The Power Of Vulnerability

October 17, 2021
Luke 18:1-8

A story from my cousin Jason popped up in my email box this week. Jason is in prison and writes monthly missives to the outside world. This one is entitled Mint Moth.

The [prison camp] is a place of cold, hard, and grey. That is why instances of color or softness catch my attention. One morning not too long ago, I arose early and was getting ready to go for a run. In the corner near my bunk, a small, mint-colored moth was flitting around. It was such a lovely, pale shade of green that I could imagine its soft, fragile texture by sight. “What a pity that such a beautiful creature will die in this ugly place,” I thought. With a twinge of sadness in my heart, I laced up my shoes and headed out to the track.  

As I did my laps, enjoying the peace of the beginning of the day in the spot that brings me closest to nature, I continued to think about the mint moth. Not only had I not seen one that color here at [prison camp] before, but I had never seen one quite like it in my life. As improbable as it seemed, I hoped that it would find its way back outside.

After finishing my run, I headed back to my bunk, but before I could change and make it to the shower, I was met with a surprise. The mint moth had returned to my little corner. The seemingly crazy idea that I could help it get outside crossed my mind, even though I was as far from the exit door as one could be. I instinctively stuck out my finger and held still.

It is worth noting at this point that there are moments in prison when a person wonders if they are losing it. That is a part of the experience of trying to live day by day in such a sick surreality. As the mint moth sat on my outstretched finger, I had one of those moments… 

I determined that the way to save this little bugger necessarily involved moving toward the exit door, very slowly. Would I make it all 76 steps, past two powerful circulation fans and the guard station, down the education hallway navigating the traffic of guys coming and going, and out the door that invariably produces a gust of wind when opened, to set the mint moth free? The odds seemed long, but with a hopeful heart, I took the first step.  

The mint moth was facing forward with its antennae very active, almost like it was playing the role of navigator. Perhaps it was as nervous about the journey as I was. Midway through, it turned to face me, and the antennae went still. Its calm calmed me – that is what life connection can do – and I had a sense for the first time that we were going to make it. Shortly thereafter, I pushed open the door with my free hand and stepped out into the sunshine. I paused, expecting my passenger to immediately disembark. It did not move, so I provided a gentle breath of air to send it on its way.

As the mint moth flew off, I experienced profound feelings of satisfaction and joy. In this hard, cold, grey place, I had been a protector of nature’s beauty.

This story that Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel has a bit of the mint moth in it. The system has failed the woman, maybe even made her situation worse and she has nothing at all, certainly nothing else to lose. She is desperate. Her persistence is one of the few things she has left. She is vulnerable and she puts that vulnerability to work for her. She goes to the judge over and over again refusing to be ignored.

In a way, the woman’s persistence humanizes the judge; she refuses to see him as other. She refuses to believe that the judge fears no one, not even God. Perhaps she imagines a backstory to soften her heart to the hardened judge: the early loss of a mother, unrealistic expectations from a father, terrible treatment by siblings, no one that ever cared for or believed in him. The woman sees that the judge believes in the myth of being “self-made,” above the world somehow, not really part of it.

In refusing to ‘other’ the judge, the woman humanizes herself to the judge. She is no longer just one more widow that the system has burned. Her noisy persistence causes her to be seen as a person, as a particular person with particular needs.

Maybe I am reading more into this story than is there. But there must be some reason that the judge takes a turn and almost inexplicably, even surprising himself says, “I care little for God or people but this woman won’t leave me alone. I’d better give her the protection she seeks or she’ll keep coming and wear me out.”

The judge is not so different from people today. Melissa Florer-Bixler says, in a recent lecture, that one of the few ways that we change our minds is by hearing a compelling story. Facts don’t necessarily sway us but an emotional story, that has some possibility of at least getting our attention. With her persistent cries for justice, the woman relays her story which perhaps touches the heart of the judge, who does not fear anyone — even God. Or maybe the judge just gets tired of being disturbed.

