In today’s lesson, we witness an argument between the Pharisees and Jesus. But there is so much more at stake then first meets the eye. We are witnessing a contest, in which fear seeks to triumph over love.
Jesus has been making his way to Jerusalem, while stopping along the way to teach, preach, and heal. And as Jesus was preaching to a crowd some Pharisees came up to him and said, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (Luke 13:31). Jesus responds by saying,
“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.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, 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! (Luke 13:32-34)”
The emotion in this exchange is palpable. Both Herod, who made the threat, and the Pharisees, who delivered it--and not out of kindness, are threatened by this wandering preacher, who was teaching, and healing, and bringing the message of God’s love to society’s outcasts. Jesus was bringing people together in a way that caused him to become a credible threat--both to the religious establishment and the local government. They thought if they threatened murder, it would scare Jesus and his followers into compliance. Except, much to their dismay, it didn’t work like that because Jesus was the real deal and no amount of fear tactics could ever drive him away.
There are two things that I think are particularly important to notice in this exchange.
The first has to do with the fact Jesus calls Herod a fox. In a lenten podcast, Bishop Fisher reminds us that foxes did not have the same characteristics we give them today, such as cleverness or sexiness. Instead, rabbis of the time considered foxes to be useless and worthless. Herod thought of himself as a lion, a mighty leader who had complete dominion over his kingdom. Yet Jesus flipped this idea on its head when he describes Herod as a useless and worthless fox.
In essence, he is saying, Herod, “Herod, you have no power over me. I’m performing cures, and healing. I have a life to live, and you can’t stop me from living it.”
In his podcast, Bishop Fisher suggests we do the same. What has power over us? Is it fear, is it addiction, is it depression, is it the copious amount of stuff in our homes? What if we were to to turn to that thing that holds us back, from being our fullest and best self, and say, “You have no power over me. I have important work to do. I have a life to live, and you can’t stop me from living it.”
The second important thing to notice in this passage, is that Jesus describes himself as a mother hen who longs to gather up her brood under her wings. It’s not the first time God has self described with feminine imagery. In Deuteronomy God is described as a mother eagle, and in Hosea God is described as a fierce mother bear. For some of us, it might be a bit uncomfortable to lean into the feminine aspects of God, given so much of our liturgy refers to God using masculine language. And know, that there’s nothing inexplicably wrong with praying to our father in heaven. It’s when we only pray to God using masculine language that we miss out on a deeper connection with our creator.
In Genesis, it describes how in the beginning, God created us in the image and likeness of God, both male and female. Then in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, he writes that there is no longer male or female, for we are now all one in Christ. The scriptures attempt to paint a picture of God, one where God is both male and female and at the same time no gender at all. The nature of God is bigger than anything we could ever conceive or imagine, so it is important that we notice Jesus describing himself as our mother hen.
As a parent, I take great comfort in these images of a mother eagle, bear, and hen. In fact, this past week there was not one, but two incidents, where my children were hurt, and my blood has still not stopped racing. I want to swoop in like a mother eagle, to roar at my adversaries like a mother bear, and to hide my children under my wings, so that I might protect them. Honestly, I couldn’t even imagine preaching on this text as my blood boiled within me.
And yet, isn’t that the point? That is how much our God loves us. Jesus is our mother hen, who wants to gather us under her wings, to protect us from the dangers of this world, even though she knows what awaits her in Jerusalem. To help us grow and flourish into the people we were born to be, so that together, we might transform this world into what God created it to be. Have you ever loved someone or something in that mother hen kind of way that Jesus loves us?
Do you remember how it felt when that someone or something was in danger? That is how God feels about us--that overwhelming kind of love that will stop at nothing to give us our very best chance.
In her book, Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor describes the scene from today’s gospel in a way I can’t stop thinking about.
“It may have looked like a minor skirmish to those who were there, but the contest between the chicken and the fox turned out to be the cosmic battle of all time, in which the power of tooth and fang was put up against the power of a mother’s love for her chicks. And God bet the farm on the hen.”
