May 7, 2017 Sermon Easter 3
The Joy of Vulnerability
The 4th Sunday of Easter is traditionally celebrated as Good Shepherd Sunday. All our readings this morning had to do with sheep and shepherds—but I’m not going to talk about any of that. I want to focus on the last line of the gospel. Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Part of this abundant life is to talk about the joy of being vulnerable. That’s a strange concept. We don’t like to be vulnerable. “Never let them see you sweat”, the commercial tells us. So where’s the joy?
The idea comes from the work of Brene Brown, who researches vulnerability, courage, and shame. She started her research convinced that life is all about connection, about connecting with ourselves, with others, and with God. This is what gives meaning and purpose to life, she thought.
But as she began to talk to people, they told about being disconnected. Instead of being loved, they told stories of heartbreak … of not being good enough, not being smart enough, not being beautiful enough. They told stories about shame and fear, what she calls “excruciating vulnerability.”
So she decided to change her research focus, to study vulnerability, figure it out, and then outsmart it.
In thousands of stories and interviews, she discovered that people who have a strong sense of worthiness also have a strong sense of love and belonging, and — most surprisingly of all — that they were willing to be vulnerable. They had the courage to embrace their vulnerability, believing that what made them vulnerable also made them beautiful.
It smacked her upside the head like a baseball bat. The purpose of research, she says, is to study things so you can control and predict stuff. And what she discovered was that to be connected meant to give up being able to control and predict. To be connected was to be vulnerable. “Vulnerability is at the heart of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
We don’t like to be vulnerable, and usually we try to deal with vulnerability by numbing it … by pushing it down … by hiding it so we don’t have to face it. We cover it up. We have a martini. We go shopping. We try to make ourselves look perfect. We pretend that everything’s ok.
It occurs to me that this is partly what that first Easter was all about. There is so much pain, confusion and vulnerability in all these stories.
Easter morning — the women come to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for final burial. But the tomb is empty. And they don’t have a clue what’s going on.
Mary stands outside the tomb weeping, and mistakes Jesus for the gardener, asking him where they’ve put the body.
Thomas won’t believe, he can’t believe that Jesus is alive “until I put my fingers in the holes in his hands and side.”
Two disciples walk home to Emmaus, blinded by grief, their hopes dashed.
Mark’s gospel ends with the notice that the women “fled from the tomb for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
In Jesus, they had become connected. Now Jesus was gone, and they became incredibly vulnerable, and their lives were filled with pain.
The thing is that it’s exactly in these places where the early disciples meet the risen Lord. In their pain and vulnerability, joy and life and hope are born again.
That’s the message of Easter. In the midst of death, life triumphs. In the midst of confusion, God’s love surrounds us. In the midst of pain, God holds us close. In the midst of vulnerability, joy and creativity and life are born.
Brene Brown is also a Christian. In a brief interview, she tells her story. “You know, I thought that faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort.’ But what faith really says is ‘I’ll sit with you in the pain of life. I’ll walk with you always. I’ll never let you go.’”
We also find this at the heart of Psalm 23. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but we are not alone. God walks with us.
The heart of the gospel which gives us life is this simple and profound truth: God is with us. Through everything in life, God is with us. We are not alone, God is with us.
The gospel does not promise that life will be easy or painless. The gospel is not that God somehow magically takes all our troubles away. The gospel is not that we will be rich and successful and happy.
The gospel is that in the midst of everything that life throws at us, in the midst of joy and sorrow, in the midst of pain and healing, in the midst of death and life, God is with us. God is with us.
One of the things I noticed this year about the story of Thomas is that when Jesus appears in his resurrection body, he shows up with the wounds still visible.
Now, if I were writing the story, the wounds would be gone. Jesus would be perfect. In the resurrection, I’m going to be skinny. Better yet, I’m going to be buff, with a well–defined six–pack instead of this keg I’m carrying. I won’t have diabetes. I’m going to have all the energy I want. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
But Christian faith doesn’t tell the story that way. Jesus shows up with wounds.
Our Christian faith refuses to gloss over the fact that we are wounded people. There is pain in our life. We are going to hurt. Sorrow is unavoidable. We have broken dreams. We have fractured relationships. All of those wounds shape our identities and they shape how we think about life and reality and God.
We are wounded and broken people. But it is what we do with those wounds that is at the heart of faith.
Usually we come to church pretending that everything is ok. We wear our “Sunday best” and we hope no one notices the hurt underneath that nice veneer.
I often think church ought to be more like AA. “Hi, my name is Yme, and I’m broken. I need help. I can’t do this alone.” Couldn’t church be a community where we speak honestly about the pain in our lives? What happens in AA is that as the men and women are open and honest about their pain, they find a source of healing and hope.
I’m convinced that as we dare to become vulnerable in community, we will feel the gift of God’s grace touching us in those vulnerable places in our lives, holding us, cherishing us, healing us. In the moment we dare to become vulnerable, healing begins. Joy is born. We open ourselves to the possibility of life—deep, profound and abundant life.
We are wounded people. But those wounds will not bleed us of our lives or our vitality. The promise of God is that life can still be whole and good. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
I read a story recently about Rami El Hanan, a Jewish man in Israel. His 14–year–old daughter had been killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem.
In the midst of his overwhelming grief, he was introduced to an organization that brought together Palestinians and Israelis who had lost children and loved ones in the endless Middle Eastern conflict.
He was skeptical, but went to the meeting. He was angry at all Palestinians, but as he stepped off the bus, Palestinians greeted him with tears, with hugs, and with peace. They told each other their stories.
He writes, “I was 47 years old, and for the first time in my life I saw Palestinians as human beings instead of terrorists.” He tells of a Palestinian named Bassam Aramin who became a best friend. Bassam had also lost a daughter, murdered in cold blood by an Israeli soldier.
Rami and Bassam met each other in their wounds, and now they work together out of those wounds to bring peace to a place that knows so very little peace.
I read his story, and I was gob–smacked when Rami ended his story, “We are still wounded, but now I know for certain that ‘Yahweh is my shepherd; I lack nothing.’”
May we be able to say the same. May we, like Rami and Bassam, like Jesus, like those early disciples, have the courage to be vulnerable, and in that vulnerability receive God’s grace to transform our world with light and warmth, with healing and peace.
May we in the midst of our daring to be vulnerable discover the joy of God.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
May 7, 2017 (4th Sunday of Easter)
Acts 2: 42–47
John 10: 1–10