Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lent Day 12: On Mother Hens and the Not Yet: a Sermon

“On Mother Hens and the Not Yet”
Luke 13:31-35
March 4, 2007

I read an article about Britney Spears the other day. It’s not what you think. This article came out at a moment in which our media seem particularly saturated with celebrity meltdowns of all kinds, and it is sobering rather than prurient. The piece, by journalist Rebecca Traister, made one simple point: “Maybe it's time to realize that Britney Spears is actually a human being for whom things aren't going very well.” This famous and wealthy young woman is clearly at a low point, she’s going through whatever it is she’s going through under the harsh glare of the media spotlight, and the whole thing is far more tragic than entertaining.

I guess, we might say, Britney has her issues. But all that tells us is that she is a member of the human race. It is easier to give Britney and Mel and Tom and Katie our rapt attention than it is to do our own hard work of opening up to transformation. But that is precisely what we have been invited to do in this season of Lent: to acknowledge our common humanity, and therefore our common need for the transforming power of God in our lives. We have been invited to pause, and reflect, and to invite God in. We have been invited to begin a journey of transformation.

Jesus is going “through one town and village after another,” our gospel passage tells us this morning, “teaching as he [makes] his way to Jerusalem” (13:22). It is fair to say that Jesus has some thoughts on transformation. At one point in his travels and teaching he has a question thrown at him by someone in the crowd: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” It’s an understandable question. Here is Jesus, offering a startling message of radical reversal, in which the poor and the outcast are suddenly the heirs of the very reign of God, and the people at the top of the power pyramid are dismayed to find themselves, according to Jesus’ reckoning, at the bottom. It is the complete opposite of what Jesus’ audience has been schooled to expect from life.

Jesus answers the question—“Lord, will only a few be saved?”—by offering a parable about narrow doors and people standing outside knocking. All sorts of celebrity insiders will be kept out, but then “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed,” says Jesus, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (13:29-30) Jesus states the radical, upside down reign of God, and then states it again, just in case anyone’s having a hard time following.

At that very moment, the gospel says, when Jesus has pronounced judgment on the powers that be, some of their ranks send him a message: Get out of town. Now. Herod’s after you. And really, there’s no surprise there. Who stands to lose the most in the scenario Jesus has just painted? Jesus sends back a message so sharp and challenging, it undoubtedly increases the danger he’s in, perhaps even sealing his fate. Look, he says, you tell that fox—a characterization that will not be lost on the subsistence farmers in the crowd, Herod the sly, Herod the cunning, Herod who goes after the defenseless and devours them—you tell that fox, Jesus says, that unlike him, I am engaged in the business of healing and making whole. While he devours I nourish. While he preys upon people as the predator he is, I lay my hands upon them and pray to God for them to be made free. I am not done with this work. And I am not on Herod’s schedule, but on God’s.

Then Jesus begins a lament, so poignant you can almost hear the tears in his voice.

“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!” (13:34)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem. It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Jerusalem in the lives of the children of Israel. By the time Jesus says these words, Jerusalem has been at the center of the sacred geography of the Jews for nearly 1000 years. More than simply being the capital city of the kingdom from the time of David, Jerusalem is understood, by virtue of the temple, to be the home, the literal dwelling place of the presence of God. Jerusalem, also called by the holy name Zion, is celebrated in psalms:

For the Lord has chosen Zion;
he has desired it for his habitation:

“This is my resting place forever;
here I will reside, for I have desired it.”
~ Psalm 132:13-14

By the time Jesus weeps his lament over Jerusalem, it has been occupied, defended, and occupied again. Solomon’s original magnificent temple has been reduced to ashes and replaced with a far less impressive specimen. David’s line has been replaced with the pretender Herodians, who have killed and purchased and married their way to the throne. And yet, through it all, the prophets and the people still retain a vision of how Jerusalem could and should be. When Jesus laments over Jerusalem he is weeping for its past glories, its devastating losses, and even the hopes he still has for it. Jesus is both lamenting what is, and praying for what is not yet. In the course of his lament he is offering an image of himself, his relationship to Jerusalem, as a loving, suffering mother—a hen, hardly the most regal or stately of birds—sheltering chicks under her wings. A hen, who, when attacked by a fox, will surely lose the fight, but may yet preserve her children’s lives. Even in his lament, even in his naming his sacrificial love for Jerusalem, Jesus is holding out hope for its transformation.

The already and the not yet. The temple no longer stands in Jerusalem. All that remains are the outer walls. Some Jews still hope for a third temple to be built, but many no longer focus their worship on this one location. For Christians, the idea that God resides primarily in one physical space on earth has been replaced by the understanding that, in addition to transcending all places and times, God resides in each one of us, that our own bodies are God’s temples. In that sense, we are Jerusalem now.

The already and the not yet. It is the second Sunday in Lent, and I am here to tell you that many, many of us, like Jerusalem, are but remnants of our former glory, our daily Lenten disciplines foundering on the seas of our good intentions. We’ve got issues, often having to do with the difference between where we are and where we wish we were—whether we would like to be lighter or heavier, graduated or back for a fresh start in freshman year, in a relationship or out of a relationship… you get the picture. We tend to believe we only have to accomplish this or achieve that or eliminate the other thing, and voila, there will be our happiness, there will be our joy. The celebrities whose issues we follow in the tabloids might have a comment or two on how that particular plan has worked out for them. We begin to have a creeping suspicion that, perhaps, achievement is not the path to happiness we thought it was. We begin to suspect we haven’t figured it out yet. We are still holding out for transformation.

The already and the not yet. We can feel so stuck, so mired in our issues. But sometimes we catch glimpses of the not yet, even in our own lives. We take time to meditate or to pray, and we are astounded at the consolation and connectedness we feel in those moments spent in God’s presence. We take time to read scripture, and we are amazed at the ways in which a mirror is held up to our own lives. We step out of our privileged place to serve at Loaves and Fishes or to donate our perfectly good clothes to those who need them desperately, and we are convicted, if I may use a good, old-fashioned Christian word, convicted of our need for one another and our need for God’s grace in our lives. We begin to suspect that transformation may be more about letting go than anything else. This is the journey of Lent: a letting go, little by little, of our conviction that we know best. Our letting in, little by little, the powerful reality that God is with us already.

The already and the not yet. This is the view of reality that lies at the heart of our table celebration. Jesus tells us in our reading this morning that “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” As we gather around this table and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we enact here and now a vision of a day that hasn’t entirely materialized. In our celebration of this meal, we show a unity we often don’t feel, and we act in hope of a community we fall short of living out. And by the power of the sacrament, the “not yet” seeps backwards, by the grace of God, into the here and now.

The already and the not yet. The quote on the cover of our bulletin tells how, in Lent, we’re “encouraged to befriend our brokenness, acknowledge that all is not well with our souls, and identify with the hurt of so many people in our world…” I know, it feels a little silly to dwell on the problems of incredibly wealthy celebrities in the face of millions dying from starvation, or as a result of war and political conflict, or from preventable diseases. We would do well to ask ourselves why certain stories get all the airplay. Our common humanity binds us to one another, around the table and around the planet, and the faces that loom large on our televisions as well as the ones we never see, the faces lost in the shadows, are all in this human dance with us, here and now. It is the “not yet” we yearn for, the time when God will be at home among mortal women and men and children; that time when God will wipe every tear from all our eyes; and all the world—everybody, every body, will be the pristine, new Jerusalem. Amen.

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