Loving Like a Mother Hen, Lent 2(C) – 2016

[RCL] Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

One moonlit night a Fox was prowling about a farmer’s chicken coop, and saw a Hen roosting high up beyond his reach. “Good news, good news!” he cried.

“Why, what is that?” said the Hen.

“King Lion has declared a universal truce. No beast may hurt a bird henceforth, but all shall dwell together in brotherly friendship.”

“Why, that is good news,” said the Hen; “and there I see someone coming, with whom we can share the good tidings.” And so saying she craned her neck forward and looked far off.

“What is it you see?” said the Fox.

“It is only my master’s Dog that is coming towards us. What, going so soon?” she continued, as the Fox began to turn away. “Will you not stop and congratulate the Dog on the reign of universal peace?”

“I would gladly do so,” said the Fox, “but I fear he may not have heard of King Lion’s decree.”

What do you think is the moral of Aesop’s fable? The answer: Cunning often outwits itself.

There are parallels between this fable and our Gospel story today. Herod is the Fox, Jesus is Hen, perhaps John the Baptist is the Dog, and King Lion is God, of course. Although the Fox lied to the Hen about King Lion’s decree of universal peace, we know a different story from God. The truth is that the kingdom of God is at hand and it is present in deep and surprising ways.

How often do we use the term ‘mother hen’ when we refer to a person who is especially nurturing to and protective of those they love? What an interesting metaphor Jesus uses in the Gospel reading – God trying to gather God’s children together just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. A hen is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of a protective animal. We would sooner imagine a lion or a fierce bird of prey, something with fangs or talons. Yet, the lowly chicken is the image that Jesus chooses to demonstrate this relationship between God and us. God, the mother hen, calls us to the safety of the nest, underneath those downy wings, behind the heart that beats beneath her vulnerable breast. There is power in this image. Power tied to Abram’s covenant with God. Power tied with strength in vulnerability and with relationship.

Today, fear is our fuel: fear of those who are different, fear of death, fear of our own shortcomings, and fear that the things we value will be taken away from us. In response, we write contracts: contracts for services, contracts for jobs, prenuptial contracts, and, as wonderful and helpful as wills can be, they too, are contracts to make sure the people and things we value will be cared about in the way we want them to be when we are gone. Contracts are about legal protection within relationships. This is where they differ from a covenant, especially a covenant with God.

When Abram creates the covenant with God in our reading today, he is executing an ancient practice. A covenant, ratified in blood, is all encompassing. If you were to make a covenant with your best friend today, it would mean that everything that belonged to them also belonged to you and vice versa. If your best friend happened to have a mansion and a heap of creditors hounding them, guess what? You’ve got that, too. A contract would protect you from the bad, but a covenant guarantees that you are in relationship and if one goes down, you both go. On the flip side, that also means if one succeeds, so does the other.

God has established covenants with a variety of people and under a variety of circumstances: with Noah, the rainbow promising that God would never again destroy the earth with a flood; With Abram, through animal sacrifice, and later, as Abraham, through circumcision; With Mary, through the blood that came with birthing Jesus, and Jesus himself, who sets his face to Jerusalem so that his blood can become another tie that binds us.

Jesus knew his identity as a prophet and the Son of God. He tells the Pharisees, “Go and tell that fox [Herod] 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.’” Jesus knows the stakes of being what he is and yet, he follows God’s call to him. He sees the role of God as one of a mother hen gathering her brood under her protective wings, safe from the ravages of the foxes of life. In Luke’s time, that meant not just Jerusalem or Israel, but the Gentiles as well. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus encounters, we are often not willing to be gathered in with people that are not like us, instead taking our chances elsewhere. We think we are truly free, but instead are even more at risk and vulnerable to the sly seductions of the foxes among us.

If you are familiar with what happens when a fox gets into a hen house then you know that most times the mother hen herds her chicks under her wings for protection and bares her breast so that the fox must kill her first before it can get to her chicks. It is the only defense she has. Later, there will be a flutter of feathers and motherless chicks running around but at least they are alive, though their mother may be dead. They are given the chance to live. This is the image that Jesus chose to bring to us: our covenant with God means that everything of God’s is also ours, even Jesus, God’s own son.

The season of Lent is a time of repentance and a time to consider what it means to be in covenant with a vulnerable God. We learn that faith grows through use. The more we encounter our vulnerable God, the more we understand the strength of our own vulnerability. We must choose to live this type of faith each day. When we received the cross of ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, it reminded us exactly how vulnerable and human we are in this world. We are called to something more than living for ourselves and satisfying our contracts. Our God is not the belly, as it says in Philippians. We are called to be the chicks that lead the way to our mother hen: our God.

