If Only

Luke 13:31-35;

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

Psalm 27

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me! 
‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’
 Your face, Lord, do I seek. 
Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation! 
If my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
   because of my enemies. 
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living. 
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage;
 wait for the Lord!

"If Only"

May was one of three “calendar sisters,” June and August were the other two. August clearly was the sister who ran the show, the source of authority in the African American family of sisters Sue Monk Kidd created in her novel The Secret Life of Bees. And June was tight lipped and fierce until her soul unfolded and filled the room every time she played the cello. But May was the character who kept coming to mind this week as I meditated on Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. May was a simple woman, whom Kidd describes as “naïve and unassuming, a grown up and a child at the same time, plus she was a touch crazy.” 1 Whenever anyone mentioned something unpleasant, sad, or distressing, May would start humming “Oh! Suzanna.” If the topic or event was especially disturbing, her humming would not work to ward off her distress and she would burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably. That’s when her sister’s would point May outside, where she would go to a stone wall and cry her heart out. It was her own personal wailing wall, with sad events scribbled onto scraps of paper and stuffed into the crevices between the stones. You might say that May’s vocation was grieving on behalf of the world.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” At this moment in his ministry, Jesus’ vocation becomes that of grieving. A few chapters later, Jesus will complete his lament over Jerusalem, adding tears to his words of regret and sadness. He will weep openly over the city as he rides in on a donkey. These will not be the personal tears that Jesus cries over the death of his friend Lazarus in John’s gospel, but rather his tears will be for the benefit of the collective. Jesus weeps for all of the missed opportunities, lost causes, regrets, and severed relationships. He cries about the “what ifs” and “if onlys” that plague the sensitive heart of the world. Jesus’ longings and desires for the world are summed up in the feminine image of a hen who gathers her downy soft chicks under her wings for care and protection. Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem is the wail of every mother over her lost child, and it is a cry that comes from deep in the heart of Jesus. His job is to grieve on behalf of the lost soul of the world, to name the world’s pain, and to reveal that pain for all to see.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman suggests that “access to life is through the resistant door of pain.” 2 In other words, it is through the acknowledgement of pain, and the conscious grieving of such pain that transformation comes to individuals and to a community. Denial of pain that is present in both private and public life leads to shallow living and empty theology. Naming our pain, and addressing it to God in the context of liturgy, namely through the use of the Psalms in worship, is as Brueggemann suggests, the only way to move us from despair to hope. As we read Psalm 27 together, we had an experience this morning of how worship can transform our naming of pain. Liturgy and ritual transform pain into praise and hope.

August, the elder of the calendar sisters, explains to Lily, a runaway who has come to live with them, about May and the wailing wall. It seems that May once had a twin named April, and the twins lived like one soul in two bodies, with porous boundaries between them. When April began to see the world for what it was, she began to despair about the racism that oppressed her, and became increasingly depressed until one day she took her father’s shot gun and killed herself. At that point, August explained, “it seemed like the world itself became May’s twin sister.” 3 From that point on, it was as if all of the suffering of the world just became a part of May, and she couldn’t distinguish between her sadness and the suffering of others. That was when May began building the stone wall, and writing all of the sorrows of the world on little slips of paper to stuff into the wall. May’s ritual of lamentation at her wailing wall was the only thing that seemed to help. Where the rest of the world might be in denial of their pain, May became the voice of suffering itself. She acknowledges the speech of pain in an ongoing psalm of lament and in a ritual of mourning.

As Brueggemann says, “The pain at the center of praise has theological warrant in Israel in the cries of hurt, rage, doubt, vengeance, and isolation. Most importantly, they are cries, not buried, not stifled, but cries passionately addressed out of the reality of life.”4 When cries of pain are voiced, Brueggemann argues, “the odd gift of hope and healing is given.”

Jesus adds his voice to the chorus of voices that have articulated pain in the history of the world. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he cries, and all of the broken dreams, failed expectations, lost hopes, and severed relationships seem to rush into his words. The world knows not what to do, for we have devised complex strategies to deny, avoid, and disallow the pain of human experience. As Jesus raises his voice in lament, and we bear witness to his cry, we are forced to feel our own pain and to touch those tender places within us that have been left wanting.

Where are the places of unvoiced pain in the collective? I believe that Jesus inadvertently names one of these places for us in the language he uses in his lament. He uses a feminine image to describe his love for the world: he is a mother hen, who folds her wings over her young in love and protection. The loss of feminine images for God is one of the places of pain in the collective. Both men and women have suffered as patriarchy has suppressed feminine images of God, and the feminine soul of the world has been depleted by such neglect.

In her book, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd tells the story of Sappho, a Greek poet. “While male poets of her day were writing and singing of war, politics, and worldly commerce, the lyric Sappho sang poems about love and suffering, about orchards and crickets and the moon in its roundness. At times, her voice was joyful and sublime, other times insulting and ironic, but it was always fired with individual truth.” 5 Kidd goes on to say that in 350 C.E., the bishop of Constantinople ordered Sappho’s writings burned. Sappho wrote over 500 poems, and only about 700 lines remain. The feminine voice was crushed, along with feminine images of God, a loss we still lament today.

Where are the places of unvoiced pain in your life? What secret messages are written on slips of paper and tucked inside the crevices of your own wailing wall? Have you ever given voice to the “if onlys” and lost causes that haunt you? Listen, for the voice of Jesus calls to our souls, calls forth that which we can not bear on our own, for his is the cry of the human one, the call that rises up to God and demands God’s unfailing attention.

As you journey to Jerusalem, may you have the courage to name and voice your pain, for it is the holy thing to do. And when you raise your own voice in lament, may you feel the wings of the hen mother fold over you, holding you close as the night falls fast around you. Amen.


1 Sue Monk Kidd. The Secret Life of Bees. New York: Viking, 2002., pp. 84-85.

2 Walter Brueggemann. Israel’s Praise. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988, p. 133.

3 Kidd., p.97.

4 Brueggemann, p. 133.

5 Sue Monk Kidd. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. Harper: San Francisco, 1996, p. 206.



  • Pastor Meg Hess