Posts Tagged ‘Vulnerability’

Winning isn’t everything

September 2, 2017

Pentecost 13 – 2017

Matthew 16:21-28 (Romans 12:9-21)

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who asks for nothing less than our whole selves and who gives us more than we can imagine in return. Amen.

 During the past week I became aware of an event that occurred at the Special Olympics held in Seattle. The story relates to the 100-yard dash. “The nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled were assembled at the starting line.  At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but keen to run the race to the finish and win.  All, that is, except one boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times and began to cry.  The other eight heard the boy crying.  They slowed down and looked back.  Then they all turned around and went back.  Every one of them.  One girl with Down’s Syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it better.”  Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line.  Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes.  People who were there that day are still telling the story.”[1]

In that race no one was a winner in a convention sense. Not one of the nine children had abandoned the others to streak ahead for the glory of a gold, a silver or even a bronze medal. Yet, as the applause demonstrated, everyone in the race was a winner. Each participant experienced (and shared with the crowd) the joy and privilege of coming to the help and rescue of another, of working together to achieve a common goal and of sharing, rather than competing for, the victory. The actions of these special children reversed the usual expectations of the Olympics, the Par-Olympics or the Special Olympics which is to pit contestants against one another, to separate out the winners from the losers and to measure people by their achievements rather than by their character.

From the time Jesus began preaching, he advocated an alternate view. He confronted the values and norms of the world and challenged the disciples (all who would follow him) to live by the values of the kingdom – values that are very often diametrically opposed to the values of the world. In this Jesus was uncompromising. In the Sermon on the Mount he announced: “Blessed are the meek,” “Blessed are those who mourn,” “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. To those people who are set on achieving wealth, fame such values make no sense at all. To those who want to see justice done by exacting retribution Jesus’ values are appear as weaknesses that leave one vulnerable and unprotected.

The implication of Jesus’ teaching is that wealth or fame that are achieved at the expense of the welfare of others provide only temporary satisfaction; that those whose happiness or sense of identity depends on externals such money, recognition, or success may find that they are never satisfied but are always struggling to stay on top, striving to be ahead of the game and constantly measuring themselves against others. Jesus (in his teaching and his life) made it clear that vengeance does not put an end to violence, but only creates a never-ending circle of violence.

In today’s gospel Jesus informs the disciples that the road ahead leads to suffering and death. In a direct reversal of the disciples’ expectations, Jesus was not going to Jerusalem to claim a crown, to gather an army or to confront the authorities. He was going to Jerusalem so that they could kill him! Peter’s response indicates that for the disciples, this was not only unexpected, but unacceptable! It was impossible for Peter to believe that the one whom he has just identified as the Christ has come only to suffer and die! Jesus had turned Peter’s hopes on their head – a Saviour who doesn’t save makes no sense at all! Nothing has prepared the disciples for a Christ who is weak and vulnerable, a Christ who would suffer and die. The one whom Israel expected was meant to take charge and to be in control. He was not supposed to be someone who ceded that power to others.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. Jesus did not allow the disciples to process what he has said about himself before he made it clear that following him meant that their lives, at least metaphorically, must be modelled on his. In order to be fully alive in kingdom terms the disciples must relinquish what, up until now, they have considered as the norm. From now on they must live according to the upside down values that Jesus has preached and will continue to preach. Only by living in such a way will they be truly alive, truly content, truly at peace. The life that they will lose is only a half-life and the life that they gain will give them all that they need in the present and in the future it will give them life for all eternity.

That Paul (and the early church) understood this principle of reversal is evident in Paul’s letters and we see it expressed in our reading from Romans today: “Bless those who persecute you”, “do not repay evil for evil”.

It comes down to this: are we governed by what God thinks of us or what others think of us? is our happiness determined by being better than others, having more than others or by exacting what we consider is our due from others? do we get more satisfaction from winning at all costs or from ensuring that others have an opportunity to achieve their goals (whether it be success in their careers or simply providing for their families)?

