Archive for March, 2013

It’s Really about What Happens Afterwards…

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Luke 19:28-48
March 24, 2013
Mary Hammond

Preaching on Palm Sunday is always an interesting challenge for me, because Jesus’ processional into Jerusalem begs for re-enactment–sights, smells, sounds, and all–the chaos, the grit and dust of the streets, the fervor and emotion of that day. I will never forget, during my childhood, attending my grandparents’ Methodist Church one Palm Sunday. A man in costume processed into the church on a live donkey as we shouted our praises and waved our palms! Now, that was a Palm Sunday to remember!

We do our best here, as we add our singing and palm waving to the children’s march around the sanctuary. Yet, our twenty-first century rendition merely hints at the intensity inherent in those raucous events so long ago.

The surface of the scene which we recall is noisy, enthusiastic, and ebullient. Its underbelly is secretive, nefarious, and sinister. The crowds offer homage to Jesus in hopes of deliverance from the crushing grip of the Roman Empire. Instead, God comes disguised as a humble, suffering servant.

How do we hold the complexity of this day–and the days that follow it–in our hearts? How do we join the joyful throngs in the streets while listening for the sinister whispers from the back rooms and alleys? How do we cheer in expectation of deliverance while paying attention to the false Messiahs we humans so easily worship? How do we truly learn from the One who really came?

We in the 21st century church are gifted with hindsight as we tell this ancient story. Not one person in the crowd that gathered in Jerusalem was blessed with our vantage point. To them, this was drama unfolding before their eyes. It was late-breaking news.

As I ponder Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, I am riveted by the intentionality that Jesus experiences and the seeming spontaneity of the crowd in all its acclamation and fervor. There is no opportunity for Jesus to set up a Facebook event page (I don’t think he would, anyway). There is no twitter feed or list-serve to post on. There is no chance for the disciples to announce a public processional in the local newspaper.

There is just this man named Jesus, determined to go to Jerusalem, no matter the opposition or cost. There is just this man who loves, heals, serves, and teaches. There is just this man who welcomes and befriends the marginalized and forgotten, while challenging the rich, powerful, and well-connected. There is just this man who consistently gets into trouble for his disregard of proper behavior and proper company. And there is this makeshift parade, this spontaneous outpouring.

Jesus is adored. He is followed. Some have purer motives than others, to be sure. Some have faithful hearts but misplaced hopes. Some look for quick fixes and fast answers. Still others view Jesus as a threat and nuisance, even a blasphemer who makes a mockery of God.

Recently on CNN, I watched the crowds pack Vatican Square, waiting for the white smoke to billow forth and proclaim the selection of a new pope. Hundreds upon hundreds stood for hours, at times in the rain. I saw the sea of umbrellas pop up.

When the moment of decision finally came, I heard the cheers, saw the tears, witnessed the embraces. I listened to newscasters discuss what it could mean that the new pope chose the name “Francis,” was the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope from South America.

As a rather non-liturgical person, I was struck by all the pomp and circumstance, the elegant dress and detailed protocol, the crowd’s devotion. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast this event with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, not on a king’s stallion but on a commoner’s donkey.

“This all must feel rather uncomfortable for a Jesuit pope who took a vow of poverty and simplicity,” I mused.

Amid all this anticipation and celebration of the pope’s selection, amid all the simplicity and spontaneity of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, the real issue is always what comes afterward.

With Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s selection as pope, will the poor of the world get more attention than they have for so long? Will Pope Francis tackle the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church in bold, uncompromising ways? Will he preserve the conservative moral teachings of previous popes? Will the long cries of lgbtq Catholics, women religious, and others be heard? Will he connect with young Catholics around the world, responding to their ideas and yearnings? These are all questions that are being asked in various circles worldwide.

No matter how big or splashy an event can be, no matter how beloved a leader can be in the moment, no matter how adoring a crowd can appear–whether at a parade, processional, solidarity march, ordination, coronation, or installation–it is what comes afterward that makes the real difference.

