Lent 2. Sermon preached by Esther Elliott, Lay Reader – 13th March 2022

Luke 13:31-35 St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh. 13 March 2022.
Lent 2 Year C.

One of the things about being a chaplain for people at work is that you get to hear a lot of stories about how ordinary people deal with everyday conflict. The sort of conflict that often hums beneath the surface between colleagues, as well as in families, and occasionally pops up into a full-blown argument or situation. This week I also spent some time with some clergy from the Church of England who minister alongside other clergy who hold very different beliefs. They told stories of arguments, awkward situations, and the choices they were making about their own behaviour and responses to their colleagues. It is this human and common experience of everyday conflict that has been in the back of my mind while I’ve reflected on our gospel reading for today.

But first, I think I need to get a different sermon out of the way. As often happens, the gospel reading set for today has such obvious parallels with what is in the news it’s breath-taking. There’s panicked warnings to run from death threats from a paranoid leader. There’s a brave leader standing their ground. There’s a compassionate person weeping over the occupation of a city. Of course, it’s about the war in Ukraine. Of course, Jesus would stand up to Putin, just as He stood up to Herod. He may very well choose something other than fox to describe him, but still. Of course, Jesus would look at what is happening to the cities in Ukraine, weep deeply and long to look after the people being bombed and living underground. Of course. But to say that makes for an incredibly short sermon and I’m under a bit of pressure to do better than that today because it’s my first time preaching here. Far more importantly such a blunt and direct reading off from the text misses out on some crucial, and I think, essential details.

Whenever you read a sentence like “at that very hour..” in the Biblical text you know that the writer wants to ratchet up the energy in story. They want to add a sense of urgency, perhaps calamity. And our story starts right there – “at that very hour, some Pharisees came and said to him ‘get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you’”. You can feel the pace pick up and the adrenaline rush. And then I think, Luke wonderfully takes us through Jesus’ thought processes. At first, He responds with a very automatic reaction from His built-in system. Given the choice of responding to a threat with fight, flight, fawn or freeze, Jesus fights – “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”. You can almost hear the spit. And then He steps back just a little bit and grounds Himself in what He was doing before the threat happened. He was travelling within Galilee on His way to Jerusalem – “I must be on my way because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” he says. And then He steps back a little bit more and places Himself in a wider historical and social context “Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those that are sent to it”. The fizzy, urgent panicky energy is now gone.

Today is the two-year anniversary since the first recorded death in Scotland from Covid 19. I wonder if you can identify with some of how Jesus reacted to a threat to His life in your reactions during this pandemic. What was your initial automatic response from your built-in system – fight, flight, fawn, or freeze? Did you have a sense of an important task or purpose in your life that has grounded you over the last two years? Has being able to put your individual experience into a wider historical and social context helped any? Where are you now?

I think Luke, who wrote this story, wasn’t all that interested in giving us a step-by-step process we could use as a psychological tool to get through a pandemic, or any other threat to life, to be honest. I think the point of this part of the story is Jesus saying “in any conflict situation, even one where there’s a threat to your life, there’s stuff that isn’t going to ultimately useful to focus on”. You don’t need to focus on whatever your individual automatic reaction is, your feelings are going to happen, let them be and then gently move on. Persisting and carrying on with whatever your goal or intention was, is probably going to mean you burrow down into stubbornness and that’s just going to increase the conflict. Concentrating on similarities and comparisons with what has happened to you, or to others like you, in the past or the present, isn’t going to ultimately help turn this conflict around.

The fizzy, urgent panicky energy is now gone and Jesus moves on. “Jerusalem… how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”. It’s a statement of sheer and utter compassion. In many versions of the biblical text this story is labelled as Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem and you can see why. His heart totally goes out to Jerusalem. We are experiencing someone express intense compassion till it almost chokes us up too. Compassion, feeling another person’s suffering so much you just have to do whatever it takes to alleviate it, that’s what to focus on. That’s what’s going to be useful to resolve conflict situations; the ones that hum along, the moments when they erupt. Compassion is what Jesus models for us and suggests as a practice for as His followers.

There is one other tiny detail in this story that I want to draw your attention to. For me, this is the really crucial bit. Jesus’ compassion is for “the children of Jerusalem”. There are no exceptions or caveats. And Luke was clever enough as a writer to place right into the story the very people you assume would be the exceptions. The Pharisees, the religious leaders are children of Jerusalem because that’s where their temple is. For the early Christian community the Pharisees were a bunch of hypocrites and villains. Still part of the children of Jerusalem that Jesus has compassion for. For Luke, interestingly, they are ambiguous characters, they come into the story without any descriptions. We have no way of knowing their motivations for telling Jesus about Herod’s death threats. They are portrayed as the kind of people who are really hard to read in conflict situations, you don’t quite know where they stand, you don’t quite know if they are being truthful or spreading misinformation and so you can’t quite trust them. Still part of the children of Jerusalem that Jesus has compassion for. And then there’s Herod, who had a palace in Jerusalem, and investments in the city and plans to renovate it. Herod, who had decapitated Jesus own cousin, John the Baptist, (and rumour has it, served up his head on a plate). Herod who was the leader of an occupying force. Still part of the children of Jerusalem that Jesus has compassion for.

Wherever you are at the moment with the conflicts and threats to life and ways of life that swirl around us, I would like to suggest that the practice of compassion is the key. Whatever that shape that takes in the reality of your own life. Moreover, take heart and strength and grit from the fact that Jesus didn’t wait until the end of His journey, Easter Day and moments of resurrection to have utter, unreserved compassion for everyone. His all -compassion, pure, unbounded love is in the story, your story, my story, our story now.

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