This reflection, offered by the Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 14, 2019, is built around the Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Palms and the Passion Narrative assigned for Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.
The reflection was offered just prior to the reading of the Passion.
Here is an audio recording of the reflection as offered at the 10:30 service
And the text from which the reflection was offered
This is a strange and difficult day.
It wasn’t that long ago that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and the crowds started turning to him in huge numbers. So many people were believing in, and following him, that the authorities put a price on his head and he had to move north to avoid being arrested.
But now he is back. He’s come south, from Ephraim to Bethany, to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and today he’s riding over the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem!
Those of us who have been following him are so excited that we have thrown our cloaks and palm branches on the road before him and we have declared him our King,
“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”
A triumphant entry into the city where God resides among God’s people. A parade, with singing and shouting, a moment of joy and celebration!
But in just a few moments it will all take a dark turn. Betrayed by one of his own, Jesus will stand before Pilate and the elders of the people on trial; and in that moment of decision, as the whole world holds its breath to listen… we will join our voices with the crowd and call for his crucifixion, sending him to the cross.
It is a terrible thing to see these moments juxtaposed, one right after the other. And if we are paying attention to what is happening, if we are present in this moment, it will shake us to our core, raising some very difficult and profound questions.
But then that is what this day, this liturgy, is meant, is designed to do; to shake us to our core, and to raise the very difficult and profound questions with which we will wrestle for the remainder of our Lenten journey.
In what ways have we chosen the politically expedient, the path of least resistance, the safety of quiet complacency or denial, and allowed Jesus, the Good News of God in Christ, Love come down, to be cursed, spat upon, and beaten, because the cost of standing by his side was too high?
In what ways have we turned our backs, pretending not to see, as Jesus and all that he stands for is, in the name of security, preservation of the status quo, profit, and Empire… nailed to a tree just outside of town?
Week after week we proclaim him and renew our commitment to follow where he leads. But today, today we hang him on a tree.
If we are paying attention to what is happening, if we are truly present in this moment, it will shake us to our core, raising some very difficult and profound questions; questions with which we will wrestle for the remainder of our Lenten Journey, and perhaps, beyond.
These are the questions which this day, this liturgy, is designed, is meant, to make us ask.
At the conclusion of the Passion reading this morning, we will not recite the creed, proclaiming our faith, because at that moment we may not be sure what we believe.
We will not pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church and the world, because, as Jesus hangs on a tree, we may not be sure that we have standing to plead before God on our own behalf or on behalf of others.
We will not confess sour sins and hear the words of absolution, because awareness of those sins may be too fresh, to immediate, for us to effectively, and genuinely seek forgiveness.
And to be absolved today, might let us off the hook for the rest of the week.
At the conclusion of the Passion reading this morning, we will spend some time in silence, and then we will move to the Eucharist, the sacrament that Jesus institutes at the beginning of today’s reading of the passion.
We will be fed. We will be offered some comfort and reassurance of God’s love.
And then we will be sent out, to wrestle with our questions.
Come back later this week.
Bring your questions on Maundy Thursday and marvel that Jesus is washing your feet.
Bring your questions on Good Friday in answer to the question – “Where you there?
And then join us on Saturday night and on Sunday morning as we gather once again, to hear God’s answer to our questions.
Here is a recording of the sermon at the 10:30 service
Here is a transcript of the recording
O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; *
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, *
that I might behold your power and your glory.
Please be seated.
We come here this morning with deeply troubled and questioning hearts.
And we’re here because we have heard that Jesus’s disciples are going to ask him about the people lost when the Tower of Siloam fell, and about those whose blood Pilot spilled in the temple in Jerusalem.
We’re here on this day because we ourselves have been bombarded with more bad news than we can bear. Most recently, we’ve heard of a cyclone in Africa that has left a huge inland sea in a place where people once lived. And we too have heard of blood spilled in a temple, this time in Christchurch, New Zealand.
If Jesus is going to be addressing events like these, then, we certainly need to be here!
Where else would we go?
Sudden tragedies like these, any loss at all, remind us of the fragility of our lives, of our own mortality. And they can fill us with dread and anxiety. And they raise some really uncomfortable questions.
How can a loving God allow such things to happen?
How can God allow these unspeakable injustices to persist?
Those are deeply troubling questions that we have wrestled with ever since we became aware of that presence outside of ourselves, the source and ground of our being, that is God. And it would seem that the folks gathered here around Jesus this morning have defaulted to a comfortable answer. A comfortable answer that is as old as the question itself…
“The people to whom these things happened… the people upon whom the tower fell, the people who died in the temple, somehow they must have deserved it. They must have earned what happened to them. You see… God is just and good. Don’t blame God for what happened. Those people got what was coming to them.”
That’s how the disciples arrived that morning. But Jesus is having none of that!
This whole exchange reminds me of this illustration that keeps showing up in my Facebook feed. It often has different texts, different word bubbles. But this one has a very handsome, long haired Jesus, sitting on a park with a young man, who is well dressed, and they’re in conversation. In this particular version the young man says, “You know I have always wanted to ask you why it is that you allow suffering: hunger, poverty, homelessness, disease, to persist in the world.” Jesus looks at him and says, “You know that’s really funny. I was going to ask you the same thing.”
Jesus says to the people who are gathered here this morning with him,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you;”
that’s not how it works…
“but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
The question of Theodicy, how is it that a loving God allows suffering to persist in the world, is not a question that Jesus is interested in dealing with this morning. That may be the question that we came to ask, but he has now turned the tables, aiming that question squarely at us!
In New Zealand it took two days for the government to start talking about banning military style assault weapons. And six days later they were announcing a ban and starting a buy back program.
In this country, after the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook, a huge majority of people favored new laws, closing and the gun show loophole, and stepping up our background check programs. And our elected representatives ignored our voices, and voted those laws down!
We have elected representatives in this country who use fear to blunt our reason.
They use thinly veiled hate speech to paint others as our enemies, and then, when someone acts out against the enemies that they have devised to keep us divided, they pretend that they are surprised.
They deprive our LGBTQ brothers and sisters of their basic human rights and dignity, depicting them as less than human, and then they twist our Holy Scriptures and use them to justify their bigotry and hatred.
Right here at home, for several years, study after study, nationally published studies, tell us that Dane County, not Milwaukee, not Birmingham, not Montgomery, not Selma, but Dane County; right here where we live, is the worst place in the country to raise African American children!
We have known this for years… And we, who have promised to “Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves…” We, who have promised to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being…” we still struggle to believe those reports and to work to end
The evil we have done
The evil that enslaves us
And the Evil done on our behalf.
It’s scary. It’s convicting, to think that we allow these evils to continue because we are complacent, tired, inattentive, afraid, because we feel powerless. But you have to ask yourself what agenda is really being served here? And what is it that’s so important… What perceived slight or wrong is so egregious that we would fail to speak up; fail to stand up for those who are being injured, diminished, demonized, and oppressed?
Why haven’t we demanded the changes that are needed in order for us to live in peace and love, to live in a world defined by who it is that we claim to be? Why haven’t we made sure that the people whom we elect to lead us are moving our society towards the fulfillment of God’s dream for all of God’s children? It’s even scarier to wonder if we are perhaps allowing these evils to continue, even perpetuating them ourselves, because we somehow profit or benefit from them?
Could it be that we are allowing these evils to persist to protect our own privilege, our own power, our own wealth, status, and rank? Could it be that we are allowing them to continue because we don’t really believe in God’s abundance, and if someone else gets theirs we might not get ours? Those are scary questions to contemplate because they cut right to the very core of who we are! But those are the questions that Jesus won’t let us to duck this morning.
We come here today wanting to know, trying to make sense of the presence of suffering in the world. “How can a loving God allow such pain, injustice, and horror to exist?
And Jesus looks us straight in the eyes and asks us why we, not God, not “they,” not someone else, but we… Why are we allowing these evils to persist?
And then, as if that weren’t bad enough… Jesus tells us that if we don’t repent of these evils, we will perish just like the people in the temple whose blood was mixed with their sacrifices!
What does that mean? How can that be? Is a tower going to fall on us? Do we need to lock the doors to the church and place armed guards on the front porch?
This should sound familiar to you…
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
“German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller wrote this poem about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group.” 1
And given all of that, and all that we’ve thought about this morning, it’s not hard to imagine that these evils persist, they will, eventually, get around to focusing their attention on us, and that we too, might perish.
But it is worse than that… It’s worse than that.
If we are perpetuating these evils, if we are allowing them to persist because we are complacent, tired, inattentive, or afraid… Or even worse, because they somehow benefit us, because they prop us up… and because we are afraid that we might lose something if they are challenged and stopped… then my brothers and sisters we are already perishing!
O God, you are our God; eagerly we seek you; *
our souls thirst for you, our flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
If we are allowing these evils to persist, we are cutting ourselves off from the very ground, source, and being of our lives…
If we find ourselves in this position we will forever have to hide behind the bushes and separate ourselves from God for fear that we will be found out. If that’s what’s happening… we are already perishing.
The good news in today’s gospel is first, and may not feel like such great news right now, Jesus isn’t letting us off the hook! He’s here this morning calling us out, making sure that we’re paying attention, asking us hard and difficult questions, so that we can grapple with the truths of our own lives the lives of the people around us.
He’s also here, and this may not sound like great news either, pilling manure on us, asking for more time, tending to us here in the vineyard, nurturing, pruning, shaping, so that we can begin to bear good fruit.
In all of this Jesus is our advocate, our companion, our teacher, and our friend. And in all of this he is giving us the opportunity to repent and to cease to perish.
A recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 service:
Here is a transcript of the recording:
Sometimes a preacher wakes up in the middle of the night on Sunday morning, and something comes to them that changes everything they’ve been thinking for the past week. Sometimes that thing comes later in the morning when they get up and open the news sites on their computer, just to check, and they discover that what they’ve been doing all week is writing a sermon no longer works.
Those are terrifying moments. But my experience this week was very different. All week long I thought about a sermon. I took notes. I jotted things down. And then on Thursday, when I actually set about to write, something about those words felt very familiar. So, I went back and looked, and sure enough, I was writing the same sermon that I wrote about this passage six years ago, in Lent of 2013. Now, while those middle of the night moments are pretty terrifying, you would think that discovering that I was re writing a sermon that I already knew really well would be a happy moment… but it was kind of terrifying for me to discover that that sermon still applies today, six years later.
I have adjusted this sermon a little bit to account for the fact that I have now been to Jerusalem and stood in the place where this morning’s story happened. But hear again, a sermon that was written in February of 2013.
Jesus said that he longed to gather the children of Israel under his wings like a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings… Is Jesus really talking about… chickens?
I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC… Not a lot of contact with chickens there so I don’t know a lot about them, but the little bit that I do know got me in trouble one time. The summer after I graduated from college, I was with a bunch of coworkers in central Pennsylvania who were sure that I was a “city kid,” and having worked all summer to dispel that idea I blew it when around the corner of a building came the first flock of live chickens I had ever seen. I stood there transfixed, and when they asked me what was going on, I confessed that I was trying to figure out where the drumstick was… A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing!
Now, I don’t know a lot about chickens but I do have a pretty good idea of what happens when a fox gets into the henhouse. a Fox in the henhouse means panic, voices raised in terror and pain. A fox in the henhouse means the sound of running feet, carnage, blood, death.
And when a fox enters the henhouse, there is nothing a Mother Hen can do but rush to her chicks defense, sacrificing herself to save them from the jaws of the destroyer.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is responding to a group of Pharisees who’ve come to tell him that Herod wants him dead. And Jesus’s response to that threat, the threat from Herod the fox, is surprisingly dismissive. He doesn’t seem to be worried about his own life at all. And the language that he uses, the pictures that he invokes, his cry of lament over the children of Israel, shift our attention, and tell us that there is a greater threat here than the one posed by Herod.
Jesus is pointing out that the children of Israel have a choice to make and that they have, for a long time, chosen to follow not the loving mother hen, but the fox!
Herod Antipas, the fox who wants to kill Jesus, rules Galilee as a client state of Rome. He is a traitor, a collaborator, a participant in the oppression of his own people. He is also the son of Herod the “Great.” It was Herod the “Great” who had the innocents slaughtered in an attempt to eradicate the newly born King of the Jews that the Magi were seeking. Herod the “Great” had his own children executed for fear that they were plotting to steal his throne. So, Herod Antipas came from a long line of people willing to do anything, including killing their own chicks and the chick of others to maintain their hold on status, rank, privilege and power. You would think that a threat from this man would be enough to grab the attention of an itinerant preacher as he makes his way through Herod’s domain, and yet even here, with his life threatened by the “fox,” Jesus keeps himself focused on a larger concern. When Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen, and laments the history of Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:34), we realize that the “fox” he is referring to is something bigger than Herod Antipas, first century Palestinian Jew.
Jesus is really, is really talking about an understanding of the world and it’s power structures that stand in opposition to the vision, the dream of God for all creation. The “fox” in this parable represents our tendency to take what we need, to subjugate others to our agenda, to marginalize and to ride roughshod over the poor, the weak, and anyone else who doesn’t have or can’t wield the power that we think we have and deserve. Jesus is telling us that the “fox” is already in the henhouse and that there is a choice to be made. Are we going to align ourselves with the fox, in the hopes that we might be spared by the preservation of the status quo; that we might be allowed to continue to run our own little corner of the henhouse; or are we going to cast our lot in with the mother hen, who has been trying for so long to gather us under her wings and shelter us from the power that would destroy us?
There is a choice to be made and, given the choice between a fox and a Mother Hen, the fox at first blush, might seem like a better choice. On the surface the Fox seems more powerful and attractive. The Fox offers perks and benefits, privilege and status, rank and recognition. The Fox would seem better equipped to defend itself and to defend us. Surely we can cultivate and tame the fox’s rage and penchant for blood, using it to our own benefit.
But there is this little problem with putting the Fox in charge of the henhouse. The Fox has a tendency to sneak in when no one else is looking, in the dead of the night, seeking to slake its hunger. And when we finally wake up and take stock, we will see that some of us are missing, or injured, trampled into the hard scrabble of the henhouse floor by the Fox’s destructive rampage. Once we have let the fox into the henhouse there is just no telling who might be deemed disposable, be discarded, be left out, or even go missing altogether. Yes, the fox is powerful, but in the end, no one is safe when there is a fox in the henhouse.
