The Lord Needs It

4.10.22 Palm Sunday homily on Luke 19:28-40 by Pastor Galen

How many of you believe that the Lord needs us?

It’s a tricky question, because on the one hand, we know that God doesn’t need anyone or anything. God is the creator of the universe, the earth, and the sea, and the sky, and so God doesn’t really need anyone in order to do anything. 

And yet, God often chooses to work through physical creatures, and so in that sense the Lord does need us.

The problem with leaning too heavily in one direction is that it can lead to nihilism and the idea that nothing we do has any purpose or meaning or value.

The problem with leaning too heavily in the other direction is that it can lead us to think too highly of ourselves, or to put too much pressure on ourselves. We begin to think that the world rests on our shoulders, that we are the center of the universe, and that everything revolves around us. 

Our Scripture lessons this morning help us to strike an even balance, since we see on the one hand Jesus welcoming the participation of the crowd and even expressing his need for a donkey, while on the other hand he affirms to the religious leaders that his mission in the world would not be thwarted by their lack of welcome. And so, while God doesn’t need us, God chooses to use us. This should be both a humbling and a life-giving reminder for us.

God Doesn’t Need Me

During my third year in college I had been asked to be the president of the campus Christian fellowship on my college campus. I found this role both rewarding and all-consuming, and I began to devote more and more of my time and attention to serving in this capacity. Eventually, though, I felt as though I had reached the limits of my capacity to serve, and yet I thought that if I just had the capacity to devote a little more time or energy or resources, then surely God would do even greater things on our campus.

My wife, Eboni, who was another student leader in the fellowship, listened to me share about how I wished I had more time and energy to give to my role. The needs and opportunities were so great, and I felt like I just needed to do more. 

Eboni reassured me that God did not need me – and that if there was something that needed to be done that was beyond my limits or ability or calling, then God could surely raise up someone else to do the work. Eboni reminded me that I am not the Messiah, that the world does not rest upon my shoulders, and that God is quite capable of doing what needs to be done without my help.

The Lord Needed a Donkey…

And yet, here in this passage, we see very clearly Jesus expressing need – in this case, not for someone, but rather something. 

Here in Luke 19 verse 30 as Jesus was nearing the city of Jerusalem, he instructed two of his disciples to borrow a colt that had never been ridden, and he tells them that if anyone asks why they are borrowing it, they should simply say that “The Lord needs it.” Sure enough, when they go to untie it, the owners ask what they are doing, and the disciples tell them, “The Lord needs it” (Luke 19:34).

Why did Jesus need this colt? Was Jesus tired? Had he just been walking too much, and felt like he just couldn’t walk any further? Was he in a hurry to get to Jerusalem and perhaps thought that riding a donkey would help him get there faster?

In Philipians the Apostle Paul reminds us that in coming to this earth, Jesus humbled himself, taking on the form of a servant. And so he experienced human needs and desires and temptations, just as we do, and so it would not be outside of the realm of possibility that Jesus was tired or in a hurry and that’s why he needed this colt.

But I believe there was something else going on here. I think that Jesus needed to borrow this donkey because he wanted to demonstrate something through his actions that could not have been expressed in any other way.

You see, in Jesus’s day there was no TV or youtube or tiktok. And many of the people didn’t know how to read. And so when someone wanted to get a message across it had to either be spoken, or depicted visually.

Several of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament used what today might be called “Performance Art” to get their message across.  The prophet Jeremiah, for example, walked around with a yoke over his shoulders – a piece of farming equipment usually placed on animals pulling carts. Jeremiah did this to proclaim the warning that the people would soon be enslaved by the Babylonians, unless they repented. The prophet Ezekiel built a model of the city of Jerusalem and lay on his side in the town square for months at a time as a symbol that the city of Jerusalem would be besieged, unless they repented.

And so here in this passage Jesus is following in this line of performance art and prophetic tradition, using the power of symbolism to proclaim truth in a way that would be heard and received by the people of his day. 

And what was that point? Well, throughout the Gospel narratives Jesus proclaimed himself to be a king – not of an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly kingdom. And kings in that time period would on certain occasions ride donkeys or colts. Not, of course, when they were riding into battle or processing in a military parade. In those situations they would choose a steed or a great stallion. 

But a king might choose to ride into a town or city on a donkey when he wanted to proclaim that he was coming in peace – either as a sign of humble surrender, or because the town or city already belonged to him, and he therefore had no need to demonstrate his military prowess or might.

And so, Jesus’s choice to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey was a prophetic, symbolic action that demonstrated both his kingship, and his humility. Both the fact that he already had the authority to rule and reign, and the fact that his purpose in coming was to bring peace and reconciliation between God and humanity, ultimately by giving his life on the cross in our place. 

…the Stones Would Cry Out

Now, what should have happened in a situation where a king rode into a town or city on a donkey to extend peace is that the elders and leaders of the city should have streamed out of the city gates to welcome him. They should have rolled out the red carpet, and given him the keys of the city, or whatever the equivalent was in those days. 

Even if Jesus was not an earthly king, he certainly was a type of celebrity. He had thousands of followers, thousands of people who would come to hear him preach, and he had been slowly working his way towards Jerusalem. News traveled fast in those days even without Twitter and Facebook, and so the leaders of the city most likely had heard that he was coming. 

