Mistle Thrush family in rain gutter

Living Under the Threat of Violence

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons
Designated Conference Minister, Southwest Conference UCC

Preached February 21, 2016 at Church of the Beatitudes, Phoenix, Arizona

Birds go to the most incredible extremes to ensure the lives of their chicks.

A Mistle Thrush had built her nest in the end of a rain gutter. “The nest was tucked away from the weather in the shade of the roof,” said amateur wildlife photographer Dennis Bright. With the rain, “It was only a matter of seconds before the [gutter] flooded, and water cascaded over the sides.”

Desperate to protect her young, the mother Mistle Thrush puffed herself up to twice her size and sat in the drainpipe to stop the tide of rain water swamping the nest. She was so occupied with her task that her mate was left to feed her and their young.

“She had to come up with a solution so she puffed herself up so she was twice the size of her mate and used her body as a cork to stop the water,” said Bright.”It was absolutely amazing.”

Hester Phillips, from the RSPB, said she had never seen such a situation. “We’ve heard of them nesting in some unusual sites before, namely on the top of traffic lights, but we’ve certainly not come across anything like this before.

“Birds can be amazingly hardy creatures,” said Phillips, “their endurance is incredible – especially when protecting their young.”

Jesus described himself as a hen gathering her brood under her wings. Jesus – source of belonging, bringer of love, creator of creator of community.

But his allusion to the blood-bathed image of a fox among the chickens is his description of a violent world’s response to his mission. Thus the friendly Pharisees’ warning for Jesus to flee in the face of Herod’s royal rage.

But Jesus would have none of it.

[Jesus seems to] shrugs his shoulders [and intensify his gaze] when he says, “You go tell that fox from me that I’m going right on doing what I’m doing, casting out demons and healing the sick, and I’ll still be doing the same tomorrow, and the next until I finish my work, by which time we’ll be in Jerusalem.”

No fleeing. No hiding. No being intimidated. No pursuit of his own privilege thus pretending it’s not happening.

Jesus’ vision and mission remains resolute in the threat of escalating violence. Casting out demons: the vision of a world freed from the powers of oppression and exploitation. Healing the sick: restoring to wholeness ones whose bodies were broken, whose souls were scarred, whose place in their community was confiscated. “Jesus is going to do what he’s come to do, and he’s not going to be bullied [or scarred] out of it, no matter how big and [how] real the threat.”

With all the flare of LaWanda Page’s portrayal of Aunt Esther on TV’s sitcom Sanford & Son, Jesus says to the henchmen of hate:

“Besides, it’s not proper for a prophet to come to a bad end outside Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killer of prophets,
abuser of the messengers of God!
How often I’ve longed to gather your children,
gather your children like a hen,
Her brood safe under her wings—
but you refused and turned away!
And now it’s too late: You won’t see me again
until the day you say,
‘Blessed is she
who comes in
the name of God.’ ”

As the Keresan Pueblo story goes, Qi-yo Ke-pe was the most powerful medicine person in the world. She lived far to the west. When the daughter of the chief in the village of Kush Kut-ret fell ill, none of the medicine men could heal her. So the chief sent his bravest warrior to bring Qi-yo Ke-pe to his daughter’s bedside. When she arrived she asked for water and bathed the girl. The medicine men laughed. “If all our songs and incantations didn’t work, ordinary water could not possibly have any effect,” they said. But after four days of this bathing ritual, the girl was restored to health and beauty as if she had never been ill. The grateful chief commissioned his bravest warrior to escort the powerful Qi-yo Ke-pe back to her home, but the jealous medicine men followed them at a distance. After the brave warrior had departed her company, the medicine men came to Qi-yo Ke-pe’s home. She invited them in and offered them a meal and rest. They refused. “We have come to kill you,” they said to Qi-yo Ke-pe. “In four days we will return. Then you and your family will die.” Four days later the medicine men returned and were as good as their word. From then on there was grief. Many times when people fell ill there was no one on earth to heal them. Qi-yo Ke-pe was gone. The medicine men had killed her.

Luke is clear that Jesus knew he, too, would fall victim to the violence. Not by Herod’s hand, but Jesus would indeed die. For not everyone is able to understand and accept Jesus’ offer of liberation and healing. And with his killing came consequences of his killers’ own choosing.

