“Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”
A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of
all who suffer: Let the cry of those in misery and need come
to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all
their afflictions; and give us, we pray, the strength to serve
them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.
Baruch haba b’shem Adonai
Blessed is He who comes
Baruch haba b’shem Adonai
Who comes in the name of the Lord
This chorus is from my favorite Messianic Jewish hymn. I first discovered it, I think, not long after I moved to New York City in the early 90’s. I had been sent there to pursue a Ph.D. in Early Modern European History (which, as it turns out, I chose not to complete). But while there, I also worshipped for a number of years in Messianic Jewish Synagogues—first in White Plains, and later in Manhattan.
This song was very important to me. It was the first song which I learned which had lyrics in Hebrew. It seemed to me to be a most powerful song with a kind of haunting minor melody. Right away, I realized that these were words which Our Lord Jesus Christ himself had spoken—in the place where we hear it today in the Gospel According to St. Luke. Later, these words are heard again—in the mouths of those who greet Our Lord and welcome him to the Holy City of Jerusalem on that Passion Day when he was greeted with Palms.
I did not realize at that time, how important this Gospel passage would become to my own understanding of God, though. And that is something which I would like to share with you today.
Now you might be well tempted to ask, “Why was it that someone who was raised as a Southern Baptist in Western North Carolina and then became a Benedictine monk would choose to Preside at Eucharist on Saturday evening or Sunday morning and also schlepp off to Synagogue on Saturday morning?” Well, if you know me, you know that religion—in all its varieties and expressions, has always fascinated, intrigued, and delighted me. But, when I was in college, I discovered—to my shock—that my Mammaw Cook’s family—the Bunten/Bunton family—might well have originally been Jewish. That discovery launched me on a quest to try to understand Judaism.
The life-changing realization in all this is something which is completely obvious—but which had completely passed right by me. Jesus was Jewish! His mother was Jewish. His foster-father was Jewish. His disciples and his Apostles were Jewish! Almost everyone he ever knew, who he shared his life with and loved was Jewish. Wow! Jesus was not a Christian! That changed everything!
In the course of the years which followed, I made another huge discovery. Almost everything which I had ever been told or taught about Judaism was either wrong—or else distorted. Even worse, much of the theology which I had learned as a young person was laced with anti-Semitism. Judaism was viewed through a fundamentalist lens which saw it only as being useful as a preparation for Christianity.
The very language which was used spoke of Judaism as the “old” and of Christianity as the “new and improved.” There were horrible distortions which portrayed Judaism as a religion of “law and wrath” and of Christianity as a faith of “love and mercy.” And of course, in this view, the Westernized and sanitized Jesus was the opponent and even enemy of a backward-looking Judaism. He was the good person and his enemies the Pharisees were blind, ignorant, mean, and even evil.
Later, I came to realize, that this perspective was derived from a very selective reading of the Hebrew Scriptures (please note that I intentionally avoid the use of the term “Old Testament” which is offensive to Judaism) and a focus on the more polemical aspects of the life and preaching of Saint Paul. Clearly, the folks who taught me had not invested time in reading the writings of the Prophets or the Gospels in their entirety. They picked and chose. And they chose the worst passages which supported their views.
When they read today’s Gospel, for instance. They focused on the negative:
—King Herod was an evil fox who wanted to kill Jesus. If he is typical of other Jews or of most Jews that is a very frightening belief! It certainly goes a long way towards understanding how supposed People of Faith committed such atrocities against Jews for millennia.
—Jerusalem is a city which kills the prophets and is most important for having killed the Lord. In this view there is none of the joy which Jesus experienced in “making Aliyah” or going up to the Holy City. There is none of the beauty of this city in which God’s temple was located. There is no sense of the longing which Jews everywhere felt, “if I forget you Jerusalem,” or “next year in Jerusalem.”
—Even worse, they focused on that one line—“You were not willing!” This focus is truly terrifying because it completely demeans Judaism and suggest that Jewish believers then—and later—were intentionally blind, stubborn and, duplicitous. It sowed seeds—really weeds—of bigotry, racism, xenophobia and prejudice.
The saving grace for me in this—and I mean that quite literally—was to read this passage clearly! And then, from all the less important and less significant words emerged this one astonishing verse: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Now that is a surprising image! It is a Jewish image. It is an image that someone from the country—from a small town—knew well. It is not an image which makes as much sense to city-dwellers. It tells us a great deal about Jesus. It also reveals something amazing about the God of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, of Isaac and Rebekah, and of Jacob and Leah and Rachel.
In this image, God is maternal! God is loving, kind, caring, and compassionate. How interesting. Jesus did not say that he was like a rooster—with claws and beak—to use in fighting for and to protect his chicks. He did not say that he had a loud cry. to warn of danger, and perhaps frighten the enemy away. He did not say that he was an angry person making a list and checking it twice to find out who was naughty. He did not say that he was looking for evil sinners and law-breakers to send to a hell which they richly deserved.
