lost. But you didn’t ask a question, because asking a question would have been making yourself vulnerable to being possibly humiliated by both your teacher and your classmates. So you stayed lost, pretending to know what was going on. You lived a charade.
And in times such as these, the result is that underneath our façade we feeling deeply insecure about ourselves, and we look for ways to try to prop up our ego – bolster our self-esteem. And the world’s preferred way to do this is to look for people we can look down on – feel superior to. And that’s what the disciples did. Mark tells us they immediately fell into an argument among themselves regarding which of them was the greatest.
It’s like the old shtick of Muhammad Ali who used proclaim, “I am the greatest!” He was so great, he declared, because no one could lay a punch on him. He was the poster child of invulnerability.
But Jesus gets wind of this argument they’re having, and he tells them it’s the wrong direction to be headed in. Aspire not to invulnerability, but rather to vulnerability. Aspire to be a servant of all, exposing oneself to the dangerous places this kind of servitude may lead you.
He brings out a little child, and taking the child up in his arms, he says, “Whoever receives one such child as this receives me, and not only me, but the one show sent me.”
So what is the significance of little children. It’s a little harder to understand what Jesus was getting at because in our culture we tend to put such a focus on our children. But in Jesus’ day, children were nobodies. They were people in waiting. They had no power or status, no capacity to repay you for your service to them. They represented the most vulnerable people in the society, the people who often become invisible to the rest of us. Poor people, homeless people, people worrying whether there will be a meal today.
A little political aside: With all their differences, there is one thing that Democrats and Republicans both agree on, and that is that the election is all about the middle class. Both parties argue that their policies will most benefit the middle class. The folks who never get mentioned these days by the candidates are the poor. They are, after all, the people who don’t have much to offer candidates in their attempts to get elected. But they are the little ones that Jesus said we should be serving if we are to follow in this way.
Children also represent comfort with vulnerability – if you can say such a thing. Children aren’t expected to have all the answers so they ask a lot of questions. Children would never presume to be able to solve all their problems.
Jesus said we are to turn and become like little children if we want to enter the kingdom of God. Can you imagine a presidential candidate saying, “You know honestly, I don’t know the answers to the problems that plague our society”? Their campaigns would be over if they said such a thing, because we want our leaders to embody the ideal of invulnerability. We want them to have the answers, so they’ll lie and tell us they are certain they know what to do.
But maybe leaders who are honest in saying they don’t have all the answers is the kind of leadership we actually need. A leader would be willing to be vulnerable by reaching out to politicians on the other side of the aisle to pursue solutions to the complicated problems that confront our society.
So if Jesus is so intent in leading us in way that is at odds with the kind of invulnerability that we instinctively aspire, what is it about vulnerability that is so important. What is it about vulnerability that Webster’s Dictionary never mentions?
There is this sociologist named Brene Brown who has a talk you can find online (go to “Ted Talks”) on the subject of vulnerability that is well worth listening to, and sheds some light of the value of making oneself vulnerable. She starts off by pointing out that people in the social sciences are in agreement in saying that “connection,” specifically connection to other people, the sense of belonging within community of people – the whole mysterious realm of what is referred to as “love” — is at the heart of a what makes for a fulfilling life. The scientists who study our brains would say that we are hard-wired for connection
In order for us to feel connected to other people, we have to allow ourselves to be seen – that is as we truly are, as opposed to some façade we might seek to project. That’s where vulnerability comes in. I have to be vulnerable to allow others to see the whole me, both our weaknesses as well as our strengths.
She said she studied thousands of people in terms of their sense of being connected or disconnected to others. Among those who described their lives as involving a gratifying level of connection with other human beings, she recognized certain qualities. She called such people as being “whole-hearted.” They were willing to tell their story with their whole heart, the good along with the bad. They were willing to let go the attempt to be the person they thought others wanted them to be, and to try and embrace who they came to know themselves to be. They had the courage to be imperfect and the ability to embrace the inherent vulnerability that comes with connection. They were willing to step out in relationship with others on faith, with no assurances that it wouldn’t eventually cause them great pain – that the other in the relationship might not ultimately betray them, reject them, die on them. They were, in a sense, willing to let their hearts be broken, knowing that as painful as that was, there was no other way to establish the connections that are essential to a fulfilling life.
The term “whole-hearted” made me think of “hard hearted,” an expression that shows up twice in the Gospel of Mark in relation to the disciples. The expression first shows up in the Old Testament to speak of the Pharaoh who refuses to let God’s people go. It implies the opposite of vulnerability. To be hard hearted is to close down your heart so as to protect yourself from the pain that love inevitably brings.
To love – to open our hearts to another – is to make ourselves vulnerable. It means opening ourselves to pain. If you don’t want pain in your life, the solution is simple. Don’t love. But in the attempt to avoid pain, we end up missing out on all the things that make life worth living. The human connections we call love that lead to a profound sense of belonging in this world.
At the men’s discussion group this past Friday I played a short talk by a minister named Bart Campolo who is lives in the city of Cincinnati as a part of a church that intentionally seeks to live out the service to the little ones – the most vulnerable people – the invisible people.
