Scripture - Luke 13:31-34
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 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. 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.’ 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!
The Word of Life. Thanks be to God.
A seminary professor shared an image this past week that stopped me in my feed - so to speak - for a few minutes. I had been feeling overwhelmed and decided to escape to Facebook for a few minutes - really, that’s not a great idea, but it was the best option available at the time.
Granted, it’s not a very historically accurate depiction of Jesus, but I shared it nonetheless because I was struck by how vivid and intimate a relationship was portrayed. I’m going to try and share my screen here so you can see it….
It’s an image of Jesus holding the world depicted as a woman who is sick - and all the flags on it are the countries of those affected by the coronavirus.
This image caught my attention because of its truth. Jesus carries us. Like that children’s song, He’s got the whole world in his hands. In that instant I felt acknowledged. Seen. Carried. Held. And I had been going a mile a minute up until that point - between parenting and touching base with family and work - that I realized I hadn’t really stopped and considered the place I was in...or the emotions I was carrying.
The scripture we read this morning describes Jesus longing like a mother hen who yearns to gather her chicks to keep them safe. Jesus wanting to gather his people for shelter -- sheltering them from that fox of a King Herod. And I was struck how this is so much of our desire - yearning to protect our loved ones. We want to keep our children safe, no matter if they are still in our home, returning from a closed university, or living in another country. We want to keep our parents safe - my dad took a trip to Brookline to pick up a dresser that didn’t fit in my sister’s apartment and I was like “what are you doing?!?!?”. We want to shelter our friends and neighbors who are living alone and make sure they know they are loved and cared for. We’re all carrying a lot.
Not only are we carrying people in our hearts, but we’re carrying a lot of other worries and fears - worrying about loved ones who may get sick, worrying about our community and the burden of protecting the most vulnerable among us, fear that the decisions our country is making may not be enough, fearful that people are taking this too seriously or not seriously enough. It’s a lot.
This disease has threatened so much of the way of life we’ve taken for granted. Like the fox threatens the chicks.
But the image of God as a mother hen - sheltering us, desiring to protect us gives me hope.
Nadia Bolz-Weber writes this - and it’s a long passage but really sums up where I’m at right now, and I hope it is an inspiring word for you all as well. She writes: Maybe that beautiful image of God could mean something important for us: and by us I mean we fragile, vulnerable human beings who face very real danger. I can’t bear to say that this scripture is a description of what behaviors and attitudes you could imitate if you want to be a good, not-afraid person. But neither can I tell you that the Mother Hen thing means that God will protect you from Herod or that God is going to keep bad things from happening to you.
Because honestly, nothing actually keeps danger from being dangerous.
A mother hen cannot actually keep a determined fox from killing her chicks. So where does that leave us? I mean, if danger is real, and a hen can’t actually keep their chicks out of danger, then what good is this image of God as Mother Hen if faith in her can’t make us safe?
Well, today I started to think that maybe it’s not safety that keeps us from being afraid.
Maybe it’s love.
Which means that a Mother Hen of a God doesn’t keep foxes from being dangerous…a Mother Hen of a God keeps foxes from being what determines how we experience the unbelievably beautiful gift of being alive.
God the Mother Hen gathers all of her downy feathered, vulnerable little ones under God’s protective wings so that we know where we belong, because it is there that we find warmth and shelter.
But Faith in God does not bring you safety.
The fox still exists.
Danger still exists.
And by that I mean, danger is not optional, but fear is.
Because maybe the opposite of fear isn’t bravery. Maybe the opposite of fear is love. Paul tells us that perfect love casts out fear. So in the response to our own Herods, in response to the very real dangers of this world we have an invitation as people of faith: which is to respond by loving.
It’s like The famous story about Martin Luther: when asked what he would do if he knew the world was about to end, he famously said if he knew the world were ending tomorrow, then he would plant an apple tree today.
I love that because it is defiantly hopeful. As though he actually listened to Jesus when Jesus said “do not be afraid”. If the world were ending he would respond by loving the world.
Because the Herods of this world, the dangers of this world the foxes that may surround us, do not get to determine the contours of our hearts. Nor the content of our minds.
So, we can plant trees and cast out demons and heal, and we can squeeze every single drop of living out of this life.
So to hell with fear. Because it does nothing to actually keep the bad things from happening ….it just steals the joy of appreciating the good things around us.
So, love the world, good people.
But, you know, for now, do it from home.
We carry each other….and God carries us -- as we shelter others, we do so knowing that God shelters all of us - not to keep us safe, because danger is real and out there - but to remind us that we belong to each other and that fear doesn’t have to define us or our responses. We can choose to love - because bad stuff will happen no matter what - and in choosing to love, we can find more joy and peace...and we will not let fear define us.
