The Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D. '13, Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D. '13
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity
(The following is a transcript from the service audio)
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Good morning, again. As Alanna mentioned in the prayers, it is the season of Lent. And this year in the season of Lent in our weekly readings, we're journeying with Jesus through the Gospel of Luke. It's Year C in Lectionary and C is Luke's year. So we're doing a lot of readings from Luke. If you continue coming to church, or if you've been coming to church since December, you've been hearing a lot from Luke.
Now, each of the gospels is structured differently, as you might know. And one of the interesting things about the Gospel of Luke is that over half of it is actually this account of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem. So in the first seven or eight chapters, Jesus is ministering in Galilee. There's the Christmas story, of course, at the beginning, with the shepherds. And then he's doing his early ministry in Galilee. And then as we heard a few weeks ago, Jesus is transfigured and he goes down the mountain and heads out towards Jerusalem. And then the majority of the gospel is Jesus' way to Jerusalem. All the major teachings or most of the major teachings happen on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, many of the most important healing miracles and other miracles happen when Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem.
And because Lent is our journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, to what he will meet in Jerusalem, we have a lot of these stories, which happen to be the majority of the gospel crammed into these 40 days in Lent. And so that's, what's happening now in our gospel reading from Luke, where Jesus is sort of parrying with the Pharisees, some give and take with the Pharisees here. And the Pharisees play an important role in all the gospels and also in the Gospel of Luke. At the very least our reception of these gospels caricatures the Pharisees. It may be fair to say that the gospels themselves kind of provide a caricature of the Pharisees. The Pharisees are often set as opponents to Jesus and Jesus is in these arguments with the Pharisees.
But the truth is, in ancient Judea, at the time of Jesus, the Pharisees and Jesus had a lot in common. What they taught was actually very similar. The sorts of things they said were very similar. And there are clues to that in our Gospel of Luke, when we have Jesus arguing with the Pharisees a lot, but usually he's arguing with them over dinner at their house. He invites them over or they invite him over to talk, because they want to have a conversation because they respect him as a teacher and they ask him genuine conversations. And this is true in other gospels as well. In the Gospel of John, Nicodemus who receives Jesus' body after his crucifixion is a Pharisee. So these are portrayed as antagonists and opponents in the gospel, but they're also fellow travelers. They're also asking similar questions. And sometimes they are students at his feet. They invite him to dinner, to learn from him. And so the context of this journey is complicated.
Another reason we might have some sympathy with the Pharisees in the Gospel of Luke is that Jesus started it. So a couple of chapters ago, one of these Pharisees invited Jesus to dinner and immediately Jesus started haranguing him for inviting the wrong people to this dinner. The Pharisees also have no love for Herod. who's the king now, he's actually the tetrarch, which is like a minor king. He's the son of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born. They don't like Herod.
And so the first line of our gospel reading this morning, it says, the Pharisees came to Jesus and they said to him, "Get out of here because Herod wants to kill you." And I think this is a genuine warning. Some in the history of the church have read this as sort of like, get out of here, because get out of here. Right? I think they're saying, get out of here. Herod at this time was the ruler of Galilee. Galilee was not part of Judea at the time. Jesus was in Galilee and the Pharisees were coming and saying, get out of Herod's jurisdiction. He just killed John the Baptist. He wants to kill you. Go be safe somewhere else.
What they don't know, or perhaps don't realize is that Jesus is already traveling. He's already on his way out of town. He's already going to Jerusalem, leaving Herod's jurisdiction. And so Jesus has this kind of insulting rejoinder, right? He calls Herod a fox. "Go tell that fox for me, today and tomorrow, and the third day I will finish my work. Today and tomorrow, and the next day I am on my way." Herod's a fox. As you know, I'm half Japanese. In Japanese culture, the fox is kind of a mythic trickster, kitsune. He's a shape shifter and is often getting into trouble and manipulating humans and doing devious things. This is true in ancient Western literature as well. The Greek literature that would've been current at the time of this gospel's writing, the fox was known as sly and devious. So this is kind of an insult. Jesus is kind of giving it back to Herod.