We know what comes afterward for Jesus. The cheering crowd gives way to a profoundly different trajectory–a savior weeping over Jerusalem and cleansing the Temple with his bare hands. A final meal among friends, hours of agonizing prayer followed by betrayal and arrest. Physical and verbal abuse, a death sentence wrung out of a crowd. Execution on a Roman cross, burial in a borrowed space.

And on Sunday morning, the mystery and miracle of an Empty Tomb.

There is something fundamentally wrong with leaping from the accolades of Palm Sunday to the celebration of Easter morning. The critical days between Sundays are filled with faithfulness and fickleness, insight and denial, friendship and betrayal, grace and cruelty, joy and sorrow. Life is experienced at its most visceral and challenging level. The stakes are high and the outcomes unclear.

I invite you to take this journey with Jesus, both individually and in community. The liturgical folks have it right when they gather every day of Holy Week to remember each step along the way with Jesus.

Thursday night, we come back together here in a service of scripture, silence, song, prayer, and Communion. We remember Jesus’ Last Supper, his betrayal, and arrest. Friday evening there is a Taize Service at Fairchild Chapel. The juxtaposition of light and darkness as reflected in the simple chants of Taize help us recall the agony of Jesus’ crucifixion and the dashed hopes of his followers as well as the promises of God that continue to endure. Easter morning we arise to sorrow transformed into joyful amazement.

Some of you are not able attend the evening events, but you can accompany Jesus right where you are. Read through the Gospel stories of his last week. Meditate on their striking power. Accompany Jesus on the journey from his entry into Jerusalem to the cross and the empty tomb.

We are invited to bear the sorrows of the world with Jesus. Imagine if millions of Christians worldwide did this together between today and next Sunday! Each of us can hold in our hearts the countless thousands and millions who have suffered and continue to suffer every day from the indignities of injustice and violence unleashed by abusive power. Jesus experienced this journey intimately. We enter the darkness and bask in the light.

Don’t jump from hosanna to alleluia. Life is not like that. Your life and my life is not like that. Jesus’ life is not like that. Enter Jerusalem this week and stay with Jesus there. Amen.


Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Mark 14:1-11
March 17, 2013
Steve Hammond

I think it’s interesting to note how much of the Gospel stories are about the last week of Jesus’ life. Nearly 40 per cent of John’s gospel is from Palm Sunday on. About a third of Mark and Matthew’s gospels take place during that last week. And even though Luke’s gospel only devotes a bit less than a quarter of it’s narrative from that one Sunday to the next, that’s still a big proportion given Jesus’ ministry lasted something like a thousand days.

If you put all of those stories in the different gospels of the last week together, there are, at least, three of what I call remembering stories. The most famous one is from Luke’s story of the Last Supper when Jesus broke the bread and said, “do this in remembrance of me.” The second is also from Luke’s Gospel when Jesus hears those words echoed back to him by a thief being crucified next to him. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The third is from today’s reading when Jesus says the story of this woman will be remembered wherever the gospel, or the good news is proclaimed.

So what do you think Jesus was hoping we would remember when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me?” What do you think the thief being crucified with Jesus was hoping for when he also asked to be remembered? And what do you think Jesus imagined we would remember about this woman?

It seems to me that this woman (in John’s Gospel she is identified as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, but unnamed in the other gospel stories) is amazingly courageous. She was putting herself in more than a little bit of jeopardy by approaching Jesus the way she did.

In many Middle Eastern and Arab countries, the sexes are strictly segregated to this day. This woman was bringing great shame on herself and family by simply approaching Jesus, much less touching him. If Jesus hadn’t come to her defense she could, at the very least, have been dragged away and publically humiliated. They could have run her out of town, or even worse.

She took the risk, though. She figured out what was going to happen to Jesus long before his male disciples did. And she wasn’t about to let him die without expressing her love, gratitude, and sorrow for this turn of events. She also must have had this profound trust that Jesus would not reject her, nor demand that she be punished for this offence to all propriety.

Another thing I want to remember about this woman is what she teaches us about the difference between belief and trust. I don’t know what this woman believed about Jesus. If she was like most of Jesus’ early followers, she could never be accepted into the membership of most evangelical churches in this country today because her beliefs about Jesus would seem lacking. What she believed about Jesus didn’t matter to her or Jesus. But what she trusted about Jesus did matter. It was that trust she had, not the correct belief she was able to state, that led her to take the risk she did.

She learned that, I think, from Jesus himself. He took plenty of risks himself, some that seemed as crazy as a woman approaching a man at a first century Palestinian dinner, and rubbing that oil into him. He defied all kinds of religious norms and customs. He knew the kinds of things he was saying and doing could lead to a Roman cross. It was all crazy. But he took the risk. Why? Because he trusted God. Jesus didn’t just believe in God. He trusted that God would be with him no matter what if he stood for God’s ways of love, mercy, justice, compassion, inclusion, and peace. Jesus trusted God to his grave and beyond. And that woman knew that someone who had such a great trust in God could be trusted himself.

When I read the story of this woman I think about another Biblical character, but not anybody who was at that dinner that day. Or, at least, he’s not included on the guest list. In John’s gospel this story becomes a clash between Jesus and Judas. It’s not like Mark’s story where some at the dinner begin to object to what this woman is doing. It’s Judas who objects. Maybe that’s why John’s story doesn’t include the thing Jesus said about how this woman will be remembered. Because what we end up remembering in John’s story is Jesus and Judas going at each other.

There’s something else in John’s story that is different. Remember that in Mark’s gospel Jesus says, “For you always will have the poor with you, and you can share kindness with them whenever you wish.” But in John’s Gospel all Jesus is recorded as saying is that “you will always have the poor with you.” Now many commentators, religious and political, have taken that little phrase from John’s gospel to suggest that Jesus didn’t really care that much about the poor and didn’t expect us to either. They say that in spite of everything else Jesus said about taking care of the poor, including the version of this story in Mark’s gospel.

So, anyway, I don’t think of Jesus and Judas when I read this story. I think of this woman and Nicodemus. Do you remember the story of Nicodemus, “the ruler of the Jews who came to Jesus by night?” What a contrast between him and this woman. Nicodemus sought out Jesus at night, less any of his colleagues see him with Jesus. He wanted to talk to Jesus, be with him. But Nicodemus was scared to death of what might happen if anybody found out. But this woman, approached Jesus in broad daylight. She didn’t care who saw her or what they did to her.

Throughout the gospels we read about people who were the outcasts, the women, the poor, the unclean, the heathen, the rejected and marginalized getting what Jesus was about. The ones you would imagine would get it don’t. They were trying to compare Jesus to their belief systems, and he never lived up to any of that. But when they started trusting Jesus, that was a different story.

By the end of the story, t turns out, Nicodemus took a pretty big risk himself. This woman anointed Jesus for his burial. Nicodemus helped take Jesus’ corpse down from that cross and place his body in the tomb. And some very important and displeased people had to notice that Nicodemus was aligning himself with Jesus in such a visible way. If you read the story about Nicodemus you realize that he didn’t understand a word of what Jesus was saying. But somewhere along the way, something changed. He started trusting Jesus. And he trusted Jesus enough to put himself in danger for Jesus’ sake, as Jesus had put himself in danger for Nicodemus, the woman in this story, the thieves on their crosses, Judas, and all the rest of us.

“Remember me,” Jesus said. He also said we would remember this woman.“Remember me,” that person cried from an adjacent cross. What and how we remember is important. We don’t remember what they believed. We remember their trust.

Here’s a suggestion. The next time someone comes up to you on a street corner or at a family gathering and says, “Do you believe in Jesus?” feel free to say something like this. “I trust Jesus. And I trust the God he trusted, just like that woman Jesus said we would remember wherever the gospel is preached.”

