I am honored to preach on occasion at various churches in the Nashville area. I delivered this sermon at Brookmeade Congregational Church on March 17, 2019. My texts were Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 and Luke 13:31-35.
I want to tell you about my good friend Josh. Josh was living a successful life with his wife and two beautiful children in Los Angeles. He was on the brink of a big breakthrough in his work as a Gospel music composer—he was close to releasing an album. And then he heard God call him to move, of all places, to Nashville, to launch a church that would bring together people of difference races to worship God. He’d gotten this idea from Jesus’ prayer right before his death in the Gospel of John—Jesus prays that his disciples may be as one as he and the Father are one…and so Josh imagined planting a church in Nashville where people of all races would become one body in ministry. It was a beautiful vision.
Well, Josh acted on faith and moved his whole family to Nashville. Unfortunately, that’s when things started to go awry. His wife just didn’t like Nashville as much as California. His kids were teased in their new school. And to make things even worse, well, his church launch didn’t go exactly the way he planned for it to go. He just couldn’t find enough people to keep the church going. Less that two years after Josh planted the church, it shut its doors for the last time.
“What in the world, God?” Josh wondered. “Why did I have to move all the way out here from California, to a city my family doesn’t even like that much, away from the place that I loved and where I was successful, to plant a church that ultimately turned out to be kind of an embarrassing flop? Why was I faithful to the word I heard you say to me when you weren’t faithful to me in return?”
Josh’s story reminds of Abram’s. Abram has already acted on faith to leave his home and go to a land that God has promised him. What’s more, God has promised Abram to fill this land with Abram’s own descendants. In Genesis 13, God promised Abram, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring can also be counted.” In other words, Abram’s descendants will be plentiful enough to fill the entire land of Canaan; they’ll be innumerable. I can’t even count all the specks of dust on top of my ceiling fan…forget the dust of the earth! Abram has taken God’s promise seriously and has set out. He faithfully builds an altar and worships God, trusting that God’s promises will come true.
But there’s just one problem: Abram remains childless. Like he says in 15:2, if things don’t change, a slave in his house, who isn’t even related to him, will end up inheriting Abram’s land and everything else that belongs to him.
We know from later in the narrative that Abram will have to be reminded of God’s reliability. Abram will end up impregnating his wife’s slave, Hagar, and Hagar will bear a son, Ishmael, so Abram has a backup plan in case God doesn’t follow through. As a side note, I believe that it’s irresponsible to read these texts without a critical eye to the history of race relations in our country, from the Transatlantic slave trade until today. We have to be cognizant both of how slavery was part of the ideology of biblical writers and how more recent interpreters have shaped our own prejudices using biblical texts.
But for today, my point is that even after receiving God’s promise to him, Abram doubts. He tries to wrest control of his future from God. Honestly, I don’t blame him for doubting. Abram had to wait a long time for God’s promise that he would become a father by Sarah to be fulfilled—25 long years, in fact. I have trouble waiting at the DMV for 25 minutes…I can’t imagine having the patience to wait 25 years for God to fulfill a promise.
And I can empathize with the pain Abram must have experienced while he was waiting. I imagine he asked, much like my friend Josh, “Why God? Why did you bring me here to this strange land and tell me that I’d fill it with children, only to still be childless all these years later? Are you really a God who keeps promises? If you weren’t going to follow through, why did you get my hopes up in the first place? Do you care about me at all?”
Have you ever walked through a season like that, when you acted in faith in response to God’s promises, but God’s faithfulness didn’t seem to live up to your expectations? I know I have, and it’s one of the worst feelings in the world. Lost jobs, empty bank accounts, broken relationships, dashed dreams, debilitating illnesses, death too soon—I’m sure that every one of us has stared down at least one of these.
Sometimes I wish that God were like a vending machine. I would insert my prayers in the slot, and out my desires would come, fully formed, like a cold lemonade on a hot summer day. But we know that life often doesn’t go like that. God’s promises take time to unfold and often manifest themselves in ways quite different from what we could have imagined. Instead of dispensing our vending machine order, God gives us something else: God give us the Divine presence in every aspect of our lives. God shows up in ways different than we could possibly have imagined…in ways that we could never have chosen for ourselves.