It is in giving up our striving and allowing ourselves to be weak and vulnerable, dependent on others and, more importantly, dependent on God that paradoxically will we find ourselves to be most truly alive, most satisfied and most joyful. By learning to rest in God in the present, we will be preparing ourselves to rest in and with God forever.

 

 

[1] From a sermon by Br David Vryhof, SSJE, https://www.ssje.org/2007/02/11/blessings-and-woes/

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We are parched

July 1, 2017

Pentecost 4 – 2017

Matthew 10:40-42

Marian Free

 

In the name of God in whom we live and breathe and have our being. Amen.

There are many who find it very difficult to receive assistance or gifts. There are a few explanations for this. Some people feel that they do not deserve attention and so they shy away from it. There are others who do not wish to feel obligated to another. If they receive a gift or are given help in any way they worry that they have put themselves in debt to someone else. Still others are unwilling to acknowledge that they need help – older people for example who do not want their family or friends to see that they are no longer coping. Behind all of these reasons lies a degree of pride and a desire to preserve one’s independence. Being reliant on others is seen as a sign of weakness in our society, so we build up a front, an image that says: “I can manage, I don’t need your gifts or your help.”

If that describes you, you might be in real strife at least according to today’s gospel. Refusing help – especially when help might make a difference in our lives – is one way of shutting people out, of being satisfied with superficial as opposed to real relationships and perhaps worst of all of denying the giver an opportunity to serve.

Last week I mentioned that chapter 10 of Matthew is a chiasm, that is that the first and last thought are similar, as are the second and second last and so on. In this chapter Jesus is addressing the twelve as he sends them out to preach and to heal. The passage begins with Jesus’ telling the disciples to take nothing with them, in other words to be utterly reliant on the generosity of strangers. The section concludes as it began, though it is worded not from the point of view of the disciples, but from the point of view of those from whom they receive hospitality. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” In Matthew’s gospel, the expression “little ones” refers to those who believe in Jesus, members of the community. As at the beginning, it is the disciples’ dependence on others that is at the heart of the statement.

A look at the collect for today indicates that more often than not, this paragraph has been misinterpreted. The collect assumes, as do many commentators, that the passage refers to the generosity of the disciples towards those in need. However, in its context, it is quite clear that Jesus’ words must be understood in reverse. Jesus is suggesting that it is those who provide for the disciples who will be rewarded (not that the disciples should do the providing).

For many of us, this is a challenging and confronting idea. As Christians, most of us will have been brought up to believe that it is our task to alleviate the suffering of the world, and there is some truth in that. However, that is not the message of today’s gospel. Here Jesus is quite clear, the disciples are to place themselves at the mercy of others. They are to put themselves in such a position that they are completely dependent on the kindness of those around them. It is the vulnerability of the disciples that will provide others an opportunity to serve them that in turn will give them a chance to “receive the reward of the righteous”.

This is a profoundly important point – one that is often overlooked, but which is essential in regard both to our relationship with God and to our mission to the world.

In verse 39 we read “those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. This is a reminder that our spiritual journey involves a continual process of letting go of control. The life we lose, is not the life that endures for eternity, but a life that relies on the things of this world – possessions, achievements, self-reliance and so on. It is only by relinquishing our independence and by recognising how much we need God’s help to achieve spiritual maturity that we are able to break down the barriers that prevent our becoming completely dependent on God. If we desire to truly be one with God, then we must give ourselves to God without reserve – holding nothing back. We must be ready and willing to accept God’s help and to accept the gifts that God so generously bestows.

At the same time this passage challenges us to provide others with the opportunity to serve us. If we insist on doing everything ourselves and if we constantly refuse offers of assistance then we deprive others of the privilege of being generous or of having the satisfaction of having made a difference in someone else’s life. In effect, by being determined to help, rather than to be helped, we lock people out of relationship with us, we deny them the opportunity to serve God through serving us and ultimately we prevent them from having a relationship with God through their relationship with us. (In other words we do the exact opposite of what Jesus is telling the disciples to do.)

