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The Discipline of Sorrow

February 25, 2013

“The Discipline of Sorrow” Luke 13:31-35 © 2/24/13 Lent 2C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Early last week, I finished reading my mother’s diary. We discovered it in a box of personal items from her house that the cleaning crew had left for us. It spans the period 1949 to mid-December 1952, soon after I was born. Most of it is pretty routine stuff—how busy she was at the office, what movies she and Daddy went to see, how much washing and ironing she had to do till late at night. But here and there are nuggets of my family history that were seldom or never talked about that gave me insights I had never had before.

One in particular stood out for me as I was preparing this message. It’s about Mama’s younger sister Nancy. Early on, Mama was convinced that Nancy had broken into Mama’s diary and read it. So I gathered Nancy was a bit mischievous and not particularly concerned about rules and boundaries. But then there was this poignant and serious notice from June 21, 1952: “Nancy started her new job today. Might say a new life. I believe it will change her a great deal for the better.”

Well, not so much. Nancy turned out to be the proverbial “black sheep” of the family. I’ve told you some of this story before. She married an ex-Marine named Norman and moved to Maine, where they had a bunch of kids. Norman never held a job very long; according to court papers, he was apparently incapable of doing so. How a man could fall so far from the honor of the Corps is beyond me, but that’s what happened. Anyway, Nancy was reduced to begging on the streets in the cold of winter to feed her children.

Mama encouraged Nancy to leave Norman and bring the children with her to Albany, GA. She did so, and with Mama’s and Daddy’s and the Salvation Army’s help, got set up in an apartment, put the kids in school, and whatever else was necessary. Mama continually checked on her sister and the children, an action that in her mind and heart she saw as simply being helpful.

Nancy felt otherwise. One day she had finally had enough. What Mama regarded as loving assistance, Nancy saw as an attempt at control. She told Mama to get off her back, and thus a long estrangement began. I made matters worse on the night Nancy called to complain about not being told about her mother’s death. Mama had been concerned that Nancy would make a hysterical scene at the funeral. I was incredibly profane with my aunt, and she hung up on me, while Mama stood there incredulous at my anger and my foul language. My sister just smiled when I told her what I had suggested Nancy could do. But Mama was not smiling. Her heart was broken.

I tell this story of rejection and pain and misunderstanding because it’s the lens through which I read the gospel text for the morning. And I want to invite you to look at it through your own experiences of emotional pain, both feeling it and inflicting it. Who of us has been spared the heartache of being told off or at least ignored and disrespected by someone to whom we have tried to offer help, to be generous and kind? Who has not sought to give love and care to someone in need, only to have it turned down for no reason we can discern? Who has not been scorned by someone who focuses on one word in a Facebook message or a letter or won’t let go that old hurt? On the other hand, how many of us have rejected a good idea, a practical solution to a problem, even done the opposite because our parents or our in-laws or someone else we didn’t particularly like suggested it? We acted out of spite or hatred or because we were trying to humiliate and punish. We were more interested in hurting them or proving we could make it on our own than actually being cared for or helped.

Draw on those experiences, then, and feel the pain of the nurturing, sheltering mother hen God who wants only to bring her children to safety. To do that, she has made repeated offers, sending prophets and sages and priests to tell the truth, to invite her children to accept her care. Feel the anguish of Jesus, hear the longing in his voice, know the depth of sorrow in his heart.

When we care for someone and see clearly that if they continue on their present course, they will meet a bad end, we long for them to turn around, to listen to sense, to accept our advice. It was that same prospect of the desolate end of people he loved that worried Jesus so, that broke the heart of the God he proclaimed. The people longed for shelter and security, just as we do. And they needed both. But rather than gathering under the outstretched and enclosing wings of God the mother hen, they ran to those like Herod, who were nothing more than voracious hen-house raiding foxes. The agenda of that ruler and his ilk in the first century or the twenty-first is to scatter, to hurt, to fill their own bellies by their rapaciousness and greed. And that is the very essence of the demonic. Yet folk continue to prefer that way to God’s way.

Is it not enough to cause us to weep with Jesus when people look anywhere but to the gracious offer of God in order to find affection, security, support, care, and shelter? Is it not enough to make us cry out to God as priests in and for this world that despite the constantly and clearly offered gift of grace, folk so often and so consistently are “not willing” to embrace and accept it? Instead, they seek security in what they have and can acquire, in competition with their neighbors, in brutalizing and destroying their fellow human beings and the planet entrusted to our care? Is it not enough to cause us deep and abiding sorrow that despite the spiritual hunger of this nation, that an increasing number do not seek fulfillment of their longing in the churches, because the very churches that should demonstrate love and hope are in fact full of hypocrisy and intolerance and pessimism? Are our eyes not a “fountain of tears,” as Jeremiah put it, because our politicians are consumed with bickering while solutions go wanting, that so many are obsessed with celebrities and trivialities while violence and hatred and suspicion are increasingly the order of the day? Should we not make sorrowing and grieving our discipline this Lent, to cry out before God and sit in sackcloth and ashes until our land is healed? And as we pray for others, is it not enough to make us repent and plead for mercy that so often we too—people who claim faith and are claimed by the sheltering God—that we also try to secure our lives outside of divine nurture? Isn’t it true that so often our real values are consuming as much as we can and keeping things just the way we want them, no matter what the cost? Isn’t it so that it is the church that rejects the one we claim is our Savior and Lord? Isn’t that enough to make Jesus weep for us, too?