I think that’s what’s going on in the weird scene that closes our Genesis reading. Now, I’m a recovering vegetarian, and frankly, the imagery of the animals sliced in half disturbs me. However, in ancient Israelite religion, this slicing of the animals came to be synonymous with God’s commitment to fulfill promises to us. In fact, while English Bibles usually say that God “makes” a covenant, a more literal translation of the Hebrew is that God “cuts” a covenant. This is the first instance in the Hebrew Bible where such a cutting of a covenant takes place. God meets Abram in his doubt, in this awkward season between promise and fulfillment. The text says that a “great fear” comes upon Abram. God’s very presence, the theophany, comes in this moment of deepest fear. Fire, synonymous with the spirit of God, rushes down the aisle of sliced animals to confirm for Abram that God will do as he has promised.
The awkward, uncomfortable place between promise and fulfillment might be where we bloom this Lent season. When I was a small child, riding my tricycle up and down the driveway of our house, I used to stop and stare at the dandelions growing in the cracks of the cement. While everything else around it was hard and stagnant, somehow a little seed had the audacity to grow and bloom into a flower, and even make the cracks in the driveway even bigger by pressing out with its roots. Those dandelions used to drive my dad crazy. He’d recruit my three siblings and me to come to the driveway with him to pull up the weeds from the cracks. Frankly, I thought then and I still think today that he was fighting a losing battle. Because dandelions don’t give up easily. They find ways to thrive. They array themselves with such a majestic white puff for their seeds, that children can’t resist blowing them on the wind. “DON’T BLOW THE DANDELION SEEDS!” my dad would tell us every spring. “Then we’ll have dandelions all over our driveway again!” But, as children do, we didn’t listen to him.
We’re in the second Sunday of Lent, which also coincides this year with the transition from winter to spring. Flowers are just starting to embolden themselves enough to bloom, even while we’re still having some chilly days. This season of Lent, this time of self-searching, feels a lot to me like my parents’ old, cracked driveway. It’s a spiritual wilderness. It’s a time when we’re not yet sure if God’s promises to us are going to come true, in spite of how we feel we’ve planted all our faith in God’s mercies. I want to be like the dandelions that bloom in the driveway, but I don’t always know how. How do we bloom in this awkward desert season?
Abram bloomed because he encountered God in a way he wasn’t expecting. Maybe the same can be true of us too. Maybe we can encounter God in ways we’re not used to or we hadn’t imagined. One of the many things I love about the Bible is the wide range of names and titles and images it gives us for God… Alpha and Omega, Creator, Healer, Potter, Lover, King, Shepherd, Father…just to name a few. We probably gravitate to a few images of God that make us feel safe and loved, metaphors that mend us in the places that we’re broken. Those metaphors are good and worthy and right…and yet they don’t sum up God all the way. As 1 Corinthians 13 says, “We know only in part.” Genesis tells us that we are all made “in the image of God”…but just as God created us, we create our own images of God as well. In those desert seasons when we’re struggling to bloom, we often bump against the edges, the limits of our metaphors. It may turn out that the concrete that’s limiting our growth is actually an image of God that we’ve allowed to turn into stone.
Sometimes, when we’re stuck in a spiritual slab of concrete, it might take some re-working of our images of God to start blooming again. We need something to help us broaden the crack in the concrete, so there’s space for us to stretch our roots and come to terms with a God who transcends all limits. It’s just such an image that Jesus offers in Luke 13. This passage is often called “Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem,” because in it, he’s looking at a city he loves so deeply but that is experiencing so much brokenness. Many scholars think that at the time of Luke’s writing, the Jerusalem temple, the epicenter of Jewish practice, had only recently been destroyed by the Romans. So the words of Jesus’ lament would have resonated deeply with his contemporary audience.
Jesus picks a strange self-characterization in the passage. Let’s listen to what he says one more time: “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.”
Excuse me, what did you say? Jesus is comparing himself to a CHICKEN? Like a Chick-Fil-A, “eat more chicken” chicken? A mother hen, who pecks and scolds and keeps eggs warm under her posterior?
