“The Divine Power of Vulnerability”
Christmas Eve Sermon, 2018
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
“While they were [in Bethlehem], the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Why, in a culture that prized extended family and hospitality, could the vulnerable couple not find a welcome? Why, when seeing the young woman exceedingly ripe with child, was no one willing to make a little extra space, so that she could deliver the life she’d been entrusted to bring into the world?
I wonder whether those who turned them away regretted it after the shepherds’ story started circulating. When people started hearing about the visits they’d missed from the angels—the glory shining ‘round about them, providing a celestial symphony, chorus, and light show unlike any the world has ever seen, before or since. I wonder whether those who shook their heads at the request for a room regretted it when they caught wind of the idea that the shepherds—whom much of the world considered society’s lowlifes—had been the first to receive the good news of the Savior’s arrival. Had they just passed up their own potential brush with glory? Turns out, salvation doesn’t just comein unexpected packages, it’s also presentedtounlikely, and usually unsuspecting characters! But, weren’t the “respectable” people of Bethlehem wishing for a sign that God was with them, too? Weren’t they the ones who had been praying for Messiah to come, to save and restore them to a station of greatness—like when David was king? Weren’t they hungry for the reassurance that, like the shepherds and like Mary, theywere highly-favored and blessed beyond measure?
But they had shut the door. They had hung the “No Vacancy” shingle. They didn’t think there was room.
Was it was because they’d heard about Mary’s premarital pregnancy, and wanted nothing to do with such a scandal? Maybe it was because there was some generations-long grudge against Joseph’s branch of the family tree that everyone knew about, but no one really discussed.
Then again, maybe it had nothing to do with either of those things. Bethlehem had become a very busy place. Life was crowded, what with the Emperor’s census decree. Every Jewish family knew that the mandate by Caesar Augustus meant their taxes were going up—again. The registration was just a way for Rome to capture their names and locations. Every act of imposition and muscle-flexing by the occupying Roman government just irritated the Jews, who were tired of the second-class citizen treatment. Like Joseph and Mary, many of the visitors to Bethlehem had had to travel great distances in order to comply with a law that wasn’t going to improve their life. But it would be worse for them if they didn’t obey orders. So, many of the lodgers were feeling stressed and put out already. And when guests are stressed and vaguely annoyed, there are knock-on effects on the hosts. The prospect of welcoming this needy couple was just too much. It’s one thing to accept guests that will be no trouble, that won’t ask anything of you. But this couple was obviously arriving with needs.
After all, childbirth is messy. And dangerous: you just never know what you’re in for, in childbirth. And then, newborns can be loud, distracting, and demanding. They don’t really care if you’re exhausted, or if you’re watching something important just now, or you’ve got to finish this one last task. Their cries are insistent, and they intrude on everyone’s space around them, not just those who love them. They aren’t the least bit concerned that you’ve got more pressing things to think about than the absoluteness of their vulnerability.
Vulnerability is so often understood as a dirty word, an ugly reality. It’s easy and commonplace—has been forever—to dismiss the vulnerable of this world. When we can see them coming, or lined up at our door, we sense the claim they’ll make on us, and we get afraid. Afraid their needs will be greater than we can cope with, afraid their demands will overwhelm us. Afraid we’ll be asked to sacrifice our own comfort for theirs, and they may not be as grateful as they should be. Afraid we’ll be diminished instead of enhanced by welcoming the one who comes to us with needs and wants, when our own needs and wants haven’t yet been fully satisfied. It’s why we abhor the idea of being thought of as vulnerable ourselves.
But here’s part of the Gospel mystery: the absolute, cosmos-creating power of God arrives in a package of vulnerability. What’s more vulnerable than a newborn infant? What’s more needy than a baby boy? Yet, the Creator who has gifted us with everything—from our first breath of life to our last, and every good thing we enjoy in between them—shrugged off omnipotence, glory, and worldly possession, and came to us in our own needy, vulnerable form.
Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian lyricist and author of The Alchemist, once said,“The strongest love is the love that can demonstrate its fragility.” Even if part of that fragility is that it appears ugly to the rest of the world.
In the final reflection in the UCC’s Come, Lord JesusAdvent devotional booklet (spoiler alert for those of you who are reading it: this is part of the Christmas day reading), Molly Phinney-Baskette writes:
“Behold Jesus, tiny little baby and the Savior of the Cosmos. God seems to be saying something here. He’s a baby like any other—cradle cap, mewling squall—and he’s God’s own ugly baby.”
‘God’s ugly baby is named Vulnerability,’ says the prophet-preacher Rev. Lynice Pinkard.
Do you dare to hold this baby, love this baby, welcome this baby into your heart? Even if he’s not pretty yet, needs a little Photoshopping before your critical mother-in-law sees him, won’t garner many [heart/”love” emojis] on Facebook?
Do you dare to let yourself be broken open by this ugly baby, Vulnerability? Which means, today of all days, do you dare to let go of your expectations of having an ideal Christmas? Let yourself be imperfect and vulnerable, wrinkly from hard use, blotchy after a good cry, acned with personal blemishes, not always smelling of roses—and just as God made you?
And then, loving this baby gift of vulnerability in yourself, are you willing to let everybody else be imperfect and vulnerable too? Just for today? Then you will know Christmas.
Our human hopes and fears have not changed so much through all these years. How is it that we still close the door? That we still hang the “No Vacancy” shingle against the mere threat of what we do not know?
Dear friends, God’s beloved, our Savior came to us in complete vulnerability: willingly powerless. But think of this amazing truth: we sing of how kings and wise men fell on their knees to worship him! Stars shone brightly, lighting the path to where the needy bundle lay just waiting to bless the world and everyone he encountered in life-giving ways. This rejected child, this ugly baby, was God’s own Word made flesh: the Light of the World, come to dwell with us as one of us.
So come now, on this Holy Night as we remember and give thanks for his birth, let every heart prepare him room. Let heaven and nature sing as we welcome this vulnerable Savior, this most powerful bringer of love, joy, hope, and peace—our divine Deliverer, King of kings, the Prince of Peace! Amen.