A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
The Gospel lesson today is puzzling at first glance. Why does Jesus react so intensely to this warning from the Pharisees? The lesson as we read it starts, “Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’” Sounds like good advice, from caring neighbors: “Run away and hide, the powerful and cruel dictator that killed your cousin, John, is coming to get you.” It sounds like they want Jesus to be safe. Maybe they did. Jesus responds with a message to Herod: “I am casting out demons and performing cures today. And tomorrow…”
It is no more likely that any of these Pharisees knew Herod well enough to deliver Jesus’ message than it is that anyone who talks to me could take such a message to the mayor of New York City. It may well be that I have met someone who has had a conversation with Bill de Blasio, but none of them can just walk into his office. Neither could these Pharisees. Jesus was talking to them.
Just a note on Pharisees, who were they? In the Gospels, we run into one side of an argument without the background that the original hearers would have known. The Pharisees were a group within first century Judaism, probably not so much an organized group, but a category of people within the Jewish community. They were devout and sincere religious people, they sought to fulfill their religious obligations, and encourage seriousness about religion. Move them to this century, they would be the people who are in church pretty much every Sunday, make their pledge and pay it, and attend the Annual Parish Meeting. In other words, they were like us. And they were very aware of how precarious existence—particularly the existence of their people and their religious observance—can be.
To the Pharisees, Jesus was not safe. They told him that HE was not safe, but really it was themselves and the things they cared about that were not safe.
This Gospel lesson picks up in the middle of a longer passage. In Chapter 13 of Luke, Jesus was traveling through Galilee, teaching and healing, and heading toward Jerusalem. People asked him about Galileans who the Roman governor had killed in Jerusalem—did they suffer because they were sinners? And Jesus said: No. Then he took that as an occasion to call all to repentance—sudden death reminds us that we can’t put off turning and dedicating our lives to the Kingdom of God. Jesus is travelling toward Jerusalem, unafraid, and living the life of a prophet: healing, teaching, and telling the truth. Jesus may have been unafraid, but these other folks were pretty apprehensive. Some people did not like the truth, particularly if it made them uncomfortable. Particularly if they were Roman governors, or client kings, like Herod, who had armies to express their dissatisfaction.
But for Jesus, healing, casting out demons, teaching the truth of the Love of God, and going to Jerusalem were all part of the same thing. “Jesus, listen to our fear, Herod’s going to kill you, run away… we don’t care about healing…let the demons stay… run away, we want to be safe.” It is our fear that gives the demons their power. Powers emerge from human systems and take on a life of their own. And when people are afraid, demons, such as racism, appear and thrive. The demonic is not a few bad people thinking or saying bad things—it is everyone giving in to fear, and turning their back and refusing to face that evil or even admit to its reality.
So Jesus said to them, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today. And tomorrow…” Suffering and death are real, but in facing the demons and casting them out, it is Jesus holy act of life and love. He is on his way to the Holy City—Jerusalem—at the center, where both the love of God and the demonic embodiment of fear and hate are focused. He says, “I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.” He walks forward in love, love for his people, love for the city of Jerusalem, yes, love for the Pharisees who want him to leave so they can pretend like the demons infecting their country and their life just aren’t there. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
It is Lent and in Lent, we focus on how our lives are filled with the love and blessing of God, and how we can live into God’s love. The psalm today is a psalm of hope: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” Our hope is with Jesus, who takes us with him, healing the sick, casting out demons and winding his way toward Jerusalem.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sums it up in this way in his sermon, “Antidotes for fear”:
Courage faces fear and thereby masters it. Cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it. Courageous men never lose the zest for living even through their life situation is zestless; cowardly men, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live. We must constantly build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.