sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/13/2013
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Nicknames. Fig Leaves. Bare Feet.
Belonging. Shame. Vulnerability.
My mom’s sister, Aunt Pat, called me Thunder Thighs when I was a kid. Yeah, I know. It was because I loved to play soccer and could kick the ball a long ways. When I hear it in my mind, recalling her saying it to me, it still makes me feel like I’m at home. Like I belonged with her. I can feel the pride in that nickname. Thunder Thighs. I can feel the humor in the teasing. You know you belong when you can be teased and you feel the humor of it, don’t you? The teaser loves you, knows you, gets you. It’s good to be gotten. Maybe one of the best things ever, in human experience. Someone who’s good at teasing teases in such a way that the teasing peels the layers of your mask off, gently showing you that they see you, the you that’s under all the masks, and saying that they love you. We all long for that feeling. The feeling of belonging. Thunder Thighs.
Shame is the feeling we hate the most in this world. It’s like a searing hot wave. If it doesn’t pass quickly, it’s like a black hole in an empty room we didn’t know was inside of us, squeezing, choking, violent. We want to run from it. Cover it up. Numb it.
I was athletic in middle school, always an early round pick in the gym class draft. But I ran a little bit pigeon-toed. Just enough that another kid, the coolest kid, noticed it and imitated it. Everyone would laugh. I would too, but just to cover my shame. Mask it. Because I felt like I was flawed. And that eventually, I’d be rejected. Not picked. Left off the team. Whenever I was alone, I’d try to run with my toes straight forward. Trying to fix myself, force my body to get it right. Not so I could play any better. But just so I wouldn’t feel that shame. That was low-level, bush-league shame, for a confident, well-loved, all-things-considered secure kid, “Thunder Thighs” for heaven’s sake, and it’s still stuck in my memory.
Shame sucks. Shame and its demonic offspring have wreaked havoc in our world and in our lives.
And no fig leaf has ever succeeded in covering it adequately. Not perfectionism. Not foreboding joy. Not busyness. Not drugs. Not shallow, promiscuous intimacy. Not cynicism, criticism, coolness, or cruelty. All fig leaves fail, leaving us flailing in shame.
And then there’s Vulnerability. How you terrify us! And yet, you are the way forward.
Chariots of Fire has long been a favorite movie of mine. Not until I began to understand shame and vulnerability did I understand why. Chariots of Fire tells the story of two athletes, two runners. One, Abrams, runs to cover his shame. He is driven to be the best, to secure his belonging by giving no one any reason to reject him. He runs with power and precision and incredible discipline. And yet his prowess on the track is his shield; it keeps anyone from knowing the pain and vulnerability at his core. The other, Eric, runs, because when he runs he feels God’s pleasure. He comes alive. His arms wheel about crazily, his face turned up. He embraces his vulnerability. He doesn’t hide his weaknesses. He doesn’t run with bare feet, but he might as well, because he is as vulnerable as a human being can be when he runs.
We see Abrams’ pain, and we understand it, because it’s ours. We long for him to know freedom, but there is a tragedy in him. It is our tragedy. Human beings trapped by shame, running ourselves into the ground to be free of it, and finding only empty success, becoming people we don’t really want to be along the way.
We see Eric’s joy, and we long for it, wishing we had the courage to be as he is, wondering if it’s really possible, could it really work that way. It is the comedy we want to play a role in. Thinking, I could never imagine letting myself be seen that way, letting myself be myself that way, flaws and all, but oh, how freeing it might be if I could!
So we’ve spent these last weeks talking about nicknames, fig leaves, and bare feet, about belonging, shame and vulnerability. And we’ve seen how Jesus points the way to the embrace of vulnerability as the way of salvation.
About how vulnerability is subversive like the gospel is subversive.
And we’ve seen how the best social science research backs up the witness of scripture on this score. God is a God of love, and love and vulnerability go hand in hand. The only way to life is an embrace of our vulnerability, and acknowledgement that all of us our needy people who find our belonging secured not by performance or merit, but by grace.
We’ve seen that we live in a world dripping with Grace, where the great lie is that there isn’t enough, but the good news is that God has entered our vulnerability and apprehension of scarcity with his generous, loving, multiplying presence and from this moment on, you + Jesus always = enough.
So shame can die a shameful death as we pick up our crosses and follow Jesus into the death that leads to resurrection life, the life God enjoys, the life of the heavens come down to meet us even here and now.
Today we finish our exploration by considering how we can create environments where shame can be defanged, and where vulnerability can be embraced. Families, certainly. Workplaces. Teams. Neighborhoods. Classrooms. Wherever we have influence. And most of all, churches. Starting here.
Let’s look at the famous story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. The story is told in John’s good news account, chapter 8. John 7 sets the scene though, so we’ll start there.
