The Vulnerable God
A Sermon at Christmas 2011
Last Sunday I read a storybook to all the children in our Great Hall service. The book, one my mother read to me when I was young, is called "If Jesus Came to My House." It begins with these words: If Jesus came to my house and knocked upon the door / I'm sure I'd be more happy than I've ever been before. Then, the narrator, a little boy, takes Jesus on a tour of his house. All these years later I remember those first words of that beloved childhood book quite well, but I remember some other words even more. They are not words about happiness. They are words about fear: And then I think I'd show him the corner in the hall / where I'm sometimes rather frightened by the shadows on the wall.
What frightens you? What do you fear? The Screaming Monster was a roller coaster ride I once took, memories of which still terrify me. Perhaps your fear is far more practical: a job lost, a medical problem gone awry, a life lived far too long. Everyone has something they fear, even legendary heroes. Indiana Jones hates snakes. Luke Skywalker constantly fights a walk on the Dark Side. Batman, the Dark Knight, becomes the Caped Crusader because he wants to deal with those things that scare him to death.
Here we are, on this most holy night, three days since the darkest and longest night of the year. There's no "dark-30" quite like the dark before winter's dawn. Christmas falls close to the winter solstice, another example of how our culture and the church are always linked. So tonight, in what seems like the darkest of dark shadows on the wall, we come here, looking for Jesus.
Darkness, as you know, is both literal and figurative. It is an archetypal metaphor, crossing all divisions and distinctions - theological, cultural, personal. Darkness is a sign, symbolizing evil, terror, death. In our own lives, darkness can describe a life seemingly consumed by family quarrels about rebellious children or aging parents - and who is or is not being responsible. Guilt and shame are the muck and mire of the darker side of family life.
I don't know about you, but for me, darkness has everything to do with being or feeling alone. Loneliness happens. It happens when we are dislocated or displaced from our normal surroundings. Whether it be divorce or death or some other kind of loss, we live in a world where we can easily feel rejected, isolated, forgotten. Feeling alone, even in a crowd, is darkness that demands we find some kind of light.
It's true that 21st century life has provided us with new ways of staying connected through the likes of e-mail and social media, helping us reach out to those whom we've been thinking about but have not contacted lately, letting them know we love them, that they are not forgotten. Perhaps our reaching out can spark a tiny glimmer of light in an otherwise dark life. Facebook friends can be real friends indeed, but they are not the only friends and loved ones we need to find the way in our darkness. We need "face time" that has nothing to do with a computer screen or smart phone app. We need real time with real people who, when we see them up close and personal enough to exchange a handshake or hug, light up our world. They help us keep on keeping on, just a little longer.
But there are also times when our friends and loved ones can actually be a distraction. In order to be more fully functioning adults in an increasingly dysfunctional world, sometimes we need to look in the mirror and face ourselves, no matter how dark things might seem. One of my spiritual guides has written several times, with brutal honestly, about the experience of his own darkness. During his adult life Parker Palmer has lived through three bouts of clinical depression. He has survived something the prophet Isaiah calls "a land of deep darkness" (9:2). Parker says that, when he finds he is in the depths of depression, he is not just living in darkness. For him, it feels like he has become the darkness. Having survived those dark nights, days and seasons, he has learned from them and has passed along a bit of wisdom for our own darkness:
"The spiritual journey will take us inward and downward, toward the hardest realities of our lives…(But) why must we go in and down? Because when we do so, we will meet the darkness…we carry within ourselves - the ultimate source of the shadows we project onto other people. If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone 'out there' into the enemy…(and we will) oppress rather than liberate others. But, " he continues, referencing some enlightenment from poet Annie Dillard, "if we ride those monsters all the way down, we break through to something precious …to the community we share beneath the broken surface of our lives." For Parker, depression has actually become a friend, "pressing (him) down to the ground where it's safe to stand" (from Let Your Life Speak).
What excites you? What do you love? Maybe it's that monstrous roller coaster ride! Or hanging out with wild animals. Or something as simple as a watching a good movie, reading a good book, hearing some great music, being with a grand, old friend. Whatever you love doing, it is, I suggest, all about light. It may well be part of the light, as Christians tend to put it, of Christ.
For me, there's nothing like the light and the lights of Christmas! As a child I loved nothing more than to pile into the car with my siblings after Christmas dinner and drive all around the city to take in all those glorious lights, with my parents pointing out their personal favorites. Tonight, we light all five candles - all four from Advent, and now, we add the Christ light. Bring it on, we seem to be saying. It's really dark these days, and we can't get enough light!
But where do we find that light, the light of God? We look for God in the light, here, tonight, trusting that God is with us, also, in our darkness. God with us, in the fear of the unknown and in the thrill of hope. God with us, in the loss of a beloved and in the gain of new possibilities for other relationships. God with us, in the dying and in the rising, in death and in life. And God with us, in the brightness of our strength and in the darkness of our vulnerability.
One of the pieces of technology I embrace is a thing called TED talks. More than 1,000 of these speeches of inspiration, all of them no longer than my sermons, can be viewed. The one that still captivates me, no matter how many times I watch it, is called "The Power of Vulnerability." In this video Brene Brown, a Ph.D. social worker, describes her own professional and personal journey into darkness and light, sharing deep insight from neurobiological and other kinds of clinical research. For years she studied the human condition - the relationship between love and heartbreak, belonging and connection. And connection - our ability to empathize, to feel compassion, to love - has everything, she discovered to her great chagrin, with vulnerability.
The root of that word "vulnerability" is about wounds. To be vulnerable is to be susceptible to attack, injury, pain, betrayal, violation, even destruction. To be vulnerable is to be weak, undefended, wound-able. Like our veteran troops returning home from war, who just want to be welcomed home. Like our women and children around the world, who just want the madness of both foreign and domestic terrorism to stop. Like our unemployed and under-employed sisters and brothers of all classes, from Moscow to Maryland, who just want a blessed job. Veterans, women, children and the poor are vulnerable people who need a God who says, "I am with you, whether you know it or not, ask for it or not or enjoy it or not." Because our God "gets it" about being wounded, about vulnerability.
And who is more vulnerable than poor, little Jesus child? His poor parents? Those homeless shepherds? Our God is a mighty, everlasting God, mysterious and tremendously Other than all of us. And our God, especially on Christmas Eve, is a baby, born into the depths of poverty and powerlessness. How vulnerable or powerful is our God? As vulnerable and powerful as Jesus. People of God, fear not. Tonight Jesus, God's son, has again come to your house and mine - to this church, our homes, our world. Come, let us adore him.