Asbury First United
Text: Luke 13:31-35
This Lent we take several steps together up a high mountain. First forgiveness. Second, salvation. Let us pray.
While the snow fell, quietly, on Tuesday morning, Jan and I sipped a little coffee in the living room. It is unusual to have an early weekday morning free, together, to sit in the living room with coffee. To talk, and remember.
We had a snow day. A snow day is like the grace of God, falling preveniently to interrupt our business, falling interruptively to quiet our anxiety, falling beautifully to hallow our time. Grace: prevenient, justifying, sanctifying. Says the snow to you and me: fiddle de de, fiddle de de.
The wind blew and rattled a loose shutter. A draft of clean, cold air stole in from the hallway. We talked, and remembered. Then the phone rang.
Jan remembered: "Five years ago, every time the phone rang, I used to pray it would be for Chris. Please, please, please, let someone reach out to him. Every time the phone rang, I prayed it would be for Chris." Just like a mother hen, clucking over the chicks. She went to answer, I ruminated…
David Lubba came to the door five years ago with a little gift. Jessica Perkins stopped once, with her mom, to recall summer camp days years before. Why, look, there she is, our neighbor Nancy, bringing her young boys down the street to visit…Nancy ... Nancy died that summer. Another mother hen, clucking over the chicks.
Please Lord, let somebody reach out….
I intentionally mention moving, now and then in sermons. Whether, like Flannery O'Connor, we live always in the very same little town all our lives, or like Peter Cartwright we itinerate all over the country, at a deeper level it is all the same. Existentially, we are all itinerants. Moving, moving, moving.
Jesus meets us today, in Luke's account, moving toward Jerusalem. These chapters are Luke's addition to the Gospel as Mark wrote it. Luke shows Jesus wandering around more, outside Jerusalem, and teaching more, on the way to Jerusalem. For Mark, it is Galilee and Jerusalem, thank you very much. Luke adds this middle ground, chapters 10 to 20 or so. We are glad he did. Here is the Good Samaritan. Here are instructions on how to live as a Christian. Here is the teaching about tragedy, the Galileans whose blood is mingled and the tower in Siloam that falls without warning. Most importatnly, here is a story about a lost sheep, and a story about a lost coin, and a story about a lost son. We are in the territory of the prodigal son today. Jesus, moving toward Jerusalem.
Moving is always easier than you think it will be and always harder than you think it will be. But we all move, all the time.
The question is how we do it. In our time the main issue is not "what" and "where". The main thing is "who" and "how". Who are you and how are you moving?
Our friend Granger Ward moved from Syracuse, where he was a city school principal. Such a gentle, tough African American man. Lonely, out of divorce. Committed, fiercely devoted to youth. Alive, an early morning birdwatcher with all manner of binoculars and cameras with which to hunt. When I visited him at Nottingham High School, it was all I could do in the midst of the utter chaos, the cacaphonous dinning swarming anxious epicenter of 1400 sixteen year olds, to hold in the mind the image of Granger at 5:30 A. M. that morning, silent, watching, waiting for a scarlet tanenger. There he sat, calmly, gently and firmly trying, trying, trying with each youth. Like a mother hen. Anyway Granger moved a while ago. We all are itinerant. Fear not those who can downsize the company, rearrange the org chart, change the map. Fear what can happen without a taste for truth. In "Thirteen Days" JFK says "it is immoral to ignore your own best judgment."
I saw Granger again on Monday night. He moved west, as it turns out, down near San Diego. You, know, San Diego: all year long, 72%, sunny, blue sky, warm ocean breeze, a certain cultural elan-HELLO, what kind of life is that? Granger is the superintendent of schools in a suburb out there.
I saw him on television. Maybe you did too. He was trying to explain the unexplainable. One of his schools, in Santee, erupted in gun fire Monday. Maybe you read about it.
Here is a young man, 15 years old. His name is Charles Williams. He has taken or been given the ironic nick-name "Andy". Nicknames are a big deal for teenagers.
Andy moved last year. We all move, whether or not we geographically move, we are all on the move. Andy and his dad moved, according to the Washington Post. They moved from Maryland to San Diego, the two of them.
They probably had their belongings trucked out. Maybe they moved all their things into the garage, and then gradually, over the year, filled up the house. Dad probably worked hard, keeping his end of the economy up. That is a separable phrasal verb, "keep up", is it not? They were separated by moving, and Andy seems to have been existentially separable and separated from all others. His mother said, "he is lost". Monday to Friday Andy came home after school. And there in all that ocean breeze, blue sky sunshine warmth, Andy sat. Maybe he sat waiting for the phone to ring.
I had to think about that, when Jan said, "That year every time the phone rang I prayed it was for Chris. I prayed someone would reach out to him." Cluck, cluck, cluck…
Probably there was some clucking for Andy Williams too. I hope so. I like to think somebody said a kind word. I like to hope somebody invited him to a party. I like to think somebody included him in a youth group. I like to think somebody touched him. I like to think somebody stopped by, maybe a kind mailman like the one who saved a woman from a snow bank here this week. I like to think somebody telephoned just to say hello…Hello again, hello…It's good to say hello…I think about you now and then…Hello. Click, click, cluck, cluck.
We are dimly aware, as a nation, that we are not doing it. We are not getting it. We are not getting it right. Blame the mercantilist men if you must. Blame the feminist females if you feel forced. (How is that for a couple of alliterative sentences?!) No. The truth is that we all have disregarded children for a generation, and the chickens are coming home to roost. We have somehow allowed a distance to develop between ourselves and our children. And they are all our children, and the responsibility is ours. These are human problems and they have human solutions.
You see the news of a school yard shooting, Columbine, Elmira, Williamsport, Santee, and of course you cannot help but weep. You weep. You feel like a mother hen who cannot protect her chicks. And you weep.
There is a lot of weeping in the Bible. I still hear, how harrowing it is, the sobbing of Esau from last month, crying out to his Father over the raw deal he was given. Job loses his wife, and sings songs of raw lament, "songs in the night". David looks as his son Absalom, so much promise, so much potential, and…disaster. And he moans, he howls, he weeps. Absalom! Absalom! A little later in Lent, we will hear again the lamentation of St. Peter, alone in the Jerusalem courtyard, "I never knew him". But can we ever get out of our ears his crying, when at dawn he realizes what he has done? The shortest verse in the Bible, "Jesus wept". Sometime I want to hear a sermon titled "Bible Cries".
There is none more poignant than today's. Not even the cry of Golgotha, Eli Eli lama sabacthani. Today's lesson takes us to the very depths. Here Jesus is weeping over Jerusalem.
Why does he weep? Why does he moan? Why does he cry?
His cry erupts from the heart of the universe, and from the Ground of Being, and from the marrow of his mission among us. He cries at the failure, temporary but nonetheless terrible, of his purpose. His mission is to gather the chicks, all the chicks, every last lame little chicken. He comes to seek and save the lost.
That is, Jesus brings us salvation. Look with me carefully, as if your life depended upon it, look at the Jesus who meets us today, out of the pages of Luke's account. What do we see?
Do you notice something? Right at the beginning, Jesus is warned, helped, cared for by…by whom? Who warns him of the coming danger? The Pharisees, his arch rivals, his nemeses, his enemies - they warn him about Herod. This is startling. Neither his disciples nor his friends have warned him, but the Pharisees do. How loving Jesus must have been! How unmistakably good and loving Jesus must have been! How Godly and loving Jesus must have been, that even those who wished him most ill, could not help but warn him, could not help but love in return. Jesus' love is our salvation. Our enemies tell us the truth faster than our friends, sometimes. A while ago I asked a man who had left the church why he did so. He replied, "I heard the preacher say that the ministers of the church were primarily present for those who are not yet present. I didn't like that." An honest rebuke. Better such honesty than passive poisonous avoidance. Of course the shepherds care for the flock, but our main attention is meant to fall on the one lost, those not yet present. Jesus' love is our salvation.
Did you hear how Jesus spoke of Herod? "That fox.." Earlier he had taught that we should be wise as serpents, innocent as doves. Here He is, wordly wise. Jesus' wisdom is our salvation.