Jesus is in Jerusalem for a festival, but he’s there secretly because there are people there who want to kill him. It’s a huge festival – one of the three biggest feast days in Israel. It’s called the Feast of the Tabernacles (or Sukkot), and it lasts for 8 days. (Most recent celebration was in September.) It recalls the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness after the Hebrews are released from slavery in Egypt but before they enter the Promised Land of Canaan. Small booths, temporary structures, are made as a way of remembering how the Israelites lived as nomads in the wilderness, and people would sleep in them, entertain in them throughout the 8 days.
The Jewish people believed that when the messiah came (messiah simply means “anointed one” - the one who would liberate them from Roman occupation), streams of water would flow from the Temple in Jerusalem and fill the valleys around it, much like in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision. It’s a picture of the River of Life. And so for generations, every morning of this 8-day Feast a priest would leave the temple at dawn with a procession of people. They would go to the Pool of Siloam, which was just excavated in east Jerusalem in 2004. It was huge, the size of two football fields. There the priest would take a golden pitcher and fill it from the pool. The people would return to the temple where trumpets sounded three times. The priests would walk around the altar seven times, then go up a ramp at the side of the altar, raise the pitcher and pour out the water onto the altar. Then another priest would pour out wine on the opposite side of the altar, with the wine symbolizing the grape harvest. Once the water and wine were poured and Psalm 118 was read, the people would shout, “Lift your hands!” People looking back on a good harvest from God and looking ahead to the coming of the hoped-for messiah.
You can imagine this ceremony taking place - the pouring of the water and the wine onto the altar – when the Gospel of John tells us that, “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:37-39a) That took some courageous vulnerability, didn’t it?
No surprise, it causes a stir. People understood that Jesus was claiming to take the place of the temple; he’s reorienting their expectations about the temple around himself. You believe water will flow from this temple, but I’m telling you it will flow from me.
And it turns out that most of the people who hear Jesus are impressed by him, not upset. Which makes Jesus’ enemies furious, as you can imagine…
We pick up the story the next morning, after his enemies, some of the Pharisees, have had a night to plot against him.
2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
Let’s notice a few things.
One, Jesus isn’t afraid of conflict. He goes right back to the temple, even though he knows some powerful people are upset with him. This is a mark of the courageously vulnerable. The thought that he might be rejected – even killed – because someone doesn’t agree with him doesn’t scare him off from doing what he’s there to do: teaching the people.
Secondly, the Pharisees wait until a crowd has gathered to pull off the little stunt they’ve planned overnight. They want to make Jesus look as foolish as possible in front of as many people as possible. They want to shame him so that he’ll stop his blasphemy, and they want to discredit him so people stop listening to him.
Here’s their plan (and we’ll look at the details of it in a moment): they wanted to make it look like Jesus either doesn’t understand Jewish law or that Jesus disregards the law when it doesn’t suit him. Either way, it would compromise his authority as a spiritual teacher, and completely undermine any claims of being a messiah.
Make no mistake; this is in all likelihood not a coincidence that they have this woman caught in adultery to present at this moment; it’s a stunt designed to put Jesus in a no-win situation. How do Pharisees catch someone in the act of adultery? Were they lurking outside bedroom windows all night long? Some have suggested she was just a vulnerable woman they rounded up to play the part (I’m not convinced of that, given Jesus’ last statement to the woman, but it’s an intriguing idea). Not to mention the fact that if they did somehow actually happen to stumble upon a couple in the act of adultery, where’s the man? Jewish law dictated that both of them would be stoned. Were the Pharisees themselves disregarding part of the law? That at least tells us this wasn’t about the integrity of the Law, but about publicly humiliating Jesus. And on top of all of that, they don’t use the woman’s name. She doesn’t matter to them; she’s just there to be used by them.
To understand the Pharisee’s plot, it helps to understand the physical setting. Jesus is in this large courtyard, under the shadow of a fortress built by Herod the Great when he re-built the Temple. Roman soldiers were stationed there, patrolling the walkways and the walls overlooking the courtyard. They are a presence in this story.
Now back to the Pharisees and their plot…
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
The Pharisees used this question as a trap, because they thought Jesus would only have two choices, both of them bad.
Stone her. Although this might prove Jesus knew the law and was willing to enforce it, it would have caused a commotion and resulted in Jesus’ arrest, because the Romans wouldn’t allow the Jewish people to put anyone to death.
Let her go; there are soldiers watching. This would have looked like cowardice, as if he were willing to compromise the law to protect his own safety. What kind of messiah would that be?
But Jesus has other ideas.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.
Why write in the dirt?
In Jewish law, the day after a major feast (Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles) is considered a Sabbath, whether or not it falls on a Saturday. No one can do any work on a Sabbath day. Rabbis considered writing – even many today – be work. However, writing in dirt wasn’t considered work because it didn’t create a permanent mark.