It’s About Relationship

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Luke 15
March 10, 2013
Mary Hammond

[The three Parables of the Lost–the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Prodigal Son–were acted out during worship. This was followed by a period of Congregational Reflection on how the stories, shared in that form, impacted the congregation. The Congregational Reflection was rich and deep! I was the Storyteller, the Woman, the Shepherd, and the Father. Glenn Gall played the Lost Sheep and the Elder Son. Steve Hammond played the Prodigal Son. The Congregation filled the roles of the 99 sheep, the rejoicing neighbors, and the rejoicing angels].

Luke 15 opens with an introduction to these three parables. Now that we have dramatized these stories, let’s listen to that introduction again. “By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats with them, treating them like old friends.’ Their grumbling triggered this story.”

It is important to remember that Jesus is responding to criticism from the religious community regarding the company he keeps. We may have lots of methods for looking at these parables in Luke 15, but this fact cannot be forgotten in our approach.

Why does Luke tell three stories, not just one? He places them side-by-side. In broad brush strokes, we can describe Jesus’ audience as ‘marginalized’ and ‘mainstream.’ The ‘marginalized’ include those the religious leaders describe as ‘sinners’–the poor, infirm, unclean, those of dubious reputation. The ‘mainstream’ include those who are in the center, not on the margins, of religious society. They might hire servants instead of being servants. They enjoy some level of stability, recognition, and financial means within a first century social context.

Pondering this motley crew that Jesus addresses illuminates the genius of telling all three stories. The main characters of a shepherd and a woman, in the first two parables, are unlikely to grab the attention of religious leaders and Pharisees. Shepherds are rough-hewn, generally unsavory characters. And a poor woman searching for her single lost coin is about as noticeable on the public radar system of the elites in Jesus’ time as she is today.

These first two stories connect with the hearts of the marginalized. If these individuals are looked down upon, so is the shepherd and the poor woman frantically searching for her lost coin. If these individuals seem insignificant, so might the one lost sheep among the 99 and the one lost coin among the other nine.

The third parable recounts the story of a wealthy father and his two sons. Now, there’s a relatable context for the religious leaders and Pharisees! The man has servants and hired hands. He has resources adequate enough to prematurely dole out an inheritance to his youngest son. Yet, he still possesses enough wealth for the maintenance of his remaining estate and his own advancing age.

It is actually important to the context that this third parable is about a wealthy father and his two sons. The father/son bond is the most highly valued social relationship in ancient patriarchal culture. Jesus touches this connection head-on as he responds to criticism about keeping company with ‘sinners.’

Jesus offers a very personal challenge to the Pharisees and religious leaders: “How would you respond to your own son if he lost his way and after a long while returned home, repentant?”

The shepherd and woman seek, seek, and seek some more. They prioritize that one sheep and that one coin, investing their time and energy in restoring the lost. The wealthy father and landowner waits, waits, and waits some more. When his son finally returns home, the father prioritizes that fractured relationship. He is ready to re-invest his time, energy, and wealth in this son, in spite of the young man’s past rebellion. In each parable, commitment to relationship is fundamental to the outcome.

Were the marginalized in Jesus’ day the targets of hate speech that moved beyond whispered criticism to derogatory slurs and discriminatory practices? We know that this is true, just from reading the Gospels and studying social history.

I think about the acts of hatred and intimidation that have taken place on the Oberlin College campus the past several weeks. Those who invest deeply in relationship across many diversities cannot see one another in the same light as they did while still strangers. We have each experienced this transformation again and again in our lives.

The response Jesus offers to the tragic disdain the Pharisees and religious leaders harbor toward those they deem ‘sinners’ is this: Jesus invests in relationship with the marginalized. He dines with them. He invites them into friendship with him. He includes them in his ministry. He empowers them for ministry. He treats them as equals.

The God of heaven, with all the hosts of heaven and the community of neighbors and friends on earth, rejoices with us when reconciliation and restoration win the day. Amen.

