Lent 3C: Waiting for Figs

fig_tree1OLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 55: 1-9
This chapter is the last in what many people call “Second Isaiah”.  It was probably written around the end of the exile, or about 540 b.c.e.  In the ancient world, when a new king assumed the throne and ushered in a new era, the king would often issue a misarum edict declaring a release from all debts and then the king would call for a great banquet to which all the kingdom was invited.  So the opening lines call us to a new kingdom, a new era, and that great banquet.
Here, Yahweh provides for those who thirst.  This is probably meant to refer both to physical thirst and spiritual thirst.  Now keep in mind that these exiles had experienced loss, grief, and estrangement.  This call to a new day and to a rule that would quench their thirst was huge.  We are reminded that this is the “stuff” that makes up life.  This is followed by a call to repentance.  God has announced the plan to the people and they are now invited to respond.  We are also reminded, though, that God’s thoughts and God’s ways are not within the human boundaries and limits that we have created.  In fact, the last part of this passage implies a “widening” of the Davidic covenant.  It is a calling to go beyond your kind, to call on “nations that you do not know”.
This is a good reading for Lent.  We are called to open our minds and respond to the invitation that God has issued us, beyond our own manufactured rules and our own created boundaries.  The surprising work of God is open to us all—wicked and unrighteous included—if we will return to the God who abundantly and generously pardons.
This whole image of thirsting is an interesting one.  Timothy Shapiro claims that “hope is preceded by longing”.  You see, God is not requiring us to be right or moral or steadfast.  I don’t think that God is even requiring us to lay prostrate at the feet of God in good, old-fashioned repentance.  God’s only requirement is that we thirst for God, that we desire to be with God so much that we can do nothing else but change our course and follow God.  It is our thirst that draws us closer to God and closer to each other.  We just have to desire something different enough to be part of making it happen.  Alexander Stuart Baillie says it like this:
Our deep spiritual needs, which are thirsts, can be met by Christ.  It is God’s desire that every person should know the real joys of life.  Augustine, the great churchman, expressed this idea as follows:  “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and we cannot find rest until we find it in Thee.”  In other words, we cannot have our thirst satisfied until God does it for us.
This age needs to become more realistic.  It needs to listen again to the words of Jesus, who said, ‘I thirst.”  He who is the Son of Man, the Son of God, is our example.  He is the great pioneer in every realm of life.  Surely if he thirsted, how much more do we?  Humanity needs to get away from the world of “things as they are” into the world of “things as they ought to be.”  This means that men and women must learn to live for others.  It is only when we can live a life of self-forgetfulness that we get our truest joy out of life.  One needs to keep on thirsting because life grows and enlarges.  It has no end; it goes on and on; it becomes more beautiful.  When one has done his best there is, he finds, still more to learn and so much more to do.  [One] cannot be satisfied until [one]attains unto the stature of Jesus, unto a perfect [human], and ever thirsts for God.  (Alexander Stuart Baillie, “Thirsting”, in Bread and Wine:  Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2003), 242-243.)
So, what happens with those of us for whom thirst can be so easily quenched?  How do we learn to hope at the deepest part of our being if we never truly long for anything?  How do we discover what true need is when we often live our lives over-filled and over-served? How do we hunger for something better in a life where we are so satisfied?  Perhaps that is why people like us need this season of Lent, plunging us into the depths of human need and profound grief.  Maybe the point of it all is to teach us how to thirst and, therefore, to show us that for which we long.
a.      What is your response to this passage?
b.      What does that “widening” of God’s invitation mean for you?
c.       How does this speak to your own Lenten journey?
d.      What does this whole idea of our needing to “thirst” for God mean for you?
e.       How difficult is that for us?
NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 10: 1-13
In this passage, Paul reminds his readers that they are just like their ancestors—and no better.  According to him, those ancestors journeyed, lived, and followed God.  And yet, they, too, sinned and fell short.  Paul is essentially telling the Corinthian church that their behavior is not a guarantee of God’s blessing.  (This sort of flies in the face of that “once saved, always saved” idea, I supposed.)  Paul’s idea of “idolatry” may be a little different than the definition to which we have become accustomed.  Here, he is warning of an idolatry that has little to do with pagan worship but, rather, against making an “idol” of one’s spiritual practices, beliefs, or religion.