Standing here this morning, the slope of the Mount of Olives at our back, the ground before us falling away to the Kidron Valley, the Garden of Gesthemane down there at the foot of the hill, and the Temple Mount rising before us across the valley, the slope is covered with graves. The people of Israel have chosen the hill that is the Mount of Olives for a public cemetery. And in that rocky and steep soil, burials are above ground in stone crypts. And standing there you can see that the hillside is littered with the graves of the children of Jerusalem.
Right at our back is a Franciscan chapel called Dominus Flevit, which means “the Lord has wept.” And on the chapel altar is a mosaic, a picture of a mother hen with her wings spread wide, trying her best to look as ferocious as a mother and can look, with her chicks gathered up under her wings.
Here in this place Jesus is telling us your house is “left to you,” another way of telling us that our henhouse is left desolate, because we have refused to shelter in the shadow of the wings of the mother hen. Why are we so unwilling to turn our backs on the fox and cast our lot with the love of the Mother Hen?
It’s a frightening thing to reject the fox. It is even more frightening to step into the shadow of the Mother Hen’s wings because, as Jesus is pointing out when he shifts the definition of “fox” away from Herod and towards a view of the systems and structures that dominate and shape our lives, the choice we make will ultimately define the way that we live together, and who we are.
In an article published by the Christian Century in 1985 Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the Episcopal Church’s most gifted and treasured preachers asked,
“If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”
Now I said that in this passage, Barbara Brown Taylor asks a question. But you may have noticed that the end of that quotation there was a period and not a question mark. But you know… today’s Gospel reading didn’t end with a question mark, and there’s still a question there. It’s implicit in the clear distinction between two ways of seeing, being, and living in the world.
Jesus is asking us to turn away from the way of the fox; to stop participating in structures that oppress, crush and destroy; to recognize that the fox under whose standard we are gathered, will not recognize our past loyalty and support, but will destroy as all without regard or distinction.
Jesus is asking us to take courage from his example; to have faith in God’s love and promise; and to stand, as he did, wings spread, breast exposed, and to gather his children under our wings; to fly at the fox in defense of the weak and the poor the widow and the orphan, the forgotten stranger, the marginalized, the other…
Jesus is asking us to gather under the shadow of his wings and to let him rescue our humanity from the hard scrabble of the henhouse floor.
A recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 am service
Here is a transcript of the recording
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Please be seated.
It almost seemed like a dirty trick yesterday afternoon at about 6 o’clock when the snow was blowing sideways past my kitchen window. Here we are. It’s the first Sunday of Lent 2019, the first day of daylight savings time, in the middle of the winter that just won’t let us go. So I think it might be a good idea in this morning for us to turn our mind to some, perhaps, happier moments. I’d like to ask you all for just a minute to close your eyes and remember how you felt in those moments that seemed to change everything. Maybe it was the moment you got picked for the team, or for the show. Maybe it was graduating, or being accepted to school. Maybe it was when that one person said yes, or asked. Maybe it was the moment you learned that you would become a parent… Think about the joy that you felt in those moments, the astounding way that your body felt alive, your heart pounded in your chest, as the possibilities opened up before you. And then, acknowledge with me if you will, the anxiety that came just a little while later. Will I be good enough to stay on the team? What kind of actor will I be? What kind of student will I be? How will I study and what will I study? What kind of partner, what kind of parent will I be? And how will I know how to do all of these things?
If you’re feeling that moment of question and doubt, imagine how a young man from Nazareth in the Galilee must have felt. He’d heard the stories, the stories about an angel coming to speak to his mother. He’d heard the stories about the birth of his cousin John, the stories about the day when his mother and his aunt came together and sang with joy because they were expecting children. He’d heard the stories… and he had this recollection of sitting in the Temple at 11 years of age and answering the questions that the teachers posed, and then asking questions of his own that they struggled to answer. All his life he’d sensed that there was something different about him. All his life he’d wondered what it meant. And then, having gone to see his cousin John the Baptist ministering there in the wilderness, standing knee-deep in the muddy waters of the Jordan River, Jesus stood up water streaming from his hair and dripping from his nose and chin, and heard a voice that made sense of it all. “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
He must have been ecstatic to finally, finally understand and to be able to make sense of all of those stories… I wonder if that joy even lasted until his feet were on dry ground there on the banks of the Jordan. What does it mean to be the son of God, the Beloved? What is it that I’m supposed to do? How will I be this person?
The next thing that happens in Luke’s Gospel, after a short insertion of Jesus’s genealogy to give us the reader some evidence that this is in fact true about Jesus, Jesus goes into the wilderness. Now it’s important to note that in Matthew and Mark Jesus doesn’t seem to go of his own accord. In one of those versions he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. In the other he is driven into the wilderness. But here in Luke’s Gospel it says that the spirit led him in the wilderness. It’s like he went there of his own accord to work this out. To think about it. To ponder just what it might mean. To ponder his vocation and how he would live it out… and once he got there the spirit managed what would come next.
