The following sermon was preached by Christine Wenderoth, Director, JKM Library, Associate Professor of Ministry, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, February 27, 2013.
13:31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." 13:32 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. 13:33 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.' 13:34 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! 13:35 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.'" Luke 13:31-35
In the minds of most people Lent has two meanings—a time when things are given up, a simplifying; and a time when a spiritual practice is taken on. Both giving up and taking on are intended to be means of self-examination and drawing us closer to God. I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into both Lents this year. The spiritual practice I’ve had to take on is the meditation I must undergo as part of sermon writing. I don’t have a regular preaching gig, wandering as I do among Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian worship communities and experiences. I do get asked from time to time to preach [gesture] but at what feels like long intervals between the invitations. So it took me by surprise when I checked my calendar last week, and found I have four sermons to prepare for four worship services between now and March 17th. How did that happen?! I see the hand of God in this, I truly do. God’s putting my nose to the spiritual grindstone because I need it. Thanks to God, I will likely be engaged this Lent with scripture on a more than a cursory level, and this will inevitably be a spiritual practice.
The things-given-up-for-Lent part of Lent, that I will blame on my husband. Or credit him, whichever. Tom moved to New Jersey over the holidays, taking the dog with him, and so my social life here is pretty spare. Yeah, he’s the social butterfly of the family (You can tell just by looking at him). I have given up people for Lent. I get up, go to work, go home from work, feed the cat, cook dinner, clean up, check my finances….OK, it’s seven o’clock—now what? more work? reading? Well sometimes, of course. But I don’t go out or have friends in—it’s too late, too much work!
It is no wonder that since the first of the year, I have been sucked into marathon sessions of watching TV shows past: Homeland, The Sopranos (so I can learn Joisey culture), Nurse Jackie, and finally Downton Abbey. Thanks to the magic of DVDs, Netflix and Kadi Billman; I can watch mass quantities of these shows in one sitting, episode after episode after episode. It affects you. I walk around now hearing all these theme songs… simultaneously. And the musicality of the various speech patterns? these run through my head as well. So is it any wonder that in today’s scripture I hear Luke’s Jesus in the voice of Tony Soprano: “”Hey! I’m woirkin’ here. Today. Tomorrow. The next day. Get lost! Besides, you got the killin’ thing all wrong. Nothin’s happening in this neighborhood.” Right? We got a Jesus in control here. He knows the traditions, he knows the family stories, and he knows where things are inevitably headed. And he’s knows he’s effective, healing bodies and souls. Don’t mess with him. He’s workin’ here.
But it is Lent for Jesus too, and even he can’t keep up the brave face and witty repartee. You notice how quickly he goes into lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! The city that has lost its way. The city that rejected me. The city that has abandoned itself.” You can hear Jesus’ pain. He moves so quickly from the self-assured, effective Jesus to the man in despair over this lost city and his inability to protect it from harm.
It should not be hard for us to understand his grief, actually. All we have to do is look at our own Jerusalem to know a little something about unyielding self-abandonment and self-delusion. Washington D.C. may not be the religious center of our lives in quite the way Jerusalem was in its day, but it is arguably our political and secular-spiritual center. It tells the myths we live by. We talk about how ineffectual Washington is because we have the circus of operational politics to entertain us—Congress, the President, political campaigns and all the spit-ball fights that go nowhere endlessly. That weary, adolescent drama keeps us diverted from the reality of how effectual Washington actually is at killing its prophets and stoning its people.
I just finished watching the entire first season of Homeland, in about four sittings. (Sad, I know.) Homeland, for those who don’t know, is a Showtime series about a young CIA operative named Carrie Mathison who has come to believe that one Nicholas Brody, a marine sergeant who was held captive by al-Qaeda as a prisoner of war, was “turned” by the enemy and now poses a significant risk to U.S. national security. Is Brody or is he not working for al-Qaeda? That’s the mystery of the first season. Who can we trust: this likable war hero or a bi-polar, hyper-anxious young woman? The story works in part because of the skilful juxtaposition of real news footage with camera techniques that mimic real news footage with the story line. And it works in part because like Carrie we are alert but unsure. What do we trust? Everything nowadays is threatening.
