Sermon 17 March 2019


17 March 2019, LENT II & Admission of New Members

Listen Here:


“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets…

How often have I desired to gather your children together

as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Luke 13:34


Some years ago, in a book for the season of Lent, entitled Christ in the Wilderness,

Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, gave a series of meditations

on a cycle of paintings – Christ in the Desert – by C20th, British artist, Stanley Spencer.


One of the pictures is entitled Christ in the Wilderness: The Hen.

In the centre is a mother hen, one chick nestles under her wing, two others hover nearby.

Surrounding the hen is the reclining, encircling figure of Jesus.

He rests on the ground, lying curled up, cocoon-like.

Head slightly tilted, supported by his left hand,

He gazes intently at the hen and her chicks.

Beyond and behind him are the dunes of the desert,

amongst which cockerels prowl or keep guard.


Meditating on this picture, Stephen Cottrell described a poignant moment,

from his own domestic life – a moment some may recognise.

The last day of a summer holiday in France – extended family, good weather,

daily swims in a nearby river. Idyllic.


“At the end of the holiday, we packed our car and headed for the river as usual.

As we sat in the car ready to set off I suddenly burst into tears.

In that moment I realised that family life as I had known it,

for the past eighteen years, was about to end.

My eldest son was off to university, and the other two were growing up;

this might be the last day of the last family holiday we would have like this.


There would be other holidays (and have been) but they would be of a different kind.

Family life adjusts and moves on; it should happen.

But it was a moment of painful realization..”

(Christ in the Wilderness, S Cottrell, pp79-80)

The desire to gather in loved ones, to make safe, is strong.

You don’t have to be a parent to comprehend that.

This weekend, aware of how family members gathered for Friday prayers

in the mosques of Christchurch, New Zealand,

just as we gather for prayer and for community, this morning,

there is a poignancy to the gospel – both its threats of violence,

and Jesus’ words of lament.



“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets…

How often have I desired to gather your children together

as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”


Fought over, and prayed over, by empires, kingdoms and faiths,

Jerusalem holds a grip on both the imagination and the politics of the world,

out of all proportion to its size.

In Christian symbolism Jerusalem is both everyplace and ultimate place –

the conflicted city of earthly days;

the hoped-for city of heavenly promise – the new Jerusalem.


Jesus knows its possibilities – my Father’s house – a house of prayer for all the nations.

He knows its history – rejecting the prophets – its death threats already renewed.

When the Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. Jesus responds:

“Tell that fox – I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow,

and on the third day I finish my work.”

In other words: My vocation, my timetable will not be determined by bullying schemes

or the threats of the powerful.

Jesus sets his face towards the heart of the city –

it is the heart of that city he seeks;

Apparently, the chicks will not be gathered.


 “If you have ever loved someone you could not protect,

then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament.” B Brown Taylor.

A mother, whose child’s behaviour has suddenly and inexplicably changed –

to parental alarm, said recently:

“I am embarrassed to admit it, but I can’t bear to look at my child,

because there is nothing I can do to help her.”

As a wise nun observed: “The hardest thing in the world

is to watch the people you love the most, make mistakes.”


The poignancy of the mother hen image lies in its emptiness; its struggle with failure.

Wings spread wide – the mother hen cannot, or will not,

coerce anyone to walk into their shadow.

Wings spread wide – she offers her own body for protection.

If the fox wants the chicks, he will have to kill her first;

which as the Gospel tells, is exactly what he will do.

In a farmyard corner where both foxes and chicks can see –

wings still spread wide in the desire to embrace.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem – you were not willing.”

In his book Jerusalem, The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore tells stories

about the people of that city who keep vigil, ensuring a state of readiness in the holy places.

The rabbi responsible for the Western Wall,

whose cracks are filled with the prayer notes of the pilgrim.

Twice a year…the notes are cleared out;

considered so sacred, the rabbi buries them on the Mount of Olives.


Or the man who shortly before 4am each day, dressed in a suit and tie,

takes a heavy, medieval 12-inch key, passes through the Damascus Gate

and knocks at the doors of the Holy Sepulchre;

the Christian church, said to contain not only the site of Calvary

but also, the Garden Tomb of the Resurrection,

Inside the Church, which he locked at 8pm the night before,

the sextons of the Greeks, Latins and Armenians

have already negotiated who is to open the doors that particular day.

This is Jerusalem and the man with the key admits he never knows what is going to happen:

“I know thousands depend on me and I worry if the key won’t open or something goes wrong…”


Since the time of Saladin, when warring Christian groups

from Catholic, Coptic, Armenian and Orthodox denominations

could not agree on who had precedence in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,

Saladin, the Muslim ruler at that time, promised Richard the Lion-heart

that the key-holder responsible for opening and closing

this most sacred of Christian sites would be a Muslim.

Today, Wajeeh al-Nusseibeh…knows that the faithful Christian world

waits for him, a Muslim, to open up this shrine.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, the Biography (ps 624-5)


Two Sundays ago, as part of National Open Mosque Day,

half a dozen members of St Columba’s responded to the invitation

to visit the Al Manaar Mosque, close to Grenfell Tower.

Whether it was the Iman explaining the rituals of the prayer room

or the hospitality team in the kitchens sharing cake and laughter –

there was grace and warmth, and a small lowering of the walls that divide.


The C20th Israeli writer, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

wrote a piece entitled, Key to Jerusalem,

acknowledging the shortcomings of that divided city

and its potential, as cradle of peace:

Who will insist that we are all one,

that mankind is not an animal species but a fellowship of care?
Let Jerusalem inspire praying: an end to rage, an end to violence.
All of Jerusalem is a gate, but the key is lost in the darkness of God’s silence.

Let us light all the lights, let us call all the names, to find the key.”

New members – Roderick, Alison & Eric – old members, pilgrims passing through –

light all the lights, call all the names, to find the key.

In the shadow of the outstretched wings; be gathered and gathering; beloved, to be loving.