Saturday, February 23, 2013

Of Chicks and Mother Hens!

Luke 13:31-35
Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 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. 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.’ 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! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

In this passage from Luke, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. Jerusalem. Where he will speak truth to power and then lay down his life for his flock. It is how shepherds to this day protect their flock – having moved them into the sheepfold, a sort of U-shaped affair, the shepherd lies down across the entrance to sleep for the night. No one gets in, no one gets out without going through the shepherd.

As he makes his way to Jerusalem, the often castigated Pharisees warn him that Herod is out to get him. Anyone familiar with the four gospels will recognize that Herod has been out to get Jesus since the Magi came looking for the babe in the manger. By the time of this episode we know that Herod slaughtered thousands of innocent children in an effort to kill Jesus. After a family sojourn back in Egypt – of all places – Jesus is still hanging around, making life for that “old fox” Herod, Caesar’s appointed “King of the Jews,” a challenge. Since foxes were considered lesser adversaries than lions, “old fox” is not meant as a compliment! Jesus knows there are greater powers than Herod and says so.

Jesus allows as to how there is still work to be done – casting out demons and performing cures – and then it is to Jerusalem: “that city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” Jerusalem – literally “city of peace – city of shalom” – has been a problem for some time. The cultic center of the universe for ancient Israel, the appointed altar for all appointed sacrifices to the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus, had long been under the political and religious control of the priestly caste and upper classes. God’s own opinion writers like Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Ezekiel and others had long issued the warning that too much attention was being paid to what amounted to expensive sacrifices for most of God’s people, and not enough attention paid to the heart of the covenant – making sure that those without resources like the poor, widows, orphans and resident (undocumented) aliens are taken care of by the community.

A covenant that hearkens back to the 15th chapter of Genesis where we find God in God’s mercy attempting to give Abram the hope he has already lost. Abram has left home, and at his advanced age still has no male heir. “Do not be afraid,” are the first words God speaks to Abram in a vision. “Just look at the stars in the heavens and count them if you are able! So shall your descendants be! And, I shall make you and your descendants a blessing for all the peoples of the Earth!”

“O Lord, how am I to know?” says Abram. How indeed! This is perhaps the central question of faith for all of us. How are we to know? When the heavens are darkened, when we cannot see the light, when we cannot count the stars, how are we to know? When political authorities are threatening to get us, or abrogating responsibility for all citizens, how are we to know? When we know that if we are to proceed in the way in which we are traveling it will lead to certain confrontation and even death, how are we to know?

“Bring me a heifer, a goat, a ram a turtledove, and a young pigeon and I shall show you,” says the Lord. Which strikes us as odd, but Abram knows what to do, sacrificing the animals and laying out one half of each across from the other half, driving away the birds of prey. This is an offering for the Lord, and sets the stage for the Lord’s covenant ceremony. This is how it was done in those days. The parties would walk between the laid out animal parts with the understanding that this will happen to me should I break the terms of the covenant. Note how God passes through on Abram’s behalf while Abram is in a deep darkness and sleep.

This passing through can be likened to Moses and the people passing through the Red Sea on dry land. Or, like Jesus passing through the cross and what the world counts as death into new life. Covenants are sealed by someone having passed through something somewhere. Just like we pass through the waters of Baptism to be in covenant with God in Christ.

Once you have passed through there is a degree of ultimate safety guaranteed.

Abram knows this. Jesus knows this. Knowing that Jesus, like God does for Abram, passes through for us while we are in deep darkness, we are those people who know this as well.The Herods and Pilates of this world never do get it and so trust only their own forcefulness.

But we digress. Jesus then says, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” After centuries of debate about the role of women in the church and in society, few have even noticed the metaphor Jesus - the logos, the Word, the Word which was with God before creation, the Word that is God, through whom all things were made (see John 1: 1-5) - employs. Jesus likens himself to a woman – a mother hen really - but a woman none the less. [Making E.J. Dionne Jr’s recent suggestion that the next pope be a nun make a lot of sense!]

Jesus likens being in a covenant relationship with God as being like chicks under the wings of a mother hen. Under those wings is warmth, and safety, and love, and care that is unbounded, which may be the root characteristic of the very mercy we pray for so often.

God as a mother hen. That would be God as female protector. As opposed to Herod the “old fox.”  If we have ever seen baby chicks we would know that just as soon as the mother hen gets five of them under her wings another three pop out. They just squirt out like they are greased! People in an agrarian society would know just how true and comical this really looks. No doubt whoever is listening is laughing despite the tone of prophetic judgment.

Note how easily Jesus turns to judge the living and the dead as we say. Those in charge in Jerusalem would not find this so funny. The peasants who usually live their lives in abject fear of the Romans and Ruling Class in Jerusalem are seeing the kind of hope Abram would see when he counts the stars in the sky.

