Friday, December 24, 2010

Incarnation = Vulnerable

Vulnerable (c) 2005 Linda Huber

Genesis 3; Luke 2
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
Christmas Eve – 2010

(Much of this meditation is due the work of Professor Brené Brown, a researcher/storyteller at the University Of Houston Graduate College Of Social Work. I am profoundly thankful that there are academics studying what makes for joy in human living.)

Tonight we celebrate the incarnation, the embodiment of the sacred, that mystery of God-with-us in the birth of Jesus. What does that mean, the embodiment of the sacred? What does it mean that God is with us in Jesus? How does a mystery like that make any difference after we’ve taken down the Christmas tree and put away the ornaments and the nativity set? What are we really celebrating?

We call this a holy night, a holy birth because God came into this world and into our lives in a way we had not experienced before. And yet God has always been coming into this world, seeking a connection, a relationship with the creation, with every living thing. All through the salvation story we can see how God reaches out, human beings reject. God allows human beings to suffer the consequences of their disconnection, human beings repent. God then opens the way to return to connection and relationship. Sounds like any normal interaction between a parent and a child. Or between any two people who have made themselves vulnerable to one another through love.

When we say that in Christmas we celebrate the incarnation, what we are really celebrating is vulnerability. Being vulnerable is when we say ‘I love you’ first, without thought to a response. Being vulnerable is allowing ourselves to be fully seen, to risk ourselves with no guarantees. Being vulnerable is investing ourselves in a relationship that may not work and doing it anyway.

Being vulnerable is messy. It’s a messy way to live. When we open ourselves like that, when we love, we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection and pain. We all know what that’s like, to love and to not be loved in return. We can become guarded, careful, fearful, shamed by our experience, wondering if we are even worthy of love. Some of us may have learned from those experiences not to open ourselves like that ever again.

However, when we guard our hearts from pain and rejection, we also close the way to joy and creativity and the ability to give. Professor Brené Brown says that adults today are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated in U.S. history. We find ways to numb ourselves, to keep this feeling of being vulnerable under lock and key. We all do this. If we think we are exempt, we are fooling no one but us. Perhaps we are not in debt but we still buy more than we need and save not nearly enough. We may not be obese but we still indulge ourselves at the table or between meals and we lead less-than-active lives. We may not be addicted to drugs or alcohol or tobacco; we may not be on medication but we still have to have that coffee or soda or some kind of treat; we engage in too much screen time of any kind.

All of this serves to soften the cliff-like edge between us and that open chasm of our feelings. But feelings are feelings and they travel the same pathway whether they be sorrow or joy, hope or despair, anxiety or calm, fear or love. When we numb ourselves to the bad stuff, we also blunt our ability to feel the good stuff. We then become miserable, which leads us to feeling vulnerable, which then leads us to engage in our numbing behaviors and the cycle begins all over again.

And the shocking thing of it is our culture has given us permission to do this: it’s called rewarding ourselves, treating ourselves, giving ourselves a little comfort; after all, we say, we deserve it considering all we put up with. This is how our culture makes money, it’s Madison Avenue at its finest; this is how an empire is made and recessions are born: with human misery, out of our inability to deal with the fact that life is vulnerable and messy.

From the very beginning life on this earth has been that way. The only instance when there was no mess, no risk was in that formless void. When God spoke, when energy became matter, mess and risk entered in and hunkered down for the duration. In the creation of the heavens and the earth and especially in human beings, God not only created vulnerability but also became vulnerable to the creation. In reaching out and desiring a connection with those made in the divine image, God became willing to the possibility of being a jilted lover. And our history with God has been one of the messiest love stories ever since.

In the birth of Jesus, God became completely and utterly vulnerable. In both the Matthew and Luke nativity stories, Jesus is born into a mess of some sort, whether it be under the rule of a vengeful king, the Roman occupation or laid in a feeding trough for animals. His parents were peasants, his hometown full of coarse, minimally-educated folks who worked hard and lived simple lives. His birth was witnessed by homeless shepherds or a few magi wanted for questioning, depending on which story you read.

When we are born and when we die we are at our most vulnerable and dependent. As children we love with our whole hearts, we immerse ourselves in joy and in play. It is only as we grow that we learn that the world may not and sometimes does not love us as we love ourselves. And so we begin the cycle of shame and fear that can plague us all through our adult lives.

In Jesus, God shows us how to live a vulnerable, open, wholehearted, joyful life. From Jesus we learn the risk, the price of a wholehearted love but we also learn courage, hope, and the knowledge that not only are others worthy of love and compassion but that we are too. Jesus teaches us through his vulnerable life and messy death that the practice of gratitude, joy and love are possible even in the face of great terror so that we might be able to face our own fears and be healed.

The Vulnerable Happiness of a Cherry Tree, Trine Wejp-Olsen, 2007

In Jesus we celebrate that God is fully known; God allows God’s self to be fully and deeply seen, granting us the trust we need to allow ourselves to be fully and deeply seen by others. Only in this way can we truly and deeply see others as they are. Yes, we are imperfect; yes, our lives and our life together are often quite messy. We are also worthy, just as we are.

So, baby Jesus, welcome to this messy, imperfect world! We’re glad you’re here. A weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Merry Christmas, Church! Amen.


Andy said...


Mystical Seeker said...

Are you so sure that the formless void wasn't also messy? :)

The idea of God's vulnerability is something that has often fascinated me. If God is perfect, then God is perfectly sympathetic, and if God is capable of perfect sympathy, then God suffers when we suffer (this is the panentheist and process theologian in me speaker here, of course.) The risk of a world of potential suffering was worth it, apparently, just for the benefit that is obtained by the existence of a world of conscious beings who experience anything at all, with all the attendant possibilities that this implies.

JRN said...

I came across this while preparing a sermon on the image of The church as Gods "flock" With He as its shepherd. If ever there were a picture of vulnerability it is sheep. And, in line with your sermon, the incarnation teaches us that the Lord our shepherd became the lamb "who takes away the sin of the world". I am again amazed at the Word in both it's written AND it's fleshly. Thanks