Strong and Tender

Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty | March 13, 2022

Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty           March 13, 2022            STRONG AND TENDER           LUKE 13:31-35

            Some years ago I ran across something called “brain candy jokes.”  They all begin with the words, “you know it will be a bad day when…”  The relatively short list of brain candy jokes has indeed grown—possibly in recognition of the number of things that can go wrong in life.  Here is a sampling:

You know it will be a bad day when…

     The worst player on the golf course wants to play you for money.
     Your twin sister forgets your birthday.

     Your 4-year-old tells you that it’s almost impossible to flush a grapefruit down the toilet.
     You realize that you just sprayed spot remover under your arms instead of deodorant.

     You discover that your 12-year-old’s idea of humor is putting crazy glue in your preparation h.
     The bird singing outside your window is a vulture.

     You call your answering service and they tell you it’s none of your business.
     You compliment the boss’ wife on her unusual perfume and you find out she isn’t wearing any.
     You call your wife and tell her that you would like to eat out tonight, and when you get home
     there is a sandwich on the front porch.

     You go on your honeymoon to a remote little hotel and the desk clerk, bell hop, and manager
     have a “welcome back” party for your new spouse.

     Your doctor tells you that you are allergic to chocolate chip cookies.

     Everyone loves your driver’s license picture.

     The gypsy fortune teller offers to refund your money.

     People think you are 40…and you really are.

     You are pigging out at McDonald’s by yourself and the manager orders the numbers
     on the sign outside changed.                                                            (

Having a bad day seems to be at the heart of our scripture lesson.  As I look at our verses from Luke, I can only think that I have no problems!  As one commentator about our gospel lection has said:  “if you thought giving up chocolate was difficult, try immersing yourself in this short but challenging text from Luke” (Kathryn M. Matthews, “strong and tender”).  And it almost goes without saying that our dear brothers and sisters in Ukraine have been facing impossibly bad days for a very long time.

Today’s scripture is a brief but difficult passage to interpret.  It begins with a dire warning.  A group of pharisees, we read, come to Jesus and give him this word:  “‘get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.'”

             Jesus brushes off the warning of the pharisees about Herod Antipas, the successor to the Herod who was in power when Jesus was born.  Both Herods were motivated by deep-seated fears and insecurities.  And both were equally unable to prevent Jesus the infant and the man from becoming the center of the roman empire.

            Later in Luke’s gospel, the evil Herod meets Jesus face to face.  Herod is almost star struck at having this celebrity in his midst.  Suffice it to say, the two men are on entirely different planes.  Herod Antipas has no clue how Jesus the prophet and wisdom teacher and healer will be his undoing.  In the verse immediately preceding our reading for the day, Jesus says, “‘indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”  Clearly King Herod does not understand Jesus’ earthly or heavenly power.

            The bottom line is that Jesus is not at all cowed by the threat the wicked Herod poses, the man Jesus calls “that fox.”  With fresh determination, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, and yet he knows instinctively the dangers that lurk there.

            What keeps Jesus moving forward, of course, is his vocation of ministry.  While Herod is preoccupied by death, Jesus is preoccupied by life.  While Herod’s motto essentially is “strong and harsh,” Jesus’ motto could be “strong and tender.”  In this passage, Jesus is taking the long view–drawing on the great tradition of the old testament prophets who both called down God’s mercy and God’s judgment.  And so for that reason, Jesus says he will not be put off by Herod’s death threats, because he has work to do:  “‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.'”

            So Jesus is nothing if not clear in this passage.  He is not scared or intimidated to take on “the principalities and powers” of ancient Israel.  Jesus is clearly the prime mover of the action, the one who is directing the course of events.  He is proactive; Herod is reactive. 

            And then there is the matter of Jerusalem, the holy city, the center of Jesus’ world.  The temple in Jerusalem is the place where Jesus had visited during childhood and young manhood and beyond.  Yet for all of its welcoming and nurture, Jerusalem is also a city of violence and brutality.  Historians have reported the garish sight of hundreds of enemies of the state crucified on crosses leading into the city.  Jesus harbors no illusions about the character of Jerusalem–both the home of Solomon’s temple and the home of despotic rulers.

            On Palm Sunday, we will read that Jesus weeps over the holy city.  With good reason, then, in our scripture for the day, Jesus in this lament says, “‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!'” Indeed, it is as if Jerusalem has a death wish; for only a few decades after Jesus’ own death there, the city of Jerusalem will be destroyed.  Luke blames Jerusalem for its own destruction, because the city, after all, rejected Jesus (Margaret Aymer). Nevertheless, Jerusalem remains an important touchstone for Luke. He mentions the city 90 times, while the remainder of the new testament only refers to Jerusalem 45 times (Fred Craddock).

