Faith & Vulnerability

Anne Lynch (’12)
Kay Spiritual Life Center
April 12, 2012
Matthew 22:15-22

Image courtesy of wordle.net

Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. “Whose image and inscription is this?”he asked. “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed. (Common English Bible)

So I think I’ve figured out why people hate hipsters. Let me explain. In 2008 when I left St. Louis, Missouri for Washington, D.C. to move to American University, I had never heard of a hipster. In fact, it took two years for someone to finally describe what qualified someone as a hipster. They wear big glasses and scarves. They’re clothes are too tight. They get tattoos. They like plaid.

Being from Missouri, plaid didn’t seem like an adequate reason to strongly dislike someone I had never met. Nor tattoos, clothing choice, or a need for glasses. But eventually I’ve figured it out—none of this is décor is genuine. The hipsters don’t need glasses, they wear scarves when it’s 90 degrees out, their tattoos are in languages they don’t know anything about, and unlike the hand-me-downs I grew up, the hipster has probably not spent much time in an environment that requires flannel. And to top it all off, they carry this garb with a sense of disdain: “I went to this concert in this hole-in-the-wall place, you probably have never heard of the band.” Of course, the hipster does not mention that they only heard of the band last week, and to top it off, they don’t actually like any of this stuff! They engage in this style and music and behavior not because they like it, but just so they can have that disdainful-outsider, kind of elitist attitude. Finally, I’ve figured it out: the non-hipsters don’t like the hipsters because they’re fakers. Posers. Inauthentic.

But here’s the problem. Last time I checked, most of us are fakers and put on masks every day when we interact with other people. We’re ALL fakers, from time to time.

My twin realized this when we were in high school. One day on the way home from school, we were talking, and he was so frustrated that people he knew were struggling with something, but when he asked how they were doing, would say “I’m fine.” “It’s a lie!” he said. It was a lie. At the time, I didn’t see anything wrong with it, but to pacify my brother I agreed to be honest when people asked how I was doing. It would only be later that I realized how important this lesson was.

My freshman year, I had a hard time adjusting to college life, largely because of the absence of my other half, the twin. But I had this best friend, we’ll call him “J.” “J” was a phenomenal human being with a tendency to drop his cell phone in enormous quantities of water. We seemed to be the only sane people—the outsiders—on a floor full of freshman hooligans (suffice it to say, they once tore an Exit sign off the ceiling). So naturally, we did everything together. Until March. “J” found himself in the middle of a family crisis, and not the kind that brings the family together but the kind that tears the family apart and leaves everyone with a hole in their side. It became increasingly difficult for him to keep up in classes, and suddenly, he was dropping out and leaving. I had about three hours notice.

That next week, someone would later say I looked “shell-shocked.” I remember eating something like a one-pound bar of chocolate in a night (and subsequently and successfully swearing off chocolate for a year). I couldn’t bear it. Finally, I called up another friend, a junior in my dorm who had kept an eye out for me all year, and offered her a meal swipe. All I could do was tell her how much I hurt, and she listened.

Saying “I’m hurt” isn’t easy. Especially for me: growing up, I thought anger was strength and vulnerability was weakness. But I was wrong. I learned in the time following the loss of my friend that vulnerability is the strength to be genuine, authentic, and true.

You know those TED Talks? There’s this one I love, called “The Power of Vulnerability,” by the researcher-storyteller, Brené Brown. I think it’s my favorite. Brown had wanted to tame vulnerability in order to understand shame and discovered that strong feelings of shame, fear, and unworthiness stem from having to admit imperfections, but it’s just such vulnerability that is absolutely necessary for someone to feel worthy of love, to feel able to make connections with others, and to feel ready to be courageous.

Isn’t that fascinating? The thing we need most to get those deep, meaningful things we want out of life—to be loved by others and ourselves—comes from being vulnerable. Being real.

Sounds rather Christian, doesn’t it?

But why on Earth am I bringing this up? What does this have to do with that scripture I just read?

