Sermon Seeds: Strong and Tender

Second Sunday in Lent Year C color_purple.jpg

Lectionary citations
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17–4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Sermon Seeds

Special preaching notes in preparation for the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering 2016

by Mary Schaller Blaufuss

Focus Scripture:
Luke 13:13-35
Additional reflection on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Weekly Theme:
Strong and Tender

Reflection on Luke 13:13-35:
by Kathryn M. Matthews katehuey150.jpg

If you would like to preach on a comforting story from the Bible on this Second Sunday in Lent, perhaps the Genesis passage would be a better text for your sermon. However, our reading from the Gospel of Luke does offer rich material for Lenten reflection: this is the season for uncomfortable questions and hard truths – just what’s needed to open our eyes and our hearts, and set our feet on the path of faithfulness.

If you thought giving up chocolate for six weeks was difficult, try immersing yourself in this short but challenging text from Luke, just one moment for Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, one moment on our own Lenten journey toward the cross. During these six weeks, in a focused way, we take a hard look at the obstacles that block us from God, obstacles on our own personal spiritual path, but also obstacles on the road toward a whole new world of justice, wholeness and peace. Six weeks, of course, is never long enough. It’s a lifelong journey.

And that’s what this short story is about: an encounter, a warning on the road to Jerusalem, the road out of Galilee, where the petty tyrant Herod runs roughshod over the people. Herod Antipas, successor to the evil Herod of the nativity stories and equally ineffective at hindering God’s plans, is motivated by fear and a deep hunger for power and security. His vision of how things should be obviously clashes with the things Jesus is saying and teaching as he travels around, right there, on Herod’s home turf! Leslie Hoppe marks the sharp contrast between Herod’s plans to conform the people to values of the Roman Empire, and the mission of Jesus, who called the people not only to repent but to remember, and be faithful to, the ancient promises of God (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).  

A closer look at Herod

Herod is curiously human, too, in his own way, and Luke offers another glimpse into his psyche (and maybe ours as well) later in his Gospel. In The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels, Stephen I. Wright directs our attention to that scene in Jerusalem, when Pilate has sent Jesus to Herod (who was also in the city at the time, for Passover): “When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign” (23:8, NRSV).

Herod’s mixed feelings toward Jesus in Luke’s Gospel have a strikingly contemporary ring of familiarity: it’s as if Jesus is some sort of wonder-working celebrity standing before him, rather than the Son of the Most High God, and it takes Herod another verse or two to remember what a threat to his pathetic little power this prophet actually represents. Here, on the road, however, Jesus brushes aside the warnings about Herod’s evil scheming as only so many words (which they are, of course), futile efforts that are not significant in the big picture: the plan of God. God’s word has power; Herod’s words are useless.

Still, the powers that be, whether it’s Herod in Galilee, Pilate in Jerusalem, the religious leaders there and scattered throughout the land, the wealthy and prestigious, or the mighty Roman Empire itself, can cause havoc in the meantime, and Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem fully aware of the awful danger that lies ahead. These are all powers of one kind of another, some of them admittedly dependent on those more powerful than themselves, all of whom dislike Jesus’ talk about the first being last, and the last being first. Indeed, that’s what Jesus was talking about right before this scene opens, and none of it sounded like good news to those who thought they were comfortably (if tenuously) ensconced in the places of prestige and power.

Standing up to the powers that be

Of course, this is not the first time a prophet has stood up to the powers that be in Israel. The language and imagery in this short text recall not only ancient promises of God’s tender care (our theme, after all, is “strong and tender”), but also God’s holding Israel to a high standard of faithfulness to a covenant carved on their hearts. When Jesus speaks (and heals and drives out demons and feeds the masses), he is doing what God has done throughout the Old Testament, caring tenderly for the people, and his words, Wright tells us, illustrate “Jesus’ rootedness in Jewish ways of thought” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Given the tragic misinterpretation and uses to which passages like this one have been put, it’s important to remember once again that Jesus is a prophet in a long line of prophets in Israel who proclaimed both God’s mercy and God’s judgment. According to Leslie Hoppe, “Both Isaiah (60:4) and Zechariah (10:6-10) use the image of the scattered children of Jerusalem being gathered together to speak of God’s unwavering love for Israel. Also the image of Israel finding shelter under God’s ‘wings’ occurs frequently in the Old Testament (see Deut. 32:11; Ruth 2:12; Pss. 57:1; 61:4; 91:4)” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2). Jesus’ cry of anguish in this passage, then, would have been wrenchingly familiar to the ears of those who could hear them.