So by writing in the dirt, Jesus proves that he knows his stuff, all the way down to the smallest detail. It’s like that scene in the Princess Bride when Inigo Montoya switches the sword to his right hand and says, I too am not left handed.
Also, he’s echoing a passage from the prophet Jeremiah, turning his writing into a symbolic action. “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” (Jeremiah 17:13) By writing in the dust, it’s like Jesus is making a commentary on shame. You’re trying to shame this vulnerable woman, and shame me as well. But be careful – it’s not our belonging that is threatened by your actions; it’s yours.
That’s pretty awesome, I think. But we’re only just now getting to the good stuff.
7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Here’s what’s happening. Jesus is leveling the playing field, which creates breathing room for the vulnerable, and chokes off shame’s power.
Remember, shame survives as a controlling influence as long as we try to insulate ourselves from our vulnerability. Because the only way out of shame is through it.
Shame wants us to run from vulnerability. So as long as we can pretend we aren’t vulnerable, or comfort ourselves that others are more vulnerable than we are, we don’t have to feel the awful pain of shame and we don’t have to confront our vulnerability and neediness, our flaws and difficulties.
But life is found on the other side of vulnerability. It’s found when we can embrace a God who enters our vulnerability with us, receiving his love and grace. It’s found when we can embrace ourselves in our vulnerability, with kindness and compassion. It’s found when we can embrace each other, flaws and all, with radical hospitality. It’s found when we can embrace vulnerability as the way to life.
When Jesus stands, it’s a way of saying that the judgment of the Law is that the woman be stoned. Jesus knows the Law.
But when Jesus says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” he is placing all of them, together with the woman, under the same Law. Each person as vulnerable to the judgment of the law as the other.
When he stoops down again, he is placing himself under the judgment of the law with them, joining them.
All of them, oldest to youngest, most righteous to least righteous, vulnerable to the judgment of the law.
And by inviting them to put their names and faces to the execution of the law, he is reminding them that all of them are equally vulnerable, along with him, to the Roman soldiers. Because if they start the stoning, they are the ones who will be arrested and jailed.
Jesus isn’t making them vulnerable. He’s just shining light on the vulnerability we all share that they’ve been pretending they could avoid. God is the God of reality. Any attempt to live in a fantasy separates us from him and cuts us off from his life.
It’s the older ones who see it first. There’s something about getting older that brings one’s vulnerability – epitomized in our mortality – to light. And the younger ones follow.
Jesus doesn’t gloat, he doesn’t stare, he doesn’t sing that “Nah nah, nah nah nah nah, hey hey hey, Goodbye” song. He knows what a holy and terrible thing it is to be confronted with one’s vulnerability. The Pharisees are looking foolish now, but he is merciful and gentle with them, even though they were not that way themselves.
But instead he stays with the most vulnerable one in the story, the accused woman, so that she will not be alone in her vulnerability and shame.
This is how we create environments that create breathing room for the courageous embrace of vulnerability and choke off shame’s power. We level the playing field with one another in our pursuit of God.
We are all equally vulnerable to the judgment of the Law, and equally dependent on God’s lovingkindness, his Grace towards us.
We are all equally vulnerable to the brokenness of this world and brokenness of our old creation selves, and equally in need of God’s help and power and Holy Spirit.
This knowledge is what frees us to be real in relationship with one another. Martin Buber says: “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”
This is why leaders are servants.
Why pastors are members of the church, first and foremost.
This is why we are centered-set in our approach to what it means to be insiders.
This is why everyone gets to play.
This is why everything we’ve been given is ours to steward for the sake of God’s kingdom, and nothing is ours for our benefit alone. Because stewardship is an embrace of vulnerability, but claiming for our exclusive ownership is an attempt to distance ourselves from it.
This is why ministry to the poor and vulnerable is such a privilege and treasure.
Because it’s only working right when we realize we give out of our own fundamental neediness and vulnerability, not out of our wealth and strength.
This is why it’s OK to fail and learn.
It’s OK to not know the answer.
It’s OK to need help.
It’s OK to give it a shot. To take a risk.
It’s OK to disagree and talk about it.
Even if you disagree about what feel like are really, really important questions.
It’s OK to admit it. Whatever it is.
It’s OK if it’s difficult for you when others seem to find it easy.
It’s OK to have needs and say them out loud.
It’s OK to say how you feel. It’s OK to feel.
It’s OK to ask what you can do better next time.
It’s OK to ask for feedback.
It’s OK to take responsibility.
It’s OK to apologize.
It’s OK to say thank you.
It’s OK to say your aunt called you Thunder Thighs when you were a kid.
Just don’t any of you dare repeat it.
1. Do performance reviews sitting on the same side of the table.
2. Let your face light up when a person (especially a kid) walks in the room.
3. Allow your child to not do great at something. An assignment. A competition. A performance. Help them redefine their goal from excelling to gain approval to showing up for the sake of courage.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.…