He is reminding his readers that they should have learned from those that came before them.  They, too, did everything “right” and yet their relationship with God still suffered.  We too, no matter how hard we try, will at times fall short of what God desires for us.  This is the somewhat radical nature of our relationship with God.  It is ongoing and always growing.  We have no room to become smug or judgmental.
It is as if Paul is trying to rattle the so-called “self-confidence” of the Corinthian readers, as well as our own.  He sees salvation not as a place in heaven or an escape from hell, but as an ongoing relationship with God.  This gift of faith that we have will never allow us to become complacent.  We can never “rest on the laurels of our past good”, so to speak.  Instead, we have entered an ongoing relationship with God and with others—including joy and grief, blessing and pain, fulfillment and needs, life and death.  Our religion is really nothing more than an instrument, an always-changing framework to help us understand this relationship.  The relationship and the way we encounter God’s love and grace is what it’s all about.
In this season of Lent, this becomes even more pronounced than usual.  What does that REALLY mean to live a life of faith?  What does that REALLY mean to walk where Jesus walked?  Well, it means to walk the road that goes to the cross.  And there, your belief system might fall apart but your relationship with God will be your saving grace.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus asks. Then, as they gathered around the table in the Upper Room, with the cross only a few hours away, there was the “cup” before him, the blood of his death. The disciples looked for glory; Jesus led them toward death. And so Thomas à Kempis says:
Jesus now hath many lovers of His celestial kingdom:
but few bearers of His Cross.
He hath many who are desirous of consolations:
but few of tribulation.
He findeth many companions of His table:
but few of His abstinence.
All desire to rejoice with Him:
Few wish to endure anything for Him.
Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread:
but few to the drinking of the cup of His Passion.
Many reverence His miracles:
few follow the shame of His Cross.
[The Imitation of Christ]
We are like that. We have signed on for the glory of it all, not the humiliation. We want healing, comfort, reward, success. Like me, the folk at First Church, Corinth, had signed on with Jesus for the glory of it all. They expected to eat the heavenly food and live forever, to achieve power; glory, exotic gifts of the Spirit. But Paul takes them back to the Upper Room, back to the dark night of the cross. He reminds them that it was “on the night when he was betrayed” that the Lord took bread. On the night he was forsaken by God, defeated by Caesar and humiliated by his friends, he took the cup in hand. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Cor. 11:23, 26)…
We, like the Corinthians before us, seek to fill ourselves, cure our aches and pains, live forever. Too often, American evangelical Christianity presents the good news of Christ as the solution to all human problems, the fulfillment of all wants, and a good way to make basically good people even better.  The cross suggests that this good news is the beginning of problems we would gladly have avoided, the turning away from the quest for self-fulfillment, the ultimate mocking of our claims for goodness. The principalities and powers tremble only before the cross. Nothing less than death will do — painful, full-scale conversion, letting go, turning from ourselves and toward God.
This meal is not some magical mystery medicine we take to exempt ourselves from the hard facts of life in this world. It is a way of confronting those hard facts. No prayers of a TV evangelist, no prayer cloth from Arizona, no holy oil or water, no holy food, no technique for self-betterment, no sincere social program exempts us from this death.
But at the table, with cup in hand, even our most painful times are redeemed because this Savior saves through suffering. Without the cross, our faith wouldn’t be a comfort to anybody. What would you say to the terminal cancer victim? The mother of a starving child in an Ethiopian desert? The 80-year-old resident of a shoddy nursing home? “Smile, God Loves You!”
No, you can say that our God has been there before. Wherever a cross is raised in the world, our God is there with the crucified. Our God does not flinch in the face of evil. In a hurting world where injustice still sends the good ones to the cross, we do have something to preach. We, like Paul before us, boldly lift the cup and daringly preach Christ and him crucified. If we would follow this Lord, we must follow him down this narrow way of Passion  ( William Willimon,“The Cup of Death”, (Excerpts), (The Christian Century, March 31, 1982), available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1297, accessed 3 March, 2010.)
a.      What  meaning does this passage hold for you?
b.      How prevalent do you think it is for people today to make an “idol” of their spirituality or religion?
c.       What is the difference for you between belief and faith in God and a relationship with God?
