Sunday, March 17, 2019

Shelter | Second Sunday in Lent 2019

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing." (Luke 13:34 NIV)

Have you ever smelled a chicken coop? You'd remember if you did. The odor of chicken poo is strong, but what really lingers in my memory from childhood is that heavy, moist scent of feathers. It's the smell of a lot of birds in the same place.

I bet the Earth in the age of the dinosaurs smelled a lot like a big chicken coop.

66 million years ago a meteor said to be a little over 12 kilometers in diameter struck the ocean just off the coast of what is now Mexico. In the catastrophe that followed, 3/4ths of all life on earth was wiped out, including the dinosaurs. That is, all the non-avian dinosaurs. The ancestors of modern birds made it, and many of those lineages flourish to this day.

We now know that many of the non-avian dinosaurs had feathers, or at least a sort of down. Always before we had portrayed this type of dinosaur as hairless, furless, and featherless. Further archaeological research has shown that dinosaurs of all types had various color patterns, and some were quite vibrant. No more grey- or green-skinned dinosaurs for our dioramas and toy boxes. Then again, I'm sure there are plenty of the duller variety on the market still.

How dinosaurs of all types behaved is the subject mostly of conjecture based off of tracks preserved in stone and fossils of dinosaurs somehow caught in action. While we can look at birds for an idea of how avian dinosaurs might have gone about their business, the habitual activities of non-avian dinosaurs are somewhat more in doubt.

Thinking about that fateful day millions of years ago, I suspect there were mother dinosaurs of all types that saw the flash and instinctively sheltered their young beneath them. Others could well have done the same as temperatures fell. It's like when I was a child riding in a car with my mother and she had to hit the brake suddenly; her right arm flew out onto my chest, as if somehow that could contribute to what the seat belt was made to do.

Is it love that drives this behavior? To an extent, I suspect this could be true. At the same time, there is something more primal going on in the desire to protect one's offspring, and that is certainly something I've had occasion to experience, and to which my children can attest. Just don't count on my arm pivoting out in a flash to secure an already-secured child in a car.

Perhaps it's a combination of instinct, conscious responsibility, and love. Whatever it is, when we perceive someone important to us in a precarious situation, it's natural to want to shelter them. In the Gospel reading for this second Sunday of Lent, Jesus laments the situation of Jerusalem in his time. Speaking with the voice of the god of Israel, he invokes the hallowed memory of the Hebrew prophets. He says that his god sent messengers to warn Jerusalem that it was in danger and needed to change its ways. Time and again these prophets were rejected in favor of other prophets who said what people wanted to hear.

It turns out that some of the prophets had been about what was going to happen to Jerusalem, and in 587 BCE the army of Nebuchadnezzar II breached the wall and laid waste to the city. When we read the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) we get a glimpse of the Jesus beneath the legends and traditions who was an apocalyptic preacher. Like the prophets of old, he also talked a lot about an impending disaster than would befall Jerusalem. And yet, because of some retcon work done by the early church, this was re-interpreted to be largely talking about the end of the world. This Jesus, however, was insistent that a more immediate disaster was coming for the Jewish nation that could only be averted through following the path of subversive non-violence he had laid out. This too was later re-interpreted to be speaking of 'Christian virtues.'

That disaster came upon Jerusalem in 70 CE, when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem and completely destroyed the temple, leaving not one stone on top of another. Jerusalem and the Jewish people were important to Jesus. He longed to see them spared any more harm, sheltered from the blast under mighty wings.

We live in incredibly polarized times. Political parties and movements in the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, and elsewhere have radically different, competing visions for the future. Some want a world where billionaires pay few taxes and practice voluntary philanthropy instead, while others want to see them taxed at a 70% (or higher) marginal rate so that funds can be channeled into infrastructure, health care, and education. There are those who want most or all personal firearms to be available to virtually everyone, and there are those who would like to see better regulations in place than there are now. The UK has 'Brexiteers' or 'Leavers' as well as 'Remainers.' Brazil has long been aligned, theoretically at least, with disarmament, poverty reduction, universal healthcare, and environmental protection. However, onerous taxes, daunting bureaucracy, and the rampant corruption of the leftist coalition that was in power for over a decade opened the door for the extreme right to begin a hard push in the other direction.

So many of us wish that our nations could be taken under sheltering wings. In the United States we fight for human rights while children are separated from their parents and caged, people are jailed for leaving water in deserts so migrants don't die, black women and men are shot dead by the police, and LGBTQ youth commit suicide at higher rates than their peers because of abuse and alienation.

We are right to protest, march, sign petitions, write letters to politicians, carry out acts of civil disobedience, and generally make our voices heard. At the end of the day, there is still much more to be done.

"It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." - Carl Sagan
In my brief years of ministry I uncovered a lot of hurt. Elderly people who, after they fell ill and became 'shut-ins,' were all but forgotten by their churches. Young couples and single parents with children who worked hard but were barely making it. Prisoners, drug addicts, betrayed spouses...the list goes on and on. What I did is called 'pastoral care,' but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that this is solely the work of the clergy. While health is for doctors to manage and mental health the domain of psychologists and psychiatrists, it doesn't take a degree to hold someone's hand, take them to their medical appointment, or prepare them a meal.

No one is coming to save us. No mighty mother from the sky will spare us the consequences of climate change or make nations be at peace with one another. No divine hand will appear to comfort the sick, the dying, the grieving. That is for us to do. Each of us. And all of us together. We are all we have, and so we're going to have to make it be enough. We can be the shelter.