Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2018
“ALMIGHTY God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.”
THE MYSTERY OF NIGHT is broken along with its dreams. Eyelids respond to a prompting, a sense of there being a world around you that you were unaware of a moment ago. You feel the sheets and blankets over your prostrate form, your head rested upon the familiar pillow. Life calls you. Clouds of other thoughts evaporate as you focus on the task at hand. Your hand lifts the covers off, you twist your body toward the bedside, press your hand beneath you to lift your torso vertical, your bare feet make contact with carpet, you tighten your stomach muscles, lean forward and you stand up. Brave human! You’re awake. Now: it’s out into the world you go. What courage you must have. Of all mankind’s boldest explorations—of the seas, of mountains, of vast plains, deserts and coastlines—your venture to get up and face the planet is the Apollo launch of your day. All systems are go, Houston.
Consider the human being, as created. Most other creatures get the advantage of four-footed travel, of leathery pads on feet and paws, horn-like claws, heightened senses of hearing, of smell; keener instincts, and a dense hairy pelt over all—animals are so much better adapted for traveling on the ground. Then there are birds. What are we but hairless creatures, and when exposed too much to the sun, we burn. Upright, we look larger than we are, ungainly and feeble until we are several years old, balancing on these two spindly legs. Are we really the highest form of life on earth? Our brains certainly are, but our brains can also see and measure and appreciate the disadvantages we have against, say, a saber tooth tiger. It’s a jungle out there.
Modern people work in air-conditioned offices, sit at computer desks, answer wireless phones, play imaginary on-screen farming games and wear safety-belts in cars equipped with features that mean comfort and ease of use. We watch frightening movies filled with simulated violence and think dangerously because Bruce Willis acts courageous. We have bought the dream of safety in this world, imagined that life is guaranteed to be without risk, without challenges, without vulnerability. We get ten kinds of insurance to make it so. Then something unexpected happens and we wonder how this could have occurred.
There are no guarantees. Life insurance is only betting against your survival and hoping to lose your bet. In certain conditions, it is responsibly done for your loved ones, I understand, but the words Life Insurance really mean Death Benefits, though no one would buy that product. I don’t want to buy death. Health insurance is hedging against illness. Auto insurance against theft or accident. Home insurance puts money up against fire, falling trees, burglary, or liability. These devices mitigate our vulnerability to big, bad things happening in our lives. But the things can still happen, no matter how much insurance we buy. Life includes pain, sorrow, trouble, opposition, and eventually even death. There is a guaranty on that. So: you got up this morning and with stout courage, faced the dawn. Bravo. I salute you. Gus Grissom never took a braver step.
As postmodern people, we are endangered by only one very onerous thing: the illusion of safety. Safety is a fantasy. Life is danger. Naked we stand in a world at risk. And if we never risk, we never live. Breathe the air and you risk disease or pollution. Drink the water, and you don’t know what’s in it. Eat at McDonald’s and, well, you’ve not done yourself any favors. Venture your heart toward a hoped-for goal, a job interview, shaking someone’s hand, being introduced to that gorgeous other person, making a vow: and you are vulnerable, my friend. That takes courage. Congratulations. You’re alive.
Brene Brown, in her landmark book entitled Daring Greatly, writes that: “Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.” “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” “I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. With that definition in mind, let’s think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow—that’s vulnerability.”
Jesus spent most of His days in regions where His fellow Jews were in the majority. But not always. He led His disciples north into the shores of modern Lebanon, home of the Phoenicians. They had long worshipped Baal and Ashtoreth, gods of fertility, battle and pleasure. The Jews had always befriended these seafarers, though their religion had often been a snare, as in the days of Ahab and his Sidonian wife, Jezebel. Her religion defiled the entire nation until the day she was eaten by dogs. Of her stock was the woman following Jesus now and calling out to Him.
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” It was inevitable that such vile religious practices might infest your daughter with demons. Their religion was devil worship. Jesus walked on. She was undeterred. The disciples asked Jesus to send her away. Jesus reminded them and Himself: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the nation of Israel.”
But she came to him, bowed down, and said, “Lord, help me!” “Lord” was the right word. Hers was the right attitude. This was hopeful. But Jesus tested her further. “It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The dogs that ate Jezebel could almost be heard in their savage, throaty barks and snarls. The Jews called Gentiles “dogs” and it wasn’t a term of endearment. He was purposely offending her—offending her in order to see how humble she might be, given that her religious background was far worse than canine.
And she came through. “You’re right, Lord. But you know, even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” She wasn’t asking for a favor that His fellow Jews merited and wished more than she did. She would be satisfied with scraps that they discarded, accidentally let fall from their table. Like a dog beneath His feet, she would gladly search for and consume the left-overs. What an answer! Jesus’ face turned toward this sorrowing mother and His voice softened markedly.
