Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, Feb. 21, 2016, on 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.'”
Most of the world’s religions give people something to look at when they think about God or the gods. Nature religions have animals or sacred rivers to watch. Lots of religions have statues. In the Louvre museum there is a bronze statue of the Canaanite storm god Baal from around the 13th century BCE, lifting his arm as if wielding a thunderbolt.
Of course the Greeks and Romans had their pantheons of gods and goddesses from Zeus to Athena on the Greek side and from Jupiter to Justitia for the Romans. Of course the Caesars became gods at death, or even before, in some cases, like Octavian (Augustus).
No Images of God
But Judaism famously forbids statues or pictures of God. There is nothing to see.
In the temple, inside the holy place, in the holy of holies was the ark of the covenant. On the lid of the ark stood two angels, facing one another, wings spread. In the center, between the angels sat God on his throne, but invisibly so.
The Roman general Pompey who had just conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE, entered the holy of holies, and, according to the ancient historian Tacitus, found it disappointingly empty. There were no gods to see.
But although unseen, the Hebrew bible recounts many times in which the invisible God interacts with people. Instead of statues and pictures, then, we have stories to read about these encounters. What we are left with then, are the mental images we make as we read these stories.
So we see, in our minds, Moses meeting God at the burning bush. God is not a burning bush, but the mystery that manifests as a wonder – a continual flame that burns without consuming.
We picture the scene at Sinai where Moses goes up the mountain which, in many ways, seems to be a volcano. It thunders and shakes; a thick dark cloud covers its top, and Moses enters the cloud to encounter God, and comes out with a face, shining from the glory, as the story goes.
Elijah too, years later, encounters God on that same mountain; nature seems to come unhinged; a whirlwind, earthquakes, a fire, but then God comes in “the (paradoxical) sound of sheer silence.”
God as a Mother Bird
So, there are strong, bold, fierce images of God aplenty. But the Hebrew bible can evoke another kind of image of God. A softer, nurturing, protective image. The image of a mother bird. Under her wings, there is refuge.
Here is a sampling:
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
until the destroying storms pass by.
Let me abide in your tent forever,
find refuge under the shelter of your wings.
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
You cannot take shelter in a burning bush, nor in a volcanic cloud. But being under the protective wing of a mother bird, the chicks feel loved and cared for.
I believe that is exactly how God wants us to feel. The feeling could simply be called trust. A relaxed, non-anxious sense that we are held in a great goodness; that we belong, that we matter, and that there is peaceful safety.
Jesus famously used the image of God as the Father in heaven, or really “papa,” which best translates Abba. As helpful as that image is, perhaps a mother hen is an even better image. She is the mother of the chicks; God pictured in feminine imagery, protective and soft, simultaneously.
We have said that Jesus himself was a spirit-person, that he communed with God; he had experiences of the Divine presence. He spent time in prayer and meditation. We have noticed that other people were drawn to him, they even brought their children to him to be blessed, the way people bring their children to the Pope. We know that Jesus was a healing presence for many.
You have heard me say, as I have tried to motivate us all to begin the contemplative practice of mediation, that it has real effects. I have talked about how meditation produces compassion in us, and how it centers us, making us more mindful of the moment.
Meditation helps us to become aware of our thoughts in a new way. We begin to see that our thoughts are not ourselves – they are just thoughts. Meditation teaches us to notice our thoughts drifting by, in the stream of our minds, like boats going by on the canal, and to let them go.
We become aware that we are not our thoughts, and so we can become free from being ego-invested in our thoughts. In fact we become aware of how ego is really not our truest self.
That instinct towards self-defense, self-justification, self-promotion, the ego-self can be seen for what it is, and we can smile and laugh at it, like we do at an angry, yapping little Chihuahua.
The Fruit of Jesus’ Meditation
I believe we get to watch Jesus, in this text, living out of the fruit of his spiritual practices. We watch, in this scene from Luke, as Pharisees come to Jesus, in an attempt to get him to leave, with a story about Herod seeking his death.
Jesus is not hooked at all. He does not get hooked at the obvious attempt of the Pharisees to put him off his mission. He does not get fearful and anxious about Herod. He says to those who came to him:
“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.”
He has full, calm, understanding of who he is and why he is there – and it is all about freeing people from crippling conditions, and bringing health and hope to the suffering.
Jesus is no starry-eyed dreamer, however; he knows that he does face serious threats and enemies. Remarkably, he is able to face, even life-threatening danger with equanimity.
Notice how he feels towards those who really do want to kill him, as their ancestors did to prophets of the past; not antagonism, not judgment, not anger or even indignation. He looks at them with compassion.
And he assumes the posture of the God-image he has taught; he becomes the hen. He looks at their violence and hostility, and pities them for not understanding.
“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.”
He knows that they do not even understand what is in their own best interest – the path of peace. He knows what will become of their violent plans: they will bring their own house down on top of themselves. Which is exactly what had happened, by the time Luke wrote down this story.
Following the Jesus Way
The invitation in this text is to follow Jesus: to live this way. This is the goal. We all have our issues. We all have our buttons that get pushed. We are all hard-wired by our evolutionary past to be vigilant towards anything that would threaten us.
We feel the impulse to hit back, to meet fire with fire, to go down swinging. We actually feel good when we feel righteously angry. As long as we did not throw the first punch, we believe we are justified.
But that is not the Jesus way, and it is not the only way. There is another way to live; another way to be. Once we, like Jesus, can become totally aware that before God we are sons and daughters, children who are beloved, that our true self is made in the image of God, then we can relax and trust.
We can find paths of peace even in the face of conflict. We can find the resources, even to experience pain and say,
“Father, forgive them.”
In this season of Lent, I invite you again to make a new space in your life for God. My suggestion i
s that we spend some of our precious time reading the kinds of literature that will help us understand and practice the spiritual practices of a Christian, especially contemplative prayer, or mindfulness meditation.
This is how we grow into the life Jesus taught. This is how we become the blessed people of the beatitudes, the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, those who are willing, instead of striking back, to turn the other cheek. Who can look at people, even at people with hurtful intentions and say,
“how I wish we could gather together in harmony, as fellow chicks under a sheltering wing.”
Spend time in contemplative practices.
Be the hen.