At the conclusion of this sermon, we will be singing VU 612 “There is a Balm” unannounced. The choir will begin and you are invited to join in when you are ready.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to God.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes the natural mothering instincts of Silkies—white, fluffy chickens that cannot fly. They tend to be more reliable foster mothers than other hens. When Taylor needs a foster mother for an abandoned chick, she puts the chick in a small pen and sits outside the pen with the Silkie while they watch the chick. After a while, she lifts the Silkie hen into the pen. Each time she has done this, the chick then peeps and the Silkie freezes in place, watching carefully. The chick peeps again and hops a bit closer, at which point the Silkie lifts one wing and the chick dashes under. It doesn’t matter what colour or kind of chicken the chick is—the Silkie lifts her wing to all.
That is the delightful image Jesus paints for us when he cries out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” He is echoing passages from the Hebrew scriptures that describe God bearing us as on eagle’s wings. Psalm 57: 1 reads, “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by.”
We often hear this story of Jesus’ likeness to a mother hen as a feel-good fluffy comfort within the mothering instincts of God. But it is much more than that. The context of this story is anything but feel-good. Jesus is aware of the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. He has dared to challenge the authority and morality of the governing powers and he knows what happens to those who do this. It is, in fact, a threat of death that leads to his self-comparison with a mother hen.
While Jesus wants to protect others from the colonial rule of violence, he doesn’t seem to fear it for himself. He responds to the threat with an insult and a dismissal. Jesus calls Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, a fox. In the Greek culture of his day, a fox was a symbol of cleverness, slyness and unprincipled behaviour. In the Jewish context, a fox is associated with destruction. Calling Herod a fox was no small insult. Jesus then dismissed the bearers of the threat, saying that he had no time for them. He belittled the power of Herod in light of God’s more expansive and eternal reign of peace and justice. But he also knew that death awaited him.
Jesus taught us that God’s kingdom is within us and before us—the Spirit is our ever-present guide and conscience, leading us into kingdom values. But the assurance of this realm of God does not preclude the suffering of this wounded world. The risen Christ still bears the scars.
So what does the peace and justice of God’s realm mean when our world is devolving into a tyranny of populist governments, ruthless dictators and indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in many countries—not just Ukraine? What good does it do to believe that God’s kingdom is within and before us when there seems little evidence of it in the world?
The people of Ukraine are teaching us some valuable lessons about this. I have been astounded at their bravery and hope in midst of insurmountable odds. I have also been astounded at some Russians who risk torture and imprisonment to protest the war. When all seems hopeless, there still exists an indefensible belief that justice and peace will, in the end, prevail. God’s realm may be hidden more deeply than ever, but in the end, it will prove the stronger. That is the Christian hope that we all must hang onto. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in the midst of his fight against racism and violence, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Underneath the devastation and killing that we see lie seeds of determined optimism and commitment to justice and peace. You may have seen a video of a woman who walked up to an armed, Russian soldier, thrusting sunflower seeds towards him. She urged him to put them in his pocket so that when he dies on Ukrainian soil, the sunflowers will grow.
Why the sunflower? It is the national flower of Ukraine and in 1996, when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, the U.S., Russian and Ukrainian defense ministers planted sunflowers in a ceremony at southern Ukraine’s Pervomaysk missile base. The sunflower became a symbol of peace. Inspired by the woman who shoved sunflower seeds at the Russian soldier, the sunflower has now become a symbol of resistance as well as peace.
We are using a cloth with sunflowers for our communion table and are displaying sunflowers in front of it as a sign of our own solidarity with Ukrainians and a reminder to pray and do all that we can to support Ukraine. I have personally had to struggle with support that includes armed resistance as I have strong pacifist leanings. At the beginning of the invasion, when our Ukrainian neighbour said that he was raising money to send back home to a resistance group, Nancy and I thought long and hard about whether or not we could support this. In the end, we did give him some money and I realized how tenuous my pacifist commitment is. I actually felt a surge of energy supporting the resistance. Later, we received a text from him with a picture of receipts—our money had been used to buy medical supplies and air mattresses—exactly what we had just supported through a struggleless donation to the Red Cross!
Whether or not we, as Christians, support armed resistance and even enter into war has always been a moral struggle—as it should be. Much has been written about just wars, recognizing that at some point armed struggle can be justified. But others who are more dedicated to pacifism than I am will argue that it can never be justified. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, not kill them.
And that takes me to another story coming out of Ukraine. In the Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches, the Sunday before Lent is called Forgiveness Sunday. It is a time to ask one another for forgiveness in order to purify the heart before entering into Lent. On March 6, Forgiveness Sunday this year, Bishop Stepan Sus preached to a full house in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Lviv. While he noted that the Russian attacks were awful, he urged the parishioners to forgive the Russian soldiers. Why? Because even in a war, one must continue to see the human face of the enemy. Otherwise, he explained, we will be poisoned by evil and lose our humanity. May God give us the grace not to dehumanize anyone. If a Ukrainian bishop can do this, so can we.
Let’s now look to the churches in Russia for some of their courageous stories. Last week, Father Ioann Burdin, a Russian Orthodox priest, was arrested after he preached a sermon on Forgiveness Sunday denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He joined 285 other Russian Orthodox priests and deacons in signing a petition calling for the “cessation of the fratricidal war” against Ukraine and grieving “the trial that our brothers and sisters in Ukraine were undeservedly subjected to.” This, in spite of their church head, Patriarch Kirill, supporting the war. The General Secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance has announced his “bitterness and regret” of Russia’s military invasion. These are all brave words of Russian church leaders, subject to prosecution under Russia’s newly revised criminal code.
The last story takes us back to the story of our peace candle. Does anyone remember our peace candle’s country of origin? In 1985, an elderly woman in a cathedral in Voronezh, Russia, approached a visitor and pressed a few coins into his hand, asking that he do something for world peace. Rev. Blair Monie, minister of First Presbyterian Church in York, Pennsylvania wondered what he could do with these three rubles. He recognized a deep desire and strong devotion in the woman and was determined to do something. As he sat in the cathedral and prayed, he was inspired as he watched parishioners buying and lighting prayer candles. He decided to buy one and brought it back to his congregation, who then made votive candles available to any visitor who wished to continue passing on the light of peace to other congregations. Through a chain of prayer candles being passed on from one church to another, we received this prayer candle from St. Andrew’s River Heights United Church.
As you look at this peace candle, remember the Russian woman’s passion for world peace. And then, let your eyes slowly rise to the stained-glass window created by Ukrainian Leo Mol. Let us offer a few moments of silent prayer for Ukraine and for Russia, knowing that the wings of God embrace all who come to God for refuge.