Language is a funny thing. I’ve never been good at learning languages, but I’m fascinated by the history of words and how we come to use them. I believe that how we use certain words and phrases often reveals what matters to us.
I was reminded this week in a piece by Juliana Castro that verbs offer especially important clues to the way different cultures value and measure things.[i] In English, attention is something you pay. We talk about paying attention. In Spanish attention is something you lend. In German attention is something you gift. In Italian and French you “do” attention.
That American preference for the phrase “paying attention” has me thinking about all the ways that we have commodified attention. Everybody and everyone wants our attention, and they’re hoping that they can leverage it for a profit. You’ve probably had the experience of doing a Google search – or even just mentioning an idea near your phone – and suddenly your online space is flooded with ads related to whatever it is you were investigating.
I posted a few pictures from my national parks trip, and suddenly my timeline was full of ads for tents and backpacks and every kind of outdoor gear in the world. I want to say to the team at Facebook, “Look, just because I did glamping for a couple of days doesn’t mean that I’m going to go live in the woods now. You can stop.” But they’re hoping that I’ll pay attention – and that I will pay these advertisers for what they’re selling.
Notice how people pay attention in today’s gospel. Because that attention says a lot about the world of power that Herod occupies, a world in which everything has a price.
Herod is having a birthday bash. So he wants people to pay attention to him. He’s invited the courtiers and officers and leaders of Galilee because of course those are the people whose attention is most valuable.
They’re all paying attention to a young woman dancing, Herod’s niece turned stepdaughter. It’s a tangled family tree. Herod has essentially stolen his brother’s wife Herodias. John the Baptist had been calling attention to that move in a way that no one cared for, least of all Herodias herself.
Herodias, meanwhile, is paying attention to the politics of that party, looking for an opportunity to get her revenge against John the Baptist.
The young woman, who delights everyone with her dancing, doesn’t know what to do when Herod tells her she can have anything she wants, even half his kingdom. This game is out of her league. She’s been taught how to be the object of everyone’s attention. She has not been taught how to be the subject of her own life. She runs to her mother for advice.
The girl brings back the request prompted by her mother – the head of John the Baptist on a platter. That demand certainly gets Herod’s attention, and for reasons that are somehow related to keeping his word, Herod dispatches his soldiers to behead John.
This world is one in which everything can be bought or bartered, sold or stolen. Herod can take the wife that he wants. The men can make girl dance for their entertainment. Herodias can ask for a man’s head on a platter. It’s a stark and violent reminder that in this kind of world, whatever happens always comes at a cost to someone. In this case John pays the price for telling the truth about right and wrong.
This is how John dies. John, the one who told people to prepare the way of the Lord for Jesus, the one who baptized Jesus, the one who lived completely as himself. He dies because people gave their attention to the wrong things and didn’t want to be called out on it.
Jesus doesn’t play much of a role in this story. I added a few verses, though, borrowing the beginning of next week’s gospel because I wanted us to notice how the attention of Jesus and his followers works differently than that of Herod and his circle.
Notice that the disciples do not look away from the violence and the horror of their friend John’s death.[ii] They show up to claim the body. They make sure that John receives a proper burial, even as their hearts must be breaking to realize what can happen when you give your attention to doing what is right.
The piece that I read about language this week also reminded me that attention and tenderness share a root, the Latin word tendere, which means to stretch or to tense.[iii] It provides the root word for the ways that we say that we care, that we try, that we are exposed to being hurt. What makes us tender also makes us vulnerable.
After some of the disciples tend to John’s body, Jesus then tends to his disciples. And h does so with tenderness. He calls them away to a deserted place to get some rest. Jesus gives them attention, not to impress them or exploit them or make sure they owe him one. He tends to their needs because he loves them.
And though they encounter a large crowd that gets in the way of their plan to rest, Jesus also shows tenderness towards the people who have gathered. He has compassion for them because they are like sheep without a shepherd.
We’ll hear in a couple of weeks that familiar story of Jesus feeding the thousands. For now it is enough to remember that the way Jesus throws a dinner party is so much different than the way Herod does things.
This is the most fundamental way in which Jesus is a threat to the world that Herod leads. Herod pays attention only to what will serve his own interests. Jesus gives his attention to those from whom others turn away. The sick, the lost, the struggling, the worried, the anxious, the fearful.
What we give our attention to is an expression of our faith. If you were to do an audit of who or what gets your attention on any given day, what might it reveal? There would be some days that I wouldn’t be proud of. On those days my attention is claimed disproportionately by things that are ultimately not important: by my phone, by the anxious stories that take up space in my head, by the distractions that don’t deserve my time. The days I feel the most satisfied are the ones on which I’ve been able to give my attention to what I love most – the best parts of ministry, my friends and family, a good book, prayer and reflection, a chance to be with people and hear their stories.
As Christians we’re almost always better able to give our attention to what matters when we remember what Jesus has given first to us – not only his tender attention, but his very life. When our attention gets fixated on death or despair, Jesus transforms that death and despair into life and hope.
This week I hope that you won’t just pay attention. I hope you will give your attention. Give your attention to someone who needs it from you the most, without distraction and without expectation for repayment.
And I pray that you will receive the gift of someone else’s attention – with a holy tenderness that will nourish your soul. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[iii] See endnote 1.
“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