Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

The Second Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2010

Luke 13:31-35

The Hen roosted high on her perch;

Hungry Fox down below, on the search,

Coaxed her hard to descend

She replied, "Most dear friend!

I feel more secure on my perch.”

~Baby's Own Aesop (1887)

I suspect that we’re all familiar with the image of a fox in a henhouse. Folklore is full of stories of sly and cunning foxes trying to outwit supposedly simpler creatures like hens in order to make a good feast of them. I have a vivid memory of a story that my grandmother used to read to me of a fox who used all his wiles to convince a mother hen to let him into her house, and then captured the hen and her chicks and carted them off in a big sack so that he might dine on them in the comfort of his own cozy den. The mother hen was far too clever for the crafty fox, however, and when he stopped to nap on his way home, she used her sewing scissors (in a testimony to her cleverness, her sewing kit was tucked into her feathers) to release her family from captivity, and with the help of her children, filled his sack with river rocks and sewed it back up so that he would notice their escape, proving once again that even the wily fox could be outsmarted.

In today’s gospel we hear Jesus refer to Herod as “that fox” “Fox” was an apt descriptor for Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and ruler of the regions of Galilee and Perea. This Herod, you might recall, divorced his wife to marry his brother’s widow, and had John the Baptist arrested and later beheaded when John condemned him for that marriage. Herod had felt threatened by John, not only because of the accusations of adultery, of breaking Jewish law, but also because John was so influential among the people that Herod feared he might incite revolution. And according the gospels, Herod Antipas was both fascinated by and fearful of Jesus, the itinerant preacher he heard so much about, and it is entirely likely that Herod did wish Jesus dead and out of the way.

Jesus, however, is not deterred by the threat of that fox, Herod. Jesus is on a mission, and he has set his face towards Jerusalem—Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God; Jerusalem, the place where Isaiah tells us that God’s glory shall be revealed (Isaiah 24:23); Jerusalem, the place where the prophet Micah reminds us that God is betrayed by those who hate the good and love what is evil (Micah 3:2). Nothing that happens in Jerusalem is insignificant. When Jerusalem obeys God, the world spins peacefully on its axis. When Jerusalem ignores God, the whole planet wobbles, and now Jesus is on his way there to fulfill his destiny.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus laments, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

What a poignant image! Jesus doesn’t use the metaphor of a fierce mother lion protecting her cubs, nor even that of an eagle with sharp beak and talons to drive away the enemy; instead he uses the image of a mother hen, a relatively small and gentle creature who in her ferocious desire to protect her young can only draw them close to her, gathering them under the mantle of her wings, covering them with the protective blanket of her love.

Modern day Christians sometimes like to portray Jesus as a mighty warrior, to describe his power in military terms, but to me, this image of a mother hen protecting her brood speaks of a power far greater, far deeper than any power that comes in a display of force. When Jesus uses this metaphor of a mother hen it seems to perfectly captures the essence of the power he exuded, a power lived out in the love he preached and taught and lived—a love that cannot coerce but rather invites, a love that does not back down in the face of greater physical might, a love that crosses all human boundaries and reaches out to the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the sinner.

As it turns out, Herod is not the only fox loose in Jerusalem, no indeed. Jerusalem is full of foxes, religious leaders, government officials, common folk, even a disciple who, seduced by some secular vision of power and might, fear, the itinerant preacher and healer who has come into their midst, fear him enough that like the proverbial fox in the henhouse, they act to betray him and have him crucified before he can stir up any REAL trouble.

But it’s a bit ironic, isn’t it? Just like in the story my grandmother told me about the hen who helped her children escape, the love of the mother hen who would gather the children of Jerusalem—the people of God—under her wings wins the day. The foxes loose in Jerusalem were “outfoxed” by Jesus whose powerful love could not be stilled by the cross, could not be quenched by earthly powers, could not be contained by death; a powerful love that is still very present and very real in the world today.

In this season of Lent, it might be worthwhile for us to keep in mind the notion of the fox and the hen. Foxes are crafty and seductive and they seek to lure us away from the care of the One who loves us. So who or what are the foxes in our own lives? Could they be the lure of material goods—the ever bigger and better TV, the more powerful computer, the sleeker car—or the promise of power? What about greed—not just that appetite for more, more, more, but the greed that makes us reluctant to share of the abundance we already have? Could our fox wear the guise of sloth, or mere laziness, the inertia that keeps us from doing even things we claim to care deeply about? Or perhaps our fox has slipped in as the urge to gossip, the tendency to think the worst of others, thoughtlessness, or even cruelty?

As we look for the foxes who might have crept into our lives, we might also recall the powerful and unassuming loved of the One who laments for his beloved who have gone astray, the One who would gather his lost children to him as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings. And we might recall that the cunning fox does not always win the day.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

The First Sunday in Lent

February 21, 2010

Luke 4:1-13

Lord, make me a hollow reed so that Your Voice might be heard by all who hear these words. Amen.