By interpreting these verses in reverse – believing that we have to serve, instead of understanding that we must allow ourselves to be served – we may be participating in the greatest error that the church has made. Thinking that we have something to offer the world, it is possible that we have been blind to what the world has to offer us. By insisting on our independence and emphasising our strengths, we have attempted to cover up our weaknesses and our frailties and our need for assistance. We have become so sure of ourselves, and what we think we can provide to the world, that we have come to convince ourselves that others need us, not that we need them.

We want to serve the world, but in so doing have denied others the opportunity to find God through their service to us.

We want to give the world water to drink but have failed to realise that it is we who are parched.

 

 

In vulnerably lies our salvation

November 19, 2016

The Reign of Christ – 2016

Luke 23:33-43

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose contradictions keep us always guessing. Amen.

Periander had sent a herald to Thrasybulus and inquired in what way he would best and most safely govern his city. Thrasybulus led the man who had come from Periander outside the town, and entered into a sown field. As he walked through the wheat, continually asking why the messenger had come to him from Cypselus, he kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see, and throwing them away, until he had destroyed the best and richest part of the crop. Then, after passing through the place and speaking no word of counsel, he sent the herald away. When the herald returned to Cypselus, Periander desired to hear what counsel he brought, but the man said that Thrasybulus had given him none. The herald added that it was a strange man to whom he had been sent, a madman and a destroyer of his own possessions, telling Periander what he had seen Thrasybulus do. Periander, however, understood what had been done, and perceived that Thrasybulus had counselled him to slay those of his townsmen who were outstanding in influence or ability; with that he began to deal with his citizens in an evil manner[1].

According to Wikipedia this tale, which dates from at least the 4th century BCE is the origin of what we know as the Tall Poppy Syndrome – the desire to cut down anyone whom we believe to have “risen above their station”. That same site quotes Peter Harcher from the Sydney Morning Herald who defines the Australian version of the syndrome in the following way, “(Australian) citizens know that some among them will have more power and money than others… But according to the unspoken national ethos, no Australian is permitted to assume that he or she is better than any other Australian. How is this enforced? By the prompt corrective of levelling derision. It has a name—The “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. The tallest flowers in the field will be cut down to the same size as all the others. This is sometimes misunderstood…It isn’t success that offends Australians. It’s the affront committed by anyone who starts to put on superior airs[2].”

Sociologists like Max Weber believe that believe that in some groups, especially those that are disadvantaged socially or economically, there is only a “limited amount of prestige to go around”. As a result those who gain a degree of power or influence are resented for absorbing more than their fair share, which in turn restricts the ability of others to gain attention and authority[3]. In Australia, it seems that another person’s success offends our sense of egalitarianism. If someone is more successful than his or her peers, it is (in the minds of their peers) a sign that they think more highly of themselves than they should. They have broken the bonds of solidarity that provide strength and dignity to those on the lower rungs of the social scale and have set themselves apart to the chagrin of their peers.

Those left behind seek to humiliate if not destroy those who by good fortune or hard work have improved their place in the world. They try to bring that person down to their own level, to prove that they are just as human and flawed as the next person.

Should that person experience a reversal in fortune or a fall from grace, his or her peers will crow with delight, gather like vultures to pick over the bones, boast with delight that they knew that no good could come from someone overreaching themselves. They think to themselves how wise they were to have predicted the inevitable outcome of another’s ambition and pride. They express no sympathy for the plight of the fallen, just gleeful spite and self-congratulation.

