Monday, February 22, 2016

Gather your children together

Homily notes for the Second Sunday of Lent (2/21/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Genesis 1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

THE FOX AND THE HEN
One bright evening as the sun was sinking on a glorious world a wise old Cock flew into a tree to roost. Before he composed himself to rest, he flapped his wings three times and crowed loudly. But just as he was about to put his head under his wing, his beady eyes caught a flash of red and a glimpse of a long pointed nose, and there just below him stood Master Fox.

“Have you heard the wonderful news?” cried the Fox in a very joyful and excited manner.

“What news?” asked the Cock very calmly. But he had a queer, fluttery feeling inside him, for, you know, he was very much afraid of the Fox.

“Your family and mine and all other animals have agreed to forget their differences and live in peace and friendship from now on forever. Just think of it! I simply cannot wait to embrace you! Do come down, dear friend, and let us celebrate the joyful event.”

“How grand!” said the Cock. “I certainly am delighted at the news.” But he spoke in an absent way, and stretching up on tiptoes, seemed to be looking at something afar off.

“What is it you see?” asked the Fox a little anxiously.

“Why, it looks to me like a couple of Dogs coming this way. They must have heard the good news and—”

But the Fox did not wait to hear more. Off he started on a run.

“Wait,” cried the Cock. “Why do you run? The Dogs are friends of yours now!”

“Yes,” answered the Fox. “But they might not have heard the news. Besides, I have a very important errand that I had almost forgotten about.”

The Cock smiled as he buried his head in his feathers and went to sleep, for he had succeeded in outwitting a very crafty enemy. 

What do you think of the moral of Aesop’s fable? The trickster is easily tricked. Cunning outwits itself.

AS A HEN GATHERS HER BROOD
Parallels can be found between this fable of Aesop and the story that we have heard from the Gospel according to Luke this morning. In the story, Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem (Luke 13:22), teaching along the way, when he encounters some Pharisees. This story’s placement within the overall narrative of the Gospel acts as a reminder of what is coming. Indeed, at the beginning of this same chapter thirteen, Luke makes mention of Pilate’s violent murder of the Galileans thus reminding the reader of the violent death that awaits Jesus at the same hands. Likewise, here Luke is drawing attention to the other “king of the earth”, Herod, who will figure in Jesus’ trial, suffering, and death. Moreover, the encounter prepares for the climactic role played by Jerusalem in the story. This first explicit announcement of its guilt a foreshadowing of the rejection that will come.

We can see in this story a bit of Aesop: Jesus is the hen with Herod the fox, slyly trying to entice him. The dog is, perhaps, John the Baptist or maybe the prophets of old and the lion king is, of course, God. While Aesop’s sly fox lied to the hen about the decree of universal peace, the story of the kingdom of peace preached by Jesus is true – it is at hand, present in deep and surprising ways.

It is quite an interesting and somewhat surprising metaphor for Jesus to use, comparing what he has done or is doing to a hen gathering her brood under her wings. No, the lowly chicken is not what I think of when I imagine a protective animal. I might imagine the lion, fierce with its claws and intimidating with its roar. I might think of a bird of prey, able to swoop upon an enemy of its offspring, swift in response with sharp talons. I might even imagine the mighty whale with its massive bulk a bulwark against enemies. Regardless of what I might imagine, the chicken does not come readily to mind when I think of the protective animal.

But Jesus chooses the metaphor of the hen gathering her brood as an image demonstrating God’s immense care for and protection of God’s people. God is the mother hen who calls us to the safety of the nest, to hide beneath the shadow of her wings, behind the heart that beats beneath a vulnerable breast. And when I look, there is power in the image, an immense power that is tied also to Abram’s covenant with God, an immense power tied with strength in vulnerability.

AND HE BELIEVED THE LORD
Abram and Sarai were originally called out of their barrenness (Genesis 11:30) by God’s powerful Word (Genesis 12:1). Their pilgrimage of hope thus began on the basis of God’s promise, which stood over and against their barrenness. When the reader arrives at chapter fifteen, which we heard this morning, the barrenness is persistent, leading to questions about the promise and even doubt. Chapter fifteen opens, then, with a crisis of faith – a typical pattern of divine promise (verse 1), Abram’s protest (verses 2-3), God’s response (verses 4-5), and Abram’s acceptance (verse 6).