In our baptism, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever. We are charged with an imperative call to love like that mother hen who opens her wings wide and exposes her heart to the foxes of the world in the hope that our loved ones may live in the light of our vulnerability. Called to love like someone who is in covenant with God. A fierce and trusting love that encompasses all that which God possesses. When we live this way, we will know the reign of universal peace described in this Franciscan blessing:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. May the peace of God and the God of peace be with you for evermore.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Lent 2C.

Written by the Rev. Danae Ashley

The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the Associate Priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, and is also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC.

Allowing the Lord to lead us through Lent, 2 Lent (C) – 2013

February 24, 2013

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18Psalm 27Philippians 3:17-4:1Luke 13:31-35

We begin today with Abram at the earliest part of his journey with the Lord. Remember that Abram’s name is later changed by God to Abraham “the father of many nations.” Abram is to lead his people to a new land, but the journey is hard, even harsh. Abram knows he needs a male heir to continue his line, but he is distraught when the only heir apparent is the child of a slave.

Then one night the Lord takes him out to look at the stars – a sight too many of us never see due to light pollution. The Lord dispels everything in Abram’s doubts when the Lord tells him his descendants will be in number like the stars of heaven.

Next, Abram undergoes what seems to be some kind of vision or trance that is terrifying, in which the Lord, depicted as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, passes between Abram and the sacrifices he has made. It all sounds primitive, evocative of something primal, strange and perplexing. It is a covenant assuring Abram the land he was promised would belong to him and his descendants.

It is hard for 21st century Christians to grasp the depth of this story. We cannot readily appreciate how land and descendants were primal forces that created identity in the ancient world. However, if you visit a farm or a ranch in rural America today, you can find vestiges of that primal concept. A rancher will defend her land as if it were part of her, because it is. The land shapes the people who live and work on it. Without it, their identity is compromised. The land itself defines their mission.

Farmers and ranchers today lament the fact that often their children don’t want to stay on the land, or are forced to leave it for economic reasons. The whole enterprise of farming and ranching is a family mission, and when there are no heirs who wish to continue, the mission seems lost. A rancher may grieve over this more than anyone.

So far we have looked at Abram’s encounter with the Lord from an agrarian point of view. The thing to remember is that land and heirs are the foundation for a mission, a journey that Abram and Sarah will take together. This mission ties directly with today’s gospel and Jesus’ mission that leads to the cross.

The season of Lent doesn’t mean much for us until we can view our mission as part of Christ’s mission, until we can see that our denial, fasting and prayer are ways to return to the journey that the Lord leads us on. How does that happen?

Many of us have had the experience of seeing a vision of what could be, working toward accomplishing it, often with a clear sense we were partners with God, only to have that “mission” taken away, radically changed or corrupted by others.

We are in good company. That is what happens to Jesus. His mission, his passion to heal, forgive and reconcile, ends up in betrayal and crucifixion. The very city, Jerusalem, that stands for God’s mercy and reconciliation ends up turning against him.

So if you are struggling with what the Lord seems to have promised you, if you feel your mission is declining toward failure, if your church seems to have lost members and energy, if your work seems to be undermined by opportunists and betrayers, you are not alone. Abram struggled with these same challenges, and so does Jesus.

An interim pastor found himself in the middle of a conflict between less-than-candid leaders, the diocese and his own hopes for turning the church around. For nine months he felt the sting of ridicule from every direction. Even the bishop suggested he might be in the wrong place. One night in his prayers he simply said to Jesus, “Show me where to go.” In his prayer he saw a vision of the cross, the plain wooden cross above the altar at the church he served.

He reports that vision changed everything. He stayed as interim, he rode out the conflict, and in the end those who were his enemies left and others came forward as honest leaders. The church began to grow both in numbers and giving.

Our Lenten journey is no journey if we don’t experience the cross, that symbol of what stands between the Lord and us. If we are unwilling to be challenged with change, or fearful that nothing can be different, then we will turn away from the journey Jesus leads us on to the cross. We will hide out in Lent. “I’m not making any changes this year.” “I’m going to lose weight by going to the gym.” And so on.

Instead, follow the path of Abram; ask Jesus what he wants you to do with this holy time. Watch for signs in your waking and sleeping. Each of us has our own journey, and it is one that will not only transform us but encourage others as well if we allow the Lord to lead, now, in this time and place where we are called by God.

— Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island, Ark.

‘I must be on my way’, 2 Lent (C) – 2010

February 28, 2010

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

As Jesus says in today’s reading from Luke, “I must be on my way.”

We Americans are a restless and mobile lot.

Ask around your parish community some Sunday morning at coffee hour, and you are likely as not to find fellow parishioners who are transplants from down the road and across the country. Some will have found their way to this community for work; others, for marriage or retirement. Still others may even now be charting their next family or career transition and the move it will entail. Home for many of us today is at best a loose and elusive geographical term: here today, there tomorrow.

In many societies life is far different.

In such cultures, home is where you are born; and home is where you die. The span between birth and death is often spent in familiar village or countryside settings, raising a family, plying a trade, and working the fields. The land itself is home – and it does not change all that much from one generation to the next. After all, land is not exactly exportable. Home is permanent, fixed, and local.

In the ancient world, the gift of land from king or ruler was itself the gift of home – of identity and belonging. It was certainly so for the ancient Israelites, who traced their ultimate origins to Abram’s epic journey from a place far away, to the land which the Lord promised to give him. “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans,” the Lord tells Abram in our first reading today, “to give you this land to possess.” In taking possession of the land and inhabiting it, Abram – later Abraham – and his descendants become the Lord’s own people.

Jesus treads this same land centuries later, “casting out demons and performing cures,” as he reminds the Pharisees and Herod, and by extension us, in our gospel account. He makes his way from his home in Nazareth – where he is rejected by his own townspeople – to the holy city of Jerusalem. In some sense, his passage serves to remind us of Abram’s journey centuries before. But the land promised to those who will heed Jesus’ voice does not consist of acres and square footage but of the very kingdom of heaven.

Abram marks the Lord’s covenant with him and his descendants by a sacrifice of heifer, goat, ram, turtledove, and pigeon. The Lord, present in “smoking fire pot and flaming torch,” passes solemnly among Abram’s gifts and once again affirms his covenant and the gift of land – of home. But the sacrifice that marks our Lord’s new covenant and the gift of the kingdom is not that of young, unblemished animals, but his own death.

“Today, tomorrow, and the next day, I must be on my way,” says Jesus in recognition of the fate awaiting him in Jerusalem. Not even the warnings of presumably friendly Pharisees that “Herod wants to kill you” can dissuade him from his work and mission. His poignant pronouncement over Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets,” becomes prophecy of his own death on the cross. “On the third day,” concludes Jesus, “I finish my work.” His journey comes to its end. But his death and resurrection mark also the beginning of faith and redemption for us as his people.

Lent is our annual reminder of this reality – of the lasting covenant that has been forged with us at the cross and of the “land” that has been given to us as our heavenly home. As Paul tells us in our second reading from his Letter to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Abram’s faith in God’s promise was reckoned “to him as righteousness.” Today, our faith in God’s word and promise is reckoned to us as sign and assurance of our true citizenship in heaven.

Whether we are inveterate homebodies or weary road-warriors, our Christian faith nevertheless calls us away from places of comfort and the familiar – just as the Lord’s word millennia ago called Abram forth from his home in “Ur of the Chaldeans.” Like Abram, we too must be on our way. As followers of Christ, our journey is a sharing in the way of sacrifice, in the way of the cross.

Our first reading begins: “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid.'” The same words are spoken to us. We have nothing to fear. “As a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” so our Lord has gathered us, his people. We are the Lord’s own people, and our heavenly citizenship makes us all “brothers and sisters” to one another.

In Christ, we are at last home.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim minister at The Episcopal Church in Almaden in San Jose, California.

The casket at the social event, 2 Lent (C) – 2007

March 4, 2007

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18Psalm 27Philippians 3:17-4:1Luke 13:31-35

Today may we consider how sometimes the best prayer to God is a groan, a lamentation, or the voice of grief. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Maybe you have had this experience. You attend a visitation at a funeral home, and the place is crowded. People are gathered in small groups, engaged in animated conversation. It looks and feels like any other successful social event, except of course there’s a casket at one end of the room.

Or have you ever been with a group of friends, and somebody says that a particular couple, well known to all of you, is getting a divorce? There’s an awkward silence. Facial expressions turn serious. Then somebody brings up a different subject, and the conversation rolls along.

What’s missing in these two scenes is public lamentation. In one case, somebody has died. In the other, a marriage has collapsed. There’s acknowledgment of what has happened, but no public lamentation. People may feel bad, but heartfelt emotions remain inside.

