A sermon about courage
As soon as I arrived to serve in my first parish, the rector and I sat down to plan how we would share the teaching of the upcoming inquirer’s class - which parts he would teach and which parts would be my responsibility.
I was just out of seminary and fancied myself something of a Biblical scholar, so I was really hoping to draw the straw for the classes on the Old and New Testaments. I had my handy chart of Old Testament themes and motifs, my Gospel parallels book, and my notes from my esteemed seminary professors at the ready.
But no. I got church history and the boss took the Bible.
So we were sitting there in our classroom and the rector began to say, basically, this: The Bible is the story of God calling to us, calling us back, again and again, longing for us, wanting us. It is the story of God never giving up on us but always calling us back to heal us, to strengthen us, to forgive us, to be with us even though we are always wandering away and even though we often fail. And God is saying, the door is always open. You can always come home. I want you to come home. The Bible is a love story between God and God’s people.
Well, that wasn’t exactly what my recent-seminary-graduate-Biblical-studies-loving-self was going to say, but yeah. It is.
And nowhere in the Bible do we see this longing more poignantly than in Jesus’ words today. Oh how I long to gather you under my wings, like a mother hen gathering her chicks when the fox comes near.
The fox, of course, is Herod, a cruel man of worldly power. The Pharisees come to Jesus with a message that is supposed to strike fear in his heart. Herod wants to kill you. You’d better run away.
But Jesus does not react to this fear mongering. He just replies, in essence, you go tell Herod that he is not the boss of me. I’m doing my thing, which is making God’s people whole, restoring them to true life. I’m calling my people to me, and how I wish I could gather them to me right now in the face of all their brokenness and grief and tenderness and in the face of all of your noisy fear mongering.
I’m not going to abandon my calling just because you are trying to make me afraid.
I love this portrayal of Jesus. I love his courage. He knows what’s coming, but he doesn’t look away. I want to be like this, I want to be like Jesus this way. Focused and courageous, sure of my calling.
The funny thing about courage is that it is actually born of a willingness to be vulnerable. And that is not a word most people identify with power, not in this world. Herod would have been terrified of being vulnerable. He would not be in power long if anyone thought such a thing about him.
But this is the picture Jesus himself paints. He wants to gather us under his wings like a mother hen when the fox comes near. This is good news for the chicks, but the mother hen’s fierce love for them makes her vulnerable.
And who among us who are parents do not know this feeling? As soon as our children are born, we become vulnerable in a new way. So that we feel this twinge on the first day of kindergarten, on the day they get their driver’s licenses, when we drop them off at college, when we walk them down the aisle. Can we keep them safe? We pray for God to keep them safe.
And yet, always playing it safe has its own dangers. Stunted growth, a failure to thrive. Playing it safe can cut us off from being our true selves and living our true lives, being the person God made us to be.
Always playing it safe means that we are always listening out for Herod, that our actions will be dictated by others, and we will lose ourselves, our souls. And so we experience that twinge but we still take them to kindergarten, to camp, to college. We let them get that driver’s license.
The trick is to always leave the door open so that even if - even when - they falter, there’s a place of safety waiting. We want them to know that they can always come home, and hope that they are willing, because deep down we know that we would die for them.
And they can explore and experiment and learn and even fail but then get back up, knowing that we are there for them. They become strong and free and not afraid to put themselves out there, to discover and live out their calling.
Lately I’ve been binge reading all the work of Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston (and an Episcopalian) who has been studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame for the last 13 years. She rose to some prominence after she gave a TED Talk in 2010 called The Power of Vulnerability. Her books include Daring Greatly and, more recently, Rising Strong.
Brown asserts that people who are willing to be vulnerable, who are willing to suffer the consequences of being who they truly are, and not what the rest of the world thinks they should be, are people who are courageous, and that in the end they are the ones who are able to live life wholeheartedly - with courage, with heart. We flourish when we are courageous. We keep our rudder when fear knocks at the door. We live from the heart - which we will lift to the Lord in our Eucharistic prayer in a few minutes - when we are willing to be our true selves.
And there might be a real cost to that. There’s a real danger of being hurt, of being excluded, knocked down, ridiculed, whatever, when we dare to be vulnerable. There’s physical danger, too, as Jesus knew. And yet - the cost is so much higher if we are unwilling.
For Brown, and for us, community - our faith community - provides the web of connection necessary for us to dare to be vulnerable, to learn to be courageous. We have our soul friends, our faith, lean on when we are afraid, to provide a safe place for us to gather our courage, to be centers of calm and strength when the Pharisees come around with their fear mongering.
We need courage to find and live out our calling, to put ourselves out there and be love in the world that needs love so much, to follow the example of Christians from the first days like the Apostle Paul to the Christians of today like our own medical mission team just arrived in the Dominican Republic.
The Bible is a love story between God and us. It can be scary out there. It can be hard to live life with our whole hearts. It takes courage to truly live the life God has given us to live.
It takes courage to admit that we cannot control the world and we cannot save ourselves. It takes courage to allow ourselves and our friends and family to live their lives to the fullest and be the glory of God, a human fully alive. It takes courage to walk the road to Jerusalem, to risk uncertainty, disappointment, grief, and loss. It takes courage to find our calling and live it out in the world.
And courage requires a willingness to be vulnerable. But see and take heart in the example of Jesus who says: I am always with you, I am always near by, the door is always open, the wings are available for shelter when you are afraid, if you are willing.
I’m here, if you are willing.