And yet there is no welcoming committee from Jerusalem – no leaders warmly welcoming him or greeting him and handing him the keys to the city. The only representatives that we see from Jerusalem are a few religious leaders who were members of the group called the Pharisees, who were grumbling and complaining about the commotion that Jesus and his disciples were making.

In the absence of the leaders of Jerusalem welcoming him and rolling out the red carpet, Luke tells us that the common everyday people – probably of all ages and stages of life and backgrounds, spread their cloaks on the road (Luke 19:36) to make a makeshift red carpet for him as he was approaching the city of Jerusalem. And “the whole multitude of the disciples” who had been traveling with him, Luke says, “began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38).

Since the leaders and chief priests and scribes and elders of the city would not welcome him or hail him as a king, the multitude of his disciples did so. But even so, Jesus told the religious leaders that even if the people in the crowd had kept silent, the very stones would have shouted out in praise and exaltation, proclaiming his kingly reign (Luke 19:40). 

Jesus’s mission would not be thwarted by a lack of reception from those in power. He would be proclaimed King. Even throughout the week leading up to his death and crucifixion, we see that even when many of his own followers rejected him or turned away, still Jesus moved forward in accomplishing the task that had been set before him. Although he welcomed all to come with him, his mission was not thwarted by the rejection of the religious leaders, the betrayal or denial of his closest followers, or by those who simply lost interested or turned away.

An Invitation to All

And today God’s mission is still going forward. And I hope that we find it encouraging that God invites us to be a part of it, and yet the whole mission and mandate of God does not rest on our shoulders alone. If Jesus can use a donkey to proclaim his kingly rule and reign, then surely God can use any of us, as we willingly submit ourselves to his humble lordship in our lives and in our world. 

We are challenged and invited to participate in God’s mission. No matter who we are, or what we’ve done or haven’t done, God has a role for us to play in accomplishing his purposes on this earth. But it is also humbling. Because when we follow Jesus, we are called to live in the way Jesus did – through humbly loving and serving others – even those who may reject us or our message.

You know, interestingly enough, I think there were many people in Jesus’s day who would have loved to follow Jesus if he had rode into Jerusalem on a war horse, intent to overthrow the Roman government. They would have been willing to fight with Jesus to the death if it meant committing acts of violence against their enemies. But they were unwilling to follow the humble king who came in peace, and who was willing to suffer and die for the sins of the world. 

Following Jesus today involves that same sort of love and humility. It involves extending peace and love even to those who are most antagonistic towards our faith – not seeking revenge, but rather extending God’s love to them, praying for them, and seeking to serve them with the same type of humble service and love that Christ showed his followers. 

And so this morning, may we join with the disciples who welcomed Jesus as their humble king. Throughout this week, may we stand with the faithful women disciples who stood by Jesus to the end. May we rest in the assurance that it does not all depend on us – that we are not the Messiah, but that we are invited to participate in God’s mission of healing and redemption in this world.

Amen

Filled with the Fragrance

April 3rd, 2022 homily on John 12:1-8 by Pastor Galen

Waste Not, Want Not

In my family when I was growing up, one of the most egregious and horrific things someone could do was to waste electricity or heat. When we left the room, the lights had to be turned off. If we left our house for any length of time, my dad would always turn the heat down. And we never, ever left the doors open, even for just a little bit, if the heat was on. In fact, when we were getting to leave the house, our whole family would crowd into the vestibule of our house on cold winter days until everyone was ready to leave, so that we could step out of the house together, without allowing any of the precious heat to escape.

And of course we were never allowed to waste food. If we didn’t want our food or were too full to eat it, we were always supposed to save it for later, or offer it to someone else. 

Now, my parents were not like those parents who force their children to sit at the table until they eat all of their vegetables. My dad used a much more effective tactic to get us to eat all of our food: he used reverse psychology. If we didn’t like something, he would say something to the effect of, “Great! Now there’s more for me!” And then he would proceed to eat it, smacking his lips and loudly exclaiming about how wonderful the food was, and how much we were missing out by not eating it – to the point where we wished we had indeed eaten it or tried it ourselves.

But the point that was instilled in us was that we were to never waste electricity, or heat, or food, or gas. Because all of those things cost money.

Very Expensive Perfume

And so I have to admit that when I hear the story of Mary pouring out her expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet, my initial inclination is to side with Judas on this one – all I can think about is how much money that perfume cost, and how it sort of seems like all of that money was wasted.

Judas points out that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. And he’s right. The perfume that Mary dumped out was worth 300 denarii, which was a whole year’s wages! Think about how much money you or your parents make in a year. And now imagine someone just pouring that amount of money down the drain. How would you feel?


To Judas, watching Mary pour out all of that very precious and expensive perfume, was just too much to bear. 

…But You Will Not Always Have Me

But although Judas uses the argument that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, John tells us that it wasn’t that Judas actually cared about the poor. Rather, it seems that what he really cared about was money. As proof of this, John tells us that Judas, who was the one in charge of all of the finances for Jesus and his disciples, had actually been stealing from the money box! 

So Judas doesn’t actually care about the poor – but rather he is using this as a “strawman” argument, to downplay Mary’s incredible act of generosity and devotion, and to persuade others to see her in a negative light. 

