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The Vulnerable God

Date: 01/04/2012/Speaker: Ps Ngiam Su-Lin

Today is Palm Sunday, the week in the liturgical calendar that marks the beginning of the last week of Lent, where we follow the series of events and experience the emotions of Jesus and his followers that lead-up to his crucifixion, death and resurrection.

There are two clusters of lectionary passages for today: one is called Liturgy of the Palms, and the other Liturgy of the Passion. I will be preaching from passages from both clusters.

Let us look at the events that have resulted in what we call Palm Sunday, in Mark 11: 1 – 11, taken from Liturgy of the Palms.

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The word, “hosanna” can have two meanings. Traditionally in Hebrew, it means “please save” or “save now”. It is a cry for salvation as it is used in the Old Testament. However, “hosanna” as we see in the passage here can also be used as a cry of adoration, of praise, of recognising salvation, the Messiah in the people’s midst.

The expression “hosanna” as used here is actually quite a complex word and emotion. It seems to me that it expresses a cry and yearning for help, yet at the same time demonstrates the realised hope that God has acted, that God is saving them, and therefore praise in the expression as well.

Perhaps the main character in this next story was part of the crowd shouting “hosanna” as Jesus entered Jerusalem. Perhaps her act of adoration was also an act of salvation for herself.

We now turn to Mark 14: 1 – 9, taken from the Liturgy of the Passion.

Who is this woman? What is her name? It is not recorded for us, but her bold and deeply moving act has been captured for us and told through the generations, and wherever the gospel is proclaimed.

What do you think these two stories have in common?

I think they both display radical love.

The story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and being greeted like a king is troubling to me – was this his intention, did he know this was going to happen? He had up till now not wanted attention and focus to be on his identity but more on his message. Maybe he was just tired and needed a ride, and the crowds who were enamoured with him just needed an opportunity to declare him King, Messiah, Saviour. Moreover, Jesus did not seem to mind in this instance, maybe he was even encouraging their behaviour, and he certainly did not put a stop to it.

So why? Maybe Jesus was trying to really drive home the point now as to what kind of Messiah he is, that he was a servant king, one that served and loved his people, that demonstrated the relationship God wants with God’s people; that to love God is to serve one another, including laying down one’s life for a friend. Perhaps the radical-ness of this theology would be lost on the people if they did not fully understand that Jesus was the Messiah, of how far he would go to empty himself, to bring about a new understanding of God, and a new world order – the kindom of God here on earth.

Perhaps the ‘triumphal entry into Jerusalem’ as this passage is also called, serves as a consolidation point for the people, an opportunity for them to collectively express, and perform their belief, to allow the truth that the Messiah was really amongst them to sink deeply into their hearts and minds. Of course, only to be greeted later by the sheer horror and desperation of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. But this, together with the events of Easter and thereafter was a necessary part of the process, of the bigger plan of bringing in God’s kindom of love and justice.

How about the woman with the alabaster jar as she has come to be known as? We can deduce the radical-ness of her act from the information provided, and the responses she receives. We are told the ointment in the jar is costly, and later that it could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii which is equivalent to about a year’s wages. This woman is probably from a lower socio-economic class since this gathering took place in the house of a leper, and one wonders how long she took to save to have this jar of costly ointment, only to pour it all out on Jesus.

This is her radical act of love and adoration for Jesus, and just as Jesus’ radical-ness threatened the authorities to the point they wanted him killed, here too it seems some of the people who witnessed this woman’s act felt threatened by it and instead of appreciating the beauty, tenderness, sacrifice and relationship that was unfolding before their eyes, decided to judge and shame her instead.

Such is the nature of radical love. It feels threatening because it upsets existing norms of understanding and doing, it upsets existing structures of power and relating. It causes us to shift, and unwelcomed change is uncomfortable and can be scary. And radical love bypasses our human-ego kind of knowing, into a spiritual, self-transcendent kind of knowing and loving – the kind that causes the shepherd to abandon the flock to look for that one lost sheep, the kind where a parent would welcome a prodigal son home and throw a party despite the depth of hurt caused by the son, the kind where a woman would pour out her prized-possession, a jar of expensive ointment on someone else.

Such acts of radical love create profoundness. Just as the act of God self-emptying to be human, who then self-emptied to demonstrate what it means to be in loving relationship with God, self and other. There is a sense of mystery and unknowingness in acts like these; we understand it, and yet .. They emerge from a deep place within the being performing the radical act, and touch a deep place in the person receiving it. It is the seed of transformation.

When was the last time you performed an act, or were the recipient of radical love?

What I find interesting about this passage too is Jesus’ response to the scolding audience:

“Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”

I think this is a reminder for us that while it is important to do social justice, to help and reach out to people in need around us, we need to also remember to nurture our relationship with God, to pay attention to our relationship with the divine. Perhaps the woman with the alabaster jar recognised she was in need of some salvation, of a healing encounter with the Messiah, and needed to have her spiritual needs met first, this was her somewhat private hosanna moment! It is ok to take time out from all the good we do for others, to take care of ourselves, to renew and refresh ourselves, to pay more attention to our own spiritual lives.

Or perhaps the woman felt the need to bless Jesus, maybe she sensed the turmoil that was to come, that all was not right with a Messiah riding a donkey, that was both loved and despised. Maybe this was her way of telling Jesus, “I see you, I see your need, I understand what you’re doing, everything will be alright”. God was working through this woman. Are there times we only see the obvious needs of those who need help around us, while neglecting to see those who may need our blessing, our reaching out to, who are right in front of us? Some of the people at Simon the leper’s house could see the needs of the poor which could be met by selling the jar of perfume but failed to see the needs before them in that room. Maybe it never crossed their minds that someone like Jesus could have unmet needs? How about our bosses, our leaders, our pastors and so on? Do we allow ourselves to see sensitively? God works through everyone to bless anyone.

