Readings: Genesis 15:1-7, Luke 13:31-35
O God in your wisdom and in your hope for us, open our hearts and minds to the possibilities you hold for us today. Where we discover new ways to know you, encourage us, where we re-cover that which we have always held true, renew us, when we step out into Lenten uncertainty, hold us. Amen
One hot summer day a deer came to a pool to quench his thirst. As he stood there drinking, he saw his reflection in the water. “What beauty and strength are in these horns,” he said, “but how weak and fragile are my feet.” While the deer stood observing himself, a lion appeared nearby and crouched to spring upon him. The deer immediately took to flight. As long as the road was smooth, the deer easily out-distanced the lion. But upon entering the woods, the deer became entangled by his horns and the lion quickly caught him. Facing the lion, the deer thought to himself, “What a fool I have been. The feet which almost saved me, I despised, while the antlers which I loved proved to be my destruction. An Aesop fable
Today I want to talk about strength and false weakness, in us, in our world and what Jesus might say about it.
Let’s begin with our world. A few weeks ago I read a blog about an emerging power church in the US – fire and brimstone for the 21st century speaking into urban injustice and need. Very popular might I say. There were a few things I agreed with and quite a few more I didn’t – but what struck me about the article was that, throughout, anything that was considered weak or waffly, such as tolerating other faiths or watering down hell was inevitably painted as a feminine trait. Actually I do believe the suggestion was that letting women into leadership was the cause of all this wiffly waffly love stuff and the downfall of the modern church. They obviously haven’t met some of the women I know!
At the same time, in the Lenten study on the Beatitudes we are doing at Opoho this week, the section on Blessed are the meek has a fairly tongue in cheek poke at the world’s perception of masculinity – suggesting that a successful male is expected to have sexual pull, be a winner in whatever venture they undertake, be dominant and have a healthy level of disregard for others ie exploitation denotes strength. Alex, the person whose beatitudes story is around meekness, says that he chooses to reject the world’s overwhelming perception that traditional masculinity and meekness are at opposite ends of the scale, he chooses to associate his maleness with compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness – as non-violence in the sense of not violating – people, planet, relationships. He built his identity on that of his father, who was, he said, forever kind and thoughtful with all.
Now if I have any ability to read minds whatsoever I would think most of you, too, would find those sweeping definitions for male, female, strong, weak, abhorrent. I certainly do. But for all that there is an element of truth in this – it is still is a popular perception that strength is known in power & aggression and weakness is found around love & empathy. It is a belief that informs and justifies bullying, family violence, economic violence, discrimination and social inequalities.
Christ came to redefine the way we are to live – and, in doing so, he challenged this common perception of what strength looked like – he said that we needed to be strong, but that strength was shown in our loving, compassionate, caring for each other and ourselves rather than in our exploiting and dominating of others. He rejected the definitions of the day and lived out a new type of strength, one that saw him, in the end, helpless and mocked on a cross of wood, nails and thorns piercing his flesh, betrayal and insults and laughter piercing his soul.
If we look to our Gospel reading for today we see this intriguing combination of strength shown alongside what the world might call weakness. For Luke tells a story of Jesus standing strong before the veiled threats of the Pharisees, naming Herod as instigator with few qualms, and sending them off with a flea in their ear – this will happen, he said, as God wills and in that assurance Jesus will not be forced from his path. Jesus could never be called politically naive – he knew well enough what was going on, all the manipulation and pressure, and he was having none of it. Bold, strong in the face of worldly power. And, he said, he would take his message all the way to the top – to Jerusalem even knowing that he will be rejected, that he will be subjected to scorn and violence. But here is the message for today– he does not respond to their rage and violence with like action, instead he turns around and offers that which the world calls weakness, he weeps and laments over Jerusalem, using the very feminine imagery of a hen brooding over her chicks, soft and sad of heart over the coming rejection of her prophet. Compassion and embrace is his response to an angry world, love for all is become his strength.
Here in this place we are well aware that these generalisations of male and female traits are inherently flawed, but I would suggest we none of us, men or women, are completely innocent of using our strengths inappropriately and seeing as weakness that which is simply different. How often do we not allow ourselves to lament, to weep over that which is heartbreaking, that which we cannot help or change because, in the end we see it as showing weakness? Do we ever use our superior skills to, even inadvertently, put others down? Do we, deep down, think that if we hold a political, economic, social, religious power over others that they are somehow less or that we have a right to manipulate them?
Are these some of the obstacles that we might want to dismantle this Lenten time as we walk this journey with Christ? As Isaiah’s prophetic vision was for a just and righteous kingdom, so Jesus came to bring a ‘new thing’ to the people, one where all were treated equally, with love and justice and mercy, where none were subject to helplessness, or bullying, or violence against their body or their soul.
Surely this is the dream, this is what the Jesus walked the path to Jerusalem for, this is what his compassionate tears for those who rejected him were shed for, this is why we walk alongside, each in our own way, for – to gather God’s people, like a mother hen gathers her chicks, in warm, inclusive, welcoming embrace as God intended from the very beginning, as Christ exemplified and as we are called to be as we walk the path to the Easter experience. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation by Anne Sutherland Howard. (Herndon, Virg: The Alban Institute, 2009)