In hindsight, I can see that Brandon was only a few inches taller than me,
but at the time he seemed to be twice as big as me,
and I think he was particularly stout and strong for a 5th grader.
Like me, he rode bus 218 and lived in Summerfield.
We had never really had beef with each other before,
but he was a bully, and one afternoon on the school bus,
somehow his attention landed on me,
and I found myself in his crosshairs.
I don’t remember if it was an argument we had or he just started picking on me,
but I can recall the feeling of my body’s fight or flight response going into overdrive,
and being scared for life and limb,
as he taunted me and got up in my face.
I also remember being hot with shame
that everyone’s eyes were on me and
felt like it was all playing in front of the whole world.
But as scared as I was
I also felt fairly confident that Brandon wouldn’t beat me up me on the bus,
For fear of the intervention of our bus driver, Ms. Athey, who was a tough lady.
And I was right.
Instead of beating me up right there on the bus,
He challenged me to a fight
and told me he would come to my house that day after school.
And I remember so clearly
that I felt smarter than him when I told him
“Oh no, I can’t fight today I have a basketball a game”
… and he bought it.
“Tomorrow then!” He shot back.
Oh yeah, well, no, I can’t tomorrow, I told him,
I have a doctor’s appointment.
And then I just kept making up excuses
until it was his turn to get off the bus
and miraculously I escaped Brandon’s wrath
and nothing ever came of it.
Traveling through Galilee on his way to Jerusalem,
Jesus was taunted by the Pharisees,
who seem to be getting up in his face and trying to bully him into leaving town.
They try to intimidate him with the threat
that King Herod is after him and wants a pound of flesh
But Jesus is not afraid to stare down Herod and the Pharisees.
He is not intimidated,
And he doesn’t make excuses,
or pretend that he has another engagement.
He says, “if you or Herod want to find me,
I tell you where I’ll be today, tomorrow, and the next day.
Come on and find me.”
“I will be here doing what I have been doing,
not turning tail and running,
but sending demons running and sickness scrambling for cover.”
And so we see that only Jesus decides when and where he goes and what he does.
But while Jesus won’t be run off,
he also knows that his real fight is not with Herod and not with the Pharisees,
But is much grander.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and to the cross.
And so he looks ahead to the horizon,
and his vision rests on Jerusalem, Jerusalem, The city of God
With its stone walls rising high
and its cool, dark streets winding and
circling the Temple pulsing from it’s core, this is God’s city.
For centuries Jerusalem had been the heart and center
Of God’s interactions with his chosen people.
If any city should welcome him, Jesus knows, God’s city should!
This is the city which God has provided to a people who almost weren’t.
From Sarah’s barren womb, to slavery in Egypt, to exile in foreign lands,
This city only exists and this people only exist
because God has rescued God’s people from certain
Destruction again and again.
And Jesus looks and laments,
Because he knows that this city has rejected the prophets of God again and again
The leaders and the people have spurned
The God who can offer them protection and safety,
And have not reciprocated his deep and abiding love for them.
Jesus looks and cries out in frustration and disappointment and heartbreak,
Because he knows this city is precisely the place
where he will be spit upon, made fun of, beaten, and killed,
even as he will try again in vain to bring healing, protection, and love
to the very ones who reject him.
God wants desperately to gather us together;
for us to find ourselves in his love,
for us to receive balm and salve for our wounds;
to taste the joy he has prepared for us through all that human life offers,
And so God gathers a people,
But so often we are not willing.
From our first parents, to the crowds crying “crucify!” in Jerusalem,
to the church throughout the generations, to our own divided hearts
So often we find ourselves attending to our own desires and perceived needs.
So often we make even faith about our own journey,
About our individual relationship with God,
So that even in a congregation, we can feel lonely or
Or find ourselves on parallel tracks without much overlap with fellow travelers.
And, of course, a pandemic makes that even more of a reality.
But Jesus is intent upon gathering a people.
As we come, later this week,
to the two-year anniversary of our long sojourn through the wilderness
of facemasks, quarantines, and social upheaval
because of the Coronavirus pandemic,
I have been reflecting again on how central being gathered is
to the life of Christian discipleship.
Jesus doesn’t look at Jerusalem and say:
How I have longed to teach you correct theological doctrine.
How I have longed to give you moral excellence that’s better than other peoples.’
How I have longed to inspire you to make a difference in the world.
How I have longed to gather you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.
To simply have you, my beloved ones, in my care.
Pandemics aside, there are lots of reasons not to be gathered.
We have to be vulnerable to really be gathered with others –
that is we have to share your weaknesses, struggles, and heartaches
and make time and space to hear the true life situation of another.
We have to take risks to be gathered with others.
And it is a risk to open yourself up and let someone know who you really are.
We have to do the very difficult work of relinquishing
some of our desires for control
to be really gathered with others.
In other words, I may not always get my way.
But we find these things hard to do
And I find these things hard to do.
But thanks and praise to God, Jesus has done all that is needed to gather us.
He has been vulnerable on the cross,
he has risked his own life and given it freely,
he has agreed not to get his own way, praying in the garden,
“Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”
In the cross, like a hen with outstretched arms,
Jesus has reached out to shelter you and me and the whole world
Under God’s merciful care.
In the cross, Jesus looked the power of dread and death in the eye
for all those who have been bullied at school or online,
for those who have been abused for the color of their skin or because they are different;
for all nations and people who have been attacked and oppressed…
…and for all who have perpetrated these acts;
and Jesus laid down his own life to rob death of its power
and to bring God’s peace to our conflict.
And Jesus gathers a people who live and love like him.
That is to say, our gathering looks different than a sports team,
different than the crowds gathered at the symphony,
different than the masses gathered to shop in Short Pumps teeming stores.
In our life together,
In the church, the Body of Christ,
God is at work
in this city and in our neighborhoods and in our various social groups and gatherings
to bring others under the shelter of the cross of life.
I see in this congregation many ministries
that extend God’s care and shelter to those in need –
a community garden and feeding ministries
that bring Christ’s provision to those who are hungry,
Stephen ministry to those in grief
and support as well to those with dementia,
a vibrant quilting ministry,
partnerships with Hanover Adult Center and those who are definitely-abled,
ministry with our partners: the Red Cross, Fox Elementary, Safe Harbor, and more.
Here, in the sacrament of shared communal life,
Gathered around the body and blood of our crucified and living Lord,
Christ meets us with a promise and with provision and with his power.
We can trust that he will be with us when we follow him
Carrying our cross of love for our neighbor,
walking into the places we would rather run from but where he leads–
to have the conversation with a friend who has become estranged,
to bring up the abuse of power at work,
to have the hard conversation in our marriage rather than sweeping it under the rug,
to abide with people who think differently about masks or politics,
trusting that Christ is with us to gather us
as a mother hen to shelter her vulnerable ones.
The ministry of the church and the work of being gathered
more than a simple inconvenience
Is more than hard work,
It is a cross.
It is a reorganization of our entire world in the illumination of Jesus Christ.
In the light of our God of resurrection,
Our God of new hope;
We go with God who has already taken the first step,
Who creates wonderful and surprising and life-giving possibilities out of nothing.
In our God, unexpected mercies that seem impossible, come to be.
33 years ago
The iron curtain of the Berlin Wall
With its barbed wire and concrete bulwark
Came down, unexpectedly
Because of a gathering of God’s people.
From 1980 on, nine years before the wall crumbled
at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig
The pastor called his congregation
in the face of the oppression of communism,
in the shadow of the fear of nuclear powers at a standstill,
To gather on Monday nights to pray.
Often in the first years there were less than a dozen people.
But the gathering grew steadily
and after 7 years there were 8,000 people gathered in the church.
And this gathering of God’s people continued to grow until
outside in the streets there were as many as 70,000 people
gathered in prayer and carrying candles.
It was the largest impromptu demonstration ever seen in East Germany since WW2.
With so many people gathered
the government began to prepare their military and tanks
And there were many doctors present expecting a bloodbath any moment.
Eventually there were 300,000 people gathered
And under that pressure the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
It’s difficult to believe, even in retrospect, that peace prevailed.
And one communist official from Leipzig registered his shock,
commenting to a journalist who asked how this all came to be:
“We were prepared for every eventuality.
But not for candles and not for prayers.”
It is a gift to be gathered by God’s love in Jesus Christ.
Let us be faithful to the gift of being gathered…
In spirit and flesh, body and mind and heart,
Under the care of God’s holy wings,
And in the strong compassion of God’s mighty arm,
Until all the world lifts her heads and joins us to sing in praise,
“Blessed in the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Thanks be to God.