The Rev. Dianne O’Connell
Maltby Congregational Church
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Bless Us, Protect Us, and Keep Us Warm
Good morning. The sermon title today is "Bless us, protect us, and keep us warm." I’ve been retired now for about 18 months, so getting back to researching and writing a sermon has been both a pleasure and a challenge. The charge thius week was not only to gain some insight into what the passage from Luke might have meant to the early church and to us, the church gathered today, but also what the compilers of the Lectionary may have had in mind when they grouped together the four readings.
As many of you know, the writer of Luke is thought by most scholars to be a Gentile, possibly a physician, who travelled with the Apostle Paul. The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are companion pieces written for the Gentile community probably in the last decades of the first century as an historical account of the life of Jesus and the growth of the early church. A major theme concerns the compassion of Jesus for all people, including Gentiles, not just Jews. The author also wanted to make clear that these new Christians were responsible citizens, of no threat whatsoever to Rome.
In today’s lesson the author offers two differing faces of Jesus; two different emotional responses to what is happening around him.
1.) the courageous Jesus, determined to stick to his ministry as planned, in the face of danger both in Galilee and Jerusalem; and
2.) the compassionate, protector Jesus. Luke uses the imagery of a mother hen in describing Jesus’ love and concern for the people of Jerusalem.
The third point I’d like to touch upon is the unifying message of courage, patience and obedience the compilers of the Lectionary offer through the selection of the passages for the day.
I think we probably all remember that a Pharisee was a member of the Jewish sect that emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic law, and that Jesus and his teachings were frequently at odds with those of the Pharisees. But in today's lesson Luke tells us that a delegation of Pharisees has come to warn Jesus that he should leave town because Herod is out to kill him. I'm willing to accept at face value that their motives were pure, that there were both good and bad Pharisees and these particular men were concened for Jesus' safety and probably their own. He was causing a stir and it would just be best if he left.
Jesus replies, “Go tell that fox that I’m too busy to worry about him. My calendar is full -- healings today and tomorrow – and the next day, too. Can’t leave until I’m finished here. Then I’ll head to Jerusalem when I think the time is best.”
The Psalm for today speaks to this kind of steadfastness and courage.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?
“The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?
Certainly not Herod!
Herod, the Fox, by the way, was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great who was king at the time of the birth of Jesus. Herod Antipas, if you remember, beheaded Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist and had his head delivered to Salome on a silver platter. Grusome story. Jesus had several reasons to hold this man in some distain. “That fox” was a pretty mild epitaph under the circumstances.
It is also interesting to note that of the three synoptic gospels, this passage is found only in Luke, not in Mark or Matthew. The writer of Luke has included this short episode to further support the idea that Jesus’ real enemy was Herod, a Jew, and not the Roman Empire.
After his comments on Herod, Luke’s Jesus takes a deep breath and moves on to reflect on Jerusalem. The Holy City of Jerusalem. The city where when he was 12, he slipped away to the Temple to “talk Scripture” with the priests. The city where he would complete his ministry. Prophets are killed in Jerusalem and his case is likely to be no different. He offers a lament, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I have longed to gather you under my wings like a hen gathers her brood of chicks. But you were unwilling.”
This passage is included in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.
This is one of those Biblical stories held dear by feminist theologians looking for a kinder, loving, motherly, if you will, image of God. Yes, God is like a warrior, a judge, but also like an eagle or a mother bear defending her young.
Traditionally, Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd protecting his sheep. I have had some trouble accepting the role of a sheep, a passive, rather dim-witted animal to my way of thinking. I have trouble accepting the role until I am really down – then having a Good Shepherd find me yet again is more than welcome. But Jesus doesn’t use the image of the magnificent bear or the eagle, or even the sheep in this passage. Here we have him likening himself to, of all things, a humble chicken. A mother chicken. Keeping her chicks warm, protecting them from danger, sometimes giving her life for them. Jesus compares Herod to a fox and himself to the hen. The people of Jerusalem are the chicks Jesus has been sent to nurture and protect. Listen to him. Follow him and all will be well. But the chicks do have to cooperate.
And here is where the image finally comes home. We enter this story as that brood of chicks who are scattered, distracted, unable, somehow, to comprehend the very real danger which is threatening. Jesus' lament over Jerusalem is also over you and me and this world which all too often still refuses the gifts Jesus would so freely give. Sometimes the problem is that we truly cannot comprehend that which is being offered.
