A Vulnerable Heart 09/23/18 (Proper 20B)

TEXTS: JAMES 3:13-4:3; MARK 9:30-37

Last week we heard the first confession – Peter’s confession – that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus’ first teaching that the Messiah will suffer, be rejected, killed, and raised after three days. Peter and the others are horrified and can’t believe Jesus is saying these things.

Now we listen in as Jesus and the Twelve leave Caesarea Philippi and make their way through Galilee. Their travel is somewhat clandestine; Jesus has important things to teach his disciples and he doesn’t want to be interrupted. For the second time, Jesus tells them who he is and what it means to be the Messiah: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” They still don’t understand. But this time, rather than rebuking Jesus for saying such awful things, they keep silent. The text says they are “afraid to ask him” to explain.

So they do what so many of us do when a truth is too hard to bear or too difficult to hear: they change the subject.

Instead of absorbing what Jesus has revealed about the very weakness and vulnerability of the Messiah, they argue about who is strongest and best and greatest among them. They reject vulnerability in favor of power.

But Jesus isn’t going to let them get away with that. He sits them down and tries to break through their stubborn refusal to understand. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Correctly guessing that they still won’t understand, he pulls a child into the circle to serve as an illustration.

If there were any doubt as to how little value or status children had in that society at that time, one needs only to read this passage carefully. Listen: “Then Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms…” This child isn’t even really a “person”; this child is an “it.” This child, this “it,” makes the perfect object lesson.

Until it can contribute to the household in some way, it may be loved but it is nevertheless a burden. It has no intrinsic value; its value lies in what it might someday contribute by way of work or marital connections. Moreover, this not-quite-fully-person is also utterly vulnerable. it can survive only when others care for it. Worthless and vulnerable: a child is the least of the least. The least visible, the least valued, the least revered, the least important.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Let’s recap Jesus’ lesson in this passage. First: the Messiah is utterly vulnerable – even subject to rejection, suffering, and death.

Second: the way to welcome God is to welcome the most vulnerable in society – specifically, in this illustration, children. Throughout the Gospel, both before and after this episode, we will hear of the other vulnerable ones we are meant to embrace: the sick, the dying, the poor, the socially unacceptable and ritually impure, the outsider, the foreigner, the refugee.

It is only in doing so that we can truly know, and be in relationship with, God.

There are many people throughout history who have lived this way, with the most vulnerable people at the center of their lives. Today I want to tell you about one of them, a man who personifies all of the traits of generous, tender wisdom described in today’s reading from the Letter of James. He is peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. He shows none of the concupiscence, the disordered desires and cravings, that lead to conflict, harmful behavior, and broken relationships. And undoubtedly, he would not want me to lift him up as a wise and Godly example. But too bad Jean Vanier, I’m doing it anyway!

Jean Vanier is the man who founded L’Arche – or The Ark – in 1964. He had been a British naval officer and then a professor of philosophy in Canada. At Christmastime in 1963, he visited a friend, a Dominican monk working as a chaplain in a small French institution for men with mental handicaps. The world of the handicapped, he says, was new to him, and yet he found himself deeply moved by the friendship and the quality of spiritual openness in these men who were shut away from society.

Vanier began to visit other institutions. At a vast asylum south of Paris, he encountered a concrete prison in which, all day, 80 adult men did nothing but walk around in circles and take a two-hour compulsory nap. “There I was struck by the screams and the atmosphere of sadness,” he would later write, “but also by a mysterious presence of God.”

Vanier bought a small house nearby and invited two men from that asylum to come share life with him. With Vanier at their side, Philippe and Raphael were the founding members of a movement which now has some 147 communities in 35 nations around the world. [1]

In L’Arche communities, the adults with developmental disabilities are called “core members” because they are at the center of life in the community. Those who care for them, the “assistants,” don’t come and go as if it were a 9-to-5 job. They live, work, and serve among those core members. Like Vanier did with Raphael and Philippe, they fully immerse themselves in the lives of the core members. Relationship and friendship are the key to the success of L’Arche communities; those with disabilities aren’t paying for someone to take care of them. It’s not a contractual relationship or commercial venture. It’s all about relationships between people who see each other as “who” rather than “it.”

Vanier is a Catholic philosopher as well as a social innovator. When contemplating what it is we all most deeply desire, he says we all want to be appreciated, loved, to be seen as someone of value. But, he reminds us, Aristotle drew a distinction between being admired and being loved. “When you admire people,” Vanier explains, “you put them on pedestals. When you love people, you want to be together…The first meeting I had with people with disabilities, what touched me was their cry for relationship.” [2] It was this understanding of every person’s deep need for relationship and the particular pain of those with disabilities that led Vanier on the path that created L’Arche and changed the lives of hundreds and hundreds of people.