Yes, he is. A chicken. A mother hen. The Son of God, the light of the world, the Messiah, Immanuel, the Alpha and Omega, is like a mother hen. How’s that for an image to shake up your understanding of the Divine?
This isn’t the first time in the Bible that God is characterized in avian or maternal terms. Consider Genesis 1, right when God is starting to create the world. The story, translated into English, reads that the spirit of God is “hovering” or “brooding” over the waters. The word in Hebrew, merahefet, is the same word that’s used of the activities of mother birds! So from the beginning of the God-story all the way to Jesus’ ministry, we’re invited to think about God, and then God-in Christ, as a mother hen who pecks, scolds, and keeps eggs warm under her posterior.
Now, I’m not a mother hen, but I am a mother. I have two daughters. I was trying so hard to break the preacher stereotype and not talk about them today, but here it’s coming anyway. Two years ago, my older daughter Debbie was born. There I was, holding this helpless little bundle of joy that I had no idea what to do with. I told my husband, “WILL. I THINK WE’VE MADE A MISTAKE. WE’RE NEVER GOING TO MAKE IT.” But make it we have, so far…at least through two years and the addition of another baby. Here’s the crazy thing about motherhood: I will be the first to tell you that I don’t have my life all together and that I am an imperfect mother. Case in point: last Friday, I thought I’d lost my keys for good, until my daughter finally said, “MOMMY. YOUR KEYS ARE STILL IN THE CAR.” But in spite of that, the way I have managed to be reliable for my children frankly amazes me. My toddler has always gotten her dinner, taken her bath, put on PJs, and gone to bed. When I drop her off at preschool, I ask her, “Debbie, when will Mommy come get you?” and she confidently responds, “AFTER NAP!” When she falls down on the playground, loses her stuffed pig, or gets an imaginary boo-boo on her finger, her declaration is always the same, “MOMMY, I NEED TO HOLD YOU!” Somehow, even being the imperfect, scatter-brained, impatient human mother that I am, I have inspired confidence in my daughter that I will take care of her, no matter what. I often think of Matthew 7:11: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” I’m no perfect mother—but if even a mother as flawed as I am can show up for her babies—how much more will God show up for us?
Perhaps today the idea of Jesus as a mother, at least as a parent, is an image that can help us bloom. Like a mother, Jesus weeps over the hurts of those he loves. Like a mother, Jesus gathers us at the table. Like a mother, Jesus breaks his body to give us life. Like a mother, Jesus promises, “I will be with you, come what may.” Like a mother, blood and water flow out of Jesus as a he births us into new life at the cross.
I offer this image of God in Christ today—as a mother who births, sustains, and advocates for her children—in hopes that it may help some of us to bloom in the desert season of Lent. Perhaps for some of us, the image of Christ as a mother can remind of us of God’s great faithfulness to us. Perhaps it can remind of us of God’s gentleness towards us, and thus encourage us to be more gentle towards ourselves. Perhaps it can remind us, that, like a mother, Christ will spare no pain to give us life.
But maybe that image of God is painful or irrelevant for you. If that’s the case, I still invite you to consider the many images of God present in the Bible. If you are in a season of spiritual wilderness, ask God to reveal holy presence to you in new ways. Pray for the eyes to experience God-with-us, as you wait in the awkward season between promise and fulfillment.
Have you ever seen the cross-stitch patterns—or, for any millennials in the room, memes—that say, “Bloom where you’re planted?” It’s a cliché, but jaded millennial though I may be, I’m here today just to say, sometimes clichés have a point. This desert of Lent might be the time when we find out that even before the promise comes true, even before we get that breakthrough, that good news we’ve been waiting for, that relationship that brings us companionship, that scan that the cancer is in remission, we can still bloom. We can bloom because we can experience the presence of God in our lives…in new ways, in unexpected ways, in ways we hadn’t ever thought to ask. We can bloom like Abram, who is still waiting to be a father, but who can stumble along in faith until then. We can bloom in the knowledge that Jesus, that loving mother hen, is gathering us together under the shelter of God’s wings. When we bloom in this season, it’ll feel like we’re dandelions in concrete. We’re sending out roots and pushing against the cold hard walls of concrete instead of the warm, rich embrace of soil, but gosh darn it, we’re going to bloom in this season.