Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
March 17, 2019
Luke 13: 31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “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. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
There is a story about Winston Churchill who was giving a speech at the Canadian Parliament building at the end of World War II. Churchill mentioned to the assembly that at the very beginning of the war, he had heard that Hitler and his generals were making comments about conquering Great Britain. Churchill quoted one of the German generals as saying, “Germany would wring Britain’s neck like a chicken.” Churchill then offered an appropriate long pause and said, “Some chicken! Some neck!”
My mother has been gone for over 17 years now. Yet there is seldom a day that passes when something she did or something she taught me doesn’t run through my mind. She tended to be a very protective mother, perhaps sometimes too protective. If anyone or anything threatened my brother or sister or me, Mom was there to stick up for us. I remember one spring when all of us were still in elementary school, my mother made light jackets for my brother and me. They weren’t the most fashionable things but they were lightweight, they had all sorts of pockets to put important kid stuff, and they were made with love by my mother. One day, my brother came home from school without his jacket. It seems some of the other boys in his class were teasing him about it. For whatever reason they stole the jacket and buried it somewhere in the sand pits that occupied one end of the Stanton Elementary playground. My brother told his teacher and the principal but some reason they didn’t view the situation as particularly urgent. They told him that they would keep an eye out for his jacket. With great sadness my brother went home without it. With great fear he had to tell my mother what had happened to the jacket.
You might be able to guess what happened next. When my brother told her what happened to the jacket, my mother sprang into action. She immediately went up to the elementary school with two shovels in her hands – one for her to dig up the playground and the other for the principal to join her. I don’t know how the principal was able to calm my mother down or to prevent a complete excavation of the schoolyard. But he found the coat, offered to have it washed, and said that he would be speaking to the boy who did the dirty deed. My mother came home quite content that day. She had adequate protected her child and I don’t think she had to lift a shovelful of dirt.
The Scripture lesson this morning needs some context. Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem, toward an inevitable confrontation with the religious and political authorities. As he traveled he taught about the Kingdom of God and he cured many people of illnesses as he passed through the various villages and towns. Most people welcomed his words and his works. Some began to follow him. But others were threatened by his popularity. Others became wary that Jesus was about to upset the status quo and ruin the comfortable relationship that the Jewish authorities had with their Roman occupiers.
When he arrived in Jerusalem, a group of Pharisees came to Jesus and urged him to leave because Herod, the Roman appointed governor was seeking to kill him. Now this was not the same Herod who ordered the killing of male children following Jesus’ birth but this Herod was also a bit bloodthirsty, having beheaded John the Baptist. Perhaps the Pharisees were really concerned about Jesus’ safety but more than likely they were worried that Jesus’ words and actions would make Herod a bit grumpier toward all of the Jews. And so they came out to warn Jesus and to ask him to leave Jerusalem immediately.
Jesus knew that his ministry and his mission did not come with opposition. At this point he probably even knew of the possibility of death. But rather than heed the warning and make preparations to run away, Jesus faced the threat head on. He spoke confidently, comparing Herod to a fox, a pretender or a weakling who does not have the real power to follow through on his threats. He spoke of his commitment to cast out demons, to perform cures, and to restore God’s intention in the face of evil. And then he drew upon this rather strange metaphor, a mother hen who seeks to gather her chicks for protection and for provision. Like a mother hen, Jesus wanted to teach and protect the children of God, but they were not willing. As a result, they were left vulnerable to the power of the fox.
A mother hen. This is one of my favorite images in all of Scripture. I supposed I like it because it reminds me of my own mother. It is a description of God that I have personally experienced and understand very well because this is how my mother loved me. I use this particular image a lot at memorial services for women because it is through the care of mothers and grandmothers that we experience first-hand the power of love. I like it because throughout the pages of Scripture, God is mostly assumed to be male, referred to with male pronouns and images that are more masculine and powerful than feminine and tender. Karoline Lewis writes that there are only 93 women who get to speak in the Bible and only 49 of those 93 are named. “These women speak a total of 14,056 words collectively—roughly 1.1 percent of the Bible. Mary, the mother of Jesus, speaks 191 words; Mary Magdalene gets 61; Sarah, the wife of Abraham has 141 words. Because of that, this is an image of Jesus, a picture of God’s love that I need to hear and see.
A mother hen. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “Jesus likened himself to a brooding hen whose chief purpose in life is to protect her young…A mother hen has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.” A mother hen, wings spread and body exposed, typical of how Jesus stood in his concern and compassion for others. A mother hen. Not an eagle who is majestic in flight. Not a hawk who can spot its prey miles and away and quickly take advantage of situation. Not a leopard quiet and clever. Not a lion strong and overpowering. A mother hen. Something that doesn’t inspire much confidence. Yet something we can all understand and experience.
Taylor goes on to say, “Jesus has disciples. Herod has soldiers. Jesus serves. Herod rules. Jesus prays for his enemies. Herod kills his. In the contest between a fox and a chicken, whom would you bet on?” It is a mother hen that Jesus chooses to illustrate God’s love and protection. That is the way God works, turning everything upside down, surprising us with situations we don’t expect, giving out rewards to those who don’t seem to deserve them, sending God’s very presence not in a fox licking his chops and taking advantage of the situation, but a mother hen holding out her wings in vulnerability to protect those who come to her.
In the season of Lent, we are to closely examine our lives and our behaviors and determine what obstacles lie between us and God. We are to contemplate the cosmic battle between the sharp tooth and the gentle wing. The illustration of the mother hen and the fox causes us to consider the attraction we have to the powers of the world and the ways of the empire. Yet the sly foxes of the world turn us away from that which is good and eternal and pull us in the direction of those things that satisfy now but do not linger. All too often we have failed to understand or respond to God’s love for us. We get caught up in our endless anxiety that comes when we yearn for the safety of possession and the comfort of security. We have turned God’s call to repentance into pointing fingers and gathering arms. We are to ponder God’s way exampled in Jesus, a way of being vulnerable yet finding strength in a concern for compassion and righteousness. Finding God’s love as a mother hen, we are to be a mother hen for the world- arms open, heart exposed, wings spread.
Again, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “who would have thought being a mother hen offered such opportunities for courage. Maybe that is why the church is called ‘Mother Church.’ It is where we come to be fed and sheltered, but it is also where we come to stand firm with those who need the same things from us. It is where we grow from chicks to chickens, by giving as we have received, by teaching what we have learned, and by loving as we ourselves have been loved- by a mother hen who would give his life to gather us under his wings.”