Fearless Imitation
 — Dawn Christenson

February 21, 2016
Second Sunday in Lent


Grace & Peace

In the words of Alexander Pope: “to err is human, to forgive Divine”. My error? – rushing preparation for this sermon after getting off shift yesterday morning, with too little sleep. I fear that this will negatively impact the quality of this sermon. For that I beg your forgiveness. And I pray for the Spirit’s guidance.

I must tell you, I struggled at first with the scripture readings for today. On the surface, there just didn’t seem to be sufficient meat to build a sermon upon. But the more I grappled with them, trying to look at them from numerous angles, the more I discovered. I never dreamed I would find a common thread of disappointment in these texts. And one of the paths that the Gospel text led me to was totally unexpected. I certainly did not expect to find abiding love within it. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Let’s begin by contemplating Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Before we can begin to understand this tiny snapshot, we need to place it in context of Paul’s overall letter. He wrote this from prison, yet he infused so much joy into the letter. He expressed joy for the concern and help from those in Philippi. He expressed joy at the recovery from serious illness of a Philippian who brought gifts to Paul in prison – “to meet his needs” he wrote. I couldn’t help but wonder: what did that guy bring a file or a chisel? Paul also expressed joy over the growth of the church and spreading of the gospel.

Then, his tone changes in Chapter 3. Paul shares his concern, even disappointment over dissension among the Philippians. “Oh, we’ve got trouble, right here in River City!” You see, there are those in Philippi who are misguided and straying from the gospel of Christ. Paul actually says “beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers”, especially those who claim circumcision (a Jewish rite) is required of Christians. Nuh-uh-uh! Paul basically tells them (and I paraphrase here), ‘look, I know all about this first hand. I was circumcised on the 8th day, as an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew born of Hebrews. I know the Law; I was a Pharisee, for gosh sake! And I became a self-righteous persecutor of the church. But all of that means absolutely nothing now – it’s rubbish! Now I know that I am nothing and gain nothing without the grace of Christ. So I live my life in devoted to service to Christ.’

Following all of this is where we find today’s text. So, when Paul writes “join in imitating me”, he is referring to his devoted service to Christ and leaving behind all of his prior ways. For all intents and purposes, he encourages the Philippians to ‘Imitate me in humble service and set your sights on heaven, not on earthly stuff.’ What did Jesus say?: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” In that light, Paul is telling the Philippians “set your hearts right and be transformed by the power and grace of Christ.”

That is worthy of imitation. But if you want to talk about the gold standard for imitation, we really need to look to Jesus himself. When we think of Christ-like imitation, often we look to Jesus’ love, compassion and humble service as characteristics to emulate and rightfully so! But today’s gospel reading seems to be sorely lacking in gentle love, compassion and humble service. On the surface, this sounds like a scolding of Jerusalem. But I think there is much more to it than that.

Again, looking at context, we find this particular text from Luke’s gospel following a series of parables. In fact, today’s text immediately follows the parable about entering the kingdom through the narrow door and “the last will be first and the first will be last.” That seems to set the stage for a good scolding. But why not simply go there? Why distract us with his incredulous message for Herod?

Jesus response to the Pharisees is down-right bold! – Boldly fearless in response to one of the biggest thugs in all of Judeah. To call Herod a fox was a huge and dangerous insult! And then to top it all off, Jesus basically said: “The work I’m doing here, I will continue to do until I am finished, whether you like it or not. And there is nothing you can do to stop me.” And of course, in mentioning the “third day”, he alludes to the resurrection.

But then he changes his focus from Herod, to the rest of corrupt Jerusalem. At first blush, I heard a scolding, angry tone here. “How often have I desired to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.” But at second glance, this is packed with tender, protective imagery of a mother. I didn’t expect to hear the pain of a mother’s heart, longing for her children to return to her. Listen, do you hear the profound disappointment and sadness of a parent? “How often have I desired to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you, you were not willing.” I did not expect to find this.

But then, he says: “Your house is left to you.” – As if to say, you’ve made your bed, now lay in it. How difficult it is for a parent, especially a mother to walk away and let her children reap the consequences of their poor choices. What this text does not share is the worrying and weeping that any mother would experience. And while seeing her children troubled and in trouble is painful for a mother, probably the most painful thing of all would be their rejection of her love.

Theologian, Patrick Cheng, defines sin that way. Sin, he says, is rejection of the radical love of God. Think about that. Think about the profound pain experienced by God, when God’s beloved children – whom we all are – reject God’s love.

AND think about God’s unconditional, abiding love. Regardless of what we do, where we go, how foolish or hurtful we might be, God still loves us. Like a devoted mother hen wanting to gather her chicks beneath her protective wings, God patiently awaits us. Did you know that some hens will risk everything for the sake of their chicks? Yes. It’s been documented a number of times following forest fires, where chicks have been found surviving under the charred remains of their mother hens. That is profound love.

Paul spoke of imitation. I don’t know about you, but I think emulating the love of God – abiding, devoted, unconditional, irrevocable, and radical – loving even the unlovable, that would make the world a better place. God’s love has no room for hatred or violence or injustice. Jesus said: “Love one another as I have loved you.” That’s something to aspire to. That’s what we are called to do: to share the love of God, as we have been loved. Yes, that means loving even the Herod’s in our lives…the seemingly unlovable bullies, grumps and negative Nellies that tend to wear on us and drag us down day after day. Perhaps he or she has never known love. If I have been transformed by the love of God in Christ, who am I to keep that to myself? I must share it in order to transform the world into a better place. Let’s not disappoint God by refusing to share God’s love.

You know, I can’t help but think about the radical love of God that is manifest in Christ Jesus and I am filled with joy! For God so loved the world that God took on flesh, in Jesus of Nazareth, for all flesh. And for me, Lent is a time to really bask in a love so radical and so profound that God in Christ redeems all of us with his death and resurrection. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can ever separate us, any of us, from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God. Amen.