GOSPEL:  Luke 13: 1-9
Similar to the Epistle passage that we read this week, here Jesus reminds the ones who were there to hear this of two historical events that, although the details are lost to us, were probably very much on the minds of those first century hearers.  First, the reference to Pilate’s mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices appears to refer to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem.  The “tower of Siloam” reference relates to the collapse of a tower in the Herodian wall around Jerusalem which apparently collapsed without warning and crushed eighteen Jerusalemites.  You could identify these two events with modern-day events that have great meaning for us but may not carry the same weight of significance 2,000 years from now—perhaps 9/11 or the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis in 2007.
But Jesus is dispelling the idea that these victims had done something wrong, that they deserved what they got.  The truth was, their lives ended suddenly and unexpectedly.  They are reminders that each of our existences is somewhat precarious within this world.  Jesus is claiming that the need for repentance is for us all.  No one is “exempt” from it.  Using the fig tree illustration, he reminds us that even though we have not been cut-down, we should not assume that we are bearing choice fruit.  Unless you repent…
Well, this is anything but a comfortable, feel-good parable!  I think the problem is that we look at repentance as something negative.  We envision repentance as a change toward being “right” or “moral” or something else that will win us favor with God or rack us up enough points to get us into heaven.  But repentance is not about losing who you are; it means discovering the wonder of who you are meant to be.
The Greek word that is usually translated as “repentance” is metanoia.  In Classical Greek, it meant to change one’s mind, one’s heart, one’s soul, one’s life.  Penance was not a part of it until later.  It simply meant to follow a different road.  But unless you repent…unless you change course…unless you let go of the life that you’ve created, and listen to the road that beckons before you, you will remain comfortable and secure and right where you are.  And you will die!  But, oh, what you will miss!  Frederick Buechner says, “To repent is to come to your senses.  It is not so much something you do as something that happens.  True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,” than to the future and saying, “Wow!” ( Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (San Francisco:  HarperCollins, 1973), 79.)  Unless you repent…

Could this be the year? We can hear that as a threat. There’s not much time left. Indeed, some evangelists press us with the question, “Where will you be if you die tonight?” But Jesus’ parable moves in the direction of promise more than threat: “I’m going to do everything I can to help this tree live and bear fruit. I’m going to dig around it and put down manure. I’m going to find every way possible to get to hearts that are hard as packed down soil.” While we’re speculating about why certain people died at Pilate’s hands or why the others were killed by the falling tower, Jesus, the gardener, is working on our hearts. Yes, those stories were real. They were as real as every tragedy we can name: flood or earthquake or military tyrant, cancer or heart attack or an innocent child caught in the crossfire of drug warfare. Such realities remind us that our time is finite. Stories like these dig at our hearts. They get to us with the truth that we can’t keep putting everything off until tomorrow.

But being scared to death can rob us of all hope. Life can then seem utterly arbitrary–if I die, I die. There’s nothing I can do about it, so why try? Into the midst of such despair, the gardener comes. Don’t cut the tree down. Let it alone for one more year. Jesus, the gardener, wants us to live. His passion marked for us by great urgency–don’t wait! Look at your life and dare to ask the hard questions: Am I stingy in my love for others? Am I withholding forgiveness for old wrongs? Do I refuse to believe that I can be forgiven, carrying from year to year a growing burden of guilt? Am I so busy making a living that I’ve forgotten to make a life? Jesus digs at us with questions like these. Jesus digs at our hearts in the outstretched hand of every homeless beggar on the streets, of every child not fed. “What have you done?” Jesus asks, and “What have you left undone?” Such questions, like the parable of the fig tree, move us toward repentance, a word that means to turn around, to believe things can be different, to trust that the one who calls us to turn around will be there even when we fail.

We might not do things this way. We’d probably be far more impatient than God. “You’ve had your chance,” I’m tempted to say. “The year has passed and you still haven’t shaped up!” But I am not God, nor can I put my words in God’s mouth. Still, the gardener comes. “One more year,” he says, “I’ll do everything I can to bring this tree back to life.” “Who knows?” asks the gardener. “Could this be the year for figs?”(Barbara K. Lundblad, “Could This Be the Year for Figs?”, March 18, 2001, available at http://day1.org/638-could_this_be_the_year_for_figs, accessed 3 March, 2010. )
a.      What  meaning does this hold for you?
b.      What is challenging or uncomfortable about this passage?
c.       Why is this whole idea of repentance so difficult for us?
d.      What does this mean for you on this Lenten journey?
