FAITH IN THE THICK OF THINGS
Luke 13: 31-35
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
March 17, 2019
For many of us, these days are in the thick of things. We sometimes stagger under the pain and hatred we witness, whether it is in the news or in our neighborhood, and yet we continue to believe that love is stronger that hate and that our calling is to love our neighbor as ourselves. The heartache we feel over violent acts of hatred cannot make us so anxious and stressed that we cannot function as glad witnesses to living lives of caring and love. But at the same time we acknowledge that this is a stressful time for all of us.
Many of us feel like we are living in a swarm of gnats constantly taking bites out of our lives. All the swatting in the world does not make them go away. If you feel more stressed than ever, even if you are retired, and you wonder how this happened and how you can keep up the pace, then you are not alone. Dr. Edward Hallowell has written a book entitled CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD. The problem is that most people feel too busy to read it!
Is there room for faith in such a world? That is what our scripture for today is all about.
How do we know that? Just before today’s reading, we get a glimpse into the schedule Jesus was keeping. The text says, Jesus went through one town and village after another. Does that sound familiar? We go through one thing after another: crisis after crisis, demand after demand. It is the picture of living in the thick of things.
It is a far cry from back in the earlier days when he was back up in Galilee where life was slower, and he could climb a mountain just to enjoy the view. Life was simpler then, like it is for us in the summer months. But now he was in the thick of things, dealing with crowds yearning for his time and attention, dealing with religious leaders challenging his positions, dealing with the sick who needed healing, and dealing with the disciples who were trying to understand him.
And that is where we enter today’s text: right in the thick of things. Some Pharisees sidle up to him and whisper, Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. The fascinating thing about this text is that we don’t know if those Pharisees were really friendly toward Jesus and were trying to warn him of imminent danger from Herod, or if they were really enemies of Jesus just trying to get him to run for the hills and be out of their way.
What we do know, however, is that Jesus told them to tell Herod to stuff it. Well, not exactly…. He called Herod a fox. What is hidden in the English translation is that he called Herod a female fox, which in that culture was an expletive to ratchet up the contempt for Herod. We have a parallel today, but you don’t want me to repeat it in the pulpit. Some people may be offended that Jesus would use such language, but I have a theory about that. I imagine Jesus standing at the foot of a cross with a fellow countryman nailed to that cross gasping for breath and dying a slow death at the hands of Roman guards.
Every historical record argues that crucifixions were a common form of punishment for non-Roman citizens of Jerusalem, and the soldiers commonly lined the road leading to Jerusalem with crosses to show any traveler what could happen if they disobeyed Roman law. I imagine Jesus and his disciples coming upon this horrifying and grotesque form of punishment, hearing the cries of the poor suffering man nailed to the wood above them, and looking at the gleaming walls of the city just before them.
It is in that context that I imagine him saying what is written in today’s text: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills…. This is living faith in the thick of things. This is maintaining your faith when you aren’t sure you can go on another step! This is keeping the faith when everything seems to be going wrong!
As long as we are in the thick of things, I think it is worth noting the barnyard metaphor Jesus uses in this text. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! When danger threatens, the hen gathers her brood under her wings for protection. The little chicks are running all around the barnyard, but the mother hen runs after them and gathers them under her wings for protection.
This is not the first time in the Bible that a feminine image is used for the divine. Isaiah pictures a people who are so caught up in the thick of things that they complain that God has forsaken them, and Isaiah says, Can a woman forget her nursing child? If Isaiah can compare God to a nursing mother; if Jesus can compare divine love to the mother hen protecting her children under her wings; then why do we gulp when people recognize that God’s love is broader and deeper and more protective than a male image alone can supply? To think of God in feminine terms is not to deny God the Father; rather it is to expand our conception of a God who is greater than gender, greater than any one image we can conjure up to describe the length to which God will go in God’s love for us.
There are still the Herod’s of this world—deceptive, cunning, oppressive, and sometimes savage. There are still journeys we take to the Jerusalem’s of this world, journeys that lead us into the thick of things. But it also remains true that God is faithful in staying with us all through the thick of things, even if we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death!
The good news of Lent is that Christ has been there in the thick of things, and is very much in touch with the depth of our struggles. From the thick of things, he calls us to follow him, not just in the summer days when the sun is shining and the birds are singing, but in the most stressful days when the news is disturbing and you are in the thick of things.
“Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea,” says the first verse of the hymn. And for many of us, life is like that, but that still, small voice is persistent: “Christian, follow me,” even in the thick of things.