Of Good Courage

March 13, 2022
Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

I want to begin by inviting you to think about a space or place, or several if you have them, that are sacred to you. And by that I mean – places that you have been at one time – or possibly even a place you can go to again and again where your soul is offered space to expand – where the barrier between the mundane and the sacred feels thin – a place where you feel the presence of something beyond yourself – which I would call the Holy – and you feel it within and around you at the same time. Another word for this kind of place is liminal space. Liminal being a word that means threshold – and can also allude to simultaneously being on both sides of a boundary – mundane and holy. I hope you can think of at least one space like that in the experience of your life – I would imagine you can think of several or more – and if you are struggling to name that experience for yourself, perhaps open yourself up to the invitation and see what might happen.

One of my holy or sacred places is the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts – the MIA. The MIA is a museum that I explored time and time again while I was in seminary at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. The focus of my masters degree was Theology and the Arts, so exploring art was a rich part of that educational journey. The collection at the MIA spans cultures, mediums, and time and has shifting exhibitions that continuously offer something new. They also have a solid permanent collection that allows me to visit old friends each time I wander through its hallways. It is a place I hope to go spend some time in again this summer during my upcoming sabbatical [which may news to some of you – I am heading on sabbatical in early May]. It is a place that fills my spirit to the brim while also hollowing it and expanding it to make space for new connections, encounters, and possibilities.

I still remember one early trip to the MIA where I was making my way through the galleries and came across a painting that was a close up portrait of an older man with a full graying beard and a layered head covering – a red cloak overlaid by a grayish-white fabric. The piece drew me in and so I lingered in front of it for a long while. The look on the man’s face was a mix of resignation and weariness; it was sorrow and calm. Who was this man? What was this look upon his face – how is it I can feel weariness, calm, and grief?

I looked at the title card and saw that the painting was a piece from 1860 by artist William Dyce and the title of the painting was: Eliezer of Damascus. Hhhhhmm…I thought…sounds biblical. I went to the gift shop on my way out of the museum and purchased a postcard of the painting so that I could take the image home with me for further pondering. And as I did a bit of further research after getting home from the museum (I didn’t have a handy-dandy smart phone at that point in my life to get instant info access!)…I found out I was right – Eliezer of Damascus is a Biblical figure – named only once in the Hebrew scriptures – although differing traditions would point to several stories that are about him without explicitly using his name.

The one time it is mentioned is in the book of Genesis – chapter 15 – I will read you verses 1-5 [which also happen to be part of the lectionary selections for today even though we didn’t have them read as part of our scripture reading]:

After these events, the word of God came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great.”  Abram said, “But my Sovereign, My God, what good are these blessings to me, so long as Sarai and I will die in disgrace? My only heir is a foreigner who lives in my household, Eliezer of Damascus. Since you have given me no offspring,” Abram continued, “an attendant in my house will be my heir.” Then the word of God came to Abram and said, “This person will not be your heir. Your heir will be of your own flesh and blood.”  Then God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can! As many as that, you will have for descendants.”

The look of Eliezer’s face became even more meaningful to me as I read it in light of this information. The portrait I was looking at was the face of a man who had been a good and faithful servant to Abram for years and years. A man who was in line to inherit the wealth and power of the head of the household and had no reason to expect that inheritance to be taken from him. Abram and Sarai were old, much past their child rearing years, and yet the work of God is not limited by human boundaries or expectations. Heirs were to be had and not just one heir – although one would have been enough to spoil Eliezer’s inheritance, no, Abram’s descendants would outnumber the stars. This is the face of a man experiencing the disappointment and grief of his own loss of wealth and power; while also bearing witness to the wonders of God’s unbridled movement in the world.

I imagine it is a look similar to the one on the face of Jesus as he ponders the reception he knows he will receive in Jerusalem. As told to us in the passage from Luke 13:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your children     together as a mother bird collects her babies under her wings—yet you refuse me! 

I have jumped ahead a bit – in order for us to really get at what Jesus is lamenting here we need to go back a few verses and consider the passage as a whole. And where we are at the start of this passage is in the heart of a travelog – this is part of Luke’s Journey Narrative which follows Jesus and the disciples as they travel from Galilee to Jerusalem; performing miracles, healings, and offering much preaching and teaching along the way.

Their destination is set: Jerusalem. A holy place. An historic seat of power and because of that a place not often welcoming to prophets who bring messages that challenge the status quo.

It is here on the road to Jerusalem – not even yet to its door – that some Pharisees come and warn Jesus:

“You need to get out of town, and fast. Herod is trying to kill you.”

Becky and I were out and about exploring the other day and we came across a construction warning sign that said: Be Prepared to Stop. I couldn’t help but think of this moment in the text – the Pharisees finding Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and saying – you have to stop – Jerusalem isn’t safe for you; Herod is threatening your life.