e.       What does it mean for us to take more responsibility for what happens in the world, for what happens in our Jerusalems?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The purpose of Lent is to arouse.  To arouse the sense of sin.  To arouse a sense of guilt for sin.  To arouse the humble contrition for the guilt of sin that makes forgiveness possible.  To arouse the sense of gratitude for the forgiveness of sins.  To arouse or to motivate the works of love and the work of justice that one does out of gratitude for the forgivesness of one’s sins. (Edna Hong, “A Look Inside”, in Bread and Wine:  Readings for Lent and Easter)
Any religion…is forever in danger of petrification into mere ritual and habit, though ritual and habit be essential to religion. (T. S. Eliot)
Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality…They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful.  I saw something once…that said, “A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet.  It can be meaningless. Or it can be a part of a great meaning.” (Ann Lamott)
We pray, as often as we meet, that we might “perfectly love you.”  Indeed, we have been commanded from the beginning, to love you with all our hearts and all our souls and all our minds and all our strength.  We have pledged to love, pledged in our prayers and in our baptism, in our confirmation and with our best resolve.
But we confess…we love you imperfectly; we love you with a divided heart, with a thousand other loves that are more compelling, with reservation and qualification, and passion withheld and devotion impaired…
Free us from idolatries, and our habits of recalcitrance, tender our hearts, gentle our lips, open our hands that we may turn toward you fully toward your world unguardedly.  Let us bask in your freedom to be fully yours, and so trusting fully our own.  We pray through the Lord Jesus who loved you singularly, perfectly, fully—to the end.  Amen.
(“Perfectly Love”, Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 2008), 11-12.)

Lent 2C: Irrational

The View of Jerusalem through
the window of the Dominus
Flevit Church (“The Lord Wept”),
Mt. of Olives, Israel
OLD TESTAMENT:  Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18
This passage is made up of two parts:  The first six verses are a dialogue between YHWH and Abram resulting in the promise of first a son and then of countless descendants.  The last part has to do with the promise of land.  This is the core of the promises to Abraham and set the stage for the Abrahamic covenant.  Once again, we have the familiar admonition from God of “Do not be afraid.”  God will take care of it.  This covenant and passage, of course, make up the basis for ancient Hebrew theology.  It is also evidence of God’s incredible (and often unimaginable) generosity for God’s people.
The word that is translated here as “believed” is probably better translated as “trust”—Abraham trusted in God and what God had said and what God would do.  And yet, Abram did prove to be a little bit uncooperative and impatient.  And he wants some more information as to how God was going to overcome the big obstacles that were apparent and work this all out.  But, in Abram’s defense, remember what “barrenness” meant in that time.  An absence of children was not just a discontinuation of one’s line.  It was death.  There would be no one to care for you, no one to work with you to provide.  Barrenness or infertility was looked upon as failure.  It meant that God had not blessed you or provided for you.
In the ancient middle east, covenants were traditionally sealed by the custom of sacrificing animals and cutting them in half.  This was the literal “cutting of the covenant”.  The makers of the covenant would then pass between the two halves of the animals.  But with this covenant, it was God and God, alone, who passed through the pieces.  God is the one who reached out.  It was God’s covenant.
And so Abram “trusted” God (with what he saw as a little help from himself).  He also questioned God (which I don’t think is such a bad thing!  It really just gives you room to grow.)  After all, this really didn’t make any sense.  Here Abraham has been waiting around and no kids have emerged.  So, basically, Abraham had taken care of it.  Isn’t that just like us?  We like being showered with promises but when they don’t materialize in quite the way we envisioned, we try to take care of it a different way.  But, God clarifies the promise a little bit more.  This is not the heir that God had been talking about.  The heir shall be a biological child of Abraham and Sarah rather than a surrogate birth.  Well, I’m sure you can see Abraham rolling his eyes a bit.  Are you kidding me?  Because, you see, I’m really, really old.  This is just not normal.  This is not even rational.  This is nuts!
But, it says, Abraham finally believed God.  The truth is, Abraham, father of three of the world’s major religions, was not perfect.  In fact, he wasn’t even all that trustworthy.  He was human.  He was just like us.  And God, with infinite patience, kept promising and kept delivering.  And Abraham?  Well, that wasn’t some sort of blind faith like some would like to depict it.  Part of him was probably a little angry and definitely impatient.  Faith and trust and all those things are not laid out on some sort of straight path.  They come with lots of bumps and valleys along the way.  I think that’s the point.  Faith is not about blind acceptance; it is about relationship.    So, the events surrounding the life of Abram are more than just ancestral tales; they become the voice of God to the people of God.  “Do not be afraid.”  In other words, just stick with me; I’ll ride it out with you!
But it should be noted that the land was given to Abram’s descendants rather than to Abraham himself.  The realization of God’s promise was not immediate gratification.  (I mean, did you think that you were the only one to which God was making promises?)  Maybe that’s our whole problem.  Maybe we want to see the fruits of our faith now, in our lifetime.  Maybe faith is about realizing that we are part of a deep and abiding relationship between God and humanity as the holy and the sacred sort of dribbles into our world little by little.  Our part is important but it is, oh, so much bigger than us.  In fact, it’s really not even rational the way we think it should be.  Maybe that’s what makes it faith.  (In other words, just stick with me.  I’ll ride it out with you!) 
a.      What is your response to this passage?
b.      What does it mean to you to truly trust God?  What stands in the way of our trusting God?
c.       Do  you think that you believe in God in such a way that it would constitute “righteousness”?
d.      What does it mean to truly believe that God will make our future secure?
e.       What does that say about how we view our own “barren” places?
f.       How do we get past the innate need for immediate gratification?
g.      What does that faithfulness in a future in which we may not see mean for us during this season of Lent?
NEW TESTAMENT:  Philippians 3: 17-4:1
This passage, too, is in two parts:  The first deals with the behavior of true believers.  The second part is linked to the eschatological hope believers have in the coming Savior.  It’s not really clear who the “enemies” are about which Paul is writing—perhaps it was those who were preaching a different kind of Gospel or those who did not live lives in accordance with the Gospel.  But Paul is referring not to individual things that they do but to a pattern of life.  He is essentially laying out two realities and asking the Philippian believers to choose the one that is authentic and by which they would live.  Paul claims that the believers do not belong to the environment in which they now live but to a new “citizenship” in heaven.
Now we need to understand here that the people of Philippi were Roman citizens who took this very seriously. Philippi was a Roman, rather than a Greek, colony.  But not everyone was a citizen.  “Citizenship” was not a right.  It was an honor that came with birthright.  Their power came through their rights as citizens.  But Paul is claiming to them that they have a much more significant citizenship waiting for them.  It is essentially a redefinition of their very identity.  There was no longer a class or birthright distinction.
This was indeed a new citizenship and one founded on the cross.  It is a relationship based on others (as opposed to the self-centered “god in one’s belly” type of life).  It is a citizenship that is not inherited but is rather lived.  It is based on humility and self-sacrifice, just as Jesus Christ lived.  It is a holy and sacred citizenship.
But holiness is an interesting thing.  If one professes to be “holy”, then he or she has missed the mark.  That was the problem with the alternative version of the Gospel about which Paul was warning his followers.  Warning:  If someone tells you that they have holiness or righteousness or godliness figured out, you should run.  Holiness and righteousness are not quantifiable in the context of this world; rather, we are citizens of something that is both already and not yet.  We are citizens of that which is beyond ourselves.  It is not something that we have attained at this point.  But, as Paul says, stand firm.  It is just up ahead.
Jesus Christ showed us what it meant to leave this world, this citizenship behind.  If not, then he surely would have saved himself from the Cross.  But he understood that beyond what we know, beyond the rational, beyond the citizenship of this world in which we live, is something more—life.  Our goal should not to be to become holy or righteous but to become alive in Christ.  It is about relationship; it is about love; it is about caring and compassion.  It is about life.  And that is all the holiness and sacredness that you will ever need.
a.      What  meaning does this passage hold for you?
b.      What does that redefinition of identity mean for us as 21st century Christians?
c.       What does that change in the definition of “citizenship” mean for us?
d.      What is difficult for us about that?
e.       What is holiness to you?
f.        How does this speak to our Lenten journey?
GOSPEL:  Luke 13: 31-35
We need to remember that, with the exception of one boyhood trip with his parents, Jesus had not been to Jerusalem.  Jesus’ ministry was in Galilee.  In fact, most of his ministry sort of centered around a lake.  (We actually call it the Sea of Galilee—sort of a misinterpretation.  It’s really a large and very deep fresh water lake.)  From the middle of this lake, you can look around to the cities that line its banks—Tiberias and Sephoris, the cities built by Herod Antipas, the ruins of the ancient city of Magdala under Mt. Arbor, Bethsaida, Capernaum—and between the lake and the Mediterranean Sea were the cities of Cana and Nazareth.  This was the area in which Jesus’ ministry began.  Jesus was not commuting to work in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was still a long way off, through the wilderness and beyond the fertile area of Galilee.
