The Vocation of Vulnerability
“The Vocation of Vulnerability”
Sermon Preached by Thomas P. Markey
John Knox Presbyterian Church
July 1, 2018
I found myself in a peculiar situation on Friday morning.
Here I was, sitting in the waiting room of a surgery center with Abbie, while our younger daughter, Eden, was having surgery. It was a very minor eye surgery. Since she was born, Eden has struggled with her tear ducts being clogged, so on Friday they did a minor procedure to help clear out the blockage while also putting a stint in each eye to ensure that her tear ducts no longer clog in the future.
So, while we waited, in an attempt to keep my mind distracted, I began to look over our story for today, a story that, in typical Mark fashion, sandwiches a story within a story – two stories of disease and death.
Perhaps, I thought to myself, maybe not the best choice of reading while your 18-month-old is in the middle of surgery.
Though I knew Eden’s surgery was minor and a very simple procedure, I couldn’t help but be struck by just how much I could relate to the feelings of helplessness that both Jairus and the woman were feeling. We had just handed off our sweet girl to a group of complete strangers who were going to administer anesthesia and cut on her eyes. As I sat and read through this text, I kept thinking about her scared and startled face as the nurse took her off to the operating room.
And then I kept imagining this scene from our story today – both Jairus and the woman, prior to their encounter with Jesus, how must they have been feeling? What emotions were they experiencing? How were they processing their current situations? It must have seemed and felt as though death and disease were going to have a hold on their lives forever.
I’m sure many of us – if not all of us – can relate to this feeling, this sense of having no control, this sense of being totally exposed and completely vulnerable.
Jairus had exhausted all other options. His daughter was dying. No one could ever quite figure what was wrong with his daughter. He had taken her to every specialist there was, the results always being inconclusive. It seemed as though nothing and no one would be able to save his baby girl.
The woman had exhausted all other options. She had been bleeding for twelve years. Nothing worked. No remedies, no medicines had ever made a difference. Doctors paid her little attention, rolling their eyes at her every time she came around. “This is just something you’re going to have to learn to live with,” they’d tell her. It seemed, she felt, that there was in fact no cure for her disease.
They’re desperate for healing, for renewal, for restoration. But just as both of them are feeling as though there really are no other options, feeling as though disease and death will in fact destroy their lives, that’s when they begin to hear rumbling in the town. Folks are shouting and cheering, sprinting towards the local lake. “Its him! He’s here – Jesus of Nazareth!” So Jairus and the woman join the crowd, sprinting towards Jesus, frantically pushing their way to the front.
They don’t waste any time. Quite honestly, they don’t have any more time to waste. Jairus’ daughter is about to die and the woman, as she has for the past 12 years, is still bleeding.
They don’t waste time offering Jesus a detailed and thorough account of medical histories.
They don’t ask questions. They don’t start with an exchange of pleasantries. They don’t even get mad.
They simply come forward, fall down, and expose themselves – expose the excruciating agony, the gut-wrenching grief, and the overwhelming and oppressive pain that they have been feeling and experiencing.
This is their last resort, their final hope, their final effort to secure some sort of healing, some sort of renewal, some sort of restoration.
Jesus is completely captivated by this willingness of both Jairus and woman to venture into their very most vulnerabilities, to leave themselves fully exposed.
Jesus first encounters Jairus. “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” Jesus’ response is a simple one – he doesn’t ask questions, he doesn’t seek to first challenge Jairus, he doesn’t even preach or teach – Jesus simply, “went with him.”
Along the way he encounters the woman who has been bleeding for twelve years. So, struck by the touch of her vulnerability, Jesus can literally feel, “that power had gone forth from him.” And again, just as with Jairus, Jesus doesn’t need convincing, once he is aware of this woman’s touch, his response is a simple one, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
But, this isn’t really how it works, right? If this is all that it took, if being vulnerable were such a viable vocation, why aren’t more folks becoming skilled in the trade?
Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. Over the past two decades, she has spent her time studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.
In her research, she has found that many folks struggle with vulnerability. In fact, so much so, that, as she states, many of us choose to “numb vulnerability.” In 2010, she gave a lecture titled, “The Power of Vulnerability.” In it, she addresses this issue of “numbing vulnerability.”
So this is what I learned. We numb vulnerability…We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability.
And I think there's evidence -- and it's not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it's a huge cause -- We are the most in-debt ... obese ... addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is -- and I learned this from the research -- that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, here's the bad stuff. Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment. I don't want to feel these. I'm going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.
You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then, we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn't just have to be addiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that's uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. "I'm right, you're wrong. Shut up." That's it. Just certain. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There's no discourse anymore. There's no conversation. There's just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort.
While Dr. Brown made these observations on 2010, we must ask, could these descriptions and findings be any more accurate in illustrating our world today?
I cannot help but wonder – as I look out into the world – do we, in fact, have a vulnerability problem?
It doesn’t take long – turn on the news, read the paper, scroll through the internet, log onto Facebook – before we find a whole lot of blaming, a whole lot of “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.”
It seems that rather than exposing and opening ourselves, we’ve decided to shield and secure ourselves. Rather than be open about our own brokenness, our own hurt, and our hope for healing, we’ve, instead, insisted on insults, indignation, and our own selfish interests.
Dr. Brown describes vulnerability in this way, “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think.”
It’s true. To be vulnerable, to leave ourselves fully exposed, to open up our lives wholly and unadulterated, we run the terrifying risk of being seen for exactly who we are and not knowing how others might respond to knowing us fully.
Vulnerability challenges us and pushes us to move beyond the rigid and self-righteous rhetoric of “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and into a space of shared self-evaluation and self-reflection.
Instead of saying “I’m right,” we begin to say, “I’m hurt. I’m broken. I’m in pain. I’m in need of healing.”
Instead of proclaiming, “You’re wrong,” we begin to ask, “Where are you hurting? Why are you feeling broken? What is it that is so painful? How can we find healing together?”
Being vulnerable to and with one another allows for an experience of intimate exposure, an opportunity to engage and encounter one another’s full humanity.
It’s true – being vulnerable is hard, scary, and unsettling work.
But, it is holy work.
Vulnerability is stepping into that sacred space of our shared humanity. Recognizing that regardless of one’s race, class, gender identity, ethnicity, political party, religion, sexual orientation, career, or immigration status, when we step into this sacred space, seeing one another for who were truly are, we see each other as God sees us, fully, accepted, and beloved children of God.
In this way, through the holy work of vulnerability, we find ourselves, just as Jesus did, not looking for or need convincing, not pointing fingers or seeking to serve blame to others, but simply “going,” venturing into the vulnerability as a means of pursuing healing and wholeness.
So where is our pain? Where is our discomfort? How are we coming forward? How are we reaching forward to reveal the ways in which we require restoration?
May it be so.
Thanks be to God. Thanks be to a God who chose to be vulnerable, to take on flesh and share in our humanity. Amen.
 Brené Brown. “The Power of Vulnerability.” TED. June 2010. Lecture. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability