Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 23:1-12
None of us likes to feel vulnerable. To be vulnerable means we are more likely to be physically or emotionally hurt. We like to feel safe and strong, protected from people and things that might cause us pain or discomfort. Yet there are times when we choose to be vulnerable in spite of the potential risks involved. For example, every time we get in a car to drive to work or take a bike ride around the neighborhood we put ourselves in a vulnerable situation. Choosing to be vulnerable is part of being human.
Choosing to be vulnerable is part of loving other people.
I learned this in 6th grade. Her name was Linda. She was my very tall girlfriend. She noticed me and liked me because I made her laugh. Her laugh made my heart beat faster. Linda and I sealed our love by exchanging shoe laces. We also had a favorite song that was ours – “Do You Want to Know a Secret” by the new pop group from England called the Beatles. At the end of the school year, Linda broke my heart by announcing that she and her family were moving from Ames to Boone. While Boone was only 12 miles away, it might as well as been 1200 miles away. I knew that it was the end of my romance with Linda Burgoon. I also knew that I would never forget the vulnerability of loving another person.
We all can recount stories of when we ended up hurt from loving another human being. But love’s vulnerability is not restricted to romantic love. Any time we care for another person we open ourselves up to being hurt. It is part of the cost of being human and of living in relationships that matter.
This truth is what makes the incarnation - God becoming flesh in Jesus - so amazing. As we were reminded by the Scripture reading from Philippians, Jesus was made like us, fully human in every way. This means that Jesus knows what it is like to experience vulnerability. He knows what it is like to live in a human body that can suffer physical pain and death. Jesus knows how you feel when you walk each day with bodily pain or lie awake at night not able to find a sleeping position free of pain. And Jesus also understands emotional pain including love’s vulnerability - he personally knows the pain we all feel when someone we love betrays us, disappoints us, hurts us in some way. Because Jesus chose to humble himself, to walk this earth as a vulnerable human being, we serve a God who understands the struggles we face, a God who walks beside us in those struggles and who loves us with empathy and encouragement.
This means that we can trust God for strength and courage all along life’s way, even at the end of our days on earth. It is not unusual in my role as a pastor to be present with people who are facing death. Sometimes people who have lived with great faith over the course of their lives question that faith at the end. For some, it is a crisis of doubt, questioning not the existence of God, but the goodness of God. As one person put it, “Why is God punishing me, keeping me alive, prolonging these days of purposeless pain, when I have tried to be a good person all my life?”
In response we are offered Jesus, the one who made himself vulnerable to human suffering, the one who through his death and resurrection demonstrated both a God of love and a God of hope. In every form of human suffering, even death itself, Jesus walks with us just as he walked before us.
The importance of knowing that someone is with us was driven home by a devotional which I read on Friday morning. The author recalled a difficult time with these words, “Our hearts sank when we learned that our good friend Cindy had been diagnosed with cancer. Cindy was a vibrant person whose life blessed all who crossed her path. My wife and I rejoiced when she went into remission, but a few months later her cancer returned with a vengeance. In our minds she was too young to die. Her husband told me about her last hours. When she was weak and hardly able to talk, Cindy whispered to him, ‘Just be with me.’ What she wanted more than anything else in those dark moments was his loving presence.
The God whom Jesus came to reveal is the same God who in the Hebrew Scriptures comforted His people with the words: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Jesus did everything he could possibly do to help people be confident in God’s loving presence, to be assured that even in our darkest moments we are not alone. It grieved Jesus to see how most of the religious leaders of his day fell far short of revealing a God of such love. Rather than being vulnerable and helping carry the burdens of the people, the religious leaders distanced themselves from those who were hurting; they made religion a burden of impossible rules for common people and then judged these same people as unrighteous and unworthy. Using their position and power to uplift themselves, these leaders found their joy in being recognized with names of honor and treated as special. In the gospel lesson Jesus condemns these leaders for failing to model a God of humility, vulnerability and compassionate presence.