But even here, Jesus was probably perceived as a threat by Herod.  It would have been much easier for Herod to get rid of Jesus.  After all, this was the Herod that had already killed John the Baptist (and getting rid of Jesus would probably have elevated Herod’s somewhat meager ranking as a ruler.)  And Herod had his own vision working as he tried to lead the Galilean people to a new world—a world where Rome was the center and where the values were totally opposed by the teachings of Jesus.  So, yes, Jesus was a threat.
There are differing notions as to what Jesus meant when he referred to Herod as a “fox”. In the Old Testament writings, the fox was often associated with destruction and Jewish dietary laws classified the jackal as “unclean.”  To the first century Greeks, the fox was seen as clever but unprincipled.  Whatever Jesus’ intended meaning was, it was clear that Jesus dismissed Herod Antipas as powerless to stop his mission to establish the Kingdom of God.  As Jesus responded, he was going to do what he came to do and then he would be on his way.  The mission was set.  So with this Scripture, we begin to get a sense that Jesus is looking toward and facing Jerusalem.
Jesus is no longer merely “preparing” to go to Jerusalem.  He is headed there.  He has set his face toward the holy city.  To Jesus, the danger was not in the Herods of the world but, rather, those things that got in the way of his mission.  But he turns toward the city with regrets and heartache. And Jesus laments for Jerusalem.  In The Gospel According to Matthew, this lament is placed once Jesus is in Jerusalem.  We have this image of Jesus standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem and lamenting for what could have been.  But in the gospel by the writer known as Luke that we read today, the lament is part of Jesus’ Galilean experience.  It is indeed a lament but rather than Jesus bemoaning what could have been, it is instead a challenge to the people to become a part of this mission, to “get their house in order”, so to speak, and to become a part of that new humanity that is of Jesus Christ.
Jesus does not want Jerusalem to become a symbol of a city that rejects and kills the messengers of God; Jesus wants it to be the Holy City of God that it proclaims to be.  After all, this is not an ordinary city.  This is the city that claims that the presence of God is in its midst, right there in the temple in the heart of the city near Mt. Zion.  And yet, this city, too, has fallen into a different cadence, marching to the beat of prosperity and security and a positioning of power toward those around it.  This holy city, the city of the temple, the city that should know better, would be the one that when the time came, would reject Jesus. Jesus knew this.  So he turns his face toward Jerusalem and begins the journey toward the cross.
And, once again, lest we somehow lapse into an understanding of Jerusalem’s rejection of Jesus as only attributed to the 1st century Jewish believers, we need to realize that we are part of it.  Jesus was not rejected by a religion; Jesus was rejected by a culture and a society that thought that they were so right and so comfortable that they did not want to or have a need to change.  Jesus was rejected by a culture and a way of life that is very much like our own.  But there’s another point to the Scripture.  Even knowing the rejection waiting for him in Jerusalem, Jesus still expresses the wish to love and protect the people, gathering them together as a hen does her chicks.  Jesus never stoops to their level.  He never judges or rants and raves about what is right, or what is moral, or what is going to happen to them because they have rejected him.  He is the perfect image of God—the loving parent, the mother hen, who more than anything else, just wants to love her children and desires for them that they feel that love.
God calls us and when we do not respond, God does not reject us; instead, God surely laments.  And even through the Sacred Eyes now blurred by Divine Tears, God, with open arms, once again invites us home.  Lent calls us to remember that, to remember that even when we make other plans, even when we lose our focus, and even when we completely reject what God is doing, God is always there, always calling us to return.  But until we realize that, we’ll never find our way. 

On the western slope of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, sits a small chapel called Dominus Flevit. The name comes from Luke’s Gospel, which contains not one but two accounts of Jesus’ grief over the loss of Jerusalem. According to tradition, it was here that Jesus wept over the city that had refused his ministrations.
