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Probably many of you have heard the old joke about the guy in a flood. The waters are rising around his house, when down the flooded street comes a boat with rescue workers who call out to him, “come get in the boat, and we’ll get you out of here.” But the guy refuses, saying, “no need! God will provide for me!”
But the waters keep rising, and he ends up having to go to the second floor of his house to stay out of the rising flood. Then a second boat comes by, and they pull up to his window and say, “come get in the boat, and we’ll get you out of here.” But again, the guy refuses, saying, “no need! God will provide for me!”
Yet the waters of the flood keep rising and finally the guy ends up on top of the roof of his house with only a little bit of dry roof left. But just at that moment, a helicopter appears overhead. They drop him a rope and tell him to grab hold and they’ll pull him up. But for a third time, the guy refuses, and says, “no need! God will provide!”
So the waters keep rising, the guy drowns, and he finally he finds himself at the pearly gates of heaven, where he sees God. And he says to God, “I don’t understand! You always said you’d provide for me in every storm in my life, and yet I drowned!” To which God replies, “What do you mean? I sent two boats and a helicopter out after you!”
It’s an old joke, but it illustrates an important point – that often, God’s help comes in ways that we don’t recognize or even worse, refuse to accept. The problem isn’t that God isn’t willing to help us, but that we’re not willing to accept the help.
And this is the thing that seems to viscerally bother Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is headed with his disciples to Jerusalem. He’s not there yet, but as he thinks about it, what bothers him is NOT that he can’t help people, but that so often, people are simply not willing to let God help them. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
They weren’t willing. But it wasn’t just them. And it wasn’t just the guy to whom two boats and a helicopter were sent. It’s often a problem for all of us, and I think that’s why Luke recorded this saying of Jesus.
And there are several reasons for not being willing to accept help from God. Sometimes, it’s because people:
- Want God to act in a different way – I don’t want a boat or a helicopter; I want God to magically transport me out of here like in Star Trek! Seriously though, sometimes the problem really is that we don’t see God acting in what looks like a “regular” person or a “normal” event… (we want something more “mystical” or “spiritual”, which is sometimes why people didn’t see God in Jesus, who looked just like one of us…)
- Don’t want to have to change to accept God’s help – I don’t want to have to climb into a boat or grab a rope. In fact, I don’t want to leave home at all! Isn’t there a way to get God’s help without having to change myself? And this is why the concept of “repentance” (which means “change”) is really so hard. Repentance isn’t so much about refraining from doing a bad thing, as it is about being open to living in a new way to which God calls us…
- Want God to make the problem just go away – I don’t want this “flood” to be happening in my life. Can’t I just wake up and the water will be gone. After all, eventually floods are over. Can’t God just make it happen now? And often, part of the unwillingness to even look for God’s help is that we’re too busy complaining to God that we’re in this mess to begin with… (and often, that can be both psychologically and emotionally all consuming…)
Sometimes, being unable to recognize God’s help – and being unwilling to accept it – is a bigger problem than we’d like to admit to ourselves. Jesus provides no easy solutions, but he does provide a clue to how we can more readily be open to seeing and accepting God’s help. And that’s through being “gathered.” Jesus speaks of God’s continually wanting to “gather” us – both to himself and with one another.
And sometimes, we may pass over that image of being gathered like chicks as simply a sweet, quaint image. But in fact, it’s often through allowing ourselves to be gathered together that we’re most open to seeing, experiencing and accepting God’s help in our lives.
Through these last couple of years – when we couldn’t gather – a lot folks felt less connected to one another, as well as sometimes less connected to God. In fact, while we’ve learned a lot about how to be community when we’re not physically together, and how to stay connected to God in times of disconnection, most of us have also developed a deeper sense of why “gathering” is so meaningful and important.
God uses gathering to help us see and experience his presence and help. And that happens when we gather in:
- Worship – there really is something different when we’re gathered to pray and sing and support one another – often, we find strength in the gathering that we just can’t experience when we’re worshipping by ourselves… there are some folks who just aren’t physically able to gather together in-person for worship, and it’s great that we have online opportunities. But almost all of those who can’t gather tell me that while they love the new online opportunities, they’d still rather have the connection of being physically together. And so if you’re able, don’t let online become your only way to worship. Let yourself be gathered…
- Fellowship – years ago, people often dismissed getting together for things like “wine & cheese before Lenten service” as fluff. But I’ve come to realize that in many of these normal gatherings, we build and deepen relationships with each other that God uses to help us support one another in the floods of our lives… Being gathered isn’t fluff …
- Prayer for one another – sometimes, people think of prayer as just a personal wish list. Or sometimes, they think prayer is like an online petition, and that if enough people bug God about something, then God will do it! But prayer for others is really God’s invitation to be in solidarity with them, and to be gathered with them even and especially when we can’t be physically together and when there doesn’t seem to be anything we can “do” to help… (and often, people who are being prayed for really do experience a sense that they’re not alone, and they feel the help and support of being gathered…)
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that God is always willing to help us, and indeed, is continually offering his help to get us through the storms of our lives. Jesus calls us not to miss out on those offers because they come packaged in ways that we don’t expect, or that call us to live differently than we’ve been living.
But most of all, Jesus calls us to be gathered – to be gathered together not only with him, but with the community to which he calls us. For it’s often through being gathered by Jesus that we recognize support we might not have seen before; it’s through being gathered that we find help we didn’t even know we needed; and it’s often through being gathered that we find strength, and that we give strength to others, to continue the journey to which Jesus calls us.