There’s just something about this scripture passage that’s tugging at me this time around. I’ve preached on this text before, read and studied it. This image – Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem where he compares himself to a mother hen wanting to gather in her chicks, her people, to protect them – is a unique one, a vivid one, certainly. But it hasn’t always tugged at me the way it is this time around.
Maybe it’s because we, I, just need this image. Need to be gathered in by Jesus, by God who loves us. This past week we hosted our friends in the community at our ecumenical Lenten service, and we engaged in prayer stations for a time of worship. I set up different stations around the sanctuary that were all focused on one of our scripture texts for the season of Lent. For the station that corresponded to this passage of scripture – Jesus gathering the people like a mother hen gathers her chicks – I invited people to wrap themselves up in a warm, snuggly blanket, and cuddle a fluffy, plush stuffed animal. I encouraged people to think about when they felt most comforted, protected, sheltered, and to pray that God would open their hearts to being gathered in by God. I was told by at least one person that that was their favorite prayer station. And I noticed that people not only wrapped themselves up, but tended to move closer to the people they were with – gave a hug, cuddled together, leaned on each other’s shoulders. I noted that a couple of the teenagers present actually wrapped themselves in cuddly blankets and just kept them on, staying wrapped up as they moved around the room to other prayer stations, only putting the blankets down when they were ready to leave for the night.
When I think of this image, being gathered in like a chick to a mother hen, I think of my grandmother. There was this blanket, at her house, a comforter, that had gotten old and tattered, and so my grandmother sewed it a new cover, out of this silky, shiny white material. It made it look like a puffy white cloud of a blanket. My and my siblings and cousins all called it the Magic Blanket, and everyone always wanted to be snuggled up in the Magic Blanket. There was no place so comfortable. Or I remember that when I would spend the night at my grandparents' house, which I did most Friday nights, my grandma would tuck me in my bed at night so tightly, so securely, that I literally could not even roll over without making a great effort. And so, unable to move, I’d just fall right to sleep. It was like being swaddled like we do with newborns. Being all wrapped up and tucked in – comforted, protected.
And when I think of this image, I think about how children want to be, are so ready and willing to be comforted when they've been hurt. My niece, Siggy, who is a year and half old, recently pinched her finger on a step stool. She cried, and my mom, who was watching her, picked her up and hugged her and snuggled her and fussed over her and of course, kissed her fingers to make them better. What's amusing is that since then, Siggy has been saying "ouch" all the time - I think she realizes that it corresponds to getting the response of, "Oh, poor Siggy!" from the adults around her, and some extra hugs and kisses. She'll even go over to the step stool, and point at it, with an expression of woe, and work up a few tears, lamenting, "ouch!" in the most pathetic manner. She could give her actor-Uncle Todd a run for his money. Maybe she is a little traumatized. But I think she also has realized the deep contentment in having someone want to protect you and comfort you so fiercely. She can depend on it and she knows it.
We find, in our gospels, Jesus longing for his people to know that too. To understand that it is with him that they will find true comfort, protection, nurture, and love. Our text from Luke opens with some Pharisees coming to warn Jesus to get out of town, because Herod, the king, is seeking after Jesus, wanting to find a way to kill him. We don’t usually see the Pharisees looking out for Jesus, but for whatever reason, these particular Pharisees act to get Jesus out of harm’s way. But Jesus isn’t about to change course. He knows his purpose, and where he needs to head, and knows that his path must take him relentlessly to Jerusalem. He responds 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 away from Jerusalem.’” Foxes in literature are often painted as cunning animals, prone to trickery. We might say, “sly as a fox.” They’re predators, but predators of small, weak animals. Herod, King of Jerusalem, obsessed with his power and wealth, cozying up with the Roman government leaders, wanting to maintain his position and power at all costs: Jesus names him a fox, a trickster, someone to be wary of. And then, seconds later, Jesus describes himself as a mother hen. “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!” Of course, chickens are a target, an easy target, for foxes. So for Jesus to describe himself as a hen, right after describing Herod as a fox – what’s he getting at? Why wouldn’t Jesus want to paint himself as something more powerful? Less totally vulnerable? After all, there are many animal mothers that seek to protect their young. Most animals mothers would do this. No, clearly he choose the image of hen in conjunction with his description of Herod as a fox. Fox and hen. Predator and vulnerable prey. But why?
Just before our reading for today, just before the Pharisees come to warn Jesus about Herod, he had been teaching with parable after parable about the kingdom of God, ending with a refrain he repeats throughout his teaching: “Indeed,” he says, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Jesus tells us plainly that the order is reversed in God’s reign, in God’s vision for the world. Everything is turned upside down. It isn’t Herod and his kingdom and his palace and his wealth and power the counts – it’s Jesus and his way of serving by pouring out his life, offering up his very life, rejecting the empty promises that draw us away from God – just as we talked about last Sunday – this is Jesus’ way, God’s way, the way of the world that God dreams for us. And in this world, a fox is not met by a coyote or a lynx or cougar or bear that will threaten it – but by a mother hen who will offer its life to protect these vulnerable baby chicks.
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “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.
“Given the number of animals available, it is curious that Jesus chooses a hen. Where is the biblical precedent for that? What about the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? What about the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a mother hen does not inspire much confidence. No wonder some of the chicks decided to go with the fox.
“But a hen is what Jesus chooses, which — if you think about it –is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks.
“Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She 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.
“Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her — wings spread, breast exposed — without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.” (1)
The one we follow, this Jesus we’re journeying with: make no mistake about our destination. We’re headed to Jerusalem, where a cross awaits. We’re following, serving, pledging our discipleship to one who knows he will die to save those who are not really even willing to be gathered in. Jesus makes himself completely vulnerable to be with us in our vulnerability. Will you let yourself be sheltered by God?
And even as Jesus calls to us, seeks to gather us in, longing for us to be willing, he calls us, as always, to go and do likewise: to stand for others, with our arms wide open, vulnerable, exposed, but offering refuge, offering welcome, offering shelter, comfort, acceptance, love to everyone who needs it. Because we have said we are disciples. We have said we seek to follow Jesus. And if we mean what we say – then this is how we stand: with Jesus. Amen.
(1) Barbara Brown Taylor, “As A Hen Gathers Her Brood,” Sermon, 1996.