Sadly, it still resonates.
Drawing the connection between the French word “lent” as meaning slow and the historical Lenten practice of fasting, we began our Lenten journey with the suggestion that we adopt a spiritual practice of slowing down for lent by fasting from fast. So, following a delightfully slow start on Monday morning, I read the assigned gospel text for this Sunday and spent some time luxuriating in the study of fables about foxes in henhouses. The gospel’s description of Jesus describing himself as a mother hen longing to gather up her chicks in the safety of her breast so to protect them from encounters with Herod the fox created images that suggested that we lean into the Mystery that we call God. If as our friend Dom Crossan is fond of saying, Jesus really “is what God looks like in sandals,” then surely the gospel-storyteller’s casting Jesus as someone who compares himself to a mother hen, must tell us something about how Jesus want’s his hearers to understand the nature of God. So, I began thinking about preparing a liturgy devoted to gently leaning into the MYSYERY of God.
Part of my lenten practice of fasting from fasting from fast caused me to shun my regular Monday morning consumption of news media, as most of you know, I’m a bit of a news-aholic and so on my day off, I usually spend way too much time catching up on the news of the world. These days the news tends to send my blood pressure racing so, I avoided my usual media haunts in favour of enjoying a few movies and some exercise. As the week wore on, I developed a cold and so Wednesday and Thursday were spent drifting in and out of consciousness as I tried to sleep off the effects of fever and congestion. So, imagine my horror when I finally tuned back into the news of the world on Friday. The fox was actually in the hen house. There he was a fox whose sly cunning makes Herod Antapis look tame, attacking a beautiful tender sweet hen, who over and over again wants for nothing more than to gather children as a mother hen collects her babies beneath her wings. Donald John Trump was attacking the Pope! At first, I thought the decongestants that I was taking were causing hallucinations! Talk about foxes in the hen houses!
Herod Antipas wanted nothing more than to be King of the Jews and Trump wants nothing more than to be King of the World! Herod Antipas scandalized the first century and Trump is well on his way to scandalizing the 21st century. Jesus Christ shocked the first century by comparing himself to a hen.
Donald Trump continues to shock this century with the size of his ego. For over a billion Roman Catholics, Pope Francis is Christ’s representative on earth, billions more see him as a religious leader of impeccable credentials, others see him as a kindly old gentleman who is struggling to bring a stodgy religious institution into the 21st century by opening the doors to welcome in the poor and marginalized. Donald Trump is a narcissist of epic proportions; a real-estate mogul, who despite his three financial bankruptcies has managed to translate his business savvy into reality show ratings that paved the way to a media career which he is currently trying to translate into a political career in his quest for the White House. Responding to a question about the astonishing popularity of Donald Trump, the Pope said something to the effect that “any person who focusses on building walls and not trying to build bridges is not a Christian.” And that audacious fox stopped dead in his tracks just long enough to insist that the Pope is and I quote, “disgraceful”.
Can you blame me for suspecting that I’d taken one too many decongestants? I turned the TV off lest I discover that aliens were about to land on earth and lock us all up for our own safety. Back in the relative safety of my office I returned to biblical commentaries to read about metaphors for God. What exactly is the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke getting at with this particular metaphor? I mean why a chicken? Why not something more elegant or graceful or majestic; an eagle perhaps, or a lion, or a bear? This are metaphors for God that were good enough for other biblical storytellers, but not for this one. Now I have only ever really had a relationship with one chicken in my life. I’ve got to say a chicken is the last thing I would want to be compared to let along something I’d compare myself too. If Jesus is comparing himself to a mother hen collecting her babies under her wings, and the gospel-storyteller wants us to think of Jesus as God then is the gospel-storyteller actually asking us to think of God as a mother hen?
Let me tell you about the one chicken I have actually known personally. Her name was Betty, Betty the Broiler. We called her Betty the Broiler because she wasn’t anything much to look at. You see back in the day, when I was helping to run a retreat centre, among the various animals we kept on Seabright Farm were chickens. Seabright chickens to be exact. Seabright chickens were breed to as ornamental chickens and a flock of seabrights are about as beautiful a flock of chickens as ever adorned a farmyard. For some unknown reason, our flock of seabright chicks came complete with a rather plain looking banti hen that was anything but a seabright, she was a plain white hen which we nicknamed Betty the Broiler on account of how she looked like a generic hen fit for broiling.
But Betty was anything but generic. Betty thought she was human. Right from the start rather than scratch about with the other hens, Betty liked nothing better than to follow the children wherever they went. The kids on the farm loved Betty and because they loved her, they fed her stuff that the average hen never eats; sandwiches, crackers, bananas, berries, ice-cream, Betty’s favourite food was hot dogs. The kids used to squeal with laughter as Betty chased them around the yard demanding that they share their food with her. Well one day, depending on whose telling the story, either one of the dogs on the farm, wanted to share in the food that the kids were eating or a strange dog wandered onto the property to only to attack one of the kids, anyway long story short the kids ran into the farmhouse screaming for help because “a dog tried to kill Betty.” By the time we got to her Betty was gasping on the lawn surrounded by feathers. Her throat had clearly been cut. Betty looked ready for the broiler.
