Sermon 2 of 4: Be Present, by Justin Rossow (Multiple Story Structure)
The sermon notes for this manuscript are available here.
Much grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God, our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
I want to share three stories with you today. The first comes from Mark Chapter 10. It’s the story of that rich young man who comes to Jesus. It’s a story that helps us understand what it means to be vulnerable and, therefore, open to Authentic Relationships. And ultimately, it’s a story that points us back to a Dependence on Jesus.
And then I want to tell you a little more about a woman, a PHD researcher and storyteller named Brené Brown. She has one of the five most-viewed TED talks of all time. And she did her research right at that intersection of vulnerability and Connection through Authentic Relationships.
And then I want to go back to something I talked to you about last Sunday: the conversation I had with a woman in our lobby during the middle of the week—just kind of a random conversation on a random day, but a moment that seemed to me to express what it meant to be open to somebody. But, as it turns out, I think it also gets at what Paul is talking about in the 2nd Corinthians passage for today, that we have been made “ambassadors for Christ.” That God himself is “making his appeal through us.” So I want to revisit that story again, in light of this second section of Carl’s book.
A. Jesus being truly present to the rich young man in Mark 10
So the first story comes from Mark Chapter 10. Jesus is leaving the area in which he has been teaching and performing miracles and preaching sermons, and this guy falls on his knees in front of him and says, “Rabbi, Good Rabbi, what must I do to be saved?”
And Jesus doesn’t give the typical response that a good Rabbi would have given in his day. He doesn’t give the 12-step approach to each of the commandments, how you might fulfill those commandments better and then, therefore, be truly one of his disciples.
Instead Jesus rattles off a list of the Ten Commandments. And did you notice, he didn’t even get them all? He missed some important ones in the beginning about having no other gods and having no other idols in your life, about honoring God’s name and hallowing the Sabbath day. And he even leaves a couple off at the end, too. Did you catch that? It’s the coveting ones that Jesus kind of omits.
He gives probably the middle 6 or 7. Which Jesus says is probably a good place to start. And the rich young man says “Yeah, of course. I’ve been not murdering all my life. What else do you have for me?”
And then the text says something really specific and fundamentally important for us. The text says Jesus “looked at the man and loved him.” He gave him a hard look. He sized him up. He actually set aside his own agenda, his own traveling plans, his own preaching schedule, and he sees this man in front of him; and he looks at him, and he sees him for who he truly is.
And because he looks at him as an individual, and knows him as an individual, and loves him as an individual, Jesus invites this man into discipleship. It’s the same discipleship call that he gave to James, or Peter, or John that caused them to leave their fishing nets. It’s the same discipleship call that caused Matthew to leave his tax-collecting booth.
And yet Jesus also has something very specific for this specific man and this specific situation. Jesus sees what is getting in the way of an ongoing relationship with him, so he tells this rich young man, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor. And, then come follow me.”
I like to think if this rich young man had responded the way the tax collector and the fishermen had, we would have figured out a way to have thirteen apostles instead of twelve. But he doesn’t. He goes away sad because he had much wealth.
I want to note a couple of things about that interaction with Jesus. The first is that Jesus himself is actually being open and vulnerable to this man. He is putting himself on the line. He is making an invitation; a really difficult invitation that Jesus knows full well is likely not to be received.
Jesus risks rejection from this young man in order to be open to Authentic Relationship with him. Jesus is vulnerable in a way that actually leads to the possibility of Authentic Relationship.
And that is precisely what the rich young man was not willing to do. You see, his money in the bank was what gave him a sense of security, a sense of belonging, a sense of confidence and stability. He wasn’t willing to become so vulnerable that he could only become dependent on Jesus. That was a price that was too high to pay. So because he is not willing to be vulnerable, he is not going to be able to enter into an authentic relationship with Jesus. At least not at this point.
You know the disciples are understandably amazed and surprised when Jesus says, “Man, it’s hard for rich people to get into heaven, to get into the Kingdom!” The disciples are taken back. I mean, if this guy who has not been murdering since he was a boy–if this guy who is obviously doing something right, because God has blessed him with his financial resources—if this guy can’t be saved, well then how can anyone be saved?
And Jesus doesn’t let the disciples off the hook. He doesn’t say, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” He doesn’t say, “Well, yeah, this was a special case.” Jesus actually makes it worse. Jesus admits, not only is it hard for someone who has money to actually trust and depend on him, he says it is outright impossible. “With man it is impossible.”
And then comes the sentence that gives me hope for that young man because it gives me hope for me. “With man it is impossible, but not with God. All things are possible with God.”
