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On High Alert

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Feb 21

Text: Luke 13:31-35

In 2002, a brand new Department of Homeland Security was created.  In response to the events of September 11, one of its first acts was the creation of a color-coded terrorism threat scale.  You may remember it.  The colors ran from green—for a low threat level, to red—representing a severe threat to National Security. The nation was consumed with anxiety after 9/11. The threat scale was doubtless helpful for security purposes, but and it did little to alleviate anxiety. The first time the terrorism threat spiked to Orange in the Boston area—a high risk of attack—you could feel anxiety rising in people everywhere. As threat level spiked, and anxiety spiked, too. It was palpable.   

Our scripture from Luke begins with a dire warning. Jesus has been teaching and healing in Galilee when some Pharisees approach and warn him to flee. “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you!”  It’s a scary moment.  A red-alert moment for Jesus.  The threat is credible. Danger is immanent.  “Herod wants to kill you.”  This is Herod Antipas—who had beheaded John the Baptist. Herod Antipas—Tetrarch of Galilee—who will summon Jesus before he is crucified. Antipas has enormous power.  He rules Galilee as a client state of Rome.  He was put in place to keep Galilee under the thumb of the Empire. State-authorized control through violence.

And there’s a family history of violence.  His father—Herod the Great—was a merciless ruler, known for the slaughter of the innocents. It was Herod the Great whose wrath Mary and Joseph fled after the birth of Jesus, when they were warned in a dream to “return home by another way.”  There’s a family history of state-sanctioned violence.  

So when the Pharisees come to Jesus with the warning, “Run away! Herod wants to kill you!” it’s a credible threat. We know it. And Jesus knows it.   

How will Jesus respond?  It turns out that Jesus has no time for Antipas.  In his entire Galilean ministry Jesus never entered the two cities particularly associated with Herod Antipas: Sepphoris and Tiberias. Antipas carried out great building projects in these cities and they were monuments to the attempt to Romanize the people of Galilee.

When this warning comes that Antipas wishes him dead, Jesus dismisses it.  He has his own intentions, his own path, his own time, and he will not be moved by violence-wielding power.  

“Go tell that fox” that I am casting out demons, and performing cures and I will finish my work.

Jesus’ work is also our work.  To be a healing balm, to offer space of welcome, to resist violence. To remain calm and resolute and true-to-course in the face of threats, in midst of storms that rage all around us. To remember God’s kin-dom—even to embody that kingdom in the heart of Rome.  A world within a world.  A realm within a realm.

Jesus models something essential—a way of compassion and tenderness in the face of threat.  He shows us the way.  It’s a way that seems intrinsic to who he is.  He seems to know it “by heart.”  But we may need to learn it, to practice, and to set our intentions on this way of being.  

On a biological level, we know that when we are flooded with fear, our brain’s limbic system kicks into a fight or flight response.  The amygdala takes over.  This is crucial to the survival of our species.  We need to respond to threats and we are biologically wired to react. But we cannot survive in a constant state of red alert. Our reasoning capacity starts to go off-line and we are not our best selves.  

We can’t live in a state of high alert.  That’s something the Department of Homeland Security figured out.  It finally became clear that the whole nation was living in an adrenaline-state.  We were never not on high alert!  There was never a moment’s rest and the DHS eventually eliminated the color-coded alert system, in favor of more nuanced, site-specific alerts.  

We are living—right now—in anxious times. And we have both a challenge and an opportunity before us.  This month we begin a capital campaign for the future of First Church. It’s an exciting moment!  A time of dreams and visions, of imagining what our future might be—in this community, here in Harvard Square, for the church, and—most of all—for the sake of the world. Now is a time to think big, to open our hearts, and to ponder what this particular moment asks of us. This moment for the world around us, this moment in the history of First Church, this moment in each of our lives.  

Our Capital Campaign theme is, “For such a time as this.”  An evocative phrase from the Book of Esther.  For more on Esther, come to our 10:00 Hours before worship each Sunday in Lent!

We’ve begun to talk about the “signs of the times” we are living in.  Here are some of the ideas you have articulated in the last couple of weeks:

* Power hungry leaders and media are manipulating the population by building up their fears, insecurities and tendencies toward hate.  (Wow, that sounds like Herod Antipas!)

* Hatred and fear of  “the other” dominate our society and are creating unrest.  

* Widening inequality dissolves trust in community.

* This is a time of radical income disparity, when dispossession and dislocation of whole populations are seen as normal, necessary, and “not our problem.”

* A century of energy use altering and undermining the very habitability of the planet

* Technological shifts and globalization are causing such rapid change that people are afraid and clinging to what and who they know.

* Apocalyptic/end times narratives have become popular.

* So much is said in the name of God, and so very little about God’s ways

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in such times at these. Communication networks supply a steady flow of bad news—of environmental catastrophe and atrocities in remote places. We are flooded with information, inundated with bad news, and it’s natural to feel quite small and insignificant in relation to the enormity of the world’s problems. We care very much, and at the same time, it’s often hard to know how to act in the face of such enormous need.

And what is Rome’s response to this bad-news world?  Politicians capitalize on it. They developed finely-honed practices of stimulating fear and reactivity in order to gain votes.  Local police departments militarize. Our corporations supply bulldozers.  Our government supplies arms.

But there is another way. The way of Jesus. We need to step out of the maelstrom of bad news and heightened threat, and take time to remember, re-orient, and recommit. You know this! I know you do—because I hear you talking.  When we’ve asked, how would you want this time to be remembered by future generations, here is what you’ve said:

* Even though I may never see the results of my actions, I must act anyhow.

* We worked to be witnesses of love and faith in spite of the pains of the world

* We didn’t stand on the side and simply observe. We stood up, acting boldly, and brought a voice of hope and faithful action.

* We need First Church’s community in order to be known, to know ourselves, and to be with God.

We need each other and we need community.  This is at least part of what Jesus meant in his lament over Jerusalem.  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Lk.13:34)

Here is one of the most beautiful and unabashedly feminine images of the divine in all of scripture.  God is like a hen protecting her chicks under the shelter of her wings. Some of you may be able to visualize a mosaic that graces the altar of Dominus Flevit Chapel. Dominus Flevit. Jesus Wept.  The chapel is on the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the hill across from East Jerusalem.  A place where Jesus wept and prayed, the night before his death.

There in that place is this gorgeous image of hen harboring her brood with outstretched wings, and this verse: “How often have I desired to gather your children like a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Jesus expresses his deep longing for us on God’s behalf.  How I long to give you shelter, to keep you safe from harm, to gather you in, to love you and teach you the ways of the Spirit.

A hen and her brood.  It is not only an image of sanctuary. It’s also an image of community.  We are a whole brood of chicks gathered under the shelter of God’s wings.  A flock.  A congregation.  

First Church is a sanctuary—where hungry people are fed and weary ones find rest. It is a place of quiet, peace, depth, and beauty.  A place of grounding and welcome. How many of us felt safe walking through these doors for the first time because of a rainbow flag, an Open Door, Open Spirit, Open Table, Open Road banner; or a Black Lives Matter sign on the lawn? How many of us find shelter here, even now?  

But we are so much more than a sanctuary. First Church is also a place where we can admit our vulnerability and pain, learn from others, grow, where we can risk love.  

A place where we can act together, for the sake of this hurting world, which longs for a healing presence, a tender touch, and a prophetic word.

Here, we are made bold by the Spirit and equipped for the radical work of love, for just such a time as this.  Amen!

Leslie J. Hoppe, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, Volume 2, p. 69.

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