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New Life Starts in the Dark: The Second Sunday in Lent

Sunday, March 17, 2019:
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

“New life starts in the dark,” writes the American Anglican priest, author, and professor, Barbara Brown Taylor. “Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” [From her book Learning to Walk in the Dark.] We might consider Lent to be a dark time, for its relative sombreness, and its tempering of joy. And there’s certainly some darkness in the readings this morning. With Abram, the motif of darkness in his feeling of despair, in not having children to carry on his legacy. But also the darkness of the night, which allows him to see the stars of the sky, and understand God’s promise that all those dots of light could just as well represent his descendants. And then there’s the darkness of the night in which he sleeps — a terrifying darkness — out of which God appears, accepting that strange sacrifice that for us is hard to comprehend, but must have had incredible significance in that particular time and place.

And there’s darkness too in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The letter’s likely written from prison, and we might wonder what’s happening in the Church and in Paul’s life to bring about this reference to the “enemies of the cross of Christ.” Paul says “their god is the belly.” (I’m thinking the situation is more extreme than the reality that most successful church gatherings require that lunch be served.)

And much more seriously, there’s darkness of a much more threatening sort in the Gospel — and maybe it hits us more viscerally in the days after the evil attack in New Zealand. In the background is the arrest and murder of John the Baptist. Somewhere ahead, for Jesus, is Jerusalem, which he seems to know well, either by familiarity or reputation: a place of pilgrimage; the centre of economic and cultural life for his people; the seat of his ancestor David; the dwelling place of the mysterious (and terrifying) presence of God, in the Temple; and “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” Which leads to the scene playing out in the foreground of our story: a warning from some Pharisees: “Herod wants to kill you.”

Is this warning a tip-off, like “Jesus, take care of yourself, don’t you know Herod’s out to get you?” Or is this warning a threat, like “You know, Herod’s out to get you. Why don’t you buzz off?” No matter what, they do point to what was a real threat for Jesus, and simmering beneath the gospels: this tension between the rulers of this world and those who claim a higher loyalty; “citizenship in heaven” Paul calls it.

And this doesn’t have to do with one side living concretely in this world, while others have their heads in the clouds. It has more to do, I’d say, with how everyone has a choice of living like a fox, or living like a hen. In his bit of name-calling directed at Herod, Jesus, at least for me, cuts the prince down a few notches. He’s sly, and scheming. Crafty. Dishonest. (I realize it’s not a fox, but in my head the image of the Looney Tunes character Wile E. Coyote comes to mind.) Though, Herod’s still a threat. He’s maybe not as smart or dangerous as he thinks he is, but when a fox discovers a hen house, you can expect there to be trouble.

Yet this is how Jesus describes himself, and consequently how Jesus shapes our view of God: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” This image of the hen, and his insistence that he continue on toward Jerusalem help us to understand something about God, and God’s love for us. Including the obstinate, hard-to-love ones among us (all of us, I think, at one time or another). The hen gathers her brood under her wings, and this is what Jesus has been doing in his ministry: casting out demons and performing cures. Bringing relief and relationship to people who felt disconnected from their God and their community. Jesus brings the power of life to these people, but in doing so, makes himself susceptible to the fox that deals not in life, but in the power of death. But true love — the true love offered by Jesus — requires vulnerability. A vulnerability and empathy that the Herods of his day, and our day, evade and hide from. In our time they do so behind the dark corners of the internet, and semi-automatic weapons.

But Jesus isn’t interested in defeating Herod in some earthly way. The event of the Cross is different from that. Because earthly defeat of the likes of Herod doesn’t deal with the inner, spiritual reality that keeps producing more Herods. What Jesus does, though, is reflect a love that has the power to change lives.

This might take centuries or more, but this “Jesus movement” that in recent years may have lost the power (and thankfully, the desire) to change people and nations from the top down/outside-in, might now be more fully grasping its calling to change lives from the inside-out. Planting seeds of compassion and hope, even — and especially — in the darkness. “New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” And it doesn’t sound quite as smooth, but if we were to continue the hen metaphor, we might say that we’re called to “lay eggs of compassion and hope” in our world. No, definitely not as smooth an image as “planting seeds,” but I suspect it’ll stay in your head.

The darkness in which we plant these seeds (or lay our eggs) might be a world that seems unwilling to hear the message, or lacks the attention span to reflect on it, or is drawn to destruction rather than to the warmth of the mother hen. But that is the calling of the people of our faith, and I hope, people of (any) faith, and people of good will. To plant those seeds in our community.

Yesterday, at a lecture down in London, Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke to us about the calling of the churches. And one line stood out, too good not to hear again today: “There is no goal beyond restored relationship. Reconciliation is the Gospel.”

We can hear that, too, in the statement from the Bishop of Christchurch: “we are praying for our Muslim brothers and sisters… for the police, ambulance and other emergency services, and for all in the city of Christchurch…”

And then what follows is a sentiment to which our anger might make us resistant… but that I think reflects the Gospel as described by Archbishop Williams: “We pray too for the shooter and their supporters, because for any person to do this, they must have such hatred in their hearts, such misalignment of the value of human life, that they too, need our prayer.” []

Maybe you won’t like that, in the rawness of this moment. You might not want to express such openness for the foxes of our day. (And “fox” probably falls well short at this point.) But today in our readings we are confronted by a God of amazing grace with a mercy deeper than we can understand and sometimes tolerate. A God who looks down on the world and says: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved” (Phil 4:1). Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter