Courageous Compassion

"Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you,” they warned him. It was Herod Jr. they were talking about.

Herod Sr.’s claim to Biblical fame was the massacre in and around Bethlehem, when at the time of Jesus’ birth he had all children under the age of two killed (Mt 2:16-18) just to make sure he got rid of a potential contender for his throne, he thought.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Herod Jr. was nervous because of reports that people were flocking to this rabbi from Nazareth. He was nervous because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Herod read the briefs by his intelligence people, and all he could say was, “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Lk 9:7-9)

People knew that Herod wanted to see Jesus, but they also knew that his curiosity was dangerous, and some of the Pharisees warned Jesus to get out of Galilee.

There was something about Jesus that attracted the attention of men in power, although there is no sign of Jesus ever having made any overt political threat to the ruling authorities. He had no interest in Herod’s throne or Pilate’s, he didn’t play by the rules of their game, and that may have been what made him such a threat.

He was fearless, and a man who knows no fear cannot be manipulated.

I imagine Jesus laughing dismissively when he replied to their warning, “Go and tell that fox for me, listen, I do what I do, and I finish my work. I must be on my way.”

He called Herod a fox, a metaphor that paints the ruler as sly and cunning, but also several sizes smaller than a lion or a wolf. Only Jesus didn’t portray himself as a lion or a wolf either, nor as an eagle or a hawk. Instead he spoke of a hen gathering her brood under her wings – and fox and hen make an interesting pair.

I find it curious how we identify human traits and intentions with certain animals, and I wonder what fables and stories animals would tell about us if they could – but that’ll have to wait.

Jesus called Herod a fox and compared his own work to a mother hen’s desire to protect her chicks. Don’t call him a chicken, though, unless you know how far a hen is willing to go in order to protect her young from danger. If you haven’t seen The Natural History of the Chicken on PBS yet, I recommend that you do.  After you’ve watched the last ten minutes of that delightful video essay, you’ll never look at chickens the same way again.  In those ten minutes you meet Eliza, a fluffy Silkie Bantam hen, who literally throws herself between a handful of chicks and a hawk, protecting them with her own body.

Like I said, don’t call Jesus a chicken, unless you know how far a hen is willing to go to protect her young from the hawk or the fox.

Jesus did leave Galilee, but he didn’t leave to escape death. He didn’t turn west and spend a couple of weeks on the beach to give Herod a chance to relax or to allow tensions to cool. He was already on the way to Jerusalem where political and religious power resided, and where he knew he would die.

Jesus didn’t choose death, though. He chose to live the life he was given, and that makes a world of difference. He chose to live in God’s reign, he chose to live a life of compassion and truth, he chose to share his life with all, and he refused to trade it in for mere survival in Herod’s little world, or Pilate’s, or Caesar’s, or whatever their names may be who sit on their thrones, afraid to lose their power, afraid to lose control over their little kingdoms.

Jesus was fearless because he knew who he was; he knew in his bones that he was God’s beloved; and he knew that nothing in the universe is more real than the love of God for God’s creation.
When he had the friendly Pharisees tell Herod, “I must be on my way,” it wasn’t geography he was talking about or the pressures of a crowded schedule. He was talking about his faithfulness to God’s way with God’s people, he was talking about fierce, courageous love.

One moment Jesus was laughing at Herod, and then his voice changed from easy defiance to anguished, divine lament.

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!

Jesus gave voice to God’s desire, and more than voice. He embodied God’s desire to gather us closer in God’s embrace, and he bore in his body the wounds of our unwillingness, the wounds of our desire to be human without God.

Week of Compassion has been on our minds quite often recently, particularly in the context of our response to the devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti. Just yesterday, barely more than 24 hours ago, there was news about another earthquake, this one in Chile, causing death and destruction, and terror as far away as Asia. We may not yet know the full scale of devastation, but we do know that our partners have been at work on the ground literally within minutes.

We call it Week of Compassion because this ministry began with a week-long special offering after W.W. II; it was a gesture of courage as well as compassion to reach out to former enemies and find reconciliation by building peace together.

We know it’s more than a week of compassion; it’s a way of being in the world. Courageous compassion is Jesus’ way of being in the world. It is what brought him to Jerusalem. Courageous compassion is one of the names we give to God’s desire to be with us and gather us in.

Through Week of Compassion we have the privilege of embodying that desire, that love that holds all things, in places of great suffering, places that many would call God-forsaken. We have the privilege of being present through search and rescue workers, medical professionals, counselors, civil engineers, pastors and teachers and farmers and the many who follow Jesus on the way to the place where life has been shattered and hope is in short supply.

Jesus lived fearlessly and with extravagant love, and he calls us to follow him, to enter the life of God’s reign. Courageous compassion is not foolishness in the face of danger, but the courage to trust, more than anything else, the love that raised Jesus from the dead.

The psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 27, and a few verses are printed in today’s bulletin.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army should encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war should rise up against me,
yet I will trust in the Lord.
One thing I have asked of the Lord, one thing I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, to seek God in the temple.

I cannot say these words without hesitating; they haven’t yet become fully my own. The only way I can say them without feeling like I’m reading somebody else’s prayer journal, is by saying them with Jesus, by listening to him saying them, and repeating after him.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?

Those words are his, and I follow him.

The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?

Those words are his, and I follow him.

Though an army should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.

Those words are his, and my voice trembles.

Though war should rise up against me, yet I will trust in the Lord.

Those words are his, and I seek shelter in his faith like a chick under the wings of a mother hen.

One thing I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

Those words are his, and I follow him to dwell where he dwells.

Jesus is the fearless one who laughs at Herod. Jesus is the compassionate one who cries in anguish over Jerusalem. We are the ones whose desire is to follow him, to serve him and work with him, to pray with him, to rest and be at home with him. And so we repeat and rehearse the lines and the steps, again and again, repeat and rehearse compassionate presence and attentiveness, repeat and rehearse, repeat and rehearse until God’s extravagant love has driven out all fear.

Every day and everywhere, the gift of life is in question in some way.

Every day and everywhere, there is a need for witnesses who will follow Jesus in the struggle against all that threatens, weakens, and corrupts life.

Every day and everywhere, there is a need for courageous compassion in the face of tragedy or injustice.

Every day and everywhere, there is a need for some who practice with Jesus how to laugh at Herod, how to laugh at fear, and how to hold on to a vision of the city that truly is the city of God.