When I first read the Gospel for today, I thought, what am I going to do with this? Perhaps I should preach on the Old Testament reading or the Psalm. Why is Jesus using a hen as a metaphor for himself? Why didn’t Jesus liken himself to an eagle, a bear or even a lion? – Some creature that would be able to stand up to a fox? Chickens have no fangs, claws or muscles and could surely be devoured by a fox. So, I set out to learn more about hens and their broods.
On my quest, I came across a story about a firefighter who made quite the discovery after he and his group had brought a forest fire under control. The firefighters were working back through the devastation to ensure that all the hot spots had been extinguished. As they walked, the firefighter noticed a large lump on the trail. As he got closer, he noticed that it was the charred remains of a large bird. The firefighter wondered if the bird had been sick or injured since it hadn’t flown away from the approaching flames. He decided to kick the remains off the trail and was startled by a flurry of activity around his feet. What he saw were four little birds in the ash and dust. The mother’s body had shielded the chicks from the scorching flames and though the heat consumed the hen, she stayed with her babes. She gave the ultimate sacrifice for her young. She had gathered them up under her wings and at the point of terrible pain and death, even when she might have saved herself; she chose to stay through the ordeal. [i]
So, Jesus chooses the image of a self-sacrificing hen to illustrate his love and concern for God’s people and Barbara Brown Taylor sums it up this way:
Jesus likened himself to a brooding hen whose chief purpose in life is to protect her young . . . She doesn’t have talons or much of a beak. All she can do is fluff herself up and sit on her chicks. She can also put herself between them and the fox, as ill equipped as she is. At the very least, she can hope that she satisfies his appetite so that he leaves her babies alone. [ii]
“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.” (Luke 13:34) If you have ever loved someone you couldn’t save, you will understand the intensity of Jesus’ lament.
I remember trying to warn my own children of certain dangers to avoid their having to suffer the consequences, but they were “not willing” to listen. I suppose they found it more exciting, although more dangerous, to follow the fox than it was to hide under the sheltering wings of the mother hen. The mother hen stands with her wings open, offering welcome, warmth and safety, but the chicks do not want her, and they cannot be coerced into coming to her. There is no way that we can protect our children from all the pain of this life, and this opens us up to a great deal of suffering. I have heard it said that, a parent is usually only as happy as her or his least happy child. This is vulnerability and it is what gives us courage and enables us to do things for those we love that we simply would not or could not do for ourselves. In her book, Daring Greatly, story-teller Brené Brown invites us to recognize that although vulnerability opens us up to feelings we might want to avoid, it also prompts us to be more authentically human and more caring, compassionate, and courageous than we would normally be.
Vulnerability is the characteristic that Jesus exemplifies. By taking on human flesh through the incarnation, God became vulnerable. Jesus never promised immunity from harm. He said, “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) As one writer says, “What Jesus the mother hen offers is not the absence of danger, but the fullness of his unguarded, open-hearted, wholly vulnerable self in the face of all that threatens and scares us. What he gives us is his own body, his own life. Wings spread open; heart exposed, shade and warmth and shelter at the ready. What he promises — at great risk to himself — is the making of his very being into a place of refuge and return for his children. For all of his children — even the ones who want to stone and kill him.”[iii]
Perhaps what we see in this passage is Jesus embracing who he was called to be for the sake of those he loved, and he is therefore inviting us to be who we are called to be for the sake of those around us. We do not need to be parents to mourn missed opportunities, promises that have been broken or hopes and dreams that are never realized. Most of us know what it is like to feel rejected and some of us know the pain of watching someone we care deeply about slowly self-destruct right before our very eyes. What if we made room for naming our vulnerabilities? Perhaps we would find that God meets us in those places of vulnerability and gives us what we need (including each other) not to just help us through our struggles, but to help us to thrive so we in turn might help others. We could be moved to stand in solidarity with our Muslim, our Jewish or any other neighbor impacted by violence and hatred.
We may feel that what we need is a warrior God to protect us, or one that comes in the image of a lion, a bear, or a God who is as sly as a fox. In this season of Lent we are called to repentance and transformation and our Gospel today offers us a mother hen who calls us to return. A mother hen who lamented over Jerusalem and now sits patiently and courageously in the middle of our schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, streets and even in the personal terrors of our lives – a mother hen, longing to draw us, but not forcing us to seek refuge and comfort under those loving, welcoming wings.
Jesus lamented for Jerusalem, saying, “You were not willing,” you would not steer from your own path, even when your life depended on it. Jesus is inviting us to seek protection and there is room for all under the wings of the yearning mother hen who weeps for us. Are we “willing” to gather? We promise in our Baptismal Covenant to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” and we at Good Shepherd have begun conversations on race and have invited members of our Muslim and Jewish community to learn and grow with us during Lent. There is room for all us under the shelter of God’s wings and there is room for all of us to gather at the table, so please join in our Lenten programs whenever possible.
I invite all of us during this season of Lent to reflect on the way we tend to live. Do we trust in the promises of the mother hen, or do we follow the way of the fox? Are there distractions that keep us returning to God’s wings and the way of love? The wings that remained open while Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons before setting his face to Jerusalem, where he placed himself between his brood and the fox – the wings that became outstretched arms of love on the cross so that all might come within the reach of his saving embrace. What, if anything, prevents us from being part of the brood gathered underneath the feathers of the hen? The wings of love and protection are still waiting outstretched, for all of us. We just need t