"Finding Vulnerability Our Greatest Strength"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 13, 2008
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Most of us have experienced facing a fork in our road. Most of us have experienced making a decision that changed the course of our lives. Most of us have looked uncertainty in the face and wondered if we might prefer the comfort of staying where we are. Jesus was no different.
What motivated Jesus to enter the Jordan River that day? What happened during his baptism that moved him to explore pursuits beyond that of being a carpenter and beyond remaining the breadwinner for his mother and his younger brothers and sisters?
There can be little doubt that Joseph methodically taught Jesus the craft of carpentry. Early non-biblical traditions cite that the two worked side by side during Jesus' early years. Another early tradition suggests that Joseph was killed when a derrick collapsed while he was working on Herod's fortress at Masada. This could explain why Joseph is not mentioned in the Gospels after the birth stories and why Jesus had to wait for thirty years before embarking on his ministry. As the eldest son, Jesus' responsibility for his family prevented any change.
So often we have been taught to gloss over Jesus' humanity because of his being such an intimate part of the Trinity. Jesus remained connected to the vine as we can choose to be, but such an attachment did not remove him from experiencing fear, moments of uncertainty, or having to make decisions when all the correct answers remained unclear.
There is a certain vulnerability that Jesus experienced during the process of his making a major career change. He would be leaving a craft and a group of clients that he knew extremely well for a path that he had never traveled. He would be leaving a vocation with known strengths for one where the required skills and destiny were unknown.
Most of us have been in this situation sometime during our lives. It could have happened when we graduated from high school or college, when we decided to interview for that first job, when we hoped that the person we were dating seriously was the person with whom we wanted to spend the rest of our lives, when we had our first baby, when we retired and our future would represent a departure from most of the daily routines we had known or when we experienced the death of a loved one with whom we were sharing life's adventures.
So many times we look at ourselves during these more fragile stages of evolution and blame the way we feel on low self-esteem. We question why we feel so inferior and apprehensive dealing with what is coming up for us. We pray for strength to cope and it does not come. Many of us are looking for something to help explain why we feel so vulnerable when confronted with change for which we feel so ill prepared. We feel inadequate. The truth is we are inadequate, but not for the reasons we often suggest to ourselves.
When I was appointed by our bishop to serve in a rural setting, our family's Martinsburg, West Virginia experience offered our young children the opportunity to become involved in a 4-H Club. One of the tasks Sue had to perform was to deliver a 5-minute talk before an audience of her peers. Making a public presentation was an activity where Sue had no known skills. She was filled with regret for being involved with 4-H.
She wanted to quit. She did not want to hear that public speaking would be good for her. She needed coaching on how to prepare a five-minute talk. We listened to her rehearsing. We learned that she had not slept the night before her presentation. She could not concentrate at school that day. And when she performed before her club, she white-knuckled the podium and spoke rapidly from a very dry mouth.
Was this low self-esteem? Was this a young girl who was prone to anxiety attacks? Was this a person who had been abandoned by God during a moment of her greatest need? Was she being asked to do the impossible or engage in an experience that would evoke public embarrassment, teasing and ridicule? "No!" to all of those questions.
In his book, The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote,
In Gibran's poetic wisdom, we learn that our sense of vulnerability comes from our fears that we do not have the resources to cope with what is coming up for us. When properly understood, our sense of vulnerability is only the recognition that we have not yet developed the skills to face circumstances we have never experienced. These feelings mean nothing more than that. Such an emotional pattern comes to all of us, including Jesus.
Today our daughter can confidently deliver presentations in front of executives for her company -- AT&T. Sue's skill at public speaking had remained dormant until her job required the constant sharpening of her ability to communicate effectively in the public forum. As Gibran suggests, the moments we experience vulnerability are merely stepping-stones.
When we return to our lesson, Matthew wrote, "As soon as Jesus was baptized, he came up out of the water. Then heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and lighting on him. Then a voice said from heaven, >This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased!'"
Think about these words for a moment. This transmission offered no direction. How was Jesus to process them? We learn a little later from Matthew that "the Spirit led Jesus into the desert" where he could reflect on the form his new calling would assume. Had anything prepared him for this mid-life crisis, this melt down of so much that he had valued? The answers is, "Yes."
There is scriptural evidence that Jesus had an excellent grasp on the thoughts written by the prophet Isaiah. There was one occasion where Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll while he was worshipping on the Sabbath in his family's synagogue in Nazareth. (Luke 4:16-19) During that service Jesus read Isaiah 61:1-2, a passage that is very similar to Isaiah 42:1-9 B one of our scriptures this morning.