We don’t know when, during those 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus figured out what his vocation was, or his mission. We do know that as soon as he returns from the wilderness he goes home to Nazareth, he goes in to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, they hand him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he says this,
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And then Luke tells us,
“And he rolled up the scroll gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
Jesus returns from the wilderness with the understanding that his vocation, his mission, is to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. But an understanding of his mission and his vocation isn’t the only thing that he gained in the wilderness. He also learned, or declared how, he would live out that vocation.
Luke tells us that the devil came to him and said, “If you are the son of God turn this stone into a loaf of bread.” Surely, if it’s your mission and vocation to set the prisoners free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… if you can snap your fingers and feed people they’ll get right in line. They’ll do exactly what it is that you ask them to do because you will be able to meet all their needs. Jesus turns his back on that temptation.
So the devil tries again and takes him up and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and says, “If you are the son of God just take it it’s mine I can give it to you” and you will be in charge. You can tell them what to do and they won’t get right in line. You will have the authority to demand that they release the prisoners; they take care of the blind, the lame, and the sick, the poor… All you have to do is worship me and you will have the power to make them do whatever you want. But Jesus says no. Certainly, he would be a benevolent dictator, a benevolent autocratic ruler, but that’s not the way that Jesus chooses.
So the devil tries one more time, and takes him to the pinnacle of the highest point of the Temple, and says growing yourself off. Because if you’re the son of God the Angels will catch you before you hit the ground, and people will see that, and they’ll know without a doubt, in an instant, that you’re the one to follow. And they’ll jump right on board with whatever you tell them to do, because it would be foolish to not do what you say. And again, Jesus turns his back.
William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury for a few short years in the 40s, his tenure was cut short by his untimely death, speaks about The Temptations in the Wilderness as the temptation to coercion. Buy their allegiance. Force their allegiance. Prove that it would make no sense to do anything but get in line and follow you. All of those William Temple calls coercion because what God really wants, and what Jesus really wants in this moment, is not our allegiance. It’s not our trembling obedience. It’s our love. God wants us to love. And love cannot be coerced. I’m sure William Temple had never heard this phrase but you all have heard it, “If you can’t say no, it’s not love.” If Jesus were to try and buy us, by turning stones to bread, that wouldn’t be love. Forcing us wouldn’t be love. Even proving, as a matter of science, who he was, would deny us the ability to choose. And it’s only when we can choose, that love is possible. So, Jesus instead, walks out of the wilderness and chooses the path of the suffering servant, and it makes himself vulnerable to us, in the hope we will love in return.
That’s really great news if you think about it. Now it might be more expedient… It might have remedied a lot of the world’s problems that Jesus had chosen one of those other paths; if he was turning stones into bread, and feeding the poor; or making autocratic leaders who aren’t so benevolent step in line because he had the power to force them; or proving that it’s for our benefit, or to our benefit, to live the life to which he’s calling us. But any of those paths would have made us less human than we are capable of being. It would’ve denied us the ability to choose to love even when the evidence all points to the contrary, or when it might be easier to choose other paths to achieve laudable goals. It’s good news that God wants us to love.
And I think it’s very instructive to us as we enter the wilderness of Lent, to spend our own 40 days trying to discern how to live out our identity, given to us that our baptism, as beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased; as we try to figure out how we will live in this world, seeking to realize God’s dream and vision for creation in our own lives and in the community around us. It might feel good to get self-righteous and indignant and angry. It might feel good to yell and demand. But what Jesus does in the wilderness is turn his back on those behaviors, and to reach out, making himself vulnerable, and hoping that the relationships that are forged will lead to a community that lives its life together in light love and grace.
As we make our way through these 40 days we may have the opportunity to discover, within ourselves and in our lives, places where our anger, or our impatience, or our need to be right and to have the right answers, or to know the right way of doing things, gets in the way of love. We may find those things within ourselves impacting our families, our workplaces, the people with whom we interact in the marketplace, and in the voting booth. But in this moment, as we began our journey through the season of Lent, we are called to do the same thing that Jesus did; to walk out of the wilderness with our humanity intact, whole, loving, forgiving; willing to be vulnerable to change, to the needs of others and to their place in this garden with us.
Forty days. Forty days in the wilderness. Forty days in the season of Lent, with God as both our destination and our companion on the journey. Today we get a true gift, the knowledge, the truth, the understanding that it’s all about love; loving ourselves, loving our neighbor, and loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength; in the wilderness, at home, wherever we are. Love.