I’d like to close with the first verse of Psalm 27 - we heard it read this morning from the Message, but I’m going to read it here with the more familiar translation:
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
Scripture - Galatians 1:13 - 2:21 (idea of story and re-storying our lives after that of the gospel)
This morning we’re going to be spending some time with Paul’s story as he tells it in the first couple chapters of Galatians. I’ll summarize it for you but I really encourage you to read it - it’s in your bulletin insert for your reference. The gist of the story is this: Paul - the one who was zealously persecuting the early church on behalf of the Jewish authorities - receives this mission to preach the Gospel message to the Gentiles - non-Jews. He has this experience and instead of talking about it with the early Christian leaders in Jerusalem, he goes off to Arabia for three years before going to Jerusalem to spend some time with James and Peter. He then continues his ministry.
Fourteen years later, he goes back to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus and shares with the other apostles what he’s been preaching. Titus comes along as a kind of proof-of-concept that Gentile converts don’t have to be circumcised to follow Jesus. Paul’s mission to spread the Gospel among the Gentiles was affirmed, Peter’s mission to spread the Gospel among the Jews was affirmed - everything seemed just fine.
Yet then Paul recounts a confrontation he ended up having later with Peter in Antioch, where Peter - a Jew - didn’t participate in all the Jewish customs around food when he was hanging out with the Gentiles...until James - also a Jew - had sent some of his faction to town and then Peter quickly distanced himself from his non-Jewish friends. Paul called him out on it with this killer line, paraphrased from The Message, “If you, a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your old Jerusalem cronies?”
This is the backdrop to where we’ll pick up in verse 15 of chapter 2. We’ll continue with The Message. Paul writes,
Galatians 1:13 - 2:21 (The Message)
15-16 We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over “non-Jewish sinners.” We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.
17-18 Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren’t perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was “trying to be good,” I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.
19-21 What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.
Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
There was a video going around Facebook in a few of my moms groups a few weeks ago - it was a video of a 10 month old baby who was born partially deaf hearing his mother’s voice for the first time thanks to the use of hearing aids. His expressions ranged from delighted smiles and giggles to shock and bewilderment and back again as his mother repeated “hi” and “hello” to him over and over again. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have the whole way you experience the world change in an instant and you realize that there’s more depth and richness than you ever thought possible.
That’s basically what happened in Paul’s conversion story, where he was opened up to this whole new world and had to reinterpret everything he thought was familiar.
One of the things I admire about Paul’s story is that he was able to recognize that it was Jesus speaking to him - when he had that dramatic moment on the road to Damascus. I have to be honest and say that I always wanted that kind of direct clarity and certainty in my conversations with God. God tends to speak to me in a lot more subtle ways - no voices or flashing lights or dreams or visions - mostly it feels like a lot of detective work and putting pieces together...sometimes a dash of what I call holy anxiety where I know I have to do or say something and it comes out of the blue. Sometimes I think that getting the neon signs from God might make things easier. Maybe not.
He shares his story with the Galatians to remind them that the old way doesn’t work - that you can’t rule-follow your way into a living relationship with God. For Paul, if you are interested in pleasing people by how virtuous you are, or in trying to do good in order to make God happy, or in trying to get it right by following all the Jewish laws and traditions -- following Jesus isn’t going to get you there.
His experience of Christ broke down all those old categories for him and it led to a new understanding of his own religious tradition. It led him to a new interpretation of old stories - stories about who God is and what God wants for the world, stories about who is in and who is out, stories about what it means to live in light of God’s kingdom. These are the stories that have shaped his religious faith for generations, stories that were a part of him from childhood - stories that became fresh and new in the light of Christ. It also led him to being part of the new chapter of God’s story. It revealed a whole new way of being in the world that meant he could never go back to life as he knew it before Jesus.
In God Unbound, Elaine Heath recalls a conversation with Wendy Miller, author and spiritual director, about the stories we live. I had the good fortune to study under Wendy Miller during the Gateways to God program at Rolling Ridge a few years ago - and this is truly the heart of her approach for discerning the spirit of God at work. The question Wendy posed was “which story are we living?” She continued with, “we pause from time to time, especially when we need discernment about a decision, and we ask ourselves: Are we living the Gospel story or living the world’s story?”
Are we living the Gospel story or are we living the world’s story? Are we operating under the rules the world tells us are important, are we living out of fear and anxiety, are we drawing boundaries around who is in and who is out, are we driven by our ego or by trying to please others -- or are we living the Jesus story - motivated by compassion and forgiveness, seeking to heal and restore, driven by what would be life giving to others, responding to the freedom and grace offered to us in Jesus?
