Vulnerable Love: Lazarus


Lesson: John 11:1-45

   I just returned Tuesday from a whirlwind trip to Nepal, where I met my younger daughter and her husband on their spring break from their teaching jobs in Bangladesh.  I say “whirlwind” because if you travel to Nepal and back in a week, nearly half of your time is spent traveling; but also because my mind and heart are still swirling with what I experienced.  I know some of you have been to Nepal; Phil and Jo Gross spent nearly a year there.  For those of you who have not, it’s about as far away from here as you can get, and I don’t just mean in miles.  Nepal is a Third World country; a developing nation; whatever the politically correct term is these days for a place where you can’t drink the water and you can’t trust the food; where basics like plumbing and electricity can’t be assumed.  I saw amazing things, both beautiful and alarming.  The sunrise over the Himalayas; ancient temples and shrines; two world heritage sites;[1] and an eight-year-old girl who is a “living goddess.”[2]  Two people and a goat on a motorcycle.  The river running through Kathmandu choked with garbage; dust and air pollution so bad many people wear masks.  And the things you can’t necessarily see but hear about: a low literacy rate and appalling statistics about human trafficking.[3]

As I mentioned to a physician in our congregation last week, it’s times like this that I wish I were a doctor, because then I could offer something real, something more helpful than my tourist dollars.  In the face of Nepal’s poverty and social chaos, I feel pretty helpless.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died,”[4] say the dead man Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, to Jesus. Who has not felt a similar pang during times of grief or tragedy, or when overwhelmed by monumental problems: “God, where are you?”  “God, couldn’t you have done something to prevent this?”  “God, why did this happen?”[5]  “God, I feel so helpless.” Read more →

Vulnerable Love: The Man Born Blind


Lesson: John 4:1-41

The last time a beloved creature in your life, whether of the two or the four legged variety, did something that made you want to cringe from embarrassment or disgust, how did you respond? Did you tell your dog, “You are a good dog, but you made a mistake.” Or, did you blurt out, “You are a bad dog!” The difference may seem insignificant and humorous when speaking of pets, but when speaking of humans, it makes all the difference. Is our story about a man with a disability, blindness, or is it about a blind man? Can we allow this Biblical person to be more than his perceived difference? Do we allow people to grow and change, or do we pin people into boxes and categories, labels and stereotypes that remain static. As David Lose from Working Preacher says, “When Jesus comes into our life, things change. That sounds good. Until we realize that change is always disruptive. And then we wonder whether the change — even when it promises new life — is worth it.”[i]

The gospel writer, John, uses as metaphor to discuss life lived fully, abundantly, following and trusting Jesus the Christ. He calls this way of light. And, yes, the darkness is life lived without Christ, separated, alienated, isolated, and deadly. What strikes me is how obviously this passage reveals what author Brene Brown calls, a culture of shame. I’d like to suggest this morning that shame is at the heart of this darkness both two thousand years ago and today.

Throughout Lent Joanne and I have been referencing the book, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. Brown is a shame and vulnerability researcher who is well known for her books and a few TedTalks you can watch online. Let’s begin this exploration by defining a few terms. Brown defines shame as “[Shame is] the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”[ii] Shame is not guilt. She says, “Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.”[iii] Guilt can be positive? Yes, it’s like this. If I feel guilty, I recognize a mistake has been made and I want to make it better. With shame, I become the mistake. I let the mistake define who I am. For instance, did you tell a lie? or did you become a liar? Are you a good dog who made a mistake? Or, are you a bad dog? It’s human nature to feel shame from time to time, but living in shame is a different matter. Shame leads to blame, judgment, disconnection, disrespect, betrayal, numbing, … in essence darkness and death.[iv] These actions damage one’s ability to allow love to grow.[v]  Shame can become deadly when it becomes isolating and debilitating for people, like children and people with disabilities, who, by their very circumstance, must be dependent on others.

Let’s apply some of this to our text. Right out of the box, the disciples ask a religious question about where to place blame for the man’s blindness. They ask Jesus, who sinned? Jesus refuses to assign blame and shame to this man or his family. Who sinned? No one. This was not the expected answer. There are plenty of texts in the Hebrew scriptures that help one assign blame. But, Not today. Not in this text. Some look at this text and interpret Jesus’ words to mean that this man, like all of us, was born to show God’s love to the world.[vi] Then Jesus steps toward the man born blind and touches his eyes with mud.

