A few chapters before today’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” It’s a literary device that sets the context for how to read everything that happens between that statement and what happens in Jerusalem–foreshadowing is the technical term. And we all know what’s going to happen in Jerusalem, right? Jesus will be crucified.
So Luke intends us to interpret everything that happens after Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” in the shadow of the cross, including sending out missionaries, teaching through parables, visiting his friends Mary and Martha, teaching the disciples how to pray, taking the religious leaders to task for using their office to oppress the faithful, healing a disabled woman on the Sabbath, which was against religious law. All of these activities take on new meaning when you see them in the context of the crucifixion.
The next thing that happens connects with Jesus’ crucifixion more literally: the Pharisees pull Jesus aside and warn him that Herod wants to kill him.
Jesus’ response? “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day–for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” Which sounds like a perfect reason to plug another location into the GPS…anywhere but Jerusalem.
I don’t know about you, but I’d be shaking in my boots if someone told me that someone else wanted to kill me. Why is Jesus so defiant? Why isn’t he more afraid? Personally, I’d find Jesus a bit easier to relate to if he was just a tiny bit more terrified. But “telling that fox where he can go”… that’s harder for me to relate to. It must be a Messiah thing, right? He knows how everything’s going to turn out, so he doesn’t need to worry. He can say whatever he wants.
Except that there are lots of stories throughout human history where people were so committed to doing what they knew was right, that even the threat of death couldn’t shake them.
“A story from the Far East recounts that a vicious general plundered the countryside and terrorized the villagers. He was particularly cruel to the monks of the place, whom he despised.
“One day, at the end of his most recent assault, he was informed by one of his officers that, fearing him, all the people had fled the town…with the exception of one monk who had remained in the monastery going about the order of the day.
“The general was infuriated by the audacity of the monk and sent the soldiers to drag him to his tent. ‘Do you not know who I am?’ he roared at the monk. ‘I am he who can run you through with a sword and never bat an eyelash.’
“But the monk replied quietly, ‘And do you not know who I am? I am he who can let you run me through with a sword and never bat an eyelash.’” (Chittister, Rule of Benedict, 60)
From where does that kind of fearlessness come? How can one live, seemingly, without a sense of safety?
Maybe it’s not so much about living without safety. Maybe it’s about re-defining what safety is. Is safety about having enough money, or a place to live, or food to eat, or clean water to drink, or living without the threat of physical violence? Yes. Those things are important, especially for our physical well-being, and to a certain extent, for our emotional and spiritual well-being. But here’s my question: Is physical safety enough to make us spiritually whole?
I don’t mean to diminish the need for physical safety. Violence is dehumanizing. I am beginning to work with the Cobb Interfaith group on a prayer vigil and workshop on preventing gun violence in our community. National security is important. Personal security is important. Being a safe church is important. But are these kinds of security enough to save us?
Here’s the problem with linking our spiritual safety to physical well-being. If we only see God’s love for us in terms of physical well-being, then when our physical well-being is compromised, our faith can’t help but waver. If you pray for someone to be healed of cancer and they die, what happens to your faith? And what if someone you love dies a tragic death? If your belief in God is directly connected to physical well-being, that belief is going to falter when tragic things happen.
9/11 taught us a lot about security, didn’t it? Because lax security made it possible for the planes to be hijacked, our national response was to throw everything we had into security. We’ve heard that same sort of fear driving a lot of the conversation about Syrian refugees of late. “If we let them in, there’s no telling what they’ll do.” People seem to forget that Dylan Roof wasn’t a refugee, nor was Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph or David Koresh.
Hear me well. I’m not suggesting that physical security isn’t important. It is. Before people can grow spiritually, emotionally, mentally, they have to feel physically safe. If you’re constantly in survival mode, you’re not going to be able to grow spiritually or any other way.
But these stories–the ones about Jesus and the monk–suggest that there is something more to feeling spiritually safe than physical security alone.
Shortly after 9/11, a couple of us attended a Cobb County Zoning Board meeting. We needed to get a variance to build our sign out by the road. At that meeting, a Presbyterian minister was asked to offer a word. She chose to read Psalm 27. Just weeks after 9/11, she read:
“1God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 2When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. 3Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
4One thing I asked of God, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in the temple. 5For God will shelter me in the day of trouble; God will conceal me under the cover of God’s tent; and will set me high on a rock.
6Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in God’s tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to God.
13I believe that I shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living.
14Wait for God; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for God!
In those first tender days after 9/11, these were the first words that brought me comfort. I suspect it’s because the psalmist speaks so honestly–and so confidently–about their faith in God, even in the midst of catastrophic circumstances. The descriptions of enemies, war, and armies rising up resonated loudly with what our country just had experienced. And yet, even in the midst of dire circumstances, the psalmist still was able confidently to confess faith in God. Sitting in that meeting room, hearing those words, at that time, I began to imagine that I too could confidently confess my faith in God even after that terrible event.
The longing to feel safe is deeply human. The scientists among us can explain that longing in evolutionary terms: In order for the species to survive, there has to be some assurance that it can survive. The longing to be spiritually safe also is deeply human. We all want to know that we are accepted and welcome and loved, perhaps especially by the creator of the universe.
So how do we get access to that kind of safety? I suspect the precise answer will be different for every person. The things that make me feel safe will be different from what makes you feel safe.
I do think, though, that a lot of what we already do here in this community helps—meeting together regularly for worship, learning, and service to others…hearing the same Assurance of Grace every week (“One fact remains that does not change: God has loved us, loves us now, and will always love us.”)…sharing our joys and concerns with each other…having friends to support us when our faith falters… On its best days, this community is a spiritual safety net for us.
The rest of the job of finding out what contributes to our spiritual safety is a solitary, internal process. Figuring it out takes prayer, reflection, prayer. And sometimes, we just have to practice our way into it. We have to tell ourselves over and over again: “God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Since our trip to Ireland, Allen and I have been reading up on Celtic spirituality. There’s a tradition in Celtic prayer of invoking the presence of Christ before me, behind me, above me, to my right, to my left. That kind of encircling prayer…it’s almost like a cocoon, a shield.
In fact, perhaps the best known of this kind of prayer is called “St Patrick’s Breastplate.” As a musical setting of the prayer plays, you’re invited to come forward to place a piece of broken glass on the cross. Every Sunday in Lent, we’ll be adding more pieces of broken glass. The completed cross will be revealed on Easter Sunday.
Because we’ve got several more weeks to go, the invitation is to take just one piece of glass. If we end up with lots of empty space on Palm Sunday, we can add more pieces to fill up the spaces. For now, just take one, put a dab of glue on it, and place it anywhere on the cross above the blue tape.
As you come, the invitation is to practice feeling safe with God. Remind yourself that no matter what’s going on in your life, no matter how vexing, or perplexing, or trying, or awful, or joyful your life’s circumstances, still, always, Christ is before you, Christ is behind you, Christ is above you, Christ is to your left, Christ is to your right, Christ is in you.
Come. Bring your broken pieces to the cross. And feel yourself surrounded by, protected by God’s loving embrace. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bAKFyGaWvk
In the name of our God, who stands before us, who stands behind us, who hovers above us, who is to our right, who is to our left, and who lives in our hearts—Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2016