A Hen in the Foxhouse
A sermon preached for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year C, 2/21/16; Luke 13:31-35.
I speak to you in the Name of the One, Holy, and Living God. Amen.
Today’s is a fascinating Gospel passage. There’s a prediction of Jesus’ death, and also foreshadowing of the events of Palm Sunday—Jesus says to Jerusalem, “You will not see me again until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Which is exactly what the crowds will proclaim as he rides into the city on the back of a donkey—but as we know, the tides of public opinion turn quickly.
My own tendency is to understand these passages, when Jesus talks about his coming death, as reflection after the fact by the Gospel author. The Gospel author knew that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was his journey to his death on a cross. That death was an explosion within the life of the early Jesus movement, and the whole story, the whole memory of Jesus, had to be reoriented around this new, defining reality.
“I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”
On the third day I finish my work. That is, on the third day I die. Jesus isn’t referring to that other third day, when God finishes God’s work and changes the ending of the story. No, on the third day I die—and you’ll remember the words, “It is finished.”
Did Jesus know he was marching towards certain death? The Gospel writers, writing many years later, would certainly make it look that way. Personally, I’m not so sure. I imagine that he knew it was likely, and that this did not stop him. But in my mind, “On the third day I finish my work” is the voice of our Gospel author, who knows what’s coming. And what I think Luke gets overwhelmingly right here is the fierce compassion and the doggedness with which Jesus made that walk to Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” It’s one of the most touching images that Jesus gives us. And don’t miss that just sentences earlier he’s called Herod a fox. Herod, and the political system, the kind of power that he represents, the fox; Jesus, the hen. And we know how foxes and hens get along. And we know who usually dies.
Jesus goes to Jerusalem to enact God’s kingdom. He goes to Jerusalem to cleanse the temple. He goes to run the fox out of the henhouse, knowing that the fox will probably kill him. But like a true mother hen, he’s not about to back down in protecting his children. And so with wings spread open he comes to gather his brood, breast bare in the most vulnerable position possible.
This is how he walks towards Jerusalem—not leading the charge of a military brigade, not with an army of foxes of his own—but as a mother hen, wings open, breast bare, with a heart filled with love and longing for her children.
And it’s not insignificant that Jesus uses a feminine image, a mother image, here. We’ve been trained by 2,000 years of Christian patriarchy to not pay much attention to these images. But they’re certainly there, scattered all throughout the Bible. The prophet Hosea compares God to a fierce mother bear protecting her cubs. He has God say, “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…” (Hosea 13:8).
Moses says “Like the eagle that stirs up her nest, and hovers over her young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on her pinions” (Deut. 32:11-12).
Let us never forget the strands within our tradition that remind us God is just as much “she” as “he,” just as much “mom” as “dad,” just as much “Mother All-Holy” as “Father Almighty”—and even more so, that God is beyond all these categories.
But notice what Jesus does with this image. He strips away the fierceness of the bear who’s ready to rip the enemy to pieces. God is no longer the majestic eagle with its talons. God is much humbler. Something much more vulnerable. A bird that can barely fly. Not the bear that will tear the fox apart, but the hen, who the fox will kill as she tries to gather her young. What does that say to you about God?
Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “[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.”
We don’t respect the chicken in our culture. Capitalism certainly prefers the fox. A chicken is what we call someone we think is weak or afraid. You chicken! What if instead this was a compliment? You’re such a chicken. Is there a reason we don’t say “O Chicken of God that takes away the sins of the world”? “O Mother Hen, grant us your peace”?
Are we embarrassed that Jesus is a chicken and not a fox?
“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.” Our mother hen must confront the system of injustice and oppression, she must call out to her chicks, calling us again during this Lenten season to repent and return to her loving embrace… she must face the fox, if we are to know the depths of her love for us.
And she will. In the dark the fox will slip into the henhouse. She will not turn and run. And on the third day she will die.
But another third day is coming.