Jesus exits and our man-born blind washes away the mud from his face and becomes a man with sight. It’s interesting though that he is still known by his disability – even to this day, to my own sermon title and the heading in Bibles, he is named by his perceived deficit. The man born blind. No name. No possibility to be something else and escape the shame of the label. Just to be on the generous side, let’s remove the label from the man and refer to him as the “man who can see” or “the man.”

After the healing, the entire drama between the man and his community revolves around shaming, blaming, and scapegoating. There is not a joyful response to healing, like, say gratitude and awe. No rejoicing by family and friends. No party. No let’s celebrate my son who was once blind, but now sees. Friends and acquaintances are not sure they recognize him. Is this the guy we’ve been living with on the streets? I do not recognize him. Hey, Joey, does he look right to you? No. People disconnect. Is this our son? Yes, but we don’t take any responsibility for him…we are not responsible…we cannot be blamed…he’s an adult, talk to him yourself. The community falls apart in fear and shame.

The Pharisees are good, God-fearing, powerful leaders, and they were probably scared to death. A man was cured. They did not know what to make of the day’s events so they begin to try to cover it up which is yet another reaction to shame. Who is to blame for this anomaly? How do they explain it to themselves? How can they explain it to their people?  What is God doing…how could God go against the Sabbath rules? The rules are here for God. Aren’t they? Surely, we know what we are doing. Surely we are not blind to what God is doing in our midst! These are not comfortable questions. If only they could move the attention away from their own distress and onto someone else. Like, say a person who broke the Sabbath rules! Sadly, judgment works like this…we look for someone else, someone less than us to criticize to call the attention away from our own discomfort. What is so uncomfortable for the religious elite of the day? How about a roaming, sinning, Sabbath-healing, grace dispensing, maverick of a man who keeps throwing them curve balls? The secret to Jesus’ success? God, of course, who shows up through Jesus: wielding vulnerability, transforming relationships, and doing it in his own way. The finger pointing begins.

At the center of the conversation is the man who can now see. Did you notice that he does not play along with the Pharisees? It seems that he does not define himself by his disability. At least, he does not go along with the blame and shame. Rather, he speaks courageously and truthfully to the Pharisees. He actually seems quite resilient to the harsh questioning and the threat as well as the eventual event of being disowned by family friends, and his religious community.

This man who now sees is honest and vulnerable. He admits he does not know exactly what happened. How can he? One moment he’s normal and the next some guy is putting mud on his eyes and directing him to a body of water. Then, his life turns upside down. He sees. And, his community turns upside down in response. He does not show signs of feeling shame. He shows instead courage and truth-telling which are anecdotes for shame. They are signs of vulnerability which are “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”[vii] 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.”[viii]

Vulnerability is not the opposite of shame; it is a tool to help us be resilient to shame. Vulnerability is the path of the light in the darkness. Vulnerability is a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry throughout the gospels and, even here in John. Jesus reaches out to people who are considered unclean, unworthy, different, and sinners, and he touches them. He turns towards others rather than away. Jesus comes back to the man who sees once he realized the man was kicked out of his community. Jesus transforms lives by helping people feel their worth and their worthiness. When we are treated with this kind of vulnerable love, when we believe we are worthy of such love, then our lives and hearts shine brightly. Isn’t the reason we fight shame, the reason we work to be in the light, isn’t it because we long to live with the lightness of gratitude and joy in our hearts?

Jesus disrupts our patterns and offers us a new path. Jesus shows us how to engage the world with courage, love, and gratitude no matter the difficulty in our path. Is it worth it? Yes. Is it easy? No way. Change is scary. Transformation is terrifying. It is no wonder why we can become less than our best selves and stay in the darkness. The good news, is that whether we feel like the Pharisees or the man or the parents, we are all worthy of God’s love. Hopefully, we can let go of the feeling of unworthiness, let go of the shame for long enough to realize this simple truth. May we learn to live courageously in the face of shame and love ourselves and our neighbors for who they are in this moment standing before us. For to practice love this way may take all that we can do to recognize and respond with grace and love.

