A reflection on the readings for Lent 2C: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35 by Janine Goodwin, M.A., M.S. Ed.
I usually begin the preparation for a sermon by doing some quiet homework.
I study commentaries and use the prayer discipline of lectio divina, working to see the present through a particular Scripture story.
Sometimes, though, an event brings me to the scripture through experience first. This is one of those times.
Last week, after working as a substitute musician in the local Episcopal parish for Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, I planned to begin studying, let the knowledge sit quietly for a few days, and then write. A casual decision to check the local newspaper’s webpage changed all that: we learned that a white supremacist group is planning to move its headquarters to a small town near us. Suddenly, my husband and I were caught up in a set of tasks we had not expected: phone, email, and Facebook discussions; learning more about the hate group from various sources including the Southern Poverty Law Center; finding out about informational events, protests, and prayer meetings; making the decision to show up and be a small part of the community’s response.
I had less time and much more motivation to spend time with Scripture. I carried the bulletin insert for this Sunday’s readings folded in my coat pocket and read it in the car on the way to and from church and events. My instinct was to hold Scripture close to me, an instinct I identified with the small Bibles my grandfathers reads in the trenches of the First World War. On the first Sunday of Lent, we read Psalm 91, the psalm my father’s father said every day of the war as a prayer for safety, and I remembered him. My grandfather fought in the “war to end all wars,” a conflict whose unintended consequences included the group I am opposing now. In the timelessness of God, I believe we prayed together for our own safety and for the healing of the world. The familiar psalm had a new private meaning for me, a new public meaning for the local church as its members asked for strength and courage. Scholarship is good, study is good, and in times of trouble we use Scripture in simple and immediate ways that are also good:
Grandpa’s worn Bible and my crumpled bulletin insert were ways of reaching for God’s hand in troubled times.
The presence of Scripture was a comfort, and the call to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” it is always our responsibility. I went to the readings for the second Sunday of Lent asking for insight as well as strength. Scripture came alive in new ways. New perceptions and new questions began to appear. I prayed Psalm 27 first. It reminded me that God is present to us, we are not alone, and we have hope. It called me to offer multiple kinds of prayer: prayers of trust and gratitude, prayers for God’s protection and presence and for opportunities to serve, pleas to be heard, praise, and the prayer that listens for what God is calling us to do. That last kind of prayer, listening prayer, is the one that is hardest for me and the one I most need to do. Psalm 27 can remind us that prayer is the first response to any challenge, the response on which all others are built.
Next, I puzzled over the covenant with Abram, thinking of the ways this ancient sacrificial rite has been interpreted over the years. God makes covenants with us, fulfilling the fundamental desires of our hearts and accepting the gifts we bring, answering our questions, acting in the deep and terrifying darkness of our sleeping souls. The hate group calls itself a Christian church; I wondered how they would interpret that passage, how they use Scripture to promote their cause. How do we humans distort God’s words to us and God’s love and generosity? How can we be freed from those distortions? What might various people or groups assume wrongly, or miss, about the stories that come from cultures and times far removed from our own? How have people used the stories of sacrifice to justify destruction that God never intended?
From Philippians came Paul’s warning about the enemies of the cross of Christ and the promise of citizenship in heaven. Paul wept over those enemies. He was uncompromising in his description of their actions and the consequences of those actions. We are tempted to hate those who practice hatred, destruction and arrogance. If we do not hate in return, others (or we ourselves) may see us as cheerful wimps who don’t understand the magnitude of the situation, yet Paul shows a tough clarity that is free from either bitterness or compromise. How does he do that? How can we learn to be like him, strong in our faith and clear about what is wrong, yet without self-righteousness?
Finally, I came to the Gospel. It is only the second Sunday of Lent, but already in this story we see Jesus headed toward Jerusalem. He is opposing the powers of his world with an integrity that leads him into multiple kinds of danger. The obvious danger is the violence Herod may commit. The hidden danger is the deception and trickery others try to practice in the very act of pretending to warn him about that violence. Luke Timothy Johnson tells us that the Pharisees, who do not believe in prophecy, are trying to make Jesus deny his prophetic identity. If he turns away when he is warned, the Pharisees will know he is not a true prophet. If he continues toward Jerusalem, Johnson says, “they will have to confront his claims explicitly and reject them explicitly.” Jesus doesn’t take the bait, nor does he try to trick them in return. He is not intimidated and not fooled. He answers veiled hostility with strength and integrity. He says openly what he is going to do, and tells them to go tell “that fox”
Herod all about his actions and his approaching death. Then he grieves for the people of Jerusalem, the very people who will soon call for his death.
Then the incarnate God shows his manipulative questioners an image of himself that is as far as possible from the conquering leader they expect a prophet to be. He calls himself a mother hen, calling her little ones to safety. He does not present them with an image of God as an angry and powerful warrior, but with a fiercely loving, mothering God who wants to spread her wings over her children and protect them. If Herod is a clever, scheming fox and Jesus a brave and loving hen, Jesus is not placing himself in a position of power and victory, but of courage and sacrifice.
Faced with a sneaky predator, he puts himself between the fox and the ones he would still protect, even though they will not come to him.
What does Jesus offer us as we work to oppose preachers of hate? I believe that he calls us to meet their deception and violence with absolute refusal and without compromise, with clarity and honesty. I believe he still hopes to gather them in and heal them if they will choose to accept his infinite, motherly love. That love is not easy to accept. It demands growth and change that are often painful, and never settles for easy answers. It does not make us invulnerable to the evil others may choose to do, though our trust in God tells us that love always overcomes that evil.
Jesus continues on the way of truth and calls us to follow him. He does not run from danger. He does not give in to hostility. He puts the strength of creative love to work in a hostile world, and conquers death itself. Thanks be to God.