Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year C – Second Sunday in Lent
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – March 17, 2019
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This week, Jesus’ cry – his longing and ache to gather up the children of Jerusalem, of Israel, of the world – really speaks to my heart. His words sound like heartbreak to me. Like unrequited love. As we hear about airplane crashes, devastating flooding in Nebraska, nuclear missiles in North Korea, college entrance scandals, and a horrific mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand, my heart, too, is aching for this world of ours. Gather us in, O Lord, gather us in.
Listening to the texts this week, two themes kept coming to my attention. Fear and trust. Right at the beginning of the story of God and God’s people, we hear, “‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’” But Abram has a hard time since he and Sarai have been patiently waiting for God to make good on God’s promises. So he voices his concerns and laments: “‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’” Rather than sending a bolt of lightning to end Abram’s questioning and lamenting, God has him gaze at the stars, telling him to count them if he can. So shall Abram’s descendants be. And he believes God. He trusts God’s word.
Then God doubles-down. Not only will God make Abram and Sarai’s descendants numerous, God will also give them land. In order to show Abram how serious this is, God makes a covenant with Abram. In the Ancient Near East, people made a promise or a covenant with one another by cutting animals in two and walking between them. They “cut” a covenant. This ritual signified that the parties would rather die than forsake the covenant. And the fascinating thing here is that it is God who walks down the center with a smoking fire pot and flaming torch. God would rather die than forsake the promises made to Abram. Whoa.
Still, that doesn’t stop Abram and Sarai from taking matters into their own hands IN THE VERY NEXT CHAPTER! God’s clearly not moving fast enough so Abram agrees to sleep with Hagar so that there will be an heir. Facepalm Really? The God of all creation makes you a promise and you freak out and make a back up plan?
Yep. It’s easy to look back on this story and criticize or find fault with Abram and Sarai’s lack of faith, but are we any different? We waffle and waver, extolling God’s goodness and guidance in one breath and anxiously trying to control everything in the next. We hear it in the Psalm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Powerful words of confident trust in God, but at the close of the psalm we hear a slightly different tone, one that doesn’t come through in the translation we chanted. In a poetic version from Robert Alter, it says, “If I but trust to see the LORD’s goodness, in the land of the living…” It just trails off and it sounds like the speaker is reassuring herself of how to get through confusing, painful, and stressful times.
With these very human tendencies to doubt and seek solutions on our own terms in mind, we can better hear this morning’s Gospel. “Get away from here, Jesus, for Herod wants to kill you!” It would have been easy to turn aside or to run, but that’s not what Jesus does. He has already “set his face to go to Jerusalem” and he will not be deterred even if it means death. No, instead he must be about the work of casting out the demons and sicknesses that are tormenting the people he loves. He must continue preaching and teaching about God’s kingdom, and offering new life to those he meets.
But the temptation to evade Herod’s grasp and escape the path that will lead to the cross is real. Jesus knows that the road ahead will be journeyed at a great cost and yet, he doesn’t mourn for himself. He cries out and aches and grieves for those he would long to gather to himself. It would be easy to say that these words are just for Jerusalem. Just for Israel. Just for the Jews. But they are words for every one of us.
Hens are incredibly protective of their chicks, putting their bodies in harm’s way just to give their babies a chance at life. When the chicks hatch, a communication network develops between the mother and her brood and she will squawk and cluck to guide, protect, and shelter them until she senses they can be independent. And while a hen might flee for her own safety, she will fight to the death to save her beloved children.
Each of us desires and needs that kind of love in our lives. We need to know that it’s real and it’s for us. That we can trust it. As Debbie Blue writes in Consider the Birds, “What we need is love. All the posturing, the power-grabbing, the diminishing other people to make ourselves great – maybe it’s because we want to be loved. Jesus reveals God’s essential being: not power – but love. Imagine God as a hen with her wings over her babies. That is not the same as a concrete bunker. There is some fragility in it. We’re all actually sort of semifragile people. … We are small, like children who need to be loved. We could spend our lives involved in some destructive life-seeking game to try to prove otherwise, or maybe we could relax into what might save us from our violence spawning fears and hate-making anxiety.”
Listen to the news and it seems abundantly clear that we all too often refuse to be gathered under Jesus’ loving wings. Driven by fear, we want to take power into our own hands. We push back against God’s embrace. We squawk and squabble among ourselves. We want to force what we think should happen into being. Instead of embracing our fellow chicks with vulnerability and open arms, we cross our arms and refuse the wideness of God’s wingspan. We look down on or fail to appreciate those with whom we are being gathered. “Not those people, God!” Our posture is not one of listening, trust, and obedience, but often selfishly motivated grasping and desiring. It’s not pretty.
But Jesus offers a different picture. Not a powerful bird of prey swooping in to take what it wants. Or a charming fox cunningly planning its next move. Instead, it’s a humble, common chicken. By all outward appearances, it’s weak and stupid. But in the most beautiful kind of love, the hen is willing to sacrifice herself for the good of her beloved children, even chicks she’s adopted from other hens.
We forget this with our mass-produced, prepackaged, Styrofoam and saran wrap-covered chicken. And I daresay that sometimes we want to do the same to Jesus – seeking to domesticate and prepackage him into something neat and tidy. But that’s not who God is. And our faith isn’t like that either. We struggle with questions and doubts, especially when we collide with the pain and suffering of the world. With atrocious shootings, natural disasters, horrible accidents, greed, incurable diseases, mental illness, poverty… you name it. Our tendency is to want things black and white. To have simple answers.
But the way of the cross doesn’t offer us those. It offers struggle and death. It offers wrestling with life’s biggest questions. It offers mystery and teaches compassion. In the end, it offers life. Jesus on the cross, with arms stretched out – a mother hen sheltering all of her children under her wings. It doesn’t mean threats and troubles won’t come our way. It just means that we have One who has already stood between them and us and will never let them have the final say. Through the mystery of the cross, God has made an irrevocable covenant with us, promising to gather, shield, and guide us into new life.
You don’t have to be powerful or successful or wealthy. It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or creative, rich or poor, black or white, straight or gay, Republican or Democrat, young or old. Jesus wants to gather you under his wings. He wants you to know that his love is for you. That it will never waver or falter. And nothing can ever make him stop seeking and fighting for you. Can we let go of our fear and trust that radical love? Can we be strong enough to offer that tenderness to others? Gather us in, O Lord, gather us in. Amen.