But it’s hard to face head-on the vulnerability shown by people with disabilities, or people who are sick, or who are poor, or who are somehow “other.” Vanier remembers talking with a woman about the work he does. “Oh, I could never work with those people,” she said. He asked, “Oh? Why not?” And she said, “Well, I’m frightened of them.” [3]

I applaud that woman for her honesty. Powerless people, vulnerable people, sick people, poor people, people in pain: they frighten us. Vanier says:

We all have to reflect on how [we are] in front of pain. We’re all running away from it, we can’t stand it, and we don’t know what to do with it. We don’t know what to do with the beggar crying out. We find all sorts of reasons [to not] look at him…The whole question is how to stand before pain. [4]

And it’s only then, when we stand before pain, that deep healing can occur. Vanier says, “Genuine healing happens here [in L’Arche communities], not in miraculous cures, but through mutual respect, care, and love. Paradoxically, vulnerability becomes a source of strength and wholeness, a place of reconciliation and communion with others.” [5]

When he draws that little child into their midst, Jesus is telling the disciples that their circle must not be closed. It’s not about who among them is the most powerful or most important. It isn’t even about them at all! They have to open the ranks and actively welcome in those who they haven’t even noticed standing nearby and place them at the center of all they think and do.

To welcome the vulnerable and the outsider into our lives is to welcome Jesus himself into our lives.

But this act of welcoming and inviting those who are vulnerable is hard. After all, to be in relationship is not only to build connections with vulnerable people; it is also to make oneself vulnerable. Researcher Brené Brown puts it this way:

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. Love is uncertain. It’s incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed. Yes, it’s scary and yes, we’re open to being hurt, but can you imagine your life without loving or being loved? [6]

So let’s take stock – a sort of “vulnerability inventory.”

1. Jesus wants us to notice who the most vulnerable are around us and welcome them into relationship with us.

2. In order to be in relationship with someone, we must also be vulnerable. We must risk being uncomfortable; we must dare to confront another’s pain; we must be willing even to get hurt if that person we have chosen to love betrays or wounds us.

No wonder the disciples preferred to think about power and status!

There’s a third item on our vulnerability inventory, one that Jesus doesn’t specifically mention but one which is, at least to me, essential to my understanding of God. Jean Vanier points it out beautifully when he says:

My experience today is much more the discovery [of] how vulnerable God is. You see, God is so respectful of our freedom. And if as the Epistle of John says…God is love, anyone who has loved in their life knows they’ve become vulnerable. Where are you and…do you love me back? So if God is love, it means that God is terribly vulnerable. And God doesn’t want to enter into a relationship where He is obliging or She is obliging us to do something. The beautiful text in the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation [says]: “I stand at the door and I knock. If somebody hears me and opens the door, then I will enter.” What touches me there is God knocking at the door, not kicking the door down, but waiting…Will you open? Do you hear me? Because we’re in a world where there’s so much going on in our heads and our hearts and anxiety and projects that we don’t hear God knocking at the door of our hearts. So I’d say that what touches me the deepest, maybe because I’m becoming myself more vulnerable, is the discovery of the vulnerability of God, who doesn’t [obligate or force us to love]. [7]

In the end, I think this hard teaching from Jesus, these words about suffering and welcome and vulnerability, comes down to this: We open the door to this God who will not coerce us into relationship by being in relationship with the most vulnerable. When we truly see them, we see God.

I’m going to let Jean Vanier have the last word. He says:

In L’Arche we live this sort of double mystery. [We remember the] presence of Mary in Bethlehem and Nazareth, and Mary’s standing at the foot of the cross…[That] has a lot of meaning for us, to stand and to be present and just to say, “I’m with you. I’m with you.”

In my own foyer there’s a man called Patrick who, technically speaking, has a psychosis. And there’s a lot of pain and a lot of anguish…But when I reflect about Patrick, he has everything he needs. He has good medication, good doctors. He has work [in the workshop]. But what does he need over and above that? He needs a friend. What is essential is somebody who believes in him, who trusts him, who sees in him a presence of God. [8]

May we have such vulnerable hearts. And may our vulnerable hearts lead us into deep relationship with other vulnerable people and our vulnerable God. Amen.


[1] Summary from the introduction to “Jean Vanier and Jo Anne Horstmann: L’Arche – a Community of Brokenness and Beauty.” Speaking of Faith, 2 Aug. 2007.

[2] Vanier, “The Wisdom of Tenderness,” OnBeing, 28 May 2015.

[3] Vanier, OnBeing.

[4] Vanier, Speaking of Faith.

[5] From Jean Vanier’s Official Site, http://www.jean-vanier.org/en.

[6] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Avery, 2012) p. 34.

[7] Vanier, OnBeing.

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