February 21, 2016 | Jonah 3: 1-10 and Luke 13: 31-15 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
This morning we have before us tales of two ancient cities: Ninevah at one time one of the largest cities in the world situated in what is now northern Iraq; and Jersualem, known for centuries as the Holy City for more than one faith tradition and still is today. The stories we hear about these cities this morning take place at a time in their history when both are in need of change. Ninevah is full “evil ways and violent hands.” Jerusalem “kills prophets and stones those who are sent to them.”
Both cities have been warned by prophets of future destruction. But only Ninevah, heeds the call to change and therefore averts disaster. The King of Ninevah calls upon the people and their animals to fast and turn away from their evil ways in response to the prophet Jonah’s call but Jerusalem it seems is so set in her ways the only thing to do for her and her people is to lament her stubborn resistance to protection and care.
As I’ve been looking at these two cities this week, one of the things I’ve noticed is not only are the citizens of these cities different in their willingness or lack thereof to heed the call to change their ways, but they are different in the way they understand and experience God. The God we find portrayed in the story of Jonah and Ninevah is quite different than the God we find portrayed in the story of Jesus and his lament over Jerusalem.
In the story of Jonah and the Ninevites, God has power both to strike fear in the heart of the city and to change the course of its future. Listen again to the words of the King of Ninevah “Who knows? If we change God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we will not perish” Indeed, when the residents choose to change their ways, repenting for their sins, putting on sackcloth and ashes, fasting and praying with all their might they are spared from calamity. God’s mind is changed.
But in the story of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, God seems to have no power to protect and to save, no influence over the people and the future of the city, in fact the image of God we are given is one in which God is both vulnerable and open to attack.
“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. See your house is left to you” There’s nothing more we can do to help you.
Now of course it’s not God but Jesus who is speaking here but given the closeness of the two the metaphor is clear. If Jesus can’t protect Jerusalem then surely God can’t either.
Earlier in the passage Jesus has described Herod as a fox, when he responded to the Pharisee’s warnings that Herod was out to kill him. You tell that old fox Herod he can’t scare me, says Jesus making his own animal of choice seem even more startling.
In and of itself the image of Jesus or God gathering her chicks under her wing like a mother hen is comforting. But when you realize there’s a fox in the henhouse the image takes on a more unsettling feeling.
Herod and the Roman Empire rule with the cunning power of a fox, but Jesus sets his sights on leading from a place of openness and vulnerability. Even if the hen can protect the chicks, the hen herself is no match for the vicious jaws of a wiley fox.
So now we have not only two cities with two different responses to God’s call to repent, we have two very different images of God, one powerful and one seemingly powerless, and we have two different forms of leadership in the world: one violent and oppressive, cunning and sly like Herod the fox and one tender and loving, vulnerable and daring like Jesus, who walks into the henhouse knowing there is danger but takes a stance of fearlessness protection just the same.
If the world really is the hen house and we get to choose which animal we want to protect us which animal are we going to choose to stand beside? It’s no wonder we pick the foxes to lead us over and over and over again. Because even if we do pick the hen she has little chance of really protecting us because over and over and over again we chicks refuse to be gathered in. And no amount of crying about it on Jesus behalf seems to be able to change the situation.
Each time I’ve read this passage this week about how Jesus longs to gather his chicks under his wing and how they refuse to be gathered I’ve found myself thinking about the countless number of parents who despite their best efforts have been unable to protect and save their children from colliding with harm’s way.
The parents whose daughter took her own life because they couldn’t get her the help she needed for the mental illness she endured. The parents whose son tried hard drugs once and they turned out to be laced with fentanyl. The parents whose boys decided it would be a fun idea to go tobogganing on a bob sled track and never came home to tell about their misguided adventure. The parents of the three year old child lying limp in the arms of an aid worker for the world to see as his body washed up on the shores of Turkey in a failed attempt to flee the dangers of the war in Syria.
All the prayers in heaven, every bad deed they have turned away from and every good deed they have done, unable to protect their loved ones from death and destruction. There really is only one response to this kind of inability to protect and to save, to cry and cry and cry again.
In the Greek translation of our gospel reading, the word used to describe Jesus weeping over Jerusalem is different from the word used in the other place in scripture Jesus is famous for his tears, when he weeps at the death of Lazarus.
