Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Second Sunday in Lent [Year C] - February 24, 2013 (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 and Luke 13:31-35)

At the beginning of his Large Catechism Martin Luther tackles the First Commandment by offering his definition of what a god is, or who God is. The First Commandment is, to remind you, “You shall have no other gods before me.” A god, Luther says, “is that from which we are to expect all good and to which we run in times of trouble.” I have always found that to be a very insightful and helpful description of a god, because so often “god” just gets defined as some transcendent higher power that people may or may not believe in. As in: you either believe in “big-G” God or you don’t…or maybe you claim to be agnostic about it. But Luther is very perceptive: everyone, he would say, has a god—or, in fact, many gods—whether they admit it or not. Everyone is bound to worship something, or many things. Everyone is bound to look for good in some source, or many sources. And, most critically, everyone is bound to run to some place or person or value system for shelter and refuge. For some, that may even be the sanctity of their own self. Whatever those things and places are, Luther writes, they are essentially idols. Actual belief has little to do with it. Instead, it’s more about trust: “Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is your god.”[1]

"Abraham's journey from Ur to Canaan" (Jozsef Molnar, 1850)
The challenge of the God of Israel, the one Jesus calls, “Father,” is that this “big-G” God expects to be trusted and obeyed and loved over all of those other ones. Just as God commanded Abram to rise up from his homeland in Ur of the Chaldeans and leave behind all other allegiances in his search for a homeland, God calls each of his children to respond in faith to his covenant of love and everlasting life before all others. Just as God asked Abram to look up at the stars and believe in the promise of posterity and blessing, God asks you and me to look at his Son Jesus alone and believe in the promise of mercy and forgiveness. And just as God sent prophet after prophet into a vocation of rejection and sometimes death—Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Micah—to remind the lost and wandering tribes of Israel to repent and return, God sends his Son right smack into the midst of the human experience to heal and cure and cast out demons today and tomorrow with the hope that we will see that his mission alone is what gives the world hope. All good will come from this “big-G” God. To this God may we run for true refuge in times of trouble, whether we actually can articulate belief in him or not.

It is precisely in this light—as an agent of this God who calls people to himself—that we view Jesus this morning as he makes his decision to ignore the Pharisees’ false warning about Herod and continue with his ministry in Galilee. Jesus is a prophet, too, sent to remind the people—painfully remind the people—that they are running to the wrong things. It is a false warning from the Pharisees because they are trying to see if Jesus will save himself. If he heeds their warnings, playing it safe by getting out of Herod’s domain, he will expose himself as a fraud.

In the end he ends up ignoring their advice, keeping at the things that embody God’s goodness for God’s people despite the fact that he will meet resistance: healing, casting out demons, and preaching about the kingdom. For the time-being, he will remain in Herod’s territory, but eventually it will lead him to the same place that had meant a gruesome end for other prophets before him: Jerusalem. Anyone who came in the name of the Lord would, at some point, have to contend in Jerusalem—much like any serious NASCAR driver has to contend at Daytona, or any politician who wants to affect American politics has to contend in Washington. It was the seat of power, the location of the Temple, the pulsing heart of God’s people. Re-establishing his Father’s status as the one to whom people would run in times of trouble and to which they would look for good would mean venturing to that holy city. It would mean clucking around right there to the middle of the farmyard and spreading his wings for the chicks to gather underneath.

On Friday I was running errands with my 4-year-old and we stopped at Southern States for some things and discovered they had their spring chicks out for sale. Right in the middle of the store were four bins of cute, fuzzy little hatchlings. Laura was mesmerized and asked me to pick her up to get a closer look. Then she wanted to touch them, and who wouldn’t? To her frustration, however, when she reached her hand into the bin to pet them, they scattered. Sensing possible danger, they ran from her. Having no mother to which to run for protection, they looked and felt vulnerable and exposed. That is Jesus’ frustration as he looks at Jerusalem. It’s the only time Jesus compares himself to an animal. He longs to be that mother hen who senses her chicks’ danger and raises her wings for protection.

