In the reading that we just heard from Luke, Jesus chooses to go to Jerusalem, knowing that there are threats on his life. The gospel writers tell us that Jesus was executed for the sin of blasphemy because he claimed to speak for God. He also criticized the established religious doctrine of his day. He was compassionate to the poor. He healed the sick. He reached out to untouchables, zealots, and collaborators. He exposed both religious and secular power structures for what they were through his words, like the parable of the talents, and actions, like overturning money changing tables in the temple. Jesus identified himself with the prophets before him who also dared to speak for God. He knew their fate well. Most prophets faced the wrath of the people who heard them, and many were killed. Jesus will meet the same fate.
Prophecy is dangerous business. We often think of prophecy as telling the future. But the biblical prophets were critics of their times and cultures. They named the excesses and destructive practices of their day. They equated their anger with God’s anger. They called the people of their times back to the virtue of kindness and the principles of equity and justice. Prophets interpreted the culture and clarified God’s desire for the wellbeing of all creation. After their indictment of the culture, they always ended with God’s desire to gather, restore, and bless.
Jesus’ life is already in danger when some Pharisees warn him to run away from Herod. Instead he turns his face towards Jerusalem with a lament. Why do the people pick up stones to kill when all he wants is to gather them together as a mother hen gathers her chicks? What made the temple leaders and the citizens of Jerusalem pick up stones instead of allowing themselves to be gathered and blessed? What makes us pick up stones instead of gathering all the chicks?
Before I write a sermon, I look in my file to see what I may have said before, what stories I’ve told, so that I don’t repeat myself. Many years ago one congregant told me I didn’t need to worry about telling stories a second time. She said most people don’t remember what I say from Sunday to Sunday. I think that was meant to be reassuring. The last time I preached on this scripture was also the first time, twelve years ago. I used some stories from the news to illustrate how those who speak on behalf of the oppressed and act as peacekeepers in the Middle East continue to be killed along with the people they try to protect. Twelve years later there are so many more stories to tell. But not all stones are militarized weapons. There are many ways to divide, exclude, and oppress. Twelve years ago, on the second Sunday of Lent, I quickly added this paragraph to my sermon:
A little over a week from now, a United Methodist minister, the Rev. Karen Damman, will go on trial for being in a loving and committed partnership with another woman. Together they are raising a son. Her church stands by her and affirms her call to ministry. But the judicial council has required a new trial, this time with jury members who will pledge to uphold the Discipline, as if the first jurors did not comply with their ordination vows to uphold all of the Discipline. I wanted to let you to know that I will be there as a silent witness on her behalf and on behalf of my other gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in ministry who serve the church with amazing gifts and graces. Like the psalmist, they desire nothing more than to dwell in the house of the Lord, to behold the beauty of God, and to inquire in God’s temple. I want you to know that I will be there. I know that we may disagree on this issue and I will always respect your opinion and hope that we can be in dialogue. I hope that we can talk about this issue that affects approximately one tenth of our population. If you would like to be a silent witness, I have materials for you, if will see me after church. I understand that we expect people on both sides of this issue to fly to Seattle to be present. Several of my clergy friends are part of the jury pool. I intended to tell you that one of my clergy friends has been asked to be a peace keeper. A peace keeper! But five minutes before I left the house this morning, I received a call asking me to be a peacekeeper as well, and I agreed. There is a need for more peacekeepers, so if any of you would be willing to serve in that role please see me after church. I ask you to pray for our church, to pray for people on both sides of this issue, to pray for each other.
Because we are going to consider what it would mean for us to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, I’d like to share my experience of that trial with you. I was trained as one of about 20 peacekeepers along with two other people from the small congregation I served. You’ve met Ben Weber, who was our pianist. The other was Ann Wiltse, one of the first victim advocates in the United Methodist Church. The peacekeepers were asked to help set up the courtroom in the fellowship hall of Bothell United Methodist Church. Elaine Stanovski stood in the middle of that room that usually rang with laughter at coffee hours and potlucks and lamented that the church had become a court. While I put signs on the seats designating the actors in the trial, Ben found the piano and began to play “Sanctuary.” You know the words, “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I'll be a living sanctuary for you.”
We watched as some of my clergy colleagues tried to act as a shield to prevent the trial from beginning. They were arrested and taken away. That was where I had expected to be. Instead, I was inside as a gatekeeper, asking journalists for their phones and cameras, safeguarding their equipment and trying to soothe ruffled feathers. Some of my colleagues were chosen as jurors. The trial lasted for several days. We prayed, provided as much hospitality as we could, and made peace cranes by the hundreds.
The verdict was delivered. Rev. Dammann was found guilty of being a lesbian, but not guilty of practice incompatible with Christian teaching. She remained in good standing as a minister. There were those who were deeply disappointed by the ruling, and those who were jubilant. Together they took communion—the participants in the trial, those who came to observe, and the journalists who reported. Some wept at the communion rail and others wrapped their arms around them. After all the stones had been cast in the courtroom, the people were gathered. All except one young man who could not bring himself to eat at the table with people with whom he disagreed so vehemently. Clint Stanovski, one of the peacekeepers, sat with him on the steps of the church to hear his lament.
At the end of the trial, some of the peacekeepers drove participants back to their cars parked at other area churches as overflow. Ben Weber drove a Jewish woman who was the secretary of a neighboring Lutheran church to her car. She commented that she had worked in a Christian church for many years, but the communion service was the first time she had seen it being the Church. We are the body of Christ when we gather all the chicks under our wings.