Inside the chapel, the altar is centered before a high arched window that looks out over the city. Iron grillwork divides the view into sections, so that on a sunny day the effect is that of a stained-glass window. The difference is that this subject is alive. It is not some artist’s rendering of the holy city but the city itself, with the Dome of the Rock in the bottom left corner and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the middle. Two-thirds of the view is the cloudless sky above the city which the grillwork turns into a quilt of blue squares. Perhaps this is where the heavenly Jerusalem hovers over the earthly one, until the time comes for the two to meet?
Down below, on the front of the altar, is a picture of what never happened in that city. It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb resembles a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. There are seven of them, with black dots for eyes and orange dots for beaks. They look happy to be there. The hen looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies.
But like I said, it never happened, and the picture does not pretend that it did. The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin. Translated into English they read, “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!” The last phrase is set outside the circle, in a pool of red underneath the chicks’ feet: you were not willing…
If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand. (From “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood, by Barbara Brown Taylor, The Christian Century, February 25, 1986, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=638, accessed 16 February, 2013.)

A thought experiment: read through the gospel text substituting the name of your town for “Jerusalem” wherever it appears. (You could try “Washington” too, but the US government feels so distant from most of us that it might not have the desired effect.) Does anything about that reading ring true?

In her commentary on Luke, Sharon Ringe writes, “When God’s gracious will is thwarted by human refusal to accept it, Jesus’ proclamation turns into lament” (192). True. We can see that lament in the story we’ll be tracing throughout Lent. Humans reject things like “casting out demons and performing cures” (Luke 13:32) as well as the rest of what Jesus has to do and say. And we misread the story if it only functions to blame someone else for that rejection (“those stubborn, corrupt Jewish leaders” or “that fox, Herod and all establishment power like him” or “those mindless crowds, fueled solely by emotion, who could say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ one day and ‘Crucify him!’ the next”).

This is one time when we are not hearing the story correctly if we hear in it only someone else’s problem. Biblical scholars usually want us all to remember that the scriptures are not just God’s word to us, but to all people across centuries. “It’s not always about you” is a good reminder for all sorts of things in our lives, Bible-reading included. Yet so-called critical distance with this text creates the problem of blaming someone else for the rejection of God’s own servant, Jesus. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces”.  If this is true, then perhaps those ten thousand Christs are traveling to ten thousand Jerusalems and hoping to gather their inhabitants the way a hen gathers her chicks. (Mary Hinkle Shore, “Wide Open Are Your Arms”, from Pilgrim Preaching, 2 Lent C, available at http://maryhinkle.typepad.com/pilgrim_preaching/2004/03/wide_open_are_y.html, accessed 24 February 2010.)

(Here’s the whole poem):

As kingfishers catch fire; dragonflies draw flame; As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Each mortal thing does one thing and do the same;
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves—goes itself;  Myself it speaks and spells. Crying What I do is me:  for that I came.
I say more:  the just man justices; Keeps grace:  that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eyes what in God’s eye he is—Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his
To the father through the feature of men’s faces.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
a.      What  meaning does this hold for you?
b.      What “Jerusalem” do we need to face this Lent?
c.       What is it that stands in the way of your responding to God’s call?
d.      What does it mean for us to take more responsibility for what happens in the world, for what happens in our Jerusalems?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.. (Havelock Ellis)
Lent is always a call to conversion.  The problem is that we must remember that conversion is not a call to be something other than what we are.  Conversion is a call to become more of what we are really meant to be. (Joan Chittister, Listen With the Heart, 28)
In wilderness is the preservation of the world. (Henry David Thoreau)
We are your people, mostly privileged, competent, entitled.  Your people who make futures for ourselves, seize opportunities, get the job done and move on.  In our self-confidence, we expect little beyond our productivity; we wait little for that which lies beyond us, and then settle with ourselves at the center.  And you, you in the midst of privilege, our competence, our entitlement.
You utter large, deep oaths beyond our imagined futures.
You say—fear not, I am with you.
You say—nothing shall separate us.
You say—something of new heaven and new earth.
You say—you are mine; I have called you by name.
You say—my faithfulness will show concretely and will abide.
And we find our privilege eroded by your purpose, our competence shaken by your future, our entitlement unsettled by your other children.
Give us grace to hear your promises.  Give us freedom to trust your promises.
Give us patience to wait and humility to yield our dreamed future to your large purpose.
We pray in the name of Jesus who is your deep “yes” to our lives.  Amen.   (Walter Brueggemann, in Prayers for a Privileged People, (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 2008), 45-46.)