Do you know what the original Biblical meaning of the word “hypocrite” is? Faker. Today the word is understood more specifically, as someone faking high morality, and that works too, but for our purposes tonight, hypocrite equals faker.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has this thing about hypocrites. He really doesn’t like hypocrites. In fact—and I even had Mark double check me—when you search the New Testament for “hypocrite,” there are 13 references from Matthew and about five from everyone else (bible.oremus.org). So it seems like Jesus is kind of on an anti-hipster tirade throughout the whole of Matthew.

Except, I think Jesus knew that these people he was encountering, people who were repeatedly trying to trick or trap him, were really suffering. See, if they were fakers to fellow humans and to God that means they weren’t willing to be vulnerable. They weren’t willing to admit to God their imperfections, admit that they were scared or depressed, admit that they were afraid of standing up for the widow and orphan, especially under the watchful eye of Roman legions. I think Jesus must have known that these people—his supposed enemies—were actually suffering, and in their time of need, denying themselves the very thing required for healing. That is, making themselves vulnerable to God’s Son.

So instead of saying “You stinkin’ hypocrites!” I imagine Jesus meaning, “Why are you doing this? Why are you faking like this? What do you gain from this but more pain?” To me, Jesus would seem less frustrated that the Pharisees and religious elite are challenging him. I think Jesus would have enough awareness to recognize these people weren’t his enemies, although maybe we would consider them thus. I think Jesus would have been more frustrated with the true enemy, Fear, that thing that tempts us away from being vulnerable and authentic, that thing that puts masks on us, that thing that creeps into your chest and clasps onto your heart so tight you can’t do what you know is right. That thing.

The “fakers,” so to speak, ask Jesus whether we, the Jews under occupation, should pay taxes or not, to the Emperor. Jesus asks for a coin, on which there would be an image of the Emperor of Rome. Not a picture, an image! An image on which the citizens of Rome are founded. Those with the Emperor’s image on them belong to him. So what belongs to God?

We do. We belong to God. That’s what Jesus says to the crowd that amazes them. We can’t fake ourselves out of this one, even if we’re afraid. As Christians, we can’t pretend that we are anyone’s but God’s. We can’t pretend to be anything than what we are, our whole selves, to God. We can’t help but be vulnerable. But that’s the beauty of it. When I say to myself, you know what, I am not a perfect person but I am worthy of love and respect from my community and my family, that’s transforming. Being vulnerable is powerfully transforming. And I know I’m worthy of that love because I know, based on what just happened on Easter Sunday, that God loves me. God loves us. So much so that God became vulnerable to us! God moved into a human flesh and allowed us, God’s creation, to experience him authentically. God even allowed us to crucify Jesus the Christ, to show us just how vulnerable God can be for us. That’s power beyond belief.

Christians get a lot of beef for being hypocrites these days. I know, I’m supposedly getting a B.A. in Religious Studies. We’re not the only religious group accused of being hypocritical, but it’s rather difficult to say your group has some “high moral ground” when others who claim the same title and savior as you go around burning crosses in people’s yards because of someone’s skin, or degrading women or men for how they act or dress or love. It’s hard to claim “high moral ground” when “your group” is disregarding the needs of the homeless, the underpaid, the overworked, the immigrant, the lonely. But saying “Oh no, we’re not like them! No, we’re better than they are! You know, we’re not even sure they are Christian!” that doesn’t really help in that regard, either. They too bear the image of God. They too might just lack the strength to be vulnerable. They too might just be afraid.

We are imperfect. And that’s okay. Before we even admit that, forgiveness and redemption are given to us by God, freely. Not that it’s easy, because life isn’t easy, but it’s real and it’s honest and it’s kind.

I’m a senior. I’ve got about a week until all my work for the semester is due, and on Mother’s Day I’ll walk across the graduation stage in a tacky blue gown (really, they are ugly). So I could stand up here and pretend I’ve got my shit together. I could pretend I know what I’m doing, I know how AU works, I know the world works, or at least I know about the stuff required for my degree, but I don’t. And I don’t have to. I don’t have to be a hypocrite. I don’t have to be a faker…or a hipster.

To be honest, I’m scared and far from knowledgeable and imperfect. But I think what I’ve learned from time here at AU and at Kay especially is that when I freely own that, when I decide that I’m worthy of the love God has given me, then I can hand my fears to God. And I’m free.