READING FROM THE GOSPELS (Mark 9:30-37)
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
I went to church a lot when I was getting a divorce. It was the only place I could go and hide in a corner and listen to the music and wait for God to take everything that was broken and make something new with it. I was scared to leave the house that year, scared to walk down the street that year, scared to run into friends that year, scared to talk to my parents that year, scared to be with my kids for fear I would break down, or that they would ask questions I couldn’t answer that year. I was terrified of taking my kids to all of their events, which I just saw as shame landmines. I was terrified of going to things like back to school nights. Those back to school nights were the worst. And Thanksgiving and Christmas were nightmares. My family was as devastated as I was. I couldn’t take care of myself, and there was no way that I could take care of them. I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping. I was showing up depressed and anxious if I showed up at all. I was fearful that people’s disappointment of me and my failed marriage would color every conversation. I had nothing to give anyone when I wasn’t at work. And when I showed up, I didn’t show up because I was brave, I showed up because I had no choice. It helped that I was numb. There wasn’t enough Wellbutrin in the world to make the numbness go away. It was the most vulnerable experience of my life.
But I went to a church that had a practice of confession and communion every single week, because I needed that. It was the only place in the world where I could go and feel like I wasn’t wearing a gigantic sign on my back that said, “broken person.” Or, more realistically, it was a place I could go where everyone was wearing that sign. My church was the only place that normalized broken people; where others admitted they were broken, too. Every week, we confessed our communal sins, and I confessed my own sins to God fervently in my head (and I think that just sounded like, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again), and every week the pastor told me that nothing in heaven and nothing on earth could separate me from the love of God in Christ. And I wept hearing that, every week. I was like a very small and lost child. I needed to hear that I was loved unconditionally like I needed food and water.
And the people at church, who barely knew me, they prayed for me. They asked me how I was. They played with my kids. It was hard to be a mom then.
I was mostly just vacant and empty when I wasn’t crying. It was messy. I showed up messy. It was the only way I could show up.
Showing up is important, because that’s the only way to live. And I want to tell you that I’m worried sometimes, as your pastor. I am worried that sometimes some of us are too afraid to show up messy. I am worried that we only come to church when we are capable of putting on our best happy face; our best pretend self. I am worried that we only come here when we are feeling well, or when we can at least pretend to be OK. I have met with too many of you who say that you can’t come to church for whole periods at a time because you “are not at your best,” or “can’t smile right now,” or that you “don’t want to be a burden to anyone.”
We need to think about why this is, church. We need to normalize not being OK for one another. We need to help each other lay our burdens at one another’s feet.
I’m just going to be honest. None of us are as OK as we look, and I think we’re tired of pretending that we are. Ain’t nobody got the energy anymore to pretend. We can’t wait until we are all OK to show up for one another. If we’re going to be church to one another, we need to learn to take our own vulnerability seriously, and be brave enough to admit our vulnerability to each other.
This is hard work. I get it. I do.
But the message we get from our scriptures says something different, something that we Christians just don’t pay enough heed to. Our Bible says that God’s welcome looks like loving us up at our most weak and tired. Our Bible says we are supposed to be messy, supposed to be broken, supposed to be human.
We are told over and over again:
The meek shall inherit the earth.
God is most present in suffering.
We are extravagantly loved in our brokenness, weakness, despair.
Do not be afraid.
In perhaps my favorite passage from the Bible, the scripture we read from Mark begins with Jesus teaching his disciples that he will soon be killed. That he will be betrayed by one of them. He was admitting his vulnerability to his friends and followers, and it totally freaked them out. They didn’t understand what he meant and they were afraid to ask him.
I can imagine that. If a person I have trusted, a leader I felt lost without, was telling me that he would soon be killed, and it may even be my fault, I’d be afraid to ask him more about what he meant, too.
There is something about learning about the vulnerability of someone you depend on that makes you feel all the more scared for your own safety. The disciples wanted to stay comfortably in denial about the vulnerability of their teacher and savior, and who can blame them?
So they did what we always do when we are afraid.
Instead of admitting their helplessness and terror to one another, they had an argument among them about who was the greatest disciple. Isn’t that so what human beings do in the face of their own fear, their own mortality, their own uncertainty about the future? I feel scared, so I’m going to puff up my chest, boast about how awesome I am and pretend I’m not freaking out. So many wars have been fought because of this reaction to our own human frailty. So many relationships have ended.