This approach to discernment relies on our familiarity with the stories of Jesus and allowing those stories to speak to us in the midst of our various life situations. As we consider our lives and meditate on the narrative, we invite Jesus to be present and find ourselves incarnating the love, compassion, grace, and presence of Jesus in our own lives and to those around us. This gives us the opportunity to re-story our lives again and again around Jesus - allowing us to see the ways Christ invites us to be in the world.
The encounters we have with Jesus may not be quite as dramatic as Paul’s, but they are no less transformational if we are open to all that Jesus has for us. In re-centering and re-storying our lives in the narratives we find in the Gospels, it helps us pay attention to what God is up to, to sense the movement and work of the spirit in our lives....in our communities...and in our church. It allows us then to follow his lead and invitation, to trust the wisdom and direction he gives us, and to give ourselves over again and live by the Gospel story.
What would it look like to invite Jesus into the story of our church? What would it look like to consider the struggles we currently face...the fears and anxieties we have about the future...the memories of the past...the hopes and dreams we long for...the grief we carry of people who are no longer with us...the decisions about our identity and relationship with the United Methodist Church...what would it look like to invite Jesus in to all of that and notice what he says or what he does? What would it look like to invite Jesus to live again in this congregation?
Jesus takes our stories, our traditions, our hopes and dreams, our very selves - and transforms them into something new. We live inside the story that God is writing, following Jesus as our guide. We are freed from our old stories, the old narratives that try to sway us from the freedom and grace that are found in Christ. May we continue to fix our eyes on him - that we can live the Gospel story in all things - and share God’s love wherever we are. Amen.
Scripture - Galatians 1:1-12
1 Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the members of God’s family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - The First Song of Isaiah (FWS 2030)
I remember my first flute lesson in college. I had been playing the flute for eight years at this point - all through middle school and high school. For never having taken a formal lesson and learning through my own practicing and what my band teachers had taught, I was pretty good. Through some miracle, I hadn’t learned too many bad habits, I could read music pretty well, and had some decent technical proficiency and thanks to singing, decent breath support. There wasn’t much I had to unlearn.
So when my flute teacher handed me a piece of music full of whole notes on it I thought it was a walk in the park. I played through the notes as they were written without too much thought. She asked me to play it again, but this time paying attention to the beginning and ending of each note. The next time through, she wanted me to pay attention to my embouchure - the shape of my lips - and change them slightly on each note to hear how the tone changed. The third time through I was to pay attention to my breath. And so on and so forth. The next set of exercises was to make sure I had my scales down cold - not just memorized with my mind, but know them on an instinctive level ....down to muscle memory.
I had to go back to the basics to pay attention to the fundamentals - because any flaw in tone production, technique, phrasing - will show up as you work your way through the basics. By getting these things right, or by continuing to work on them and practice them, your playing will improve overall. It’s not easy work. It’s not even very exciting work. But it’s important work.
This is the heart of what Paul is getting at in this letter to the churches in Galatia - get back to the basics of the Gospel. He dives right in with fiery admonishment - they are perverting the message of the Gospel of Jesus that Paul preached among them.
By making new believers in Jesus undergo Jewish initiation rites before being able to participate in the life of the church.
In the beginnings of the church, there were no real distinctions between Christianity and the Jewish religion. This small sect of the Jewish faith called themselves followers of The Way, and it was attracting all kinds of followers - both practicing Jews and those who were not. In other words, Jews and non-Jews alike were drawn to the Way because of how they saw people living their faith together. Paul was one of these early followers of The Way who felt compelled to share this Gospel message specifically among non-Jewish people. We’ll hear a bit more about Paul’s story next week.
The issue that early followers of The Way had to wrestle with was this -- some early leaders of this movement believed that in order to properly follow Jesus, non-Jewish people would have to first become Jews and become subject to the same laws that Jews practiced -- especially around circumcision, dietary laws, and other Jewish customs. Paul was in a different camp - that Jesus was the fulfilment of the law and came to save all God’s people to a new and different relationship with God so that Jews and non-Jews alike could live in freedom - freedom from the evils of this present age, freedom from being bound by rules and regulations, freedom to live as human beings beloved by God without the weight of the Jewish tradition.