The warning is clear: Herod is threatening Jesus. The question without clear answers is: why? Why is Herod threatening Jesus? Perhaps Herod thinks Jesus is a successor – or even the return of John the Baptist – a man he has already put to death once. It is a nebulous threat. As with most threats it is most likely that the threat is rooted in fear of the unknown. Which is to say that Herod threatens Jesus because Herod is somehow threatened by the very thought of Jesus.

We are no strangers to this kind of threat – this kind of twisted manipulation of power. We see it alive and well on the world wide stage of politics. We see it alive and well in the structures of racism and capitalism woven into the fabric of this country, too easily perpetuated at a personal level until we stop, pay attention, and make changes. We see it at work building literal walls on the borders of our country, while seeking to send people who have fled to the US for safety back to spaces of harm. We see it in the lack of accessible healthcare for each person in our country – as the systems and powers that be force people to have to choose between essential – even critical care and financial security – if there is a choice at all. We also see it rumbling around the halls of our denomination, MCUSA, as we approach the upcoming special delegate session in May where our church will make decisions around our historic and future approaches to welcome and inclusion for all of God’s beloveds.

And Jesus names it what it is his response to the Pharisees – and I admit I’m paraphrasing some here – Jesus says:

Go tell that fox [in this case the fox is Herod…but you could insert any of the specific topics I just mentioned] I have no intention of stopping. I will continue the work of truth-telling, healing, justice, and freedom. And though that may threaten you and therefore cause harm to me, I will keep on because what or whom shall I fear when God is my strength and salvation, in this liminal space, I am full to the brim of good courage.

Jesus had no intention of stopping his journey towards Jerusalem. He knew full well the costs that so many prophets had paid before him. The same cost that many people working for healing, justice, and freedom in the world have paid since him. I thank God that others have found the words to say what I am getting at better than me – or at least before me, and so I share with you some words from the Reverend Dr Wil Gafney who puts it this way:

“Jesus spoke of the death of prophets like himself. Women and men who stood up to power. Jesus wasn’t willing to die because he was the son of God. He was willing to die because he was the kind of man who stood with the poor and oppressed peoples of earth against the demonic corrupting power of empire. Jesus preached in the lineage of prophets like Amos and Micah who stood with the poor and Noadiah who stood against Nehemiah who aligned himself with the Persian Empire. They didn’t stand up because they were immortal. They stood up because they were moral.”[1]

If Jesus’ ministry shows off anything it is that acts of healing, justice, and freedom are the inbreaking of God into the world.

This is a fearful thing to those who profit from the suffering and bondage of others. Jesus calls Herod a fox. A fox is a creature full of power. A fox in a hen house – is an invitation to disaster…yet in the case of God’s presence in the world the disaster does not belong to the hens. It is a wake up call to those who seek to preserve their own power instead of being about the work of healing, freedom, and transformation. A reminder that the kingdom of God will not be bound by the structures we humans create and desperately seek to perfect and preserve.

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem – is a lament over those who lean into the fear of the unknown and who seek to preserve the structures we think serve the world instead of waiting on God – waiting as in being of service to and making space for the unexpected, structure busting, inbreaking of God in the world.

Our invitation, as followers of the way that Jesus courageously displayed, is to continue the work of healing, justice, and freedom that make space for God’s transforming love in the world as we navigate the human structures we live in day to day. This means liminal living which invites displays of strength and vulnerability. Sometimes we will be able to be or offer shelter to others and in other moments we, ourselves, will be in need of shelter. We are not called to perfection, or preservation, in spaces of fear and vulnerability, no matter the differences that seek to divide, we are called to courageous love.

Hear these words, also from Reverend Dr Gafney:

“[The Genesis text] reminds us that Abraham is the father of many peoples, many different peoples. We don’t all have the same stories, memories or traditions. We don’t even share the same prayers or scriptures. But we do share the same God. The one God who is known by many names. We don’t all believe the same things about that God, not even in the Church. God is big enough to weather our disagreements. God is who God is whether we understand or accept someone else’s understanding of God. God doesn’t need us to argue or fight or prove who God is or isn’t. Our job is to bear witness, by loving as God loves – which though impossible for us is still a worthy goal.”[2]

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is a reminder that the God who can transform all things beyond our understanding and even beyond our imaginations desires for us to take shelter in that love – to be full to the brim with that love so that through us it can overflow in acts of healing, justice, and freedom as we go forth in the name of love. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God…who through making space for healing, justice, and freedom opens a path for the inbreaking of God transforming love in all things. Be strong, be vulnerable, live liminally, and let your heart take courage!