If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Fox and the Hen: a sermon on Luke 13:31-35

Aesop's fables are classic children’s stories. The stories use animals as their subjects to teach moral truths. Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? What about the mouse and the snail or the wolf and the crane? Aesop’s animals teach children truths about life. There are other writers who have used animals to communicate more complex truths to adults. George Orwell's Animal Farm uses pigs and barnyard animals to talk about totalitarianism. Walter Wangerin, Jr., a writer and pastor, uses animals to deal with the age-old struggle between good and evil in The Book of the Dun Cow. Believe it or not, in the thirteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus uses two animals as metaphors to teach us moral truth---a fox and a hen.

Our story begins with Herod trying to drive Jesus from his territory through threats and intimidation. The Pharisees, for some unknown reason, come to Jesus and tell him that Herod is out to kill him. Maybe Herod thought Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the grave to hunt him down. Hearing of Herod's intimidation Jesus calls Herod a "fox."

A fox is known to be sly, crafty, and cunning. Herod was sly and cunning in his ethical and political life. Behind a public facade of concern he acted with evil and deceitful intent. His pretense of religious sensitivity was betrayed by bankrupt morals. As a predator, Herod fed off the lives of the oppressed people he ruled. He used his power to threaten and subjugate. But, Herod was really a petty fox, afraid of those who publicly raised questions about his actions or who opposed his self-serving ambitions.

In his political life Herod was a sly ol’ fox. As ruler of the area of Galilee, his cunning is displayed by how he tried to avoid offending the sensibilities of the Jews, while at the same time we see his true colors as he builds Tiberias on the site of a graveyard, which Jews considered unclean. We notice his prowling eyes as he divorces his Nabatean wife and marries Herodias, the wife of his half-brother. This sham of a marriage wakes the prophetic voice of farmer John the Baptist, who cries out and points a finger at the sneaky fox. It may be out of fear that John might lead the people in a revolution that led the fox to show his sharp teeth and have John beheaded.

The lion, not the fox, is the king of beasts. In Rome the proverb was, "Today, when people are at home they tend to think of themselves as lions, but in public they are just foxes." In public Herod is a fox. And to Jesus, Herod is more of a fox than a lion. Jesus publicly defies the fox's intimidating death threats with the message that he won't cower before the fox's gleaming, sharp teeth, but will continue on with his mission of casting out the forces of evil and offering healing to the sick. Jesus' real threat isn't in Rome, but in Jerusalem, where they wring the necks of prophets. To Jesus, Herod is a sly, insignificant, little fox---no one to fear.

Maybe you've seen the sly fox prowling around the hen house. You may have caught a glimpse of the fox in sly ways political leaders howl about freedom or concern for the poor, but conceal their real intents and pull the wool over the people’s eyes with cunning words. Or maybe you have spotted that sly ol’fox instructing the roosters of the church who try to maintain their power and manipulate the system to make everything go their way. The world of the fox is cruel, cold, calculated, and compassionless. In order to escape the teeth of this cunning predator we need to name the fox, as Jesus did, and seek a place of refuge from his cruel and cunning ways.

Where does one go for protection against the fox? Jerusalem was once a safe chicken coup, a haven from the enemies of God's people. Sadly, to many of the prophets, Jerusalem had become the symbol of a people under God's judgment. The social order was unjust. The city had itself become a carnivorous animal, feeding on the weak. The prophets who came to Jerusalem with the message of God’s reign were chewed up and spit out. There was a pattern of the people rejecting the liberating and emancipating word of God that came through the voices of the prophets. So, Jesus, who was bringing the message of liberation and the dawning of God's reign, lamented over the city of Jerusalem. Jesus cried out:

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, but you would not.

A hen? Jesus a hen? I would much prefer a feisty rooster. A rooster don’t take no guff from nobody. Just go into a hen house and try to take some eggs when a rooster’s around. You’ll find out where you are in the pecking order! And a rooster don’t wait for you to make the first move. Roosters knew about “the preemptive first strike” long before our present political leaders. Besides, a rooster has sharp spikes on the back of his feet. He can defend himself and his flock, like Herod, the fox. Like Jerusalem, that ancient military stronghold. Like the United States, a superpower with egg crates full of weapons of mass destruction just waiting to hatch. Jesus, don’t you mean you’re a rooster, who defends his territory like a Wild West cowboy with spurs on his heels? Surely, you’re not a hen! A female chicken?

In contrast to the fox, Jesus offers himself to the people of Jerusalem as a mother hen. Now, I’m fully aware that it may be hard for some of us to imagine Jesus as a mother, let alone as a hen! This story is beginning to sound more like Alice in Wonderland than an Aesop fable. But, hear me out. In a study entitled Jesus as Mother Caroline Bynum shows how many 12th century Cistercian monks and nuns spoke of Jesus as “our Mother.” It was a way they sought to communicate the intimacy, compassion, and comfort of Christ, as well as the maternal role of leaders within the Christian community. St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, among many others, spoke freely of Jesus as our mother when he said:

But you, Jesus, good Lord, are you not also a mother? Are you not that mother who, like a hen, collects her chicks under her wings? Truly master, you are a mother. For what others have conceived and given birth to, they have received from you...It is then you, above all, Lord God, who are mother.

Jesus drew this maternal image from his own Jewish tradition. In the apocryphal book of II Esdras (1:28-30) God addresses God's people in words that sound strangely familiar:

You have not as it were forsaken me, but your own selves, saith the Lord. Thus says the Almighty Lord, have I not prayed you as a father his sons, as a mother her daughters, and a nurse her young babes. That ye would be my people, and I would be your God; that ye would be my children, and I should be your father? I gathered you together, as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings.