Paul makes it clear that he received this message by a direct revelation of Jesus Christ - not mediated by humans, not something he learned about in a book - but something he experienced straight from the source. Not only does Paul root the Gospel in his own revelation of Christ, he roots his mission to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles as one given by God as well. Paul claims his apostleship not from human authority, not because he was sent by any person or persons, but from Jesus Christ himself. He argues that in this, he’s not trying to win approval from others, he’s not trying to advance himself or appease others - because, let’s face it - preaching Jesus Christ crucified and risen; Jesus, an executed criminal, a prophet disgraced and rejected by many of his own people, doesn’t win anyone popularity points. As Dan Clendenin who writes at Journey with Jesus notes, “To the Jews [Jesus is] a scandal and to Greeks he's foolishness.”
What Paul knows in his bones - and what he desperately wants the Galatians to remember - is that the Gospel is not bound by traditions of the past, but transforms them in the light of the risen Christ. And to put conditions on the love and hope that are freely offered in Jesus perverts the Good News that we are freed from sin and saved into a new life with God.
Elaine Heath in God Unbound writes this: “Paul neither rejects nor disrespects his tradition but comes to see it in a new light. Non-Jews are just as beloved to God as Jews, he realizes. People need not follow all the rituals of the Hebrew tradition to experience God’s love and salvation fully. Jesus the Messiah has come for all people.”
I’m going to do a quick word substitution in part of the above quote.
“The unchurched are just as beloved to God as the insiders. People need not follow all the rituals of the Christian tradition to experience God’s love and salvation fully. Jesus the Messiah has come for all people.”
For me, that hits a lot closer to home. I can sit and nod along with the conclusion that Jesus loves everybody and that God’s love and salvation are there for everybody, and thanks to Paul we don’t need to follow all the ins and outs of the Jewish law to accept the reality of what Jesus has done for us. But when it comes to the stream of tradition that we stand in - traditions that have shaped me in my experiences of God, traditions that hold meaning for this community, traditions - it challenges me to consider what is truly at the heart of all those things that hold importance for us?
For Paul - and for us - it’s the gospel. God’s love and forgiveness and freedom from sin for all in the name of the risen Christ, and the ability to live into the fullness of that Good News as individuals and as a community. Back to the basics.
In Health’s own wrestling with Paul, she notes that “Paul convinced me afresh that a great tradition lies behind our traditions...Paul’s vision in Galatians does not threaten the true gospel, which proclaims the tradition behind the tradition. It only threatens a church that subsumes the gospel to institutional priorities, doing so in the name of tradition.”
We live in a time of great cultural shifts, of deep division, of rapid change. The effects of that are felt keenly in many congregations across white American Christianity with declining membership, dwindling budgets, and decaying edifices. It is difficult to grapple with the eroding and changing of the traditions we have inherited because many of us have found meaning and comfort and strength within those traditions. The danger comes when we fail to hold space for the ways the gospel is incarnating itself outside of our expectations and familiarities.
We’ve seen this here in our congregation. Many of us remember a time when people came to worship on Sunday mornings because it was the thing to do. Pews were fuller, there were more programs that reached out to youth. The Parish House was a place of community-wide fellowship. This place hosted graduations, Christmas parties, and so much more. But the culture has changed, more than just people finding other things to do on Sunday mornings. When people talk about connecting with God or about their spiritual experiences, they don’t talk about buildings or programs...they talk about nature, about connection with others who are seeking God in their lives.
It reminds me that the heart of the matter is how we engage with the great tradition - to love the tradition behind the tradition - to place ourselves in the unfolding story of the gospel and to pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit in to see what God is doing - both within and beyond this church - and how we must be a part of it. What we did in the Parish House for January and February - not only in worship but also in eating together - is a part of that journey and the beginning of the conversation that God is inviting us into - of how we take the tradition of this church - one that has been on this island for over two hundred years - and see the heart of a community that has pursued faithfulness to God in every generation and ensure that there is a community for a new reality, a new set of people, some of whom are within these walls...and many who are not.
We can take hope from the ways Paul helped expand the views of these early Jewish Christians when it came to their perspectives of God, neighbor, tradition, and mission. And we can do this as we pay close attention to our understanding of the basic Gospel message and how people are experiencing God’s action and movement in their lives.
As Elaine Heath reminds us: “The church belongs to God. The church is God’s idea, not ours. Our vocation as the church involves our participation with God so that we can give this world a glimpse into God’s great heart of love. To take up our apsotolic vocation today we have to come to terms with this reality: The God we love, the God revealed in Christ, is much bigger than we knew. God has never been bound by our theology or our traditions. It is now time for us to see the unbound God.”
May we have such faith that as we recommit ourselves to the gospel - as we get back to the basics - we will see and experience the ways that we are a part of a much bigger story and movement of God’s work in this world - and that we may be enriched and enlivened by it together. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.