But Jesus points out that worship and caring for the poor are not mutually exclusive acts. Judas had set up a false dichotomy. He make it seem like Mary could only either worship Jesus or serve the poor. 

But Jesus, who himself set aside time throughout his life for both prayer and serving and caring for those in need, points out that the disciples would always have the poor with them, and they could always serve the poor, whenever they wanted. In fact, Jesus is assuming that being a follower of him will mean living in community with and caring for those who are in need! But here, in this instance, he defends Mary’s act of worship and devotion, saying “leave her alone,” and he says that through her incredible sacrificial act of worship she has prepared his body for the day of his burial. 

I imagine that one of the conversations around the table that day as Jesus ate with his disciples was the fact that the religious leaders were at that moment plotting to kill Jesus. In fact, just a few verses earlier, in John 11:54, John tells us that Jesus couldn’t even walk openly, and that he and his disciples were essentially in hiding, because the chief priests and scribes and elders were looking to capture him. 

And so here, Jesus and his disciples, including Mary, are sitting around eating and talking. Although Mary wasn’t one of the 12 men who were called Apostles in the Gospels, she was indeed one of the core, inner disciples, or devoted followers of Christ. She may even have been one of the 72 who were sent out to preach, and, teach, and heal. And so in the midst of this conversation around the dinner table while Jesus is talking with his disciples, Mary was so overcome with love and devotion for Christ, that she gets up and takes this incredibly expensive bottle of perfume, and pours it out all over Jesus’s feet, wiping his feet with her hair.

Growing up, my pastor used to always say that, rather than buying flowers for someone’s funeral, we should give people flowers while they are still alive and can enjoy them. And that’s what Mary is doing here – she is anointing Jesus’s body while he is still alive – demonstrating her undying devotion to her Savior, who would soon be crucified. 

John tells us that as she poured out the perfume over Jesus’s feet, and wiped his feet with her hair, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). 

A Counter-Cultural Act of Worship

Now, just in case you’re wondering, this was not something that typically happened at dinner parties. Yes, it was customary for servants to wash the feet of guests – but not the host. And feet were washed with water, not perfume. 

Not only that, but women in those days usually kept their hair covered – it was rare and often considered scandalous for them to let their hair down in public. And feet were not usually dried with people’s hair. 

And so everything about what Mary is doing here is countercultural, and abnormal even in Jesus’s day – let alone in our today. And we don’t know why exactly Mary chose to do this in this way, or whether it was premeditated or spontaneous. But either way, it was born out of an incredibly deep love and affection for Jesus.

And so Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone. He affirms Mary’s act of love and devotion, seeing the heart and intention behind her incredible act of generosity, knowing that she was doing what she could to demonstrate her love and care and concern for him.

Filled with the Fragrance

This week as I’ve been meditating on this passage, I’ve been thinking about many of you, and how some of you may have faced criticism for your acts of love and devotion to the Lord. 

Some of you perhaps are the only person in your family who comes to church, or you might be the only one of your peers who is actively involved in serving the Lord. And your friends or family might even criticize you, or try to discourage you, saying, “why are you wasting your time going to church? There are so many more fun things you could be doing on a Sunday morning!” Or, “why are you giving your money, or time or energy or resources to the church, when there are so many other worthy causes you could give to?” 

But I want you to know that Jesus sees your act of love and worship and devotion, and that as you pour out yourself in worship and devotion to the Lord, you fill the room with the fragrance of God’s love.

Others of us perhaps have faced internal doubts or discouragements about our worship or devotion to the Lord. Perhaps we’ve been serving the Lord for years or maybe even our whole lives, giving of our time or energy or resources, and we wonder if it’s actually made a difference? Perhaps you started a new ministry, or served in a particular program for many years, and you’ve failed to see the impact that you wanted to see. Maybe the program or ministry was even discontinued, and you wonder, was it all worth it?

Personally, I know that feeling. Back in 2008, my wife and I restarted what was called the Baltimore Urban Program, where we would bring college students into the city of Baltimore each summer and spring break to serve in various communities around the city. The program ran successfully for several years, but then we started experiencing challenges with recruitment, finances, and staffing. We took a year off, and then brought it back again for a few more years. Eventually we moved on and turned the program over to others, who faced some of the same challenges that we had faced. Eventually the program was paused for a year, and then a few years, and who knows if it will ever be resurrected.

And there have been other ministry programs that my family and I have been involved with, or served in over the years, that have come and gone. And I know it can be incredibly discouraging when you have poured time and energy, and perhaps even blood, sweat, and tears into a program or ministry, only to see it get shut down, or come to a grinding halt. 

But to each and every one of us who has ever found ourselves in those situations, I believe Jesus would say that it wasn’t a waste. Our sacrifice of time and energy and resources, it was a beautiful offering to the Lord. And whether or not we will ever see or know the impact that we made, as we poured out our time and energy and resources in service to the Lord, it was and is a beautiful and fragrant offering to Jesus.

And so this morning, I would invite each and every one of us to envision our lives as that beautiful bottle of fragrant and expensive perfume. Your life is beautiful and valuable, your life has purpose. You are precious and valuable to the Lord.