This maternal image of the mother hen gathering her chicks to her downy breast fits into this understanding of how we turn to God in faith because I really don’t think chicks actually “believe” in their mother hen. They trust her. They run to her because that is where they instinctively know to go for safety, for refuge. Any first century Middle Eastern man or woman would have been familiar with stories of mother hens even dying as they sheltered their babies. There should be something almost instinctive, something natural and loving about our turning to God. There should be…but often there isn’t. Our sin and our brokenness and our doubt and our pride prevent us from doing it. Rather, we scatter everywhere, running all over the place and often right into the jaws of other gods that will chew us up.

However, the thrust of this story of Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem and of this image of the mother hen and her peeps is not on our returning but rather on the wingspan of God. What I mean by that is even more natural and loving and more instinctive than the path of our return should be is God’s desire to stretch out his wings and save us from what harms. It is in this God’s very nature to love us even when we don’t deserve it, to reach out to us even when we resist him. So often the focus of Lent becomes our failings and our sinfulness. We think of our Lenten disciplines and our ability or inability to follow through on them. We ponder our confessions about our shortcomings so that we can concentrate on our growth in faith. Some of that is perfectly fine. We need the occasional reminder of our propensity to seek other gods, even ourselves. But perhaps the emphasis of Lent—indeed, the focus of any faith practice and discipline—should really be on God’s graciousness. The emphasis for growing faith—that instinctive but yet heartfelt impulse to trust—is best placed on Jesus’ desire to raise those wings in spite of what kind of danger it may present for him. Because Jesus wants us safe.  Jesus wants us home. Jesus wants us to learn to trust and run to the God who has called him to bring about the kingdom of mercy and healing and love.

That’s where the focus of this text and this Lent should be, to my mind, because the funny and tragic thing is, so often we don’t really learn to run to Jesus…and yet he still dies for us anyway. He still goes into Jerusalem and lifts up those strong, bloodied arms on the cross and dies anyway. God’s care for us will never be based on our ability or desire to respond to him. It will certainly not even be based on our correct beliefs about him. It will not even be based on our faith, our trust in him. Instead, God’s care is based on God’s own eternal promise made good in the call and death of mother hen Jesus. And one day, that will dawn on us fully. And we will run there. All of us.

Speaking of feeling exposed, my hunch is that we’ve all been feeling that way lately, like we’re a bunch of chicks in a Southern States bin whose first hen has decided to go announce his retirement and whose second must someday resign this call. That’s what I hear in your comments at men’s lunch groups, at youth group gatherings, in the Commons between worship services. Pastoral transitions are tricky times. Congregations feel exposed to all kinds of anxieties and dangers. Who will we run to? How much will we scatter? But as much as it tickles this bird-lover to be in some way compared even to a hen, or a chick, the reality remains: a pastor is not the Lord. The one who has always watched out for this congregation and every other hasn’t left and won’t ever leave.

St. Andrew's United Church of Cairo
As it happens, I’ve been thinking lately about the matriarch of my internship congregation in Cairo, Egypt, who was never known to mince words. A story was told of her at one leadership transition, when a well-loved pastor ended his term and returned stateside. The council at its next meeting began to panic, worried about their survival in such a precarious mission outpost. Becoming fed up with their anxiety, and reflecting on the years she had spent affiliated with that congregation, through the uncertainty of World War II, the regimes of Nasser and Sadat, Dr. Martha Roy stiffened her back in her chair, sat up as straight as her 84-year-old vertebrae could manage, and announced into the fray of comments: “God takes care of this church.”

I think she was talking about the “big-G” God, don’t you?

And so he does.

Cluck, cluck…in word and sacrament he rushes in at the moment when things get most scary, opens his wings, and becomes once again the One we can run to.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Martin Luther, Large Catechism.

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