I think the other thing these two stories have in common is the idea of vulnerability; seen in the ability, and willingness of both Jesus and the woman with the alabaster jar to be vulnerable. By entering into Jerusalem like a Messiah, Jesus is only courting and escalating the trouble he is already in with those plotting his death. The woman with the jar must have known she would be calling attention to herself and thereby opening herself up to judgment, especially given the low status accorded to women during that time. Yet both chose to display their vulnerability.

What does vulnerability mean? Traditionally, it conjures up meanings to do with being susceptible, to being weak, exposed, naked and so on. However, vulnerability that is deeply understood, welcomed and chosen is in fact, a source and projection of great strength, resilience and love. Without this kind of vulnerability, there can be no radical love; because the stakes are high when it comes to love, and it can greatly wound us if we are not careful. When we love radically, we are placed in a vulnerable position – open to rejection, shame, judgment, punishment but when that vulnerability emerges from a place of deep connection with self and God, then the saying from Scripture by Paul, “when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 10) makes sense. Vulnerability like this, as demonstrated by Jesus and the woman, in turn, blesses many.

Another of our lectionary passages for today exemplifies this, from Philippians 2: 5 – 11.

Just as Jesus is worshipped today, the story of the woman with the alabaster jar is still told today, and she is remembered more than 2000 years later. We are asked by Paul to be in the same mind as Jesus, one of a chosen vulnerability that is rooted in God.

My cell group, Ezer is currently exploring various themes we agreed upon as a group, and our last session was on vulnerability. We watched a Ted Talk on YouTube by Brene Brown on vulnerability and then discussed it. Some of you would have probably watched this before. Brene is a social researcher and through her years of researching people and what makes them tick, she found that people who had a sense of worthiness about themselves tend to survive the roller-coaster ride called life better. These people have a strong sense of love and belonging, and she calls them wholehearted people.

I guess some of this sense of worthiness may be bestowed on us by the adults in our lives growing up as children, who by their words and actions let us know we are worthy of love, care, attention etc. But not all of us get to experience this, some of us growing up in households where the adults around us have not experienced their own worthiness.

This is why the unconditional love of God is so important. We are found worthy in God’s eyes not because of who we are or anything we have done, and there is nothing we can do to make God love us even more. The love is unconditional. Becoming a Christian is like undergoing a process of re-parenting, where God is our parent who loves us unconditionally and finds us worthy of that love, and understanding that radical love fully should grant us the strength to love others, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

But we have to be careful about this sense of worthiness and how we internalise it. If this remains at the level of our human ego, there is always the danger of becoming arrogant and proud. Our worthiness becomes a sense of entitlement and we then start to think we are righteous, others are wrong or those from other religions are less worthy etc. I think the kind of worthiness that God bestows on us has to do with that pure inner self, that is beyond the ego and its desires, insecurities, wants and so on. It is knowing that authentic self inside of us, when all our external armour, accessories, and masks are stripped away, is good and worthy of God’s unconditional love.

I think it is from this same place that we would willingly choose to be vulnerable, and authentically love self and others. Because if it were entirely up to our human ego, we would want to numb vulnerability because it can be painful and scary. Brene comments that in the US, they are the most medicated and addicted generation in history and maybe it is somewhat similar in Singapore too; where there are more and more means to numb our feelings of vulnerability.

The problem about this though is that vulnerability lies at the root of human emotion, the bad such as shame and fear as well as the good such as love, joy, gratitude and so on. In other words, if we want to numb the negative emotions we will experience in life by not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we will naturally also numb, and prevent ourselves from experiencing the positive emotions in our life too. We cannot pick and choose our emotions.

By allowing himself to suffer death on a cross, Jesus experienced an excruciating vulnerability, one where he probably had emotions of great fear, “Father, if it is your will, take this cup of suffering [away from me]” (Luke 22: 42), and shame, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27: 46), amongst other emotions. But similarly, from this same place of excruciating vulnerability was the capacity to feel enormous amounts of love, compassion, joy and so forth, and it was probably this ability to withstand extreme vulnerability that enabled the conquering of death – the ultimate place of fear, shame, and disconnection from God, self and other; and replace it with resurrection, with hope and new life.

So where am I going with all this?

As we are coming to the close of the Season of Lent, and entering the climatic final week, what are the key learnings about this Season for us?

I think today’s passages remind us about God’s radical love for us, and that we are capable of radical acts of love too. That God finds us worthy and loves us unconditionally, we are seen by God; and when we understand that fully, our worthiness enables us to see the worthiness in others, and to love them.

I think the Season of Lent is a great reminder about choosing to be vulnerable, to give up things, behaviours, comforts that shield us from being vulnerable, in order to get more in touch with our inner selves, to pay more attention to our spiritual lives and relationship with God. We may have our “hosanna!” moments, where we cry for saving help yet as we cry, we are also with a spirit of gratitude and praise as we know that God is surely with us, has heard and seen us. Lent, and choosing to be vulnerable is a reminder and taste of what being Christian should be like, the attitude we bring to life, so that we can be fully emotionally alive, and in relationship with God and others. This is the heart of Christianity – loving God and loving others as self.

Thus, if our religion, the way we are church does not teach, and encourage us to be vulnerable with ourselves and each other, which is key to connections and relationships, then we have yet to fully realise what it means to be Christian. And if we are already practicing this, then we can be assured we face life and living with hope, and are a blessing to others.

I’d like us now to end this time by spending a few minutes quietly reflecting on these questions:-

  1. What lessons have I learnt from observing Lent this year?
  1. When and what was the last radical act of love performed for someone?
  1. What would it take for you to choose to be, and remain vulnerable?