Do you know how it feels when you’re just starting out on a vacation? The planning is done, the laundry is finished, the packing is taken care of, the dog is boarded, the mail is stopped, the lights are off, the doors are locked, and finally you are on your way, filled with sweet anticipation. That’s sort of where we are now in our church year as we enter into our Lenten journey: Epiphany’s passed, the palms are burned, the ashes smudged on our foreheads to remind us of our common humanity, and our shared mortality, and we’ve set our faces towards Jerusalem, pledging to keep a holy Lent.

Only, only that anticipation we feel? It may not be so sweet. It may in fact be tinged with a bit of dread, a sense of “let’s hurry up and get this over with.” We’ve described Lent as a long, dark journey, a time of sorrow and repentance, a time for taking up a discipline to help us turn back to God, and it may feel like it’s going to be a looonng six weeks.

But as we undertake our Lenten journey, it’s a good time to add a cautionary note, a reminder that may lighten those that Lenten anxiety that sometimes grips us. For despite our emphasis on penitence and on discipline, we need to remember Lent is not about feeling guilty or inadequate, and it’s not about being able to stick to some sort of self-deprivation just to prove to ourselves, or to others, that we can. Instead, as somber as it is, Lent—and all those things we undertake during Lent—should be a means of turning back to God, renewing our faith, remembering God’s abiding and ever-present for love for us, and taking up the hard work of discipleship. And our readings during Lent help us with this task.

On the first Sunday in Lent each year we hear the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness and this year we hear Luke’s version. Just as Matthew and Mark do, Luke tells us that Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days and while he is there he is tempted by the evil one, the one we call the devil. “Tempted” is the word used in most translations, but really, “tested” may better convey what Jesus experienced. We’re tempted by the candy bars merchandisers skillfully place by the check out counters, by the pull of our favorite clothing store in the mall, or by the lure of the next new electronic gadget—we all understand that kind of temptation, but what the devil dangled in front of Jesus –well, let’s just say the stakes were considerably higher. All three of the tests the devil presented to Jesus ultimately had to do with what kind of a Son of God, what kind of a messiah he would be; all three of them had to do with earthly power and might, all three had to do with the how Jesus would live into the vocation given him at his baptism.

The first temptation has to do with food. After 40 days of fasting, Jesus is near starvation. The very thought of bread must have filled him with overwhelming desire. But rather than succumbing, rather than turning the stones into bread, Jesus recalls how God provided manna for the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness to demonstrate that humans do not live by bread alone,. Next the devil offers Jesus power and dominion over all the nations of the earth, if only he will worship the evil one—and wouldn’t that be a good thing, if Jesus were in charge instead of the Romans? But again recalling the travails of his ancestors, Jesus responds with the words Moses spoke to the people of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land, “Worship the Lord, your God, and serve him” for it is from the Lord that all has come, and to whom all power belongs. Finally the devil takes Jesus to the top of the Temple, and urges him to jump off, for if he is truly the son of God a thousand angels would surely rush in to save him. One more time Jesus returns to the story of the Israelites about to enter their new home and repeats Moses’ words to them, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Jesus resists the temptations set in front of him by the devil; he “passes” the tests by resisting the urgings of the evil one to turn away from God, to take for himself power and might, and to test, to push the limits of his Father’s love and care. Ultimately, in passing up these temptations, Jesus has demonstrated once and for all his absolute reliance on the trustworthiness of God’s love. Jesus didn’t need the presence of thousands of angels rushing him to save him in midair to demonstrate the power of God. Filled by the power of the Spirit in baptism, Jesus trusted in the unassailable care and presence of God for all, the same care and presence of God that carried all the way through to the resurrection, Christ’s victory over death and human sin, the ultimate show of God’s power and love.

We often hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as a model for us in resisting the temptations of our world, temptations that can take us away from God and God’s will for us—and it can surely serve as such a model. But I think the message of this story is even larger than that, even more powerful than that. Just as Jesus trusted completely and without reservation in the power and goodness of God, just as he trusted completely and without reservation in God’s care and provision without the need to test the limits of that care and provision, so too can we trust in God’s power, God’s love, God’s provision for us. We do not need to test God’s love for us; we can rest assured that even when we cannot see it, even when we cannot feel it, it is there. We do not have to earn it, we do not have to “deserve” it; it is there.

As we move through Lent, as we walk that road towards the cross with Jesus, as we seek to reorient ourselves towards God through our Lenten disciplines, may we rest securely in the assurance of God’s unassailable love and care for us, now and for ever.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Exodus 34:29-35
Luke 9:28-36

Lord, make me a hollow reed so that Your Voice might be heard by all who hear these words. Amen.