And what could possibly be better, what could possibly be more worthwhile, than to pour ourselves out in love and devotion to the Lord, who has saved us and redeemed us, adn is worthy of all of our praise. What could possibly be more worthwhile than to go around, each and every moment of the day, offering our lives to Christ as a beautiful and fragrant offering, filling the room, wherever we are – at work, or school, or play, with the fragrance of God’s love?

We do that, not only when we come to church and serve in the various ministries here, but also when we love and care for our neighbors, when we serve those we live with, or work or go to school with, or interact with on a daily basis. We do this through participating in acts of mercy, and kindness, and justice. The prophet Isaiah says that we do this when we spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed (Isaiah 58:10).

And so this morning, may our lives be a fragrant offering to the Lord. Let us fill the room with the fragrance of God’s love. Our service to the Lord is not a waste – it is a beautiful sacrifice. Amen.

Lost and Found

March 27th, 2022 homily on Luke 15:11-32 by Pastor Galen

My wife and I have different definitions of what it means to be lost. Frequently we’ll be driving in our car, and I’ll be unsure how to get to where we’re going. My wife will say, “so, we’re lost.” And I’ll say, “we’re not lost. I know where we are. I’m just not sure how to get to where we’re trying to go.” 

You see, I am by nature an optimist, and I just sort of believe that if we just head in a particular direction, eventually we’ll get to where we’re trying to go. And this is often true not just when we’re driving in our car, but in life in general. My wife would prefer that we have a detailed plan of exactly where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there. She’s always wanted us to have a 5, or 10, or even 20 years plan, whereas I am much more comfortable experimenting and trying things without a long-term plan, because I tend to believe everything will just sort of work out the way I hoped.

Except that sometimes they don’t, and there have been several times when we’re found ourselves in places or situations in life that we probably could have avoided if I had just planned better. Like not too long ago on Valentine’s Day weekend, when I came home from seminary class at 2pm on Saturday afternoon and decided it was time to start planning for our date night which was starting in a few hours – only to find out that all of our favorite restaurants had no reservations. “That’s alright, I thought, I’ll just move down the list of our 2nd, and 3rd, and 4th-tier favorite restaurants as well.” But they were all booked as well. We did end up finding a place to eat, but it wasn’t the most romantic restaurant. And let’s just say that my wife was less than happy with my selection. So things don’t always work out when I don’t plan…

The Younger Son

And in that way, I feel like the younger son here in this parable is a bit like me. I think he was an optimist. And I think that when he first headed out from his father’s house he was just sort of hoping that things would work out. He had a bunch of money that he had just gotten from his dad, and he just sort of headed off in a particular direction, thinking that his money would last him for a very long time.

And so for most of this story, he probably didn’t think he was lost. He had a vague idea of where he was, he just didn’t know where he was going. And he probably thought, worst comes to worst, even if his money runs out, he’ll be okay as long as he has food to eat and a place to sleep. And if he runs out of food, then someone will probably give him some food to eat. So it will be Ok.

But then his money did run out. And at the same time, there also happened to be a famine. And although some people had stockpiled food in preparation for the famine, no one in that foreign land would give him any food to eat. And so he had to pick up a job feeding pigs, and when he found himself hungrily looking at the slop that the pigs were consuming and wishing he could eat that, I think that’s when he first realized that he might be lost. Not in the sense that he didn’t know where he was, but in the sense that he had no idea where he was going.

The Homecoming

And then, the more he thought about it, he came to this realization that back home, even his father’s servants never had to worry about what they were going to eat. And it slowly dawned on him that he was probably going to have to go back home. And so he headed off for home. And as he was heading home, I imagine him rehearsing what he was going to say. He was going to say, dad, I know I’m not worthy to be called your son any more, but would you at least hire me to be one of your servants?

I mean, even that would be a stretch, because he had caused his father some pretty serious offense. He had asked his dad for his inheritance while his dad was still alive – which was unheard of. And not only that, but he had caused his father a whole lot of shame in front of the whole village, because there were tons of rumors circulating around about all of the things he supposedly did in that far country. (We don’t know if those rumors were true, but in some ways it didn’t matter, because even his older brother believed them to be true). 

And so, even asking his father to let him be a servant was a bold request. But he was willing to try it, because he was desperate, and no one else would give him any food.

But when he gets close to his hometown, his father doesn’t force him to complete that long walk of shame. Rather, he runs out to meet him. He runs down the driveway and through the village. He hadn’t forgotten about his son, he hadn’t blotted him out of the family records. He was longing and waiting and hoping and dreaming that one day his son would come home.

So he runs to his son, he embraces him. He doesn’t even allow his son to finish his sentence. It’s like one of those scenes in the movies where where one person is trying to apologize, and the other person just puts their finger on the other person’s lips and says “I love you.” That’s what the father does to the son. He gives him a big old bear hug, and he calls to the servants and says “kill the fatted calf! bring a robe and put it on him. bring the best slippers, and ring. and put it on his finger.” He gives his son the royal treatment.

This is an amazing glimpse into the heart of God, who is longing and waiting and hoping for those who are lost to come home.

