Vulnerability

“The people stood by watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’”

Luke 23:35

In the Monty Python movie, “The Meaning of Life,” the headmaster of a British boys’ school is presiding over a service in the chapel and he begins a prayer by saying: “O Lord, you are so big, so absolutely huge…you are so strong, and, well, so super…those of us down here are really impressed, I can tell you.”

Of course, this is a satirical exaggeration of how our prayers and scripture often depict God as majestic and powerful.

But today’s gospel reading challenges us to think in a drastically different register.

The picture we are given of the execution of a defenseless, powerless Jesus is not an image of omnipotence and might.

No, quite the opposite—it is an image of acute weakness and vulnerability.

And this raises the scandalous possibility that it’s in Jesus’ utter vulnerability that his divinity is manifest.

Could it be that in this picture of Jesus being mocked and taunted as he is stretched out on wooden beams we are given a glimpse of the vulnerability of God?

And is it possible, as our tradition has long asserted, that in the faces of vulnerability you and I meet every day, we are also encountering the vulnerability of God?

Now it’s hard to imagine in this world of conflict and strife that we could do without the restraining force of those institutions that impose law and order however imperfectly and sometimes ruthlessly.

It would seem that our unruly natures require the existence in some form or other of governing bodies, armed forces, police, courts, fire codes, etc., notwithstanding the ever-present danger that those in positions of authority will abuse that authority and overreach.

Certainly the powers that be, the representatives of law and order, can compel, restrain, and subdue us—they can force us to be law abiding or suffer the consequences—what these representatives of restraining force cannot do is inspire contrition, generosity, and a heart of gratitude.

But what sheer force cannot accomplish, the face of vulnerability can.

It is the face of vulnerability, rather than force, that can change us; it is the face of vulnerability that can convert us.

The face of vulnerability does not coerce, demand, or threaten.

Instead, the face of vulnerability appeals to us, entreats us, invites us, to break out of our reclusiveness and isolation and become available to the neighbor in our midst.

There’s something about the face of vulnerability that can stop us in our tracks, instantly dissolve our aloofness, and stir up within us a spontaneous desire to respond, help, understand, console, encourage.

There’s something about the face of vulnerability that can shake us up, change the chemistry of our disposition in a heartbeat, unfreeze our laughter and tears, and cause a spirit of tender mercy toward others to well up within us.

Think of how certain faces of vulnerability have affected us.

The face of a severely wounded deer by the side of the road—

Faces like that of Billy who regularly climbs into the dumpsters in our apartment parking lot in fair weather and foul in search of throw-away food that’s still partially edible and anything that’s remotely recyclable—and who often sleeps rough even in the dead of winter in spite of a serious asthmatic condition that landed him in the hospital last year—and yet who somehow manages to be unfailingly friendly.

There’s the worried, anxious face of a young girl in a busy department store who’s pleading with her parents to stop yelling at each other.

There’s the face of a pink-cheeked young man in uniform at the airport who looks barely old enough to shave who’s about to embark on the first leg of his journey to Afghanistan.

Yes, it is the faces of vulnerability, the faces of Charlie Chaplin and the Little Rock Nine, that can convert us, melt our hardness of heart, draw us out of ourselves, and make us want to honor that invisible, unbreakable bond that connects us to our neighbor.

A smartly dressed woman gets on the commuter train—she’s wearing that mask of impersonal detachment that we all wear when we use public transportation.

Suddenly her mask falls away—suddenly she’s beaming, making all sorts of funny faces and theatrical gestures, oblivious to all her fellow travelers except the one directly across from her—a baby squirming and gurgling with delight at being entertained by this stranger.

Five hefty young men are having a tailgate party on a city side street—pizza cartons and bottles of Snapple are perched on the trunk lid of a car.

What starts out as a harmless occasion of good-natured companionship begins to turn rowdy.

The men start flinging pizza slices and empty bottles around, littering the sidewalk and street with food and broken glass.

Passersby mutter and frown and are obviously displeased with the mess these guys are making, but no one feels quite up to challenging them.

Lo and behold, a clown approaches, a real clown in full regalia who looks like he could be a Ringling Brothers regular but who’s probably on his way to a birthday party.

The clown stops and sizes up the situation.

Then, without saying anything, he goes over to the car, takes one of the empty boxes, and starts to gather up the scattered pizza and glass.

When he has picked up everything, he walks over to the corner and carefully puts the box and its contents in a trash bin.

The young men are all observing this in stunned silence—whereupon the clown strolls over to them and holds out his hat.

The men quickly reach into their pockets and put their collective change in the hat.

The clown bows and goes his way.

Power and might can intimidate us and force our compliance.

But it is the face of vulnerability, the vulnerability of a baby and a clown, the vulnerability of Jesus of Nazareth, the vulnerability of God, that can change us and turn our heart of stone into a heart of flesh.

It is the face of vulnerability that can entice us into being kinder, more courteous, more respectful of our neighbor, more forgiving of our adversaries, and more accepting of our own vulnerability. Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
The Last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
11/21/10

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