Sermon, Lent 2 C, English Church, Heidelberg, Feb 21, 2016
Foxes and hens. My five-year old son recently developed an interest in Aesop’s Fables after I checked out a collection for children from the German-American Institute. The lion and the mouse, the fox and the crow, the goose with the golden eggs. The fox shows up in the tales frequently, given his reputation even in ancient Greece for being sly and clever, loners who seek to get the advantage over a smaller, frailer animal. Although in Aesops’s stories at least, he is usually left outwitted, and hungry. And the hearers of these stories cheer – or at least my son did – when the underdog survives the onslaughts of the sly fox or as we would say in English, when the underdog “outfoxes” the fox himself and gets away alive. Then our innate sense of fairness and justice is confirmed.
In today’s Gospel text, Jesus also plays with the image of the fox, as he reflects on the exercise of human power and violence versus God’s divine power.
Our story begins with the Pharisees warning Jesus of very real danger: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you,” they tell him. Herod Antipas was the youngest son of Herod the Great, had been educated in Rome, and was now governor of Galilee and Perea, essentially acting as a kind of middle manager in the Roman political administration. The biblical stories portray him as paranoid and petty. He had already killed off Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist for criticizing his incestuous marriage to his half-brother’s wife Herodias. And now, it seems, he was beginning to wonder who this Jesus was and whether he, too, was a troublemaker. He was quite curious to see Jesus himself and if necessary to get rid of him. So the Pharisees warn Jesus to get away while he can.
Jesus knew well enough that Herod was dangerous but he refused to be intimidated or dissuaded from what he had to do. He believed deeply that he had a particular mission that no one could stop and so his face was set towards Jerusalem and the Cross. He was not about to be scared by a small-time player like Herod: “Go and tell that fox for me,” he tells the Pharisees, who certainly had no intention of going back to Herod, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work … I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” He sees it all clearly now, he knows what he is doing. There is no other way. Herod cannot stop him any more than Peter or anyone else can. “I must be on my way!” he declares. Herod is only a “fox,” a solitary, cowardly and sly animal who has no true power over him. Jesus, the underdog, can outwit him and slip away.
But then suddenly, we sense that he is talking more to himself than anyone else. He is already standing before Jerusalem in his imagination. “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!”
Now, I am not sure about your reaction, but when I read the two sentences they did not seem to go together. First, he is sad and angry about the violence of “Jerusalem” towards those who challenge or criticize it and seems angry, a violence not unlike that of Herod, which focuses on maintaining the status quo and their own power by getting rif of anyone who is inconvenient or threatening to them. But then instead of pouring down condemnation on Jerusalem, raining prophetic fire and brimstone on them, so to speak, we hear instead a sigh, a lament from the heart. He does not say “Oh how I have longed to swoop down and wreak vengeance on you like a raging eagle.” He does not threaten to come in the night like a leopard or to roar and attack like a mighty lion or any other animal image present in the Old Testament. He says something much different, doesn’t he?
We hear a lament that is as old as God’s troubled relationship with God’s beloved children, a lament that echoes throughout the Scriptures, a lament that is surprisingly tender even as it expresses his broken heart.
We hear his sadness and even anger that things have to be this way, that God’s love is rejected by those very religious people who should be most willing to embrace it. Yet we also hear the compassion and tenderness, the unconditional love of a parent, who still wants to draw her children close to her, despite everything: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Can you imagine this little flustered bird who sees a threat coming and trying to scoop all her little wayward and clueless chicks under her warm, soft feathers while they persist in chirping loudly, popping out and running off, unaware of the dangers lurking nearby, maybe even walking right into the open mouth of the waiting foxes?
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were choosing an animal metaphor to describe the Savior I would not choose a chicken, as plucky as it might be. We might choose a more warrior-like image from the Bible – images of soaring eagles or a roaring lion of Judah, come to mind. Or a stealthy leopard as in the book of Hosea (BBT). Or even Leviathan would be better. Even C.S. Lewis when he imagined his Christ-like animal character in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe imagined Christ as comparable to a lion, the king of the forest, and not a mighty little mama chicken. (How would that story have turned out differently, I wonder, if he had?)
When choosing a mascot for a school or sports team, people usually choose an animal that inspires fear in the other team not one that would get laughed at. We tend to want leaders who can protect us, who are seen by others as strong, virile, powerful. And by extension many Christians in history have tended to think of God as tough and mighty, in charge, able to get things done and make other people do what He wants – or else. I am guessing even those who have long since rejected such a muscular form of Christianity would still prefer another Christ mascot than the little chicken who could. Because at some level, “a mother hen does not inspire much confidence,” as Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor writes. “No wonder some of the chicks decided to go with the fox,” she exclaims.
