“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” Luke 13:34
If I were to ask you how you picture Jesus, what would you say? You probably have any number of images in your mind that you’ve collected from children’s Bibles or stained glass windows. If I pushed you to name your favorite biblical image of Jesus, you might go for something like “shepherd” or “teacher.” If I pushed you a little more to name a biblical metaphor for Jesus, you might come up with the light of the world or the bread of life or the vine from which the branches grow.
I’m guessing you would not come up with “chicken.”
Yes, the gospel reading puts it a little more poetically. Jesus says, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” It’s a gorgeous image of maternal love and protection that Jesus claims as his own, an image that one scholar describes as both “fierce and vulnerable.”[i]
We might prefer for Jesus to choose a different image. Why can’t he borrow from the prophet Hosea and be a lion, crushing his enemies with a single blow, or (another Hosea image) a bear ready to charge in and set things right? (Hosea 11:10 and 13:6)[ii] Or, if we must have a bird image, why not the language from last week’s psalm (Psalm 91), from which we get the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings”? In that hymn we sing about God lifting us up on eagle’s wings so that we need not fear the terror of the night.
Today we don’t get those images. Today we get a chicken. A mother hen, yes. But a chicken nonetheless.
The image takes on a deeper meaning when we hear Herod described as a fox. The Pharisees come to Jesus with a warning: Herod is out to get him. Herod is a classic biblical villain. He is a political pawn of the Roman government, just clever enough to be dangerous and just foolish enough to be manipulated by others. Herod’s only tools are intimidation and violence, which makes him a fox circling the henhouse. Jesus is increasingly becoming a political problem for Herod, and we know how Herod deals with perceived enemies. Remember that Herod was the one who imprisoned John the Baptist and later had him beheaded.
Notice that Jesus is the one who calls Herod a fox in response to the Pharisees’ warning: “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.’” I love this response. It shows no fear of Herod’s power. Jesus seems to be saying: Herod will be Herod. I’m focused on the work of healing.
Jesus is looking down the road toward Jerusalem. He knows that death awaits him there. He knows that he does not have much time. That’s why we get a reference to the moment when he will enter Jerusalem in triumph, a moment we will celebrate on Palm Sunday – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And, still more subtle, we hear Jesus say that he will finish his work on the third day. We know what happens three days after Jesus is crucified.
No one other than Jesus gets these references. But for us, on this side of the empty tomb, we are able to see that Jesus knows he is about to die and does not flinch. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a mother hen defending her chicks, but it is indeed both fierce and vulnerable. Like a mother hen, Jesus puts his own life between the evil of the world and us. He faces down the fox, who will at first appear to have won the fight. But that is not the end of the story. The fox does not know about resurrection.
Our world is full of Herods, who, when they feel threatened, know only intimidation and violence as a response. We see the effects day after day of an evil run rampant. We have certainly seen it this week as once again people are massacred while practicing their faith. Once again we see the sin of white supremacy claim innocent lives. Once again we see people murdered while worshipping the same God that we worship this morning.
I don’t know how much more I can take. We saw it in Charleston. We saw it in Pittsburgh. We now see it in Christchurch, New Zealand.
My friend Misty moved to Christchurch a few months ago with her family because she took a position as a professor at the University of Canterbury there. Her account of Friday’s horror is heartbreaking. Fifty people dead. The university and local schools were on lockdown for hours. Misty was separated from her husband and two children for most of the day as she and her colleagues worked to keep other people’s children safe and calm. As of yesterday they were still working to connect with all of their PhD students, several of whom are Muslim. Kids who go to school with her children are among the injured. A father from the school is among the dead.
We all grieve alongside the people of Christchurch, especially the Muslim community there. We will pray for them in our Prayers of the People today. And we ask: What can we do?
Earlier in Luke’s gospel Jesus has said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
In the chapter just after today’s gospel, Jesus says it again: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
When Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me,” he’s asking us to risk death. Not just physical death, but the death of playing it safe, the death of feeling too embarrassed to speak up, the death of putting concern for reputation above what is right. One of the things Jesus is asking us to do is put ourselves between evil and the ones whom evil would harm. Just like the mother hen would do.
Strangely, this week, as I was pondering what it means that Jesus uses this image of the mother hen, I stumbled upon a news story about a fox who just a few days ago snuck into a chicken coop at night on a big farm in France.[iii] I’m sure the fox thought that it was dinner time. The next morning the fox’s dead body was found in the corner of the chicken coop. Some combination of the 3000 chickens had joined forces and pecked him to death.
Now let me be clear. I don’t want to be too literal here. I’m not suggesting we should gang up and return violence for violence. But what if we take a lesson from the solidarity of the chickens? What if we stood together as people of faith and resisted prejudice and evil in all its forms? The foxes always think they are more powerful than the chickens. The foxes assume that their predatory ways will prevail. But what if we came together and said no more?
Because every time we allow a stereotype to be invoked without being challenged, when we remain silent in the face of a prejudiced comment, when we hold back because we’re too scared to say something – then we allow the world to be less safe for all of us, but especially for our Muslim neighbors, our Jewish neighbors, our black or brown neighbors, our LGBTQ neighbors, our disabled neighbors.
Evil is on the loose, prowling around like the fox looking for the next way into the henhouse.
So let’s put our mothering wings together and, like the Savior we follow, risk everything to stop it. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]See David Schnasa Jacobsen’s commentary at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3990
[ii]Thank you to Dr. Audrey West: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3010&fbclid=IwAR3713q6xb_3rUYyTONLwHF0tjWpkGFgtVoWl8Au-gGU3CQ7EMEP923eOZU