Theology Matters

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

Luke 13:1-9
March 3, 2013
Steve Hammond

At last year’s Peace Camp we had a gathering of a newly forming group in Baptist Peace Fellowship life called Contemplatives In Action. It’s kind of weird that the acronym is CIA, but we are people who believe in redemption. Anyway, after that gathering I signed up for the daily meditations written by the monk, Richard Rohr. I know some of the folk in this congregation have been reading his stuff for a long time.

In the meditation for last Sunday, February 24, he said that theology matters. Is he right? Or is that just something you would expect from a monk who gets to spend lots of time reading theology? [Ask people what they think]

Here’s how that meditation starts. “Your image of God creates you—or defeats you. There is an absolute connection between how you see God and how you see yourself and the whole universe. The word “God” is first of all a stand-in for everything—reality, truth, and the very shape of your universe. This is why theology is important, and why good theology and spirituality can make so much difference in how you live your daily life in this world. Theology is not just theoretical, but ends up being quite practical—practically up-building or practically defeating.”

Let’s test Richard Rohr’s contention by taking a look at that gospel passage we just read. We actually will begin with the end of the passage, about the apple tree. Now in the older translations you probably know this as the parable of the fig tree. Eugene Peterson has updated it a bit in his translation called the Message.

People usually approach the parables as allegories, even though that’s not the best way to read them. You remember that allegories are stories where the different characters or objects are meant to represent something else. There’s a very classic way to interpret this story of the apple tree, or the fig tree, if you prefer.

Who do you suppose we traditionally understand to be the owner of the property, the one threatening to cut down the tree that isn’t producing fruit? Who is the gardener? Who is the tree? Now when you put this whole story together with God, Jesus, and people (humanity), how does the story go? Something like this…God is set to judge people for their sins and ready to chop them down, i.e. destroy them, because they aren’t bearing fruit. But Jesus intervenes and convinces God to give them (us) another chance.

That’s one way to look at that parable. But there is another way to read it that is more in line with the kind of thing Jesus might have been thinking about. Don’t think of it as a allegory where everything has to mean something. What if Jesus was just saying something like this? “You know, God is like a gardener who lovingly tends an apple tree until it’s ready to start dropping apples. God is there through disease and infestation, through drought and flood. God is even there trying to keep stupid landowners from chopping down the tree.”

And, I think, Jesus’ listeners would have understood how stupid it would have been if the landowner had the tree chopped down. I don’t know about apple trees, but it turns out that fig trees back in Jesus day most often started producing fruit somewhere around their fourth year. So why would a landowner want to chop down the tree before it’s time. Who knows? Maybe she’s stupid. Maybe she thinks that her trees should be better than everyone else’s to be worthy of her land. Maybe it’s just Jesus saying sin makes us do crazy things which gets us back to the first part of today’s story.

Now before we look at the beginning of the story we need to get back to Richard Rohr, and his thing about how theology matters. How we read this or any other story in the Bible depends on how we understand God in that story of the apple or fig tree. Is God the landowner ready to chop the tree down, or the gardener who is nurturing and protecting the tree until it bears fruit? That’s theology. And it does matter. Remember how that meditation started? “Your image of God creates you–or defeats you.”

The story does, interestingly enough, start out as a theological discussion. “Hey Jesus, what about those guys Herod killed while they were offering their sacrifices. He not only killed them, but polluted the altar by having their blood mingled with the blood of the animals?”

They are asking a question that goes all the way back to Job and beyond, as Mary can tell us. Why do these awful things happen? Is it punishment for sin? Was there something about these guys Herod killed that we didn’t know? If God didn’t stop it from happening then was that their judgment?

Jesus ups the ante in the discussion. It’s one thing for a wicked man like Herod to go around killing people for seemingly no reason. That’s what tyrants do. But what about that tower that fell down in Siloam, Jesus asks? Herod didn’t cause that. It just fell and 18 people were killed. What’s that about?

