Full to the Brim: Under God’s Wing

Scripture Reading: Luke 13:31-35
Watch Sermon: 3/13/22 Sunday Worship

For Lent this year we began our current series, Full to the Brim, for a Lenten focus that is a bit different from typical years past. Historically, Lent was a period of intentional preparation for new Christian converts to learn about the faith and prepare to join the church by being baptized and participating in Holy Communion for the first time. From the early church on this intentionality was passed through the years. Lent became a focused time for Christians to reflect on their need for Jesus Christ and the salvation of God. To practice penance, feel remorseful for our sinful nature, so that we repent of our sin – turning 180 degrees in the opposite direction – to live differently. To become the new creation, transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

These intentional practices are good for us. It is good to come face-to-face with hard truths so that we can choose how we will respond. So Lent often involves restraint, confession and piety as we reflect on our sin in order to better celebrate the incredible miracle that is Jesus giving his life on the cross for the salvation of the world, AND overcoming sin and death by rising to new life. The origins of Lent were steeped in leaving the old life behind by fasting and preparing for a brand new life as part of the family of God.

Where we sometimes get it a bit wrong is that we focus so much on our sin and the brokenness of the world that we forget to temper that with the truth of God’s love and hope that is freely, and abundantly offered to us. What if the preparation for the joy of Easter, and the new life Jesus offers is to step away from the rat race ways of our society, to stand up to corrupt power, and the lie of scarcity? In order for us to live a more expansive and full life of faith, so much that we are full to the brim and overflowing? We have done nothing to deserve or earn God’s grace, yet, when we explore Jesus’ parables and the promises of God we find that God’s grace pours over us like water, filling us up. And it doesn’t stop there… it spills over to reach beyond just us, but to rush and flow into the world, touching other people and places around us.

The last two years since Covid seemed to overtake our world perhaps what we need most this Lenten season is to shift the focus to the abundance and expansive nature of God’s grace. To lean more into the promise given by God in our baptisms that God has already claimed us as his own, and there is nothing we can do to ever change or erase the fact that God loves us. If love is our beginning, how does that love affect how we live our lives led by that promise? How will we, not just during this season of Lent, but also beyond it, live more fully as we pursue justice and hope, and join God in living the expansive life God dreams for us?

Today we come to an interesting passage in Luke’s gospel. Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem, traveling through cities and villages, teaching as he went along. Some Pharisees approach Jesus, telling him to: “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.” (Luke 13:31b CEB) Interesting because Jesus has already been publicly critical of the Pharisees and other legal experts of religious law for being hypocritical. Presenting themselves as being righteous and pious, examples for others to live by for faithful living. Yet, the problem for Jesus is that it was all a show so that others would look at them, when in reality the condition of their hearts didn’t match their words. However, here are some Pharisees warning Jesus, and encouraging him to move along because Herod wants to kill him. 

Who would Jesus be to tempt this? After all, Herod has already imprisoned and killed his cousin, John the Baptist just because Herod’s wife wanted that done. Is Jesus next on Herod’s hit list? It is possible these particular Pharisees are not just trying to make trouble for Jesus, or use this threat as an excuse to get Jesus to move along, but that they are sympathizers of Jesus’ cause. After Jesus’ death we have Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council – not city council but the religious council, aka Pharisees – who is described as one who didn’t agree with their plan and actions. He’s the one who takes care to ensure Jesus’ body didn’t remain hanging on the cross, so that it was properly wrapped and buried before the Sabbath Day. Nicodemus and other Pharisees who show some interest in at least understanding more of what Jesus is about.

The Pharisees were not a monolithic group, like most groups. There were differences among the members, and in this case, not all were against Jesus and his mission. Some seem to even question if Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, even though he came not as a warrior king who would conquer other nations by physical strength and political power. Jesus responds to these Pharisees that come to him with their warning by saying, “Go, tell that fox,” that death threats are not going to keep Jesus from doing what he is here to do. Calling Herod a fox was not a compliment. Foxes were considered wily, destructive and cunning. A threat. But the threat of Herod will not make Jesus change his plans. On the contrary, Jesus will continue on his trajectory to keep moving toward Jerusalem. Oh, and make sure to tell Herod all about the healing and liberating fruits of my ministry!

Jesus goes on to say, “it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem. 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who will the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that.” (Luke 13:33b-34 CEB) A pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry. Not as much for him, as it is for everyone else, and us reading his words today. Up until now everything that has gone down would seem to justify Jesus responding in a much different way that he is here in Luke. From the get go, after experiencing temptation in the wilderness, Jesus goes back to his hometown where he is rejected by his own people, to the point where they threaten to throw him off a cliff! Now Herod is prowling around, seeking to kill him, just as he did John. Not only that, Jerusalem itself has a horrid lamentable past of rejecting God’s prophets who were God’s mouthpieces calling the people to return to God, who loves them, and away from the destruction they have brought upon themselves. And it is now imminent that the same will hold true for Jesus.

