Sermon preached at Holy Trinity on February 21, 2016.
Being a parent has been the greatest joy in my life. But it’s also been a great source of pain. As the mother of two children, from the moment each of them was born, I have felt my heart being ripped out of my chest again and again. When I carried them in the womb, they were safely enveloped in my protection. But once they were born they began a journey that has taken them further and further away from me.
Hurt and disappointment and failure are an important part of life and in order to become whole people, I know that we all need to experience those painful times, and my daughter and son are no exception. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life, and they’ll have to make theirs too. But there’s a part of me that wants to protect them from all of that. When they became adults, I had to let them go. I didn’t have a choice. But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch them make decisions and do things that result in pain and heartache.
When my daughter decided to marry, I knew it was going to be a train wreck. I tried to talk sense to her, but of course, she didn’t listen. I could see that the train was leaving the station and I had to jump on board. So, I played the part of the happy mother of the bride at her wedding while my heart was breaking. And then I walked with my daughter through the pain of a failed marriage.
Whenever I’m with my son Ben, every chance he gets, he’s lighting up a cigarette. Knowing the long-term effects of smoking for his life, it absolutely rips my heart out. But I’m helpless. Much as I might like to gather my kids under my wings the way I could when they were little, I can’t do that anymore.
If you’ve ever loved someone you couldn’t protect, you know how this feels. And you may understand a little bit of how Jesus is feeling in today’s gospel lesson when he looks out over his beloved Jerusalem and he weeps for her.
But that’s not where today’s passage begins, so let’s back up a bit.
In this part of Luke’s gospel, we’re on the road with Jesus as he heads toward Jerusalem. Here we see him on the outskirts of the city. And some Pharisees come to him with a warning. “Get away from here, Jesus. For you’re on King Herod’s most wanted list and he wants to kill you.”
Now, it was nice of them to do that. And I suppose they expected Jesus to turn back and go into hiding. But instead, Jesus takes a stand. He has a mission, and Herod’s not going to get in the way. His exact words were: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’”
Jesus is making it clear that he’s not intimidated by Herod. He shows this by poking fun at him. He called him a fox. Only capable of catching small animals. Skiddish. Sneaky. Not at all the way Herod saw himself. Herod had been referring to himself as the Lion. Noble, Strong, Brave. The king of all beasts. When the lion roars, you’d better be scared. Herod says, “Rrrroar!” And Jesus replies, “Yeah. Whatever.”
The way this story begins is all too familiar to me. It’s the story of a man with a mission. The odds are stacked against him. But he’s one of the good guys and he knows he can’t back down. I’ve seen it so many times. The names and the places may vary, but the story is always the same.
When I was a kid there was a show on TV called, “The Lawman.” I remember the theme song had a line in it that went, “there was a job to be done.” The hero of the show knew how to use a gun. He didn’t want to use it, but he always found himself in situations where there was a job to be done, and he had to use it. I’ve seen the same plot again and again. In movies like “Rambo,” “The Godfather”, “Batman,” and “The Revenant.” Jack Bauer on the TV show “24”, Red Reddington on “The Blacklist.” Just about every movie Clint Eastwood has ever been in. There was a job to be done. And nothing will deter our hero from doing that job. Nothing will stand in his way.
That’s the way Jesus is sounding here. He’s got some attitude going on when he says, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’”
So, just when I think, yeah, I know this story. I know where this is headed… All of a sudden the plot doesn’t continue along the same path that Clint Eastwood would take at all. It makes an abrupt turn and Jesus moves from a defiant stand against Herod to a lament of love for the people of Jerusalem. Herod is of no real concern to him. But the people of Jerusalem bring him to tears.
It’s the lament of a mother who knows she can’t protect her children. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! ….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, of all the animals Jesus could have chosen to identify with, he chooses a mother hen. What’s that about? In literature, most of the images to describe Jesus are powerful. TS Elliott writes in one of his poems about Christ the tiger. In the Chronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis makes Christ a lion. In Revelation Christ is a powerful white horse. But when Jesus chooses an image for himself, he goes with a…bird. Okay. But if he must go with a bird, why not an eagle? After all, the eagle has precedence in the Hebrew Scriptures. But a mother hen? That’s not the kind of bird you send in to face your enemies when there’s a job to be done. Not a mother hen for goodness sake!
And yet, the mother hen fits. Because Jesus is talking about loving people he can’t protect.
All the mother hen can do is raise her arms. She can’t make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world. Wings spread. Breast exposed. The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says that if Jesus means what he says, this is how he stands.
Taylor writes: “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 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, 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 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, then this is how you stand.”
This is clearly one of those times when Jesus is making a statement that foreshadows his death. But it also reveals to us something about God’s relationship with his people that runs deep.
God loves us like a mother hen who longs to shelter us under her wings. When she extends those wings to us and bids us come, all too often we run away from her. And God laments the needless pain we cause ourselves just as Jesus lamented over Jerusalem.
One of the definitions of sin that resonates with me is that sin is what we do that breaks God’s heart. The greatest harm that sin brings to our lives is not that we have fallen morally and need to deal with the guilt we bear. Sin harms us because it damages our relationship with God. It’s those decisions we make about how we will live our lives that break God’s heart.
God offers enough love that we can rest securely under her wings, content being the people she created us to be, made in the Creator’s image. With no need to hide who we really are before God because we can trust God to love us as we are. No need to search elsewhere for the happiness that always seems to elude us – in material things, or human relationships. In our careers, or our accomplishments. In proving that we’re better than other people, or more worthy than other people. God offers us life, the real thing. So why do we so often turn away from the life God offers us?
Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. And as long as our restless hearts continue to seek meaning in places that ultimately have no meaning, we break God’s heart. As long as we turn our backs on the abundant life that God offers us and choose instead self-destructive ways, we break God’s heart. As long as we reject the healing that God offers us and choose instead brokenness, we break God’s heart. As long as we turn from lives of authenticity and choose instead to hide behind the lies our egos have convinced us are true, we break God’s heart. As long as God offers us a place at the banquet table, but we decide we’d rather go dig through a dumpster and eat garbage. We break God’s heart. God weeps for us and cries: “How often have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Of course, none of us can presume to know what God is thinking or feeling when God looks at the way we’re living our lives. But the scriptures do give us some revealing metaphors for God. Today’s gospel tells us that God is like a mother hen who longs to protect her chicks and keep them close.
The way Jesus reacts to the rejection of Jerusalem leads me to believe that when we reject the love of God, it breaks God’s heart. I wonder why a chick would choose to run around the barnyard waiting to be gobbled up by any predator who comes along, when that chick could be nestled safe and secure under the wings of its mother?