The Older Son

But the older son, who has been doing everything right, who in his mind has been slaving away, working hard for his father at home all these years, is not happy. Never once did his father throw a party like this for him! Never once did he give him the royal treatment. Never once did he kill the fatted calf. And he can’t believe it. He can’t believe his father would treat his younger brother like this.

But his father says “son, you are mine, and all that I have is yours. Yes, you have been with me, working hard every single day. And that is commendable, and there will be times to celebrate you in the future. But for right now, we have to celebrate this younger brother of yours, who was lost. We thought he was dead! but he’s alive, and now he’s home. And that is worth celebrating right now.”

Who Do You Identify with in this Story?

So, who do you identify with in this story? I don’t know about you, but I can sort of see things from both perspectives. I’ve been the younger son who’s made foolish decisions and unwise choices, and I know how embarrassing it is to have to admit that I’m wrong, or that I should have planned better. And I’ve been so blessed when people have extended grace and forgiveness to me – including my wife. And it’s helped me to see a little glimpse into the heart of God.

But I can also see things from the older brother’s perspective. Sometimes it’s hard to see people getting away with stuff when we’ve been working our hardest. It’s like when you’re in school and you stayed up all night to work on a paper or to study for an exam, and then you get to school the next morning and the teacher says “I’m going to give everyone an extension!” And all those classmates of yours who didn’t even start their assignments, they got away with it! You feel like you worked so hard for nothing. It’s not fair, and you don’t feel like celebrating that others are getting off without being punished or scolded or anything.

Invitation to experience the Heart of the Father

But here in this story, we’re also being invited to get a little glimpse into the heart of God. To see that people who were lost and are now found are worth celebrating. It’s worth rejoicing when anyone returns to God. And it doesn’t downplay the beauty and value of striving to live a life of faith every day. And it doesn’t downplay the reality that one day we will be rewarded. But we do need to realize that God rejoices over those who realize they were lost and that they need to be found. 

Many of us have friends and relatives who are lost but don’t realize it. And I believe we’re being invited here in this passage to see a little glimpse into God’s heart for them, and to pray and long and hope and dream that someday they will come to their senses and return to God.

But I also want to zoom out here, because I think there’s also a level here for us as a congregation, as we think about our church and the community around us.

You see, right now we’re living in the midst of a time and place in our society where there are a lot of people who don’t want to go to church. Maybe they feel like they’re doing fine on their own and they don’t need God or a community of people. Maybe they don’t really feel like they’re lost. Or maybe they’ve been hurt by the Church and don’t want to ever set foot in a church again.

And because of this, we as a church have been realizing that if we’re going to reach the lost, we’re going to have to go out to them. Because many of them are not going to come to us. 

And I can’t say that I’ve heard anyone complaining, but I know that sometimes it can feel frustrating to spend a lot of time and money and church resources on trying to reach out to people who don’t even know they’re lost. And we might think, what about the people who are coming to church? What about our own church members, the people who have been coming faithfully for years. Shouldn’t we spend our time and money and resources on caring for them?

And I get it. Sometimes I’ve felt the same way when it comes to denominational resources. There’s a big push right now in the United Methodist Church towards new styles of worship gatherings, “fresh expressions” of church, going out and reaching those who wouldn’t come to church. And sometimes, when I’m in a scarcity mentality, I can think, “But what about us? We have needs here, just keeping alive the programs that we’re already doing! Why can’t you give some of those resources towards sustaining our programs?”

But Jesus told this parable in response to religious people who were complaining that he was spending too much of his time and energy on non-religious people, some of whom probably didn’t even realize they were lost. The religious people of Jesus’s day thought he should be spending more time in the temple, or the synagogue, teaching and investing and healing people who were faithful attenders, rather than those outside.

But through this parable, and the ones before it about the women who searched for the lost coin, and the shepherd who searched for the lost sheep, Jesus is inviting us to experience the heart of the Father, who cares so much for each and every one of his children that he will go out and search for the lost, and meet them where they are, and welcome and invite them to come home.

Last week in our Lenten Bible study we talked about service, we were encouraged that each of us find ways to serve both within and outside of the church. And I want to issue that same challenge to us today. Some of us are heavily involved in the community, but I would encourage you to seek out one way to build up and encourage one of our existing programs within the church. On the other hand, those of us who are heavily involved in running our church’s programs have to realize that at least part of our role involves extending God’s love and grace outside of the walls of the church.

This morning, may we see and experience the heart of the Father, welcoming all who are lost back home. May we not grumble and complain like the religious people of Jesus’s day when we see resources flowing out to those in need, but rather, may we participate in going out to reach the lost, and welcome them home. Amen.

Under the Wings

March 13th, 2022 homily on Luke 13:31-35 by Pastor Galen

“The Fox and the Hen”An Aesop’s Fable

Aesop was a Greek fabulist and storyteller who lived 600 years before the time of Christ and is credited with a number of fables known collectively as Aesop’s Fables. One of the stock characters in Aesop’s fables was the fox – a sly, wily animal who was always using cunning and trickery to try and capture his prey. But on one such occasion he was outsmarted by a wise old Hen who escaped his clutches by using her own cunning.

One bright evening as the sun was sinking on a glorious world, a wise old Hen flew into a tree to roost. But just as she was about to put her head under her wing to rest, her eyes caught a flash of red and a glimpse of a long pointed nose, and there just below her stood Mister Fox. “Have you heard the wonderful news?” cried the Fox in a very joyful and excited manner.