© Diana C. Bell, 2014


[i] Lose, David. “Identity Theft, Part 2.”
[ii] Brown, Brene, quoted by Holly Corbett. “Understanding Male Vulnerability.” “Redbook Magazine Online.”
[iii] Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly. Gotham, 2012.
[iv] Ibid., p106.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Black, Kathy (1996-10-01). A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability (Kindle Locations 908-909). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
[vii] Ibid. p. 34.
[viii] Ibid.

Vulnerable Love: The Woman at the Well


Lesson: John 4:1-30

   One of my colleagues in the Presbytery decided to take on the Lenten discipline of being a good customer, in part because of a story that author Brené Brown tells in her book, Daring Greatly.   She was trying to enjoy a manicure while watching in horror as the two women across from her talked on their cell phones the entire time they were getting their nails done.  They nodded their heads, raised their eyebrows, or pointed in order to communicate to the manicurists what they wanted – polish color and such.  Brown writes, “I really couldn’t believe it.  I’ve had my nails done by the same two women for ten years.  I know their names (their real Vietnamese names), their children’s names and many of their stories.  They know my name, my children’s names, and many of my stories.  When I finally made a comment about the women on their cell phones, they both quickly averted their eyes.  Finally, in a whisper, the manicurist said, ‘They don’t know.  Most of them don’t think of us as people.’”[1]  Brown goes on to describe putting herself through college by working as a waiter in a fine restaurant, and experiencing several humiliating “waiter as object” moments, when her customers made it clear she was not really a human being to them.  No eye contact, no thank yous, lots of demands, no courtesy.  Brown writes, “Everyone wants to know why customer service has gone to hell in a handbasket.   I want to know why customer behavior has gone to hell in a handbasket.”[2]

To be seen, really seen, is perhaps a universal longing, and by being seen, I don’t just mean being noticed, but being recognized for who we are; being understood and accepted for who you are.  Being seen is when someone “gets” us.  It’s a core and even primal need from the time we’re born and perhaps it’s even holy, sacred.  As the great twentieth century Jewish thinker, Martin Buber put it, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” Read more →

Vulnerable Love: Nicodemus


Lesson: John 3:1-17

   My daughter who teaches in Bangladesh reported that a few weeks ago her students were going through some testing and so, during class time, the teachers gave the kids a break from thinking hard by letting them watch movies.  My daughter showed her students a movie called, “The Croods,”[1] which, incidentally, our own Al Nelson helped produce.  It’s an animated movie about a family of cave people – Neanderthals.  The father’s motto is, “New is always bad.  Never not be afraid.”  The plot develops as the family runs into a homo sapiens with new, and – to the Neanderthal father – threatening ideas.[2]  My daughter was fascinated by her students’ response to a couple of things in the movie.  All but one or two students in the school are Muslim.  The vast majority are boys.  So, first, they were scandalized by the tiny tiger skin mini-dress the main female character wore – an outfit that most of us, including adolescent boys, wouldn’t even blink at.  Second, that character, a teenaged girl, has a line in the movie that she speaks to her father: “You can’t keep me inside [the cave] forever!”  To which my daughter’s students responded, speaking to the screen almost in unison: “Oh, yes he can.”

My reaction was, “Wow.”  It reminded me of the way the world can look so different to different people.  It’s easier to see when you’re comparing cultures: a teenaged boy in Bangladesh has an entirely different view of the role of women in the family than, for example, my son does.  But even within our own culture, we encounter people who make us think, “Wow.  That’s the way the world looks to you?”  I used to teach a class for engaged couples a couple of times a year at the church I served in the City.  I’d tell the couples to become anthropologists when they visited with their in-laws.  By that, I meant they should observe and wonder rather than taking offense when their in-laws opened presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning, played practical jokes on each other, or put ketchup on their scrambled eggs.  Some found this challenging, because they couldn’t stop thinking, “But they’re doing it wrong!” Read more →

Vulnerable Love: In the Wilderness


Lesson: Matthew 4:1-11

   When I was a kid, we used to camp in Tuolomne Meadows, a part of Yosemite National Park that’s at about 9,000 feet.  We thought of it as the wilderness.  It was never very crowded because at that elevation, you have to be OK with waking up to frost on your picnic table every other morning, and you have to be much more conscientious about where you store your food at night.  Every night, tucked in our old-fashioned flannel-lined sleeping bags, we could hear the bears through the walls of our big, green tent, going from one garbage can to the next, rattling the cans closer and then farther away as they made their circuit through the campground.  We’d take a trip down to crowded Yosemite Valley once in a while to see the Fire Fall from El Capitan.  In contrast to Tuolomne Meadows, the valley had the population density of Manhattan – our family joke was that four tents would use one tent peg.  We were always glad to get back up to Tuolomne Meadows.  Although it was uncrowded, it was still civilized.  There was a public restroom down the trail – no showers, to be sure, but flush toilets and sinks.  We had a concrete fire pit and we had an official permit to stay in our official campsite.  There were hikes led by naturalists during the day, and campfires with camp songs at night.  It was abundant and beautiful and we were happy to be there.

In contrast, in Scripture, the wilderness is someplace you do not want to be.  In Scripture, the wilderness wouldn’t be covered with Ponderosa pines and lupine, not to mention the picnic tables and bathrooms down the trail.  It would be dry, barren, no green, no contrast, no noticeable life.  The desert.  The place where there is not enough water, not enough food, not enough protection from the wind and sun and blowing sand.  Not enough.  You would not choose to spend 40 days and 40 nights in this wilderness. Read more →

Vulnerable Love: Rend Your Hearts


Lessons: Joel 2:1-2, 12-13; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

   What you think about Lent seems to me to have everything to do with what you think about God.  For me, Lent is a reset button.  But because I believe that the most important thing we know about God is that God loves the whole world unconditionally, that reset button isn’t like a switch that, during the season of Lent, turns me into someone who believes God thinks we’re all miserable sinners deserving condemnation.  Lent is associated with penitence.  Penitence means regret or sorrow for something you’ve done.  There are times when penitence is not only reasonable but appropriate.  Setting aside a whole season for regret and sorrow, however, seems a little excessive. 

   I like the word repentance better than penitence, because it is less about feeling guilty or feeling shameful, and more about deciding to turn around and go in a different direction.  Or maybe, depending on the person, it isn’t so much of an about face as it is a course correction, maybe even a subtle one.  We all tend to drift.  We adopt good habits and they slowly fall by the wayside.  This doesn’t make us bad people; as far as I can tell it just makes us people.  Still, we know there are ways of being in the world that are better for us and better for God’s world, that more reflect the life lived in the Kingdom of God that God wants for us.  Lent is a good season for getting ourselves back on track. Read more →

Christ for Today


Lessons: Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21

Most people have an, “I was there” story.  It could involve something famous and public, or something private but amazing, like the time I bet a friend a six-pack she couldn’t make a basket from center court on one try, and she did.  There’s a whole website where you can record your “I was there” moment for posterity.  People post one-sentence descriptions, such as, “I was there in Baghdad when George Bush did his ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech,” and “My mom took me to Woodstock” and “I was the first kid to bring a Beanie Baby to school.”  Folks want to share it when they recognize that they’ve witnessed a little bit of history.

Our Second Peter passage this morning is an, “I was there” story with a purpose and with a couple of thorny challenges, which I’ll get to.  Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday before we begin the season of Lent.  In our passages this morning we get two versions of the Transfiguration.  We heard Matthew’s version, which is told as part of Matthew’s larger story of the life and ministry of Jesus.  And we heard the version described in Second Peter, in which the author refers to the Transfiguration in a letter written some time later – scholars aren’t sure exactly when or where.  In this letter, the author isn’t telling the whole story of Jesus.  He’s written the letter to a Christian community because he is concerned they are being misled by some teachings, teachings that he considers to be “false” teachings.  The letter is an attempt to correct these false teachings and get the church back on track.  In order to bolster his authority, in order to convince the church that he is the one to whom they should listen rather than to these other “false” teachers, he says, essentially, “Trust me.  I was there.  I was there at the beginning.  I was there at that amazing and holy moment when Jesus was transfigured on the mountainside, and we heard the voice of God claiming him as God’s beloved son.” Read more →

Loving Your Enemies


Lesson: Matthew 5:38-48

   When I preached on this passage from the Sermon on the Mount a few years ago, I addressed retaliation, the “turn the other cheek” part of the passage.  A mom in the congregation had told me one of her kids didn’t swallow all this baloney about not hitting back, so I preached about the spiral of violence.  Jesus was not teaching people not to resist evil because, after all, he resisted evil with every fiber of his being.  He was teaching that we should not become the evil we resist by using violence.[1] 

   This morning we look at another part of this lesson, a part that is probably one of the best known but most ignored teachings of Jesus: “Love your enemies.”  If a 21st century American kid thinks turning the other cheek is for wimps, then how might he react to “Love your enemies”?  David Lose suggests that a lot of us probably have one of two reactions.  The first is simple, and a little sad: we’ve heard Jesus’ commands so often that they hardly register. … ‘Love your enemies.’ Sounds nice – why not?”[2]  And maybe we stifle a yawn, but we don’t spend much time thinking about actually trying to do it.

  The second response takes Jesus’ words more seriously, but also assumes they’re out of reach.  “Love your enemies”?  You can’t be serious!  That’s just idealistic nonsense.  It doesn’t apply to the real world.  Critics from every part of the political spectrum, from Ayn Rand to Karl Marx to Frederick Nietzsche, completely dismiss Christianity because of this radical commandment.[3]

   But here’s the thing: Jesus isn’t kidding; he’s dead serious.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is outlining his vision of God’s kingdom and issuing a summons to those who desire to be a part of it.  Which is why we need to take this seriously.[4] Read more →

Beyond the Law


Lessons: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37  

   Before I read this morning’s passage from Matthew’s gospel I want to warn you that it is a tough passage.  Like many Bible passages, if you read it in isolation, without understanding the context and as though it weren’t part of a larger message of good news,[i] you might think it is the opposite of good news.  So hang with me, please.  We’ll get through this together.  One side note: When I read the passage, I’ll substitute the original Greek word “Gehenna” for the word that our pew Bible translates very poorly as “hell.”  Gehenna is not hell.  It was the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem that, like the Great Tire Fire[ii] on “The Simpsons,” burned perpetually. 

 [Read passage]

   Thanks to Carl Basore and Tom Lannert we have a lovely church sign now, with movable letters, and every week we post the upcoming sermon title.  Imagine if we’d posted, “This Week at First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo: Murder, Adultery, and Divorce.”  That would pack ‘em in, right?  I decided instead to go with “Beyond the Law,” because that is where Jesus takes us in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.

   The law in question here is the Torah, the 613 laws in the first five books of the Old Testament.  In Jesus’ time there was already a large body of oral interpretation developed by the Pharisees and teachers of the law to make sure no one would break God’s law even by mistake.  So, for example, to avoid taking the Lord’s name in vain, they refused to pronounce God’s name at all.  To avoid violating the Sabbath, they outlawed thirty-nine activities that might be construed as work – including the healing that got Jesus in trouble on a number of occasions. 

   Just a couple of verses before we pick up this morning, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”[iii]  So, the law in the Torah is important to Jesus; he takes it very seriously.  But what he takes seriously is that God’s law is intended to lead to life and blessings, as Dave read in the passage from Deuteronomy a few minutes ago.  Before they enter the land of Canaan, God admonishes the people to keep God’s commandments.  God says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life.”[iv]  Read more →

Salt and Light

salt and light by bernie rosage jr 3

Lesson: Matthew 5:13-16

It’s almost impossible for me to hear today’s text about hiding our light under a bushel basket without also remembering when I learned the song, This Little Light of Mine in Sunday school as a child. For some reason this song is one of the few images from Sunday mornings that have stayed with me. We had a little mini record player and we all practiced hiding our lighted fingers under a basket and saying, “No!” we’re going to let them shine.  Then we’d go on to the third verse, “Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.”  Letting our light shine is a beautiful metaphor. Especially on this fifth Sunday after Epiphany, a time in the liturgical, or church worship, calendar that emphasizes God’s light, the light of the Bethlehem star, the light of the world coming into our lives and hearts, it is appropriate to focus on what it might mean in Matthew’s gospel to be the light.  And, yet, it seems like one more of those phrases that is simple, but not always easy to accomplish.

Read more →