He describes his relationship to a mother with a couple of daughters who live in a housing project. He refers to the woman as the world’s worst mother, an addict who routine abuses and neglects her children. One morning as the mother was dropping off her youngest daughter at his house, which she often did because Bart’s daughter was the same age, and he would take them to school, the mother said to him, “I thought you should know, Tanya was raped last night.” Tanya was her 13 year old daughter. She had gone out of her apartment at 6 p.m. and was grabbed by an older man who took her into a stairwell where he had his way with her.
The rest of the day was spent taking Tanya to the rape crisis center. At the end of the day Tanya was brought back to stay with Bart’s family, figuring she’d be better off for the time being away from the place where she had been so traumatized. Her mother, however, chose to stay back in their apartment because she was afraid somebody might try to break in to steal her TV. What kind of mother cares more about her TV than her daughter who has just been raped? Bart wondered.
The next day required that they all go back to the rape crisis center. When Bart picked up the mother from the housing project, she was in a foul mood, angry that Bart was late. She said she needed to be back at noon for a section 8 appointment about her subsidized housing, and if she wasn’t there, she’d lose the apartment. Bart said that what they were doing was going to take all day. So he offered to get on the phone in order to get the appointment changed, which he did. But still she was in a foul mood. What are you angry with me? Bart asked. I didn’t do anything wrong. There’s only person to be angry at, and he’s not here.
I’m not angry at you, she said. “I’m mad at the little bitch in the back seat who went out and got herself raped. If that happened, we wouldn’t be having to go to all this trouble.”
Livid with anger, Bart pulled the car over to the side of the road. He lashed in the mother: “You’re a stupid idiot! Don’t you ever say such a thing! Your daughter didn’t do anything wrong! She’s just a little girl, and she deserves to be able to go out of her apartment at 6 p.m. and not have to worry about getting raped!”
When they got where they were going, Bart and the mother sat in the waiting room for a long time. There were both still fuming from the conversation in the car. And then after an hour and a half, it dawned on him. “This happened to you, too. Didn’t it?” The mother proceeded to tell Bart of how she was raped three times: at 7, and 9, and then again at 19, resulting in her being hospitalized for three months.
“Who was there for you?” Bart asked. “Nobody. Just you, now,” she said. Having once been so wounded herself, with nobody to be there with her in her vulnerability, she had hardened her heart, determined never to be hurt so again. Later that day when he dropped the woman back at her apartment, she said to him, “I love you.” It was only driving home that he thought about the fact that he had never heard the woman say that to anyone – not even her daughter, who had complained of never hearing those words from her mom. It wasn’t much, but it was a little crack in the armor she wore to make herself invulnerable. It was a little baby step towards being reconnecting with the human race.
Jesus routinely got frustrated with his disciples unwillingness to join him in the radical vulnerability that is so much a part of the life of faith. But the big picture is that he never gave up on them. He was infinitely patient. Even when they betray him, abandon him, and deny him in the end, in his resurrection there is a grace for the disciples to try again.
Jesus knows this new direction he’s calling us to take involves a total relearning of a deeply ingrained habit of self-protection. It doesn’t happen all at once. It involves a lifetime of trying to choose in any given instant what it means to be more open, more vulnerable, trusting the grace of God to be with us in whatever our vulnerability brings us. It takes baby steps at first, like the woman in Bart’s story able to say out loud for the first time, “I love you.”
What the choice to making ourselves vulnerable will be for each of us will be different at any given moment, determined by where we’ve come from, and what the present moment is presenting us with. It can mean tolerating the anxiety of not having an answer when the problems facing us don’t allow for easy answers, and resisting the temptation of convincing ourselves of our certitude when an answer simply hasn’t evolved yet.
It means in times of conflict, whether between individuals or groups, being willing to take the first step towards reconciliation. In most conflicts, both parties have contributed in some way to the wall that separates them. Being vulnerable means being the first to own what one has done to put that wall up. The vulnerability involves the possibility that your gesture at reconciliation will be rebuffed – that the other person will not respond by recognizing the part they have played. But that’s why we call it vulnerability. We take that risk, trusting in the grace of God.
If you’re feeling distant – disconnected from the people you work with, or worship with, perhaps taking a step towards vulnerability means being finding some way to share something of your own frailty or fear or the struggles that weigh upon you, hoping that the other will meet you there in that vulnerability in a way that will bring forth a deeper since of connection and love. Again, it’s a risk, because the other may show no interest in what you are sharing, or worse, somehow try to take advantage of you through what you’ve revealed to them.
It’s baby steps we’re looking to take. But slowly but surely, with practice, we become more comfortable with the posture of vulnerability, discovering the grace of God out there in every frightening moment – the truth that in the end there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God — that beyond the crucifixion, there is the promise of the resurrection. And in the awareness of that grace, we become more at peace with our own frailties, and as a result find it easier lovingly to open our hearts to others, and find that sense of connection and belonging for which we so deeply long.