Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent, "Extravagant Grace"

Sermon 2/28/10, Luke 13:31-35, Philippians 3:17-4:1

Extravagant Grace

I’ll start by admitting to you up front that I had a hard time writing my sermon this week. Originally, I’d been thinking that my friend Richard, who was scheduled to sing a concert here yesterday, would also be singing during worship, and we’d talked about just doing readings around his songs, on the theme of Extravagant Grace. We’ll talk more about that theme in a few minutes. But the important part is: originally I wasn’t going to preach a sermon today. So back last month when my colleagues and I were talking about the texts for Lent and how we would preach on them, I didn’t worry much about the strange gospel lesson for today. I knew I wouldn’t be preaching. But then, as I spoke more with Richard, we realized that he would probably only sing a few songs today – and so I started to make space for a short sermon – but I was still thinking of focusing primarily on his music as the message of the day. But finally, on Friday, Richard had to make the decision not to be here this weekend due to damage to his home from the snowstorm in the New York City area. And suddenly, this tricky text I’d been ignoring came back to the forefront. And I just wasn’t feeling it. I couldn’t get into this text, and couldn’t make it relate to the theme that has been working so well for our other Lenten texts.

Our theme, for those of you who weren’t able to attend our Ash Wednesday Service last week, is Extravagance. Though we consider Lent a time of fasting, penitence, reflection, and repentance, I want us to consider what all that reflecting helps us to see more clearly: the abundant and extravagant love God has waiting for us.

But then we’ve got this kind of strange gospel lesson or today, that doesn’t fit as well, in my mind, as our other lessons over the next week. It’s a short passage. Jesus has been teaching and travelling, teaching as he journeys from place to please. And now, Jesus is in Jerusalem, and some Pharisees, shown here in a more positive light than usual, come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill Jesus. We don’t know exactly what sets Herod off, but if Herod is a King, and Jesus is a charismatic leader who seems to draw crowds wherever he goes, who teaches with a different authority than Herod can muster, and who can heal and do miracles, we can guess that Herod was threatened by Jesus. But Jesus is not swayed from his purpose. He says, “Go and tell that fox for me” that I’m busy casting out demons and healing people, and that my work isn’t done until it’s done. Jesus is very clear about his plan, his purpose, and his identity. Jesus casts himself in the role of a prophet, knowing that it is in Jerusalem, a city with a history of rejecting prophets sent to it, that Jesus must complete his journey, which he knows will end in his own death. Today we tend to confuse prophets and fortune-tellers. We think prophets are people who predict the future. But prophets are actually truth-tellers. In the Bible, they were people who would call attention to the truth that no one wanted to hear, and talk about the potential consequences for ignoring the truth. This sometimes made prophets very unpopular, especially when they were critical of political leaders. Jesus casts himself in that role – he has come to tell the truth about God and God’s kingdom and how God calls us to live. And some people really didn’t want to hear it, and, like Herod, felt threatened by how Jesus was calling them to change their lives.

Jesus responds to his rejection in this passage by lamenting over Jerusalem. He certainly took no joy in people who would not listen to him. He took no joy in those who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand his message about God’s love and grace. And so he laments, and speaks about how he’s longed to gather Jerusalem to him like a mother hen gathers her brood. And after his lament, Jesus notes that he won’t be back to the city again until the day we know as Palm Sunday, when he’ll be greeted, albeit briefly, with triumph and celebration.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” For me, this image is focal point of this passage. When Jesus uses this imagery of wanting to gather the people of Jerusalem like a hen gathers her brood, his words tell us a lot about the kind of relationship he seeks to have with us. As I was preparing my sermon, I asked one of my friends for his thoughts about this text, and he responded, “Have you ever been around chickens? Let's just say a mama hen gathering her chicks is not a cuddly bird. [Hens] actually do [a] sweeping motion with their wings and then sort of sit on their chicks! [It] brings a whole new meaning to ‘like a mother hen gathers her chicks!’” In other words, a hen gathering her brood is a protective parent protecting her children, making sure no one else is interfering, and making sure that her chicks are doing what she wants them to do, even when the chicks have other ideas. This parent-child image works for our relationship with God on many levels.

If you aren’t as familiar with a how a hen gathers her brood and tucks them safely and soundly under her wings, then we can perhaps relate to the same behavior in our own human parent-child relationships. Of course, I think immediately of my nephew, Sam. Sam is 2 ½, and he challenges my brother and sister-in-law with his frequent refrain: I want to do it myself. Sam is really into testing his boundaries right now, pushing the limits. If he’s in trouble and has to stand in the corner, he’ll inch out, step-by-step, just to see when Mommy will catch on. And the other day, when he was being particularly mischievous, my brother asked him: “Sam, are you trying to make daddy mad?” “Yes,” was the answer. “Why?” “Because I’m naughty.” At least he was honest. Sam’s parents have to strike the right balance – they have to set limits for Sam, and they also have to let him grow and explore and sometimes make his own decisions, something he will do more and more as he grows up. But even as Sam grows, they’ll want to protect him and keep him safe, and will wish more than anything that they could make things good for him in his life.

So when I think about this passage from Luke, and what Jesus says, I notice several things. Jesus says that he has often, many times, wanted to gather the people of Jerusalem like a hen gathers her brood, but that the people were not willing. And we also have Jesus, in this same passage, talking about Herod as a fox – an animal that would particularly pose a threat to chickens. Jesus speaks as a parent who wants to protect children from danger. And Jesus speaks of this as an ongoing condition, an ongoing way he feels about the people – he doesn’t just write them off when they don’t listen. He longs for relationship, and longs for the people to respond to his repeated invitations. We also note, though, that Jesus isn’t forcing this relationship on anyone. He’s not going to force the chicks under the hen – as much as he longs for it, he won’t make anyone follow him. The choice is always up to each one of us. And finally, even if we won’t follow, even if we won’t be gathered, Jesus can’t turn off his path to wait for us. We don’t have to go with Jesus if we don’t want to. But he does have to go.

We see God’s extravagant grace, over-the-top grace, in God’s longing desire for relationship with us, in God’s never closing the door on us. We see God wanting to be in relationship with us even when we, like Sam, just outright seem to want to be naughty, or when we insist on doing things ourselves, even though with God’s help we’d get along a lot better. God’s extravagant grace comes in ultimately letting us make our own decisions, even when our own decisions leave us with messes we end up blaming on God. But ultimately, we see God’s grace when we see that Jesus will journey to Jerusalem even when we won’t go with him. Jesus will make the journey that gives all for others, that sacrifices self, that makes first last so that we might live – Jesus makes that journey whether we will go with him or not. Gods’ gift of life and love to us doesn’t depend on our gracious response to the gift, thanks be to God.

Still, Jesus is longing, offering again to gather us in, gather us together. Longing for relationship. In Lent, season of renewal and repentance, we have a chance to again follow on this journey, even if we haven’t gone before. Are you willing? Amen.

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