            And yet for all of its dysfunction, its failure to accept Jesus as a prophet in his home country, still Jesus speaks of Jerusalem using a maternal metaphor. The extent of Jerusalem’s tenderness is limited, however. The pervasive influence of the romans has made her a hard and tough parent, a g.i. jane sort of mother: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and yet you were not willing!”

            Jesus employs language here which echoes speeches of Zechariah drawing together the children of Israel to speak of the goodness and faithfulness of God (Leslie Hoppe). 

Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who called Jerusalem home, spoke of the people of the city being gathered together like small children. In Deuteronomy, Ruth and Psalms, we have references to Israel finding shelter under the wings of God (Matthews).

            Many years ago, I became acquainted with a fellow Texas pastor.  I will call her Jeannie.  She and I served together on teams for a couple of Emmaus walks.  Once during a break, I asked Jeannie to tell me her story.  I was amazed at how this vibrant, positive pastor had passed through several exceptionally difficult experiences.

            After a very hard first marriage and three children, Jeannie married a man she thought was her soul-mate.  The two of them became seminary students and together had a student charge.  She and her husband had been married about three years.  Jeannie was blissfully happy and could not imagine what lay ahead.

            Without warning, one Easter Sunday, Jeannie woke up to find her husband gone.  He left a note on the kitchen table.  He was leaving her for another woman, a member of their church.  He was also leaving the ministry.  And so with her life completely blown apart, Jeannie dragged herself to her little congregation that day.  She summoned every bit of strength she could muster to get through the Easter services.  Only with great effort was Jeannie able to force herself to drive home in the afternoon.  She was devastated, utterly shattered to think that she had lost her husband, best friend and partner in ministry at the same time–on Easter Sunday, no less.

Jeannie had only been home a short time on that Sunday when her phone rang.  Incredibly, she was told that her son had been in a terrible car accident.  His leg had been broken in many places.  It was that phone call that brought Jeannie to her knees.  She said, “Mark, the only thing I could think to do was to crawl into my bed.  And the minute I did that the strangest thing happened.  I felt as if the wing of a giant bird enveloped me.  All around me,” she said, “there was this warm, soothing sensation.  I felt cared for and protected and went immediately to sleep.”

In that terrible hour of lead, my friend experienced the hour of gold.  It was the mother hen caring for one of her brood.  There have been reports of barnyard fires when hens have been found dead–blackened and scorched–even as live chicks have been discovered beneath their wings.  Tragically, Jerusalem all too soon became the dead hen, the mother that gave its very life for its children.

  And yet, surprisingly, the people Jesus laments are the very ones who would do him in.  For him, these foxy, maneuvering, opportunistic people are like children caught in a storm, too stubborn or afraid to seek shelter (Matthews).  The sorrow of Jesus over these misguided lives offers to us a watchword in this season of Lent.  What would it mean if we truly prayed for our enemies?  What would it mean if we genuinely reached out to the voiceless on the margins of society–to the prisoner, to the refugee, to the transgendered, to the trafficked?

  I have been involved in prison ministry during my tenure here in Texas and in Maine.  I have heard in both places and around the country, a horror of coddling prisoners.  Many would argue that the state has no business being a mother hen–providing a “cushy” environment for its charges under the sheltering arms of a supermax prison.  In my experience of visiting a variety of penitentiaries and jails, I have never known that to be the case.  In my view, reforming an institution that is inhumane is not being “soft on crime.”  I believe solitary confinement is torture.  I would argue that we have a moral and ethical obligation to treat those on the lowest rung of society’s ladder with fundamental decency.  You may be surprised to learn that prisoners in Scandinavia are given the same quality of health care as the rest of the population  (Joseph E. Paris, “why prisoners deserve health care,” ama journal of ethics, Feb. 2008.)  We in America cannot say that.

A few years back I preached a sermon series taken from a book called The Convict Christ.   In that volume, Jens Soering, an inmate incarcerated for life, reminds us that Jesus was a death row prisoner.

  You and I are members of the body of Christ.  As I read the gospel, that means to follow Jesus from the statehouse to the state prison and beyond.  At the beginning of today’s passage, Jesus announces that his mission is “casting out demons and performing cures.”  In every age, that has been the task of the disciples who follow in his footsteps.  So let us give thanks for this one who is both strong and tender, the God of justice “‘who comes in the name of the Lord.'”  Blessed be!