Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
May God will be with us, Christ Jesus hold our lives in loving kindness, and the Holy Spirit speak wisdom deep within our souls. Amen.
An Episcopal priest and a Baptist pastor—both from the local churches—are standing by the side of a heavily traveled road pounding a sign into the ground, which reads in large, bold letters “The End Is Near! Turn Yourself Around Now!”
“Leave us alone, you crazy fanatics!” a driver yelled as he sped past. From the curve ahead, came the screeching of tires and a huge splash. The priest turned to the pastor and asked, “Do you think maybe the sign should just say ‘Bridge Washed Out’?”
Prophetic voices—voices that are meant to wake us up, shake us up, to tell the deeper meaning behind what is going on around us. This morning, before I came over to the church, looked out my bedroom window and guess what I saw in my backyard? A fox! A big red fox! How prophetic was that?
Prophets tell the truth no matter how badly it hurts for others to hear it. Jesus was such a prophetic voice as were the prophets of the Old Testament before him. This morning we find him casting out demons, healing, and teaching when some Pharisees come to him and warn him that King Herod wants to kill him. This is the first of two parts in this somber Gospel. Jesus responds by insulting Herod, calling him a sly crafty fox and instructing the messengers to go tell him about the work Jesus is doing.
The second part of the text contains a beautiful, yet sad lament by Jesus because of the penchant of Jerusalem throughout its history to hurt God’s messengers, the prophets. We find here a most tender expression of Jesus’ desire to be able to gather God’s people as a hen gathers her chicks for protection and warmth. What a beautiful maternal image of a God that loves humanity so deeply that She would gather us up and tuck us under her wings, a mother that would do anything and give anything for them, even her own life. Jesus loves Jerusalem for all that it has been and all that it could be. He sees beyond the destructiveness of the city’s evil power holders and weeps in advance of the cataclysmic destruction of the temple that would come years later.
Jerusalem isn’t interested. They would prefer to be a society that rests on property, profit, and power as the pillars of their existence, a people drawn to violence and destruction rather than peace-making and building with him the new creation of God’s Kingdom. Jerusalem rejects the new life to which God in Jesus is calling them, afraid to lose what they have in order to take a chance on what Jesus has to offer.
I think that a key component to finding the good news in this strange Gospel is to understand that it is not about Jesus’ relationship with Herod or the Pharisees or even the disciples—any one or even several individuals—but rather with an entire community of people. Our individual relationships with God are certainly valuable and significant, but they do not make us the Body of Christ.
It is our life together in community that makes us into this mysterious living entity that is more than just a gathering of individuals. Here in this sacred place and in our worship we get a new name and a new address which has a life of its own. Here we become the church—not a building or institution but a people, God’s people sent forth into the world to build God’s realm, to build the New Jerusalem, the fulfillment of God’s promise.
How do we measure up with the Jerusalem of our faith ancestry? We have a community mandate to stand for something as the Body of Christ—to stay true to what Jesus has called us to be by refusing to run from the foxes of the world and refusing to become like them. How do we remain faithful to that?
Why was Jerusalem so closed to the teaching and healing miracles that so captivated the common folk of the time? Why did they reject Jesus? Perhaps the citizens of Jerusalem were afraid of losing what they already “had”—a magnificent city endowed by Herod the Great with two palace-fortresses and the new temple, not to mention amazing gardens and an enormous amphitheater. What Jesus offered required a new way of thinking. It required a willingness to be vulnerable enough to receive God’s gift of new life and to be willing to let God take them under her wings.
Last Sunday, Father Tombaugh preached about temptation—the attraction to a course of action incompatible with one’s proper relation to God. It is a common theme in Lent and for a very good reason. We can be as tempted as were the citizens of Jerusalem. As a faith community we can be influenced by that same kind of society that rests on property, profit and power as the pillars of our existence. We can become captives to what Erich Fromm calls the “have” system—to stay put, to hold on, to rely on what we already possess; to feel too “secure” in the known, living in fear of uncertainty, allowing the old, the tried, and the true to hold us back. Fromm contends that people are afraid of freedom. He asks the question, “If I am what I have or own and if what I have is lost, who then am I?”
Jesus has a better offer for us. He has a different image of God—not one of control or might or muscle—but of a brooding mother hen that gathers us chicks under her wings not only for warmth and nurture, but also for protection. If you’ve ever raised chickens or are familiar with a chicken house, you would have a sharp visual image of what Jesus is talking about in this Gospel.
At night, one by one, new broods of downy chicks climb under their mother’s breast and you see nothing but the hen on her guard, her babies lost somewhere under her feathers. When a fox attacks at night, she does not run away. She bares her breast and the fox takes her and, in the morning, there is nothing but clusters of feathers here and there and little chicks running around on their own.
In the mother hen—in the image of God that Jesus teaches us today—we find a new way of power and leadership, the servant leader, the one whose unconditional, bountiful love considers the safety of her children and who does not survive the fox’s attack by violence and force but by gathering those who belong to her into a community protected by the love of the mother hen, giving her life for them, loving them to the bitter end—even from a cross.
We chicks are very vulnerable. We can be easily wounded. Our lives often prove to be very fragile. As self-sufficient as we’d like to believe we are, we are a needy lot. John Stanford, author of The Kingdom Within, writes that “It is those who have recognized that they have been injured or hurt in some way in life who are most able to come into the kingdom of God.” God’s promise for the New Jerusalem is one of healing and salvation for the world. And it is our community identity and our community mandate to proclaim that promise of salvation—of healing and wholeness—for all of God’s chickens—no matter who they are or where they may find themselves on their faith journey.
I think a great metaphor for the church is a big fluffed up, brooding hen, offering welcome and warmth and refuge to all kinds of chicks, including the runts of the litter and maybe even a couple of ducks, a community that stands between the foxes of the world—refusing to run from them or become like them.
This place—the church—is where we come to be fed and sheltered, but it is also where we come to stand alongside those who need to be nurtured and protected by us, who in the name of Jesus stand firm and plant ourselves between the foxes of the world and the fragile ones entrusted to us. It is here where we grow together by giving what we have been given, by teaching what we have learned, by loving in the way we have been loved by the One who laid down his life for us.
Archbishop Desmund Tutu, who will be the preacher at the consecration service of our new bishop, Ian Douglas, on April 17, once said: “God saw our brokenness and sought to extricate us from it—to bring us back to our intended condition of relatedness with God and God sent Jesus who would fling out his arms on the cross as if to embrace us.”
And embrace us he does—taking us under his wings and loving and protecting us from the hen house to the cross—every last one of us, his ever precious and beloved chicks.