Years ago Henri Nouwen, one of this generation’s greatest spiritual writers, declared that from our youth we are taught to pray incorrectly. He states that we teach children at a very young age to clasp our hands together in order to pray. This is wrong he said. Instead we should be teaching children to pray with their hands and arms wide open in a posture of reception. Then he tells a story.
In his book, With Open Hands, he tells of his encounter with an elderly women at a state home. Here was a woman who clenched her fists tightly and would never open them for anyone . . . she could not hold hands with another, nor could she receive from others . . . always, her fists were tightly clenched. This went on for a long time until some of the staff were curious to see what she was clenching in her hands so tightly. Prying open her hands they discovered a penny . . . a penny—the only possession she owned . . . and, the one she clung tightly too in fear she would lose it and have nothing. In doing so she closed herself off to any approaches at bringing her in . . . of receiving from others.
This, Nouwen says, is what we do when we pray with our hands clenched together. We close ourselves off. To pray, he states, one must do so with openness. This morning I want you to think about openness . . . towards God . . . towards others.
Our scripture reading this morning begins with a warning. The Pharisees come to Jesus and warn him to abandon his ministry and get the heck out of Dodge. They warn him that King Herod desires to kill him if he continues to preach, teach, and perform miracles . . . Jesus is making Herod uncomfortable. In Herod’s mind the quickest way to get rid of a problem is to kill it. So, the Pharisees . . . hoping to quell a storm . . . suggest that Jesus might want to quit while he is ahead and go home . . . quit before it gets worse.
Last week, if you remember, Jesus is tested. The writer of Luke’s gospel tells us that the temptations do not end at the end of the forty days, but that they would continue—especially at opportune times. Here is one of those opportune times. Instead of a test of glory, it is a test of fear . . . the Pharisees are encouraging Jesus to abandon his mission and save himself. Remember, we are always tested.
Jesus does not take the bait. No, instead he turns the whole situation around . . . turns it upside down. He is the Holy . . . the ultimate . . . all powerful . . . who could choose any critter in the world to be in response to the Pharisees’ subtle threat . . . and . . . and . . . he chooses a chicken . . . and, not just a chicken, but a hen! To the threat he responds: “I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings . . .”
Think about it . . . a chicken! Pretty frightening wouldn’t you say? No! A chicken is what we are having for lunch in a couple of hours. No one is really scared of a chicken; yet, Jesus chooses a chicken in standing up to the subtle threat of the Pharisees. Why not a lion . . . or a tiger . . . or even a grizzly bear? Now those are threatening images. But Jesus chooses a chicken.
Well, I tell you what . . . a hen can be pretty scary when she feels that her brood is threatened. As a mother hen she will stand between her chicks and those who mean to them harm. With no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles . . . she will defend her brood. All she has is the willingness to stand between the threat and shield her babies with her own body. If whatever is threatening her brood want her brood, well that threat will have to kill her first.
Does this sound familiar? Is this not what Jesus is willing to do for us?
That is what Jesus is willing to do . . . whether they are in Jerusalem or elsewhere. Jesus is willing to spread his arms and hope to protect us all. Yet, Jesus is not stupid. Jesus understands. Not everyone is going to seek safety under the span of his arms . . . no, there will be those who cannot be protected. Jesus cannot make anyone walk into the safety of his arms. All Jesus can do is to offer.
All Jesus can do is to offer . . .
We go back to openness.
One of the toughest lessons I learned as a parent is that I cannot protect my children from life . . . no matter how hard I try; I cannot protect my children from the circumstances of life. Life happens, and good luck in trying to control it in order to protect your children. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Poop happens.” As vigilant as we can be, we cannot protect our children from getting hurt . . . and, guess what? It does not matter what age our children are . . . life is going to bop them . . . life is going to hurt them. As parents we cannot protect our children no matter how hard we try . . . and, that hurts to the very roots of our hearts.
Knowing this, we should be able to understand the predicament that Jesus is in . . . understand the depth of his lament. As much as he wants to protect everyone . . . he can’t. He has no control over it. It is all in the hands of those he seeks to protect . . . it is their choice. Jesus cannot make anyone walk into the safety of his out-spread arms. Yet, he is willing . . . willing to lay it all on the line if others are willing to accept. His offer is with openness.
My wife, Dana, was talking to her best friend from Nebraska recently. This friend told my wife that she had been taking a class for concealed weapons for protection when she took her dogs for a walk at a nearby lake where she had encountered a mountain lion and several coyotes . . . she wanted to make sure she was protected. Dana quipped that she would be shooting the heads off of everything she saw. Of course her friend laughed and said, “No, you are taught to shoot at the chest.”
The chest . . . the breast . . . the most vulnerable spot on the body. Behind the breast lies the heart . . . the heart which gives life. The mother hen spreads her wings . . . exposes her breast . . . opens herself to the threat . . . there is a willingness to lay down one’s life for others. This is openness.
Openness plays both ways.
We know the openness of Jesus . . . we know that he lays down his life for all. We know the saying that there is no greater sacrifice . . . no greater gift . . . than for one to lay down his or her life for another. Jesus spreads his arms and the offer is there . . . we are invited to run under the safety of Jesus’ outspread arms. This is not something that is forced upon us; no, this is up to us . . . it is our choice. It is always our choice.
Jesus wants to embrace us . . . wants us to follow in his footsteps . . . wants us to emulate him. It is a powerful suggest, but one we must decide on whether or not we will accepted it. It is a tough choice.
It is a tough choice because for any of us to ever embrace Jesus we must do so with a willingness to be open . . . to open our hands in order to receive. This means we have to let go of that which we think defines us . . . that we think makes us who we are . . . we have to let go, open our hands, and allow God to fully embrace us. We have to be open.
Being open is easier said than done. As I stated last week, in John Powell’s book, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am, the hardest thing in life is exposing our created selves . . . who God created us to be with all of our strengths and weaknesses . . . to others. It is difficult because if that person doesn’t receive us or who we are, then what else do we have to offer? It is a scary proposition to open our hands . . . to expose who we really are. It does not matter whether it is to another person or to God . . . it is scary. And, you know what . . . it really doesn’t matter how much God or Jesus or anyone wants to protect us and keep us safe . . . they cannot control it. It is up to us. It is our choice.
Remember what Jesus said? Jesus said: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left desolate.”
During the season of Lent we are confronted with making a choice . . . and, it is our choice. God cannot make us make the choice. Jesus cannot make us make the choice. It is our choice. Are we willing to open ourselves . . . to unclench our fists . . . and, truly receive the gift that is being offered? It is always our choice . . . may we choose wisely. May we choose to be open. Amen.