While Jesus pronounces words of judgment on Jerusalem, there is at the same time a striking reversal of expectations. There is mercy. Compassion. Care. Jesus describes himself as a mother hen, gathering her chicks underneath the safety of her wings. A peculiar image. This is far from the image of a conquering king, wielding a sword in hand, with military power.

There is a picture that hangs in my bedroom that I bought several years ago because I just love it. The colors, the imagery, the style. We have an image of the painting it comes from, painted by Lauren Wright Pittman.

Since the first time I saw this painting I was captivated. Pittman describes her work, based on this passage from Luke, saying: “The image of Christ as a mother hen is revolutionary. Instead of using a hypermasculine, militaristic, menacing image in response to Herod’s death threats, Jesus upends the expected posture of violence and chooses to identify with the nurturing, protective, feminine image of a mother hen. He explains his love for Jerusalem as a mother hen who desperately desires to lovingly shelter her young.” (https://sanctifiedart.org/poster-prints/motherhen)

Hens, not just roosters, can be fierce in protecting their young from threats. Hens have a strong instinct to guard their babies, hiding them away under their wings for both shelter and protection from threats and weather. But they also have empathy for their young. Human beings are often thought of as differing from animals because of our ability for emotional intelligence and the capacity to express emotions. However, science is discovering that animals, too, are capable of emotion, and those emotions are very important for animals’ welfare.

The University of Bristol did some research and experiments on whether birds and other animals feel empathy for their co-habitants. Are they affected by pain and distress of their roommates when living in tight quarters? So these researchers exposed hens and chicks to puffs of air to cause mild distress that would not cause harm or pain to the birds to see what happened. They found that the hens, which were physically separated from the chicks, while still being able to see, smell and hear the chicks, paid more attention when the puffs of air were directed at them. But, when the air puffs were directed at their chicks, the mama hens responded even more intensely, displaying stress responses of fight-or-flight behavior. Even when the chicks did not make distress calls their mothers’ heart rates still increased, and their temperatures changed. Additionally, they would give a “maternal vocalization” call to the chicks that is used to call chicks to them. The hens were emotionally affected by the threat on her babies.

Sometimes we make light of those who we call mother hens. That they are being over protective, interfering, or overbearing. Clucking and watching constantly. However, if you’re a vulnerable chick in need of protection you want that mother hen. You need that mother hen to stand with you when you come face-to-face with the fox all by yourself. Herod is a fox loose in the henhouse of Israel. Herod was the Jewish leader for the Jewish people in Jerusalem, even though the region was under Roman rule. As the Jewish king Herod was supposed to care and protect Israel. A shepherd or caregiver of God’s people and this Herod was none of those things for God’s people.

Instead, Herod was a ruthless and conniving coward, much like his father before him who killed all the Jewish babies under two years old when he heard the Messiah had been born. This Herod forced his own brother to get a divorce so he could marry Philip’s wife. Then he murdered John the Baptist just because his new wife wanted him to do it. Jesus’ own relationship to John the Baptist probably had something to do with wanting to get rid of Jesus, too, plus all that stuff Jesus was saying about a kingdom that seemed like a threat to national security. Easier by far to eliminate the risk.

Jesus’ nature – God’s nature – is that of love. Even with Jerusalem’s shady history of offing God’s prophets. Even though Jesus’ own experience in Jerusalem has not gone well, Jesus still loves it so very deeply. Even though Jesus knows how things will play out in Jerusalem in the days to come yet he still loves God’s people. His people. And those who didn’t consider themselves God’s people. Those who were on the outside, and those who had been discarded by God’s people. And the message Jesus gives is that God is our refuge, like a mother hen covering her brood.

There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, or keep us from being gathered in by God, sheltering us fiercely. This God is a God of grace and mercy. Compassion and care. Pouring out grace upon grace, even when we have done nothing to deserve it. That’s what makes it so powerful. We don’t deserve it, and even if we did that grace can’t be purchased or earned. That would make it different than it is. God’s love for us is fuller than we can imagine. And God, our mother hen, is not afraid of any foxes. It is our choice for how we will respond to that kind of love.

Sources Consulted:
Chilton, Delmer. “A Fox Is Loose in the Henhouse.” Living Lutheran: Lectionary Blog, February 15, 2016. https://www.livinglutheran.org/2016/02/fox-loose-henhouse/.

Gafney, Wil. “Christ Our Mother.” The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. | Womanists Wading in the Word™, November 19, 2020. http://www.wilgafney.com/2016/02/21/christ-our-mother/.

Schade, Leah D. “Jesus, Mother Hen: This Is the God I Want to Worship.” EcoPreacher. Patheos., May 1, 2018. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/2017/05/jesus-mother-hen/.

“Tender Mercy: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 2.” SALT Project. SALT Project, March 16, 2022. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/12/tender-mercy-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-2.

Welsh, Jennifer. “Hens Feel for Their Chicks’ Discomfort.” LiveScience, March 9, 2011. https://www.livescience.com/13135-hens-show-empathy-chicks.html.

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