This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones, on March 6,Ash Wednesday, 2019, is built around the readings assigned for Ash Wednesday and the Invitation to The Observance of A Holy Lent found on page 264 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Here is a recording of the sermon delivered at the 12:00 noon service on Ash Wednesday:
Here is a transcript of the recorded sermon:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Please be seated.
It is to be sure a remarkable thing that we do this day. Wednesday, a work day, the middle of the day, 16° outside, and we have come together to take the first steps on a difficult and perilous journey; a journey that will be marked by beatings, imprisonments, riots… Oh, no wait. That was Paul’s journey. Our journey will be marked by self-examination and repentance, by prayer fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word. Not easy disciplines to keep. If they were easy, there would be no need to invite us all to enjoin in these practices at this moment. So, this journey through the season of Lent will be difficult. And while we’re not likely to suffer imprisonment, riots, labors, it will be a perilous journey; because during this season of Lent we will be called to look inside of ourselves and to see with God’s eyes; and to dare to name those places within us that we would rather not expose to anyone, maybe even to ourselves.
We will be called to identify those places in our lives that don’t fill us with joy and life, but which cause us some degree of pain, and shame, and discomfort. And during this season we’ll be called to wrestle with those things, and, perhaps limping for the rest of our lives, walk away from them, turning our backs on them, and turning back to God, the one who gives us light and life and joy.
So, it is a difficult and perilous journey that we undertake this day. And even more remarkable, I think, because in just a few moments we’ll come forward and kneel at this rail, and be reminded of our own fragility, our mortality. We’ll kneel here at the rail and have ashes smeared on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, and hear the words, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” a reality that most of our culture would like to ignore or even deny. And yet, we will come forward today and volunteer both for this journey and for this reminder.
Then, just a few minutes later, we’ll return to this rail, and we’ll hold out our hands, and ask for help. We’ll hold out our hands and receive the symbol and the sign of God’s ongoing presence in our midst and in our lives. We’ll hold out our hands and we’ll be reminded that, even as we walk this journey, seeking to rid ourselves of the things that hold us back, the things that chain us, God is walking by our sides. Even as we seek absolution, we are being forgiven. Even as we work to come closer to the heart of God, God is before us, behind us, beside us, within us; moving us along this path, holding us up and showing us the way. I think it’s probably accurate to say that without that reassurance of God’s presence, and love, and forgiveness; without the promise of that new light that will break at the end of this journey, we might not dare to take these first steps. Even together, this journey would be terrifying, if not for the truth, and the faith, and the belief, that at the end of this journey is God; and for this reminder that on every step of the way, as we make that journey to our destination, God is by our sides. So, this day we come together to begin a journey that will lead us ever deeper into the heart of God, and allow God’s light, and life, and love to shine more brightly within us and around us.
The world may wonder as we walk among them today with this symbol of death and mortality on our foreheads. And they may expect, as they look on us with that sign on our heads, to seem grim, disheartened, downcast, even afraid. I think that as we walk this earth with Earth smeared on our foreheads, we can do it with our eyes lifted up, with confidence, and faith, hope, and even joy. Someone greeted me after the early service this morning in the Narthex, and she said I guess is probably not appropriate to say Happy Ash Wednesday. But you know if you listen to this Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent, it says “Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the gospel of our Savior…” I can’t think of anything happier than a message of pardon and absolution. So, if someone looks at you questioningly, and starts to tell you, “Hey, you’ve got dirt on your forehead…” You just look at them and say Happy Ash Wednesday. Amen
It’s really great to see you all as we gather around the manger to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Christ, Emmanuel, God with us…!
And it’s pretty wonderful that we have this luxurious, spacious birthing suite here… But I think I need to check with my supervisor. I’m not sure we’re allowed to have this many people in here at one time…
(Looking up…) What’s that? Oh. OK. Yup it’s fine. But just this once…
You know nothing draws a crowd like a baby. They’re like a magnet. Sometimes, when there’s a new baby here on Sunday morning, the parents never make it to coffee hour because people swarm around them up here in the nave, just wanting to get close to the baby. But who’s to blame us right? Babies are amazing.
There’s the pure wonder in the physicality of them, the little tiny fingers complete with nails and wrinkles at the knuckles, the smell of their hair, why does a baby’s hair always smell so good? There’s the faces they make when they are waking up, the brightness of their eyes with they are alert, soaking everything up, learning…
And then there are the intangible wonders… the miracle of new life, the bond between mother and child, the tenderness, the love…
When we are around a newborn child we feel a special sense of connection, wonder, and awe.
But I would suggest that there’s something else about babies that draws us in.
They are dependent on us for everything. They need us to feed them, change their diapers, to protect them, to shelter them. They need us to interpret and understand when something is wrong and to know what to do about it. And the miracle in all of this dependency… Is that it doesn’t push us away. It actually draws us in.
In one of her TED Talks, Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, tells how her research has found that people who express a true sense of connection with the people and the world around them are people who embrace vulnerability.
