“Vulnerability and Christ-like Community”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
8 March, 2020
Exodus 4:10-17
2 Corinthians 4:1, 7-12
Lent 2A, Week 10 Holy Habit of Fellowship

I bet when we started this year and I said we were going to be focusing on the Holy Habit of Fellowship – of Christian community, koinonia –you didn’t think there would be so many things to talk about, did you?  But really, everything about our life has to do with fellowship, and how it is best lived out or embodied.  God’s design was for us to live in sacred community, in fellowship with one another.  In the biblical story of the origin of life, in Genesis 2:18 it says, “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’”  There has been a recognition from the very beginning that we do not flourish or do as well as we can when we are alone.

And as are now journeying into the season of Lent, we are taking a closer look at some of the things that either impede or strengthen our close connection, our holy communion, with Jesus Christ and God.

Last week, we examined the role that temptation plays in human life.  Temptation is the desire to have or do something we know is bad, wrong, or unwise.  Remember, the temptation itself is not necessarily bad—temptations are really only thoughts, and our thoughts only have as much power as we give them by our actions in response to them.

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at vulnerability.  This experience, and our willingness to be open to it, is at the very heart of our Christian faith.  It is vulnerability that paved the road to Jesus’ crucifixion—and therefore also to his resurrection.

The journey to the cross with Jesus, toward a decisiveness in self-sacrifice so that others might know greater fullness of life, is a journey that teaches us to embrace what the world insists we ought to avoid.  But that’s because the world’s definition and understanding of vulnerability is, like most worldly thinking, impoverished—rooted in a mindset of fear and scarcity.  To the world, vulnerability is defined as weakness, as defenselessness, helplessness.  It’s a liability.  But what Jesus demonstrated is that vulnerability, rightly understood and practiced, is the birthplace of love and belonging; there is no genuine experience of love without vulnerability.

Last week, in our discussion about temptation, we heard how the temptation to be as powerful as God led Adam and Eve to desire what they should not have, to do what they knew they should not do.  The man and the woman in the garden were tempted to become someone and something they were not; they were tempted to prove something about themselves – that they were as great as God – rather than simply being who God had created them to be.  It was in the moment that they realized the disparity between who they had been tempted to believe they were, and who they actually were that they suddenly felt exposed, at risk, fragile.

Likewise, when Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, the devil did not say, “Be yourself”; rather he said, “Prove that you are…”  To authentically be oneself requires far greater strength of spirit and character than responding to the world’s demands that we prove our greatness.  Authenticity, being true to the person God created us to be, involves accepting our human limitations as well as the truth that we have been created in God’s image – designed to live in community with God and each other.

The Bible is full of characters who were afraid of living authentically—afraid of doing what God asked of them because of what they thought the world expected of them.  Moses, as we heard in our Old Testament lesson, was an early example.  He knew he had a speech impediment.  He wasn’t eloquent, and he tripped over his words.  And he was afraid of getting laughed at by the world, certain that God wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything through him, because of this apparent liability.  God knew better, but Moses insisted.  “Master, please, I don’t talk well. I’ve never been good with words, neither before nor after you spoke to me. I stutter and stammer.”[1]

God responds, “And who do you think made the human mouth? And who makes some mute, some deaf, some sighted, some blind?  Isn’t it I, God? So, get going. I’ll be right there with you—with your mouth! I’ll be right there to teach you what to say.”  But Moses says, “O Master, please! Send somebody else!”[2]  The narrator notes that God is annoyed, but gives Moses a helper – his brother, Aaron, who is a much better public speaker.  Moses will instruct Aaron what to say, so that the wisdom and teaching will come from God’s prophet, but the message will be delivered using the gifts of another member of the community.

Isn’t it interesting that our fear of how other people will respond is actually more powerful than our impulse to obey the One who knows us better than we know ourselves?  The One who also created and knows the flaws and strengths of every person whose judgment or ridicule we fear, better than they know themselves.

But our fear of being judged, ridiculed, alienated in some way from others also indicates how fundamentally we recognize our need to be accepted, to belong, to be in community.  And, this story illuminates how God uses our fellowship – and our recognition of different gifts, strengths, as well as differing limitations – to accomplish the divine agenda.  God gave the gift of community support so that Moses and the people couldn’t presume that it was his own work he was doing, nor that he’d done it all on his own.

Another biblical character, King Saul, the predecessor to David, hid when he was discerned to be the first king of Israel, so great was his insecurity and so powerful was his fear of vulnerability in the office to which he had been called.  The crowd found him cowering in a pile of baggage[3] (which seems an apt metaphor).  But Saul quickly grew accustomed to the power afforded him as king, and the power went to his head in a variety of different ways.  As he grew more powerful in the eyes of the world, he began to believe he was the master of his own success in battle and as a leader, overlooking all he received from God and the countless ways the community supported him.  In a telling demonstration of the ways he’d bought into the world’s ways of thinking about vulnerability, and showing his own fear of worldly powers, he draped young David in a suit of armor when the boy volunteered to go up against the giant from Gath.  But David shrugged off the protective shielding and took his place before Goliath, slaying the fearsome giant with nothing more than the ordinary leather sling and stones that any shepherd would have used to fend off predators in the fields.  David also had trusted in the strength and courage that God gave him to accomplish what he felt called to do; even as a boy, he understood that courage is only possible when vulnerability is accepted.