But this is the metaphor Jesus chooses to describe himself in this case. Instead of threatening to seek revenge, to attack and destroy, he speaks of his sorrow, his sense of failure and frustration. He does not speak here of how powerful he feels but how powerless. Because what he really wants is not to be another mighty and big man-in-charge whom everyone will fear and look up to. What he wants is to bring everyone together, to gather each precious child of his together, to bring peace and reconciliation and unity, not through force but love, but it does not seem tobe working. And in fact, he knows that some of his own will soon turn on him instead, seeing his outstretched arms not as an invitation to community but as a threat to their own power.
So what we experience here is a foretaste of Holy Week and the Cross that awaits. We see a deeply vulnerable Jesus reflecting on his own sense of failure and his sorrow. In her reflection on this text, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor relates Jesus’ anger and sorrow at being unable to protect the children of Jerusalem from the violence that awaits them to our own experiences of vulnerability: “If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of 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, [chest] exposed.”
The image of a mother hen seeking to protect her chicks speaks not only to Jesus’ willingness to become deeply vulnerable on the Cross, but also to risk his life to save those he sees as his family. Now a chicken obviously does not have massive teeth or claws or other natural defenses but she will put herself in harm’s ways to shield her chicks with her own body. As Taylor writes about the mother hen image, “All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first. Which he does, as it turns out.”
Arms outspread, seeking to protect his own, exposed on the cross for all the world to see his pain but also his great love.
In Lent especially the church reminds us to look to the cross as the source of our power, of our strength and a reminder of our worth in the eyes of the one who dies for us so that we might live.
The church also reminds us that walking in this way of the cross, which at first seems to be the way of death, is actually the way of life.
We are to follow our mother hen, so to speak, like faithful chicks learning as children do to imitate our parent that we might grow to be more and more like him: in courage, in compassion,
for better and for worse in life and in death.
In his letter to the young church in Philippians we heard this morning, Paul called the church to imitate Jesus just like he, Paul, was seeking to do by walking in the way of the cross: Paul writes, “Stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved, all seeking to walk in the way of the cross, yet to remember that we are to know the power of Jesus’ resurrection and to share in Jesus’ sufferings,” thus “becoming like him in death” (3:10).
In this time of Lent then I invite you also to seek to imitate Christ by walking in the cross.
But first to get there, we have to clear away everything that keeps us from being able to see the way.
As we clear away the spiritual clutter in our lives during Lent we seek to focus more fully on following Jesus with singleness of purpose. Not to be like the little distracted chicks running around in all directions, frantically busy and looking for something to keep our minds off our own pain rather than looking to the one who longs to pull us close and hold us tight.
Of course, since that challenge to walk in the cross sounds so big and vague and daunting, we humans have to break it down into little pieces. To focus on small things, habits of the spirit and mind and body. One at a time. Habits that are getting in the way of our following the way of the cross – whether that is impatience with others or self-criticism, judgment or self-numbing against any unpleasant feelings, dishonesty, envy and comparison, or you name it we each know where we are struggling and blocking God and authentic human connection out. That means we have to be honest and courageous enough to look inside and to look around us and be prepared for genuine change, which means a life-giving, grace-filled relationship with God. We can do this in small ways by embracing practices that allow us to open up and become more compassionate, not only towards others but also, crucially towards ourselves – practices of prayer, contemplation or meditation, for example, or of charity and engagement with those most in need, or of creativity. We have to be very specific and concrete. Vague sentiments or superficial commitments will not bring about true, lasting change. Whatever discipline each of us may need, the goal is spend time growing in love for God, others and ourselves so that we can reach out to others from a place of love, authenticity and vulnerability like Jesus. This means giving some things up, but just as importantly, opening ourselves up in a new way, especially to what God wishes to do through and in us.
As the Jesuit James Costello writes, “Lent is not just for ‘giving things up,’ but letting things in,” in particular God. Lent is 40 days of wanting to be able to say ‘yes’ to that action of God and, by God’s grace, to become more and more generously and freely a part of it.”
Lent is the continuation of a spiritual journey of growth, insight and deepening in faith, of opening to God, walking with God, though light and dark. We do not go through these sometimes dark places alone but in the presence of One who longs to offer us warmth and protective comfort under his mother-hen wings, to provide “the protection of parental love, the strength of a home and an identity.” This parental love does not mean, however, that God will shield us from all that comes our way or “immunity from trouble,” as one commentator notes, (Darrell), but God does promise to go with us and be with us on our journey.
I will finish with the words of the German theologian Dorothee Soelle who described this process in her book Theology for Sceptics:
“The more you grow into love, into the message of Jesus Christ…
the more vulnerable you make yourself.
You simply become more vulnerable to attack when…’that of God’ lights you up.
When you spread your life around instead of hoarding it,
then the great light becomes visible within you.
To be sure you enter into loneliness, often you lose friends,
a standard of living, a job or a secure career,
but at the same time you are changed.
And the cross this sign of isolation, of shame, of abandonment becomes,
in this process, the tree of life which you no longer want to be without at all.
And you know at once where you belong.”
Revd Jennifer Adams Massmann