Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday in Lent – February 24, 2013
Doubt and Fear: Two related constructs, reactions, cognitive-emotional positions. We find both in the Scriptures today and there is good news in the thick of these two stories. In the Hebrew Scripture we have the story of God’s telling the old childless Abraham that he is going to give as many descendants as the stars in the heavens. Abraham is dumbfounded. His reaction? Doubt! Abraham, who is honored by three different faith traditions as an icon of faithfulness was a person who doubted.
Doubt often gets a bad name in religion. I was always taught as a very young person that if you were a good practicing Catholic you would not have doubts. You would have unwavering faith. Yet the Gospels present a very different picture.
Jesus didn’t seem to have any problem with people who had honest doubts. In fact, the people he had the biggest difficulty with were those who were totally sure about what they believed. Jesus was not crucified by people full of doubts but by people full of certitude. The poet Tennyson said, “There lives more faith in honest doubt. Believe me, than in half the creeds.” Like Jesus, in this church, we have extended an to all who enter to come with their doubts as well as their faith.
Isn’t human thought is driven by the search engine of doubt. Descartes, one of the philosophical founders of the modern worldview made doubt the core of his philosophy. And what was Jesus doing when he told all those stories about the Kingdom of God and what it was like? Did he, perhaps, need people to doubt that what they always assumed about God, the world, themselves, to consider the possibility that what they know may not be the whole story? He certainly wanted the Pharisees to doubt that they had all the answers. Jesus knew that doubt is often a necessary step to faith.
God comes to Abraham, an old childless man, and promises him a future. Abraham responds with doubt: “How can this be?” How could God make such an outlandish promise? I suspect that more than a few of us sometimes wonder what God is up to in our lives and what God might have in store for us. Understandably, we are skeptical and question. The good news for us in Abraham’s story is that God calls people just like us—people who do not fully understand, who question, who doubt.
But God doesn’t want to leave us there because unresolved doubt over time can lead to its unhealthy cousin “fear.” Fear can be a powerful tool when used with cleverness and persuasion. We have seen the truth in that statement is both fear-based religion and fear-based political campaigns.
I suspect that is what motivated the Pharisees to approach Jesus with the news that Herod was out to kill him. Their motives are not entirely clear. The Herods were installed in power by the Romans to usurp the influence of the Hebrews so there was no love lost between Herod and the Pharisees. Yet Luke always portrayed the Pharisees as opponents of Jesus who seek to entrap them. Is this another attempt at that?
If it is, it is not making any impression on Jesus. This conversation took place while Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and his final days before his arrest and crucifixion.
The Pharisees were absolutely sure that God’s door would always be open to them. They were privileged, important, better than the common sinner. They fully expected to be at the head of the table in the kingdom and were certain that their seats were reserved already. They had no doubts about that, but they did about Jesus, and thought that they could intimidate him with Herod’s threat.
Jesus responds by insulting Herod, calling him a sly fox—a cunning predator—and instructing the messengers to go tell him about the work of healing and casting out evil that Jesus is doing.
Animal imagery is among some of the most striking in the Bible. You’ll find lions, leopards, and bears along with nearly 100 other animals, insects, and creatures. God’s Word showcases numerous members of the animal kingdom. But the touching nature of the second reference in the Gospel gives us an appreciation of the vulnerability of all life and recognition of God’s nurturing love as manifested in Jesus. The second part of Luke’s 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 one of the strongest feminine Christological images in Scripture: a 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.
Hens are not known for their craftiness or speed. When a fox is on the loose, the mother hen is extremely vulnerable. In Jesus, God identified with our own vulnerability and human weakness. Jesus will face rejection and death. In the metaphor of the hen Jesus employs, we are invited to experience a God whose tender love is ever faithful and who will never turn away from us. God holds us close and assures us that we are forever beloved children of God.
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 image of the mother hen Jesus presents us with today, we discover the unconditional, bountiful love of a God who considers the safety of her children, gathering those who belong to her into community under her protection, giving up her life for them, loving them to the bitter end—even from a cross.
So do come here with your doubts but do leave your fears at the door. They will be there for you when you leave if you still need to carry them with you. God knows that all God’s kids are very vulnerable, can be easily hurt and that our lives can often be very fragile. As self-sufficient as we’d like to believe we are, we are a needy lot.
Author and Episcopal Priest Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we think of church as a “big fluffed up brooding hen, offering warmth and shelter to all kinds of chicks, including orphans, runts, and maybe even a couple of ducks.” “It is where we come to stand firm, “she says, “with those who need the same things from us. It is where we grow from chicks to chickens, by giving what we have received, by teaching what we have learned, and by loving the way we ourselves have been loved—by a mother hen who would give his life to gather us under his wings.”