“Depending on whom you believe she won. It did not look that way at first, with feathers all over the place and chicks running for cover. But as time went on it became clear what she had done. She had refused to run from the foxes, and she had refused to become one of them. Having loved her own, who were in the world, she loved them to the end. She died a mother hen, and afterwards she came back to them with teeth marks on her body to make sure they got the point: that the power of foxes could not kill her love for them, nor could it steal them away from her. They might have to go through what she went through in order to get past the foxes, but she would be waiting for them on the other side with love stronger than death” (p. 129-130).
Our mother hen, Jesus, longs to gather us under her wings. So that we can gather all the strength and love possible, before we take those brave steps and leave the safety of our mother’s wings. Where we might dare to overcome our fears, to be our best selves, to come together and change this world into God’s greatest dream for creation. To tell that fear or addiction or depression or stuff that holds us hostage, “You have no power over me. I have important work to do. I have a life to live, and you can’t stop me from living it.”
We know it’s possible, we know it can happen, because we know what happens at Easter. We know that love will always conquer fear. Amen.
Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
When the 10 o’clock service in the Winter Sanctuary ends, the space will be transformed from a worship space into a space for our social gathering – for conversation and coffee. This is a rather mundane example of space and function being transformed or changed. Less mundane examples might be the faces of a couple in love on their wedding day – faces transformed by love from the stresses of wedding preparations – or the face of a mother seeing her newborn child following the stresses of labor. All of these examples are quite different from the God-centered and glory-filled moments that we’ve heard about in two of our readings this morning. People, as well as spaces, may be transformed, physically, as well as emotionally. Those who witness a transformation may also experience transformation themselves, as did Jesus’ disciples and Aaron and the Israelites, even though their transformation was short-lived. When we think of transformation, we generally think of change, a change in condition, nature or character, sometimes a change so great that it alters the person or place out of recognition entirely. Transformations can be as mundane as changing our worship space, to those that are life changing, or to the ultimate experience of God-with-us in glory that we heard about in our readings from Exodus and from Luke’s gospel. The latter we tend to name as transfigurations. They are invested with a spiritual or elevated character. When might such God-moments occur, in what ways and why? What other helpful tidbits might we glean from these two stories?
Before considering the “whys” and the “wherefores”, let’s step back a little and look at the context of the stories. Before the Exodus story of Moses’ receiving the tablets that was just read, Moses and the Israelites had left Egypt. Moses, being concerned about his authority over and his ability to lead his people, is anxious that God should accompany him on their journey to the promised land – the land flowing with milk and honey – but the people have so angered God that God tells Moses that God will send an angel to show them the way, but will not go himself, “or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people”, God says. Moses intercedes with God on behalf of the Israelites. As a result of Moses’ pleading, God shows God’s grace towards a fallen and recalcitrant people, is forgiving and promises to replace the tablets of the law that had been broken. God shows God’s delight by appearing before Moses on the mountain. Moses is transformed. Aaron and the people were witnesses to Moses’ glory at the foot of the mountain when he came down from his time with God. We’re told that he was with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights. Whether this is accurate or not, it demonstrates to us the need for prayer and time to be alone with God.
The account of Jesus’ transfiguration is recorded in all three synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew and Luke – and all are very similar. Jesus, like Moses, we’re told, went up on a mountain to pray. He needed to be quiet, to be closer to and to connect with God. Jesus took with him three of his closest disciples, who became witnesses to the event itself. Just before our gospel account begins, we’re told of Jesus’ recent visit to Caesarea Philippi. Here he shared with Peter, James and John that he wasn’t the kind of Messiah they were expecting – someone who would take over as ruler of their political universe – but that, in fact, the opposite would occur. He was going to be reviled by the authorities, undergo great suffering and be killed. What a shock that would be to his followers. I think Jesus knew that they would need reassurance for the test and trial that would come upon them also. Although Peter had recently declared that Jesus was the Messiah, I suspect that hearing Jesus’ words, he might wonder and question his statement. The journey to Jerusalem that Jesus was preparing to undertake was so momentous that I wonder if he didn’t need confirmation from God that he was doing God’s will. Jesus didn’t go to his friends for affirmation that he was doing the right thing, or ask himself what he wished to do. He went apart from the crowds to pray. There, on the quiet mountain slopes, he received what he and the disciples needed – a double approval of his decision – a visit from Moses, the law-giver and Elijah, the greatest prophet, followed by God’s appearance through the cloud.
