This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on March 17, 2019, is built around the readings for the Second Sunday in Lent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
A recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 service:
Here is a transcript of the recording:
Sometimes a preacher wakes up in the middle of the night on Sunday morning, and something comes to them that changes everything they’ve been thinking for the past week. Sometimes that thing comes later in the morning when they get up and open the news sites on their computer, just to check, and they discover that what they’ve been doing all week is writing a sermon no longer works.
Those are terrifying moments. But my experience this week was very different. All week long I thought about a sermon. I took notes. I jotted things down. And then on Thursday, when I actually set about to write, something about those words felt very familiar. So, I went back and looked, and sure enough, I was writing the same sermon that I wrote about this passage six years ago, in Lent of 2013. Now, while those middle of the night moments are pretty terrifying, you would think that discovering that I was re writing a sermon that I already knew really well would be a happy moment… but it was kind of terrifying for me to discover that that sermon still applies today, six years later.
I have adjusted this sermon a little bit to account for the fact that I have now been to Jerusalem and stood in the place where this morning’s story happened. But hear again, a sermon that was written in February of 2013.
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… Not a lot of contact with chickens there so I don’t know a lot about them, but the little bit that I do know got me in trouble one time. The summer after I graduated from college, I was with a bunch of coworkers in central Pennsylvania who were sure that I was a “city kid,” and having worked all summer to dispel that idea I blew it when around the corner of a building came the first flock of live chickens I had ever seen. I stood there transfixed, and when they asked me what was going on, I confessed that I was trying to figure out where the drumstick was… A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing!
Now, 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 henhouse. a Fox in the henhouse means panic, voices raised in terror and pain. A fox in the henhouse means the sound of running feet, carnage, blood, death.
And when a fox enters the henhouse, 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’ve come to tell him that Herod wants him dead. And Jesus’s response to that threat, the threat from Herod the fox, is surprisingly dismissive. He doesn’t seem to be worried about his own life at all. And the language that he uses, the pictures that he invokes, his cry of lament over the children of Israel, shift our attention, and 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 state 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 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, is really talking about an understanding of the world and it’s power structures that stand in opposition to the vision, the dream of God for all creation. The “fox” in this parable represents our tendency to take what we need, 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 henhouse 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 little corner of the henhouse; or are we going to cast our lot in 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 a fox and a Mother Hen, the fox at first blush, 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 to defend us. Surely we can cultivate and tame the fox’s rage and penchant for blood, using it to our own benefit.
But there is this little problem with putting the Fox in charge of the henhouse. The Fox has a tendency to sneak in when no one else is looking, in the dead of the night, seeking to slake its hunger. And 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 henhouse floor by the Fox’s destructive rampage. Once we have let the fox into the henhouse 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.
Standing here this morning, the slope of the Mount of Olives at our back, the ground before us falling away to the Kidron Valley, the Garden of Gesthemane down there at the foot of the hill, and the Temple Mount rising before us across the valley, the slope is covered with graves. The people of Israel have chosen the hill that is the Mount of Olives for a public cemetery. And in that rocky and steep soil, burials are above ground in stone crypts. And standing there you can see that the hillside is littered with the graves of the children of Jerusalem.
Right at our back is a Franciscan chapel called Dominus Flevit, which means “the Lord has wept.” And on the chapel altar is a mosaic, a picture of a mother hen with her wings spread wide, trying her best to look as ferocious as a mother and can look, with her chicks gathered up under her wings.
Here in this place Jesus is telling us your house is “left to you,” another way of telling us that our henhouse is 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’s 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 and 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, and who we are.
In an article published by the Christian Century in 1985 Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the Episcopal Church’s most gifted and treasured preachers asked,
“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.”
Now I said that in this passage, Barbara Brown Taylor asks a question. But you may have noticed that the end of that quotation there was a period and not a question mark. But you know… today’s Gospel reading didn’t end with a question mark, and there’s still a question there. It’s implicit in the clear distinction between two ways of seeing, being, and living in the world.
Jesus is asking us to turn away 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 are gathered, 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 henhouse floor.