To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the god of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
Tell me about your last fight.
That’s how I start every pre-marital counseling session and it never ceases to disappoint.
There have been countless occasions when the couple will stare absentmindedly at the floor or the ceiling while each of them wait for the other to say something, anything.
There have been occasions when, as soon as the request leaves my mouth, one of them will light into the other about some incident that occurred the day before.
But my favorite is when a couple smiles in return and they say some version of, “We never fight.”
To which I usually respond, “Then you’re not ready to get married.”
I will do my best to explain that I’m not asking about throwing an empty plate across the kitchen kind of fights, those require someone way above my pay grade. But what I’m looking for are those disagreements in which the couple has to figure out how they’re going to figure it out together.
And then, after a moment of consideration, one of the people sitting in my office will intone, “Well, just now while we were driving over here…”
Just about everything about how we live today is predicated on the antithesis of vulnerability. Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve, don’t over share, and if someone asks how you’re feeling, never ever tell them the truth.
Our era is marked by progress and it seems as if nothing is outside our grasp – wealthy civilians can send themselves into space, individuals can purchase self-driving vehicles, and most of us hold these little devices in our pockets that can do far more than we even really know.
Life, therefore, is always getting better and better and the marks of success are found with strength, power, and might.
Which is why depending on anyone other than ourselves is seen as nothing but weakness.
And yet, the deep truth of our existence is that none of us would be here were it not for the help of others.
This is Advent. The colors in the sanctuary have changed, the readings and the hymns and the prayers have a different flavor, and we have our eyes squarely set on the manger, on Bethlehem, on the Promised One.
I, myself, have stepped fully into Advent having set up my Christmas light at the house two weeks before Thanksgiving, most of the Christmas presents have already been purchased, and I’ve been humming “Christmas Time Is Here” for a month.
And all of this, the early preparations, the color-coordinated chancel, it all leads, sadly, to this impression that we all have to have it all together all the time.
We expect, implicitly and explicitly, that we have to be perfect. We have to dress the part, act the part, and above all, be sure of the part that we are playing.
And that’s when the church becomes yet another version of the endless self-help programs around which we organize our lives. For as much as we might rejoice in seeing the children sing during a Christmas program, it is also about comparing our children to the rest of them. For as much as we might enjoy driving around to look at lights dangling from gutters, it’s also about making sure that our respective houses are up to snuff. For as much as we might celebrate the opportunity for festive gatherings, it’s also about making sure that other people know we know how to cook.
And, again, the church isn’t immune to this temptation! There is this lingering feeling that what we do is, of course, about worshipping the Lord in glory and splendor, but it’s also about making sure the people who are not part of our church know that we know what we’re doing and that we’ve got it together enough as compared to other churches in the area.
So then, as we sit in a sanctuary like this, singing the songs we sing, and pondering passages like this, it all feels a little off.
Teach us your ways O God – show us in the ways that lead to life. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love. Do not remember the sins of our youth, or our transgressions.
Why should we call upon God to be merciful when we have no need of it?
When the outside versions of ourselves leave no room for vulnerability, we become the very thing the psalmist calls for God to forget…
I hope that most of us are here this morning to have our lives made intelligible by the movements of the Spirit, and the proclamation of the Word, and the habits of our tradition, but chances are that a lot of are here because we’re hungry for something real, something with a little twinge of vulnerability.
I’ve been here long enough now to know quite a lot about a lot of you and I know that many of us are caught in situations in which there is little, if anything, that we can point to as being real. Instead, we are surrounded by vapid conversation that amount to a whole lot of nothing. We are bombarded with deceptions and half-truths not knowing what, or who, we can trust.
And then if (and its a big if) someone is real with us, we don’t know what to do with it.
However, here we are on the first Sunday of Advent, embarking on a new year in the life of the church, and the Lord shows up with a profound word of truth, honesty, and vulnerability.
The psalmist cries out: to you O Lord I lift up my soul. Help me in the midst of my distress. My life if not what I thought it would be! Please, God, teach me your truths. And Lord, be mindful of your mercy, remember me but not my sins and my shortcomings. You are good and I am not, and yet, guide me!
In the end, that’s Advent.
More than any other season in the church year, what we do these weeks is absolutely relevant to our particular situations. Advent tells us about own lives, our own limitations, the condition of our condition here and now.
Advent is not only who we are, it is where we are – is the time in between – between the first coming of Christ in the manger of Bethlehem, and the second coming with the new heaven and the new earth.
That’s why Advent is a season of waiting – not for presents under a tree, but the presence of the One who comes for you and me.
Advent reminds us through scripture, song, sacrament, sermon, and even silence, that God not only cares about us but also comes to dwell among us in the most vulnerable fashion of all: as a child born to the least likely of parents.
Just think about that for a moment: God doesn’t show up on the scene with a big booming thunder clap, or with a technicolor light show. God shows up quietly, in a forgotten and sleepy little town, as a totally human and totally vulnerable baby.
Which means, in the end, that all of our anxieties about having to be perfect don’t actually determine much of anything – we don’t have to have it all together for God to come to us. In fact, God shows precisely because we don’t have it all together!
Only in our vulnerability are we able to come to grips with the fact that God chooses to be vulnerable with us in order that God might redeem us.
Which is all another way of saying – there is no real connection without vulnerability.
This is true of friendships, marriage, and even the church.
I was listening to a podcast episode from a show called Invisibilia a few weeks ago and it was all about the different types of friendships we have. The tertiary friendships that exist because of friends of our friends. The habitual friendships that come and go. And the vulnerable friendships. And the episode exemplified this through the possibility of conversations regarding what happens in the bathroom. Basically, they made the claim that the truest sign of friendship is with the vulnerability of honesty regarding something all of us do regularly, and yet none of us ever talk about it. Therefore, if you have someone with whom your willing to talk about what happens in the bathroom, then you have yourself a real friend!
In marriage vulnerability takes on a whole new dimension because, regardless of the age of the people getting married, they do so knowing nothing at all about what they’re doing. Couples will stare at one another by the altar and they will make a promise to love and cherish someone who will not be the same tomorrow nor ten years later. Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we enter it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
In the church vulnerability is a given. And Methodists come by it honest. We preachers are sent to congregations, and congregations receive preachers and we have to get vulnerable right quick. People like me are called into the homes of those nearing the end of life, and at the dinner tables of couples who are no longer sure of whether they want to remain a couple, and at the baptismal font with a child bringing them into the faith.
And most of the time we don’t have enough time to really get to know one another.
But that’s why I love the church. It is a place and a space where we have to be vulnerable with each other whether we want to or not. It’s a remarkable vestige of a community in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured if we are willing to be vulnerable with one another.
And that’s a big if.
But when it comes to God, God really knows us. God knows our internet search histories. God knows the comments we write on social media but then we delete them before we make a big mistake. God even knows what we wish we could say at the Thanksgiving table but would never dare actually speak out loud.
And in the total knowledge of us, of our sins and our successes, God chooses, inexplicably, to remember our sins no more!
That’s wild stuff.
It’s what we call grace.
Could there be a better way to start a new year in the life of the church? Imagine, if you can, a people called church who simply allow broken people to gather, not to fix them, but to behold them and love them, all while contemplating the shapes the broken pieces can inspire.
God deals in the realm of vulnerability, working through weakness, in order to rectify the cosmos.
Which is all just a way of saying – no matter who you are and no matter what you’ve done, God already knows it and loves you anyway.
That’s not just great news, its Good News!
Happy New Year! Amen.