If we turn our attention, then, from Herod’s feeble little threats out in the outlying territory to the imposing sight of the city of Jerusalem, at the heart of all things religious and political, we’ll focus on what is to come in the story of Jesus as well as its meaning for us today, gathered in our own centers of all things political, religious, and economic. What does it mean for Jesus to weep over the city that is, many scholars remind us, at the center of Luke’s story, from Jesus’ childhood visits (which presumably continued throughout his lifetime) to the great drama that’s about to unfold? Jerusalem is of course important in the Old Testament, for better or worse, but it’s also important to Luke, who mentions it, Fred Craddock notes, “ninety times; in the remainder of the New Testament, it is mentioned only forty-nine” (Preaching through the Christian Year C).

A vision of “neighborliness”

This is no ordinary city but one that holds the presence of God in its temple, or at least it has long claimed to do so, although Jesus echoes other prophets who warn Jerusalem that the presence of God has left its midst. Walter Brueggemann recalls Jeremiah, who “looks the city square in the face and notices the cadences of its death march” (Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church). And Daniel Deffenbaugh remembers Isaiah, who challenged “the predominant Jerusalem theology that interpreted the Davidic monarchy and the presence of God in the temple as the final fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham,” and the way “God’s will came to be reified in the political apparatus of the state” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).

Brueggemann and Deffenbaugh emphasize that those ancient prophets spoke words of hope and promise, too, because their message encompassed both judgment and mercy. For example, Brueggemann writes that Jeremiah imagines a “big urban agenda” based on “neighborliness,” where the vulnerable are protected and the weak are cared for, a persistent theme in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. These scholars reflect on what might have been going through Jesus’ heart and mind as he gazed at the city before him and considered its future. Jesus, Brueggemann says, loves the city of Jerusalem even as it “refuses what makes for shalom,” and his words warn us today against our own “urban style” of “‘coveting’ that in turn produces endless anxiety” (Mandate to Difference).

How does this matter to us today?

The word “neighborliness” has such power, if we remember the second great commandment about loving our neighbor as ourselves. In the current primary season for the presidential election in the U.S., we’re hearing so much talk about God and God’s will – regardless of the separation of church and state we also claim to revere so highly. It seems to me that neighborliness is a beautiful and compelling vision for both our internal and external affairs, and it would fulfill both religious aspirations and secular ones, finding common ground for all of us to stand on, whether we are “religious” or not.

In other words, it’s a vision we could all embrace. We don’t need to impose our religious beliefs on one another, or punish one another for infractions of religious laws. But we can all hold up an ideal of neighborliness that would inspire us to share, to be just, to include rather than exclude, to heal and repair and strengthen, to protect the vulnerable, to care about one another and show respect for every person. What do you think of “neighborliness” as a vision for every city, every community, every nation?

Scholars believe that Luke knew that the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed a few decades after Jesus was put to death there. Margaret Aymer says that Luke held Jerusalem responsible for its own destruction, because it rejected Jesus (one wonders, however, about all those people who did not reject Jesus, as well as those who were faithful to God’s covenant with Israel, living lives of justice and deep trust in God), but she still finds compassion for the city rather than judgment of it at the core of Jesus’ grief (New Proclamation Year C 2010). Compassion is always at the core of true religion; it has been said that compassion is the face of God.

Doing whatever it takes

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem employs a powerful and heart-breaking image that many scholars explore and expand upon: the mother hen who tenderly protects her chicks. There’s that fierce, unselfish love that’s willing to do whatever it takes to care for the chicks, even if it means losing one’s life, and Jesus will soon embody that kind of love. N. T. Wright draws on the image of a “farmyard fire” as the threat to the hen’s babies, when “those cleaning up have found a dead hen, scorched and blackened, and live chicks sheltering under her wings.” In the same way, Jesus longed to save Jerusalem, to warn her of impending doom; she would not listen to his warnings, and he would end up offering his life as well (Luke for Everyone).