But the children insisted, and so none of the adults had the heart to do what seemed like the kind thing and simply finish her off. Instead against better judgement of the adults, Betty the broiler was rushed to the vet, who even though he thought the so-called adults had taken leave of their senses, agreed to stitch Betty up. The vet had never before tried to rescue a chicken, so when he handed her back to the adults, he suggested that she might be in considerable pain, but rather than prescribe costly drugs, he suggested that we might try alcohol to ease her pain.
It’s amazing what adults will do to protect children from the harsh realities of life. But I kid you not, they actually found an eyedropper with which to feed Betty rum so as to spare her from the pain of her injuries. Also, a pair of toe socks. Toe-socks that were popular back in the 80s; they had openings for each toe. Well a pair of rainbow toe socks were put to good use, someone cut off a big toe so that it could be pulled over Bettys beak and head, and worn round her neck like a kind of rainbow turtle neck. Betty the Broiler went down in the history of Seabright farm as a valiant protector of children. Her legend grew and before long, she wasn’t just a chicken, but a brave hen that sacrificed herself to protect the children who loved her. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a white hen strutting about a yard with a rainbow scarf about her neck being tended by a group of children who would share even their most treasured treats with Betty the Broiler.
Betty is the only Chicken I’ve ever had much of a relationship with, so you’ll have to forgive me, because as it became clear that Donald Trump was going to win yet another primary and in all likelihood is going to be the Republican nominee for president of the United States, just a hare’s breath from the becoming the most powerful person on earth, I couldn’t help imagining Pope Francis wearing a rainbow turtle neck. As the political pundits argued about whether or not the Pope has any business weighing in on the relative merits of Donald Trump’s Christianity, I couldn’t help thinking that this particular hen, had been chewed up by a fox. No, I’ve never been very fond of Popes, but before Betty the Broiler, I thought hens were only good for eating. I must admit that before Pope Francis, I thought popes were mostly good for nothing. But I’ve got to say that as long as Christianity is left in the hands of folks who insist on dumbing down the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and failing to see how far we have sunk when building a wall to keep people out can be seriously defended by folks who call themselves followers of Jesus, well let’s just say maybe there ain’t nobody left in church but us chickens. And I don’t mean that in a good way.
Those of us who call ourselves progressive or liberal, or Lutheran, or Anglican, or United, or spiritual but not religious Christians are all that’s left when it comes to defending the teachings of Jesus against those who would insist upon interpretations of Jesus that allow for the persecution or marginalization or even the torture and death of those other people, you know the ones who aren’t like us. I’ve been there myself, I’ve been out in the world traveling incognito, some place where nobody knows what I do for a living and I’ve heard the previsions that masquerade as Christianity, and I’ve simply pretended that there’s nothing I can do or say. I’ve let it go. I’ve stayed above the fray. I refused to engage. I’ve moved along. So, I’m guessing that most of you have been there too. In situations where you’ve heard the most outlandish things said or done as if they are Christian and, for whatever reason, you have decided to pretend that it is ok to let it go, because after all we were all trained to avoid conversations about religion and politics. But when those of us who know better, remain silent, then the foxes have their way. The foxes tell the tale of what it means to be Christian and before we know it nobody wants to bother anymore. Before we know it the idea that Jesus might have understood the mystery of God as tenderness best expressed in the courage of a mother hen, collecting her children under her wings to protect them from come what may, well that image of God, is lost and instead the world is continuously offered the image of a triumphant megalomaniac who would rather judge and punish that embrace and protect.
Our images of the MYSTERY that we call God do matter. We have something precious to offer the world. The question is: Do we have the courage to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, by Jerusalem, I mean out there into the public square to offer ways of understanding reality that will nourish ground and sustain our world in LOVE?
The spiritual quest of Lent is little more than a self-indulgent luxury if it is done only with our own spiritual development in mind. The spiritual quest of Lent is stunted by our own fears if we don’t go on to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the world is in turmoil, the kind of turmoil that can only be soothed by the shalom, the peace that humanity has longed for for generations, the kind of shalom, that we have seen glimpses of the kind of shalom that Jesus talked about as the baselia of God, or the kin-dom of God. The kind of shalom that our friend Dom Crossan describes as the time and place where everyone has enough, the peace that comes through justice; justice for all of the children of God.
To follow Jesus to Jerusalem, is to follow Jesus on the quest for this kind of shalom, shalom for all the people of the world, and shalom for the earth and all the creatures of the earth, shalom for all of creation. A lofty vision nourished by the image of a creator who longs to gather her children together as a mother hen gathers her babies under her wings. Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God! Do we have the courage to follow that One to Jerusalem? Let it be so. Please let it be so. Amen.