Vulnerable Love (or, Loving Reality), A Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2013

Barrett and I are beginning to make friends with a couple who are considering moving to Central NY. They’ve been to visit a lot. “Frank” is a musician who comes through the area and plays locally on a pretty regular basis. They know there is a lot they like, and a lot of people they like. But they’ve found that it’s really hard to get a feel for what living in the Mohawk Valley would really be like, because whenever they come to town, Frank is treated like a minor rock-star. They get invited to these big social events where everybody loves Frank and his music. The events are great fun, but they know that they are getting special treatment. It’s hard to make real connections with people who will spend time really getting to know them, not just fawning over the public image of this musician. Everybody loves Frank, but does anyone really know who he is beyond is public persona? Meg has gone so far as visiting on her own, to see what it feels like to hang out in their favorite social setting without being immediately identified as Frank’s girl-friend.

ImageI wonder whether Jesus’ reaction to the crowds shouting “Hosanna,” was anything like Frank and Meg’s reaction to being small-time celebrities—a kind of uncomfortable shrug. Sure, the attention is nice, but it’s laced with sadness, because nobody seems to care who he really is… It’s all about the image, and the title of Messiah, and who everyone expects him to be. Everybody loves Jesus, but do they really see who he is?

In Jesus’ case, the sadness is deeper, and darker. Not only do people not see him clearly, or recognize who he really is, their blindness has fatal consequences. They fail to recognize the love and grace in Jesus, because they are so caught up in their own ideas of what the Messiah is or should be. When who Jesus really is threatens that image of “a Messiah,” they can’t manage it, and Jesus’ life is the cost. Jesus knows what he is walking into. He knows the danger and the disappointment that are waiting just around the bend.

But his own danger is not the only thing, or even the primary thing on his radar. Jesus also sees the way that people’s blindness prevents them from accepting love, accepting salvation—he sees the city’s destruction coming down the pike, and it is all wrapped up in their inability to see—their blindness to the truth of what makes peace, what love looks like, what God is really doing in their midst. They miss it, and it will lead to their own destruction. I can understand why Jesus had tears in his eyes as he looked at the city. This crowd of his disciples was shouting, “Hosanna,” “Save us!” but he couldn’t. He couldn’t save himself, or them, or the city from what was coming. He couldn’t save them from themselves. He could only love them.

And so he did. Riding on donkey back, doing his best to communicate that he was not the conquering hero they expected, but that he came with a different kind of authority—a different way of confronting injustice and bringing change. He came as himself, even if they were so caught up in their own ideas of who he should be that they missed the reality. He came to love them, anyway.

This discrepancy between reality and our ideas of what should be, is not one that is limited to the experience of celebrities or public figures. All of us carry around images shaped by media, by family, by our culture—images of what it means to be a woman, or a man—images of what it means to be a wife or mother or husband or father—images of what it means to be successful, or respectable, or beautiful, or powerful. And, more often than not, the reality of who any one of us is does not match any of those images perfectly.

But love—true love—looks past the images and expectations to seek out the reality—the truth. Can we look at our children and separate the reality of who they are from our image of who they are, or could be? Can we love and support the son who studies voice, instead of chemistry? Can we love our father even when he is not strong—even when he expresses fear and self-doubt? Can we love ourselves when the glossy image is pulled away and we are tired, and confused, and something of a mess?

When Barrett and I first started dating, I remember getting nervous. We were getting serious quickly, and I had no idea what the rules were. Where were we headed? What steps did we have to take to get there? How would we know we were ready? What was I committing to? What were his expectations, and what were mine? Most of my long-term dating relationships in the past had been with guys who I was trying to rescue in one way or another, and I knew I didn’t want that to be my pattern throughout life. Was Barrett mature enough—secure enough? I was over-thinking it just a little.

When I voiced some of these concerns to Barrett, he took a breath, and looked at me over the table. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know where we’re going, or whether this will lead to marriage, or what it will look like every step of the way. What I do know is that I like getting to know you, and I am committed to you, not my idea of you, or my idea of a girl-friend, or my idea of what a dating relationship or marriage should look like.”

It’s become a kind of motto in our relationship—committed to you, not my idea of you. I recommend it. Being loved for who you really are, even as that changes day to day and year to year—it is one of the most freeing, life-giving gifts. And learning to love someone else for who they really are—having the privilege of being let in that way—is a whole different kind of gift. I was just talking this week with a friend about how we believe that we could all love each other if we saw each other for who we really are—if we saw behind the masks and the defense mechanisms and the prejudices we bring, and the expectations we bring—if we could see the reality of each person’s tender, most vulnerable self, we wouldn’t be able to respond with anything but love and awe. Wouldn’t that be an amazing way to live?

It’s not a bad motto to bring to faith, either. Can we turn to Jesus, and say, “I am committed to you, not my idea of you.”? Can we search for God in our lives, knowing that the reality of who God is might challenge our ideas of who God should be?

Love God. Love our neighbor. Love ourselves. Can we love deeply and truly enough that we begin to cut through the layers and discover truth—discover that the reality of who we are truly is loveable and loved, and that we are capable of loving others for exactly who they are, not our idea of who they should be?

This week is a perfect time to practice. On Maundy Thursday, we will consider Jesus’ commandment that we love one another as he loved us. On Good Friday, we will examine ourselves, and affirm that we are loved, even when the reality of who we are falls far short of our ideas of who we should be. And throughout it all, we will retell the story of how God worked through Jesus in the most unexpected ways, with what looked like weakness and failure, but turned out to be a kind of victory no one imagined.

“Hosanna.” Save us from deception. Open our eyes to reality. Fill our hearts with love.

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