Whether we find this figure of God the mother hen fetching or fearsome depends on whether we count ourselves among the chicks under her wings, or among those who are busy squirting out and away from the protection of her wings. As always, it is a matter of perspective. The irony of living in God’s kingdom is that it is safer to be with the hen than the fox. Go figure. The least and last shall be first and so on.

Many people never even stop to think about this at all. We, on the other hand, are those people who take time during Lent to look and see where we find ourselves: under her wings? Or, playing with the foxes of this world?

We often pray, “O God, whose property is always to have mercy….,” recalling that at the heart of God’s glory is mercy. Kurt Vonnegut once observed that being merciful is the one good idea we have been given so far. For when we are merciful we are close to the heart of God’s glory. God’s mercy in Jesus invites us to squirm back under “her wings” before it’s too late. Amen.

Friday, February 15, 2013


Lent and Lint
Lent.  Not to be confused with Lint – that mysterious substance that collects on the filter of your dryer.  Yet, Lent is just as mysterious, and it is a time to clean the lint filters of our lives – all the things we ought not to have done and all the things we ought to have done and did not do. For lack of a better word, sins.

Sin. It has come to sound old-fashioned, out of date – and yet, look at the world. Just the other day the front page of the Baltimore Sun (yes, there are still print newspapers!) carried the following stories: A student at UMD shot two of his roommates and then took his own life; an officer was shot in the head in a training “accident;” and a rogue former LA policeman was on the loose having already shot and killed several people while declaring “asymmetrical war” on the LA Police Department. The entire front page was devoted to people shooting people with guns.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. North Korea blasted a nuclear weapon.  Gabby Giffords, Newtown, CT survivors, and other gun incident victims were on hand at the State of the Union, along with rock and roll gun advocate Ted Nugent. Syria is awash with bloodshed on a daily basis. The streets of Chicago see innocent children being shot in the crossfire of gang warfare. Human trafficking continues here in the U.S and abroad. And yet Sin gets a bad name – is considered passé.

If Sin were Lint, we have a lot of filter cleaning to do. For Christians, Lent is the time to get rid of the Lint called Sin. Easier said than done.

As Rabbi Hillel put it so well so many many years ago:  If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I? If not now, when?
It begins with me. And I suspect it begins with the longest and most disrespected of the Ten Commandments: keeping Sabbath. When disciplining children we call it “Time Out.” The problem seems to be that as we grow up we stop “disciplining” ourselves. We become too busy to take Time Out.  There is no one to send us to our Time Out corner.

And yet, nearly one-third of the Ten Commandments is devoted to instructions on keeping The Sabath.  Shabbat. Nothing can be said about Sabbath that has not already been said better by Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book, The Sabbath, and its meaning for modern man. We spend most of our time wanting, acquiring, grasping and tending to things of space. Sabbath calls us to observe the holiness of time – what Heschel calls the architecture of time. Resting on the seventh day is the one observance that has defined 

Judaism since the wilderness sojourn following the Exodus (approx. 1300 bce). The seventh day is not tied to a lunar cycle, to a month, or to an event. Just stop every seven days and take time to simply be.
It is Evelyn Underhill who once said that we spend most of our time conjugating three verbs: to want, to have and to do; overlooking the fact that none of these has any meaning aside from the verb, to be. Being must precede wanting, having and doing – or else we become slaves to wanting, having and doing.

Think of it – In the beginning, after six days of creative labor, God takes time off. God needs a rest. How can we not need a rest? Yet, like God’s people in the Wilderness for 40 years we want to return to slavery – slavery to wanting, having  and doing. Whatever we are doing is just too too important to take a day off once a week. It is not that long ago that stores were closed one day a week. Theaters were closed. Families spent a day together – together with one another, together with God. Now everything is not only open seven days a week, but many businesses are open 24 hours a day. 24/7.

Heschel writes, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to  share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space becomes our sole concern.” P.3

Who can deny that the world could be a better place if we just took the time to be. I find that life goes at such a speed these days that I need Sabbath time every day – as often as five times a day. I ask my students to take 3-5 minutes in silent centering prayer to begin each class – an invitation to let go of the rest of the day and just “be” for a few minutes.  Sabbath time. Try it and you surely will like it.

To have any chance of cleaning the lint filters of Sin during Lent we need to stop wanting, having and doing and give ourselves time to be. If it was good enough for God, it’s good enough for me.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Where Are You?

The Last Sunday after The Epiphany
Luke 9:28-36
Who Are Those Guys?