The lesson from Genesis this morning is a case in point. Abram is blessed by the Lord, but does not appreciate or fully understand because he has not biologically fathered a son. His memory is doomed to die without offspring to remember him and carry on his name. What’s probably worse: His land will pass to someone else.
The Lord God counsels patience – in 400 years you will be surprised Abram! You will have descendants, they will be enslaved and mistreated, true, but in four generations they gain their freedom and will return to this land and – you will be the father of three great religions. Scripture doesn’t exactly say that, but we know that it’s true -- Abram, eventually called Abraham, is the traditional founding father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Patience, Abram, Patience. In God’s time. But how the family strife in the Promised Land will eventually be resolved, truly only God knows to this day.
In the passage from Philippians, Paul counsels his readers in steadfastness and obedience, as well. He tells them they are citizens of heaven, that they should forgo earthly things, and press on toward the goal – to become more like Paul, more like the Christ, living according to the rules as set forth. Paul had been a Pharisee himself and adhering to rules came somewhat naturally, I would think. And rules are necessary for living a good and stable life, as long as we remember as Jesus tells us that the law was made for man, not the man made for the law.
So we gather in this season of Lent, maybe wondering how all this applies to us. Perhaps, we are quite aware of our need for change, our need for a closer understanding and acceptance of what our God and our Lord has in mind for us, our need for re-direction, our need for repentance. And it would appear that our primary sin is what it has always been: our unwillingness to stand in the presence of God – obey, and accept those gifts God intends for us.
But what was or is God’s intent for the city of Jerusalem? What did Jesus really envision for Jerusalem? Jerusalem is not just a municipality, you know. Jerusalem is a symbol for a whole people, perhaps, the whole world. Jerusalem is a utopian vision, almost synonymous with heaven.
In the Book of Revelations we have “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…” There is something special about Jerusalem.
Jerusalem today is a holy city for three of the world’s great religions – all descendants of Abraham. It is a Holy City for Islam. A Holy City for the Jews. A Holy City for us Christians. Yet it is a city of tension and war.
Jesus wanted Jerusalem to be a holy place, yes, but a special kind of holy place, a perfect place, a place of refuge, a place where God’s people would be protected under God’s outstretched wings. He wanted it to be a place where God's people could come to find safety and reassurance instead of violence and oppression, a place where God's presence would be evident at all times. But for some reason, the Jerusalem baby chicks resisted and continue to resist, especially if it means living under the wings of God with each other.
Is there some parallel between the sanctuary Jerusalem could become and the sanctuary already experienced right here? Do we often come to church seeking a place of emotional shelter or safety? We call this place where we gather for worship the sanctuary—the same word we use to describe an area where animals or birds are protected. We come here seeking to meet God and to experienceGod's presence with us.
What is the shelter that we find when we allow ourselves to be gathered under God's loving wings? It seems to me that the value of being a part of the church, the value of being a follower of Christ, is the identity which it gives us. We are no longer just any people. We are God's people, and we are not alone. We have God as our constant companion. That doesn't mean that nothing bad will happen. But it means that when bad things do happen, we have someone to turn to. Sometimes it’s not so easy. It’s sort of like families. We don’t often get to choose our families, they are assigned to us – with all their irritations and deficiencies. Some how we are supposed to get along.
I am reminded of a little story about porcupines. If we can talk about ourselves as sheep and baby chicks, why not porcupines? It’s called the Parable of the Porcupine as retold by me. It may not apply to you at all, but maybe it will be useful in some context, some time. As you know I came from Alaska, so this story is set there. It is very short.
“It was the coldest winter ever - many animals died because of the cold. The porcupines, realizing the situation, decided to group together. This way they covered and protected themselves; but the quills of each one wounded their closest companions even though they gave off heat to each other. Sometimes the pricks were deep and hurt badly.
After awhile the porcupines decided to distance themselves one from the other and when they did, they began to die, alone and frozen. So they had to make a choice: either accept the quills of their companions or disappear from the Earth. Wisely, they decided to go back to being together, quills and all.
They learned to live with the wounds that were caused by the close relationship with their companions, but the most important part of it, was the warmth that came from the others. By sharing this warmth, putting up with the prickly natures of their neighbors, and being a little more careful with their own prickly ways, they were able to both survive and thrive.”
Our prayer is that the people of Jerusalem today as well as the people of the New Jerusalem, and that’s all of us, can do likewise. If we come with the intention of finding God's presence in one another; if we come with an attitude that provides acceptance for others, then we, too, shall find acceptance.
And may the Lord, like a Mother Hen gathering her chicks, continue to bless us, protect us, and keep us warm. In Christ’s name, Amen.