They believe that what makes them vulnerable also makes them beautiful. They are willing to risk, “To do something where there are no guarantees. To invest in a relationship that may not work out. To say ‘I love you’ first.”
Taking risks, making ourselves vulnerable may, at times, leave us hurt or wounded but, according to Brown, “it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, of belonging, of love…”
Hear that again, the willingness to be vulnerable “… is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, of love.”
That might sound strange to you because we are taught early on that revealing, expressing sharing our vulnerability is a risky thing to do…
If we are vulnerable we may be seen as “weak.” And in today’s economy, being vulnerable or weak means that we will be judged as lacking. We won’t get picked for the team. Someone else will get the job, the promotion, the recognition. And pretty soon that “place” of “joy, creativity, of belonging, of love,” the place that requires us to be vulnerable, becomes a place that we avoid, deny, even resent…
We see a baby, totally dependent on us for everything, and their vulnerability draws us in because, somehow, we sense in that moment the possibility of something of which we can never have enough, joy, creativity, belonging, love.
There are other “places” where we might risk being vulnerable; music, art, the theater, even at the movies. But these can be solitary places. We close our eyes. We go inside. We may sit “together, but we do it in a darkened room.
But when we come together around that miracle of new life, when a newborn child is placed in our arms, when we see the potential that child represents, the risk undertaken in coming into the world; we can be moved to a place of vulnerability ourselves.
We find ourselves willing to invest our love in one who can’t yet, and may never, reciprocate. We become willing to share the things we hold most deeply, we find ourselves wanting to connect. And there, in the company of other people, maybe even looking them full in the face, we find ourselves, as a community bound together by our vulnerability, in “the birthplace of joy, creativity, of belonging, of love.”
No wonder we’re all here. No wonder we need to bend the rules to let everyone, and I mean everyone, into the delivery room tonight. The birth of a child is a gift that can help us to enter into a space for which we all desperately long. And this crowd? All of us here tonight, squeezed in around the manger? Well, this isn’t just any child.
This is God coming into the world, Emmanuel, God with us.
And even as this birth draws us into that place, allows us a moment to be vulnerable, our hearts are opened to a new reality, a new way of being…
Here by the manger we begin to realize that this place, this moment of tender connection, of risk, of vulnerability is the “place” where God lives.
That’s really hard to imagine. But joy, creativity, belonging, love, those things sound like God, don’t they?
God is here with us, as a newborn child, defenseless, dependent on us for everything… to affirm the value of vulnerability. And to model a way of being that will help us to see, to experience, to live in the world in a new way; a way that leads to the peace of God which passes all understanding.
Tomorrow, or later this week if you are lucky, when you go back into those other places, those same pressures will be there, trying to discourage you from being vulnerable, trying to get you to rebuild the walls that separate us one from another, from God, and even from ourselves. Those same pressures will be there, asserting that this was only a dream, that it isn’t real; trying to drag us from the manger and the truth that we have found here.
But when that happens, when allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to be who you are, to live in the birthplace of oy, creativity, of belonging, of love… remember what God has done here in this place and,
“Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
I almost made it. I’ve done a lot of my shopping on line. I’ve stayed out of the mall all season. I thought I had escaped. But on Thursday this past week I took the day to run some final errands.
I walked into the SERV store on State Street and it got me, an instrumental, made for the elevator in a doctor’s office version of…. The Little Drummer Boy!
I don’t know why I dislike that song so much. It might have something to do with that awful, Claymation, made for TV Christmas Special and the way it scared my kids when they were growing up… More likely it has to do with repetitive melody, and the lyrics… pa rum pum pum pum? Come on.
I hope that I’m not offending any of you, but I was greatly cheered this year when I saw a cartoon on Facebook with the Baby Jesus sitting up in the manger, looking at the Little Drummer Boy, and saying, “That has got to be the stupidest song I have ever heard…” I felt very vindicated…
But this week I’ve had a change of mind. All week long, as I worked with today’s lessons another song kept insinuating itself upon my consciousness. I didn’t think that it was possible, but this song has supplanted The Little Drummer Boy at the top of my Christmas no play list.
It’s not the melody. The melody is beautiful. It’s not the performance. The song is sung a’ Capella and is really well done. It’s the lyrics… well not exactly the lyrics, it’s the theology behind the lyrics, it’s what they teach us… or to put it more precisely what they rob us of…
In order to explain this, I need to back up a little… not that far really… only about 13 verses…
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you’” (Luke 1:26-28).
