A sermon preached for the Second Sunday in Lent on Luke 13:31-35 on March 17, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
Paula D’Arcy is a Christian author and inspirational speaker. At age twety-seven, she was pregnant with her second daughter when a drunk driver struck and killed her husband and her first daughter who was two years old. She tells the story of being in the hospital 6 months after this terrible tragedy, to give birth, and praying to God to please give her a natural birth, so she could experience life after so much death.
Although she wanted to trust God as the foundation of her life, in that moment, she wanted God to prove himself by granting this one desire. In her grief, she had struggled in her relationship with God and wanted to feel loved and less alone. After several hours of labor, it looked like her desire for a natural birth was not going to happen, and she was minutes from having a C-section. She prayed, “What do you want from me, God? You already have everything-you have my husband, you have my daughter—what more do you want?”
Paula heard in her own heart God’s response. God said to her, I want you to want me more than you want anything else. I want to transform your pain. I want you to give your whole self to me. Paula looked down at her hands and realized that she had been holding on to life as she wanted it, and the grip of her desires had closed her off from God doing what she most needed, which was to transform her pain into new life.
She released her hands and opened her whole self to God; a moment that became a turning point in her spiritual journey. Both the fierce and the tender love of God enveloped all of her—even her angry, bargaining, scorekeeping, fearful, distraught, birth-giving, complex, grieving self. God’s fierce and tender love embraced all of her.
In our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus embody both the fierce and the tender love of God. The pharisees tell him that Herod has threatened his life and Jesus responds with a fierceness that might have sounded as startling to them as it does to us. “you tell that fox, Herod, that I’m going to finish what I came to do—I am healing and casting out demons and no matter who you are, what you say, or what you do, I am going to complete my work. I am going to be on my way, but it’s not because of you or your idle threats, it’s because my purpose will take me to Jerusalem.” Jesus expresses a clarity of purpose and mission, and no obstacle—not even death threats, nor death itself—is going to deter him.
Yet in the next sentence, we hear one of the most tender, loving and maternal passages in all of Scripture, expressing Jesus’s weeping lament of broken-hearted love over those who will not turn toward him in trust to hide and rest under God’s protection and love. Jesus’s love is so tender, so healing, so mothering, and so all-encompassing—an image of gathering and protecting, covering and hovering, calling and making sure no one is missing. It conveys warmth and safety, home and comfort, peace and rest, homecooked food and a warm fire, fluffy blankets and a hug that lasts as long as you hang on. It’s gentle and welcoming and expects nothing except that you show up and snuggle under grace.
Isn’t that why God sent Jesus in the first place—to show us that God’s love for us is both so fierce about defeating evil and in that, asking for our full devotion, and also, so tender in desiring an intimate relationship with us?
Inserted in your bulletin is a copy of the cross I’m wearing today, so you can see it in detail. I received it from a Catholic priest when I was working through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. You can see an image of God, the Creator behind Jesus who is hanging on the cross (it’s an image of God as a man with a beard, but we know that God is not a male; Jesus just gave us in image of God as mother!).
If you look at the arm on the right—you can see that God is holding Jesus’s wrist—as if to hold him there, on the cross. This is the fierce love of God who is helping Jesus complete the work he has begun to defeat the power of death, release the power of violence, and overcome evil with love. God says, “I’m holding you to this, Jesus, you must finish this work, you must stand against evil, you must give all of yourself, I need you to do this, as painful as it is.”
I wonder how have you experienced freedom because the victory was won for you here, as Jesus was held on the cross? When you have experienced the fierce love of God fighting evil and conquering struggles, sin, addiction or loss on your behalf? Or perhaps you too, have experienced the fierce love of God holding you to account, to integrity, to the fulfillment of hard work? That also is a part of following Jesus.
If you look at the arm on the left, you can see that God’s hand is holding Jesus’ hand—holding him in his pain and suffering—being present with him—never leaving him—hiding him under the cover his wings. This is the tender love of God—holding Jesus in love as he suffers and hurts in completing the work he must do, so that he is never alone, abandoned nor betrayed. God says, “we are in this together, and I will never leave you nor forsake you, I am with you, and you are not alone.”