That’s the first story. It helps us see how Jesus made himself vulnerable in order to enter into a relationship, and how, without dependence on Jesus, that relationship isn’t possible in an ongoing way. In fact, for us it is not possible at all. And yet, Jesus promises, all things are possible for God.
B. Brené Brown’s story about vulnerability.
[You can find the whole TED Talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o Published 3 Jan 2011.]
That connection between vulnerability and openness is something that the PHD researcher and storyteller Brené Brown actually spent her career exploring. It became deeply personal for her as well.
At one point in her TED Talk, she says:
“… you know how there are people that, when they realize that vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they surrender and walk into it. A: that’s not me, and B: I don’t even hang out with people like that. For me, it was a yearlong street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.”
You see what started for Dr. Brown as a one-year research project on connection became a six-year research project on vulnerability. Based not only on her depth of research, but on her own personal experience, Brené Brown shares several insights into the relationship between vulnerability and connection that I think applies to our conversation for today.
Dr. Brown tells us that one of the ways we avoid vulnerability is to “make everything that’s uncertain certain.” We take anything that is messy in our life and try to clean it up. We take anything that is maybe open-ended or complex, and we try to simplify it. We take everything that is uncertain and make it certain. Brown says:
“Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty: I’m right—you’re wrong—shut up. That’s it. Just certain.
“The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame.
You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort…”
I was struck by her reference to religion.
Do you know the kind of theological discussion she is describing? Have you seen them play out on Facebook? Have you maybe joined in on one on Twitter? Do you typically take the, “I’m right—you’re wrong—shut up” position when talking to someone who doesn’t fully agree with you on every aspect of your faith?
I am not suggesting that we should practice doubt a little bit more in our lives, or that somehow you should be less certain about the promises that you have in Jesus, or even that the theology we believe, teach, and confess is not solid and sure.
I do not want you to be less certain, but I do want to notice the fact that when we shut down a conversation with a pat answer, even if it is a correct answer—if we shut a conversation down with a pat answer, we have lost the opportunity to actually see the person in front of us, to hear what they are thinking and what they are going through. We lose the chance to be vulnerable and then, therefore, open to connection with the real person in front of us. And one thing I am convinced of when I read the story of Jesus is that connection in an authentic relationship is absolutely essential when talking to someone about following him.
It’s not like theology is not important, but having good theology AND an open and authentic relationship with the real person in front of you is absolutely essential if you want to talk to them about Jesus.
Brené Brown continues to describe how we try to avoid vulnerability. She says we try to make everything look perfect:
“And we perfect, most dangerously, our children. Let me tell you what we think about children. They’re hardwired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say, ‘Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect — make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade.’ That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, ‘You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.’ That’s our job. …”
I love how Brené puts it: “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” That’s what I want to say to my kids. That’s what I want to say to my church. That’s what I want my church to say to their pastor.
Ultimately, I think that’s what Jesus wants to say to you today: “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
Jesus—do you get that?—Jesus thinks you are worthy of love and belonging.
Just as he looked at that messed up young man who is outwardly perfect but confused, and loved him just as he was, in the same way Jesus looks at you and your life and your mess, and your priorities, and your beauty, and your sin, and your shame, and he knows you and he loves you and he is fully present for you.
Jesus makes himself vulnerable again to you today. He knows you might reject his invitation. He knows you might walk off, because you have done it before. But he makes himself open to you again and invites you into a deeper relationship with him. He takes that risk because he thinks you’re worth it.
Jesus thinks you are worthy of love and belonging.
Dr. Brown ends her TED talk with a list of things we can do to experience a more authentic relationship and connection in our life. She says:
“This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee …
“And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, ‘I’m enough,’ then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”
If Dr. Brown’s research is right, if being able to say, “I am enough,” is what it takes to connect authentically with other people, if being able to say, “I am enough,” is what is essential to being open and vulnerable, then there’s no reason why we, as followers of Jesus, can’t be the most authentically connected and vulnerably open people on the face of the planet.
You want to know if you are enough, just the way you are? You want to know if you are enough, even with all your failures and your past history and personality defects?? You want to know if you, as an individual, are enough??? JESUS THINKS YOU ARE WORTHY OF LOVE AND BELONGING.
On your own, you don’t have to be good enough or popular enough or promoted enough. Jesus died for you. Jesus rose for you. Jesus forgives you. Jesus is shaping you for his use in his kingdom. Jesus thinks you are worthy of love and belonging. And that is enough to make you know you have a place. You have a place where you now have no doubt whether you belong or not. You can be confident in that love, not in your love and not in mine, but in his. Jesus thinks you are worthy of love and belonging.
