May 10, 2020 Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
Trust and Vulnerability
Life is full of paradoxes:
We value progress but we don’t like change.
The more we learn the more we realize how little we know.
The more connected we get, the more isolated we are.
The only certainty is that nothing is certain.
Philosopher and author Martha Nussbaum mentions another paradox of the human condition: “When you allow yourself to trust, you open yourself to being vulnerable. Being human is to have an openness to the world, an ability to trust beyond your own control. And this openness is risky, for it can result in you to be shattered. To trust is to make us fragile.” Nussbaum concludes: “The greatest tragedy of all is the attempt to guard against hurt by petrifying that essential softness of the soul, for that denies our basic humanity.
Being human means accepting promises from other people and trusting that other people will be good to you. When that is too much to bear, it is always possible to retreat into the thought, “I’ll live for my own comfort, for my own revenge, for my own anger, and I just won’t be a member of society anymore.” That really means, “I won’t be a human being anymore.”
Unfortunately, there are people who retreat into their fortress because they feel that society has let them down. They feel that they cannot trust society and they can’t ask anything of it. They feel that they can’t put their hopes on anyone or anything outside themselves. You see them actually retreating to a life in which they think only of their own satisfaction, and maybe the satisfaction of their revenge against society. But let’s be very clear: the life that no longer trusts another human being and no longer forms ties to the community is not a human life any longer. “The need to trust implies one fundamental fact: you’re vulnerable.”
Author and professor Brene Brown says it this way: “Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Trust and vulnerability. Trusting makes you vulnerable. Without trust you may feel invincible but are you still human? Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.
All three Scripture readings play out against the backdrop of trust and vulnerability. In all three, in spite of different circumstances we sense pain, uncertainty, and vulnerability. But we also see unconditional trust. And in the face of unconditional trust and vulnerability we see full and meaningful life – even in the face of death!
The Book Acts of the Apostles is Luke’s description of how the Disciples of Christ responded to his resurrection. The Book informs us that the Disciples received the Spirit of God, they believed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the One sent by God. They placed their unconditional faith and trust in Jesus who conquered death. And we sense their vulnerability. The Book informs us how the Gospel message was shared and how people responded to it. In chapter 6 we read that as the numbers of faithful increased, some of the widows were neglected in the daily distribution of food. The Disciples then appoint seven deacons, men of good standing to take care of the widows and the poor.
One of them was Stephen. Not long after he was appointed deacon, he was arrested. The accusation was blasphemy. When the high priest asked him to explain, Stephen gave a long speech about God’s work with Israel. At the end of his speech, they responded in a brutal way: “They became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.”
Stephen on the other hand, filled with the Spirit, placed his trust in God and Jesus! They dragged him out of the city and they began to stone him. On a side note, a young man Saul is mentioned. He of course would become Paul and would later also place his trust in Jesus and would become vulnerable too. Here, however, Saul approved of Stephen’s killing.
Stephen, when they were stoning him showed his unconditional trust by praying: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And this human paradox, trust and vulnerability, illuminates his humanity when he says: “do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen’s trust in Jesus resulted in his vulnerability, his suffering and death. But he was able, because of his trust in Christ, to live and die a man who could pray for the forgiveness of others! His trust in God enabled him to intercede for them and pray for their wellbeing, their forgiveness. He did so in spite of his own mortal vulnerability. Stephen lived the human life the way God intended. He did not curse, he did blame, he interceded for them.
In John 14 we read what is called a “farewell discourse”. Jesus and his disciples were together the night before he died. He washed their feet, and he gave them a new commandment to love one another. Then he prepared them for what was about to happen over the next few days. And he said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”
He then called on them to believe in God- and also to believe in Him. He promised that he would go and prepare for them a place so that they would be with him. He calls on them to believe, to place their trust in God! And this of course made them vulnerable!
All this was said the night before he was killed. Remember that at the time when Jesus spoke these words, there were only 12 of them with him and one of them was about to betray him. The next day they were a scared, confused, exposed people who were on their own, alienated from their fellow Jews.
