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The Second Sunday in Lent

There’s a little chapel on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. The name of the chapel is Dominus Flevit, meaning The Lord Wept (it’s built in the shape of a teardrop). When you stand facing the altar you look through a window out over the old city of Jerusalem on the mount of Zion just opposite you. On the front of the altar is a mosaic of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. It’s a great big mother hen, with the little chicks going this way and that, kind of oblivious, pecking at seeds and whatnot. In Latin all around the image is Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, with the words, ‘et noluisti’ directly under the hen with her chicks: ‘you were not willing.’ I would have gathered you all together – and you were not willing. The church commemorates the place where Jesus spoke these words we heard in today’s gospel – commemorates God’s weeping over our hardness of heart. It is a place of lamentation for all that we have done – and all that we continue to do.

In this season of Lent, we are making a place here at church to lament, and to let go. Attentive worshipers may have noticed that in order to create some of that space, we are dropping one of the usual readings in the service, so that instead there’s a place for silence together. That silence comes after the psalm, and every Sunday this season we have particularly rich psalms to meditate on. Last week it was psalm 91, which begins,
1 [They] who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, *
abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 [They] shall say to the Lord,
”You are my refuge and my stronghold, *
my God in whom I put my trust.”

And this week we have the powerful psalm 27, which begins
1 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?

Such deep assurances of God’s protection and power: statements of faith made from a place of trust, trust even in a time of fear. Psalm 27, memorably, was recited by Bree Newsome, the young Black woman (and cousin to our parishioner Julie Leak) who climbed the flagpole several years ago at the capitol building in Charleston, South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag. In an interview later she was asked about why she recited that psalm as she climbed, and she said, ‘…faith is something that we practice, so even in that moment just praying and staying focused and calling out to God was very important.’

This is why, friends, we need to know our Bible – these are words of power and focus in times of trial. We will not avoid times of pain and suffering in our lives – many of us would say we’re in a time of that right now, worrying over Ukraine, recovering from the pandemic, divided from those we once knew. When hard times come, we can’t just switch on a button and instantly have faith to carry us through. We have to practice our faith, practice it like we practice our multiplication tables or our scales on the piano, with words of scripture that tell the deep truths we may only barely begin to understand. The psalms are a great place to start – to read and read them until the words become part of you, part of your prayer.

Psalm 27 starts with a series of statements about what God has done, ways that the psalmist knows that God can be trusted. “When evildoers came against me…they stumbled and fell.” I know that God can be trusted because of what God has done for me. We look back in our lives and see where we have felt the presence of God. How do we do that? We stop and reflect, at the end of our day, or once a week, or at the turn of the year; we read old journals and old letters, or listen to the stories from our elders. And we hear and read of the times when we felt joy, when we found courage, when we were surrounded by a sense of calm and strength, or when others came to our aid. Times when we felt the fruits of the Spirit, unexpected peace. Times where things worked out for the best even though we didn’t know it yet. In every one of our lives, however full of suffering, we can find these stories. Telling and retelling them is like fingering the prayer beads we have out for you here – touchstones for how God has been in our lives, whether we named it as God then or not.

And because of these records of past performance, the psalmist seeks the Lord as the one thing, desiring God above all else. Nothing else sustains in the same way; nothing else works as an explanation for all that has happened for us. The more we have of God, the more we want. When we recognize God’s actions in our past, we begin to be hungry for more of that. Though we often keep trying to look in the wrong places, of course.

And then the psalmist expresses trust in what God will do – what they believe God will do, even though things right now are maybe starting to get dicey. Hearken to my voice, God – don’t hide from me. (Subtext: Are you hiding from me, God? I’m not finding you as easily.) Sustain me even when my father and mother forsake me. (Those whom I trusted have turned against me – I feel betrayed. I put everything into that job, and they’ve let me go. I loved her so much, and now she’s left me. I thought human history was on an upward trajectory, and now there is disease, and war, and planetary disaster. Help.} Deliver me – I have adversaries and enemies coming against me, internally in the voices in my head that will not let me rest; externally in the people who hate me because of who I am; maybe even right there in my family, those who I thought knew me and loved me best. Help me. I am scared.

And then finally, the psalmist reminds themselves – remember the stories from before. Remember the ways you experienced God with you. You trusted and God comforted you. God was there when you needed her. Wait and trust that God will again be with you. Be strong, and wait.

There it is, the life of faith, summed up in one psalm. I look back and see where I felt God in the past; I trust that God will be with me now and in the future. But I also name and acknowledge my fear, and the real dangers rising up around me. Faith isn’t about pretending that everything is ok. It is an expression of trust even when everything is not ok. Trust even in the midst of our lament.

And yet we struggle with this, don’t we. Oh how I longed to gather you together under my wings, says Jesus, as a mother hen gathers her chicks. And you were not willing.

Why are we so often unwilling? Why is it so hard for us to affirm the faith in the psalm, the Lord is my light and my salvation – of whom then shall I fear?

I wonder if it’s partly because like the chicks, we are oblivious, going off in all directions. We live our small lives, distracted by small things, unaware of the great wings stretched out over us. We don’t remember the times before, the stories of our ancestors, the days when we felt God’s presence. We discount those, focus only on the bad times, the grudges we hold, the trauma we identify with.

Or maybe we don’t like the other chicks coming in under those wings – we don’t want to be gathered together with those people. We don’t consider them family. They’re not like us.

And yet we are faced not just with other things to do or petty arguments to have – we are faced with the fox, as Jesus calls Herod. The fox, the predator who divides the chicks, separates them from one another and from the mother hen, and destroys them. Herod isn’t the only such fox. There are many such foxes in this world – some of them human beings with names, either in our lives or on the world stage; some of them forces in our own hearts, beyond our strength. But Jesus tells us of the mother hen and the chicks: God as a mother, not a fierce predator alpha sort of creature, but a mother chicken, a vulnerable creature. Able only to protect the chicks by gathering them in and protecting them with her very life. Loving us enough to do just that – to give herself up just for us, so that we do not have to be afraid. Gathering us in again and again, every time we stray. Shining the light of salvation.

In times of trial, in times of suffering, in times when God feels silent and distant, these are when we need the shelter of those wings the most. These are the times when we need to practice, and practice, and practice our faith, so that it truly becomes a part of us. The fox is real; the suffering is not for pretend. But even more real is the self-giving love of God, our light, our strength, our assurance that we need not be afraid. May we come in under those wings. And may we, as followers of Jesus, spread out our own wings to cover others – that all might come within the reach of God’s saving embrace.

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