“What news?” asked the hen very calmly, though she did have a strange, fluttery feeling inside her, for, you know, she was very much afraid of the Fox.

“The news that your family and mine and all other animals have agreed to forget their differences and live in peace and friendship from now on forever. Just think of it! I simply cannot wait to embrace you! Do come down, dear friend, and let us go into the forest together to celebrate the joyful event.”

“How grand!” said the Hen. “I certainly am delighted at the news.” But she spoke in an absent way, and craning her neck, seemed to be looking at something afar off.

“What is it you see?” asked the Fox, a little anxiously.

“Why, it looks to me like a couple of Hounds coming this way. They must have heard the good news and…”

But the Fox did not wait to hear more. Off he started on a run.

“Wait,” cried the Hen. “Why do you run? The Dogs are friends of yours now!”

“Yes,” answered the Fox. “But they might not have heard the news. Besides, I have a very important errand that I had almost forgotten about.”

The Hen smiled as she buried her head in her feathers and went to sleep, for she had succeeded in outfoxing the fox.

The Fox and the Pharisees

It’s possible that Jesus had Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Hen in the back of his mind when the Pharisees came and warned him that Herod was seeking to kill him. After all, just a few chapters earlier in Luke the Pharisees had been lying in wait for him, trying to trap Jesus in his words (see Luke 11:53-54), and so their supposed concern for Jesus’s safety in this situation was certainly suspicious. 

Whether Herod really was trying to kill Jesus or not we don’t know. We do know that Herod had killed John the Baptist, although somewhat begrudgingly, and that Herod’s father, Herod the Great, had used cunning and deceit to try and convince the Wise men to lead him to baby Jesus when he felt threatened by the existence of a newborn king. 

And so it’s possible that all of this was a carefully laid trap, either by Herod or the Pharisees to try to get Jesus to let down his guard. But like the wise old Hen, Jesus was not about to fall into whatever trap the Pharisees or Herod had waiting for him. And he certainly was not going to deviate from his mission. 

And so Jesus told the Pharisees to go back to King Herod – who he calls “that fox” (Luke 11;32) and to tell Herod that Jesus was a little busy at the moment, casting out demons, and healing people and all in all providing the sort of leadership and care and concern that was certainly lacking from both the religious and political leaders of his day.

In the following verses, Jesus makes it clear that he knows that he will indeed eventually be killed – like many prophets before him. But, like the prophets of old – it will take place in the region of Galilee where Herod rules – as would be expected. Rather, he will be killed in Jerusalem – the seat and center of religious power. The very city that should have recognized and welcomed him with open arms. He will be put to death at the insistence of the very religious leaders who were pretending in this instance to be on his side. The very people who should have recognized Jesus for who he was and should have welcomed him with open arms.

Yes, if the people of any city should have recognized Jesus and welcomed him, it should have been the people of Jerusalem. Jerusalem had more priests and scribes and religious scholars per capita than any other city in Palestine. Most towns had a small synagogue where people could come together to hear the law, but Jerusalem contained the temple itself – believed to be the dwelling place of God, the place where Heaven and earth met.

But Jesus, who claimed that he himself was the dwelling place of God, the place where heaven and earth met, posed such a threat to the power and prestige of the religious elites that they connived together with the political authorities to have him crucified and killed. 

Like a Mother Hen

Jesus, knowing what was in the hearts of the Pharisees, knowing what they would eventually do to him, should have been filled with fear, or anger, or righteous indignation. He should have turned it around on them, used his own cunning or trickery to get the better of them. 

But instead we see here in Luke 13 that he was filled with sorrow and compassion. Sorrow for the people who would reject him, compassion for the very people who will turn their backs on him. Grief for the people who will connive together to have him killed. 

Jesus is filled with such compassion that he cries out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:34). Like a mother hen, he longs to gather them close to him, to shield and protect his children. But they do not run to Jesus, they do not recognize him for who he is. They do not realize he is looking out for their good. And instead they run the other way. 

Jesus as our Mother

It’s worth noting that while we often refer to Jesus as our brother and God as our Father, here Jesus compares his compassion for the city of Jerusalem to that of a mother hen. 

In doing so, he follows in a long line of biblical authors who describe God using motherly imagery. In Hosea 13:8, God is described as a mother bear. 

In Deut. 32:11-12, God is described as a mother eagle “that rouses her chicks and hovers over her young,” and a few verses later God is described as “the God who gave you birth” (Deut. 32:18). 

God says in Isaiah 66:13, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” 

Psalm 91:4 says “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” And there are about a dozen other verses throughout Scripture where God is described as a mother bird, gathering us under God’s wings. 

In describing his care and concern for the people of Jerusalem using this imagery of a mother hen, Jesus is once again expressing the heart of God, who cares for us as both a mother and a father.

This led St. Anselm, writing in the 11th century, to pray:

“Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; You are gentle with us as a mother with her children.” 

It led Julian of Norwich, writing in the 14th century to say:

“It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good. Jesus Christ, therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is out true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him and this is where His maternity starts. And with it comes the gentle protection and guard of love which will never cease to surround us. Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.

