3.17.19: Luke 13:31-35 AND Psalm 27
We live and work and worship and play in a broken city. An 11 year old and his mother are hospitalized after being shot on the playground this week in Cherry Hill. A man and his daughter implicated pan handlers in the murder of his wife and now he is accused himself. Dilapidated housing stock with roofs open to the elements and windows missing sit right next door to homes where people are trying to live and thrive. People are afraid even to walk to their community meeting after dark. A large university feels the need to employ its own police force in the areas surrounding its property to keep its students, staff and neighbors safe. Brokenness abounds.
But we also live and work and worship and play in a place of hope. All over this city are pockets of positive energy, generosity, stability and cooperative action. On Wednesdays at the bus stop prayers we often get honks of support and affirmation as we stand for peace. Artists have turned an entire row of homes into a positive message with colorful graffiti. The section depicted on your bulletin this morning is a love letter to Baltimore. One artist paints huge black hands formed in the shape of the letters L O V E on multiple walls around the city as reminders. After Mary Jordan’s funeral service, the family gathered at Agape House (note that Agape means unconditional love in Greek), a stable force for hope in the city since the 1980’s, now located just south of North Avenue on Dukeland St. With their social enterprise of catering, they train young people, provide care and support for pregnant women, offer a free community meal each week, run a four-week summer camp for 100 children, and so much more. I was wowed by the volume of ministry they do so quietly and faithfully in our city. But I was more impressed by the pocket of stable homes and well kept yards which make up the neighborhood right in front of Agape House, hidden away from the main thoroughfares that are pockmarked with abandoned houses and trash-littered lots. Only a couple of blocks from blighted Poplar Grove and troubled North Avenue, these row homes looked well cared for and comfortable. I was curious about why, so I checked with the long-time president of the group of Rosemont neighborhood associations. He could not name the reason— no, there is not currently a strong, active neighborhood association, no, it was not the long time influence of Agape House on that neighborhood, no, it was not the presence of nearby Coppin Heights development association. He called it the x factor, meaning the unknown factor, but he saw that pocket of stability as a hopeful beacon for potential future stability that could spread to other areas if the communities can pull together. He calls it the x factor. I would call it the Holy Spirit, the presence of God woven in that little segment of hope in the midst of so much brokenness. Maybe interviewing some of the neighbors would give greater insight as to the why behind this beacon of hope for our broken city. Or maybe they can’t put their finger on it either.
It is kind of like the trees that are planted in the middle of our parking lot—life in the middle of pavement. Have you ever stopped to notice them? A visitor to our church remarked once that they stood out to him as a stark reminder that life pushes through even when surrounded by hard surfaces. For us the parking lot trees can be a living reminder that hope exists even in a city encrusted with hardness, pain, fear and brokenness.
Through Jesus’ eyes, Jerusalem was a broken city. She had failed to take advantage of his offer of peace. She really did not understand his mission or his message. When visited by God in the flesh, she turned her back, trusting more in her political power than in spiritual power. He doesn’t actually cry over the city at this point– that comes later when he actually arrives on its’ outer rim (Luke 19). Then he weeps over the city’s inability to recognize what leads to peace and their future demise due to missing the presence of God. But here he laments over her lack of willingness to be gathered up by him the way a hen gathers up her chicks to protect them from danger. What love Jesus had for the inhabitants of this city, children belonging to God. And what a sense of sadness he had when that love was not reciprocated. Instead of coming to him, the people ran away, turned their backs, thought they could handle it their own way. Not once but twice he calls them. Jerusalem, Jerusalem. You have a reputation of killing the prophets God has sent to you. You have had a chance and you haven’t listened. How I wish you would come to me for refuge, for peace, for healing, for hope. He describes himself as the mother hen, not in the hovering image we use today to talk about someone who is butting in all the time, trying to run things she shouldn’t be. But in the positive, protective, caring image of a hen who makes a safe place for her babies under her wings.
Jesus the caregiver, Jesus the protector, Jesus the shield from danger, Jesus the safe place. We hear the same kinds of ideas from the psalmist, describing God as the stronghold, God as the refuge, God as the shelter, God as the tent to conceal him from his trouble. All words of safety, protection, and encouragement, words filled with hope in the face of trouble and darkness and fear and brokenness.
Jesus is more offering a way out, a change of direction for a city he loves, rather than bashing them for not following him. He is predicting not destruction but salvation. They will say, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” At this point in his ministry, there is still hope for the city. He does not give up on them. I hear his words to Jerusalem, and I think of him saying something like this, “Baltimore, Baltimore! You have a reputation for violence that is known world-wide. How I long to have you seek your shelter in me instead of in guns. How I long for you to come close to me instead of forging alliances with people who will drag you down, lead you astray or teach you to follow false dreams. When the world seems like it is crashing and burning, I am your protection, just like a mother hen will stand fast over her chicks in the face of the threat of fire or fox.” The hope for a broken city is Jesus and the people who insist on following his way of peace. It matters not whether a Baltimorean goes to a mosque or a cathedral or a synagogue or a store front church. As followers of this Jesus, we too are to be taking the footsteps of peace, we too are to offer safety and refuge and hope to all, one event at a time, one block at a time, one neighbor at a time. My hope is that we will recognize his offer to the city he loves. That even though we know this to be a hard place, a violent place, a difficult place, a broken place for so many who live here, we are called to be a shelter, strength, and hope.
I want you to know that one of the trees in our parking lot, those symbols of life poking through the tough, hard surface, was given to our church by Mary Jordan after her grandson Eric committed suicide more than eight years ago. For Mary and her family, the tree was a sign of life, a sign of hope. During her lifetime she watched over that tree, and a second one she had planted in the yard. One time the parking lot tree was backed into by a car, and she insisted that her youngest son come up to the church and right that tree so it could flourish, reaching for the sky, for hope, for life. May you continue to keep your eyes out for signs of hope in this broken city. May you be the signs of hope in this broken city, today and any day. Amen.
3.17.19: Luke 13:31-35 AND Psalm 27