There is also that persistent, unbreakable kind of love that Timothy Shapiro describes, when he compares Jesus to the mother hen whose love cannot be deterred by anything her little chick does or fails to do: “he’s the mother hen who folds the covers down on the bed and puffs up the pillow, at the same time saying, ‘Don’t let me ever catch you doing that again'” (New Proclamation Year C 2006-2007). What a beautiful way to describe both accountability and mercy!

Grieving the ones who turn away

Ironically, Rodney Clapp believes that these “surprising words” of Jesus suggest a different way to see the powers that be, those would-be “masters of the universe, invulnerable and imperial behind their relentless, foxy maneuvering.” (It’s not lost on us that Jesus calls Herod a fox just before he speaks of gathering chicks under his wings.) We might see those powers that be as Jesus does, “as barnyard chicks lost in a storm, too afraid and too stubborn to find shelter under the shadow of mother hen’s wings. What these overlords want to be heard as a fearsome canine growl emerges as an almost comic cheeping” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2). So the words are not surprising just because they present a feminine image for God but because of the poignancy of maternal tenderness that enables us, perhaps, to see that God loves all of us, and grieves even (or perhaps especially) for those who most stubbornly turn away.

Margaret Aymer pushes us even further, if we consider how “remarkable” it is that Jesus laments the very ones who will reject him. How, she asks, would it affect our Lent if we took the opportunity to lament the most unlikely people, “the unjust….U.S.-based and global terrorists….those who deny resources to the poor and who oppress those with no advocate?” Aymer’s use of the word “terrorists” for oppressors of the poor certainly expands its current meaning in the world and adjusts our perspective, perhaps uncomfortably so. What about us – where would we put ourselves in this picture, Aymer asks, and what about “our own silence and collusion with international crimes of poverty, hunger, and disease?” (New Proclamation Year C 2010). Wouldn’t Jesus cry over our cities, and our institutions, as well?

How do we live as signs of life?

Lent presents such uncomfortable questions and hard truths. What fate are our “city,” our culture, our values and our rejection of what shalom requires, bringing down upon us? Richard Swanson observes that “Herod (in any century) has always found allies among people of faith” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke). We remember, for example, that “good” Christians used the Bible to justify slavery not so long ago, and today make decisions for the sake of things like “national security” (remember the fear of insecurity in Herod?) that would make Jesus weep over us in anguished lament. Swanson reminds us, then, that “Lent is a time to take seriously the ways we live as signs of death rather than of life, the ways we steal from the earth rather than sprout from it,” a beautiful image in a church season named after “spring.”

In this story about Jesus’ firm determination to face what lies ahead in Jerusalem – for our sake, not only for the sake of his people, in his own time – we hear a call to stand firm ourselves, no matter what, when faced with risk for the sake of the gospel. Jesus’ firm resolve reminds us not only of great heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., but of unnamed “Freedom Riders” who were undeterred by ugly threats and violence when they integrated buses in the South during the Civil Rights era. Some were killed, many were beaten, and even more lost their homes, but they did not back down. Jesus doesn’t back down or run away, either, not because he knows that he is “safe” from the cross (quite the opposite), but because he knows who God is, and what “the plan” is. This is the Jesus who accompanies us on our Lenten journey, and on every path of risk and faithfulness, no matter what we encounter along the way.

During Black History month, we recall not only Dr. King and the Freedom Riders but also the slaves of antebellum America (their names are often lost to us) who, Michael Curry writes, had “to extend their vision beyond things as they were, to a deeper, broader, higher vision, and dream of things as they could be.” This, Curry writes, is what Jesus did so well: “For Jesus, God’s passionate dream, compassionate desire, and bold determination is to gather God’s human children closer and closer in God’s embrace and love.” The good news, the gospel, is that even the most unlikely people, on the margins of society, are gathered in under this mother hen’s care, into “a new humanity, a new human community, born not of social custom but of the Spirit of God” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).

Mother Church as a brooding hen

Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this difficult text focuses on the way Jesus gathers us together rather than letting us be scattered like vulnerable chicks. We are the body of Christ together, she writes, not all alone, each of us in our own private spiritual life. She notes the tenderness of Jesus’ efforts and the tragedy of his rejection by this city, and she poignantly describes the meager resources of a little mother hen, the image Jesus chose to identify with, attempting to protect her brood against a vicious and well-armed predator (what a tenderly vulnerable image that hen makes). As a mother and grandmother, I found her suggestion heartbreaking: “At the very least, she can hope that she satisfies his appetite so that he leaves her babies alone.”