And when you then begin to connect authentically with other people from that place of confidence, from knowing that Jesus died for you and, therefore, you matter—when you approach people with that confidence, when you are open to them, when you make yourself vulnerable, when you risk loving someone else or being kind to them even though they may not show love or kindness in return, when you risk that kind of vulnerability in order to enter into a real relationship, then you are following in the footsteps of Jesus, who loved this messed up world all the way to the cross.
Jesus made himself vulnerable, even to death on a cross, that he might be truly present for you. Do you want to know if you are enough? Jesus went to the cross because he wanted an eternal relationship with you. You can take that to the bank.
C. Jesus present in your attention to others, as if God were making his appeal through us.
If you have been reading around in this 42 Seconds book this week then you’ve heard Carl Medearis say some things like: “My new strategy, aligned a bit more with Jesus, is to exhibit patient listening in real-life conversations that go wherever the person and God want them to go” (65).
It kind of reminds me of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his book, Life Together: “We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God” (99).
And all of that makes me think again of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where he says, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were making his appeal through us: be reconciled to God.”
And while that is in the contexts of a founding pastor with his kind of struggling congregation, I think Paul would also admit that the ministry of the baptized is a ministry of reconciliation, that when you are in your workplace or your family or your neighborhood, you are the ones sent by God as ambassadors through Christ, that God is making his appeal through you in your everyday, ordinary lives.
And that helps me to understand the story I told you last week a little bit better. Remember, I told you I had a conversation with a woman, and it had kind of a rocky start because I didn’t really want to be in conversation with her, and I’m not sure she wanted to be in conversation with me, but we somehow ended up talking.
I had to make a conscious decision whether I was going to be open to her or not, whether I was going to take time out of my agenda with her, whether I was going to let go of sermon preparation in order to have a conversation with this woman.
I had to decide to be open to her. But once I did, then I found something take place that I wasn’t prepared for. Remember I said to her: “You know, whenever I have trouble sleeping, it is usually because I have a lot on my mind.”
Looking back, I realized that I was actually being vulnerable to her in that moment. I was letting her know that I sometimes have trouble sleeping, because I have a lot on my mind.
I know it was a small crack, just a little openness; it was a small dose of vulnerability, but she responded in kind. Because when I said that, she responded by telling me about her husband who is already living in Ohio and the 4 kids that she was taking care of while they were trying to sell their house. And about the 4 moves in 5 years and how that had been difficult for her. She took my invitation to vulnerability and opened herself up even more.
So maybe that is why it seemed natural for me to invite her into prayer, to say, “Hey, could we pray about that right now?” I mean it seemed a little bit risky, and I am not in the habit of asking people I have never seen before if I can pray for them, but it seemed natural at the time.
I think what was going on was that, as I was listening to that woman, Jesus was present, that Jesus himself was listening to that woman through me. I think that Jesus was hearing her struggle, that Jesus was sharing in her pain, that Jesus was opening his heart to this woman by opening my heart to her, as well.
So when I prayed for her, when I asked her to pray, it was no longer just me on my own trying to do the best I could to be a good pastor and Jesus-follower, but it was the Spirit of Jesus himself, the one who intercedes with groans that are too deep for words. It was the words of the Spirit of Jesus that he prayed through me for that person.
Because I found myself not praying a little prayer I had written down and had in my pocket – just in case. I didn’t pray something out of the Lutheran Service Book. I didn’t pray a pre-made prayer, but I simply spoke words from my heart for that person through Jesus. And I think the Spirit was active in that moment, praying for her as well.
So this week, as you encounter the people around you, as you kind of try to figure out what it means to be just a little bit vulnerable or open to someone, would you please imagine what it might be like, would you look for an opportunity, will you be aware of the Spirit active in you? Because the Spirit is active through you, as well.
Will you look for a conversation where you can say something that feels a little risky, where you can make an invitation that might be turned down, where you can invite someone into prayer even though the response might be, “Are you crazy? Are you one of those Christian folk?”
Would you look for a time when you can be open, when you can be vulnerable, when you can take a next step into a relationship with someone in your life because that is what Jesus is inviting you to do?
Will you join me in trying to practice Carl’s non-strategy strategy, to be open to real life conversations with the person in front of you and let that conversation go wherever that person and the Holy Spirit want the conversation to go?
Because I think you will find that, because Jesus is truly present for you, Jesus is truly present through you, for the sake of the people around you.
Editor’s Note: This resource supports preachers and congregations in the use of the book 42 Seconds: The Jesus Model for Everyday Interactions by Carl Medearis. You can visit the 42 Seconds Resource page at justinrossow.com to see more.