“As a hen gathers her brood under her wings” Lk 13: 31-35
In today’s Epistle lesson we hear Paul reminding the Church in Philippi (and the Church through all time) that their truest, deepest identity is neither their nationality nor their religion. It’s not their families. The identity sustaining them through all things is that of beloved, baptized children of God. They are “citizens of heaven” he says.
Today, this particular group of citizens of heaven has gathered here together to mourn, to pray, to question, and to refresh ourselves in what it means to be Christian at this time and in this place. We come from love that is as wide and deep as the sky, as infinite as the stars. Even though we are heading toward an unknown future, we trust that God is with us and for us and that—when all is said and done—God will lead us home. But what does it mean in a practical sense, in this present moment, to live as a Christian? Martin Luther once asked a similar question, “How do we know that the love of God dwells in us?” The answer he gave is pertinent in our context as it was in his: “If we take upon ourselves the need of the neighbor.”
To be a Christian, a citizen of heaven, means being ambassadors of God’s love by loving our neighbors. Not just the neighbors next door. Not just the neighbors who look like us, vote like us, pray like us. Nope. All of our neighbors–as far away as New Zealand, and as near as downstairs among the women of EGH and Share Wheel and upstairs among the teens in Sanctuary Arts. We are all pilgrims on this earth, designed to walk together.
Unfortunately, every country and church has a history that includes moments of shameful behavior— situations where the innocent were not defended, times when exploitation, fear-mongering, scapegoating, and other injustices took place with both vociferous support and silent acceptance. Nevertheless, the Lutheran church actually has a pretty good track record when it comes to walking alongside strangers.
You may or may not know that following WW II, one in 6 Lutherans in the world was a displaced person /refugee. At that time, 6,000 congregations resettled some 57,000 refugees in the United States. Later, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Lutheran congregations sponsored over 50,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Many recent resettlement efforts continue in the wake of war and famine and disease around the world. Not all of the neighbors we’ve accompanied are Lutheran. Not all are Christians. But all are loved by God, and therefore, deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and honor. That’s just how citizens of God’s kingdom behave.
Because stories of immigration and the Lutheran church are so intertwined, I suspect many of us have stories involving family members leaving a former home due to economic or political hardship and moving to a new land. I bet those stories include tensions about what language to use at home and in public, cultural struggles between younger and older generations about appropriate behavior, and humorous or sad attempts to fit in to the new environment. Most immigrants and refugees have overlapping tales. I hope that your family’s story has at least a few examples of people feeling welcomed and generously cared for—especially by the church.
What does it look like when the body of Christ welcomes, defends, and advocates for vulnerable newcomers? I keep thinking of the art in a chapel on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. The chapel is called Dominus Flevit, (“Jesus Wept”–or literally, “The Grief of God”). Above the altar is a gigantic plate glass window overlooking the city of Jerusalem. The stunning view includes Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as well as the homes of many Jerusalem residents.
On the front of the altar is a dramatic mosaic depicting an image from today’s Gospel lesson—fluffy little chicks in shades of yellow, embraced by the white wings of a grown chicken. All the chickens are inside a round medallion, surrounded with these words in Latin: “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.” That last phrase–“you were not willing”–is not part of the circle: it is under the chicks’ feet in a pool of blood red.
Jerusalem, alas remains bloodstained to this day—a microcosm of the violent strife afflicting the rest of the world. The fact that there is no shortage of violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere is one of the reasons Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services is this month’s featured ministry. The need for shelter from hardship is always pressing. Sometimes persecution comes from political or ideological differences, sometimes from religious ones. Crafty foxes from every part of the world seek to exploit and undermine the most vulnerable chicks. Some of those little ones are hiding in desperation; some are running around in the open where anything with claws can get to them.
I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for us to imagine Jesus’ grief at this scene, which is apparently never-ending. We can relate to his pain at his inability to protect all his little ones; we feel the echo of his lament in our own throats. News stories like the massacre in New Zealand or the wall being built on our Southern border in the US break our collective hearts. How can we overcome the weight of prejudice, fear, white supremacy, racism, and religious intolerance? What can we do besides weep?
And how can we hope to make a difference on the national or international level when we can’t even protect those we love in our own homes and hearts? My guess is that most of us here have cared for someone who wouldn’t allow us to shoulder their burdens, who would not be sheltered from harm, no matter how much we wanted and tried to provide such a refuge. For that matter, many of us ourselves have refused to ask for or accept help when we needed it. Just because someone opens their arms for a hug doesn’t mean the person in need runs into them. So yes, Jesus, we see you standing there, agonizing, and we acknowledge that you are in the most vulnerable posture in the world—wings spread out, all vital organs exposed.
That is how the mosaic hen in the Dominus Flevit is depicted. Her breast is exposed, her wings are open wide. It’s almost a comical image of God, which is partly why I like it. It is not at all expected. The Lion of Judah? Yes, that’s an image of God. The Eagle we sang about last week, bearing us up on its wings? Very strong. Even the more placid Good Shepherd, carrying the little lambs, is a dignified image. But God as a chicken? Nowhere else in the Bible or in the popular culture do we come across such a metaphor. No wonder some of the chicks opt to go with the fox.
But a hen is what Jesus chooses as his self-description. Which is pretty typical of Jesus, frankly. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it best:
“[Jesus] is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top, while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops, or you can die protecting your chicks.
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 her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, then he will have to kill her first. Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up to her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day, where both foxes and chickens can see her–wings spread, breast exposed–without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, this is how you stand.”
For Christians, our own safety and security can never be the ultimate goal. Following Jesus means walking into the face of trouble with open arms, trusting only in the power of Love. The people of University Lutheran Church may not look like a mighty force. We don’t have a dozen programs, or so many people that we can hardly keep count. We don’t have an overflowing Sunday school, or a big budget. We even have trouble meeting the budget we do have. Many of us are elderly, sick, overworked, underpaid, or unqualified in one way or another. We look, at first glance, a little like fluffy baby chicks, unable to withstand even a strong wind. Nevertheless, we are citizens of heaven. We are filled with the Holy Spirit, and sent to care for our neighbors, even as we are called to reveal our own needs and seek assistance.
We may look fragile, but we have in our midst the most precious gift that anyone has ever known. We have little fragments of the body of Christ which we share with one and all. We have wine, made from grapes that have been crushed and pounded, the lifeblood of Christ given and shed for us. The mystic Julian of Norwich describes this miracle, saying, “A mother can give her child her milk to suck, but our precious mother Jesus can feed us with himself. He does so most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life.”
Jesus our Mother, Jesus the Fiercest of Hens, shows us that we have something we can give to the hurting world: our very selves. Maybe today that looks like writing a check to Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services. Maybe it means volunteering at EGH or writing letters to our legislators about an issue of injustice. Maybe it means something else completely. But, fed with the broken body of Christ and invigorated by the lifeblood from his veins, we have the capacity and command to open our own wings wide, embracing and sheltering the vulnerable, vilified, and outcast. We cannot control how others respond to this posture of welcome, but we can offer our all for the care of the world God so loves. It may not be safe, but it is holy. And if we mean what we say, then this is how we stand.
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 3-17-19” name of the sermon.