If we understand this characteristic of human nature (the desire to cut others down to size), we will not surprised that this is how a majority of people react to Jesus’ arrest, condemnation and crucifixion. After all Jesus, in the minds of many, is just some peasant upstart from the far-flung region of Galilee who despite being a nobody has been causing mayhem in Jerusalem and in the Temple. Egged on by the leaders (whose apparent power derives from Rome), those present at the cross deride and mock Jesus, pointing out his powerlessness and the contrast between his present situations and that to which he might have aspired. What right does he have to set himself above others? What makes him different from the rest of the poor peasants who make up 99% of the population? Why should he receive the adulation and support of the crowds? What gives him the right to challenge the leaders and to critique Temple worship? Those who have no power – the soldiers, the crowd and even one of Jesus’ co-condemned – ridicule Jesus and demand that he demonstrate the power that he claimed to have. They want him to prove himself. If he is better than them, if he is able to perform miracles, if he is closer to God than they are then now is the time to prove it.

Three times the challenge rings out: “If he is the Christ let him save himself.” “If you are the King of the Jews save yourself.” “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Three times Jesus is challenged to “save”. Save! Save! Save! they cry in mockery, knowing that the cross holds Jesus tight.

What we can see and the crowds cannot, is that the cross is unable to hold Jesus. The leaders, the soldiers, the man condemned to death have completely misunderstood the way in which Jesus will save (will bring about salvation). He will not “save himself from the cross, but his submission to the cross will bring about the salvation of the whole world. What the leaders and the soldiers and the condemned man have failed to understand is that it is precisely Jesus’ willingness to be powerless and vulnerable, his readiness to submit himself completely to God and his total obedience to and reliance on God that will lead not only to his own “rescue” from death, but also to the salvation of the whole of humankind.

As is often the case in the gospels, it is the most unlikely figure who can see the truth. A condemned man, who within two days will have died the most horrific of deaths, recognises Jesus’ paradoxical kingship. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus, knowing the authority that he does have, promises “today you will be with me in Paradise”.

Crucifixion does not look like salvation, death does not look like life, vulnerability does not look like control but Jesus’ knew and the thief discerned, that it is only when we give up our independence and sense of control, only when we place ourselves completely and utterly in God’s hands that we can and will be saved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The concept originates from accounts in HerodotusThe Histories (Book 5, 92f), Aristotle‘s Politics (1284a), and Livy‘s History of Rome, Book I. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tall_poppy_syndrome

[2] op cit

[3] op cit

Who is forced to suffer so that we do not have to???

November 7, 2015
A widow's mite purchased on our recent visit to Palestine.

A widow’s mite purchased on our recent visit to Palestine.

Pentecost 24

The Book of Ruth, Mark 12:38-44

Marian Free

In the name of God whose preference is for the poor and the vulnerable. Amen.

It is no secret that I am a Jane Austen fan. This may have to do with my growing up in an era when the role of women was still considerably constricted. It was not until I reached my teens that mothers began stepping confidently into the work force and I still have vivid memories of a single female friend who, despite having a good job and regular income was obliged to ask my father to be guarantor so that she could obtain a home loan. She may not have felt this way, but even though I was relatively young I felt keenly the humiliation of her experience. The idea that because she was a woman she could not be trusted with something as weighty as a home loan seemed (indeed was) ludicrous.

That said, by the time I came into the world some things had changed for the better. By then the government was providing some sort of support for women who had been widowed and for single mothers who were strong enough to refuse to put their child up for adoption. For centuries prior to that, women without a husband or father to protect them often found themselves in very straightened circumstances[1].

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility gives an insight into the precarious nature of a woman’s place in the world of the eighteenth century. Mrs Dashwood is the second wife of an older man whose estate is entailed on his son John. When her husband is dying he makes John promise to care for his stepmother and stepsisters. The son promises, but does not take into account his overbearing wife who cannot bear the thought of sharing the estate, or of their only son being deprived of even a modest part of what might become his inheritance. Mrs Dashwood senior and her daughter’s find themselves unwelcome visitors in what up until then had been their family home. They feel sufficiently uncomfortable that they seek to find somewhere else to live, but their allowance will not stretch very far and many suitable house have to be ruled out. Thankfully a distance cousin offers them a small cottage on his estate and so they move (with the few possessions that they can call their own) to a situation far removed from that which they were used to.

