Open Arms (and wings). Sermon from February 21

Luke 13:31-35

31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He 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. 33Yet 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.’ 34Jerusalem, 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! 35See, 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.’”

 

In Disney’s 1973 film telling the Robin Hood story, it makes perfect sense that the hero is depicted as a fox. Foxes, we know, are sly, clever, and quick. They can trick or “outfox” an opponent. In this way, western culture has a sort of admiration for the fox.

This was not the case in ancient Palestine. When Jesus calls Herod a fox in the Gospel passage today, there is no sense of admiration or respect. Herod, to be clear, is no misunderstood hero or even clever villain. Instead, Jesus dismisses him as rather meaningless, as a creature who thinks he is much bigger and more intimidating than he really is, as basically a fool. When Jesus called Herod a fox, it’s very clearly an insult.

It’s also audacious. While Herod may not have been quite as nasty as his father, Herod the Great, he had a pretty violent track record himself, especially in instances when he felt his power was threatened. It was he who was responsible for the beheading of John the Baptist, and he has already ominously indicated that Jesus reminded him of John. Plus, as the one put in charge of the Galilean quarter, he had the full force of the Roman Empire behind him if he needed it. All this is to say that Herod presented a very real danger to Jesus. The Pharisees were not wrong to warn Jesus that Herod was after him.

Still, those Pharisees are interesting, complex figures. They had so much in common with Jesus. They shared a faith and many similar commitments. There are mentions of Pharisees who liked Jesus, who invited him to dinner, who even became followers of his. So I trust that the Pharisees who came to Jesus to warn him about Herod had a genuine concern for his safety. They didn’t want to see Jesus killed.

At the same time, the Pharisees were the most likely debate partners for Jesus and were regularly the recipients of his most direct criticisms. There were real differences between them. So if there was any part of these particular Pharisees that felt Jesus was leading people in the wrong direction, if they believed his view of God’s kingdom was a little too radical and too inclusive, if they were annoyed with his call to leave behind everything that doesn’t serve God’s purposes, then here was a situation they could use to their advantage. What a great opportunity for them to try to get rid of Jesus. “You’re gonna have to leave, Jesus. It’s just not safe around here.”

But the response to Herod and the Pharisees was the same. It didn’t matter who tried to deter him, Jesus was clear what he was about and where he was headed. Yes, Jesus was about to leave Galilee but in his own time. And when he did, he knew exactly where he was going. His message was not going to diminish but increase. He was not going into hiding but traveling straight into the seat of power. Jerusalem was where he needed to be with a message of God’s radical grace, no matter what it cost him.

So while Herod is the obvious threat in this story, I’m especially struck by how Jesus responds to the Pharisees. He could see that they wouldn’t go along with him, that they couldn’t join him in his vision of a radically merciful God. I guess I’m struck by the Pharisees because I can more easily identify with them.

How easy it is to look for reasons not to fully follow Jesus in his way of discipleship. How easy it is to let threats and fears take priority.

This week Pope Francis made headlines when he responded to a reporter’s question by saying, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” I agree wholeheartedly with him from a theological point-of-view. Historically, however, the Christian Church has not always been so good about bridge building. Sadly, fear has a way of creeping into the church, too. Fear of others, fear of a losing one’s way of life, fear that compels us to give up much too quickly on our core convictions. It’s this kind of fear that caused Christians to support slavery in this country and apartheid in South Africa, or to be suspicious of Muslims after September 11, or to seek only the preservation of an institution rather than taking risks for the sake of sharing good news with people who need to hear it. There are just so many opportunities, it seems to me, to delay the work of building bridges because we perceive that threats or insecurities simply demand walls.

So I’m intrigued by the Pharisees and have sympathy for them because they may represent us Christians more than we’d like to admit…. But I’m even more struck by the way Jesus responds… because all that fills his eyes as he looks at them is great compassion. He says to them, and to so many others, “How often have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes of this passage, “If you ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them.” For Jesus, despite the resistance, his invitation to the way of compassion and grace and reconciliation is consistent. No threat will deter him. Perhaps the words of Harper Lee’s famous character, Atticus Finch, are fitting for this passage. He says, “[courage] is when you know you are licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” It’s such courage that drove Jesus. It’s not that he intended to heroically overcome the powers that opposed him, but he continued to be who he was, with trust in the One who had called him beloved at his baptism.

“How often have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” What a stark contrast to the foxes of the world who seek to impose power through violence. Jesus demonstrates instead vulnerable compassion.

It is his way to turn a story on its head. It’s the way a peasant girl Mary can sing a song of revolutionary praise when the lowly are lifted up and the mighty brought down from their thrones. It’s the way a prodigal is welcomed home with an extravagant party. It’s the way a hated Samaritan turns out to be the one who is good. Similarly, his way of responding to threats of bloody violence is to show compassionate care and protection.

This is the Gospel that has been given to us. And when the church is at its best, we too open our sheltering wings wide to welcome anyone who needs nurturing community and the protection of God’s grace. Filled with compassion by the one who demonstrates such persistent love, we continue in his courageous way.

 

 

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Face to Face. Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9:28-43

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

 

One of the joys of living and serving a church in a rural Indiana for a time was building relationships with other clergy in the community. One of the pastors I got to know was Dale, the chaplain at the hospital in town. He was an American Baptist pastor, (though he once told me that our Lutheran Church was his second favorite congregation). Dale had served at Good Samaritan Hospital long enough to become rooted in the community, accompanying individuals and families through their illnesses and their grieving, celebrating births and successful surgeries, being a part of the healing that took place in the hospital. He liked to say that the whole town was his parish, as he could minister to any one of his neighbors on any given day, and his vocational joy was obvious.