One of the differences in watching a show marathon style is you get to see the opening credits again and again in rapid succession. The opening credits of Homeland are confusing—a hodgepodge of visual and audio clips, some of them from real life, some from the show, with an overlay of very intense music. But after the third or fourth viewing, I started to see a pattern to these clips, a quick story in fact. There’s Ronald Reagan, denouncing terrorists, and then a photo of toddler Carrie watching TV. There’s Bush #1, also sternly warning terrorists. And a kindergartner Carrie. Then Bill Clinton—decrying terrorism. And a school girl Carrie. George W. taking no guff from terrorists. And a teenage Carrie. Finally in a curious flip-flop cut there’s Obama standing down terrorism. So you get it: Carrie has grown up hearing from every president, no matter what his political stripe, say that we are threatened by terrorists, but that with vigilance we will prevail over them.
But in the middle of all of this, there’s a clip of… Louis Armstrong. What? He’s followed by a brief clip of Colin Powell and I thought at first, ah! this is a comment on our unevolved racism. But Armstrong is saying something…and I made it my mission to figure out what he was saying. Finally on the sixth time or so, I heard it, Louis Armstrong’s speech. “Next song we’re gonna play for you is one of your good, ole favorites!” Ahh! And it all clicked together.
One of our good ole favorites. That’s right, isn’t it? Whatever we think about 9/11 and the U.S. response to that horror, about our involvement Iraq or Afghanistan, about our stance on the Mideast, about taking out Osama bin Laden, about even airport security or INS regulations, you gotta admit: we’ve been told a consistent story by the man in charge for the last thirty years. A good ole favorite. We know what the President’s gonna say before he even opens his mouth. The Global War on Terror, this is a narrative that has given us structure, meaning, and weirdly, comfort for so long. The Global War on Terror accounts for just about everything.
Whatever traditional ideals we hold high as a nation—civil rights, due process, representative government; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—whatever national and spiritual ideals we hold, we now have this narrative, one that is willing to compromise some of those old ideals in the pursuit of safety. And while we may think that Washington is grid-locked, it’s actually very functional. It has an effective narrative for describing and exercising power, and it wants no counter-narrative, no hen lifting her wings to gather us in. Maybe it’s a little extreme to say Washington “kills prophets and stones those who are sent to it,” for today politics relies much more on sophisticated propaganda to convert the majority of us to its agenda. But then again we might want to ask northwest Pakistanis what they think about drones.
You may not like this analysis. Fair enough. But surely, Washington, like Jerusalem before it has its own plans. Why would it be any different? And surely we can agree that Jesus was clear about Jerusalem: he had tried to protect it—that lovely image of the hen gathering her chicks under her wings—but Jerusalem chose to go its own way. “See, your house is left to you,” he says. “Your house is abandoned. You are left to your own devices. You chose your own path and so you are responsible for your own actions and their consequences. But be clear. This is not God’s path; this is Jerusalem’s path. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you see differently.” [OK, that’s my rendering.]
What would it mean for us to see differently? For us to say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord?” …and not in the name of safety or the economy or even the U.S. Constitution? What would it mean for us to allow a counter-narrative to the one given us by our Jerusalem to describe what is going on in the world? What would it mean for us to forego living in constant fear of the terrorist? What would it mean for us to live under the wings of a different hen, one that embraces all her chicks, not just the red-white-and-blue ones?
I don’t know. I can hardly imagine it. Oh, I can imagine not be frisked every time I go to the airport thank you very much! But I can’t really imagine a world in which God’s plans take priority over mine or my country’s. Or in which I truly know when to say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Pondering this in my quiet apartment has just become and now must be my Lenten spiritual practice. Undoubtedly, you have other spiritual practices you have taken on. But this text asks us to look at our Jerusalem and worry that Jesus grieves for it. May we all draw closer to God as we worry.