In several of the New Testament letters, the apostle Paul acknowledges his limitations, his insecurities and shortcomings.  But he seems to have come to grips with them a little better than Moses and Saul, at least.  Much of his second letter to the Christians in Corinth makes reference to the various ways in which he has suffered.  Not just physically, at the hands of government authorities who treated him and his companions harshly, but emotionally, he grieved over being alienated from communities he loved.  He also experienced heartbreak and disappointment in the midst of conflict he was experiencing with some of them.

But in our epistle lesson, he encouraged the believers not to lose heart, “…since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry.”  He observes, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”[4] Our flaws and failures are part of being human—but God uses flawed and vulnerable individuals to accomplish astonishing things, if we will but trust in what we’ve discerned through prayerful attentiveness to God’s word in Scripture and in our community, and heed God’s guidance.  Such trust and confidence require vulnerability: a willingness to admit that one is not strong on one’s own.  It also demonstrates courage.

Some of you are probably familiar with the sociologist researcher, author, and world-famous speaker, Brené Brown.  Her TED[5] Talk entitled, “The Power of Vulnerability” has been viewed more than 12.6 million times.  In it, she talks about the fact that her doctoral research was originally focused on the subject of connection.  “Connection is why we’re here,” she says.  “It doesn’t matter whether you talk to people who work in … justice or mental health, or abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is neurobiologically how we’re wired—it’s why we’re here.”

But six weeks into her research, she noticed something that, as she put it, “really unraveled connection in a way [she] didn’t understand or had never seen.”  Eventually, she figured out that what she was noticing was shame.  Shame, she says, is easily understood as a fear of disconnection.  It’s that feeling, that haunting question that wonders, “Is there something about me where, if others know it, I won’t be worthy of connection?”  And “the thing that underpinned shame was an excruciating experience of vulnerability.  The idea that, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen—truly seen, for who and what we really are.”[6]

It’s worth taking a moment here to recall that last week, when I asked what the man and the woman in the garden were feeling after they’d given into their temptation and ate the fruit they were instructed not to, the first response from a couple people was “shame”.  In the Biblical story about our human beginnings, Adam and Eve wondered whether, if God knew what they’d done, God would decide they were no longer worthy of connection.  It filled them with horror and dread, and it made them aware of their vulnerability.  So, they sewed fig leaves together and covered themselves.  They began layering themselves with protective coverings physically, emotionally, spiritually so that they would not feel so vulnerable, so visible, so exposed.  They were no longer able or willing to be seen and known for who they truly were.  Not even by themselves, so great was their fear of disconnection.

And yet, ironically, it was in the act of trying to hide the truth of who they were – from each other, from themselves, even from God – that they became more and more disconnected.

Accepting who we truly are, and allowing ourselves to be seen for who we truly are, takes courage.  The word courage has a Latin root word, cor, meaning heart.  One of the earliest meanings of the word courage, Brown says, was “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”  To reveal who you are, to live your truth, with your whole heart.  To willingly show who you are, to be seen authentically, without the protective emotional and spiritual armor we all unconsciously start piling on from an early age in an effort to shield ourselves from the pain and fear of disconnection.

As I watched Dr. Brown’s TED Talk, I realized that basically, her research just confirms everything we know from reading Scripture and living a Christian life of faith.  We are designed, hard-wired, for life in community; the desire for connection and a sense of belonging is fundamental and universal to our human experience.  So is vulnerability – the fear of being seen and known for who and what we truly are.  Most of us spend a good deal of our lives trying to hide our true selves – or, at least, those parts we fear might be ridiculed or rejected by others – and in doing so, we create distance, disconnection from our own self, and God, and others.  And yet, the example of the One whose life we aspire to demonstrated that vulnerability – while opening us to the possibility of pain, rejection, even abuse – it is the only pathway to joy, creativity, meaning, belonging, and true love.

During this season of Lent, as we try to pay closer attention to our habits in relationship, in koinonia fellowship and Christ-like community, may our journey with Jesus from our wilderness to the cross and ultimately to resurrection life, teach us about the meaning of sacrifice, the strength and courage of vulnerability, and the joyous freedom of authenticity.  Amen.

[1] Exod. 4:10-13, The Message transl.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See 1 Samuel 9-10.

[4] 2 Corinthians 4:1, 7

[5] TED: Technology, Entertainment, and Design – short, 15-minute talks about various topics. This one’s available on YouTube.

[6] Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability” TED Talk, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC