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Sunday, March 12, 2017 | 4:00 p.m.

Lenten Sermon Series:
Following Jesus through the Gospel of John

Brave Enough to Be Vulnerable

Nanette Sawyer
Minister for Congregational Life

John 13:1–17


I love this whole section in the Gospel of John. This foot washing and then the supper and Jesus giving the disciples a new commandment, that they love each other the way he has loved them.

The whole section is filled with vulnerability, intensity, intimacy, poignant love. Jesus tries to comfort the disciples and fill them with strength that will help them through the trauma of the crucifixion.

In all the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last night, he sits down to a meal with his disciples. And it’s an important part of the story. It’s the beginning of the beautiful practice of Communion that we continue today. Jesus breaks bread and shares it with everyone present. Even his betrayer, Judas.

But only in the Gospel according to John does this foot-washing scene take place. Here in the Gospel of John, Jesus washes everyone. Even his betrayer, Judas, and all the disciples who will scatter out of fear. And even Peter, the one who will deny him three times.

This is sometimes called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, and it goes on for five chapters! In the Gospel of Mark, this last evening with the disciples only lasts for nine verses (Mark 14:17–25), but in John it’s five chapters (John 13–17)!

Jesus is saying good-bye, and he says it with many words repeated over and over again:

Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. I will not leave you orphaned.

I’m going soon, but an Advocate will come; the Spirit will be with you forever and will continue to teach you and remind you what I’ve taught. As the Father has loved me, I have loved you. Abide in my love. The Spirit abides with you and in you.

Because the disciples all know that Jesus is about to die, it’s all so much more intense. And the repetition makes it intense, too. Again and again in a hundred different ways Jesus tells the disciples, “Don’t be afraid. I love you. I’m with you. It’s not over.”

Jesus is saying good-bye, but it’s not just with words. He’s also saying good-bye with his actions. He’s taking a dramatic step when he takes on the role of a servant and washes the feet of all his disciples.

He steps into this vulnerable role and places his humanity right there next to the humanity of his disciples. Through this very intimate act he’s affirming their connection. He’s teaching and modeling humility and compassion through his actions.

And he is persistent in his love, even when Peter does not understand and rebuffs Jesus, saying, “No, Lord, you will never wash my feet!”

But Jesus says, “This is our connection; this is how you have a part of me: you let me wash you.”

Jesus shows his love in a very embodied way. He acts it out in his body.

Just imagine them all on that night, gathered in an upper room. Jesus has told them that he will die. He is their dearly beloved. He has been their guide. He has changed all their lives, and now they are filled with fear and grief. They don’t want to lose him. They don’t want the truth to be the truth. They don’t want the situation to be the situation.

In the Gospel of John, as Pastor Hardy pointed out last week, Jesus brings the big creative power of God into the world. John’s Gospel begins like this: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . Everything came into being through the Word.”

That’s Jesus in John. The source of all things. That’s powerful. That’s being in control.

And yet Jesus also reflects this incredible vulnerability of being human, weeping in grief for Lazarus and his sisters, and facing his own death, too.

It takes a lot of strength to be vulnerable. That might seem like a contradiction, but it’s one of the main teachings of Jesus, in my opinion.

Strength and vulnerability are deeply intertwined. And being strong enough to be vulnerable ourselves is what allows us to be connected—to each other and to God.

Dr. Brené Brown has written a lot about vulnerability. She is a research professor at the University of Houston, and she has spent the past twelve years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. It’s very much about human connection—our ability to empathize, belong, love. She says, “Connection is why we’re here. . . . It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives” (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 8).

I think Jesus models that in the foot-washing scene. Humans long for that connection, purpose, and meaning that Brown speaks about. I think that’s evidenced by the fact that her TED talk in 2010, called “The Power of Vulnerability,” is one of the top ten most-viewed TED talks on TED.com. It’s now been watched 28 million times. Two years ago, when I last checked, it was 14 million.

People need and want to hear this message: that vulnerability has its own kind of power.

One of Dr. Brown’s books is called Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

We have to dare greatly to be vulnerable, she says. And counterintuitively, when we are vulnerable, it can help us to become braver.

Brown says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage” (Daring Greatly, p. 37).

Vulnerability sounds like truth, because when we tell the truth, we have to show our imperfections, our weakness, our doubts. First we have to admit them to ourselves, then let other people see them. Vulnerability sounds like truth, being real.

And it feels like courage, because it’s hard to be authentic. It’s scary!