“Woman, great is your faith! What you have asked will be done for you.” At that very moment her daughter was set free.
She ventured the question. She risked being called unworthy, and even was cited as foreign and vile and alien. She pressed on. Her heart was fully in it. This was going to work. Brene Brown perfectly describes her in Daring Greatly with the word: “Wholeheartedness. There are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness; facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.”
There are only a few times Jesus refers to a female in the Gospel as “Woman:” His mother at the wedding in Cana and again from the cross, the woman crippled and bent over for 18 years, the Samaritan woman at the well, Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, and here to the Syro-Phoenician woman, called also Greek and Canaanite. Woman is a term of respect. And He puts His heart in it. He loves this woman’s grit. She faced every test He could throw at her, and with whole-heart she abased herself, took that risk, and believed He would still heal her child. And she was rewarded.
Who gets rewards in this world, or even the next? Do we get gold medals for sitting and watching others in the arena of life? Have we ever done our best work by not venturing out and daring greatly? Who told us to play it safe, keep our pencils in our pockets, never speak our mind, share an idea, reach out a hand, dare to live out loud?
I am the most reticent of people, if you knew me, if you really saw how I can be comfortably alone with myself. But something in me will not let me stay alone. I don’t have to speak in order to know my mind, but the ideas bubble forth and when the silence lingers and the lack of others’ answers to problems create the vacuum, I must venture out with my words. It would poison me to swallow them back. And so I get picked to lead, despite myself.
I have dared myself to write songs about subjects others have avoided. If I double dog dare myself, I can do things I never dreamed of. Every week I title a sermon for the newspaper, several days before I set about to write it, Sunday morning, after some coffee and settling down to my computer and blank computer screen. Then words flow. Ideas come to mind and are at my fingertips. Risking the chance I might say something foolish, I let the tiger out, put God’s Holy Spirit to the test, with reverence, trusting that He wants to speak to His people more than I do. He always does. If I do anything good up here, it’s because He loves you and wants you to know it.
Lent is a training camp for us. We look at ourselves, check with the commander and see what is lacking, what is needed, what is wrong with the picture: and then we get real. I love this season. I don’t always do enough with myself, but I like the simplicity of Lent. And I love the glory revealed to us at its end.
So, when we seek to reduce our vulnerability, to cut all risks to a minimum, are we limiting life? Do we stay at home when the arena of living in this world calls for heroes and saints singing hymns while the lions do their worst? All they can do is kill you. Then glory. And the lions haven’t been seen for about 1700 years. ISIS, yes. In Syria. Here in America, a Christian only risks being laughed at on network TV because he or she believes they hear from Jesus. We are criticized for thinking Christianity is the only true way. So our Gospel is the only religious doctrine that is systematically denigrated in most public schools.
Think of the power that breathes in our faith that it so threatens the people who make themselves the gatekeepers of conscience and truth, of science and history and culture. We bear a sword: bright in the daylight, blazing with fire by night. The Sword of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God. No wonder they fear our message. We might fear it ourselves.
You can’t fall in love without exposing yourself to risk, to danger, to the possibility it won’t work out. Young people may expose themselves to STDs, to soul-bonds and risk of unplanned pregnancy often without ever risking love, or even learning their partners’ first names. They are in some ways brave, but in the wrong way. People take street drugs, try what is offered them, without question, without consulting the wisdom that says: “This could be your downfall. This brings a degrading addiction.”
So I am not talking of foolhardiness. Some dangers are real dangers, to be avoided. Thrill seekers need not skateboard down the wrong side of the street to know danger, risk and chance. They only need to be baptized. Now, that’s a risk I’d like to see taken by the death-defiant. Just step inside these doors and listen a minute. We are far more scary than snowboarding. We are dangerous.
So, you set your feet on the floor this morning, and do you know that the halls of hell echoed with its sighing: “Oh no, she’s awake!” You are Neil Armstrong, making a small step for a man with that giant leap for mankind, as you venture out. Life is danger. Live the danger. You are an explorer, an astronaut, a Magellan seeking passage through Tierra del Fuego of your age. Nothing is guaranteed except that you go with God. And when it’s over, you go to Him.
I am honored to be alongside you for the ride. We can be vulnerable together. We walk the high places together, knowing that the things eternal cannot be seen with our mortal eyes, yet we trust them more than the things we do see. We reach out and touch the face of God, eat and drink the bread and wine, knowing we take Christ’s Body and Blood, walk in His Spirit, living the mystery and loving one another. The bridal chamber is closer now, its beauties await us, and a great feast. This is real. The main event is only a moment away. Jitters and butterflies are normal for such a moment—use their energy to launch you out. The world has always waited for you to enter. Vulnerable as a newborn babe, you step into the light of day. And the cheering of angels is heard from above.