I wonder when have you experienced the tender love of God? The freeing release of forgiveness? Love renewed, relationships healed? A new start offered, a dark night of the soul survived, a trauma endured, an illness abated, a companion in the slow slog of grief? When have you experienced the tender love of God, a chance to snuggle into grace?
Throughout his ministry and on the cross, Jesus shows us a fierce and tender God—a God so fierce, there is no negotiation with Herod, there is no compromise with evil, and even when life is at its most painful, there is no bargaining for half your heart, like in the story of Paula D’Arcy. God is all in with us—in creation, in Christ, in his death and in his resurrection, and God’s fierce and tender love requires that those of us who choose a relationship with this God, must be “all in” as well.
Do you see what fierce and tender love God has for you? God will fight all manner of evil for you, and hold you in all suffering, and in that, God says, “give me your all.” I want you to want me more than you want anything else. I want to transform your pain. I want you to give your whole self to me.
That’s the voice of a fierce and tender God who saves us all through his own self-giving suffering on a cross, and who settles for nothing less than our whole heart.
When like Paula, we can open our hands and let go of the grip of our desires and give our whole selves to God—we can allow God to both hold us in place, where God wants us to serve on one hand, and hold us snuggled into grace and comfort on the other hand.
Joined to Christ through the cross, we are freed—freed to be fully who God calls us to be as God’s precious children. Joined to Christ through the cross, we are freed to participate in God’s fierce and tender work in the world. There is much to be done--both fierce work against evil and tender work with those who are suffering.
As followers of Jesus, God calls us to fight against the evil of this age with the fierce love of God that speaks against the Herods of this world that deal death for the sake of their own power. As a 96% white church, Lutherans must name and stand against the sin and evil of white supremacy and the hatred and murder it engenders, this week, especially against those in Muslim faith. It’s not enough to put a message on the sign outside, but each of us, can build relationships with people of different faiths and cultures in our own neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and if you don’t have that opportunity, then join the Richardson Interfaith Alliance and the many multi-faith events in our area. It is not enough not to come to church or sit in our living room and not hate other people. We trust in a God of relationship who calls us to be in the world building relationships with those of other faiths and cultures, showing up as a different kind of white Christian who fiercely love others.
After the announcement of the United Methodist Church at the beginning of this month, that LGBTQ people are not welcomed into the full life of the church, ordination and marriage, there are so many people who are hurting, feel unsafe, rejected again by church, by God, by Christians. Our LGBTQ sisters and brothers need the tender love of God expressed through Christians and other churches, giving them a chance to snuggle into grace; they need an explicit, public welcome to know if its safe to come to church, and an unequivocal message that they are created and precious children of God in the same way that all of us are, no exceptions. People I know and love are hurting. God wants to say to them, I want you to want me more than you want anything else. I want to transform your pain. I want you to give your whole self to me.
But how are they going to hear that message when they have been rejected over and over and over again, if we don’t tell them? If we don't let them know explicitly and publicly that we are here so they can hear God tell them this?
St. Luke’s, we need the same clarity of mission that Jesus had when he was told Herod was going to kill him; that it doesn’t matter what others do, think or say, we have a mission to do fulfill and we are going to do it no matter what. What difference does it make to Richardson that a Lutheran church is on this corner of Belt Line Road? Our mission is both fierce and tender—it is Law and Gospel—we need a fierce public stand for justice, to confront evil, defend the powerless, welcome the LGBTQ community, and live as an inclusive witness to the kingdom of God. And our mission is also one of tenderness—to hold people in their pain, to offer a place for people to snuggle into the grace of God in a loving community, to pray for others, seek healing, growth and deeper faith together, so that people know that they are not alone.
A fierce and tender ministry of the Gospel is possible when we open our hands and are "all in" with our whole heart—God holds us in this time and place for this fierce ministry and gives us the comfort of his presence and power so we can carry it out with tender love. I’m in—say, “amen” if you are, too.