So now Jesus invited them to trust him. He encouraged them, he gave them comfort, and urged them to hold onto their faith. The purpose of this farewell discourse was to prepare them for a very difficult time – the death of their friend, their own persecution, Jesus’s departure and the divine task to spread the good news! The only way they could make sense of it all was to put their trust in Jesus who assured them that he was God’s Son. The had to trust Him as the One who gave them life, He was the truth. Remember that this was before he had risen, before they had seen with their own eyes. Their trust in Him made them extremely vulnerable.
Not long after this they were ridiculed, prosecuted and in many instances killed because of their trust and faith in their Lord. However, in spite of their sufferings, they lived with meaning and love towards other human beings. And when they died they did so with eternal hope. Trust made them vulnerable but it also enhanced their humanity!
The early church experienced vulnerability! When the Roman Empire under Caesar Nero blamed Christians for the fire that devastated parts of Rome, the persecution of Christians started. They were killed in the most horrendous ways imaginable. They were clothed in animal skins so dogs attacked them. There are accounts of them being set aflame to light Caesar’s public gardens. Their faith and trust in Jesus made them vulnerable.
Not surprisingly, some of them reconsidered whether their trust and faith in Christ were worth it. Others actually abandoned their faith. This is the background of 1 Peter. The word “suffering” appears more in this book than in any other book in the NT. The author reminds his persecuted and vulnerable readers that they have a privileged status when they joined God’s household, they are a chosen people, sanctified by the Spirit, and children of God. Their suffering is because they placed their trust in the living stone, that is Jesus. They are suffering because Jesus suffered for them.
Peter urges them not to abandon their faith or trust in the Lord. Their task as God’s own people is to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of the darkness into the light. That is to be witnesses of God’s great acts as a grateful response to what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Peter quotes Hosea: “You were not a people but now you are God’s people, once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.”
They are a community, they are God’s people for they trust God even though it makes them vulnerable.
People of God, we live, as everyone knows, in a very painful and uncertain time. We all are extremely vulnerable at the moment: We are isolated, scared, lonely and our hearts are troubled. History teaches us that during times like these, it is not easy to trust others, for they may be carriers of the disease, they may compete for my job, they may look, sound different than me. We want to make sense of everything and therefore our impulse is to look for scapegoats.
We have various options to deal with this situation: We may want to live without trusting others for we don’t want to be vulnerable. We may want to isolate ourselves even more. We may want to build an emotionally wall around us. We may want to associate only with people who are likeminded, people who think the way I do. Why? Because we don’t want to more vulnerable. We are vulnerable enough!
However, such an approach will have a devastating effect on our humanity and on our society! We find our humanity in trusting others even though it make us vulnerable.
We may want to turn our backs on religion or God because it is risky to trust God. We may want to do whatever we can to be less vulnerable!
History shows that when there is a massive wave of suffering and death, a second wave of racism and xenophobia is typically not far behind. Experiences of mass grief and economic stress easily generate a desire for someone to blame. In terms of our sermon, crises lead to distrust!
An 1832 cholera epidemic in New York was blamed on Irish Catholic immigrants. An outbreak of smallpox in San Francisco in 1876 was blamed on the Chinese population. There are of course other examples in the world where crises led to mistrust and blaming others. A couple of days ago it was the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. One of the first things the Nazis did was to find a scapegoat to blame for the crisis.
Let me remind you again what I said at the beginning: the human paradox is our ability to trust others and our capacity for vulnerability. When you allow yourself to trust, you open yourself to being vulnerable. This is what makes is human. To trust is to make us fragile is what makes us human. The greatest tragedy of all is the attempt to guard against hurt by petrifying that essential softness of the soul, for that denies our basic humanity:
Being a human means accepting promises from other people and trusting that other people will be good to you. To think you can avoid being vulnerable by not trusting is dangerous for it really means, “I won’t be a human being anymore.”
Our response to our current, painful, uncertain situation, as people of faith, should be, first of all not to give in to our natural instincts to distrust or blame, but to continue to live with trust, to be open to others even though it will make me more vulnerable – for doing so will enhance my humanity. For us as Christians trust starts with our faith in Jesus Christ who was willing to be vulnerable for he trusted us. Our trust in the Lord then flows over to our trust of others even when it makes us vulnerable for this is what true humanity is all about. Amen