Monday, August 14, 2023

The Value of Vulnerability


Matthew 14:22-33

Proper 14 / Year A

It has not been a good eight days for St. Peter.  In last Sunday’s reading, after he suggests they build three mountaintop booths – one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus – no less of an authority than God the Father Almighty tells him to be quiet and listen to Jesus.  And now today, we find Peter being chastised for his lack of faith after stepping out of the boat and walking on the waves toward Jesus before beginning to sink.  Eight days, two readings, and two rebukes.  No, these are a couple of Sundays the great apostle most likely would rather have other readings assigned.

Still, there is something endearing about Peter and his ability to say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time.  Like they say in baseball, it is better to go down swinging than to strike out with the bat on your shoulder.  I have said before I would rather be Peter soaking wet from the waist down than be like the other disciples playing it safe back in the boat.  I would rather have Jesus say to me, “Why did you doubt?” than “Why didn’t you even try?”

Why didn’t you try?  Sometimes we don’t try because it just isn’t import to us.  Sometimes it is because we don’t know how to attack the problem.  And sometimes it is because we just don’t want to embarrass ourselves.  We don’t want to look foolish.  We don’t want to set ourselves up for failure.  We don’t want to make ourselves vulnerable. 

Avoiding vulnerability is a major problem, at least according to the researcher and writer BrenĂ© Brown.  She holds we all long for connection and a sense of belonging but have a deep-seated fear of being rejected.  The experience of rejection leads to a profound sense of shame; an emotion we seek to prevent at all costs.  She cites many different ways we numb ourselves to limit vulnerability.  If we don’t expose ourselves, if we don’t allow ourselves to be “seen”, then we can’t be hurt. 

According to Brown, this numbing or hiddenness comes at a huge cost because we can’t be selective about it.  We can’t simply decide to minimize risk and maximize reward.  While being vulnerable opens us to possibility of pain and loss, she notes it is also the “birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.”  Brown contends you cannot eliminate the difficult and uncomfortable feelings in your life without having it take a toll on the things which make you feel gratitude and happiness.

Every happy marriage begins with person getting down on one knee and proposing (vulnerability).  Every book begins with a writer sending a manuscript to a publisher for evaluation and critique (vulnerability).  Every new recipe you try creates the possibility for a new, favorite meal or a very bad dinner (vulnerability). 

The text tells us when Jesus approaches the boat the disciples are afraid because they think they are seeing a ghost.  He says three things to them.  “Take heart.”  “It is I.”  “Do not be afraid.”  Some versions of the bible translate “Take heart” as “Have courage”, noting the Latin and French roots for both words are the same.  Literally translated, “It is I” is “I am”, harkening back to the holy name God reveals to Moses.  “Do not be afraid” is as much of an invitation as it is a command.

These three statements inspire Peter to be vulnerable in the midst of a fearful situation.  Take heart is an invitation to live life to the fullest, even if it opens to the door to failure and rejection.  In the midst of a world we cannot always predict or control, “I am” reminds us one thing is certain: God is with us and God does not change.  Do not be afraid encourages us to live with a sense of possibility rather than acting to avoid the worst outcome.

Many sermons have been preached about why Jesus decides to build the church upon Peter, whom he names as “a rock”.  I don’t know if there is one single quality about him which merits his calling, but surely his willingness to be vulnerable is a major part of the mix.  Nowhere will this be more evident than when he accepts an invitation to visit the gentile home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and to baptize him and his family.  It is a bold move which opens the doors of the church to all people.  It also elicits criticism from several of the leaders of the early church, so of whom are the same folks who played it safe by staying in the boat that night on lake.

We live in an anxious time.  When the pandemic began, we learned how to isolate and insolate in order to feel safe.  It was a good strategy at the time, to be sure.  Now, every Sunday after church I sense a deep joy in the Parish Hall as we spend time with one another.  We are experiencing the value of connecting and belonging.  It is an act of vulnerability, not so much in the sense we might be exposed to a communicable disease, but in that we are risking being in relationship (albeit, in a fairly safe place).  As Jesus bid to his followers long ago, he bids to us: “Take heart!  I am!  Do not be afraid!” 

Perhaps this week you might pay attention to opportunities your reject and invitations you accept.  Be mindful of the value of being vulnerable.