The privations do not end there. Even though their cousin is very generous and insists that they eat with his family most evenings, the yearly allowance does not stretch to beef or even sugar. Overnight what had been a privileged and comfortable lifestyle is reversed and the women find themselves utterly dependent on the generosity of others.

The Book of Ruth is set during the time of Judges – approximately 1200-1020 BCE. At this time the majority of Israelites were small landowners and could support themselves through farming. Laws were in place to ensure that the widows and orphans were able to sustain themselves. Not only was it the responsibility of everyone to provide for them, but there was a law to the effect that farmers should exercise a certain amount of carelessness when harvesting. Leviticus 19:9-10 specifically instructs the Israelites to leave the margins of their fields unharvested, to leave behind any produce that fell to the ground and to harvest only once. This ensured that the poor and the aliens could be assured of finding food to eat. They could enter a “harvested” field and glean what had been left behind. It was not an easy existence, but it did provide a way for the poor to support themselves.

Fast forward to the beginning of the first century and we discover a situation that was completely different. With the best will in the world no one could impose the Levitical law universally. At this time many Israelites had been forced off their land so that the Emperor could give gifts to soldiers who had served him well. This meant that there were fewer farms in the hands of the Israelites and therefore fewer people to observe the obligations set down in Leviticus. In the city of course the situation was even worse. It has been said that Israelite women were at this time among the poorest people in the world.

Today’s gospel has often been used to extol the widow for her utter selflessness and to encourage the rest of us to follow her example, but that interpretation misrepresents what is really happening here. When we read the passage in its entirety we see that the story of the widow is a continuation of Jesus’ attack on the scribes. This forces us to observe that Jesus is not complimenting the woman for her generosity; but instead is lamenting the political and social climate that has created a situation in which the widow thinks that she has to give anything at all. The scribes it seems have found a way to convince the poorest and the most vulnerable that God requires demonstrations of their commitment – in the form of donations to the Temple. By insisting on “sacrificial giving” they are in effect, “devouring the estates of the widows”. The poor and the widows should have received support from the Temple, not felt obliged to do the reverse.

By giving her last two coins, the widow has not achieved anything. Her small contribution will not all much to the Temple resources but will certainly deprive herself and any dependents of a future[2].

Jesus’ attack on the scribes suggests that they were more into outward show than they were into meeting their obligations to those who were entirely dependent on their goodwill and generosity. Like all people of wealth and status, the scribes were determined that they should they behave in a way that demonstrated their wealth and power and that they should receive the honour that they believed was owed to someone in their position. At the same time, they were determined to preserve their relative position at all costs – in particular at the expense of those who could least afford it.

The problem then, as it is now, is that one can only maintain one’s own position at the expense of those who have no resources and no position. The gospel challenges us to seriously consider how much we ourselves exploit and disempower the poor and the vulnerable in order to hold on to our status and relative wealth. Who is disadvantaged and oppressed because we refuse to give up our comfortable lives? Whose life is on a knife-edge because we cannot bear to give up our relative luxuries in order to liberate others to do more than eke out an existence?

Who is forced to suffer so that we do not have to?

[1] If you were poor you might, as a woman, have found work as a servant or in the mills, but the novel Tess of the d’Ubervilles demonstrates that even for the rural poor, life could be horrendous for those who had no husband or son to provide for them.

[2] The coin, a lepta, was the least value of the coins of that era and was worth about 6 minutes of an average day’s wage.

Outside the box

October 17, 2015

Pentecost 21 – 2015

Mark 10:32-45

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who challenges, surprises and above all turns the world upside down. Amen.

For the third time, Jesus predicts his suffering and crucifixion and for the third time his disciples show their complete failure to understand. If you remember, the first time Jesus announced his upcoming death and resurrection, Peter rebuked him. On the second occasion the disciples (embarrassed and awkward) changed the topic and began to argue among themselves as to who was the greatest among them. Finally in today’s gospel James and John ask Jesus to give them preeminent places in his kingdom. It appears that despite Jesus’ teaching and example, they have still failed to understand the nature of Jesus’ task.