Have we truly heard his identification with the prophets? Jesus takes upon himself, in Luke's memory, the mantel of the prophets. Remember them from the autumn? Amos thundering justice. Hosea singing compassion. Isaiah revering holiness. Micah's message of mercy. Jesus clearly accepts the role of prophet. His religion, real religion, is never very far from justice. He goes to Jerusalem. It is hard to overestimate the significance of this move. Jesus is not content to stay at home, in the lay movement comfort of the Pharisees---study of the Bible, home and personal prayer, every table an altar and every home a temple, personal holiness par excellance. No. It is not enough to sing kum bay yah and read the Bible. Not for him a faith unattractive to culture, or a culture unacceptable to faith. He goes to the heart of the culture - economic, social, religious, political. He claims it all for himself. He shows us the courage to be alive, a man in full. Jesus' courage is our salvation.
Did you really hear, in the weeping, how Jesus' names himself? Even dour Bultmann admits that this is an authentic saying of Jesus. We suspect it is so, because it is so pithy, so apophthegematic, so rural, so natural, so earthy, so humble, so real. "As a hen gathers her brood under her wings…" Jesus uses a maternal image, a strikingly feminine metaphor, just at the very depth of his outpouring. He weeps for those who will not be gathered, will not be accepted, will not be included, will not be connected. The verb Luke uses, episynago, sounds like synagogue, and means to assemble, to gather, to meet. Jesus is gathering us under his wing, together. Human, he has a special love for his people, for his race, for his nation, for his religion. With the wings of love he covers our humanity with his own. Jesus' humanity, even his 'femininity', is our salvation.
Why was it so important for Luke, in the year 85, to remember Jesus' weeping? Why did Luke's church need to hear this word? Did they, like we, have those experiences that are "sighs too deep for words"? Did Luke preach this way to remind his fellows that Jesus, even Jesus, wept? That Jesus hungered to gather the lost? "As you have done it to the least of these…." "And when did we see you, Lord…?" Was it when you came to church as a visitor and I ushered and greeted you ceremonially, unctiously, officially, rather than with utter joy and real warmth? Was it when you came to my Sunday school class, and I nodded but did not speak, smiled but did not embrace? Was it when I filled my calendar with appointments for people I have known for 10 years, but made no space for an unexpected newcomer to take me to lunch? Was it when I took your phone call and offered curt content rather than kind compassion? Was it when I forgot what it means to be outside and alone? Maybe we should not come to church again ourselves until we have reached out at least once to invite someone else to come to the chickencoop with us. Jesus' compassion is our salvation.
I just do not think we will get anywhere without Jesus. Our salvation is in Him. I mean our earthly salvation, as well as our eternal rest! Jesus' love, wisdom, courage, humanity, compassion—these are our salvation. Our cultural salvation, the salvation of the next generation. Friends, you have the means of grace for the healing of a broken world. Share!
The one spiritual discipline, the one Lenten practice for which we need most practice is that clucking mother hen prayer, "Please, please Lord let the phone call be for him."
On June 18, 1995, a 90-degree late spring day, I was driving through the south side of Syracuse. That morning we had said goodbye to 11 years of loving relationship and hard work. At noon we celebrated what God's grace had done to expand the circle of faith in that church, over a decade. We were less than fully humble about it, as I look back at the newspaper article. We thought we had helped many, and perhaps we had. But at 5 P. M. I came home from the hospital and passed a mother with two 3 or 4 year old sons, not a mile from the church. It was one of those weeping, hard moments that I wish I could forget. She was carrying a gallon of milk up a long hill, hot and angry. Her sons were fighting, and she was yelling and more than yelling. A hot day, a long hike, and patterns of abuse. And I had to admit, in 11 years in that neighborhood of urban need we had only scratched the surface.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing."
Make a telephone call this week to someone who is not an immediate family member, or work colleague, or church friend. Call up someone who feels disconnected, unaccepted, alone, lost. There is a little mother hen in all of us, and Jesus is weeping because we forget it. The real fun of faith, the real laughter in life comes from inviting others to the feast. Half of Monroe County has not even picked up the fork or spread the napkin, while most of us are in the seventh course. Half of Monroe County does not have a favorite hymn, has no psalm memorized, cannot recite the Lord's Prayer, has no safe church home in which to worship, no church family to love, while most of us are in religious graduate school. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Jesus weeps because he wants to gather his own to himself, and we are getting in his way by not sharing what means most to us and what anyway is not ours to keep.
So we will be alive to real experience, even though it may be costly and painful. We will affirm our faith as did Bonhoeffer. Remember he said a Christian is a man "for Others". Jesus is that man for others, and we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. So we shall sing,
And confidently waiting come what may
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us as we pray.