“Vulnerable, But Never Alone”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 7, 2018

Mark 6:1-13


“He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.”

That’s how Mark’s gospel tells the story.  In Luke’s version of these same events, they’re not even allowed the staff.  And in Matthew, no staff and no sandals.

So what happened if James and John were set upon by thieves or wild animals on some empty stretch of dusty road?  They had no way to defend themselves, no bandages to bind up their wounds.  What happened if Thomas and Philip were caught in the rain and got soaked to the skin?  They had no spare set of dry clothes to change into.  What happened if Peter and Andrew found themselves hungry and cold as the sun began to set?  What happened if someone took offense at their message and decided the empire would be better off if those rabble-rousing voices were silenced?

The way in which Jesus sent out his disciples is startling, if you really stop and think about it.  They set out, by his instruction, on a journey on foot across desert terrain—and they went without food, without extra clothes, without sunscreen or bug spray or a first aid kit, without even a bag to carry any of those items if they were somehow to come across them.  They went, in a word, vulnerable.

I can’t imagine that they felt very good about being sent out in this way.  But in spite of our human desire for self-protection, our human preference for independence, our human tendency toward self-defense, God seems to choose vulnerability over and over again as God’s favorite place to show up, God’s preferred habitat, God’s optimal situation in which to act.

Think of the story of Abraham and Sarah, way back in the book of Genesis.  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” said God.  Can you imagine?  Heed this mysterious, disembodied divine voice.  Leave your homeland.  Leave your family.  Leave the place where your parents, and your grandparents, and your grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents have always lived.  Set out for a land yet to be revealed to you—not a land you have seen, not a land you have known, but a land that, for now, you can only imagine.  And from that vulnerable choice, all the descendants of Abraham emerged, from our ancestors in faith down to you and me, here today.

Think of the story of Ruth and Naomi, two childless widows, women without husbands or sons to take care of them in their patriarchal society, who chose to stick with each other and face whatever the future brought them together.  And from that vulnerable choice, the lineage emerged that ultimately led down through the generations to Jesus.

Think of Jesus himself.  Think of how God chose to come into this world.  Not as a sword-wielding, armor-bearing Savior who would conquer by might; not as a powerful and illustrious ruler, a King by earthly standards; not as the biggest, the richest, the most famous, the most tremendous, the most popular; but as a newborn baby—tiny, fragile, utterly dependent.  Unable to move around on his own, or feed himself, or survive for very long without help.  Not born into the halls of power but into the forgotten backwaters of the empire, born to an unwed teenage mother from a marginalized religious and ethnic group in an occupied land.

He spent his life showing up at the side of those who were vulnerable, offering healing and proclaiming God’s love, even and especially for them.  When the world made him even more vulnerable than he already was; when the powers that be turned on him; when they came for him with violence and vitriol, with criticism and condemnation, with entrapping words and insidious actions; when they arrested him, and accused him falsely, and convicted him unjustly, and nailed him to a cross; he did not let that harden him.  He did not curl in on himself and turn away from others.  He did not armor himself against the world.  He did not become poisoned by bitterness.  He did not revert to those all-too-human tendencies toward self-defense, toward independence, toward self-protection.  He spread his arms wide to gather all of creation to himself, with all our celebrations and all our sufferings, all our strengths and all our struggles and all our sins.  And from that vulnerable choice came nothing less than the very salvation of the world.

There is something about vulnerability that seems to be a magnet for God.  There is something about the circumstances that strip us to the bone that makes God say, “I want to go there.”  There is something about people who are struggling that makes God say, “I want to know that experience.”  There is something about the interdependent connections that can form through vulnerability that is life-changing, earth-shaking, utterly transformative.  There is something about staying open to the world’s pain and beauty, something about being tender in that way, that brings us closer to one another and closer to God.

It reminds me of my very favorite verses from scripture, which come from the prophet Isaiah:


But now thus says the Lord,
the One who created you, O Jacob,
the One who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.” 


Our faith does not promise a life of invulnerability.  Quite the opposite, really—our faith sends us out as Jesus sent the disciples.  Unprepared, unprotected, learning on the job more often than is entirely comfortable.

Our faith does not promise that we will never find ourselves wading through raging rivers or rising floodwaters.  It does not promise that we will never find ourselves walking through fire or across hot coals.  It does not promise that we, or our offspring, will never find ourselves scattered to the four winds by the whims of powerful people or the might of systems that seem so entrenched as to be impossible to change.

But our faith does promise that although we are not sheltered from vulnerability, we will never find ourselves alone.  Jesus sent his disciples out without food, without extra clothes, without first aid or other supplies—but he sent them out with one another.  He sent them out two by two, so that when the going got tough, they would have each other to help them keep going and find their way.

And he sent them out secure in the promise that even when they passed through waters, God would be there, and the rivers would not overwhelm them.  Even when they walked through fire, God would be there, and they would not be burned, and the flames would not consume them.  Even when it seemed that all was lost, even when the powers that be had scattered their hopes, their families, their bodies to the ends of the earth, God would be there, too, and God would eventually, somehow, knit them back together into a whole and holy people.

That promise has carried faithful people through hard and vulnerable times for generations.  May it do the same for us.


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