He Gave His Life for Us

Those of us who have little to no experience raising barnyard animals might miss some of the power and significance of this mother hen imagery. We often think of chickens as timid and cowardly – when someone is referred to as a “chicken” it usually means they are the opposite of brave. 

But nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to mother hens. Blogger Carolyn Henderson describes mother hens this way:

“…Chickens seem like pretty mundane, primeval creatures (which they are, and they aren’t), and left to free range, they patrol an area regularly for worms, grubs, and grass. But a mother hen is something different indeed, easy to identify from a distance even when you can’t see the chicks near her feet:

She stands straighter. She’s alert, constantly looking for danger. And when she senses that danger, she emits a special clucking noise that brings the chicks — the smart ones that wind up surviving, that is — to her at a run. They gather under her outspread wings, which she then enfolds around the chicks, sheltering them from the threat.

Most dogs and cats take this as a strong indication to keep their distance, and even wild creatures think twice about approaching a puffed out, inflated, extremely belligerent creature. And while the chicken is not generally thought of as a noble animal — like a lion, a tiger, or even a polar bear, all of whom don’t take kindly to strangers messing with their children — the mother hen is noble in her own right, and she will give her life to protect her brood.

This is, of course, what Jesus did for us. He stood up against the powerful predators of sin and death and the grave – and ultimately he gave his life to free us from the power of sin and death. Even when we rejected him and turned our backs on him. Even when we did not love him with our whole hearts, even when we did not do God’s will, and rebelled against God’s love, still Jesus gave his life for us. Still he longs to gather each and every one of us under his wings. 

Run to Jesus

We live in a world where there are many foxes. People – including sometimes those who are close to us – who we don’t know if we can trust. Systems and organizations that appear interested and concerned for us, but in the end we find out are only looking out for their own interests. 

In the midst of this chaos and confusion, Jesus stands, ready and waiting to gather us under his wings. Like a mother hen, he is constantly looking out for our good, constantly inviting us to run to him.

This morning, whatever you may be going through, whatever your worries or fears or concerns, let us bring them to Jesus, that he may shield us under his wings of love. 

Amen.

An Opportune Time

March 6th, 2022 homily on Luke 4:1-13 by Pastor Galen

Giving Up Chocolate for Lent

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, The season of 40 days (not including Sundays)  leading up to Easter, which began this past week on Ash Wednesday. Lent is a season when many Christians around the world practice a form of fasting, intentionally giving something up a particular food or avoiding a particular habit or practice in order to focus more of their attention on God.

I did not grow up in a Christian tradition that practiced Lent, and so Lent always held a certain mystique for me. People would ask me if I was giving up something for Lent, and I would shrug and say “not this year,” as if I definitely knew what Lent was, and as if I practiced Lent every other year of my life and just hadn’t gotten around to it this year. Or I would say something like, “I think this year I’m giving up Lent for Lent” – hoping that I would come across as sounding really deep and uber spiritual. 

But a couple of years ago, I decided to practice Lent for the first time by giving up all forms of chocolate. I didn’t think it would be that difficult. After all, there are plenty of other sweets that I like that do not have chocolate in them. But I soon came to realize just how many of the foods I eat on a regular basis that contain chocolate! The chocolate chip granola bars I frequently grab in the mornings as I rush out the door to take the girls to school. The chocolate protein powder shake that I frequently drink in the middle of the day to give me a boost of energy. Chocolate candy, cookies, brownies, or cake for dessert.

Avoiding chocolate during Lent that year forced me to slow down a little bit, to be just a little bit more intentional about the foods I was consuming. Ultimately it helped me realize just how weak I am, since I was so easily tempted to just give in and forget the whole thing.

Jesus’s Temptation in the Wilderness

Of course, my temptation to eat chocolate was nothing compared to the temptations that Jesus faced while fasting in the wilderness for 40 days before he began his active ministry. 

The Gospel of Luke tells us that “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished” (Luke 4:1-2).

So Jesus didn’t just give up chocolate for lent. He avoided food entirely, eating nothing at all for those 40 days. Not only that, but he spent those 40 days in isolation, away from his friends and family, out in the wilderness – away from all of the comforts of home. 

For many of us, the thought of being by ourselves with no human contact for that long sounds even more distressing than going without food for 40 days. 

And what about being without our phones or computers or electronic devices? Many of us can’t even go a few hours without our phones, let alone days or weeks. By the way, did you know there’s even a term for the fear that many people experience when they don’t have their phone with them or are unable to use it? It’s called nomophobia and in many people it’s been known to cause anxiousness and agitation, panic and irritation when they can’t find or check their phone. (I’m pretty sure I have nomophobia).

Part of the reason it can be so distressing to be isolated or away from our phones and other forms of technology when we’re alone with no other distractions, all of the thoughts we’ve been suppressing or avoiding begin to rise to the surface. For many of us this can be quite traumatic. 

And so here Jesus was in the wilderness, alone for 40 days, away from friends and family, fasting and avoiding food. And during that time he experienced some of the most severe temptations of his life. Throughout his time in the wilderness we are told that he was tempted by the devil, and then, at the end of those 40 days, when he was famished and was physically at his weakest point, the devil tried 3 more times to get him to stumble. 