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage,” Brown goes on to say. “Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Can we be brave enough and vulnerable enough to let Jesus wash us? Can we take down our shields, take off our outer cloaks, and let God see us and wash us and relieve us of our burdens? It’s not that God can’t see us truly; it’s just that we pretend we can hide from God, like Adam and Eve in the garden.

Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. Our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “just great.” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to be like Peter and finally let him wash us.

If we can be brave enough to allow that vulnerability, it will make us so much stronger in the long run.

Dr. Brown says that “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” (Daring Greatly, p. 34).

This doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen. They do. Jesus loved and was vulnerable, and he was still crucified. He was just teaching his disciples how to live through that. He was helping them have greater clarity in their purpose and deeper and more meaningful lives, even in the face of his own death.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about another disciple of Jesus: Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve been thinking about him because we are coming up on the anniversary of his assassination. I’m working with some interfaith partners on the possibility of marking that day somehow, remembering the life and teaching of Dr. King on that day of tragedy.

In my recent studies of Dr. King’s work, I came across a story by Tavis Smiley. Tavis Smiley is an American talk show host and author of several books. He hosts a late-night news program on public radio.

Since I was twelve,” Smiley said, “I’ve dedicated my life to trying to do my small part to make the world safe for the legacy of Dr. King. I believe that legacy to be . . . justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates people. That’s his legacy. And I try to do my part to make the world safe for that legacy.”

“Long story short,” Smiley goes on, “when I was twelve years old I was beaten brutally. I was in a hospital for two weeks in traction, not knowing whether I would live or how my life was going to end up. I was introduced to Dr. King through some LP recordings that were given to me as a gift by someone. I don’t know why they even gave me the gift. But when I heard Dr. King talking about the power of love—he’s talking to a nation—but he might as well have been talking to a broken-hearted, broken-spirited young black boy named Tavis about the power of love.”

“And what he said to me was that ‘Tavis, you gotta love your way through this. That hate and bitterness and revenge are not an option. You gotta find a way to love your way through this.’ So King had long since been dead when I was twelve, but he brought me back to life. He literally saved my life when I was just a twelve-year-old” (Tavis Smiley, The Mimi Geerges Show, 1 October 2014, www.bit.ly/2lUbgSv).

Tavis Smiley’s story made an impression on me because it made me think about how love enters into vulnerable situations and how love changes lives. Lying in traction in a hospitable bed, wondering if you will live, is an incredible moment of vulnerability. Somehow in that moment, love shone into Smiley’s life through the inspirational words of a preacher teaching Jesus’ message.

We have to let love shine in, so we can let it shine out. It will look different for each of us, but we’re all walking on this two-way street of love.

Brené Brown says that spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that “we are inextricably connected to one another by a force greater than ourselves—a force grounded in love and compassion” (Daring Greatly, p. 151).

Our connection is grounded in love and compassion.

I think that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said, “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: just as I have done, you also must do.”

There is a power of love greater than any of us, but it’s a two-way street of love. We have to let it in before we can let it out.

Our meditation today is related to this idea. Each Sunday during Lent we are introducing and practicing a different meditation practice from the rich resources of Christian tradition.

Our meditation today is an adaptation of a practice from the Quaker tradition that’s called palms down, palms up. I’ll introduce it, and then we’ll have three minutes of silence while we meditate.

Then a musical response will begin, and after the music ends we will move on to our time of Prayers of the People.

Palms down, palms up. Begin by getting comfortable and by taking a couple of deep breaths. Wiggle around in your seat if you need to to find a comfortable position.

Place your hands palms down. You can place them on your lap or beside you on the pew or hold them out in mid-air, but let them be palms down. And now begin to imagine all your worries, all your fears, all your shame, your anger, your tension, your pain—everything and anything that is a burden for you right now—and begin to imagine it flowing out of the palms of your hands. You are releasing it, and giving it to God. You are allowing Jesus to wash you clean.

You might imagine that Jesus is standing or sitting in front of you and you are pouring all this out at his feet. It seeps down deep into the ground, flowing far away from you.

You might imagine light pouring into you from the top of your head and washing down through your body. Take as long as you need for this. Let it wash you thoroughly.

Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. I love you. I’m with you. It’s not over.”

And when you are ready, at a certain point, turn your palms up as a sign that you are open to receive the light and the love of God.

Let it all pour into you through the palms of your hands and in through the top of your head. You might see and feel the light beginning to surround you on all sides and hold you and fill you.

As the light comes in through your palms, you might feel yourself begin to be full, and light may shine back out of you again. If this happens, let that light shine out of you. Let it shine in, and let it shine out.

We’ll enter silence now. Take as much time as you need with palms down. And you can go back and forth between the two ways, also. Palms down, palms up. Meditate.

Amen.