Congregation Action Network, and all the immigration advocacy organizations, have been working with a lot of focus and intensity since the current administration came to power. The eleven million undocumented people in this country need protection. They are pleading for a pathway to citizenship. They bring their children and families, friends and neighbors to plead their case in the streets, in the halls of congress and in front of the White House. They don’t give up, won’t give up. Their families and communities are depending on them – so they can’t give up. Like the widow in Luke who cries, “Give me legal protection,” the voices of immigrants who are treated unjustly by the system are determined to be heard by those who hold the power.

On Wednesday the immigrant community will once again raise their voices; I will be among them. We will gather in prayer on the sidewalk and street in front of the vice president’s residence. We are going to Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence because she has some procedural power (and bonus – she is the daughter of immigrants.) She has the power to ignore the parliamentarian’s opinion and include a pathway to citizenship in the upcoming budget reconciliation bill. This is what we are asking Vice President Harris to do: ignore the parliamentarian’s opinion and present the reconciliation bill to congress with a pathway to citizenship included in it.

The gathering will be a prayerful action led by leaders from the immigrant community and clergy. Because stories from the immigrant community have not moved those in power to change the policies, because the chanting, marching, petitioning, lobbying, even fasting, has not achieved the response we need, some in the community of advocates plan to take the next step to raise the urgent alarm: they are risking arrest. This time, I will be among that group, risking arrest.

I would be grateful if some of you are able to be part of the prayer gathering on Wednesday at 4pm. Witnesses are essential for these kinds of actions when people put their bodies on the line. We need witnesses because if the “corrupt judge” doesn’t hear our cries, if those in power do not respond to the need for justice, at least there is somebody who is willing to see and hear and understand the urgency. Someone is there to recognize the need for justice, even if it is not those in power.

When there is nothing left to lose all you can depend on is your vulnerability. That is a scary place to land. It feels like an impossible place to land – and sometimes there is no choice but to rely on the power of vulnerability. Think of how vulnerable babies are – and how we rush to protect them. That is some strange kind of power. Or think of Jason’s mint moth, how it got this giant of a man, in a prison full of “criminals,” to rescue it and set it free. And how Jason had to submit himself to a tiny green moth to find a new strength. What a peculiar sort of power.

And – vulnerability is not a shield of armor. Trans women of color are killed at an alarming rate; they are extremely vulnerable because their authenticity scares those who cannot acknowledge their own vulnerabilities. Immigrants are extremely vulnerable because people who are scared that the white majority in this country is losing power, too often go on the attack, verbally and sometimes physically. While there is mysterious power in vulnerability, it is not a romantic or assured power. The power of vulnerability is dependent on paying attention to the humans around us, in opening our hearts to the humanity in ourselves and the other.

One other caveat before we elevate vulnerability all the way to superpower status. There are a lot of vulnerable people on this planet: people and creatures and plants, water and air and the earth herself, all vulnerable. When the din of all the calls for help is so loud, it is easy to close our ears and harden our hearts. And truly, if we want to survive in order to be of help, we can’t respond to the pleas of every vulnerable one who comes to us. We have to have boundaries, we can not live our lives with our chests wide open and our hearts exposed to every need that comes along.

What we can do is learn to seek and find the healthy places where our vulnerabilities touch the vulnerabilities of others — though not everyone, not everything, not every season. We have to trust that there is enough love and care to go around. I think when Jesus says, “When the Promised One comes, will faith be found anywhere on earth?” he might be talking about those who allow themselves to be vulnerable in faith, loving neighbors as themselves.

Jesus ends the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge with what sounds almost like magical thinking. Won’t God then do justice to the chosen who call out day and night? Will God delay long over them? I tell you, God will give them swift justice.

Swift justice? Jesus, how long did the widow woman clamor and beg? It doesn’t feel swift for immigrants who have been calling for a just immigration system for more than a hundred years. But the judge did have a change of heart – or at least a change of mind. And this is why we must be persistent in our calls for justice, why we keep telling the stories and experiences of immigrants, why we keep praying. There is humanity in those who call for justice – and we have to hold out hope that there is yet humanity in those who hold the political power.

I hope and pray that on Wednesday (and other days too) some of us can experience, like Jason and the mint moth, the transformative power of being vulnerable.  (Dare we pray this for Vice President Harris?)

As the mint moth flew off, I experienced profound feelings of satisfaction and joy. In this hard, cold, grey place, I had been a protector of nature’s beauty.