Sunday, February 21, 2016

Jerusalem -- Second Sunday in Lent

Luke 13:31-35
February 21, 2016

 She asked us to lament.
Lie down on the floor
weep, wail, wring our hands
learn suffering’s sound.

Unsure of this teacher
permitting us grief
we tentative students

persisted at blind happiness.
O! To reclaim that
blessed invitation.
Now my cry,

“my God, my God,
why have you forsaken us?”
would swallow the silence,

Subdue the void
left by that absence.
I would give heartbreak its voice,
sing agony’s crooked tune.

I would gnash my teeth
fashion sack cloth
drench my head in ashes.

If remorse could
stop Death from cradling
babies in his unrelenting arms,
if sorrow could melt

weapons like wax;
repentance dry the eyes
of every parent

of every child lost,
no sense, nor reason,
then I proclaim my remorse.
Shout apologies to the heavens.

I turn back, turn around,
change direction,
heed the prophet’s call.
Only Comforter, speak comfort. 

Cry hope. 
Soften stony hearts.
Reshape new from old, living from dying.
Teach us life, teach us love.

My God, my God, hear our lament.

            One of my favorite professors, Gwen Hawley, was the teacher in this poem. I was a student in her advanced group processing class, and the goal of advanced group processing was that we – the students – were to become a group. That sounds deceptively easy. Trust me, it is not. At one of our meetings each of us came to class upset, despairing, worried and anxious. Our emotions were based on different events in our lives, but we were all feeling just plain bad. Gwen took stock of the emotional climate in the room and declared that we needed to lament. We greeted her words with scared silence. “I’m serious,” she told us. “You need to lament.” She urged us to sit down on the floor and lament, wail, and gnash our teeth; whatever was necessary, whatever we needed. None of us could do it. No matter how much we may have needed to express our feelings, we were all too self-conscious and too uptight to vent them in such a dramatic and overt way. Gwen realized her suggestion was not going to take so she dropped it. But there have been many times since when I have wished to go back in time and take her up on her offer to publicly lament.
            Last fall, I desperately wanted to lament as Gwen suggested. I wrote this poem back in October. I wrote it after I’d seen pictures of a baby washed up on a beach. I wrote it after I’d seen yet another picture, this one of this baby’s father, his features distorted by agony; a father who had tried to save his two little boys and his wife only to lose them to the sea. I wrote this after I read story after story of other refugees. I wrote this after I heard another news report about another child being lost to gun violence, and another child being lost to neglect, and another child being lost to indifference. I wrote this poem back in October because I was utterly overwhelmed with the sorrow and pain and violence we see play out on the news every night; sorrow, pain and violence that is international, national and local. I wrote it because I needed to put my own heartbreak into words.
            I realize that it may seem self-serving to use one of my own poems to begin this sermon. I apologize for that. But this poem is about lament, and lament features prominently in our story from Luke.
            Although lament is the overall theme of this story, in the first two verses Jesus sounds more irritated than mournful. Some helpful Pharisees came to him and warned him away from entering Jerusalem. “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
            But Jesus refused to be scared off by their warning.
            “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.’”
            “Go and tell that fox for me.” Jesus swatted away their warning as you would an annoying fly. I’m sure his response would have surprised, if not shocked, the Pharisees and probably anyone else privy to that conversation. Herod was a dangerous man and a dangerous ruler. This was the same Herod who had innocent children massacred because he perceived the birth of one baby to be a threat to his power. In order to save face in front of his guests and to placate the desires of his wife and stepdaughter, he had John the Baptist – whom he liked – beheaded. He was not a tyrant whose bark was worse than his bite. His bite was pretty bad.
            Some scholars question the motives of the Pharisees who warned him. Perhaps they understood that Jesus going into Jerusalem would cause more trouble for them than they could handle. So if they could keep Jesus out of Jerusalem by warning him about Herod, then it would make life easier for them as well. But Jesus could not have cared less about their warning or Herod for that matter. He was not going to be bullied into staying away from Jerusalem. Jesus had kingdom work to do. He had a ministry and a mission and a purpose to fulfill. He would not be kept out of Jerusalem because Herod was breathing threats against him.
            His words, “because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem,” makes it clear that he knew the dangers the city held for him. He knew where his path would lead. He had been trying to make that clear to the disciples for some time. Ahead lay the cross and his death.    Herod’s threats meant nothing to Jesus. He had work to do, and he was going to do it.
            Yet as he pondered Jerusalem, Jesus’ irritation gave way to lament.
            “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!”
            Jesus’ poignant lament for Jerusalem tears at my heart every time I read these verses. The imagery Jesus used to describe himself paints a vivid picture of the people in that great city. Have you ever watched chicks? They move frantically but without purpose. They may see where they are but they are lost. They need the mother hen to pull them into the safety and shelter of her wings. They need her to orient them and guide them. But until they are gathered together, they are vulnerable and alone.
            So too were the people of Jerusalem. The further we move through this season, the more abundantly clear this will become. The people were lost. They killed their prophets, the people who came to bring them God’s word. They stoned those who came to lead them back to the right path. And they would kill the One who wanted only to gather them together like a hen gathers her chicks.
            Jesus lamented for Jerusalem. Jesus lamented for its people. Jesus lamented.
            We understand Jesus’ lament because we know what happened when Jesus reached the city. But do we ever wonder if Jesus’ lament continues? Do we ever wonder if he laments for the modern city of Jerusalem – the city that is called home by three religions? Do we consider the lament Jesus makes for the violence that happens there between people who should know better? Not only should they know better, they should recognize that regardless of whether they are Christian, Jew or Muslim, they are kin!
            But I don’t want to point the finger at Jerusalem. I can’t point my finger at them, because first I have to point it at me. I do wonder if Jesus laments over Jerusalem, but I wonder more if he laments over the Church that bears his name.
            What poignant cry does Jesus make when he considers the Church – our church and every church?
            “You who call yourself Christian; you kill one another in my name. You use my words as weapons. You spend considerable energy, time and resources working away at the specks in the eyes of others, while the logs in your own eyes blind you. You live more for yourself than you do for the least of these. You have forgotten why you began. You have forgotten that this thing you call ‘Church’ is not yours but God’s. You have forgotten that you are called to follow. Instead you wander about lost, blind and alone. I have tried and tried to gather you together like a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you will not listen.”
            I wonder if Jesus laments over us the way he lamented over Jerusalem. I wonder this because my reasons for lament did not end last fall. Children continue to die needlessly. Extremists use terror – through violent acts and violent words – to keep others living in fear. People still live in desperate circumstances with no relief in sight. Just this morning, I read of another terrible mass shooting. This time it was in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A gunman wandered about the city shooting people at random. The need for lament is real and vivid.
            But I don’t want Jesus to have reason to lament over us. Nor do I want to get mired in lament. I want to act. I want to respond. I want to be the Church, to be the body of Christ in the world. I want to be the person God created me to be. I want to do the work God created me to do. I want that for all of us, for all of God’s children.
            Here’s the thing. No matter how me may feel like those lost little chicks, no matter how much the world causes us to lament, lament and mourning and weeping are not the end. We have hope that there is more. We have hope that this is not all there is. We have hope that the weeping will turn to laughter, the lamenting will transform into joy, and that our mourning will cease. We have hope because we believe that death did not win. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, and I suspect he laments over us. Jesus laments because he loves. Because of that love, we too can love and hope and rejoice. Lament is not the end. Love is. Love is the beginning.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”

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