Fr. Bill Carroll – Second Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2022

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my disciple be.

Take up your cross, with willing heart, and humbly follow after me.

These words come from a beloved hymn.  Today, we are singing it together. The hymn goes on to sum up the Good News of Jesus Christ in the following, powerful way:

Take up your cross, then, in his strength, and calmly every danger brave.

It guides you to abundant life, and leads to victory o’er the grave.

These words speak to the times we live in.   They echo the message of the twenty-seventh Psalm.  And they are especially appropriate for Lent.  This holy season is all about taking up our cross to follow Jesus.  It is about leaving our comfort behind–to face the Tempter in the desert.  Lent teaches us to rely more fully on God–until (by his grace) we come to the Empty Tomb, and we see Jesus, alive.

Karl Barth was a Reformed pastor who became one of the greatest Christian theologians of the twentieth century.   Although he was Swiss, much of his life and work took place in Germany.  And, during the Second World War, he became a leading voice against the Nazi regime. 

Barth once said that we should preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  And so today, I’d like to start by quoting a March 4 article from the New York Times.

Russian officials (the article says) claim that journalists writing critically about the war — or calling it a “war” or an “invasion” — are undermining the national interest, even referring to them as traitors.  

The lower house of Parliament, the State Duma, passed a law criminalizing “false information” about the armed forces on Friday by a unanimous vote, and Mr. Putin signed it later in the day. [The Speaker of the Duma] said that under the new law, “those who lied and made declarations discrediting our armed forces will be forced to suffer very harsh punishment.”

The text of the new law offered few details about what constituted an offense, but Russian journalists and Kremlin opponents take it to mean that any contradiction of the government’s statements on the invasion could be treated as a crime. Besides criminalizing the sharing of “false information,” it makes “discrediting” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calling on other countries to impose sanctions on Russia or protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine punishable by fines and years of imprisonment.

Now, this is clearly an assault on the freedom of the press, but Russia is also curtailing the freedom of religion.  Just this week, a Russian Orthodox priest was fined 35,000 rubles for preaching against the war in Ukraine.  And I thank God for the witness of this priest.   But he is only a country priest from a small town.  The leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church have so far kept silent.   

In our lesson from the Gospel this morning, we see Pharisees warning Jesus that King Herod is trying to kill him.   We might ask ourselves whether they are sincere.  Are they, in fact, speaking with any real concern for Jesus?  But still (regardless of their sincerity or the lack of it), the threat to his life is real.   And Jesus responds courageously in the power of the Holy Spirit:

Go and tell that fox (he says, referring to Herod).  Go and tell that fox, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.”

And then Jesus offers the following lament for the Holy City:  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

At our Bible study this week, John Michaels said that, in this passage, we have both the fox and the henhouse.   Herod (and many like him since) are the foxes of this world.  They are predators who prey on vulnerable people.   But Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, who protects her children under her wings.  Jesus (the world’s true King) is committed to a different kind of power.  Indeed, the power he wields is like a mother’s strong love for her children.   

It reminds me of a YouTube video that’s been making the rounds.   In it, an unarmed Ukrainian grandmother confronts an armed Russian soldier.  She hands the young man a pack of sunflower seeds.  (Maybe you’ve seen it.)  She tells him to leave her country.  Then, she adds that he should keep those seeds in his pocket, because she wants some flowers to grow on his grave.  

In the Gospel, Jesus faces Herod in the same spirit of defiant love.  Without a weapon in his hand or an army at his back, Jesus is willing to place his body between the little ones and danger.  Elsewhere in Scripture, God is compared to a fierce, mother bear, who will fight to the death for her cubs.  The mother hen, the mother bear, and the Good Shepherd–they are all one and the same.

God calls us to stand up to the foxes of this world.   He calls us to spread our wings and protect his vulnerable children.  This lies at the heart of our Baptismal promise to “strive for justice and peace among ALL people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”   If we follow Jesus, we must love these little ones with the same, fierce love.   And so, we stand with the more than 2.5 million refugees from Ukraine.  We stand with all those who have lost their homes–and lost their lives.  We stand up for the freedom of the press (and of the Church) wherever they are persecuted.  Against the rising tide of authoritarianism and aggression, we stand up for democracy and the right to freely elect our governments.  We stand with all those who are harmed and oppressed by human violence and greed.

But we don’t just do it halfway around the world.   God calls us to do it right here at home.   For the foxes are everywhere.  And so, we stand with the people of Ukraine.  But we also stand with the most vulnerable in our own society.  We stand with refugees and prisoners–wherever they are–of every race and family and nation. As followers of Jesus, we stand up for those who are excluded or denied their voice.  We stand with anyone (good or bad, right or wrong), who might be harmed in our name.  That’s because we take our stand with Jesus crucified, who gathers us all beneath his wings.

Take up your cross, and follow Christ, nor think till death to lay it down.

For only those who bear the cross, may hope to wear the glorious crown.