One day, when Dale and I and a few other clergy were meeting in my office to check in and pray together, he mentioned that he was getting ready to go on a hiking trip. We asked about it more and found out that he went on a hiking trip alone just about every year. Then he sat back a little and shared how it all started. He said, “About fifteen years ago, I was hiking in this particular region, up in the hills, and I had a profound experience that I can’t really explain. Suddenly everything seemed brighter, the colors of the leaves and grass and sky were much more vivid, and I had this amazing feeling of peace and connectedness to everything around me. It lasted several minutes, and then it was gone. I’ve never experienced anything like that since, but I guess these hiking trips I keep taking are an attempt at capturing that moment again.”

Who knows what exactly Dale experienced on the trail all those years ago? He can’t explain it. It certainly fits with other descriptions of what have come to be known as mystical experiences, but that doesn’t really explain any more how it all came to be. Whatever it was Dale experienced that day, he found it awe-inspiring and even transformative. I heard him talk about it several times, even in a sermon he gave at our church.

There are probably a couple of people here today who can identify with Dale’s experience. The majority of us, I would guess, have never had a mystical experience of quite that magnitude. However, I am willing to guess that each one of us here has had some experience that was significant and even transformative for our lives of faith. Maybe it was a week at Bible camp where you felt exceptionally close to God. Maybe it was a mission trip that changed how you saw the world and your place in it. Maybe it was a worship service that inspired you for a new path in life. Maybe it was a moment of reconciliation with another person or becoming connected with a new community. There are countless possibilities, but again, I bet each of you can think of some special moment in your faith journey. I invite you to call one to mind if you can. Where were you? Were you alone or with others? What did it feel like? Exciting? Calm? Scary? Have you ever told anyone about that experience? Or did you keep it to yourself because you thought you’d sound strange or just wouldn’t be able to explain it properly? Did you not share it because silence seemed to be the most appropriate response?

In general, Lutherans in North America are probably not as accustomed as others in the body of Christ to talk about personal religious experiences. That’s unfortunate, I think, because the mountain top moments matter. They inspire us. They encourage us. They terrify us sometimes. They change us. They leave us seeking something more.

And it’s the “something more” that I really want to talk about today because while the spiritual mountain tops moments are important and this is Transfiguration Sunday, it’s not just the mountain that we read about in our Gospel today. There’s another piece to this story. The very next day, after descending from the mountain, Jesus and his disciples came across a man and his son. The boy was in serious turmoil, and his father pleaded with Jesus to help him. Seeing it, Jesus had to intervene. But first, either because they would not or could not help him, Jesus got upset with his friends, the disciples. He scolded them, as if to say, “Don’t you understand that the whole point of the mountain was for this boy’s sake and for others like him?” Jesus demonstrated, in word and deed, that the glory of God cannot be confined only to the moments of spiritual high but is consistently found in suffering in and with and for the world. God is present in real world acts of healing.

This conviction is central to our faith and life together as followers of Jesus. Our Christian faith is rooted in the good news that God is revealed most fully and powerfully in real life, real worldly need. We read it in the Gospels. God is present when a Samaritan helps a stranger along the road, when a son is welcomed home, when a neighbor is honored and cared for, when a leper is touched and restored to community, when a crowd is fed, when a guilty one is forgiven, when a child is returned to his parents. God has come to be with us where we are, and in the life of Jesus we see all that God intends for us and our neighbors.* That incredible life of Jesus teaches us to look for the glory of God shining upon us right now, daily, in all of life’s need for healing.

I again think of Chaplain Dale, who longed year after year for that feeling of peace in the woods. I hope he does find that kind of closeness to God again. Yet I am also convinced that through his daily encounters with hospital patients and staff and their families—his parishioners—he regularly comes face to face with the glory of God. In fact, I believe that compels him as much as his hiking memory. When he enters into the lives of people who are grieving, people who are afraid before surgery or grateful afterward, people who sit with sick kids day after day, people who could easily identify with this Gospel’s description of a life beyond one’s own control, in those encounters he is truly looking upon the face of God. Not fully or clearly. No, there’s mystery at the foot of the mountain, too. But Mike himself, like all of us, day after day, is being transfigured into the very life of Christ.

Where will transfiguration lead us?  If it’s the transfiguration of Christ, then it will lead us into places in need of healing. It will lead us to confront powers and systems that keep people in despair. It will lead us to lean into the painful realities of our society and to have difficult conversations where we acknowledge our own need for healing. It will cause us to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with one another, to find ways of caring for the sick, to ease the burdens of parents whose need to work multiple jobs drives them to exhaustion, to help return refugee children to their mothers and fathers in a safe and stable home environment. It will make us restless and will compel us to always seek something more: that is, the very glory of God in our neighbor’s face.

If it doesn’t, then we ought to be prepared for Jesus to say to us sternly and yet with endless compassion, “What do you think that mountaintop was for? What do you think that gift at the table was for? Don’t lose heart. You are not alone. You can be confident that God will not give up on you. The glory of God shines upon you and through you today.”

*With thanks to Walter Brueggemann and his sermon, “Re-formed for Ministry,” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann.