I have a picture hanging in my office of a piece Matthias Grunewald painted in the early 16th century called “The Crucifixion.” It is part of a larger altar project he created for a church that still stands today. At the end of this post, I’ve included a copy of the painting. Feel free to take a look at it now if you wish, and should you choose do so notice the vulnerability of it all. There, on the cross, dangles Jesus’ agonizing body, stripped and beaten, hanging before the world.
It’s the words he says on the cross that make this image even more vulnerable: “Father, forgive them.” Pastor-theologian Sam Wells describes this scene as one where the inner-life of God is on display for the world. God the Son crying out to God the Father, and we get the privilege of being privy to one of their most intimate conversations.
The vulnerability of it all astounds me. Jesus hanging naked on a cross, punctured and wounded, beaten and abused, conversing with his Father, mother, and friends. His pronouncement of forgiveness, particularly in that moment, captures how daring love and forgiveness are for one who risks opening her or his soul to another. Will they accept? Will they reciprocate? Or will they take advantage of my vulnerability?
This morning I’m thinking a lot about vulnerability and, particularly, the life of a preacher. I have several friends who are artists. I always enjoy listening to them explain their art. There is so much of themselves in each piece they create. Pains, burdens, joys, personality, individuality, worldview. It’s all on display when they choose to share their creations with another. Where their piece hangs, so too do their souls as persons walk up to interact with their art. What will they see? What will they think? What will they say? Will they get what I’m trying to say?
Sermons are the same for me. Just as Jesus hung on the cross, just as artists display their craft, so too do I bear my vulnerable soul before a congregation of people who may or may not understand what I’m trying to say. They may agree, disagree, or be apathetic. It may offend them. It may comfort them. It may anger them, sadden them, or invite them in. There is tremendous risk in preaching and horrible vulnerability in knowing what I say and who I am are going to be judged. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
Often, after I preach, I spend the next twenty-four hours or so wading in and out of my insecurities. I suck. I shouldn’t have said that. What was I thinking? Remember what that person said? They were right, you know. You should just quit and go do something else with your life. Why do they get to say their comments and walk on, but I have stand with a smile on my face and just take their unintended insults that cut into my soul like a serrated knife? (for some reasons, it’s only the negative comments and thoughts that disproportionally linger with me)
Sunday afternoons through Monday mid-mornings are usually pretty rough. I’m thankful for a wife through whom God speaks and reassures me that I’m not a failure. Who tells me, when I do “fail,” that I’m still growing and learning and becoming more and more into the person God wants me to be. God, primarily through my wife, reminds me that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on unto completion.” I am so thankful God speaks and comforts me in the most vulnerable seasons of my soul.
And these thoughts ultimately take me back to the cross and Grunewald’s depiction of the crucifixion. Yes, Jesus hangs on the cross before the world. But ’round him stand family and friends. He isn’t foresaken. He isn’t abandoned by all. He isn’t alone. There, on the cross and all around it, is Love. Because that’s what Love does. Love risks. Love jumps. Love is vulnerable, soulful, and communal. Love leaves itself open to the judgments of others. Love hangs there, dangling before a world who doesn’t usually understand, rarely accepts, and too frequently fails to reciprocate.
Nevertheless, there Love hangs.
And so too does the preacher, alongside Christ crucified with God the Holy Spirit, climb back up into that pulpit and dangles her soul before the world. What will they say? What will they think? What will they do?