With My Arms Spread Wide

(Sermon for Sunday, February 24, 2013 || Lent 2C || Luke 13:31-35)

(Most sermons are better if you listen to them rather than read them. This one is especially so.)

Imagine with me a letter written by Simon the Pharisee some years after the events described in this morning’s Gospel reading.

henSimon, a servant of the Lord God, to Judith, my dearest sister and confidant: Peace to you and your house.

I know it’s an inside joke between us that I only write to you when I am vexed or need to process something, but in this case, I write with a more urgent need. Yesterday in the marketplace something happened that has shaken me to my bones. Not only that, but after all these years, this event has caused me to let go of a secret I had been holding onto so very tightly. I need to tell you the truth about myself before you hear others slander me. I hope after you read these words you do not think less of me; rather, I hope you might consider joining me in my new-found freedom. But I get ahead of myself.

Here’s what happened. I was walking with my colleagues, Eli and Reuben, when we witnessed a strange scene. A small boy, no bigger than your grandson, snatched a loaf of bread off a baker’s cart. The boy must have been on his last legs because as soon he turned to run away, he dropped to his knees, nearly fainting. The baker had the boy by the arm when a woman picked up the loaf of bread and handed it back to the hungry child, saying, “Go and eat your fill, young one, and may the blessing of the Lord Jesus Christ be upon you.”

Then she reached into her purse to pay the baker for the bread. But before she could pull out a coin, Eli and Reuben rounded on her. I’ve never known them to be the most zealous persecutors of the followers of the Way, but something about this exchange riled them up. They dragged the woman to the ground, hollering the whole time about her blasphemy. Her trial, conviction, and sentence were the work of a moment, and before I knew what was happening, Eli had a chunk of rock in his hand ready to throw.

I didn’t plan to do it. I didn’t mean to do it. But in the instant after I realized what Eli was about to do, I found myself standing between him and the woman, arms wide, protecting her with my body. It was too late for Eli to stop, and I took the impact of the stone on my left shoulder. “If you’re going to stone her,” I yelled at them, “then you’ll have to stone me, too.”

What I’m trying to tell you, dear sister, is that, for these long years, I have been a follower of the Way of Jesus Christ. But until yesterday, my fear of being disowned by everyone I know convinced me to hold tightly to the secret. Now that my true devotion lies unmasked, I feel suddenly free to share my story with you – and not just free, but full of joy.

You see, you never know on what day your life will change. If you did, then you might be more prepared. You might wear a clean shirt or wash your face beforehand. The day my life started to change was a day similar to yesterday. I was out in the marketplace with a couple of colleagues. Jesus and his disciples were making a scene: throngs of people were clamoring for his attention, and talk of miraculous healing was in the air. You might recall I had met Jesus previously when he came to dinner at my house. That first meeting troubled me because he was so different than the country bumpkin I expected. This second meeting replaced my uneasiness with the seeds of new conviction.

At the time, we Pharisees were tired of Jesus upsetting the apple cart. He had been in our region quite long enough, and we wanted him gone. So we concocted a story about Herod wanting to kill him. The tale seemed plausible enough; after all, Herod had beheaded Jesus’ cousin John and then just continued on eating his dinner. Perhaps Herod did want Jesus dead. Either way, that’s what we told him. And I was completely unprepared for his response. Maybe he was calling our bluff. Or maybe he had no fear for his own life. He told us his plans – and they did not involve fleeing – and then told us to go tell Herod.

But his bravery wasn’t what enthralled me. It was what he said next. A haunted look played across his face as he lamented Jerusalem. I’ll never forget what he said: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Before I could arrange my face into the shocked expression appropriate for a Pharisee, my heart commandeered my body. It was the strangest sensation. Something deep inside me fluttered at his words, like one of the chicks in the hen’s brood. The fluttering stirred up three words that echoed in my depths. “I am willing.”

From that day on, I kept track of Jesus. My three words – “I am willing” – played over and over again in my mind. But I didn’t make the leap yet because I couldn’t chase his image of the hen and her brood out of my mind. What an odd animal to identify with. Why not something bigger? Something with teeth and claws. Something worthy of his fearlessness. Why a defenseless hen? A chicken, for God’s sake?

Later that year, I got my answer. I watched as he was crucified. I heard the dull thud of the hammer striking the nails. He was raised up on the cross, chest bared, arms wide. And as I watched and wept, all I could see was that mother hen, defenseless, spreading her wings wide to protect her brood, giving her life for theirs.

I was his from that moment on. I believe that he rose again and that his Spirit is with us to help us live a life full of God his Father. It feels good to write that down. Dear sister, it has taken me all these years to say it, but the words are there on the page now, never to be erased.

I might have said “I am willing” on that day of our second meeting, but as they say, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. So what made me abandon my well-worn lie yesterday? I had gotten comfortable living as his secret follower, even though I knew that meant I was cutting myself off from so much of what being his follower means. Something about the events yesterday brought to my mind the image that so haunted me.