Do these words give us a sense, even in a small way, of the tragedy of Jesus’ impending death? But Taylor then goes on to resurrection, and describes the triumph of love in the long run. Her description of the battle between the hen and the fox is elegantly matched by her remembrance of the victory, and her image of the “church of Christ as a big fluffed up brooding hen, offering warmth and shelter to all kinds of chicks…., planting herself between the foxes of this world and the fragile-boned chicks” (“Chickens and Foxes,” in Bread of Angels). A big, fluffed up brooding hen—an apt image for “Mother Church”!

Jerusalem as a spiritual home

James Burns’ pastoral perspective on this text (in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke) suggests that everyone in the congregation has a spiritual home, “the space where they work out their ambivalences and the contradictions of living….the place they learned to love and learned to fear….where they are grounded, their destiny.” It may be a special place from childhood that they return to in search of their spiritual roots and renewal, or a place in their journey where they have experienced closeness to God and growth in their relationship with God, even if it involved struggle and pain. In any case, we can imagine that Jesus had that kind of feeling about the city of Jerusalem, for better or worse. Clearly, Jesus loved Jerusalem, and yet today we read of his struggle with it as well.

I’m not sure I agree completely with Burns’ statement that “every person in your congregation has a spiritual home” – not today, not in our society. We’ve reached a point in our secularization, I think, where many people don’t necessarily feel that they can claim a place or a community as their spiritual home. Perhaps that’s why they’re sitting before us in the congregation – they are seeking to fill that empty place, that need, and they bring their “ambivalences and the contradictions of living” as well as their gifts and their joys and their wisdom. Will such seekers find spiritual homes in our congregations?

Reading with a broken heart

In writing this reflection, I struggled my way through interpretations that might suggest a special guilt on the part of the Jewish people for “rejecting Jesus.” I was not alone in this concern over words and the suffering they have justified over the centuries, from pogroms and Inquisitions to Nazi horrors and anti-Semitic slurs. As Mary Gordon writes, “We must always read these words with a broken heart” (Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels).

I found Fredrick C. Holmgren’s writing most helpful in this regard, for he reminds us of the profound ethical concern of the people of Israel from earliest times (compared to the cultures around them), their sense of responsibility for their sins, and their willingness to receive God’s judgment. How could the prophets have preached, how could their words have been preserved and passed down, without that community of faith that received them, and took them to heart? Holmgren urges us, rather than judging the people of Israel, to examine our own consciences about the same sins those prophets decried (“Preaching the Gospel without Anti-Judaism,” in Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit). 

“I am Joseph, your brother”

Rather than heaping judgment on our ancestors in faith, we might look into our own hearts and history, and repent, as Jesus calls us to, in this season of Lenten discipline. When we think of Jerusalem that day, under the strong and tender gaze of Jesus, we might picture ourselves, in our own way, as its children, too. Wallace M. Alston, Jr., tells the moving story of Pope John XXIII, the humble spiritual leader (whose memory the present pope often evokes), welcoming a delegation of Jewish visitors early in his pontificate, when “he walked over to them with open arms and said: ‘I am Joseph, your brother’ (Ex 45:4).”

Alston, having wrestled with the way the New Testament has been interpreted to justify the persecution of the Jewish people, concludes that John XXIII provided an illustration of “where we need to be, it seems to me, if it is not where we are today in the relationship between Christians and Jews. Perhaps God will find some new way to use these two members of God’s one covenant family to serve the human good and to bring glory to God’s great name” (“The Root that Supports Us” in Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit). Amen: so let it be.

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 19th century
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

Mark Twain, 19th century
“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”

Yehuda Amichai, 20th century
“Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity.”

Brenda Sutton Rose, Dogwood Blues, 21st century
“Although I wasn’t there to bear witness, I imagine Lot’s wife scanned the masses for her children. Perhaps she sought out the curves of their mouths and the shapes of their faces, trying to memorize her children, grown now. She looked back as I and any strong, loving mother would have done.”

Debra Ginsburg, 21st century
“Through the blur, I wondered if I was alone or if other parents felt the same way I did–that everything involving our children was painful in some way.”