In a similar way, in the Scripture lesson from Philippians, the Apostle Paul was upset with some of the Christian leaders in the church at Philippi. Putting their selfish ambition ahead of their calling to be God’s servants to the people had caused division in the church and diluted their witness of God’s love to the greater community . In chapter 2 of Philippians Paul encourages these church leaders to take on the mind of Christ, a mind of humility and service. And in chapter 3 Paul reminds them that the heart of true religion is not keeping all the rules but sharing the suffering of others just as Jesus shares our suffering.
The lesson of our Scriptures is clear: just as Jesus chose love’s vulnerability so we are to follow his example by being in relationship with those who are suffering in our world today. For it is in sharing our stories and carrying one another’s burdens that we experience the love of God in ways that forever change our lives.
Sharing love’s vulnerability begins with deepening our relationships here within the church of Christ. We can grow in care for one another in many ways. One of the simplest ways is to pray for each other, starting with the specific prayer requests listed each week in our Sunday Courier. I hope many of you have gotten into the practice of praying at 11:07 – keeping the little prayer reminder card in my shirt pocket helps me to remember to do this simple, yet powerful prayer. Another simple opportunity we have is getting to know one another better at fellowship after worship on Sundays. I encourage you to try each week to attend our fellowship and get to know at least one person who is new to you.
But sharing love’s vulnerability is also to extend beyond our church. Earlier this month our congregation shared a beautiful Sunday afternoon at a local park with the members of Higher Ground Church of God in Christ. On Sunday, August 28th we will share an afternoon at Lake George with members of other Christian churches and local Islamic mosques. Then on the evening of Sunday, September 11 we will host a dinner for members and allies of Promise Neighborhood which is located near Talahi School. Each of these gatherings are first about building relationships: as guest speaker to our Minnesota Methodist Annual Conference, Sara Miles, put it, “Our work in the world must be ‘with’ and not ‘for.’ It’s often easier and safer to do something for someone – to act on their behalf. Being with them is riskier because it means we both might be changed by the relationship.”
Rather than judging or distancing ourselves from those who are strangers to us, when we walk with Jesus we make a road that leads us toward others, especially those who some consider less worthy, less righteous, less deserving of our love. As Brian McClaren puts it in his book We Make the Road by Walking, “If you listen to God’s Spirit, you will be prepared when you see a person or a group being vilified or scapegoated: when everybody is blaming them, shaming them, gossiping about them, feeling superior to them, venting their anxieties on them. If you join your voice with these voices of fear and blame, you’ll feel part of the dominant group. If you are silent, this group will assume you’re with them. But the Spirit will draw you to differ courageously and graciously, ‘I’m sorry,’ you’ll say. ‘but I see things very differently. I know this person. He is my friend. She is a good person. They are human beings just like us.’ You will risk your reputation in defending the person or people being scapegoated. And in that risk, both you and those you defend will know that God’s Spirit is alive and at work in your midst.”
This past Thursday evening I had the privilege of attending a “Break the Fast” prayer service and dinner at one of the local Islamic centers in St. Cloud. One of the Muslim leaders shared that the month of Ramadan is not just about fasting from all food and drink each day. While abstaining from these things, Muslims are to take time to identify those who are most hurting in the greater community and find ways to reach out to these neighbors. Part of Ramadan then involves building relationships of care and sharing all of God’s blessings with others. In a similar way, this is part of what it means to follow Jesus: he taught his disciples that worship, prayer and experiencing God’s love and blessing helps prepare and equip us to share our lives with one another and to be present with those who are most vulnerable in our world.
As we trust in God’s presence and work to create new relationships with others, sharing our struggles, our hopes and our gifts, we together are empowered to build a caring community where all God’s children are respected and able to thrive. So may God help us to serve one another and all people with the mind of Christ, the one who risked all as he chose love’s vulnerability to bring God’s love to the whole world. Amen!