Jesus, it seems, wants to move the discussion in another direction. “Let’s not speculate on the sins of others? What about your sins?” There are some who read this story and tell us that Jesus is saying that all sin is the same. The kid stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry sister is just as bad, in God’s eyes, as Herod or any other mass murderer, child abuser, or the person stealing bread from the kid’s family. All of us deserve God’s wrath, they say, and it’s God’s prerogative as to when Herod strikes or the tower falls, or when the tree is chopped down. That’s their theology and, I think, it ends up defeating them.

What if Jesus is suggesting, though, that this whole thing about sin and it’s consequences is not prescriptive but descriptive. It’s not that God is looking for every opportunity to judge us for our sin, prescribing punishment, but trying to describe to us what happens if we keep living the way we do? Maybe we can go on for a while, but something will happen. We will end up hurting ourselves, the people we love, the community where we live, and the world we share with so many others. When Jesus calls us to repent, he is simply calling us to turn from death to life. That’s theology, people, and it does have an impact on how we live with each other, with God, and ourselves on a day to day basis.

A problem with theology, of course, is that you can use it to box in your ideas and understanding of God. But the idea of theology is to expand our understanding of God, not diminish it. As Richard Rohr says it in his meditation, “a mature God creates mature people. A big God creates big people.” It’s all got to do with whether your God chops down trees or nurtures them. That’s theology..

Do you know what story follows this one? The story of the bent over woman Jesus healed on the Sabbath. All the folk whose theology told them that God chops down trees got really mad at Jesus. Did he really think he could get away with violating the Sabbath? But Jesus showed them a big God, a God who believes the tree is going to bear fruit. That was his theology.

We are all going to be doing theology this week. Not reading some books, or having some long discussions and theological discourses, not all of us, anyway . But we are all going to be living our theology. Who we understand God to be is going to shape everything we do this week. Our theology, our image of God is, indeed, going to create us or defeat us. That’s why theology matters.

If Only…

Friday, March 1st, 2013

Luke 13:31-35
February 24, 2013
Mary Hammond

There is a compelling, yet haunting quality to these two brief stories in the Gospel of Luke. The trajectory leading to Jesus’ arrest and execution pushes forward at ever greater speed and intensity.

Some Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is on the prowl. “Run for your life!” they caution the Teacher. “Herod’s out to kill you!”

What is their motivation for issuing this warning? Were these religious leaders earnest Jesus-followers who wanted him to flee Galilee for his own protection? Luke tends to speak of the Pharisees in a more positive light than does Matthew in his Gospel.

Or were these men plants of the King–double-agents, if you will? Is Herod playing politics, the way government officials at times leak pieces of classified information in order to manipulate situations to their own advantage? Does Herod send these Pharisees out to warn Jesus, in the hopes of getting Jesus out of Galilee and thus out of his jurisdiction? Having executed Jesus’ cousin, John, and wondering if Jesus is John come back to life, Herod is very uneasy. Would he rather have some other ruler deal with Jesus?

We don’t know, but we do know enough about power, politics, and enemies of the State to realize that the underlying facts of the story are most likely more complicated than it seems on the surface.

Jesus responds to the Pharisees matter-of-factly with a message to pass on to King Herod. He assumes their direct access to the King, another hint of unsavory alliances.

But Jesus is not about to be told–by Herod, or anyone–what to do. He has a mission from God, and he is focused on that mission and it alone. Jesus is, indeed, leaving Galilee, but not because he fears the king. He is headed toward Jerusalem, and nothing will deter him from his path.

Jesus calls Herod a “fox” when he speaks to the Pharisees about the King. Foxes can be crafty and cunning. They can also project more power than they actually possess. Both possibilities exist in this context.