Cheryl Strayed, 21st century
“But she would never get there, no matter how wide she stretched her arms. The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach. It could not be quantified or contained.”

J.K. Rowling, 21st century
“To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 20th century
“It’s come at last,” she thought, “the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache.”

Reflection on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18:
by Kathryn M. Matthews

Focus Theme:
Ritual of Promise

Remembering who we are takes us back to remembering where we came from, and from whom we came. Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors in faith, must have reached a point of acceptance, bitter or otherwise, when they came to think of themselves in old age as “barren.” In that culture and time, children represented much more than someone to love and care for, someone to delight in. According to Timothy Shapiro, they were the mark of “a healthy relationship with God. Before we associated salvation with eternal life, our faith father Abraham connected it with worldly realities such as kids and a homestead” (New Proclamation Year C 2007).

Being without children, that is, being “the end of the line,” made it difficult, even pointless, to imagine a future. What difference would the promise of land make if there were no children to inherit it? Childlessness, then, had immense spiritual and theological importance, producing anxiety, fear, and disappointment for Abraham and Sarah.

Talking with God

Every once in a while, not often, God speaks directly with someone in the Bible. Abraham was one who heard directly from God, and this is one of those conversations when he has the nerve to talk back to God, to challenge God on just how realistic God is being in describing Abraham’s prospects in such glowing terms. No matter how many times God makes this promise, Abraham just doesn’t see how all this is going to work.

Right now, the only person who stands to inherit his wealth – and he is a wealthy man – is one of his servants, Eliezer. Abraham (still “Abram” here) needs anti-anxiety medication, or maybe just a trip outside to look at the stars. So God takes Abram outside (tenderly, by the hand, perhaps?), and says, “Don’t be afraid, Abram….Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” Abram can relax and trust God – “I’ve got a plan,” God tells him, “and you’re in it.”

Do not be afraid

The covenant ceremony, the “ritual of promise,” described in this passage may sound strange and be hard for us to understand, but those four simple words, “Do not be afraid,” come down through the ages in many of our biblical texts, and they make Abraham and Sarah (and so many others who heard them each in their own place and time) seem like our brother and our sister instead of our ancestors in a culture long ago and far away. Down through the ages, we hear not only “Be not afraid,” but the reason why: the promise that God is in charge, that God will be with us, that God is at work underneath everything.

So no matter what things may look like right now, we can be assured that God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good. Trusting in those simple words, no matter what, will be reckoned to us as righteousness, too. Some may dismiss this as too easy or too superficial, a bright sunny theology that fails to answer the question of HIV/AIDS or cancer diagnoses, the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, earthquakes in Haiti, tsunamis in the Pacific and snowstorms on the east coast, all of them bringing personal and communal devastation and untold suffering.

A promise for the descendants

However, Walter Brueggemann responds that the promise of God to provide heirs even to barren old folks is “not a generic good feeling or a sense of optimism about the future,” what we might call a warm fuzzy feeling. Brueggemann says that Israel long remembers and repeats these words, this promise that came directly from God and shapes the expectations of Israel of a God who will be faithful in the future just as God has been faithful in the past. Do not be afraid, Abraham hears, and we hear today, no matter what we face, no matter how vulnerable we feel, no matter what dangers, what losses loom before us. This God is a “future-generating, future-governing God,” Brueggemann says, who wants Israel, and its many descendants, more numerous than the stars, to be a blessing to all the nations, not just to themselves (Introduction to the Old Testament).

We believe that God’s promise is not only a particular one for this particular couple but also a specific promise to a specific community of God’s people, the people of Israel, who will exist and even thrive on a specific land described at the end of this passage and in the verses that follow it. This kind of conversation between God and Abraham, Walter Brueggemann says, is one way “the promise” is “irreversibly embedded in the life of Israel” (Theology of the Old Testament).

We believe, too, that the promise has extended to us, that it is “embedded” in our life, too, for we are among those uncountable descendants of Abraham, our ancestor in faith. And so we consider not only the response of Abraham, and of Israel, but of all of us today, in the community of faith, striving to live our lives trusting in the promises of God. While many count faith as “belief in certain intellectual propositions,” a decision of the mind, this kind of faith moves heart and mind, our whole being, toward a position, or better, a journey, of utter trust.

