God is one brave chicken


A sermon on Luke 13:31-35

[an audio recording of this sermon can be accessed here]

So, I have a funny story related to this gospel. Last year my husband, Tyler, was teaching the Jr. High Sunday school class at Living Waters (the church where he and our kids are members). The lesson involved different images for God in scripture – things like God is our Rock, God is our Light, God is our refuge… you get the picture.

Well, the curriculum included pictures of all these different biblical images, and the students were supposed to guess what each picture represented. Most of them were pretty easy, but our daughter, Alaina, was confused about one of them. As the story was told to me, she looked at this one picture for a while, and then she said:

“God is a chicken?!?!?!"

Of course, what the curriculum authors were looking for was actually: God is our mother hen. It’s the imagery that Jesus claims for himself in today’s gospel, imagery that he drew from the Psalms’ many references to sheltering under God’s protective wings.[1] It’s an image of the love of God as both gentle and fierce; nurturing and protective. But, in the mind of a wonderfully irreverent 11-year-old pastor’s kid… that turns into “God is a chicken.”

And, you know, I think she’s actually onto something about the essence of this image, when we strip away the poetry and confront the questions this image raises. Questions like, why – in a violent world – would we want God to act like a mother hen? What good is a hen when faced with a fox?

This image of the hen is presented to us in the context of danger. The context in today’s reading for Jesus’ lament over the people’s refusal to be gathered, involves multiple references to deadly threat.

The reading opens with a warning from some of the local Pharisees. A warning that Herod Antipas – the regional Governor of Galilee – wants to kill Jesus, so Jesus needs to “get away.” Jesus rejects the idea that he should fear Herod, but not because he doubts Herod’s threat level. Jesus is the one who calls him a fox, an animal that one resource describes as “a clever predator that lives off the death of the unsuspecting meek.”[2]

Jesus’s defiance of Herod isn’t based on an assessment of Herod’s threat level, it’s based on Jesus’ own mission. In essence, his response to the Pharisee’s warning is to tell them: “I’m already on my way to die. Tell that fox that he’s not the architect of my death and he’s not going to stop me from doing my work in the time I have left.”

The context for that response is Luke’s larger travel narrative. Jesus has already “set his face to go to Jerusalem” back in Luke 9 (verse 51). He has already begun the Journey that will end on the cross, and he knows this, as do Luke’s readers. The first prediction of Jesus’ death in Luke comes just before he begins his journey.

And today’s reading reminds us of Jesus’ final destination point. First, with a repeated three-days motif that foreshadows his three days in the grave. Then, with an explicit declaration that “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33), which is, of course, the end-point of Jesus’ journey. This reading leaves no doubt that Jesus is, indeed, facing deadly threat. At one level at least, that is the point of his journey!

Relevant to our Lenten theme, it is hard to imagine a travel story that is more transforming than a journey to the grave. Not merely because of the end-point of death itself, but because of how this destination shifts Jesus’ perspective about what should motivate his decisions. He recognizes the very real threat that Herod represents – the power of state-sponsored violence that has already resulted in the death of Jesus’ cousin, John – but that threat cannot subvert his purpose. Once you know you are travelling toward your death – once you have accepted, even embraced this destination – fear of death loses all power over you.

But this doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of why we would want Jesus to act like a mother hen in the face of a fox. In the face of so much talk about death… our instinct is to look for strength, not softness.

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way:

“In a contest between a fox and a chicken, whom would you bet on?” She goes on to remind us that, unlike roosters, hens have no talons, and not even much of a beak. She writes of the hen “about 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.”[3]

But, recognizing that in this scenario, I am one of those baby chicks… I’m not terribly reassured by that image. It does not offer a very certain protection from the threats in my environment.

On this Sunday, following yet another violent terrorist attack on two communities of faith, an attack in which 50 of our siblings in the Muslim faith were murdered and an equal number injured…. On this Sunday when I am grieving for the lives lost and trauma caused by this attack, and fearing that there will be others – whether from white supremacist copy-cats or ISIS-inspired retribution.... On this Sunday of grief and fear … a mother hen isn’t exactly what I’m looking for. Non-violent self-sacrifice doesn’t seem very reassuring. I’m not entirely sure that I am content to be gathered under Jesus’ wings. Because he is not promising to fight the fox! He’s not offering an end to the violence. He’s heading right into it. His path is a dangerous one, and being gathered under his wings means placing ourselves in that path of danger. This doesn’t sound all that comforting.

So I ask again, why on earth would we want God to be a roosting chicken?

Of course, if I’m honest, it’s not just the Mosque attack in New Zealand, or any of the other realities of violence in our world, that interferes with my willingness to be gathered under the wings of the mothering God. I imagine it’s the same for you. There are all kinds of things that can get in the way of our willingness to gather close and to trust God’s provision that might not look like we think it should.

Sometimes it’s doubt that interferes – needing a little more convincing that we can really trust God’s way of doing things;

Sometimes it’s distraction – the perpetual busy-ness that just crowds spiritual concerns out of our lives;

Or it can be pride – that tells us we don’t really need God’s sheltering wings;

Or the opposite lie of unworthiness – that convinces us we aren’t good enough to merit God’s care.

I imagine we all can come up with sources of unwillingness and lack of trust from our own lives… things that stop us, at least at times, from rushing under the outstretched wings of the Mother Hen and seeking shelter there, whether or not we see the approaching shadow of the fox.

So, I want to ask you to write those barriers down, as we did last week. Don’t include any identifying names, because I want you to be free to be really honest. What is it that gets in the way of being gathered, like a trusting, dependent chick, under God’s wings?

[If you are reading this at home, feel free to write down your own barrier to trusting God's provision, and put it somewhere that you can use it to guide your prayers for transformation during Lent.]

By writing down these barriers we are, in a way, offering a prayer for transformation. A prayer for the transformation of our ideas about what it means to be “saved” from our enemies, or about what journey we should even be on. A prayer for a shift in our perspective… so that we CAN see God, the Mother Hen, as the God under whose wings we want to gather. Even in the face of the foxes in our lives.

Jesus, on his road to Jerusalem, knew that his journey was not about earthly power. It was not about fighting the fox with offensive weapons that could defeat his enemy by force. The Mother Hen has no offensive weapons. Her only play is to give herself up – to sacrifice herself to protect her chicks in the ultimate act of love.

And that’s what Jesus came to do. He came to walk the transforming path that faces death without fear because that was the best way he could love the people who didn’t even know they needed him… the people who refused to be gathered.

If we are controlled by fear, we will refuse to be gathered too. The protection of love won’t be enough. …But then, if we are controlled by fear, nothing ever will be enough.

The gospel of Jesus offers us a different kind of hope – it invites us to be transformed.

To be transformed into the kind of people who WILL gather under their mother Hen’s wings – so that that nurturing love can not only shelter us, but also model for us as we grow into that same capacity. The capacity to face fear, and violence, and busy-ness, and distraction, and pride, and shame, and every other trust-breaking threat ... with love and trust. The capacity, even, to shelter others under our wings should there be the need.

You know, Alaina’s first reaction to the picture of the Mother Hen was to skeptically ask: God is a chicken? She didn’t quite understand how that could be good news. But if you ask her now, she’ll tell you that it’s her favorite image for God.

God IS a Chicken – a brave, self-giving, loving mother hen whose outstretched wings are wide enough for us all.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Psalm 17:8; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4.

[2] Sundays and Seasons, Year C 2019, Augsburg Fortress, 2018, p. 122.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Chickens and Foxes” in Bread of Angels, Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997, pp. 124-125.

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