Jesus describes his own ministry of salvation, compassion, and protection like that of a mother hen. Jesus knew God to be like a mother hen, who gathers her children under her warm wings. Could he have remembered the Psalmist's words?: Take pity on me, God, take pity upon me, in you my soul takes shelter/I take shelter in the shadow of your wings? (Psalm 57:1) Did Jesus remember how Boaz said to Ruth about caring for Naomi: May the Lord recompense you for what you have done and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge? (Ruth 2:12) In harmony with God's motherly purposes of protection, care, and salvation, Jesus is telling us that he is like a mother hen, who seeks to gather together his people into a redeemed community under the compassionate wings of God. But then, how sad it is to hear Jesus lament..."but you would not."

Will we gather together under God's motherly wings? God seeks to gather us under her protective wings, as a mother hen gathers her chicks. God wants a relationship with us that is as personal and intimate as that of a mother to her children. It is God's desire to gather us together under her protective wings, when it seems that the destructive forces of our lives circle over our heads or when our enemy, the fox, tries to prey upon us. God wants to gather us under her wings when we grieve, when we're anxious, or when we need the warmth of God's accepting presence.

Will we allow God to spread her wings over us? Or will we turn to the fox, who claims we will be secure through power, violence, and control? Gathering under God’s wings is a vulnerable place to be. You can’t strike back. Even so, not striking back doesn’t mean you’re a chicken. It does mean you don’t rely upon the power and weapons of this world to protect you. It makes me think of Tom Fox, CPT reservist whose life was given in gathering people under the wings of God’s peace. His sacrifice makes me think of Jesus, our mother hen, who gathered us together under his cross.

There was once a young Nigerian boy named Olu who had a pet white chicken. They became great friends and inseparable companions. One day the hen disappeared and Olu cried and cried. Then after three weeks the white hen returned to the compound with seven beautiful white chicks. The Nigerian boy was overjoyed. The mother took very good care of her chicks. One day late in the dry season the older boys set a ring of fire to the bush area outside the village. Everyone stood outside the ring as the fire burned toward the center. The purpose was to drive little animals such as rabbits and small antelopes out of the circle. Then the waiting cutlasses claimed their prey. When the slaughter and the fire were over, Olu and his friends walked through the smoldering embers. The boy noticed a heap of charred feathers and smelled burned flesh. It looked like the remains of a bird that had not escaped from the fire. Then Olu realized in horror. It was his beloved friend the white hen all black and burned to death. But then came the sounds of chicks. The mother hen had covered them with her body and they were still alive and well. The mother had given her life for her children. She died that they may live."

Will we gather under the vulnerable wings of Christ? Will we be a mothering church that offers her body and blood for the world? Together under the wings of Christ we live by vulnerable power of the cross as we face a world full of foxes.

The reign of God is like a fox and a hen. There wasn't a day that passed that the sly fox wouldn't circle the hen house, just to see if he might catch some tasty morsel to eat. The hen always knew when the fox was nearby, even when he tried to hide behind the trees. His furry tail would always stick out. Whenever the fox came close to the hen house, the hen would cluck real loud and her chicks would gather safely under her unfurled wings. She stood her ground challenging the fox to come closer. You see, from a distance the fluffed up hen looked a lot larger than she really was, with all those chicks under her. And the fox wasn't ready for any real challenge. He wanted an easy meal. So, every time the fox saw that chicken with her wings outstretched he would tuck his tail between his legs and run.

But one day the fox got word from some dirty bird that the hen wasn't as big as he thought. There were chicks gathered under her wings! So the fox quietly tiptoed near the hen house. Suddenly the hen spotted the fox coming closer than he had ever been before. She cackled out to her chicks, calling them to gather. Now, remember she was a chicken and not a rooster. She had no sharp talons like stilettos or pecking power, like the rooster, to fight off the fox. All she could do was fluff up her wings, sit on her chicks, and face the fangs of the fox. She could place herself between the fox and her chicks and hope that her body would satisfy the appetite of the fox and he would leave the chicks alone.

All of a sudden there was a lot of loud cackling and clucking and flapping wings. The chicks ran. When all the noise stopped the chicks looked around and saw they were all alone. All that was left were some scattered feathers and drops of blood on the barnyard dirt. "Maybe she’s not dead. Maybe our mother will return soon," the little chicks wishfully thought. Several days went by, but there was no sign of their mother's return. She must be dead. Some animals in the barnyard said that after three days some of the chicks saw their mother walking around the barnyard. The chicks still felt her presence.

The fox kept coming around the chicken coup. The chicks regularly saw him sneaking behind the trees and prowling around the hen house. They always felt threatened and intimidated by his presence. So, one day when it felt like the fox was getting close enough for his breath to ruffle their feathers, they gathered together in a circle and whispered to each other a plan that would out-fox the fox.

When the fox came by the hen house the next day, he rubbed his eyes in disbelief. For in the middle of the barnyard he saw a huge hen with wings outstretched ready to challenge him. Could that mother hen he once had for dinner have come back to life? Fearing the sight of this formidable foe, the fox turned tail and ran off into the woods. Was it really the hen that he saw? Maybe. It sure looked like her. But if that ol' fox would have gotten closer, he would have seen that it was really her chicks, all gathered up together in a heap, along with some sparrows and crows they invited. They all had their little wings spread out together, forming with their own little bodies the image of their mother, the hen.

Let the little chicks who have ears to hear, hear what the mother hen says to her brood.

1 comment:

  1. Leo, thanks for your words and thoughts. I am preparing a sermon for Mother's day and you turned up in Google.

    I was quite pleasantly suprised to see you're Mennonite. (I'm at a tiny Mennonite outpost out here in San Jose.) Hadn't really expected find such a voice in the vast see of other voices. I enjoyed your art and music as well.

    Anyhow, mostly just saying hi and thanks.


    eric at theshenks dot com