A Sermon by the Rev. Barbara Mraz
January 1, 2023
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul Minnesota
I have a request to make of each of you. I hate doing it; in fact, I detest it. It is this: I have developed a bad relationship with ice. It scares me. It activates my vulnerability. I don’t want to fall. Even with the help of my trusty pointed curtain rod from Menard’s, it is daunting. So if you see me looking tentative, I ask for your arm, your hand, your support, your understanding. (And I have a feeling I’m not only speaking for myself here.)
More on this later.
There are countless themes in today’s Gospel: shepherds, Mary pondering in her heart, angels; the naming of Jesus on the eighth day. In fact, today is designated by Church tradition as “Holy Name Sunday”. But ex-Lutheran that I am, I’m going to move by “naming” and go pretty much with the Scripture here. I’d like to talk about the Nativity scene itself, the vulnerability of everyone in it, as well as the significance of vulnerability in our own lives.
Each person in the Nativity tableau is defined by vulnerability. Mary, a fourteen-year-old mother who is doubtlessly overwhelmed and afraid; thoughtful, as the text tells us, she “pondered things in her heart.”
By the way, this may be an editorial comment from Luke since how would anyone know what she was thinking. Then there is Joseph, a good man trying to do the right thing; and of course, a baby, the ultimate icon of defenselessness and vulnerability; as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it “infinity dwindled to infancy.” And who was more vulnerable than the shepherds, at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in Palestine, the opposites of the Three Kings who will arrive later in their rich robes with their gifts and treasures.
The writer Tish Harrison Warner notes, “We have tamed the Christmas story with over-familiarity and sentimentality – little lambs and shepherds, tinsel and stockings—failing to notice the pain, chaos and danger into which Jesus was born.”
No one has written more about vulnerability than the psychologist Brené Brown. In one of her books, she describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It’s that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control.”
She debunks some myths about vulnerability, the most popular being that it is a sign of weakness, saying, “When we think of times that we have felt vulnerable or emotionally exposed, we are actually recalling times of great courage. These may be huge life events, like deciding to put an ailing parent in hospice care, but it’s just as present in those small moments of fear that pop up when we share our feelings with another person or ask for forgiveness.”
I suggest that there are two categories of vulnerability: that which is forced upon us and that which we freely choose. The life of Jesus reflects both.
He risked talking to the outcasts of society: the woman at the well, his own disciples with their many issues like Peter in all of his complexity. Vulnerability is second only to love in the Christian story. The reading form Philippians describes another vulnerability:
…though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God exalted him even more highly
and gave him the name
that is above every other name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
That is a reference to the name of Jesus that is profound and explains why many clergy usually bow their heads at the name of the Trinity. Jesus is the very definition vulnerability. Consider his position on the Cross, arms outstretched, nowhere to hide.
Another type of chosen vulnerability is honesty about our own spiritual questions. The writer Henri Nouwen notes, “Anxiety results from being afraid to ask the right questions. We huddle together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to questions we were afraid to ask.”
I know that this describes some of the time I‘ve spent in church basements in classes where good but reticent people do want to ask their deepest questions for fear of being seen as unfaithful, when to ask these questions would be the most faithful—and most holy – thing that they could do.
Sometimes we are vulnerable to our memories and the pain they bring us, especially in this season. I am transported back to my days at St. James Lutheran as a child, sitting in the sanctuary next to my mom at the end of a service when the choir always tenderly sang the words in our reading from Numbers today:
“The Lord bless you and keep you,
The Lord make his face to shine upon you
The Lord lift his countenance upon you,
And give you peace.”
I am sad and I am grateful for the memory.
We are not asked to walk around, endlessly repeating sad personal stories or experiences. Vulnerability is not entertainment or therapy, when used in this way.
One of the most moving examples of chosen vulnerability for a higher purpose is the 330 mile journey on horseback of Dakota people from Brule, South Dakota, to Reconciliation Park in Mankato, to remind us of the 40 Dakota who were hung in response to the Indian War, 157 years ago. This was ordered by President Lincoln (who had reduced the number from over 300). It was rumored that white “settlers” would riot if the hangings didn’t take place.
After the war, captive Dakota people were exiled to Fort Thompson, and many Dakota women and children died of cold and hunger during the winter in 1863 in what Dakota elder Wilfred Keeble describes as the “first concentration camp,” you can still visit this site today, below Ford Snelling and it is haunting.
The weather this year with frigid temperatures, ice and snow made the journey even more difficult for the riders and their horses, their valiant horses. Said one female rider, “The first thing I ever heard was, every time your horse’s foot hits the ground is a prayer,” she said. “That’s the strongest thing because we’re in ceremony. We’re here with a purpose.”
As one chief said, “If we stop doing this, they’ll forget again.”
I’ve used the terms vulnerability and humility almost interchangeably today and will do so one more time: One of my Christmas presents was this book: An Immense World: How Animals Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. In it, the American naturalist Henry Beston writes “Animals have worth in themselves. They move finished and complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, lifted by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are other nations, caught with us in the net of life and time.”
So I am learning about the vastly superior sense of smell possessed by dogs and that you should not deter your Very Good Boy on his walk from the vast joys and importance of sniffing; that butterflies and other insects can identify things by landing on them; that Asian elephants can communicate over long distances with low pitched infrasonic calls, and that in quieter days the whales’ call could carry across entire oceans, and that animals do feel pain.
Humbling? Absolutely, to know that animals have gifts and abilities that we could never possess or duplicate.
So back to the ice and the vulnerability I began talking about today. It is an enforced vulnerability to be sure. And yet….
When I have asked for an arm or a hand, no one has yet refused me and ironically one response I have gotten is, not only receiving the help, but thanking me for the opportunity. At the Honeybaked Ham store before Christmas when I had to ask a young clerk to give me a hand to my car, he thanked me for getting him out of the store. A man I approached after Lessons and Carols – a visitor no less –and asked for an arm to walk on the ice thanked me for asking — even though he also had to venture out on the ice. Were we holding each other up?
But here’s the main thing: Our own expressed vulnerability may provide an opportunity for another person to experience their own capabilities, their own gifts, their own goodness.
Tish Harrison Warner, “Did you have Hard Christmas? Jesus did too,” online source.
David Lose, Commentary on Luke 21, Working Preacher, 2021.