The believing response in verse 6 stands in contrast with the resistance of verses 2-3. The passage stands as a sharp exchange between Abram and God in which Abram first tries to refute the promises and assurances of God. Clearly, the faith to which Abram is called is not a peaceful, pious acceptance. It is, rather, a hard-fought and deeply argued conviction. Abraham will not be a passive recipient but is prepared to hold his own against the God who called him out of Ur. The faith of Abram bears a freedom not unlike that found in the creation narratives: The Lord invites but never coerces. Abraham is not forced into covenant no more than creation is forced to obedience.

Let’s jump to God’s reassertion of promise in verses 4-5, after Abram’s double protest. The text is unambiguous in that nothing is offered beyond God’s word. No stratagems are offered and no plans made. Abram and Sarai are left with God’s word alone. It is God’s promise, spoken in Lordly majesty, that stands as the impetus for Abram’s faith. And the promise is not fool-proof, an argument without challenge. They are signs that, in human wisdom, prove nothing. We struggle as readers, like Abram, with an expectation of the emergence of certitude but are left wanting. Instead, what we have is not based on human reason or expectation or certainty but on the realization that God is God. The God who makes the promise is the same God who makes is believable.

And so Abram believes and “it is credited to him as righteousness.” Abram believes by the persuasion of God’s self-revelation. The next scene (verses 7-12, 17-18) demonstrate the confirmation of Abram’s faithful response. This scene presents a curious ritual that is undoubtedly very old. While is history is obscure, the ritual suggests a solemn and weighty binding of two parties. It is reminiscent of an oath blood which visibly reinforces the promise. It is a covenant ratified in blood that is all encompassing that fully binds the two parties together.

God has established covenants with a variety of people in the sacred story. There is another with whom a covenant is struck with blood. Jesus, who has set his face to Jerusalem, will walk the via cruces to Calvary and blood will be shed, a covenant ratified in blood that binds.

As I mentioned earlier, Luke is surely alluding to what will become of Jesus in Jerusalem. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems very much aware that he is prophet and Son of God. And Jesus knows the stakes.

“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’”

BLESSED IS THE ONE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD
Jesus knows what it will mean to be what and who he is. Yet, while knowing, he still goes. He sees his role, assigned by God, as a mother hen gathering her brood under her wing. Are you familiar with what happens when a fox gets into a hen house? My great uncle was a farmer of sorts. I don’t think he made a living of it but he had a hen house. Coincidentally on a day that we were visiting my great-uncle-farmer found a hen that had been killed by a predator. It might have been a fox. The hen was found at the small entrance to her roost. Inside that roost was a small score of chicks, each chirping madly and flittering wings. The mother hen had shielded the chicks under her wings for protection and ushered them into the roost. She would have then faced the predator, baring her breast so that the fox would kill her first, protecting her chicks. It is the only real defense the hen has against the wily fox. The flutter of feathers and chirping of young beaks were made by motherless chicks. Though their mother may be dead, they lived.

This is the image that Jesus chose to bring to us. Our covenant with God, formed through the blood of Jesus, means everything. The season of Lent is a time of repentance and a time to consider what it means to be in covenant with a vulnerable God, with a God who will suffer death, even death on a cross for us. And when we encounter our vulnerable God – when we encounter Jesus in the incarnation, in the garden, on the cross, and in the grave, the more we can grow to understand the strength of our own vulnerability. As we received the cross of ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. We were reminded exactly how vulnerable and human we are in this world. We are chicks shielded by our mother hen.

Similar to our marking on Ash Wednesday, we are also marked at our Baptism (though this marking is permanent). We are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever. In so being marked, God, through the Sacramental ministry of the Church, charges us with the imperative to love like that mother hen who opens her wings wide and exposes her heart to the fox. God charges us to love like someone who is in covenant with God. God charges us to love with a fierce and trusting love that encompasses all that which God possesses.

It is a love found in the universal reign of peace, described in the Franciscan blessing:

May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships,
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer from pain,
Rejection, starvation and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in this world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.

Amen.
(Irish Franciscans OFM)

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