The Three Temptations

First, the devil tried to get him to turn stones into bread. Now this doesn’t sound so bad. After all, it wasn’t donuts or cake. It was bread! And he was hungry. And The devil was trying to get Jesus to do was completely within his power. Later on Jesus fed 5,000 people with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. So he could have easily done this. But the devil was trying to get Jesus to use his powers and abilities to satisfy his own needs and wants, to prioritize his own comfort over that of his relationship and connection with his Father, God. 

Jesus refused to give in to this temptation. He avoided this temptation by quoting Scripture – specifically Deuteronomy 8:3, which calls to remembrance the ways in which God provided for the Israelite people when they were wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. It’s a story of how God did indeed provide bread for them through miraculous means, but it’s also about how God used those periods of hunger and scarcity to teach them to depend on God and God’s Word, even more than they depended on food.

Next the devil tempted Jesus with worldly power and might, if he would only bow down and worship him. In truth the world belongs to God, not the devil, but perhaps the devil could have orchestrated things to make Jesus an earthly ruler, a political Messiah, as the people were expecting. This temptation would have no doubt been a path that would have allowed Jesus to avoid physical pain and suffering and the death that he would later experience on the cross.

But again Jesus combatted the devil’s temptations by quoting Scripture – this time from Deuteronomy 6:13, when Moses challenged the Israelites not to forget their need for God when they entered into the promised land and experienced bountiful provisions. Indeed is most often in times of abundance that we are most tempted to lose sight of our dependence on God. 

Finally, the devil tempted Jesus to put God to a test – to jump off the highest point of the temple in order to prove to himself and to the world that God was indeed with him. This tremendous feat would have earned Jesus the admiration and respect of the religious leaders of his day, who throughout his ministry continued to demand that Jesus show them a sign that he was from heaven (see Mark 8:11). Performing a stunt such as this would have helped him avoid the rejection and betrayal that he experienced throughout his life from the religious and political leaders of his day.

This time the devil even used Scripture – albeit twisted and out of context – to try to convince Jesus that what he was suggesting was in line with God’s will. But Jesus, who is the Word of God, saw through the devil’s lies, and once again refused to give in to the devil’s temptation. Here Jesus quotes Deut. 6:16, pointing out that we should never put ourselves in harm’s way simply to test God or to exploit God’s promises of protection and provision. 

Following this third temptation, the Gospel of Luke tells us that the devil departed from Jesus “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). 

Call Upon Jesus

Now of course we are not Jesus, and we cannot resist the temptations of the devil on our own strength. We need each other, and we need the strength and the power of God in order to resist the various temptations that we face on a daily basis. Fortunately, we do not have to do this on own. Because Jesus resisted the temptations of the evil one, we can call on Jesus to help us avoid giving in to sin when we are tempted by the enemy. 

The author of the book of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” Hebrews 4:15-16).

Jesus knows what we are going through. He sees us, he identifies with us in our weaknesses, he is interceding for us, and through His power we can overcome.  As we saw in Psalm 91 and Romans 10, God promises that when we call on God, God will answer, and will be with us when we are in trouble. We can call on Jesus for salvation, and he will indeed rescue us and give us the strength to resist temptation. 

An Opportune Time

Frequently God uses times of testing and trials to strengthen our endurance against temptation. And that’s what the season of Lent is all about. It’s about willingly following the Spirit’s leading into a time of testing and trial that helps us grow in our awareness of our need and dependence on God. 

Many of you may have heard the acronym HALT, which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. The model was first developed to help people seeking to overcome addition to recognize when they were most vulnerable to relapse. But it’s since been a useful tool for many people to recognize when they are most prone to temptation. 

Obviously we can never completely avoid finding ourselves in situations where we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. But fasting intentionally from certain foods for a period of time, or intentionally turning off our phones or electronic devices for certain hours of the day in order to experience solitude and silence, can help us build up our endurance so that we are less prone to give in to temptation when we do inadvertently find ourselves in these types of situations.  

Lent is an opportune time for us to intentionally grow in our need and dependence on God. For some of us, that might not involve giving up certain foods, but perhaps it might mean waking up 15 minutes early to read our Bible each morning. Or perhaps taking part of our lunch break to step outside and breathe in some fresh air. Or perhaps turning off our phones at a certain time in the evening so that we can be more present with our children or grandchildren, while at the same time asking God to take away some of our nomophobia

In closing, I want to point out that Luke 4:1 tell us that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Lent and fasting and giving up certain foods is not about doing a fad diet. And we shouldn’t knowingly put ourselves in a situation where we’re putting ourselves in harm’s way. (Remember, we’re not supposed to put God to the test!) So if you are going to give something up for Lent this year, make sure you talk it over with those who are close to you, or a doctor with therapist if you have one, so that they can help you decide whether or not it’s a good idea. Make sure that your discipline is guided and led by the Holy Spirit, and confirmed by those who love you. 

And so I invite us into this season of Lent together, however you choose to practice it. May we all, individually and as a community, grow together in awareness of our need and dependence on God. May we, like Jesus, learn and grow to resist the temptations of the evil one. And may we be so steeped in the Word of God that we too can recognize truth from falsehood, and stand against the temptations of the enemy. 

Amen.