It is simply beyond the comprehension of Jesus’ disciples that the “anointed one”, the one sent by God, would be anything but a leader – someone in control of not only his own destiny, but of the destiny of those who followed him. The notion that the one sent by God would be a servant, that he would exhibit vulnerability and frailty and, worst of all that he would be at the mercy of the leaders of the church and of the nation, was completely outside their world view. So even though Jesus tries to explain to them the nature of his ministry, it simply does not sink in. They can only think of Jesus in ways familiar to them.

In order to understand the request of James and John then, it helps to understand something of the culture of the first century Mediterranean culture in which ideas of honour and shame played a very big part. Honour was something to be sought after. It was what set one person apart from another. Honour was bestowed primarily by one’s birth, but it could also be bestowed by a leader – as a reward for services rendered, in response to flattery and other inducements – or by competing with other members of one’s group for positions of influence over the remainder. Honour could also be gained by shaming another in debate. Shame was to be avoided at all costs because to be publicly shamed was to lose one’s place in the world both figuratively and in reality[1].

So, even though James and John have completely misunderstood everything that Jesus represents, it can be said in their favour that they are behaving in a way that is completely understandable in terms of their cultural situation. They are on their way to Jerusalem, the seat of government. We, the readers, know that this is a risky venture, and the text tells us that Jesus’ followers were afraid. No doubt they expected some sort of confrontation. Reading between the lines, we can assume that the disciples thought that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem in order to take on the authorities. There seems to have been no doubt in their minds that he would come out of such a confrontation as the victor. Hence the request by James and John: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.“ James and John believe that when Jesus has conquered the authorities in Jerusalem he will be able to share his victory with those who have followed him. That is, he will be able to give positions of honour to those who have served him well.

What they have not realised is that Jesus’ “glory” will be unlike anything that they can imagine. Jesus “glory” will be unrecognisable as glory. To them, at least initially, it will appear as shame – crucifixion being a humiliating and shameful way in which to die.

Jesus does not strive for honour in the same way that his disciples do. For Jesus, honour was to be found not in striving for recognition or power, but in accepting the fate that God had in store for him. He will willingly “drink the cup” that has been given to him, however degrading, and he asks whether James and John have the courage to do the same[2].

Mark almost certainly uses Jesus’ predictions and the disciples’ failure to understand as a literary device. The juxtaposition of Jesus’ predictions and the disciples’ misunderstanding illustrates the point that Jesus’ mission overturns the values and expectations of this world.

God’s action in Jesus was so radical, so “outside the box” that twenty centuries later we still fail to completely understand. The notion of a God who serves, the idea that God could love us so much as to place Godself completely in our hands is so utterly foreign to the idea that many of us hold of God, that we simply cannot grasp it. We long for a God who is all-powerful and who is victorious over all. Instead we have to settle for a God who is powerless and vulnerable and who, by his life and actions, confronts all human values and ideals – thereby demonstrating that service, vulnerability and an absence of striving are the values that will lead to peace in our own lives and thus to peace in the world.

[1] Jesus plays on the idea of the avoidance of shame in the parable about taking the lower place at the banquet and it was in order to avoid shame, that Herod allowed John the Baptist to be beheaded.

[2] Here again, understanding the cultural context is useful. “In Mediterranean culture, the head of the family fills the cups of all at table. Each one is expected to accept and drink what the head of the family has given.” (John Pilch, www.liturgy.slu.edu) In the case of Jesus, the head of the family is of course God and it is God, not Jesus, who will determine places of honour.

The vulnerability of God

December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who gave up all power and authority to create and then to re-create us. Amen.

I often think that the infant in the cradle, “wrapped in cloths”, distracts us from the reality of the situation. We are drawn to the baby as we are drawn to all babies and our hearts are filled with love and a longing to wrap our arms around the child. In the depictions of the Nativity, we see a loving family, comfortably gathered and surrounded by the shepherds and wise men who come to worship.