Eli raised the rock, ready to strike the woman who had helped the little boy, and I found myself getting in the way. If I had had time for rational thought, I doubt I would have done it. Perhaps my long years as Jesus’ secret follower finally spurred me to action. My brain didn’t have time to get in the way, so my heart interceded. And since my heart belongs to Jesus Christ, he propelled me to take a risk, to take a chance, secure in the knowledge that I am always and forever standing under the shadow of his wing. In that moment, I knew Christ was alive in me. He used me as the mother hen, defenseless, chest bared, arms wide, ready to absorb the blow. If I hadn’t known I was secure under his wing, I wouldn’t have had the strength to protect someone under mine.

And so this is my prayer for all my days hence: Lord Jesus Christ, sustain my faith so I can be vulnerable. Be my sheltering wing so I can take risks. Help me spread my arms wide as you did on the cross so I can fully and truly embrace others with your love.

My sister, I bare my heart to you in this letter not to convince you to become a follower of the Way like I am, nor to make you worry for my safety. I have written these words simply because I am not afraid anymore. Jesus Christ is alive in me. Therefore, I am resolved to live my life under the shadow of his wings, with my arms spread wide.

* Special thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor for her words about this passage found here. They unlocked this sermon for me.

Aaron’s story

Sermon for April 5, 2009 || Palm Sunday, Year B, RCL || Mark 11:1-11

Imagine with me the thoughts of a boy named Aaron whose family owns the donkey, which Jesus’ disciples borrow for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

They came up to our farm this morning — two of them — while I was doing my chores. I don’t like mucking out the stable, but Father says it builds character, whatever that means. Mother says when I turn twelve next year, I don’t have to do it anymore. Then mucking will be Benjamin’s job. He’s only eight. We live in Bethany, which is really close to Jerusalem, and Father does a lot of trading there and sometimes he takes me with him.

Anyways, these two strangers just walked right up to Stony – that’s what I call him because he’s gray and hard to move when he has a mind to stay put. They walked right up to him and started untying him. Well, I came out of the stable with my rake and started shaking it at them. And they backed off because they didn’t want to get splattered. I held the rake like a spear and said: “What are you doing with Stony?”

“The Lord needs Stony for a little while, son, but we’ll bring him back soon,” says the first one, and I say right back: “I’m not your son, and you can’t have Stony. He’s mine.”

Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up and Father was standing there. “Actually, he’s mine,” he says. I gave the strangers my best smirk, but then Father says: “And you may borrow the colt for as long as you need.” I threw the rake on the ground: “But, but Father…”

“No buts, Aaron.” And I knew he meant it because he said it in his deep voice. I watched the two men lead Stony away. When they were gone, Father looked down at me: “And don’t ever let me catch you mouthing off to strangers again. You know the story of Abraham and the three men.”

“Yes, Father.” Then he walked back to our house and when he was out of sight I hopped the fence and started following the two strangers. I decided it would be a good idea to keep an eye on Stony, just in case.

They led Stony a little ways toward Jerusalem and met up with a group of people. Then they threw their shirts onto Stony’s back like a saddle and one of the other men got on him. I’ve tried to jump on Stony a lot, but he never let’s me stay on. He jumps and bucks and shakes until I fall off. It’s not fair, ’cause Stony let this total stranger ride him.

I followed the group while they walked to the city. I made it into a game, running from rock to rock and trying to keep out of sight. I ran ahead and beat them to Jerusalem. There was a big crowd lining the road leading up to one of the gates. The people spread more clothes and even some tree branches on the road. They were all shouting and cheering and waving, like at a parade. I didn’t know what was so special about this stranger…except that he could ride Stony without falling off.

I tried to push my way through the crowd to get to the front so I could see better, but there were too many people. I walked all the way down the crowd looking for an opening, and when I got close to the gate, I saw another group of people. They weren’t shouting or cheering or waving. They were in a tight little group talking to each other. They sounded really mad. I heard one of them say, “Who does he think he is, a king?” Then they all laughed, but it didn’t sound like they thought it was very funny.

Then I remembered something I heard from my Rabbi last week. He said something about a king riding a colt like Stony. I crawled under the legs of the crowd and pushed my way through the gate into the city. I ran all the way to my Rabbi’s house, and when he let me in, I asked to see the scroll we were using last week — the prophet Zechariah. He still had it open on the table, but first he made me wash my hands and feet because I was mucking out the stable earlier. Then he helped me find the right place, and I read the lines over and over until I had them by heart: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations…”

If that’s right, then Stony is in good hands, I thought. I left my Rabbi’s, and when I got back to the gate, all the people were gone. The parade was over, and I was really hungry, so I walked home. When I got to the farm, Stony was tied back in his place. I tried to jump on him, but he shook me off. I guess only kings can ride Stony.

But what is that stranger king of? Why would a victorious king ride on a smelly donkey and not a chariot or a big warhorse? I guess it might be because the king is supposed to cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. He wouldn’t ride one if he got rid of them all. The chariots and warhorses the Roman soldiers ride scare me. I’m short, and they wouldn’t even see me if I was in front of them.

But if he is king, then doesn’t he need chariots and soldiers to fight all the people who don’t want him to be king – like the Romans and those other people at the parade? Doesn’t he need the battle bow? How can he become king without fighting? How can he command peace to the nations? The Romans always say they bring us peace, but Father says it’s not really peace. Father says we are like prisoners…only without a jail. If the stranger who rode on Stony isn’t going to fight the Romans, how will he bring us peace?

Maybe he’ll bring peace by not fighting.