Here the word used is best translated as sobbing. Jesus sobs over Jerusalem and her inability to be gathered in like chicks into the protection of their mother’s wing, so at least if the fox gets the mother, the fox won’t get the chicks. How many parents would offer up their own lives to protect their children? It’s the kind of sobbing that issues forth in moans and gasps and sometimes even physical collapse, a total loss of emotional control, when you realize there is nothing you could have done to keep your loved ones out of the reach of harm’s way.
It is the kind of weeping that issues forth as a form of self-emptying.
For the last couple weeks and especially as we have now entered into the season of Lent in earnest we have been talking a lot about self-emptying, the kind of self-emptying that allows us to let go of those things that keep us from living out of the fullness of who we were meant to be; the kind of self-emptying that allows us to follow in the way of justice, kindness and mercy in fuller measure; the kind of self-emptying that models the self-emptying of Jesus.
I had never really thought much about lament as a form of self-emptying until a colleague brought it to my attention this week. He reminded me that we never self-empty to leave ourselves depleted and diminished. We self-empty to make room for something else. In the case of lamentation, we self-empty in order to turn ourselves over to the power of love.
What a difference this is from the people of Ninevah who turned their lives around out of fear, fear that God would punish them if they didn’t change. Is it possible that buried deep in this story about foxes and hens and chicks that refuse to be gathered in is an invitation to turn our lives around not out of fear but out of love and for the sake of love?
Some of you may have seen the Oscar nominated film for best animated feature called “Inside Out.” It’s an excellent film about five emotions that live inside of all of us and how they vie for our attention. In the movie, joy has a firm grip on the main character, a girl named Riley Anderson who with the exception of her toddler years when anger, fear and disgust make regular appearances, lives a relatively happy life. Sadness who no one really seems to understand is constantly kept at bay by the other emotions in Riley’s mind, especially Joy.
That is until Riley’s parents tell her they are moving across the country to San Franciso and Riley loses her friends, the moving van loses her belongings and her father loses his temper under the stress of a new job. That’s when disaster strikes. Sadness gets control of Riley’s emotions and allows her to cry in front of her class on the first day of school. Her parents who like all loving parents long to protect and care for their child, lose their grip on her when like a tiny little chick she decides to run away from home and head back east to Minnesota, unable to comprehend the very real danger in which she places herself.
All the happy memories in her memory bank begin to crash and her emotions spin out of control. Joy in particular tries to do everything in her power to keep Sadness away from controlling Riley’s feelings and while Joy and Sadness are rushing about and battling it out disgust, fear and anger have a hay day with Riley.
The turning point doesn’t come until Joy realizes that Riley actually needs to express her sadness in order to reconnect with her parents. It comes when the other emotions realize the purpose of sadness is to alert others and Riley herself when she is emotionally overwhelmed and she needs help.
When she is finally allowed to cry, Riley returns home to her parents who gather her in their arms and allow her to recognize and share her pain. Emptied of their sorrow, they are filled with love and able to move forward in their new life.
Now like all good Disney movies, this story ends with crisis averted. But we’ve all lived long enough to know that real life is not brought to us by Walt Disney and the Magic Kingdom. In real life, Jesus the hen enters the Holy City and is consumed by the Fox. But real life does bring us the opportunity to open ourselves to pain and suffering, to open wide our arms like the mother hen and to respond to pain and suffering with lament and love instead of with violence and revenge which as a society we seem so bent on doing.
Often people tell me they are afraid to come to church after tragedy and sorrow have touched their lives. They are afraid that they will cry. I always respond by saying “if you can’t cry in church, where can you cry?” “If we can’t hold each other’s pain and get real about the sorrow of our lives and the sorrow of the world, what are we really doing in this place?”
I’ll never forget the teenager who I asked to speak one Sunday about why he came to church. He said “because this is place where I can fall apart and be put back together again.”
Jerusalem and Ninevah are not just ancient cities torn apart by violence and evil ways, they are you and me and the world we live in longing for love and redemption, but all too often holding it together by a thread, refusing to be gathered in and opened up, refusing to really see and experience each other’s pain so together we might do something about it.
The invitation of the season of Lent is to start a fast, to put on sack cloth and ashes to repent and to pray and pray again. Not because all our self-emptying and prayers will change the mind of God and calamity will be averted, but because all our self-emptying and prayers will change us and the way we live. Making us more open to one another, more open to ourselves, more open to the pain and suffering that surrounds us and more open to receiving and addressing the world in love.