Why is it, when the promise of forgiveness and newness is given in the midst of such yearning and need, that so many reject it? One writer has an intriguing idea. It’s not because folk don’t believe the promise and therefore reject it. Rather, it is precisely because they do believe it.

The novelist Walker Percy’s character Thomas More was faced with the sickness of his daughter Samantha. Yet he refused to take her to a shrine reputed to offer healing waters. “I was afraid she might be cured,” he admits. “What then? Suppose you ask God for a miracle and God says, yes, very well. How do you live the rest of your life?” Like More, Jerusalem feared the ultimate miracle, the power of forgiveness and grace, and Jesus grieved because the city scorned such a blessing. And still he mourns for all who refuse his care (see end note).

A message rejected precisely because it has the power to change lives, to give us what we want and need! Facing that kind of twisted logic, it’s a wonder anyone can summon the strength to keep on telling the good news. But that is precisely what Jesus did, even in the face of threats from Herod. Though the fox wanted to destroy her, the hen kept protecting the chicks. Jesus stayed the course, kept on doing good. Though he seemed to know his end, the outcome of his ministry, he faced it with courage and boldness.

His message was one of grace and still is. He held out hope and a promise that Jerusalem would recognize its deliverer. There would be chances for change available till the end. But there was also warning of the dire consequences of becoming an ally with the Herods, the forces that seek to destroy and scatter. Desolation awaited, and by the time Luke wrote, it had happened.

The Canadian Presbyterian blogger Katie Munnik observes: “Jesus longs to shelter Jerusalem, but Jerusalem is unwilling. Maybe unable. Maybe engulfed in unpleasantness, hurt, and pride. Jesus longs to stretch out sheltering wings to show Jerusalem that there is refuge here, that there is comfort, and the solution for all her missteps and mistakes. Jerusalem may be broken and Jerusalem may be proud, but Jesus longs to give her the words she needs to begin again to see the light.

“Jesus also sees Palm Sunday ahead. With it comes a new chance for Jerusalem. And Jesus, knowing Jerusalem, knows that Palm Sunday’s chance, though important, will also be insufficient. There will be praise, but that will not stop the dark days coming. There is so much yet ahead – Holy Week with its exodus resonances, its table-moments, its garden songs, its hardest prayers. And yet in this moment, when Jesus is still on the road and the days are still ahead, we are strongly reminded that what Jesus longs to offer us is love. Beyond fear and beyond threat, Jesus offers loving shelter and light, even when we are unable to see clearly. Even on the road to Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Even to us in all our proud Jerusalems” (http://presbyterianrecord.ca/2013/02/18/proud-jerusalem).

The classic and beautiful film A River Runs Through It is set in Montana in the early 1900s. It tells the story of two sons of a Presbyterian minister, Norman and Paul Maclean. They share a love of fly fishing, but otherwise are quite different. Norman is a straight-laced scholar who becomes a professor. Paul is rebellious and loves gambling and drinking. One night he is murdered in a bar fight after a poker game. His father struggles to come to terms with his son’s death, and continues to do so long after the event. Long after his retirement, in one of his last sermons, the Rev. Mr. Maclean says: “Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: ‘We are willing help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?’ For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them—we can love completely without complete understanding” (from http://www.imdb.com). 

Like Paul did with his father’s love and guidance, so did Jerusalem reject the shelter and nurture God offered. But God never stopped offering it, even to the cross. To follow Jesus this Lent and in any season means at least to continue with hope the work we believe we must do under God, work we have been commissioned to do, though it means risk, loss, and sorrow. To keep on boldly proclaiming the good news, though time be short and few are listening. To keep loving, though our love be rejected. To do any less would mean being untrue to ourselves, as baptized people, and to our Lord, who even now goes before us.

There’s a story about a firefighter battling a blaze in the forest who looked up and saw a nest of hatchlings high up in a tree. The mother bird was flying back and forth frantically as the threatening fire rose up the trunk. The man thought the bird might save herself and abandon her nest. But as he watched, the mother bird finally stopped her frenzied flight and settled down over her young, spreading her wings over them as they were all engulfed in flames.

Such is the gift of the Christ we proclaim, whose care even for those who rejected him led him to share their death in order that they might be sheltered and saved. Such is the sacrifice of Jesus, the dying hen who by the power of God became a rising phoenix.

______________________________

Note: This paragraph and the preceding, including the quotation of Percy, are dependent on Ralph Wood, “God’s Terrifying Mercy,” The Christian Century, 2/15/89.

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