Now the Lectionary doesn’t have us read this part of the story, The Annunciation, this year, but it’s key to understanding why this song has me so worked up…
The Angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that God has favored her and that she will give birth to Jesus, the Son of God. At the end of this portion of the story Mary says,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
The Angel leaves and in the very next verse Mary is on the road to the hill country of Judea to see her Cousin Elizabeth. Now it’s important to note that the angel Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth, who was way past her child bearing years, was six months pregnant. It would have been about a three week journey for Mary to reach Elizabeth, and today’s reading tells us that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months. The lines immediately following Mary’s departure from Elizabeth tell the story of the birth of Elizabeth’s son, John… So, do the math…
Elizabeth was already six months when Mary got the news, add to that three weeks of travel and the three months that Mary stayed with Elizabeth before she gave birth. That tells us that Mary didn’t waste any time getting on the road to go see Elizabeth. She must have saddled up her donkey and left the next morning!
What was going on in her head? Nobody knew about this but her. Why the rush? She wouldn’t have felt anything different in her body, no signs that new life was stirring within her…
Maybe she rushed into the country side to see Elizabeth because she needed some confirmation, to hear that something, anything, that the angel had said was true. If Elizabeth was indeed expecting a child, then maybe the angel had been right about what would happen to her!
She was in a hurry but she had plenty of time to think. Three weeks on the road, to ponder what it meant for her, an unwed woman, engaged but not yet married, to be found pregnant. What would Joseph say? What would her family say? What would the people of village say when they found out?
Talk about your strange mix of emotions… You have to wonder how all of those fears play in her mind alongside the words of the angel Gabriel…
“And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1: 31-33).
“…the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35b).
Three weeks to ponder, to wonder, to think about how she might be received if she returned home pregnant; and what it might mean if God did indeed come into the world through her, an unmarried peasant girl from a small insignificant village in the Galilee.
So, can you imagine how she felt as she drew near Elizabeth’s house? I am sure that the closer she got, the more excited she became, the more her heart raced. I can just see her running from the yard to the door, calling out to her cousin… Elizabeth?!? Elizabeth?!?
”When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:41-45).
It’s incredible, almost beyond belief! Elizabeth is pregnant! Her unborn child recognizes the presence of the child that Mary is carrying! And Elizabeth knows without Mary even telling her, that Mary is pregnant!
“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me,and holy is his name’” (Luke 1:46-49).
I know it must feel like it was a long time ago, but remember when I was going on about a Christmas song that has been on my nerves all week? Here’s where it wants to play.
A music video opens, the a Capella group Pentatonix, with candles in their hands, gathered in a cave probably very much like the one where Jesus was born on the hillside in Bethlehem, starts to sing and they ask… Mary did you know?1
“Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water, Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?”
On and on the song goes, asking Mary if she had known all the things that Jesus would do, and finally, the song asks
“Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect lamb?
That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am. Mary did you know?”
It’s a beautiful song, and I can certainly understand why people find its presentation attractive, but it robs us of an essential part of Mary’s story. A part of her story that we really need to hear, now, today!
Listen to more of what Mary says in this moment:
“He has shown strength with his arm;he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).
Mary knew! Mary knew that God was coming into the world, not in the palaces of the wealthy, not in the company of the proud, not among the powerful seated on their thrones… And Mary understood that God coming into the world in this way would turn things upside down. Feed the hungry and lift up the lowly? Mary knew! And here, in the first chapter of Luke, Mary and Elizabeth are together, celebrating, laughing, singing at their wonder and joy that, at long last God,
“…has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever” (Luke 1:54-55).
“Here, Mary comes across less like a scared and obedient 15-year-old and more like a rebel intent on reorienting unjust systems.” 2
It’s important that we recognize, and not diminish or romanticize Mary’s part. Here, in the Magnificat, in Mary’s song of exultation and joy, we hear her full-throated, rebellious, proclamation that God is doing a new thing and setting about to change the world on our behalf!
Yes, Mary knew! And that’s a part of the story that we can’t afford to lose.
It’s important for us, here on the fourth Sunday of Advent, after weeks of longing and waiting, to be sure we understand what we are asking for. And Mary is here, singing her own song, in her own voice, to help us see the truth of the choice that lies before us in these coming days.
It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is two days away. Elizabeth has delivered her child John the Baptist, and his father Zecchariah has sung:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” (Luke 1:76)
Emperor Augustus has decreed that all the world should be registered. The whole world is on the move crossing borders, looking for home.
Mary and Joseph are almost to Bethlehem where they will be looking for a place to give birth to the child… to bring the Light of God into the world.
Tired, hungry, road weary, having traveled a great distance, they will come knocking on our door, asking us if we have room to let God in.
What will we do? Will we decide that we have too much to lose? Will our wealth, our abundance, our pride, our need to preserve our own power, lead us to tell these travelers that they need to move along. Find another place. There is no room here for what you bring.
Or will we, like this powerful young woman, have the faith to say, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word…’ throw open the gates, and let them in?
1 “Mary, Did You Know?” lyrics by Mark Lowry and music by Buddy Greene, 1991
2Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ in the Bible is revolutionary. Some evangelicals silence her. By D. L. Mayfield, The Washington Post, December 20, 2018