I drove around this week delivering Lenten bags to our families with young kids. The bags included simple, kid-friendly paraphrases of each of our Lenten Psalms and supplies to help families learn these verses. The main project is a fleece blanket, because, as their version of Psalm 91 says, “When I trust in God, it’s like being wrapped in a warm blanket.” Each week, the kids are tying ribbons into the corners of the blanket with the psalm verses printed on them. I love these blankets because they really communicate what the Psalms are for.
The psalms are not meant to be kept at a critical distance. They are not supposed to be left on the dry, dusty pages of history. The psalms are to be learned by heart, to be carried with us as we step out into this turbulent world. The Psalms should give us strength and sustenance. We can wrap these melodious poems around us, like a warm blanket. They remind us we are not alone. Whatever pain or joy, anger, comfort or doubt we have experienced, our ancestors in faith have been there. Through it all, they have cried to God, argued with God, pleaded with, praised and cursed God. The Jewish scholar, Benjamin Segal defines the psalms as “spiritual expressions of human beings encountering the world.” (from the introduction of “A New Psalm”) A psalm is always assigned for Sunday worship by the common lectionary. And St. Benedict, in his “rule” that provided guidance for his community, prescribed that monks should pray through the entire psalter each week and they should aim to memorize all 150 psalms. My understanding is that these days many Benedictine communities have relaxed a bit. Now they move through all the psalms in a matter of several weeks. The point is: in the eyes of the church, this is scripture that is utterly central to a life of faith and to the creation of Christian community.
Here’s the kid-friendly version of Psalm 27—simple and elegant:
God, you protect me. You are like a shining light in the darkness. With you, I am not scared. I want to live in your house, God. I want you to teach me the right way to live.
This coming week, the kids are making paper bag lanterns. They are going to draw and cut and make the bag look like their own homes. Then they will turn on the candle and place it inside the house. The notion of God’s house, in this psalm, is expansive and multi-layered. God’s house is within us. God’s house is the place of worship. And God’s house is the home of all of creation. We live with God wherever we are. The language the NRSV uses in Verse 5 suggests that the home God offers, though a protective and comforting refuge, is not an impenetrable fortress: “For God will hide me in God’s shelter in the day of trouble; God will conceal me under the cover of God’ tent. God will set me high on rock.”
Professor Segal’s commentary points out that Psalm 27 has two contradictory moods. The psalmist begins with rock-solid confidence. An enemy approaches, methodically escalating their attack. They ride, they besiege, and then “all hell breaks loose.” Meanwhile, the poet remains fearless—calm, collected, and cool. In the second part of the psalm, however, the poet begins to plead with God, growing more and more desperate. Listen, God! Be good to me. Answer me! Don’t hide from me. Don’t turn your back on me. Don’t throw me out. Don’t abandon me. Having gone through the experience of being rejected by their own parents, the psalmist feels they have no home, no refuge, except God. And they are wondering if even God is going to desert them. Verse 13, in Hebrew, is an incomplete sentence, so the way it is usually translated is misleading. Segal renders it this way: “Were I not to believe that I would see God’s goodness in the land of the living.” For the psalmist, everything depends on God’s support. And yet, is the divine presence to be trusted? Or is God absent and silent? Is God uncaring, or simply powerless?
Reading Psalm 27 this way, it truly could have been written today . . . in response to newborn babies, pregnant people, and fleeing families being bombed; as we sit on the precipice of nuclear catastrophe; amid an unfolding climate disaster; while our educators protest all the ways our society is failing to value and support children, and those who nurture them. Though the world is beautiful, it is also full of suffering that is profoundly unfair. Not all who pray for healing get healed. Not all seek refuge find it. In such a world, what does it mean to trust in God? What good does our trust do?
Our Gospel text, too, names this push and pull of our human trust in God and God’s ways. The text begins Pharisees, warning Jesus that Herod, the Roman governor, is out to get him. Jesus refuses to be bullied. He has work to do, work of the most important kind, and he will not stop—the work of healing; the work of liberation; the work of truth-telling and radical transformation. And, this work involves casting out demons. Remember the story of the man with possessed by demons who told Jesus his name was “legion”? It’s probably not a coincidence that “legion” was also the name for the largest unit of the Roman army.
In her recent blog post, church historian Diana Butler Bass asks a profound question: “War is evil. Why does religion inspire it?” She writes: “in both Ukraine and Russia, adherents experience Orthodoxy as central to their national and political identities.” And yet, Bass identifies two different forms of Christianity animating the current war. Drawing on the work of theologian Beatrice Bruteau, Bass argues that:
The domination structure focuses on control and submission; the communion structure on liberation and friendship. . . . The communion structure is the one taught and modeled by Jesus; the domination structure . . . was a betrayal of Jesus himself. . . . The struggle between domination and communion isn’t just in Ukraine. And it isn’t exclusively Christian. These skirmishes are taking place in every single major religion (and more than a few minor ones, too) on the planet right now. . . . If Russia is proving anything, it is showing the world that we can ill-afford any kind of religion that seeks domination—and the future of the entire globe depends on deconstructing religious pyramids in favor of setting new tables of faith. Our very existence is at stake.
Even as Jesus insists that he will not be deterred from his work, he also acknowledges that this work not be complete until the forces of violence and oppression have done their worst. He will have to go to Jerusalem, and there he will be killed. “Jerusalem” is not some blanket reference to the Jewish tradition. Jerusalem is anyplace in which the domination structure holds sway. Jerusalem is wherever the authority of any religion colludes with fear, violence, or greed. In such a situation, those with power have a need to eradicate prophets, to silence the truth-tellers who challenge them. Amid this sobering reality, Jesus issues a tender lament over the city in which he will die, seeming to speak in God’s own voice: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Pastor and Blogger Debie Thomas describes the hens she knew growing up. She writes:
As a little girl raised in American suburbia, I found the birds hilarious. After all, they weren’t the most elegant of creatures. They were squat and beady-eyed, nosy and boisterous. They couldn’t fly to save their lives, and they made the funniest noises. They could be fierce when they wanted to be; I learned young to keep my distance from their beaks. But there was something sad about their ferocity, too. Something defenseless. Something vulnerable.
Jesus never promises his children immunity from harm. I mean, let’s face it—if a determined fox wants to kill a brood of downy chicks, he will find a way to do so. What Jesus the mother hen offers is not the absence of danger, but the fullness of his unguarded, open-hearted, wholly vulnerable self in the face of all that threatens and scares us. What he gives is his own body, his own life. Wings spread open, heart exposed, shade and warmth and shelter at the ready. What he promises—at great risk to himself—is the making of his very being into a place of refuge and return for his children. For all of his children—even the ones who want to stone and kill him.[*]
Jerusalem then, also illuminates the contradiction at the heart of humanity, and at the center of our spiritual lives. We are drawn to the ways of domination; we are quick to fear, swift to believe that violence, though regrettable, is the only solution. We are easily manipulated into bargaining away our integrity for what we think is safety. And, at the same time, we are capable of something different. We are made for fearlessness vulnerability in the face of danger, created to live in peace and beauty, called to imagine and bring forth a world of abundance and joy. It all depends on our willingness to trust—to trust that this earth is God’s house and that God lives with us here. The mother hen God Jesus embodies is like the divine tent God of Psalm 27, strong yet vulnerable, beckoning us all to gather in the shelter of her wing. Let us receive the gift she bestows upon humankind: the gift of communion. Let us pray with the Psalmist: “I’m asking God for one thing, only one thing: To live with God in God’s house my whole life long.” Amen.