In our readings today, this last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we encounter not one, but two characters being “transfigured.” “Transfiguration” is not a word that is in our everyday vocabulary—but if you’ve read any of the Harry Potter novels, you’ll be familiar with the concept. In the magical world of witches and wizards, the ability to transfigure—to change oneself into another creature—is one of the many magic skills students are taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It’s clearly a useful skill, allowing one to travel about undetected, as Professor McGonagall does when she becomes a cat, or to hide from one’s enemies, as Harry’s godfather Sirius Black does, taking the form of a big shaggy dog when he escapes from Azkaban, the wizarding prison, and as the more nefarious Peter Pettigrew does as a rat, hiding out from his former master, the evil Lord Voldemort.

You might have noticed that in all the examples I’ve given, transfiguration allows one to be less obvious, to go unnoticed. But the kind of transfiguration that Moses and Jesus undergo is quite different—their appearance changes, to be sure, but rather than making them less conspicuous, helping them to blend in, or to get by undetected, their transfiguration – with glowing white robes and luminous faces – puts them right in the spotlight. Rather than hiding their true identities, the transfigurations of Moses and Jesus reveal them as who they are—prophet and liberator on the one hand; messiah, son of God on the other, and they serve as vivid reminders of God’s enduring presence in the world.

Moses, you will recall, has led the Israelites out of Egypt, out of slavery, into freedom—and right into the wilderness, where they must find their way, trusting in God to lead them to the “Promised Land.” The Israelites aren’t used to such freedom; it’s scary, and despite repeated assurances from Moses—and indeed, signs from God—they whine and complain every step of the way. When Moses ascends the mountain to consult with God on how to handle this recalcitrant people, he stay a little too long to suit the people, who, sure that they are being abandoned, quickly forge themselves a new “god”—a golden calf. When Moses, coming down with the stone tablets engraved by God, sees this idol he is so enraged that he drops the tablets and they shatter. It’s not just Moses who is angry, of course—God is angry, too, but Moses goes up the mountain again and intercedes, convincing God to give the Israelites yet one more chance. It is during this encounter that Moses is transfigured, and when he comes down, his face is shining so brightly that he must put a veil on it because the Israelites cannot bear to look at him.

You might have noticed that when Moses is transfigured, it is not during his first encounter with God. There is little doubt that each and every meeting with God, from the burning bush forward, changed Moses in some way, but this change was different, When Moses’ face was transfigured, changed so that his visage was so bright and shining that the people feared to look at him—well, that was more than Moses’ own personal transfiguration; instead, this was a sign to the people that God was still with them, and each and every time they gazed at Moses’ face alight with the glory of God, they would be reminded of that yet again.

The story of Jesus’ transfiguration in many way parallels that of Moses. Jesus, accompanied by Peter, James and John, climbs up a mountain to get away from the crowds that are always with him, to rest and to pray. As Jesus prays, his whole appearance begins to change – his clothes become a dazzling white, and his face begins to shine like the sun. And if that weren’t enough, Moses and Elijah appear beside him, and the three engage in a spirited discussion of what will come next for Jesus. Peter, James, and John, sleep-deprived as always and struggling to stay awake, don’t know what to make of this, and their wonderment and confusion must’ve only increased when the voice of God thundered from behind a cloud, “This is my son…listen to him.” When they came down from the mountain, they told no one of their experience, but surely as Mary did earlier, they must have pondered it in their hearts.

As it was for Moses, the timing of Jesus’ transfiguration was not accidental. Jesus’ ministry is drawing to a close, and he has begun to warn the disciples about what is to come, warn them that they, too, must be prepared to take up the cross. Peter has declared Jesus to be the messiah, the chosen one, but Jesus must have known that the disciples really didn’t understand who he was and what they would have to face. And so, witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus, seeing him reflect the glory and majesty of God, hearing God proclaim him as his son would’ve been for them like seeing Moses’ shining face was for the Israelites, a potent reminder of God’s on-going presence in their lives, a reminder that would become evermore important as they traveled with Jesus to Jerusalem and the cross.

The placement of these readings in our lectionary is not accidental, either. On Wednesday we’ll begin our long passage through Lent, retracing that road to the cross. Even though we have the assurance of the resurrection, the promise of Easter, this can be a dark, lonely and painful journey. We are asked to examine our lives, our hearts, our consciences; we’re asked to face up to our faults, to seek forgiveness, to turn away from those things that separate us from God and from being our best selves. We are asked to acknowledge not only Jesus’ suffering, but also our own and the world’s so that we may be truly prepared to enter into the joy of the resurrection at Easter.

Today’s readings remind us, as we undertake our Lenten journey, of the majesty and the glory of the God who created us, and of the promise of the God who does not, will not –has not ever—leave us on our own. Just as Moses’ shining face was a reminder to the Israelites that God will not abandon his people, no matter how difficult those people are, so too does it reassure us of God’s on-going presence in our lives. And just as Jesus’ transformation in the presence of Moses and Elijah proclaimed him as the messiah, the chosen one of God, so too does it affirm for us, that in Jesus, God’s promise to be with us always reaches its fulfillment. In that promise we can rest secure, knowing that we are held safely in God’s embrace, no matter how long or how hard the journey.