No, he used a motherly image. Imagine the surprise of picking up the hen and discovering that she was covering all those little chicks. With her arms, she was keeping them close to her—keeping them warm and safe. Making them feel loved and secure—even treasured. That is the image which Our Lord Jesus Christ used to speak of himself. That is the image which he used to speak of God. And that is the invitation which he offered—and offers to us today. I think, as Bishop Curry might say, that is the Good News in this Gospel. “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.” And that is what about Bishop Curry’s plea to us to become a “Beloved Community” is all about.
This past Thursday, I was blessed to have lunch with a wonderful and delightful man. He is a musical director at a historically African-American congregation. His own story is truly amazing. He was raised in the deep South and is the child of a family which recently came from Africa. And so, he comes from a very distinct context. Southern, and black, but not a descendant of slaves. He spent his childhood in the South, but the rest of his life has been lived here. He has many “homes”: Nigeria, Louisiana, and Northeastern Pennsylvania. He is a person of tremendous faith. That has exposed him to a wide variety of religious experiences—the Anglican/Episcopal tradition of his childhood, Charismatic and Pentecostal worship as a young adult, and finally a home in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Winston shared with me a beautiful story. When he was in college, he worked in a home for foster-children who were in transition. Many of the children there had been in the system for their entire life. They had moved from house to house and through various institutions as well. Their experience reveals a dark side of all this. The young people in that home often had experienced the very worst of a flawed and failed system.
Winston encountered a young black man who was troubling to the predominately caucasian staff. They feared that there was something wrong with him. He seemed to be fixated on his hair. From their perspective, he constantly scratched his head and pulled on his hair. They feared that he could have a psychological problem. They wondered if he needed counseling, treatment or even medication?
Winston knew what the problem was—almost immediately. This young man had dry skin and was in need of moisture. His dry scalp had become irritated and no doubt was painful. It hurt and annoyed him. Like any wound which we have, he could not leave it alone! And so, it became a major irritation. The other care givers just did not understand because this was foreign to their experience. Winston went on to tell the amazing story of his caring for this young man. He massaged a soothing and healing ointment into the scalp. He knew to do this because his mother had often ministered to him in ths same way,
My first thought was, “That young man did not have anyone to love him. No one understood him, or took him seriously. No helped him.” And then Winston came along. Winston loved him! His action changed everything. My faith tells me that Jesus was present in that touch. It was Jesus, through Winston, whose touch comforted, consoled, soothed, and healed that young man. That was God! This was a God who like a loving mother hen gathered that young man to his chest.
The very next day, with that story still fresh in my memory, I learned of the massacre with had taken place at two Mosques in New Zealand. The horror deepened with each successive hour. More than 50 people in two houses of prayer—in Mosques in which they had come to worship Allah were slaughtered by a white supremacist.
There have been so many of these horrible incidents—and yet this one had an impact that none of the others had (though sadly each of them should have had the same impact). For me, this was the first time, since knowing and loving the Muslim community of the Lehigh Valley, that something like this had happened. I could easily imagine my friends at the Lehigh Dialog Center and Respect Graduate School at worship in their beautiful mosque on Industrial Drive. And so, it felt personal to me.
But for this to have happened in New Zealand—a peaceful and inclusive country—did not make sense to me. It is a country which has intentionally welcomed and valued immigrants. A haven for the oppressed. Why there? It pains me to say it, but in our own country this has become so commonplace that it no longer surprises me. But not New Zealand.
My faith has given me an insight into this horrible reality. Those who were slaughtered—at worship and prayer in Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist were not victims—they were martyrs. And Jesus was present with them in their passion. He was the mother hen who gathered them to his chest.
Those who were slaughtered—at worship and in prayer—at Temple Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha in Pittsubrgh by a white supremacist were not victims—they were martyrs. And haShem, Adonai Elohenu was present with them in their passion. He was the mother hen who gathered them to his chest.
Those who were slaughtered—at worship and in prayer—at the Grand Mosque of Quebec City by a white supremacist were not victims—they were martyrs. And Allah was present with them in their passion. He was the mother hen who gathered them to his chest.
Those who were slaughtered—at worship and in prayer—at the Al Noor mosque and the Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand by a white supremacist were not victims—they were martyrs. And Allah was present with them in their passion. He was the mother hen who gathered them to his chest.
Blessed are these martyrs for faith who come to us in God’s name. May they know the fullness of God’s light, love and peace—now and forever. And may we on behalf of God the merciful, the compassionate, work tirelessly to create Beloved Communities in which these acts of violence will never again be possible. Baruch haba b’shem Adonai.