So he says, "Go tell that fox that I'm leaving anyway." And so the tone, you can kind of hear the tone is sort of like, okay, I'm going, but not because I'm scared of him, just because I was already going. And then this insult is followed by this lament over Jerusalem and over the Judean people. And Jesus is longing to protect Jerusalem and the Judean people. And this lament is made more poignant when we know that this gospel was written after the destruction of Jerusalem. In the year 70 AD, the Romans sieged Jerusalem, and they destroyed it and they tore down the temple and they burned buildings and they killed at least tens of thousands of people, crucified many more, made slaves of thousands more. A city besieged, civilians assaulted by the military and killed. This is a familiar story. And in the midst of all this, Jesus, while he's lamenting the fall of Jerusalem and all this death and destruction and the people he so longs to protect, Jesus compares himself to a chicken.
As a lot of you know or some of you know, my family and I, we moved up here from Cape Cod, from Falmouth in July, I guess, however many months ago that was, and one of the things we did during our 10 years in Falmouth is we kept chickens. We had six chickens, all named after saints. And my stepfather-in-law (Petur Gudlaugsson) and I built a chicken coop that was in the shape of a church. We'll put a picture of that in the weekly email this week so you can see what was going on there. And I learned a lot about chickens. I learned that they're not very nice to each other. Our chickens were constantly pecking at each other. And there's this thing, which I didn't realize where this came from, but now I know, which is the pecking order, right? There's one chicken that was in charge. Julian, named after my favorite, Saint Julian of Norwich, was the chicken that was in charge.
One of the things about the pecking order I also learned is that anybody who keeps chickens for very long loses chickens because almost everything eats chickens. And so when my parents would bring their dog and take the dog in the backyard, all the chickens would run in the coop except for one. The one who's at the top of the pecking order would stay outside. And when the hawk would fly in the trees above our backyard, all the chickens would run in the coop except for one, who would walk back and forth in front of the coop outside. Almost everything in nature eats hens. Hawks eat hens, weasels eat hens, raccoons even will kill a chicken and eat it. Perhaps most famously and most well known, as the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor observes, one other creature that loves to eat chickens is foxes. And when the fox shows up, the hen stands firm and the other chickens scatter. They go hide and get safe. The defense strategy of chickens is sacrifice.
So when Jesus turns to the Pharisees and says, "Today, tomorrow, and the next day, I must be on my way to Jerusalem," we who know what happens in Jerusalem, know what Jesus is saying. He isn't just getting out of town. He's not just traveling. He's not running away from Herod. He is running toward Pontius Pilate. And in fact, in Luke's version of the gospel and only in Luke's version, Herod happens to be in Jerusalem when he gets there. And Jesus is brought before Herod as part of his conviction. So he's not running away from Herod at all. He's running towards Herod, towards his own death. What Jesus is saying to the Pharisees in our gospel reading this morning, and what Jesus is saying to us is, Herod is a fox, and I am a hen, and you are the brood. And you will all scatter. And they all do. None of these disciples who listen to Jesus and follow Jesus and call him their friend and teacher and master, none of them are by his side when he dies at the end of Lent.
I've preached on this lesson before. And I think this reading is right. I think this is what Jesus is saying when he makes this sort of unexpected analogy of Herod as a fox and himself as a hen. And I think it is the right lesson for us to receive this day in this Lent. This day and tomorrow, and the next day, Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem in this season of Lent as we go with Jesus. As the weeks pass next week and the week to follow, we will hear Jesus coming closer and closer to Jerusalem. We'll be traveling with him. It's the right lesson for us to take from this passage when we watch the disciples scatter at the end of Lent on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It's the right lesson for us to reflect upon as we consider our own failures to stand with Jesus in our own lives.
