Sermon - Second Sunday of Lent (3/17/2019)
Gen. 15:1-12, 17-18; Ps. 27; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Lk. 13:31-35
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
The Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor once said of this passage that, “If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament.” If you have loved someone with an illness that could not be cured. If you have loved someone with an addiction they could not overcome. Even if you have loved someone who simply made decisions in life that you would not have made – if you have ever just wanted to cover them and protect them and make everything all right, but you have known that in fact there is nothing you can do – then you know what Jesus is saying. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
It is a striking image that Jesus gives us of himself, as a mother hen sheltering her chicks. Not because it’s a feminine image. That might seem jarring if you grew up thinking of God as a He, but God made human beings, male and female, in the divine image, and in Jesus God takes on the humanity of everyone – so that as Paul says, in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave nor free. God encompasses all these things and more. All creation is from God and can be a window into who God is for us.
No, the image of Jesus the mother hen is striking because of how a hen defends her chicks. The hen has no great muscles to defeat an attacker, no claws to frighten off a predator. She has only herself. All she can do is open her arms, spread her wings, expose her breast – as vulnerable as you can be. Either the chicks come under her wing, or they don’t. And even if the chicks do hide under her wings, she can’t very well fight off a fox in that position. All she can do is tell the fox: If you want the chicks, you have to come through me first.
We also see something of this picture of God in the very strange ceremony described in the first reading today. God has promised Abraham and Sarah children of their own, but Abraham is getting close to 100 year old and Sarah is pushing 90, and they don’t have any children yet, and the first reading begins with Abraham complaining to God that it’s a little late now for them to be starting a family. But God insists that God will follow through on the promise, somehow, and Abraham believes. But how am I to know, Abraham asks God? And God tells Abraham to prepare a ritual, a ritual that seems quite bizarre and even offensive to us, involving several dead animals cut in half.
Apparently, however, Abraham understands this ritual, which appears to have been common in that time. The way you promise loyalty to your social superior is to cut dead animals in half, and then to walk in between them. This says: If I don’t follow through on my promise, you can do to me what was done to these animals. Sort of like saying “Cross my heart, hope to die,” but a bit more gruesome. So Abraham prepares the ritual, and he probably assumes that he is going to have to walk through the animals, to promise his life to God, and then God will follow through on God’s promise of offspring to Abraham and Sarah. That is what powerful people in those days would have expected of those who served them – and it’s what Abraham probably thought God wanted from him.
But then an amazing thing happens. Night falls, and Abraham falls into a trance. And God comes to Abraham, and it is God who passes through the dead animals. It is God who says to Abraham, Cross my heart, hope to die. Not Abraham to God. God takes on the burden of the promise, God says I am willing to die if I do not fulfill my word to you. God does not demand Abraham make this vow to God; God freely chooses to make this vow to Abraham. All Abraham is asked to do is to have faith that God has made this promise.
The gospel story today begins with some Pharisees telling Jesus to be careful – Herod is trying to kill you. I’m sure that the Pharisees meant well. I’m sure they were trying to help Jesus – you realize powerful people are not happy with what you are doing, we’ve heard some things, you need to be careful. But Jesus does not say, Hey, thanks for the heads up, I’ll take some precautions and up my security. Instead Jesus says: You go tell that fox, I know what I’m doing. I am bringing the kingdom of God to people, I heal people and I cast out their demons, and when the time is right I will go to the home of God’s people in Jerusalem. If there is a fox on the prowl, my place is with the chicks – to put myself over them, to protect them like a hen. God puts God’s own life on the line for God’s people. That is who God is. That is who Jesus is.
“Oh 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!” The God who is revealed in Jesus is a God who protects us like a hen, not a God who watches us like a fox. This is who God wants to be for us – yet so often human beings have preferred the fox to the hen. A God who makes us bow and scrape and perform strange sacrificial rituals – this we can understand. But a God who becomes vulnerable for us, a God who sacrifices God’s own self, a God who asks us only to have faith and trust that God loves us in this way – this is difficult to understand. And, when Jesus does go to Jerusalem and the fox makes his move, the chicks scatter, and they abandon Jesus to his fate. Yet even then, Jesus did not turn from his path, and neither did God abandon the promise.
So where does this leave us? What are we supposed to do with this image of a God revealed in Jesus, who was not interested in protecting himself from Herod the fox, but instead was interested in healing, casting out demons, proclaiming the Kingdom, and protecting and gathering the scattered children of God with his own body? In the second reading today, Paul tries to answer this question. He writes to the church at Philippi and tells them not to be like those who, in his words, “live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” By which I think he means people who wish Jesus had listened to the warning of the Pharisees, who wish Jesus had toned it down and played it safe, who are uncomfortable with a God who becomes vulnerable for us. Ultimately, Paul says, for such people “their god is their belly” – they are interested in their own safety, but in the end their path leads to destruction.
Instead, Paul writes from his prison cell to the church at Philippi, “join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” By which I think Paul means that we who have experienced Easter, we who have come to know that the path of the vulnerable God leads not to death but to life, we have the ability to love as Jesus does, by becoming vulnerable ourselves for the sake of another person whom God loves. We can love a neighbor in need who needs our protection from harm, and we can even love those whom we are unable to protect. Because we and those we love are people whom Jesus longs to cover and protect, and we have come to have faith that God will do anything to accomplish what God has promised to do.