Strong and Tender
Sunday, February 21
Second Sunday in Lent
Strong and Tender
Hope beyond all human hope, you promised descendants as numerous as the stars to old Abraham and barren Sarah. You promise light and salvation in the midst of darkness and despair, and promise redemption to a world that will not listen. Gather us to yourself in tenderness, open our ears to listen to your word, and teach us to live faithfully as people confident of the fulfillment of your promises. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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.'”
All Readings For This Sunday
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
1. What burdens are you carrying this Lent on your spiritual path?
2. How would Jesus’ words be received in the halls of power today?
3. How can we embody “neighborliness” in our public life?
4. What are other images of self-giving, unconditional love?
5. What would it mean to live as “signs of life” rather than “signs of death”?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Our reading from the Gospel of Luke offers 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, we take a hard look at the obstacles between us and God (obstacles that God didn’t put there), not just on our own personal spiritual path, but also on the road toward a new world of justice, wholeness, and peace. Six weeks, of course, is never long enough, but the rhythm of the church year provides time for focused reflection on all that weighs us down on the lifelong journey of faith.
Luke tells us a short story 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 as that Herod was 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 doing as he travels around, right there, on Herod’s own home turf! Leslie Hoppe notes the sharp contrast between Herod’s plans to conform the people to the values of the Roman Empire, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the mission of Jesus, who called the people not only to repent but to remember, and be faithful to, the ancient promises of God.
A closer look at Herod
Herod is curiously human, too, in his own way, and Luke will offer another glimpse into his psyche (and maybe ours as well) later in his Gospel. Stephen I. Wright directs our attention to the scene in Jerusalem, in chapter 23, 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).
Perhaps we can identify just a little bit with Herod’s desire to meet (and test?) Jesus, but he doesn’t have the sense to see that this is no wonder-working celebrity standing before him, but the Son of the Most High God. It takes him another verse or two to remember what a threat to his pathetic little power this prophet actually represents. Here, on the road to Jerusalem, 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 the 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, and his words, Wright tells us, illustrate “Jesus’ rootedness in Jewish ways of thought.”
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 God’s judgment and God’s mercy as well. According to 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).” 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 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 is 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 writes, “ninety times; in the remainder of the New Testament, it is mentioned only forty-nine.”
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. However, Jesus echoes other prophets who warn Jerusalem that the presence of God has left its midst, the prophets who warned of the consequences of the people’s wanderings from God, as well as the prophets who spoke words of comfort in the worst of the people’s suffering. In either case, God never abandoned the people: judgment, yes, but there was mercy as well.
For example, Walter Brueggemann writes that the prophet 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. With that vision in mind, Brueggemann wonders what was going through Jesus’ heart and mind as he gazed at the city before him and considered its future. Jesus, he says, “is the lover of a city who grieves its death wish,” a city that “refuses what makes for shalom.” And so, Jesus “warns against the oppressive acquisitiveness of urban style that we call ‘coveting’ that in turn produces endless anxiety.” Does that last phrase describe us as well? Aren’t acquisitiveness and anxiety marks of our life today?
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 the covenant with Israel), but she also notes Jesus’ deep compassion and grief for what lies ahead for the city.
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?
Doing whatever it takes
Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem employs a powerful and heart-breaking image that scholars explore and expand upon: the mother hen who tenderly protects her chicks. Obviously there is that fierce, unselfish love that is willing to do whatever it takes to care for the chicks, even if it means losing one’s life, and Jesus will soon prove that. 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.” Jesus’ firm resolve to face what lies ahead in Jerusalem is the same kind of fierce devotion that any mother feels in the face of a threat to her children, no matter what they have done or failed to do. Timothy Shapiro says Jesus is “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.'” 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.” 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?” 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.” 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 of great heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., but also of the “Freedom Riders” who were not deterred 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.”
Mother Church as a brooding hen
Barbara Brown Taylor reflects 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.” A big, fluffed up brooding hen—an apt image for “Mother Church”!
Jerusalem as a spiritual home
James Burns suggests that everyone in a 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’ve come to church – 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 a spiritual home in your congregation?
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 reminds us, “We must always read these words with a broken heart.”
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.
“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.” Amen: so let it be.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_21_2016.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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.'”
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