But this year there's also something different, at least as I read it. The lament for Jerusalem, as I noted before, sounds contemporary because we see bombs and missiles falling in Ukraine, and we see civilians targeted, and because we see people scattering, at last estimate, and it grows by hundreds of thousands every day. So who knows? I checked yesterday, 2.5 million refugees in two weeks. For 2.5 million people to move in two weeks, consider the disruption and the violence and the chaos and the pain. And every one of those 2.5 million people, a story, a life as real as yours or mine. And they are scattering everywhere. We hear of stories, as Alanna mentioned, of neighboring countries. But I heard from my son, Danny, who's eight years old in the Morse School, right next to Trader Joe's here in town that tomorrow a young girl from Ukraine and her family are arriving at their school, at our school, in our town with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
And so I'm moved by Jesus' teaching in this analogy of the fox and the hen that Jesus gives us. And I see Jesus going before Herod and Pilate, and I know what will happen at the end of Lent, but I'm also asking this morning, as I watch these 2.5 million people flee, I'm asking, what about the brood? What do they do now? What about all those who have been scattered? What do they do now?
There's an answer in this passage, I think, but also a way to misread the answer. Jesus says, "Today, tomorrow, and the next day I am on my way." And he also says, "Today, tomorrow, and the third day I finish my work." He specifies once, "The third day I will finish my work." And for those of us who do know what happens in Jerusalem at the end of the season, it's hard for us not to hear echoes of resurrection. The resurrection, Easter morning, that's what happens to the brood. That's when Jesus finishes his work. That's when this is all resolved. This journey to Jerusalem that we are taking with Jesus is not just a journey to Good Friday. It's a journey to Easter morning as well, of course. But we who read the gospel closely and we who look at the news closely today must also face facts. The brood was just as scattered Easter morning as they were Good Friday afternoon. On Easter morning, when the women go to that tomb, the flock is still far-flung and the tomb is empty.
Think in this Gospel of Luke, which we'll read this in Easter season, think of the Emmaus story. You may know this. One of the resurrection appearances that's unique to the Gospel of Luke is after Easter morning, these disciples are running away from Jerusalem. They're getting out of town and for good reason, right? Because this man that they followed was just tortured and murdered in front of them. And all their friends have run to the winds and they are running too, and we have this story of these two disciples getting away from Jerusalem. And they do see Jesus. They meet a stranger on the road and over supper together, they recognize him as Jesus. But as soon as they recognize him, he disappears from their sight. The flock is still far-flung. The tomb is still empty. And even when Jesus appears, he's gone as soon as you see him.
So what is the difference between Sunday afternoon and Friday afternoon in Jerusalem? As we make our way with Jesus towards these events, what is the difference between Sunday afternoon and Friday afternoon? The difference is in those disciples at Emmaus, because after Jesus disappears from their sight, even though he has disappeared from their sight, they look at each other and they say, "Let's go back to Jerusalem." The difference is that vision, that appearing inspires them, it makes them resolve to step into Jesus' place and to take up Jesus' ministry as their own. They resolve to serve the poor, and to care for the wounded, and to comfort the frightened, and to welcome the refugee in Jesus' place, and in his stead, and in his name. And they stop running away and they turn around and they go back.
Today, tomorrow, and the next day people are fleeing from violence. The brood it's scattered again and again. We can see it on the news. It is happening in Ukraine, but this is not new. We know it is not new. The Romans did this, as I said, to Jerusalem. And the buildings were burned and the city was raised and innocent people were murdered and enslaved and massacred. Among them, we must be sure many of the Pharisees Jesus is talking to and other followers of Jesus among those killed by the Romans in that city at that time. And it's not new in our day either. Vladimir Putin's army has done this also to Chechnya and to Syria in our own day. And as Alanna suggested in our prayers, I am worried by how little attention we gave to those conflicts, worried that perhaps those people were less white and less Christian or less Christian. And therefore we deemed them less worthy of our attention and our sympathy.
And it continues in this day, as Alanna said in her prayers, in Yemen, where another government attacks civilian populations. It happens in our own hemisphere in Central America, where people flee violence, and persecution, and terror. And according to the words of our Lord this morning, Jesus longs to gather these folks together. Jesus longs to gather them, longs to protect them, but instead they gather to us, they gather to us looking for refuge, looking for comfort, looking for care in our country, in this city, in my son Danny's school. "Today, tomorrow, and the next day I finish my work," Jesus says, but the work continues. It remains unfinished because it has been left to us, to you, and to me, to this church, to our today, and our tomorrow, and all our days to come. It has been left to us as our commission and our gift and our work, both to accept and to accomplish.