Where are the barren places in our lives?

Today, in the life of the church, in this Lenten season, we hear the ancient story of who we are and where we came from, and we naturally try to find our place in the story. This beginning of Lent is a good time to reflect on the “barren” places of our lives, and to move into an attitude of trust in God even in times of emptiness and doubt (it’s not so difficult to trust in times of fullness and security, of course). God is doing a new thing, we hear, and we long for it to be so, in spite of evidence to the contrary: war, pestilence, hatred, and in our day, new fear from new threats like terrorism and global warming, not to mention an anxiety-driven economic crisis. There is so much to fear, and so little to count on.

So the words, “Do not be afraid, I am your shield,” fall upon our ears and our hearts like balm that not only heals but also strengthens us for the work that lies before us, the call that we hear in claiming who and whose we are, the call to be a blessing to all the nations of the world, the instruments of God by which God does new and astonishing things. We hear throughout the Bible, James Newsome observes, that “the God of mercy and grace will have the last word in our affairs” (Texts for Preaching Year C), so our proper response is to step out in faith into a future we cannot imagine, a future that we believe belongs to God, not to death, destruction, hatred, terrorism or global warming. And that kind of trust, again, will be reckoned to us as righteousness.

Trusting God is not easy

Thousands of years and miles away from this little scene, we still care about family and home. I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot like Abraham much of the time, and I worry about the future. Like Abraham, I feel like complaining and questioning more often than I like to think I do. Instead, I argue with God. It’s hard for me to settle myself down into quiet, like a child held tenderly by her mother or father (see Psalm 131), so that I can tune in better to God’s presence, and God’s care, in my life. I find the “trust and relax” part much harder than the part where I can study the answers and memorize them for the test, and say what I believe, rather than walk the walk of trust no matter how hard it is to imagine the future, no matter how challenging it is to rely on God to take care of that future. Because, secretly, I think it’s really up to me.

But the covenant says no to that. The covenant says, “Don’t be afraid, trust me, I’m here, and I’m in charge of the future.” The covenant says, “Don’t just talk the talk and keep things up here in your head; give me your heart and walk with me. Look up at the stars, and look at your life, with different eyes. See the miracles that surround you each day – these are gifts from me. When you recognize the gifts as good, you can trust the giver of those good gifts.”  

On the other hand, Timothy Shapiro draws our attention to the covenant that signifies this promise of God and the promise made by the people in response to God’s initiative: he says that this covenant “only works if you work at it. There is cheap covenant just as there is cheap grace. Promises don’t make things better in a blink of an eye….Children – they warm your heart and break it. Home – it draws you in and pushes you away. Faith is like this; it is both security and trouble” (New Proclamation Year C 2007). Security and trouble. This hardly sounds like an untested childhood faith, or even a Sunday school faith. It sounds more like the faith, and trust, of those long on the road, who have seen, and yet hoped for, many, many things.

For further reflection:

Corrie ten Boom, 20th century  
“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

Parker Palmer, 21st century
“The moments when we meet and reckon with contradictions are turning points where we either enter or evade the mystery of God.”

Evan Drake Howard, 21st century

“We don’t always feel God’s presence, just as we don’t feel the sun on a rainy day. But the presence never grows dim, and the confidence that it is there and will shine again keeps us hopeful.”

Søren Kierkegaard, 19th century
“It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.”

Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century

“Rather than feeling lost and unimportant and meaningless, set against galaxies which go beyond the reach of the furthest telescopes, I feel that my life has meaning. Perhaps I should feel insignificant, but instead I feel a soaring in my heart that the God who could create all this — and out of nothing — can still count the hairs of my head.”

Lectionary-based reflection on Disaster, Refugee and Sustainable Development ministries of the United Church of Christ through One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS)
by Mary Schaller Blaufuss

Focus Text:
Luke 13: 31-35

Preaching theme:  

Jesus persists urgently in his healing and wholeness ministry, refusing to be distracted by his seeming self-interest or by only short-term needs. The purpose is seeing God’s glory of abundant life, both in the completeness of time and in glimpses in our midst.

