February 28, 2010: 2nd Sunday of Lent
Luke 13: 31-35
Whom shall we fear?
Our gospel reading for this morning is really a rather odd bit of scripture. Only five verses and still we have two distinct parts. In the first, Jesus is warned—by the Pharisees no less—that Herod is out to kill him. Jesus responds by calling Herod a “fox” and saying he will go to Jerusalem anyway.
In the second part, Jesus accuses Jerusalem of violence against the prophets. And yet, in a stunning metaphor, Jesus reveals his desire to gather and protect the people of Jerusalem “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Why did Luke place these brief episodes next to each other? Why did the people who set the lectionary readings include these stories together for this second Sunday of Lent?
The most dramatic connection between these two sections is the animal imagery. If Herod is a fox and Jesus is a hen . . . well, you don’t have to be a farmer to know how that story turns out.
Which leads us into the larger story—that bloody mess of violence coming up on Good Friday that moves closer and closer toward the front of our minds as the Lenten weeks progress.
But we’re not there yet.
And Herod, of course, isn’t really a fox. He’s an insecure political leader.
And Jesus, of course, is not a mother hen. He’s an itinerant Jewish rabbi.
So beyond the barnyard metaphors, what do these two snippets have in common? I think it is the question of fear. It’s the question posed centuries before by the psalmist: Whom shall I fear? Of whom shall I be afraid?
The Pharisees figure Jesus should be afraid of Herod. The powerful man who, at least in their estimation, is trying to kill Jesus. This is the same Herod that had John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, beheaded a few years back. If Herod wants someone dead, chances are they will be dead. Soon.
But Jesus refuses to change his plans. He will not go into hiding. He stays the course and seems utterly unafraid of the threat posed by Herod’s ill wishes.
Of whom shall I be afraid? Through his actions, Jesus says, “Not Herod.”
Whom shall we fear? The answer comes, I think, in the second little part of our gospel reading. Jesus gives us the image of himself as the mother hen, spreading her wings over the chicks. And why would the chicks gather around their mother and hide under her wings? Maybe because they are afraid.
The people of Jerusalem are actually not running for cover. They are not afraid. But Jesus strongly implies that they should be.
And why should they be afraid? Not because of Herod. Not because of some external oppressive, violent force. They should be afraid because they are the city that stones the prophets and kills those who are sent to it.
They should be afraid of themselves. Of their own propensity toward rejecting the outsider. Of their own blindness to reality. Of their own ability to commit violence.
Do not be afraid of the violence others may do to you, Jesus teaches. Be afraid of the violence that you are capable of doing to others. This is a hard teaching. It goes against our gut. When I perceive an external threat, I have a very intuitive, physical reaction. My muscles tense, my palms sweat, my stomach lurches.
I have a Facebook friend who has been posting things this week about a man who has been breaking into the homes of single women in Kansas City. These stories terrify me. I am literally gripped by fear whenever I hear or read about this kind of crime. I lay in bed at night and will myself to think about something—anything–else before going to sleep in order to avoid nightmares.
I don’t think I would have held up well in Jesus’ position—or in the position of the early Anabaptist martyrs—knowing that someone wanted to kill me. And not just kill me, but watch me suffer in the process.
We experience deep fear in the face of external threats. Yet Jesus says, in Luke 12, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” And then he says it again with his actions in the passage we heard this morning; he says it by continuing on towards Jerusalem despite the Pharisees’ warnings. Despite the fact that Herod wants him dead.
The violence other people can inflict on us, according to Jesus, is not truly frightening. We cannot control it, and we should not fear it.
What we can control is how we treat other people. And what we should be afraid of is that we will not treat them well. That we will marginalize the outsider. Oppress the orphan and widow. Ignore the hungry. Commit violence against the defenseless.
This was a difficult concept for Jesus’ listeners to grasp. And it is still difficult today.
Think about how much our society fears the threat of violence being inflicted on us.
Think about how little concern we have for our ability to inflict violence on others.
The Kansas Senate just failed to pass a bill that would have abolished the state death penalty. People are afraid of these criminals who have done terrible things to other human beings. Now there is nothing wrong with taking reasonable measures to protect people.
But what we should be afraid of is what kind of humans we become when our state government executes people. When our tax dollars pay for the materials and personnel to take the life of a human being.
In 2006 the execution of a man in California was delayed because doctors refused to participate. These doctors were not expressing fear of what the prisoner—or anyone else—might do to them. They were afraid of what they would be doing to themselves if they used their medical skills in the service of death instead of life.
Of whom shall I be afraid? We should be more scared that we might hurt someone else than we are that someone else might hurt us.
The events of 9/11 were horrific. Everyone involved in perpetrating the suicide bombing plot enacted evil. The two planes that struck the towers killed about 3,000 people. And devastated the lives of tens–hundreds–of thousands of family members and friends of those who died.
This event struck terror in our hearts. To realize that violence could come upon us . . . just . . . like . . . that. It was probably a month before I could hear an airplane overhead without flinching.
Three thousand people dead in an instant. And now, the low estimate of the civilian body count from the war in Iraq is 95,428.
Of whom shall we be afraid?
We think the threat is external. Jesus says it is not. That the violence only really takes your life—your spirit, your soul—when it is the violence that you commit against another.
Our country spends billions on homeland security. We never again want to loose 3,000 people to a terrorist plot.
Meanwhile, 45,000 people die each year in this country who might have survived if they had adequate health insurance.
Whom shall we fear?
Too often, we seem to get it backwards—fearing the external threats and heedlessly risking our souls in an attempt to combat those threats. And we know, of course, that this backwards fear is not just a problem of the state and federal governments.
If you are following the news about the new homeless shelter site in Lawrence, you know that practically nobody wants it near them. Everyone is afraid of what the shelter will do to their business, their property values. Afraid that some of the homeless people will attack them or rob them.
What we should be afraid of is what it does to our souls when someone dies of exposure in a Lawrence city park. We should be afraid of being put in that group of those who saw Jesus hungry and naked and didn’t do a thing.
In the story Jesus tells, do you know where he sends those people? Those goats who do not feed the hungry or visit the sick or welcome the stranger? It’s the same place the rich man ends up after years of ignoring Lazarus begging at his gate.
O whom shall we be afraid?
We get the fear wrong at the national level, at the state level, even in city politics. I wonder if our fear is backwards even on the most personal issues.
Do we lock our doors and windows at night to protect against violence from without while we are inside saying and doing things that wound the spirits of those we are supposed to love?
Do our efforts to have a safe and comfortable life—to protect ourselves from the violence of poverty—lead us to compromise our own values and diminish our souls?
Whom shall we fear? Whom do we fear? Personally, I tend to fear the foxes—those threats of external, physical violence. I don’t know what you are afraid of.
I do know what we should be afraid of. We should be afraid of killing the prophets. Of stoning those who are sent. We should be afraid that we will somehow treat another person as less than human and thereby reduce our own humanity. We should be afraid that we will fail to care for the least of these and thereby place ourselves at odds with the Kingdom of God.
We should be afraid. We should be so afraid that we go flocking to the mother hen, huddling under the heavy, soft wings; placing our trembling little bodies so close to her breast that we can feel her beating heart.