Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Second Sunday of Lent.
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
He said to them, “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.’ 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. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
I remember a conversation with a friend from seminary, some late night when we’d finished studying Greek participles and had moved on to deeper topics. She was interviewing for internship positions and I had asked how it was going and all of a sudden her eyes filled with tears.
“I didn’t know how hard this would be,” she told me. “Being back in churches.”
I was confused. I went to chapel with her all the time. I knew she’d found her call to ministry in her college ministry group.
“It’s not the sanctuary that’s hard,” she continued. “I can deal with that. It’s the nursery, the classrooms, the fellowship hall. Seeing all the kid’s artwork.”
I kept listening. It took her a moment, but she kept talking.
“I loved my church as a kid. Some of my earliest memories are in my church nursery, not my own home. I made art just like that, handprints that said Jesus Loves Me on them. Church was where people listened to me, where people loved me. Church was where I was encouraged to play piano and to read scripture aloud in Sunday School class. I could memorize stuff and I had all the right answers and I was kind of the golden child. Church was where I was safe.”
My heart sank. I thought I knew where this might be headed.
“But I got older and I started being better at asking questions than giving answers, and I was too young to see how it was changing things. I remember being maybe 12 and asking my Sunday School teacher about evolution and she actually started yelling at me, telling me I was leading the other kids astray. It got worse as I got older—suddenly my clothes were wrong and my hair was wrong and everything about me was bad. It was death by a thousand cuts—all these comments to let me know I wasn’t wanted in their church, not if I was going to ask questions, not if I was going to go against the grain. I figured if they didn’t want me God must not either so I stopped believing altogether by my sixteenth birthday. Or I thought I had. Obviously I’m here, but going to interview in those church buildings, being back in rooms that remind me of where I once was so safe and comfortable and then got pushed out from, it’s just so hard.”
I didn’t have anything to say to her to make it better.
Earlier this year I was listening to a story about a man preparing to immigrate from Central America. He was talking about his home village in Venezuela, about his memories of his mother’s cooking, playing with his cousins. He talked about how beautiful the country was if you could ignore the rubbish along the roads. He said, “I never imagined I would want to leave home. But my mom protected me more than I realized and eventually the violence caught up to me. I would give anything not to have to leave. But I have to. It’s just not safe here, and I have boys of my own now, and a baby girl. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if something happened to them.”
“It’s not exactly leaving home that breaks my heart,” he said. “It’s leaving the memories of home. It’s leaving all the things that used to be so wonderful and safe. I can’t believe I’m at this point. I’m just praying my own kids know America as home, and that they’ll never feel unsafe there. I’m praying every day.”
I wouldn’t have known what to say to him either.
This week another of my friends announced her divorce. I’m at that stage in my life, where the first wave of my friends getting married is becoming the first wave of my friends getting divorced. I don’t know the insides of all their marriages, but the stories I know are heartbreaking. Not one of them just got bored or confined. They all poured their hearts into these marriages, and they’re just not safe anymore.
That seems to be the worst of it. “He was my safe place,” one of my friends told me this week. “When family was crazy, when work was hard, when everything else was falling apart. He was there for me. I trusted him entirely. And now I can’t even trust him to watch our dog, or with a key to my house. Being around him makes us both our worst selves. It’s hard to feel God’s presence with me when his betrayal feels so big and heavy. It’s like it pushes everything else out. He didn’t even cheat on me, but that’s what it feels like, the other stuff he did—like a betrayal. How am I supposed to ever trust people again? How am I supposed to feel safe?”
I didn’t have an answer for her.
And then there are the Muslim worshippers of Christchurch, the kindergartners of Sandy Hook, the moviegoers of Aurora, the music fans of Las Vegas. So many places where we should be safe, where we expect to be safe, where we think we are safe, and where that security can be shattered in an instant.
Losing our sense of safety sends us reeling. It leaves wounds that can last a lifetime. How many of you have stories like the ones I’ve shared today? Places you thought you were safe, you were loved, you were wanted, and then it all got ripped away? And how many of those stories still hurt, even if they took place long ago?
For many of us, God is our safety and security. We sing of it, we claim it for ourselves in scripture and prayer. But the flip side of that coin is that when our safety is ripped away, it can feel like it rips God away from us in the process. How can we cling to God when there is nothing else to cling to? How can we feel the safety of God’s shelter when our hearts are flayed open and exposed?
I cannot help but hear in Jesus’ words today some of these same fears, this same pain. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he says, “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 has come to Jerusalem to heal, to cast out demons, to preach good news, and the Pharisees sidle up to him and give him a warning that all that has put him on Herod’s hit list, that there is a target on his back. That there are plans in motion to kill him. In Jerusalem.
I wonder what it felt like to hear those words. I haven’t yet gotten to have this conversation with Jesus, but I wonder if he might have a story of his own to tell.
After all, Jerusalem was the crown jewel of the Jewish people. It was the site of the temple. God’s house. Jerusalem should have been the safest place for the son of God.
Didn’t Jesus feel safe there once? At twelve years old, didn’t he feel safe enough to leave his mother and father and sit with the temple scribes? Didn’t he know, know deep in his bones, that he was safe and wanted in his father’s house? That he was home, home in a way he was never home anywhere else on earth?
And in that same Jerusalem, twenty some years later, yards from that same temple, he is being hunted. He will be executed. He will be mocked and flayed and spat on. And for just a moment, he too, will feel the loss of God—my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
These are painful stories to tell. But I take courage—and I ground my faith—in knowing that in Jesus we have a God who knows intimately, knows viscerally, what it feels like to have all our safety ripped from us. Who knows the fear and pain just as we do. And I take courage in knowing that in Jesus we have a God who—even when he hears that we are trying to kill him—still wants to shelter us under his wings.
“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 longs to be a mother hen to us, to keep us safe and protected and warm. And there have been moments—when I have been willing, when I have been willing to reach for God even when I am almost convinced that I won’t find anything at all, because my heart is so, so broken—there have been moments when I have felt the downy softness of his wings, when I have felt the warm heartbeat surrounding my shaky one.
I cannot tell you that Jesus will keep you safe from broken bones or broken hearts. I cannot tell you that Jesus will force the ones you love to love you back, or treat you well.
But what I can promise you is that Jesus will not leave you. Will not abandon you. Will not belittle your pain or be baffled by your heartbreak.
Because Jesus returned to Jerusalem. He returned to the place where he was not safe, so that we could be. He returned to the place that broke his heart and his body, so that there, in that unsafe place, he could rise to new life, and have that promise to give to us.
One day we will know the shelter of God’s wings. Not just as a feeling, not just as a promise, but as a sure and certain knowledge that no matter what we have gone through, no matter who has betrayed us or refused us or exiled us or abandoned us or hurt us or pushed us away—God never has.
And if you cannot feel it today, don’t despair. Jesus is longing for you. He will wait until you are willing.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.