What we don’t always see is the raw, naked vulnerability of the child – the child who is God and who at this point in time is completely powerless to control his destiny and who is utterly dependent on those around him – on Mary and Joseph, on Herod and the political circumstances of the  country which he finds himself.

Thinking of God as a defenceless child can be startling and a little confusing. It goes against our expectations and forces us to see God from an entirely different perspective. A vulnerable, powerless God does not conform to our concept of a God who is omnipotent and all-powerful, who directs and determines, who judges and condemns. To think of God as a helpless baby challenges everything we might have thought about God. And yet, from the inception of Christianity this is one of the images of God – a God without power, a God unable to intervene and God unable to force God’s will on anyone.

In fact, from the very beginning of the Judeo-Christian faith, the image of God is of a God who instead of keeping all authority to himself, chooses to give that power to humankind. In the Garden of Eden, God the creator gave humanity the freedom to choose. God who could have determined the future of humankind, ceded that power to human beings who used that power to choose to compete with, rather than serve God.

When it all went horribly wrong God chose, not to force humankind to change, but to trust humankind to change themselves. In order to do that, God put himself in our hands and risked everything in the hope that we would rise to the occasion, in the hope that our response to the infant Jesus and to the man, would serve to bring salvation to the world.

God still depends on us to get it right, trusts us to return the world to the idyllic state of the garden. God is still powerless unless we co-operate. The vulnerable God in the cradle depends on the people around him for his survival. The powerless God depends on us to change the world.

The powerlessness of God is demonstrated in the vulnerable and suffering of our own time. Until we accept the vulnerability of the baby, the helplessness of the child in the manger, we will not recognise our responsibility to be those who empower God’s saving work in the world. We will not change the situation of

–       the children of Syria and throughout the Middle East who are dependent on warring parties sitting down at the negotiating table and committing to a lasting peace.

–       the children of Niger, the Sudan and countless other nations who are dependent on our goodwill for food,

–       the millions of children who are victims of the AIDS epidemic who are dependent on education programmes and access to health care,

–       the children working in sweat factories and mines, who are forced into slavery and prostitution who are dependent on enough international advocacy will to set them free,

–       the children of Sandy Hook whose lives along with the 20,000 other young people killed by guns in the US are totally dependent on the will of a nation to give up a love affair with guns.

Until we are willing to change our lives, until we are willing to give us some of our comforts, until we are determined to engage our political leaders and to confront world leaders, until we in our turn become vulnerable and dependent on each other, God remains powerless to intervene in world affairs. Because God is dependent on us, God can only do what we are prepared to do in God’s name.

Next time you look in the manger, see beyond the comforting image of a well-fed, well clothed, well-loved baby and see in that child’s eyes, the eyes of God doing the only thing God knows how to do to change the world around – to give himself utterly and completely to us, hoping against hope that we will give ourselves to God and to each other.

 

 

Let us pray

Holy God,

give us grace and courage to acknowledge our contribution to the suffering in the world. Help us to become vulnerable as you became vulnerable that we may be part of the solution and not of the problem.

Powerless God,

make us aware of your presence in and around us. Help us to have the grace to open ourselves to you, that your presence may be made known through us.

Living God,

be with all who live life in the shadow of poverty and despair,

especially those in our own community whose needs often are overlooked

as we look further afield in our desire to ease the suffering of others.

Give hope to the lost and support to the powerless and make us sensitive and responsive to needs and concerns of those around us.

 

Healing God,

in Jesus, you shared the pain of the sick, you knew what it was to face death. Be with all who at this time are in need of comfort and healing. Encourage and strengthen those who are ill and recovering from surgery, support those who are dying and be with all whose task is to bring about healing.

 

Dying and rising God,

as you shared our existence, may we strive to share yours, that at our end we may             join you and all the saints for eternity.


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