2nd Sunday in Lent Feb. 28 , 2010
There is an old Spanish proverb that says “An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.” The imagery from scripture this morning of the mothering hen may speak to that. But there are a number of us in this congregation who raise chickens, and have a much more vivid understanding of the lives of chicks and hens.
Mark Neimann Ross, one of our musicians this morning, and the keeper of the hen we met with the children, told me the story of a frizzle hen who had a brood of chicks. In the warm evening light, that sharp-eyed mother hen happened to notice a hawk in the distance. She put out a loud call to her babies to come to the safety of the coop and her wings, and the chicks scattered. Unfortunately, there was one little chick, wandering around in the field, flustered and alone. The hawk was bearing down fast. The mother hen didn’t hesitate. This frizzle sailed to the little one and put her body between the hawk’s talons and her baby. The hawk nailed the hen. Wham! The owner saw the drama unfolding and ran out. She drove away the hawk and found the baby chick, unharmed, under its mother’s wings. Amazingly, the mother hen lived, too.
In the text for today, Jesus laments: “ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about this passage from Luke: “If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world—wings spread, breast exposed. . . Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield them with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first; which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while the babies are all asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day, where both the foxes and the chickens can see her—wings spread, breast exposed, without a single chick beneath her feathers.”
The most vulnerable posture in the world. For whom have we opened our arms? And can we accept arms opened for us? Can we follow Jesus in that vulnerability?
This season of Lent, the forty days before Easter, is a time for taking a long, deep look at ourselves, at the dark corners, at the hard truths. Some of that came up for me as I looked carefully at the words we sang in our hymn this morning: “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”, particularly the phrase: “Two wonders I confess: the wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.” The “unworthiness” part caught my attention. Is this just an example of the old “worm theology”, you know: “Forgive me God, for such a worm am I?” Is this a vulnerable truth, or just dated theology? To modern ears, this may ring of self-debasement and clashes with the idea of being made in God’s image. But then I thought about how we DO measure our worth. Despite good intentions, don’t we often act as though our worth is based upon the things that we achieve: I’m worthy because of my success, my affluence, my ability to _______ (fill in the blank.) I think too often, we are driven by perfectionism and the need to NOT fail. When we do fail, and we DO, mercy is hard to find.
I think the point of the hymn, is just this: None of us can earn the sort of love and abundant life with which Jesus hopes to enfold us. Nothing we can do merits that grace. We don’t earn that love, we just receive it, like the vulnerable chicks.
Do you find it difficult to walk into those open arms? Whois it that we have a hard time opening our arms to? When do we resist receiving that self-poured out-love? And why? What is it that makes us always want to be the ones in control? Not only did Jesus lament over Jerusalem, but he was also alert to that clever and destructive “fox”, Herod. Herod was the one who beheaded John the Baptist. Another murderous threat was Jerusalem itself, the city of the house of God. A touchstone of the holy, for those within and without the city, the place where Jesus journeyed every year as a child, with his parents for the feast of the Passover. It was in Jerusalem that the prophet Jeremiah was condemned, and barely escaped death. Zechariah, the prophet was killed there.
The Jesus of Luke’s gospel shows that he understood the danger of being a prophetic voice. And while he knew the danger waiting for him in Jerusalem– that place of religious hierarchy, he yearned with love for the people there.
It seems that we live in a time where there is polarization between some who would relativize faith and fear to claim any sort of religious truth; and between those who are so clearly certain of their correct belief that they’re willing to condemn all others. As Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of a passionate intensity.”
But in Jesus, we have a model of passionate commitment to God’s purpose. He will knowingly journey to Jerusalem, to carry out his mission, knowing how dangerous it will be. He is willing to undergo suffering and death, all for love’s sake. It was thirty years ago, next month, that Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated. Moments before a sharpshooter felled him, reflecting on scripture, he said, “One must not love one-self so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.”
This reluctant prophet, Romero, was a surprise in history. The poor never expected him to take their side and the elites of church and state felt betrayed. He was a compromise candidate elected to head the bishop’s episcopacy by conservative fellow bishops. But something happened–within three weeks of his election– that would transform the ascetic and timid Romero.
As a new archbishop, Romero’s first priest, Rutilio Grande, was ambushed and killed along with two parishioners. Grande was a target because he defended the peasant’s rights to organize farm cooperatives. He said that the dogs of the big landowners ate better food than the campesino children whose fathers worked their fields. The night Romero drove out of the capitol to view the priest’s corpse and the old man and seven year old who were killed with him, marked his change. In a packed country church Romero encountered the silent endurance of terrified peasants. Their eyes asked the question only he could answer: Will you stand with us as Rutilio did? Romero’s “yes” was in his action. The peasants had asked for a good shepherd and that night they received one. Oscar Romero gave his last homily on March 24. He was shot as he said the mass. In the movie about his life and death, Romero was standing at the Table, arms extended like wings, in prayer, and his heart vulnerable to the bullet that found him. He had wisdom for the people of his day, and for us. He said, “If some day they take away the radio station from us . . . if they don’t let us speak, if they kill all the priests and the bishop too, and you are left a people without priests, each one of you must become God’s microphone, each one of you must become a prophet.” The most vulnerable posture in the world.
Just this week I read in the Oregonian, that a skinhead group was trying to locate its headquarters in John Day. But the response of the community living there was overwhelming in its opposition to the white supremacists. Hundreds of people in the town of 8,000 or so rallied. Meliana Lysne, who had moved there a couple of decades ago, admitted that when she first came to John Day, she had concerns about racism. But at the meeting she said, “The people of Grant county are beautiful people. They are standing against this. Loving one another is going to break this hatred.” Loving one another–the most vulnerable position.
In this passage from Luke, we have two contrasting pictures of religious zeal–Jerusalem and Jesus. Religious passion drives Jerusalem to murderous ends. Religious passion moves prophets and Jesus to fulfill God’s mission at the cost of their lives.
What sort of posture will we have? Will the church today follow the example of Jerusalem or Jesus? Will we raise our voices to assert our power to defend our turf? What would the world be like if we adopted the most vulnerable posture in the world? What would the world be like if we adopted Jesus’ model of faithfulness to God’s purpose, no matter what? Who would be sheltered in our arms? “A home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way. . . From the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.”