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you have two outlaws being chased relentlessly by a pack of horsemen and a cloud of dust. Throughout the movie, Butch and the Kid stop, look over their shoulders and ask (at least four times), “Who are those guys?” One might say that is the theme of the movie itself: Who are those guys? Which is pretty much the heart of the issue for this week’s episode from Luke 9: 28-36, an episode that is found in Matthew and Mark as well – Who is that guy? Who is this Jesus anyway?

Much of the Christian Scriptures, commonly referred to as the “New Testament,” can be seen as the attempts of a diverse company of writers to tell us something of who Jesus is. This is not the same as those who attempt to prove that Jesus did or did not exist – both of which enterprises rise and fall on how they choose to map out the question of “existence” - which seems by no means a settled category of argument in and of itself.

This question of existence may equally be applied to Homer, Socrates, the Buddha, Mohammed, and just about every great, new and revolutionary figure in human history that made a point of leaving no personal permanent record of their own “existence” -  they wrote nothing themselves.  The question very well might be, Do we willingly wish to deprive ourselves of the great contributions made to the understanding of what it means to be human, even what it means simply to Be, just because we do or do not “believe” there is some verifiable human figure behind the recorded lives and wisdom these figures and others represent?

It seems to me that the very fact that someone will go to the heroic effort to deny their existence speaks volumes about the persistence of their “existence” in human history! Their influence continues to animate even their detractors. An astonishing accomplishment for those said never to have existed at all, or who are made out to be the mere fabrication of myth-makers and narcissistic cult devisors.

And then there are the efforts of sincere folks like The Jesus Seminar and The Jesus Project which attempt to extract “the Jesus of history” from the “Christ of tradition.”  One has to hand it to the Jesus Project who suspended their inquiry upon realizing that aside from a handful of corroborating historical references “the tradition” is pretty much all we have for Jesus. Leaving us with Luke’s solution to the problem of Jesus perhaps being the best possible approach:

“And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”

Really? Peter, James and John had just witnessed their friend Jesus’ appearance change, his clothes turn dazzling white, and suddenly two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him “of his departure, which we was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Then came the voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him. When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.” And we are meant to believe that they told no one – no one, not one other person, any of the things they had seen?

Surely as they witnessed this moment of transfiguration, an episode read the Last Sunday after the Epiphany each year, AND on the Feast of the Transfiguration every August 6 – the latter turning out to be an auspicious convergence of reading about Jesus turning dazzling, flashing white now recalled on the day when the skies over Hiroshima turned dazzling, flashing white, transfiguring not only the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in that city, and those who planned and carried out the attack, but also human history and the history of human warfare forever – surely Peter, James and John were asking themselves, “Who is this guy?”

As sad a footnote to history as has ever been wrought – to have one of the most transcendent events in human history, witnessed by three subsequently mute characters, forever linked to one of the most problematic events in human history, one which continues to haunt and challenge human existence itself.

This brings us back to the problem of “existence.”  Any given day, judging from seemingly random postings on Facebook, twitter and the vast array of the blogasphere, most of us see existence as some kind of problem. So it was back in the garden when the man and the woman, adam and adama, ate the fruit of the tree and hid themselves. So it is today. Is the Jesus of the New Testament at all different from the God in Genesis chapter 3, who, we are told, in the cool of the evening was walking through the garden and calls out to Adam, “Where are you?”

While we spend are countless hours, days, months and years pondering Who is that guy, that guy continues to intrude upon our hiding places and ask, “Where are you?” That’s the question for all of us, isn’t it? Where are we? What are we doing? Why does it even matter?

It matters because either God is God, and we don’t do enough to acknowledge that with our lives. Or, God is not God, and it is our fault. It must not be our fault. It is our privilege. A few minutes silently contemplating where we are cannot only transfigure our own countenance, but can make a difference in the lives of others and in the life of the whole world.

Oh, Peter, James and John – did they really say nothing to anyone about what they had seen and heard that day on the mountain top with Jesus? And how does Luke know anyway? These remain questions for another day. Right now we might content ourselves with the one question that matters: Where are you?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Problem of Evil

Beginning around the time of the Enlightenment with people like Voltaire and Leibnitz, the problem of theodicy comes up at times of personal and massive tragedies, eg the death of a child or tragedies like the Holocaust and the recent tsunamis.

The Theodicy question simply put: “Why do bad things happen to good people if God is good?”  It gets expressed in various guises, with varying amounts of heated rhetoric, but the gist is always the same – why continue to worship a God who allows such things to happen?

