Sermon for Sunday, March 13, 2022 || Lent 2C || Luke 13:31-35
It’s no wonder Jesus has chickens on the mind. After all, he just called Herod a “fox,” and it wasn’t a compliment. Where there are chickens, you can bet a fox is nearby. There are lots of foxes around the church, and I’m pretty sure they hang around because our next door neighbors have chickens in their backyard. The foxes have eaten well from the coop in the past – and not just chickens, but squirrels and rabbits and birds. We have found…evidence.
I’ve always loved that Jesus compares himself to one animal and one animal only in the Gospel. And that’s the chicken. Seems strange, right? Chickens are ungainly, nearly flightless birds – they can, sort of, jump and hover a bit. They’re not beautiful like hawks. They don’t sing like nightingales. They mostly squawk and peck and lay eggs. And to top it off, when we call someone a chicken, we’re calling that person a coward! Add up all of this, and Jesus seems to have chosen a pretty silly animal as a comparison.
We might expect Jesus to compare himself to a lion or an eagle…something strong and majestic, at least! But no. Jesus rarely does the expected thing. He compares himself to the lowly chicken when he laments over 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!”
Jesus uses this beautiful, feminine image for his desire. And far from the chicken coming off as silly, the mother hen’s protectiveness at the price of her own safety is the perfect image for Jesus. And believe it or not, but there are several moments in scripture that use a similar image for God.
Psalm 17:8 says, “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings.”
And three more places in the psalms echo this prayer.
- “How priceless is your love, O God! Your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings” (36:7).
- “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful, for I have taken refuge in you; in the shadow of your wings will I take refuge until this time of trouble has gone by” (57:1)
- For you have been my helper, and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice. (63:7)
Jesus pulls his desire to be like the mother hen right out of the psalmist’s desire to feel safe beneath the shadow of God’s wings. The idea that God’s wings provide refuge is telling, because in other places, the psalmist describes the same refuge as a rock or a crag or a fortress. The difference between these two descriptions is that wings are portable. Hiding under the shadow of God’s wings means we are moving with God, like the ducklings in the children’s classic on their way to the Boston Common. The shadow of God’s wings is a place of safety, yes, but not a place of static motionlessness. We do not sequester ourselves. We do not hole up somewhere. No, we move with God under the shadow of God’s wings.
This is the image Jesus chooses to employ. And not just any wings, but the wings of a chicken. If that still strikes you as weird, I’m glad. The weirdness of this image means it will stick in your minds. And like I said before, this comparison is absolutely perfect.
When the mother hen protects her brood, she throws herself in the path of the predator. She sacrifices herself to save her chicks. She spreads her wings wide to offer them shelter. She exposes her breast to the fox. She is willing to die to make sure her offspring live. Sound like anyone you know?
One of the most beautiful prayers in the Book of Common Prayer begins: “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.” In his Passion, Jesus mimicked the mother hen. He spreads his arms wide to embrace all of God’s children. He exposed his mortal nature to the death-dealing ways of the world. He died at the hands of the powerful to show humanity the path of violence and domination was not the way of God. And in dying, he showed us how to live.
The image of the hen is looking better and better, isn’t it? This chicken is no coward. This chicken spread his wings wide to embrace the whole world with the saving love of God. So how do we live the path of the chicken? Well, the second half of the prayer I quoted a minute ago gives us a clue: “So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you.”
Jesus reached out his arms of love to enable us to reach out our hands also. Reaching forth a hand is an inherently vulnerable position. The other person might spurn it or slap it away or turn their back. But following Jesus’ example, we keep reaching.
We hold out our hands to all who need a hand to hold.
We embrace those with nowhere else to go: the refugee, the prisoner, those without homes, those suffering from addiction, and the teen kicked out of their house because they came out of the closet. We’re not ensconced in the safe confines of the fortress. Rather, we are secure beneath the ever-moving wings of God. And God brings us into proximity with an ever-expanding gathering of people to join in relationship. We reach out and welcome others under the safety of those wings. And sometimes, we accept the hand of someone reaching out to us.
Jesus could have compared himself to the lion or the eagle or any number of more majestic animals. But he chose the chicken as a lesson for us. True strength is not the might of one’s arm, but the willingness to reach that arm out as shelter. Or as an embrace.