Luke pairs this story with Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. The author’s decision to locate this lament halfway between Luke 9:51, the beginning of Jesus’ trek toward Jerusalem, and Luke 19:41, where Jesus weeps over the City and laments its impending destruction, is significant. Matthew locates the lament over Jerusalem within the Passion Week Narrative, during the last week of Jesus’ life, when Jesus is actually in Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39). For Luke, this short lament becomes a center-point of gravity amid the longer trek toward Jerusalem, balancing what comes before with what is yet to occur.

Luke’s lament story follows two other contemporaneous tragedies which the Gospel writer notes. The first, in Luke 13:1, is a report that Pontius Pilate had employed soldiers to violently suppress a group of Galilean protesters, mingling “their blood with their sacrifices.” The second is a news flash from Luke 13:4, noting the collapse of a tower near the pool of Siloam which caused eighteen bathers to be crushed to death.

Within this context of multiple tragedies, Jesus utters his cry of lament over Jerusalem. His heart inconsolably wails, “If only you would let me gather you up under my wings, but you would not!”

This singular “if only” cry echoes throughout the ages with countless reverberations. While it is a specific lament over Jerusalem, it is also a timeless cry of the heart over all that is wrong in the world, all that could be transformed if only human hearts were open and willing!

How many “if only” cries roam within you and me? “If only I hadn’t gotten sick…if only I hadn’t lost my job…if only my parents had stayed together…if only my loved one hadn’t died…if only the rulers of this world put people before profits and power…if only members of Congress would work together for the common good…if only I hadn’t registered for so many classes…if only I wasn’t so lonely and nobody notices…”

From the mundane to the macro and back again, we so quickly dwell within the world of “if only’s.” It is normal to struggle with the “if only’s.” We all do. They demand expression. They force their way out of our hearts as unvarnished feeling and unsatisfied yearning. Yet, too often, they can lock us into cycles of helplessness, regret, and inaction. We have to walk through them to get to the other side.

Jesus compares his own love for the people of Jerusalem to the care of a mother hen for her baby chicks. What love is as fierce and protective as that of a mother shielding her babies from harm? Writer Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that a mother hen who opens her wings to gather her chicks underneath them exposes her heart and vital organs to the fox (“As a Hen Gathers Her Brood,” The Christian Century, 1995). The mother hen is vulnerable. For love, she takes the risk anyway.

How much yearning is evident in Jesus’ lament! How much sorrow! And how much powerlessness! In spite of all that Jesus can do as One sent from God, he cannot gather up his “chicks” against their will.

Luke juxtaposes Jesus’ reference to Herod as a fox with Jesus’ reference to himself as a mother hen. The fox may be manipulative and deceptive, but the hen is loving and wise. The contrast of these two images highlights the conflict between Jesus and Herod, juxtaposing radically different projections and definitions of power.

Jesus laments over all the prophets who have died in Jerusalem as if he was present in and with them throughout history and time. In Luke’s placement of this text, Jesus has not yet arrived in Jerusalem, yet Jerusalem has arrived within him.

Jesus concludes his lament with a word of hope. “I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” The day will come when all eyes shall see, all ears shall hear, and all humankind shall recognize Jesus as sent from God. He takes ‘the long look,’ far beyond the impending sorrows which await him in Jerusalem. There is a Coming Day when the Story will be radically different. Seeing will overcome blindness; hearing will overcome deafness. Glory and affirmation will overcome scorn and rejection. Life will swallow up death.

As we continue our own journey through Lent, there are important lessons to be found in both of these brief passages. Jesus demonstrates how to say “no” to Empire, “no” to earthly power, “no” to threats and intimidation that deter us from compelling and heartfelt goals. He laments over his “if only’s” but doesn’t get stuck in them. Jesus likens himself to the Mother Hen in all her vulnerability and fiercely protective love, dismissing the power of the Fox in all his cunning manipulation. He looks toward a day when there is more to the story than what the eye can see in the moment at hand.

We continue walking with Jesus on his journey toward Jerusalem. We each walk our own journeys toward our own Jerusalems as well. Throughout these travels, we discover both Jesus and ourselves anew. Amen.