Mar. 17, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Mar 17, 2019 in Lent, Sermons

The Second Sunday in Lent

March 17, 2019

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

That was today’s collect, and I like to read it each week in the context of our Gospel reading for Sunday, and today I want to start there. This collect was originally from the 5th century Gelasian Sacramentary, and also appears in slightly later Gregorian Sacramentaries (like a prayer book). The original version was part of praying “for heretics and schismatics” that they might turn from their ways and return to God’s church. We’re far more polite than that now—praying “for those who have gone astray from your ways.” And I notice, we don’t say it’s we who have strayed, it’s “them”! How odd in this penitential season of Lent, when we’re aware to how easily and how often we do stray, (and how thoroughly we can do so,) in this prayer, we say “them” and not ‘us.’ Well, it’s us too.

By the time we offered that prayer this morning we had already made our confession and received God’s absolution, so praying for others makes more sense. —And I doubt any of us had time to sin and stray between the absolution and the collect! Still, it’s important to remember that all of us stray, and praying for others to find their way back to God’s embrace is an essential part of loving each other and living our faith. We long for those people we love to have experiences of God’s love, grace and comfort. And yet, much as we hope that for someone, we cannot make it happen. We cannot force them experience a loving God, and we cannot shame or guilt them into letting God in to their hearts or acknowledging God’s presence. Maybe you’ve had someone judge your faith as inadequate and try to push you into theirs as the only way – far from inviting it can feel like a wall going up. None of us wants that sense of faith through coercion! It is up to each one to open the door to the Holy one who continuously seeks us out. Remember how Emily Dickenson put it?

The soul should always stand ajar,
That if the heaven inquire,
He will not be obliged to wait,
Or shy of troubling her.

But we each have to find out way to God. And we are blessed enough to be traveling that road right now together. Even though we already know God’s presence among us, we continue to seek it and to journey together deeper into that mystery. Many of us have been reading the Lenten booklet from Episcopal Relief and Development and learning about supporting people around the world. The Episcopal Church does not go into the world’s disaster areas passing out bibles and prayer books, but instead pass out clean water and food, blankets, tents and medical supplies, try to build the community to build their resources, their way. This year in Lent we’re focusing on providing food for hungry people in our area face to face and donating to fund the Meals Program we cook and serve each month – and you’ll hear a personal story about that at the Peace today. We live God’s Word by our life’s actions and example and invite others to share in that with us.

It might seem like I’m avoiding a somewhat unexciting Gospel—really, I’m not though. What Jesus does in this moment is calls them on their nonsense and assert his focus on ministry. Whether we think the Pharisees are taunting him or they genuinely came to warn him of Herod Antipas’ threat, it isn’t going to make him back away from what his call is. He will not be pressured or coerced, he is bound and determined to continue to fulfill his ministry. Luke’s Gospel is known as the one which most emphasizes Jesus’ sacrifice of himself for us—his gospel is symbolized by the winged ox, the ox an ancient sacrificial animal of great cost, which points to the gift Jesus gives of himself. He might seem to make light of these messengers of Herod’s threat by sending them back with a rebuffing message, but I think he’s simply acknowledging the truth as he sees it; Herod has no power to change who Jesus is. “Go and tell that fox for me…” recalls for us his speaking just a short time back that “foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Calling Herod a fox might be Jesus’ way of saying that’s who Herod is, he’s doing what he does; being a fox; sly and also comfortable and protected in his hole, and that he has nothing to do with who Jesus is called to be and do. Essentially, ‘He can come and get me. I’m right here,’ and Herod knows it. Jesus is aware of the dangers, that Jerusalem is where prophets are killed, that this threat is both political and real, and soon he will enter the city anyway. When his work is done. Even saying “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I reach my goal” sets him outside of Herod’s reach and threats. Is Jesus willingly pointing ahead to his own impending death as he fulfills his life ministry?

I don’t think Jesus is merely engaging in verbal dueling, I think he speaks for the benefit of those around him and focuses on his hope for them; “How often I have to longed to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings… and you were not willing.” You can hear the sadness and loss he feels for his own people who will not hear him, heed him or believe in him. They get in their own way. They are their own worst enemies. He doesn’t seem to worry at all about his own life or Herod’s threat, but rather those he has not been able to call into the kingdom. Some are missing and he knows time is growing short. Once again, it may sound like ‘them’ or ‘they’ but it’s also ‘us’ here! And we’re back to the collect we began with; asking God, who always has mercy, to be gracious to all who have gone astray. It was Jesus’ prayer for those around him, for the Pharisees, for those not receptive in Jerusalem, for all of us. He longs to draw us into his embrace whenever we go astray. We are like the chicks out in a storm, fearful of the fox’s growl nearby.

We know running into the shelter of those wings makes us vulnerable, open to fox-like maneuvering—and that’s what builds up such tyrants; our acquiescence out of fear. Jesus says he longs to gather us together to himself, and yet we were not willing. We are both warned and called here, and what will happen to those who do not change their ways and draw into God’s embrace is what we fear for people we love, that their choice is an even greater risk; “See, your house is left to you.”

Just as no one can do it for us, we cannot do it for anyone else. It might seem like the foxes of this world call the shots, but they don’t have control over us. They try to get their way by being sly, or elicit fear with their threats and growling, but in the presence of the living God they are powerless, they return to their holes and our Lord continues with his work. Even with only a little bit of distance and holy shelter, we can see they are not nearly as much ‘in control’ as they think. And so we pray as our collect prays; that those of us who have strayed, may “with penitent hearts and steadfast faith embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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