Like Jesus, both Moses and Elijah had their most intimate experiences with God on mountains – Moses on Mt. Sinai, and Elijah on Mt. Horeb. We’re told in Luke’s story that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his forthcoming journey and subsequent death, as though they might be corroborating and supporting him to continue with his decision. Then, at the end of the account, a cloud overshadows the group and God’s voice is heard saying “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him”. Peter, James and John receive confirmation of who Jesus is – God’s Son, the Messiah. They, too, are transformed by their experience -though the results took a bit of time and growth on their part.
The transformations of both Jesus and Moses were physical, as well as life-changing. Their experience with God changed their appearance – their faces shone and Jesus’ clothing became dazzling white. Moses’ face shone so brightly that the Israelites couldn’t bear to look at him and his face had to be veiled. Both transformations offered their witnesses an opportunity to experience God’s glory. Could the veil signify a lack of understanding on the part of the Israelites, or were they really so dazzled by the brightness shining from his face?
Have you witnessed seeing God’s presence in someone’s face? Do you want to know more about their experience? Might you also have experienced being transformed like the disciples and the Israelites? God-moments might be in the form of dreams or visions, as well as during times of prayer and meditation. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at sharing these kinds of experiences with others. Do we fear ridicule if we share these moments, fear that we won’t be believed or fear of being thought crazy? Episcopalians, in general, aren’t very good at talking about such things, which is sad because there’s so much to be gained. It brings the listener, as well as the person experiencing transformation, closer to God. But, we’re in good company – we’re told in Luke’s account that Peter, James and John told no-one of their experience at the time!
Some churches provide time during a regular weekly service for parishioners to share experiences of transformation, of God moments. It brings these incidents into the realm of normal conversation and helps people to realize that they are not odd, strange or alone. Even though we may not have this opportunity at Sts. James & Andrew, I would encourage us to share with others we trust our experiences of God-filled moments.
The disciples, we’re told, were fully awake when they saw Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Previously, they had been “weighed down with sleep”. How often do we miss things because our minds are asleep? Are they closed to exploring new ideas? Sometimes, I think we don’t want to face our questions and doubts or acknowledge any disturbing thoughts. Several things can wake us from this sleepiness. Sorrow, love and a sense of need, to name a few, will jolt us out of our lethargy. What caused the disciples to wake I wonder? We can only surmise that it was the bright light of God’s glory. Fortunately, for us, they woke enough to be witnesses to, and eventually tell us about this amazing scene. They were so awed by what they witnessed, that they wanted to hang on to the scene as long as possible. Peter suggests building three shelters on the mountain to keep Moses, Elijah and Jesus there. Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, we can’t live our lives on the mountain top. We have to come down to living the rest of our ordinary lives, while, hopefully, retaining the effects of the experience in our minds and hearts.
I’m reminded of an experience I had a number of years ago. I was attending a healing conference and was asked to pray for a fellow Brit. He was someone who had the gift of healing himself and I felt a little intimidated praying for him. I knew he he’d been going through a difficult and unhappy divorce, so I put my insecurities aside and prayed for him. When I finished, his face and eyes were shining and he shared with me that he’d been taken to the top of a mountain in Wales – there’s the mountain motif again - where he used to hike as a teenager. There he’d experienced God’s healing love. For him it was a transformative experience. For me, as a witness, it was a confirmation of my ability to be a conduit for God’s healing. We both had to come down from the mountain top and resume our normal lives, but the powerful memory and its influence have stayed with me and sustained me over the years.
Another example I can think of is that of Charles Colson of Watergate fame. Do you remember him? The seven months he spent in federal prison, became for him, an opportunity to get to know God and a turning point in his life and behavior. He was so transformed by his experience that he changed from being the so-called “hatchet man” and law-breaker in President Nixon’s administration to becoming, on his release, an evangelical Christian minister and the founder of a non-profit prison fellowship ministry. St. Francis of Assisi, who as a young man, led a rather dissolute life, after reportedly hearing the voice of God while he was in prison, went on to found a leper colony, the women’s order of St. Clare, and had a following of Franciscan friars to whom he preached a Christian religion favoring a life of poverty.