Interpretation and Informing Stories:
by Mary Schaller Blaufuss

MSB.jpgLuke communicates the urgency of Jesus’ preaching and action on his way to Jerusalem in this passage. It is both a warning and a lament, preparing the disciples (and us) for Jerusalem and beyond. Urgently “at that very hour,” some Pharisees (Luke is not one to see all Pharisees as bad) warn Jesus of Herod’s threats. This may be a different Herod (here, Herod of Antipas, tetrarch of Galilea) than ruled 33 years earlier when Jesus was a baby and Herod massacred thousands of baby boys under the age of 2, but the same fear of power competition.  

The displacement of Jesus as he was with Mary and Joseph in Egypt as a refugee continues to frame the story. Yet, Jesus persists not only by continuing his ministry to heal people in mind, body and spirit, but he sends the message back to Herod with those same Pharisees that he will continue this healing ministry until it is complete “yet today, tomorrow and the third day.” Jesus is a bold voice speaking truth to power and he gives those Pharisees the same prophetic ministry. Jesus is forthright and urgent in his response, calling Herod names – “that fox.” With this name, he points to Herod as clever in a sly way, based on Greco-Roman uses of the term. Jesus also is educating the disciples in what they too will need to do as prophets who must speak truth to power to complete Jesus’ healing ministry. From our place on the time line, we also can see the three day reference to resurrection. Jesus knows that, eventually, his will not only be a political death (and that it will be), but that Jerusalem, the religious center of his culture, will be the place of his demise, giving his passion a spiritual and transformational meaning.

Lament for the people

And then, just like that, the passage’s voice switches to lament. Jesus wishes that he could have played the part of the mother hen who keeps her brood safe and secure under her wings. It’s a reference to an image from the religious tradition of the crowd. He has to lament, though, that the people collectively would have none of that. They wanted to be on their own: “See, your house is left to you,” Jesus says. And the broken people around him testify to the futility of that. There will be glimpses of God’s glory. The people will shout when Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. But they still won’t “get it” until they “get it.” They won’t truly shout, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” with authenticity until they are part of the wholeness of his transformative power in the world.

The Disaster, Refugee and Sustainable Development ministries of the UCC made possible through One Great Hour of Sharing operate in midst of the matrix of meeting immediate needs, presence for the long-term, addressing systemic root causes of crisis, and building local capacity for resilience. They are ministries located in the intersections of warning, lament and resurrection. They are ministries that demand urgency and public warning to accomplish healing. They are ministries that don’t stop with meeting immediate needs, but expand the response toward systemic wholeness in which individuals and societies will show forth God’s glorious wholeness.

Urgency and Warning

The Syrian Refugee crisis has demonstrated visibly that the world is not prepared for the mass movements of forcibly displaced people. The international border systems and refugee resettlement systems, let alone the issues presented when people are forcibly displaced within their own national boundaries, are not something the nation-state system is set up to handle.  Border countries to Syria are struggling to provide for their own citizens as well as millions of newcomers. Refugee camps are often hopeless places as people dream of returning home, but see no way to do that.

And so when people began to move by the hundreds of thousands into Europe and other 3rd countries for resettlement, “Not in My Back Yard” (NIMBY) surged. In the United States, the House of Representatives passed a bill to disallow Syrian refugees, but it was blocked by the Senate before it came to that floor two months later. The public discourse around the issue surfaced fears about security and difference, but also prompted more visible expressions of extravagant welcome as more congregations reached out to host refugee families from Syria and other places (

Food and warmth and seeking a just peace

The current ministries of the UCC in the Syrian refugee crisis and in refugee crises in other parts of the world embody positioning ourselves within this matrix. The response moves in several directions at once, taking seriously the situation’s complexity. People are fed and kept warm in the cold within Syria, in neighboring countries of the Middle East, and in border countries of Europe. People are offered hope for the long-term through resettlement of their families. Long-term friendships with churches in the region and with global church organizations give access to local political leaders and global decision-makers who help to build bridges and seek “just peace.”

The movement of masses of people is not likely to end with the Syrian crisis. Climate change that changes sea levels and dispersed political violence is likely to increase forcible displacements. Responding to these changes in ways that preserve human dignity and human rights require confronting the political systems of Herod “that fox.” It will require commitment for the long-term and systemic changes. It will bring healing this day and the next and into the third day.  

