In the 2011-2012 school year, 29 students and recent students of Harper High School in Chicago were shot. Eight of those students died. The producers of the NPR program This American Life were deeply curious about what life is like in a school that lies in such a violent community. They sent three reporters to spend five months interviewing students, parents, teachers, and staff.
What they found surprised them. The violence was gang related, but not drug related. The neighborhood around Harper is made up of a dozen small, loosely organized gangs based on blocks and neighborhoods. A child is automatically a part of a gang, just by living on a particular block . To avoid gang activity, the only option is for the child to never leave his home after school. Gun violence occurs because of perceived slights, romantic relationships gone bad, revenge, and for no reason at all. This violence affects every child at Harper High School. Every one of the members of its football team, for instance, have been shot at some point in their adolescence.
Harper high school has an incredibly dedicated principal, teachers, and school psychologists. However, the adults who emerge as having the closest relationships with students are the two social workers assigned to the school.
Crystal and Anita have an official caseload of 55 students, but many more come to their office to find a safe place to talk. Their tiny office is often so filled with students, there is no place for anyone to sit. You can hear the concern in their voices as they ask a student about his trouble sleeping after he accidentally shot his own brother. You have the image of these women as hens gathering these children to themselves like chicks, using their limited resources to act as peacemakers, counselors, mothers. They will do nearly anything to protect these kids.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen, gathering in his chicks. Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is looking for him. Herod Anitpas was the Roman tetrarch of Judea–the territory where Jesus was most active. Herod was the agent of Roman rule and culture, in opposition of Jewish rule and culture. Jesus loathed Herod. In describing himself as a hen, Jesus sets himself in opposition to Herod. Herod is the fox that comes after God’s people and Jesus is the hen who protects God’s people. Herod is leading the Jews away from God’s word and vision for them, while Jesus will walk straight into his death at Jerusalem for God’s people.
Crystal and Anita, the social workers at Harper High School, are trying to protect their students from the prevailing culture, too. Roman culture said that the Emperor and his power should be at the center of everyone’s worship. The culture of the neighborhood in which Harper High School sits says that power through violence is the central truth to which everyone should adjust. Crystal and Anita are trying desperately to change the points of view of individual students, so that the culture at large will change.
Jesus, of course, is also drawing people to himself and trying to change a prevailing culture. He wants desperately for God’s people to return to God and live lives of justice and peace. He talks and talks and talks about what God’s kingdom is like. He gathers followers one by one, and encourages them to transform their lives.
Back to Harper High. A day or two before the big homecoming game and dance, a former student is shot. As the student lies in the hospital, the staff at Harper High frantically try to find out what possible reactions might be and whether or not they should cancel the game and dance for security purposes. The last thing they want is a shooting on their property. The principal, Leonetta Sanders, attempts to recruit teachers, staff, and their spouses to act as extra security for the game. Anita, one of the social workers has spent all day talking with students about what staff might expect. Students have warned her that there is a very real danger of violence at each event. Anita, mother of two small children, has made the difficult decision to go home so she will be safe. At first she tells this to the reporter calmly, but soon she breaks down in tears of guilt. She wants so badly to protect her students from their own terrible decisions, but she has reached a line she cannot cross. Ordinarily, she is not fearful like this—she walks through the neighborhoods around Harper, talking with students, walking to their houses, meeting with parents. But on this day, with a credible threat of shootings, she decides the risk is not worth it.
Who can blame her! How many of us would even enter the neighborhood around Harper High, much less enter it every day, over and over again, tackling the issue of gun violence every day? The teachers and staff at Harper have incredible moral courage, but even the most courageous person has limits, and for Anita those limits are making sure her children have a mother who is alive and well to care for them.
Jesus did not share these limits. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus seems completely aware that the inevitable outcome of his ministry is his death. Jesus identifies himself in the line of prophets who die in Jerusalem, but unlike other prophets who have died after speaking God’s truth to God’s people, Jesus’ death will prove redemptive.
No matter how hard they try, Crystal and Anita are unlikely to create such a cultural change that the neighborhoods around Harper High become safe again. The barriers of poverty and culture are incredibly strong. Crystal and Anita may help get shepherd a few children safely through, and will undoubtedly help hundreds more along the way feel loved, but change of that scale is incredibly difficult.
We humans are a stubborn, stubborn bunch. Over and over again we make choices that are bad for us. Whether it is picking up guns in the streets of Chicago or driving after a couple glasses of wine on highway 29; worshiping a Roman Emperor or worshiping a paycheck; we court our own self destruction every day. God knows this about us. He tried helping us in so many ways—giving us time in the desert, leading us to a promised land, giving us judges, kings, and then prophets. But no matter how charismatic our leader or wise our prophet, we always fell back into idol worship and injustice.
So God sends us Jesus, his very self. And Jesus has to be more than a prophet. He has to be more than a social worker. We need more than encouragement. We need more than love. We need a miracle.
And so Jesus’s ministry is not just his miracles and cures, not just his words of rebuke and hope. Jesus ministry is also Jerusalem, because without Jerusalem there could be no death and without Jesus’ death there would be no resurrection. Jesus did not come to simply help us manage our sin and brokenness. He came not only to comfort us like a mother hen. He came destroy the hold sin and brokenness have over us. He came to open the door for all of us, those in the pews here in Ivy, and those in the hallways of Harper High School. He came to create the beginning of a future in which there will be no more violence, no more tears, only love. We wait, we long for that future to unfold. And while we wait, we join Crystal, Anita and Principal Sanders in extending our wings to the world around us, offering a vision of hope and peace and of a God who loves us, even to death.