Obviously, not all transformations are in the same category as the transfigurations of Moses and Jesus, but vary in intensity and impact. However, they all, whether large or small, bring some change in us and confirmation that God is with us always. Generally, they occur when we’ve been intentional in prayer, when we have a great need, like Jesus and the disciples, need direction and assistance, like Moses, or sometimes when God speaks through us to someone else – and sometimes when we least expect them. May we continue to be blessed by God-filled moments and be willing to share our stories to encourage others. I pray that we may stay awake to God and attentive to God’s presence in our lives. AMEN.
Rev. Dr.Molly Scherm
In this Epiphany season in our year with Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. Today we have heard the blessings and the woes, and next week we will continue with Jesus’ teaching about right behavior toward one’s neighbor.
In the narrative we’ve heard in this Epiphany season
And now he begins to teach what it is that the Realm of God looks like.
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, often talks about “God’s dream for the world”. In the teachings of the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus begins to outline just what it is that God envisions, what God dreams, what God pays attention to.
In short, God’s dream for the world pretty completely reverses the world as it is:
Those who are poor, who are hungry, who are weeping now are blessed by God,
While those who are rich, and full, and laughing now have had theirs, and will find themselves without.
Jesus echoes the words of Mary’s song, that God “fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty”. In the same vein, Jesus has described the nature of his own ministry using the word’s of Isaiah:
God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
Reversing the conditions of the world as it is.
We even see this in the details of the way Luke pictures the moment for us: unlike the sermon in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus ascends a mountain to teach, here Jesus stands on a “level place”, right in the midst of those who have come in need of healing.
His words, too, are direct: rather than declaring “blessed are those who…”, he speaks personally to those in need: “blessed are YOU…”.
There’s even a fascinating suggestion in Luke’s observation that Jesus “looks up” to address himself to the disciples. Have the disciples stepped apart from the unruly crowd to separate themselves?
Is he perhaps saying to them:
“These hurting folks around us are the ones who God notices, the ones God cares about. We need to do the same.”
Father Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the first to articulate the themes of Liberation Theology, observes that God has a “preferential love for the poor” not because the poor are any better than anyone else spiritually, but because they suffer in an unjust world, and because it is God’s nature to love where there is suffering.
If the world were divided into those who suffer and are blessed and those who are comfortable and are not, where would I find myself? It’s an unpleasant question to ask. So what do the blessings and the woes mean for us who are advantaged? Are we cursed to the extent that our lives are easy?
I think the wisdom Jesus offers here is that wealth and privilege are dangerous because they have the power to separate us from God and from the human community. When we are comfortable, we so easily lose touch with our need for God. We start thinking that the stuff of the world is what’s important and meaningful.
This is basically what we heard from Jeremiah this morning:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
(but) Blessed are those whose trust is in the Lord.
The opportunity those of us who have been either inadvertently or by our own efforts privileged by the world is to notice those who are without worldly blessings, who are hungry or lost or suffering, and to care about them, sharing what we have.
We are invited to stand on the level ground with those who are broken and oppressed, to address them personally, and to do something that makes a difference.
As I have been thinking about this gospel passage in recent weeks, I have thought a lot about one of the ministries of this parish that I am incredibly fortunate to be a part of.
The Caregivers Support group has met every other week since September 2016, as a place where those who are caring for a loved one with a chronic condition can be together. Members do both practical sharing of problem-solving strategies AND they support one another by listening with acceptance and understanding.
I have learned from my own listening in the group that living with chronic or progressive illness – whether as the sufferer or the caregiver – is an experience of loss. With serious ongoing illness
Jesus said “Blessed are you who weep”. Walking with the caregivers has shown me ways in which this is true.
The caregivers in the support group model and convey God’s love to one another as they listen, as they laugh together without judgement, as they offer practical tidbits of advice on how they have dealt with common problems. They offer God’s love as they care about one another’s losses.
I observe, also, that in acknowledging their fatigue, their fears and frustrations AND YET continually rising to meet the challenges that face them, these caregivers are experiencing the God who is within them and working through them.
Honestly, at the end of the day I don’t think any of us are exclusively woeful or exclusively blessed.
The Good News is that God hears us and cares for us, God is close to us and remains with us.
Our is to accept the blessing and to BE the blessing.
Let us stand together on a level place and listen to one another.