This, of course, depends upon one’s understanding of God in the first place. One view of God is that of the great Watchmaker (or Intelligent Designer) who has planned every detail of all creation to happen just so. This gets into the God of the Romantic era described by a lot of “omni” words – omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc. One is then left to seriously question why God has planned such bad things to happen, and often tries to explain them by saying things like, “There is a greater purpose…” or “Something good will come of it…” or “God only gives us as much suffering as we can handle….” and so on. Such assurances may comfort some people, but at the end of the day for many of us they just make us want to question God and God’s purpose even more, and tend to glorify suffering rather than point us toward a palpable sense of God’s eternal love and compassion for all persons and all of the created order.

Another view of God, however, sees creation and cosmic history through a musical metaphor “as an unfolding creative improvisation rather than a divinely pre-ordained score.” That is, God has freely brought into being the created order in such a way as to allow it to be itself and make itself – that is, Creation itself is given “free will.” Further,  we, people, have been created in such a way as to be allowed to be ourselves, and to be co-creators with God in making this creation what it is becoming.
In the first view, God knows and plans everything and therefore can be viewed as “allowing” suffering to happen. In the second view God makes it possible for the world and all of creation to unfold and participate in the unfolding process. As The Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne, theoretical physicist and priest, has observed, “God interacts with creatures but does not overrule them, for they are allowed to be themselves and to make themselves. It follows from this that not everything that happens will be in accordance with God’s direct will.” That is, God does not yet know the unformed future, quite simply because it is not yet there to be known. A God who does not know does not “allow” anything to happen, but rather seeks to be in relationship with that which does happen.

In the wake of a devastating tsunami, William Safire reflected upon some of this in the New York Times of January 10, 2005. Safire suggests looking to the book of Job in the Bible as a good place as any to begin our reflection on the problem of theodicy. He notes several important aspects of that story.

Job’s friends, as some are doing today in the aftermath of the tsunami, assume that Job must have done something bad, read sinful, to deserve the horrible things happening to him and his family. The reader knows it is a test, a contest really, and that in fact Job has done nothing wrong at all. And Job, although angry with God, never loses faith nor does he abandon his belief in God.

It is important to note that Job stands in a long line of Biblical heavyweights who get angry with God – Abraham, David, Paul and arguably even Jesus had some questioning issues in the garden and on the cross. The idea that there is anything like “the patience of Job” cannot be found in the Biblical account. Job was angry and let God know it. The point of this story and really the whole Bible is that it is not blasphemous to challenge the Almighty One when moral wrong is inflicted upon us and all of creation. Challenging God is, in fact, presented by the Bible as a normative dimension of our relationship with God. God is often depicted as being so moved by our challenges that God changes God’s mind or chooses another course of action. Recall Moses persuading God not to abandon the Hebrew people in the wilderness after the Exodus.
As in other places throughout the Bible, Job demands that God stand trial. The surprise is, however, that God appears out of a whirlwind and delivers what Safire identifies correctly as “the longest and most beautifully poetic speech attributed directly to him in scripture.”

The foundation of God’s defense is, “Where were you when I was creating this universe in the first place? If you have so many good ideas you should have been there to help out!”  The idea being that God, suggests Safire, is busy bringing light to darkness, imposing physical order on chaos, and leaves his human creations free to work out moral justice on their own. In fact, in Genesis God pretty much leaves the stewardship of creation entirely up to us.

An important detail to note is that Job’s tirade caused God to appear, demonstrating, much as Jesus does on the cross, that those who suffer and believe are never alone. An important truth with which Jews and Christians must come to terms at some point is accepting the fact that there are others who know and believe in God in ways that differ from our own – they too, like us, are “allowed” to be themselves in relation to the Almighty Force that has brought all things into Being.
Safire summarizes the lessons from Job for today, that is relating to the tsunami tragedy,  as the following: (1) Victims of this (or any) cataclysm in no way "deserve" a fate inflicted by the Leviathanic (sic) force of nature. (2) Questioning God's inscrutable ways has its exemplar in the Bible and need not undermine faith. (3) Humanity's obligation to ameliorate injustice on earth is being expressed in a surge of generosity that refutes Voltaire's cynicism.

Perhaps it is possible that Theodicy asks the wrong question. In the end, as creatures who live in a creation that is “allowed to be itself,” the Theodicy question instead of being “Why?” might better be, “Where is God in all of this?” Those of us who know the God of the Exodus, the Cross and the Resurrection find God in those events in history that have liberated people from suffering, and in the responses made by God’s people everywhere – in those who reach out with heroic efforts to restore people’s lives and even in the smaller gestures like a hug or a prayer. Our God is in the midst of all suffering and has the wounds to show for it.

Viewed from this perspective, which appears to be a Biblical perspective, God has created the means for responding to tragedy, be it large or personal – and we are those means – we are with God, God is with us, the broadest root meaning of Emmanuel – God with us.
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Timothy’s School for Girls, Stevenson, MD