In today’s Gospel, some Pharisees tell Jesus that he is in danger from Herod. Are these Pharisees friendly toward Jesus? Should their warning be taken at face value, or are they trying to silence Jesus by making him afraid? It’s hard to tell.

But Jesus does not fear Herod or focus on him for long. Instead, his concern is for Jerusalem, and he vents his grief over that holy city with its history of killing the prophets sent by God. There in front of visitors and disciples, he bursts forth into public lamentation: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Perhaps these words spill forth from his lips, from his heart, at some place where the city’s skyline can be seen.

Today we often hear the question: What would Jesus do? The initials WWJD appear in many places as a reminder that Jesus is our great example. If he is, then consider: In this morning’s Gospel, we hear about something Jesus does. He laments. Perhaps we must do this sometimes.

How does Jesus expresses his grief over Jerusalem as a prophet-persecuting city? He leaves us with an unforgettable image, an image tender and gentle and surprising. Listen again to what he says: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Surprisingly, Jesus pictures himself as a mother hen, eager for her little chicks to find shelter beneath her soft, comforting wings. This does not describe the warrior-king many people are waiting for. Yet this is how Jesus presents himself, there in a moment of deep lamentation.

The picture may be striking and unprecedented, but in voicing his lamentation, Jesus builds on the tradition of his people. Consider the Psalms, which have rightly been called the hymnbook of the Hebrew Bible. In so many of them, we find a communal or personal lament. Something is wrong — whether illness, unidentified misfortune, or national disaster — and there comes an outcry, a turning of pain into speech. To pray the psalms is not only to rejoice in the Lord’s goodness, but also to groan along with a world broken and distressed.

Indeed, when he voices his lamentation over Jerusalem, the favored city, Jesus builds upon the foundational event of his people: their Exodus from Egypt. Back before the dividing of Red Sea waters, back before the ten plagues or even the call of Moses, we hear what sets the whole thing rolling: the Israelites groan under their slavery and cry out. From their slavery this cry for help rises up to God.

They cry out. They do not remain silent. They cry out with a mighty, heartfelt lamentation, and God hears their groaning, their outcry, the lamentation erupting like hot lava from their hearts.

So when Jesus laments over Jerusalem, he builds upon many of the psalms, brokenhearted hymns that reach out for hope in the midst of pain. He builds on the story of how his people became a people, through lamenting their slavery and crying to God for release. Now he looks out over Jerusalem, where slavery is not so much external bondage, but a freezing of the heart that cannot welcome liberation from the Lord when it looks them in the face.

In contrast to this tradition, public lament is an experience unfamiliar to us. Rarely is it heard at a funeral or when we learn that a marriage has split apart. There’s grief, but we keep that terribly private, we swallow so much of it, and let it eat away at our insides.

Public lament is an unfamiliar experience even in most churches. There as well, all too often, sadness stays private; we keep up appearances. We take away the cross and substitute a happy face. We hold back how we feel and call it Christian joy.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says mourners shall laugh; he never says they must not mourn. In Romans, Paul tells us to rejoice with the rejoicing, but also to weep with those who weep. Christianity is not the practice of the stiff upper lip. It allows us to lament, even demands it.

Are there not places in this world, this country, this city, where Jesus still weeps and cries out? Countless Jerusalems cause him to lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

And if Jesus laments in these places, should we abstain from doing so?

Where we attempt to solve social problems by building still more prisons. Where we try to maintain control over the planet through increasing our arsenals. Where entertainment and advertising do violence to basic human dignity. Where differences of ethnicity or sexual identity turn into walls of separation and bitterness. Where you and I become small and mean and shriveled, unloving and unloved.

In all these places, and others like them, Jesus still stands and laments, calling out to us unashamed, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Lamentations such as these are valid prayer. Faith demands them. Lamentations such as these are heard by God. They ignited the Exodus from Egypt. Lamentations such as these are the audacious start of something new.

Jesus invites us to break free from the poisonous silence, from the culture of denial that surrounds us. He calls us away from mere grumbling and toward brokenhearted lamentation. He invites us to mourn that we may be blessed; to grieve, rather than deny the burden inside us.

For when we lament a broken relationship, it opens the way to healing. When we lament an injustice, it opens the way to transformation. When we lament a loss, it opens the way to resurrection. When we lament our shortcomings, it opens the way to unexpected change.

Such lamentations are not death rattles. They are the birth cries of a new world.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2002).