Lament and Glory

It would be one thing to simply offer safety and security from the rage of the world outside – like a hen gathers her brood under her wings. But power differentials keep the world unequal and natural disasters create crisis, calling for lament. The interaction with the world’s crises, therefore, is long-term, systemic and multi-layered. Glimpses of God’s wholeness are experienced in the process. OGHS.jpg

Example: The crisis of refugees from the Burundi political violence during the past year has received almost no global media coverage. Yet, hundreds of thousands have been forcibly displaced. Less media attention also results in less attention to regional peace efforts and results in fewer international resources available for meeting basic needs. The UCC, as part of Church World Service, is in neighboring Tanzania working with local groups in refugee camps. Like a hen sheltering her brood, these groups provide basic needs of refugees like food and water. But the violence continues and more is needed and so the church is part of conflict resolution efforts as well. The global community can provide an outside presence for observation and help build the capacity of the local organizations composed of local leaders. Local empowerment and capacity building embody glimpses of the “just peace” needed for wholeness in this crisis (More of the story, page 8).

Example: In the Philippines, following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, UCC members and friends responded with abundance. UCC Disaster Ministries has been able to be involved deeply with Global Ministries’ partner, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP). The UCCP has a long history of speaking as the poor, demanding equality and justice. The disaster rebuilding efforts fit the same pattern. The church responded immediately to displaced fisherfolk with boats and to farmers with seed.

The crisis, lamentably, was more complex. And so in that immediate response, the church looked to the long term. Land rights issues became part of decisions on how to rebuild. Homes were planned and built that would not only offer shelter for the present, but would resist future storms. And, knowing that this is not the last typhoon to hit the Philippines, especially as climate change increases the intensity and frequency of large storms, assistance in recovery has included capacity building for the UCCP’s own disaster ministries. This increased capacity already has resulted in glimpses of wholeness through the sharing of UCCP expertise with others in the Philippines and in other parts of the world (more of the story).

Example: Lament is necessary as the dis-empowerment of women and gender-based violence surface again and again as root causes and as consequences of disruption and violence. The Sustainable Development Goals (2016-2030), like the Millennial Development Goals that preceded them (2000-2015), identify women’s empowerment as a primary objective for communities that are resilient and whole. This includes gender-based violence that is used openly and systematically as a tool of war. Domestic violence behind closed doors in every society also disempowers women.

UCC ministries in sustainable development see women’s empowerment as a primary goal and as a strategy toward other goals for development. Micro-finance loans that not only provide funds but also training and support enable women to gain access to the economic system. Access to education for girls and leadership opportunities for women strengthen families and communities. The interfaith and global “We Will Speak Out Movement” mobilizes for awareness of, and work against, gender-based violence. The U.S. coalition of “We Will Speak Out” is currently organizing a panel for the March 2016 United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women, “Engaging Men as Champions in the Fight to End Sexual and Gender-Based Violence.” The goal is to amplify voices and movements for wholeness already at work in church partners around the world.
We live in a complex world and to follow Jesus means to enter into that complexity with our whole selves. As Jesus persists in the face of Herod and enters into Jerusalem, he is intentional and complete in his purpose of healing and wholeness. Jesus is confident that the people will indeed see him in his glory and proclaim “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
The Rev. Dr. Mary Schaller Blaufuss serves as Team Leader, Global Sharing of Resources, with Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ at the national offices in Cleveland, Ohio.

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Lectionary texts

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates….”

Psalm 27

God is my light and my salvation;
   whom shall I fear?
God is the stronghold of my life;
   of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
   to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
   they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
   my heart shall not fear.
Though war rise up against me,
   yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of God,
   that will I seek after:
to live in the house of God
   all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of God,
   and to inquire in God’s temple.
For God will hide me in God’s shelter
   in the day of trouble;

God will conceal me
   under the cover of God’s tent;
God will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up above my enemies
   all around me,
and I will offer in God’s tent sacrifices
   with shouts of joy;

I will sing and make melody
   to God.
Hear, O God, when I cry aloud,
   be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek God’s face!”
   Your face, O God, do I seek.

Do not hide your face
   from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
   you who have been my help.

Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
   O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
   God will take me up.

Teach me your way,
   O God,
and lead me on a level path
   because of my enemies.

Do not give me up
   to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
   and they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see
   the goodness of God
in the land of the living.

Wait for God;
   be strong,
let your heart take courage;
   wait for God!

Philippians 3:17–4:1

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”   

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!