Still, Jesus expresses a commitment to his vision and mission with all of the conviction and groundedness of the Poet who penned Psalm 27:

Your light leads me to safety, LORD;
I’ve got nothing to fear.
You shelter me like a fortress, LORD;
I’m afraid of no one!

Vicious thugs can close in like sharks,
ready to eat me alive;
but savage violence is no match for you;
they’ll fall flat on their faces.

They could give my name to a death squad
and I’d still be at peace;
their armies could lay siege to my house,
but I’d still feel safe with you.

Only one thing I ask of you, LORD,
the one thing that really matters:
let me live out the whole of my life
right here in your presence;
let me lose myself in your beauty,
and abandon myself to prayer.

Let me hide here in safety with you,
when trouble gets too much;
You are as secure as a bomb shelter,
a protected place to rest and recover.

You have lifted me beyond the reach
of those who wanted to tear me down,
so I am here to express my thanks,
to offer you whatever I can give;
to sing your praises till I raise the roof,
to put on a concert in your honour.

Don’t ever stop being generous, LORD;
hear me and answer me when I call for help!

My heart tells me to search for you.
Please don’t stay hidden from me.
My desire is to know you, face to face.

Don’t slam the door on me in anger;
Help me again and I’ll go on serving you.
Don’t give up on me now,
don’t turn your back on me;
You alone can save me, God!

Even if my own parents kicked me out,
you’d still be there for me, LORD.

Give me clear directions, LORD;
keep me on the right track
so I don’t stumble into the path of my enemies.

Don’t let them get their claws into me.
With every breath they fill the air
with false allegations and violent threats.

I know I can rely on you, LORD,
I’ll see your goodness win out
and live to tell about it.

I wait patiently for you, LORD;
I’ll hang in there and keep my chin up;
I’ll sit tight, and trust in you!

Beloved, the world is still a violent place. Before preaching this sermon I woke to the news that a gunman had committed a string of random murders in Kalamazoo, Michigan leaving 7 dead including an 8-year old and a 14-year old.

One need not live in ISIS controlled territories to experience religious violence. One need only to have been on the campus of Independence High School last Monday. After the tragic murder/suicide of 15 year-olds May Kieu and Dorothy Dutiel, Christian extremists spewed homophobic hate over megaphones at grieving students returning to classes. One need only to be a woman reading the Bible and realizing that “there are only 93 women who speak in the Bible, 49 of whom are named. These women speak a total of 14,056 words collectively — roughly 1.1 percent of the Bible. Mary, the mother of Jesus, speaks 191 words; Mary Magdalene gets 61; Sarah, 141 (Freeman, Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter).7

“Communities of love and belonging are beautiful yet rare; necessary, yet elusive; desired, yet seem always met with stipulations. You know what I mean, right? Communities of love and belonging are those places and spaces of gathered folks that give you life, that nourish your soul, that remind you of who you truly are. Because there is no love and belonging when there is no regard and respect. There is no love and belonging when you are overlooked and dismissed. There is no love and belonging when you are told you don’t measure up, don’t meet expectations, or that you are not enough.”

How do we as Christians live in such a violent world?

We live as Jesus in the world! You and I, us together, we are the Body of Christ, the living Jesus in the world.

There are ones around us who point to the Church’s shrinking influence, who cite our words and our actions as too political, who call for us to run away, to hide under cover of private religion or in the safety of siloed spirituality and thus escape the wrath of powerful and powerfully offended ones. Let us have none of that! We are Jesus in the world!!

This world – this violent world – needs a Jesus – a living body of Christ on the earth – who risks our very lives to gather under God’s outstretched wings vulnerable ones, poor ones, rejected ones, and lonely ones, hungry and thirsty ones, threatened ones, blamed ones, guilty ones, and ones with no other place to belong.

Will you be that Jesus? The Jesus – the Body of Christ in the world – unwaveringly committed to liberating oppressed and exploited ones by risking the tasks of healing broken ones. And doing so from such a place of deep peace built on the bedrock of justice that you cannot help but share a song with her brood as they gather in safety and community:

Under His Wing

Under your wings I am safely abiding;
Though the night deepens and violence is wild,
Still I can trust you,
I know you will keep me;
You have redeemed me,
and I am your child.

Under your wings, under your wings,
Who from your love can sever?
Under your wings my soul shall abide,
Safely abide forever.