There can be no question that Jesus knew the qualities of the servant God intended to send into the future. The words Jesus heard during his baptism were almost identical to the words Isaiah had written much earlier, "The Lord says, >Here is my servant, whom I strengthen B the one I have chosen, with whom I am pleased.'" (Isaiah 42:1a) Talk about white-knuckling the podium! This experience represented a crossroad, a fork in his path, a calling.
There could not be a more vulnerable time for Jesus than that moment. There is a tremendous lesson here for us. Jesus had to approach what had happened during his baptism with no self-understanding for what was about to unfold. It is no wonder that he spent 40 days in the desert. Jesus was as immobilized as Moses when he approached a burning bush that was not consumed. God commanded him to confront the most powerful ruler of his time B Pharaoh. "Tell Pharaoh," God said, "to let my people go."
Feelings of vulnerability can either cause us to retreat from life or to accept a challenge to leave a safe harbor and sail into the deeper waters where countless unknowns await. Vulnerability is the greatest source of strength because of what these feelings communicate to us. Our total confidence in any pursuit is only there because we know we have the skills to be successful, e.g., "Jesus, could you fit my oxen with a custom made yoke?"
We need to reinterpret what feelings of vulnerability mean. They do not signal defeat. Such feelings are an invitation to evolve, climb and develop skills we believe we do not possess. When we realize that we may not be prepared for what the future will demand of us, should we not welcome the opportunity to learn?
When I was a teenager, I absolutely dreaded the end of our youth fellowship meetings. In fact, quite strategically, when I sensed our meeting was coming to a close, I headed for the bathroom where I stayed. The occasion I disliked the most was the closing circle. We had to cross our arms and hold hands with others and one by one we had to pray out loud. By the time it was my turn, I freaked out. I felt that the other kids had already said everything and I froze with nothing to say. It was then that I said to myself, "I don't need this!" How wrong I was!
We do not like uncertainty. We seldom enjoy looking foolish. We often would rather play it safe than take a risk where new skills are required. This is why we should never look down on someone who makes mistakes, who does not always use their best judgment, or who appears to take one step forward and two steps backward. We are all students here.
We must remember that Jesus was not the embodiment of perfect patience. (Mark 9:19) He was not the best communicator. (John 6:60) There were times when he was not able to perform miracles. (Mark 6:5) He did not choose his friends wisely. (John 13:21) I am sure he often prayed, "Why me, Lord?" (Luke 22:42) There were moments when he felt abandoned. (Mark 14:50) He was learning as we all do. Life would have been far less stressful and complicated had Jesus stayed a carpenter.
Helen Steiner Rice once wrote an insightful poem that focuses on our fears when life becomes uncertain:
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, how often our spirits can lose their focus from the array of stimulation that impacts our lives. For thousands of years, the story line of human history has varied little. Jesus invited us to view our circumstances as opportunities to be in mission. We confess, however, that we seldom view ourselves as missionaries. Our will and spirit are more interested in justice, fairness, and equality, knowing that we live in a world of power struggles. Our temptation is to become warriors for great causes. Empower us with the wisdom to discern that our strength lies in patience, our guidance comes from following an example and our character grows from the values we choose. Inspire us to help others to become the people you created them to be. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We enjoy these moments, O God, because of what they allow us to do. Most of us realize that we do not take enough time for healing and nurturing our spirits. There are so many unrecognized needs that inflame our passions, siphon away our patience and cloud our vision of tomorrow. For this one hour there are no demands being made of us. There are no vital decisions we need to make. We do not need to vent our opinions about anything. We can doze if our bodies need that. We can attempt to participate even though our minds occasionally drift to the world we have briefly left outside.
Yet we know there is a part of us that never sleeps. And we know that you are everywhere, always ready to support us with your guidance. When our fears bring the "Yes, but what if" thoughts into our minds, you are there to help us remember that you made us bigger than any "what if" circumstance. You created us to be a light in darkness, a candle in the wind and a diamond being formed in the midst of heat and pressure. Help us to understand our identity with greater clarity. Indeed, you are the potter and we are the clay.
Today we pray for people passing through fragile moments, for people facing challenging decisions, for those whose bodies are broken by disease or war, for neighbors who find loving each other so difficult to do and for nations who cannot move beyond their violent power struggles. We call upon you, O God, for your patient guidance toward a tomorrow that is filled with hope and peace. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .