Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Staying In Love" - Sunday Sermon, April 1, 2012 (Palm Sunday)

Chaplain Mel Baars
April 1, 2012
Mark 11:1-11

“Staying in Love”

And, the crowd went wild, yelling and screaming his name. They threw their shirts and cloaks onto the rocky path, creating their own version of a “red carpet.” They yelled, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord... Hosanna in the highest heaven.” Just be grateful I didn’t make you wave your palms during our first hymn or process around the chapel which is what most congregations will be doing this morning all over the world. Undoubtedly, you all have your own memories of similar dramatizations of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, just a handful of days before his arrest and crucifixion.

Of course, a half-hearted parade of kids and less-than-thrilled adults who have no clue as to why they are swinging palm branches during church, isn’t quite the true feel of this Palm Sunday scene. Because as much as we want to claim our love of Jesus, to put ourselves in the shoes of the crowd who gathered there along the road from the Mount of Olives into the Old City, we don’t really get it.

It is also doubtful that many in the crowd that day “got it” either. This was a bit of a mob scene. People were merely swept up into the euphoria of encountering what might be likened to antiquity’s version of a rock star. It’s the fervor of a Bono concert coupled with an additional bonus, the possibility of a better world, a new kingdom made possible here and now. And, all of this excitement because of this one man. This scene was a lot more than waving palm branches. It was electrifying. It was head-over-heels love at first sight.

We may not be able to conceptualize the sheer exhilaration of this scene as it is portrayed in all four of our gospels. We can, however, imagine some version of this scene happening on the streets of Hollywood boulevard or smack in the middle of Times Square: the opening of some long awaited movie, the arrival of someone famous, the presence of importance and the feelings which accompany such a sighting. If our culture gets anything, it is how to fall in love. We do it all the time, with new Apple gadgets, with the latest trend or coolest car or “it” person. We fall in love so often and so flippantly, that it is often hard to keep up.

Like most things that seem too good to be true, they end up being just that, too good to be true. Falling in love so easily has its own shadow side-- falling out of love. The problem on Palm Sunday was not that the crowd didn’t “love” Jesus. They did, or at least they thought they did. They laid down their cloaks and shouted his name at the top of their lungs. But, no sooner did the words escape their lips, they were on to the next thing, willing to throw him away as quickly as they wanted to embrace him. Their love wasn’t real. It has no depth. It had no staying power. With one glance at the cross, it faded as quickly as it had intensified.

We know what this is like, those first moments of something new and exciting when the going is only good, when things are still romantic, before the other shoe has dropped. The idealized view one has, for instance, when first going to school to become a minister or a doctor or a lawyer or perhaps when joining the Army to defend freedom and preserve our nation’s values. The romantic notions we have about our children, dreaming of who they might become, making them in our own image, mapping out their paths before they even know how to walk.

But, then reality sets in, and it is far from what we expected. Our children grow up to be different people than we hoped, sometimes even causing us pain or grief in their choices or lifestyles. Instead of fighting terrorists or eradicating evil, we find ourselves pushing papers and dressing up like a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day. We become so busy with the minutiae and red tape that we hardly get to do the real work- the ministering, the care-taking, or the justice preserving- we endeavored to do when we started out. We wonder just what we were thinking back when we thought this was a good idea. On one hand, I guess it’s a good thing that we get caught up in our romanticized notions of what something might be, because if we only ever saw things for what they really are, we may never sign up in the first place.

But I don’t think falling in love is our real problem. We have to start somewhere, after all. The problem stems from our lack understanding of what love really is. We are bombarded with so many false notions of love, and how love is supposed to feel, that we struggle with what to do once the good feelings we associate as love have gone away, or even worse, when good feelings are replaced with negative emotions. False notions of love lie to us little by little. This kind of love tricks us by “editing the facts in order to continue the good feeling.”[1] At some point, though, this house of cards, lacking any real foundation, comes crashing down.

One writer puts it like this, “Falling in love is different from loving, which is always a quieter and more humanly proportioned experience. There is always something overblown and bigger-than-life about falling in love.”[2] Falling in love is easy to do, but staying in love, actively loving, is a whole different story. And, anyone who has ever been in any kind of relationship with another person understands the difference. And, this also applies to our relationship with God. On most days, our faithfulness to God is simply learning how to live our lives beyond the superficial projections of love which so easily delude us. The Christian life is simple, loving God and loving neighbor, but not just when it is easy or feels good, but for the long haul, when it gets ugly, when it lands us at the foot of the cross.

Most of us have heard 1 Corinthians 13 at more weddings than we would like to remember. You know, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[3] As a pastor, I dread the moment when the soon-to-be married couple tells me that this is the scripture which they have chosen. Is there anything more predictable? In .15 seconds, when putting “love is patient love is kind” into a Google search, it gets almost six million hits. From sappy Hallmark cards to needlepoint projects, these verses are some of the most overused. Most of us are so immune to them that we don’t really comprehend the words when we hear them.

Last year, my cousin got married. In a lapse of judgment, I agreed to be a bridesmaid and wear a dress best described as “Little Bo Peep’s” without the crook. I will admit my attitude was poor from the beginning. When I heard 1 Corinthians 13 was the scripture for the event, I rolled my eyes. How shocking. But, she chose my brother as her reader which was rather risky. He had spent most of his twenties, struggling with drug addiction and mental illness. He was not a public speaker, not even close. But, his presence was more important to her than his eloquence. For her foresight, I am deeply grateful.

My brother stood before the crowd, visibly nervous and literally shaking, yet still mustering the courage to say the words out loud. “Love is patient; love is kind...” he began. Because I am so short, I was the bridesmaid closest to where he stood. In one of the more profoundly spiritual moments of my life, I felt myself reaching up to him, placing my hand on his arm, hoping to transfer some of my strength to him so he could get to those final words. “And, now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

As he read, our whole life together flashed before my eyes- childhood games of house, forts in the vacant lot next door to our house, Super Mario Brothers tournaments, birthdays and Christmases, then his dropping out of high school and subsequent few months of incarceration, the pain and disappointment- all of it intermingled together, making it impossible to distill the good memories from the bad ones. Holding it all in both hands, this is love. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, even death on a cross. I didn’t understand these words until I heard my brother read them that day.

In a matter of moments, the flighty love of Palm Sunday will be put to the test. Those who called out Hosannas in the streets will be the same ones who cry out, “Crucify him!” The disciples, once proud of their friend Jesus, honored to walk next to him as he made his way to Jerusalem, will swiftly retreat. They will fall asleep in the garden when Jesus is most afraid and vulnerable. They will betray him for a few silver pieces. They will hide their faces as he walks a different parade to the place of his death. They will even deny him and their friendship with him, overcome by their own fears. At the foot of the cross, they, as well as all of us, too, will learn the difference between falling in love and loving. Together, as we look to Good Friday, we will witness the truest kind of love; God’s enduring love, a love that is even stronger than death, a love that never ends. Amen.

[1] Walter Wangerin, As for Me and My House: Crafting You r Marriage to Last (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 3.
[2] Robert Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 62.
[3] 1 Cor. 13:4-8

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