This sermon draws on the readings appointed for use on the Second Sunday in Lent. It is focused on Luke 13:31-35.
You can find those readings here.
Jesus said that he longed to gather the children of Israel under his wings like a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings… Is Jesus really talking about… chickens?
I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. I don’t know a lot about chickens. In fact, the summer after I graduated from college, the little bit I do know about chickens only served to cement my status as a “city kid” with my co-workers in central Pennsylvania. Having spent the whole summer trying to disabuse them of that notion I completely blew it one day when, confronted by my first flock of live chickens I stood there, fascinated, trying to figure out where the drumstick was! A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing!
I don’t know a lot about chickens but I do have a pretty good idea of what happens when a fox gets into the hen-house. a Fox in the hen-house means panic, voices raised in terror and pain. A fox in the hen-house means the sound of running feet, carnage, blood, death.
And when a fox enters the hen-house there is nothing a Mother Hen can do but rush to her chicks defense, sacrificing herself to save them from the jaws of the destroyer.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is responding to a group of Pharisees who have come to tell him that Herod wants him dead. Jesus’s response to that threat is dismissive. He doesn’t seem to be worried about his own life. But the language that he uses, the pictures that he invokes, his cry of lament over the children of Jerusalem, tell us that there is a greater threat here than the one posed by Herod.
Jesus is pointing out that the children of Israel have a choice to make and that they have, for a long time, chosen to follow not the loving mother hen, but the fox!
Herod Antipas, the fox who wants to kill Jesus, rules Galilee as a client sate of Rome. He is a traitor, a collaborator, a participant in the oppression of his own people. He is also the son of Herod the “Great.” It was Herod the “Great” who had the innocents slaughtered in an attempt to eradicate the newly born King of the Jews that the Magi were seeking. Herod the “Great” had his own children executed for fear that they were plotting to steal his throne. So, Herod Antipas came from a long line of people willing to do anything, including killing their own chicks and the chick of others to maintain their hold on status, rank, privilege and power. You would think that a threat from this man would be enough to grab the attention of an itinerant preacher as he makes his way through Herod’s domain and yet even here, with his life threatened by the “fox,” Jesus keeps himself focused on a much larger concern.
When Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen, and laments the history of Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:34), we realize that the “fox” he is referring to is something bigger than Herod Antipas, first century Palestinian Jew. Jesus is really talking about an understanding of the world and it’s power structures that stands in opposition to the vision, the dream of God for creation. The “Fox” in this parable represents our tendency to take what we need and want, to subjugate others to our agenda, to marginalize and to ride roughshod over the poor, the weak, and anyone else who doesn’t have or can’t wield the power that we think we have and deserve. Jesus is telling us that the “fox” is already in the hen-house and that there is a choice to be made. Are we going to align ourselves with the fox in the hopes that we might be spared by the preservation of the status quo, that we might be allowed to continue to run our own corner of the hen-house; or are we going to cast our lot with the mother hen who has been trying for so long to gather us under her wings and shelter us from the power that would destroy us?
There is a choice to be made and, given the choice between the fox and the Mother Hen the fox might seem like a better choice. On the surface the Fox seems more powerful and attractive. The Fox offers perks and benefits, privilege and status, rank and recognition. The Fox would seem better equipped to defend itself and us. Surely we can cultivate and tame the fox’s rage and penchant for blood, using it to our own benefit.
But there is that little problem with putting your trust in the Fox. The Fox has a tendency to sneak in when no one is looking, in the dead of the night, seeking to slake its hunger. When we finally wake up and take stock we will see that some of us are missing, or injured, trampled into the hard scrabble of the hen-house floor by the Fox’s destructive rampage. Once we have let the fox into the hen-house there is just no telling who might be deemed disposable, be discarded, be left out or even go missing altogether. Yes, the fox is powerful, but in the end, no one is safe when there is a fox in the henhouse. But here Jesus is, telling us that our hen-house is “left to you,” another way of saying “left desolate” because we have refused to shelter in the shadow of the wings of the mother hen. Why are we so unwilling to turn our backs on the fox and cast our lot with the love of the Mother Hen?
It is a frightening thing to reject the fox. It is even more frightening to step into the shadow of the Mother Hen’s wings because, as Jesus is pointing out when he shifts the definition of “fox” away from Herod towards a view of the systems and structures that dominate and shape our lives, the choice we make will ultimately define the way that we live together.
“If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”
Hmmm… one of our most gifted and treasured preachers asked? That quote didn’t end with a question mark. It ended with a period. But then, the question in this morning’s story about Jesus and the Pharisees didn’t end with a question mark either. Did it? The question was implicit in the clear distinction between two ways of seeing, and living in the world.
Jesus is asking us to turn from the way of the fox; to stop participating in structures that oppress, crush and destroy; to recognize that the fox under whose standard we stand will not recognize our past loyalty and support but will destroy as all without regard or distinction. Jesus is asking us to take courage from his example; to have faith in God’s love and promise; and to stand, as he did, wings spread, breast exposed, and to gather his children under our wings. To fly at the fox in defense of the weak and the poor the widow and the orphan, the forgotten stranger, the marginalized, the other… Jesus is asking us to gather under the shadow of his wings and to let him rescue our humanity from the hard scrabble of the hen-house floor.