And when we don’t have the energy to puff up our chests, go out in the world and pretend that we are perfect and our family is perfect, we just stay home. Both are dangerous, because the former is a lie, and the latter is giving over to our fear of our own inadequacy. But our job is not to be perfect: it is, instead, to tell the truth with as much bravery as we can muster.
Jesus points to a new way of responding to fear. When he finds out that his disciples were arguing about who is the greatest among them, he says, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant to all.” And then he does a little street theater, and grabs a child from the crowd, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
I want to say that this is my favorite thing that Jesus says about welcome. He says, essentially, whoever welcomes the most vulnerable among us—welcomes me. Welcomes God. He suggests that vulnerability is the source of our power, and that our job is to welcome it in ourselves, and in others.
And he says this has something to do with welcoming children.
One thing we have in common is that we were all children once. We all know what that feels like. Some of us romanticize childhood, because there are some really great things about it. No responsibility other than coming to dinner on time and doing some homework. No bills to pay, no people to take care of. But we were also so powerless as children. Try to remember what that was like, if you can. We were so small. We needed adults to carry us around when we fell down. We had absolutely no choice than to trust the people charged with taking care of us, for better or for worse. We had power over absolutely nothing. We imagined that when we grew up, we could have some control over our lives.
Madeleine L’Engle says that “when we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
I think that’s Jesus’ message to his disciples in a nutshell. Admit that you are just as vulnerable as you were as a child, and accept it. Revel in it, even. When you are scared or lonely or sick or sad, if your response is to pretend you’re not; you’re doing it wrong. Jesus says the keys to the kingdom of God—the way you can model godliness in this world—is to be courageous enough to stay soft, open, trusting, truthful, real and vulnerable, like a child.
The last shall be first.
I know to some of us, the word “vulnerable” sounds like the word “weak,” and weak is the last thing we want to be. But vulnerability and weakness are not at all synonymous.
Brene Brown is a brilliant shame researcher who wrote the book “Daring Greatly.” I commend it all to you. In her research, Brown asked people to finish this sentence stem: “vulnerability is________”
Here’s how some people finished the sentence:
• Sharing an unpopular opinion
• Standing up for myself
• Asking for help
• Saying no
• Starting my own business
• Helping my thirty seven year old wife with stage 4 breast cancer make decisions about her will
• Calling a friend whose child just died
• Signing up my mom for hospice care
• The first date after my divorce
• Saying “I love you” first
• Getting fired
• Getting pregnant after three miscarriages
• Waiting for the biopsy to come back
• Reaching out to my son who is going through a difficult divorce
• Admitting I’m afraid
• Being accountable
• Asking for forgiveness
• Having faith.
Does this sound like weakness to you? Brown says “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Vulnerability means taking off the masks we wear and owning up to the people hiding behind them, warts and all. It means facing tender moments with bravery. And that practice is for the tough, not the weak—vulnerability is the place where courage and fear meet.
We need to attempt this kind of courageous vulnerability with one another. We need to challenge each other to show up in community when aren’t ready to—before we have put on our make-up, before we have been cured of our disease, BEFORE we get on meds for our depression, BEFORE we get sober, BEFORE we have gotten re-married, BEFORE we have put on our best Sunday wardrobes and our BEST Sunday smiles. Before our family is perfect, before we have gotten that GED and gotten accepted into a four year program, BEFORE we get a job after a long time of unemployment. Our job is to be brave enough to show up before we’re ready to. To risk exposure. To risk being disappointed in the outcome. To trust others to be able to hold our brokenness, even when we know they could fail us.
Our job is to risk vulnerability, which is the ultimate source of our strength.
David Lose says that “Jesus overturns the prevailing assumptions about power and security by inviting the disciples to imagine that abundant life comes not through gathering power but through displaying vulnerability, not through accomplishments but through service, and not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming children.
These are small things when you think about it. Serving others, opening yourself to another’s need, being honest about your own needs and fears, showing kindness to a child, welcoming a stranger. But they are available to each and all of us every single day. And each time we make even the smallest of these gestures in faith – that is, find the strength and courage to reach out to another in compassion even when we are afraid – we will find our fear lessened, replaced by an increasingly resolute confidence that fear and death do not have the last word.”
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.