Year C, Lent 2
March 17, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
We lived and worked at a monastery north of Boston before we came to Eugene. There was a farm there. And on that farm we had a rooster. And oh! What a rooster he was! I have told you about Sir Timothy Runs-a-lot, our current rooster, who runs back and forth across the farm yard satisfying his roosterly duties. He is a very good rooster. But as noteable as Sir Tim is, he is no Mr. MacGregor. Mr. MacGregor, named after the fearsome gardener in Peter Rabbit, was a Speckled Sussex Rooster. That’s an old English breed. He was huge. A rich, deep brown, covered all over with bright white speckles. He was so dignified he didn’t need to run back and forth; they stayed close. He was, in his roosterly way, as fearsome as his namesake, but he was smart about it. An aggressive rooster is something to behold, and something to never go near without a stick or a bucket you can swing. Every day chicken chores for our poor interns were a trial. Rooster spurs hurt. I saw the bruises on their ankles. But towards me, the farmer, and Brother James, one of the monks, (the ones with life and death power over him), he never so much as raised a hackle. We respected his space and didn’t crowd him (he was a dignified fellow), but he knew what was up. Smart rooster. And on top of all of that, he took care of his hens, heroically.
From a chicken’s perspective, the monastery was kind of a bad neighborhood. (Most are when you that delicious). We had coyotes, fisher cats, Bald Eagles, dogs, weasels, racoons, red-tailed hawks, and most problematically, foxes. Mr. MacGregor, however, was on it. When a raptor flew over, or when a strange dog came sniffing around, when any threat surfaced, he would call the girls in and they came running. He would stand at the door, like he was counting them, and then when they were all safely in, he was the last one to take shelter inside. It was amazing. Until one day… It was snowy in the midst of a long New England winter, and a fox came around. Mr. MacGregor must have sounded the alarm and gotten everyone inside. Then he stayed at the door and somehow drove the fox away. That’s amazing Foxes are meant to eat chickens and Mr. MacGregor sent it packing without a meal. We found our hero huddled in one of the nesting boxes, dying of his wounds. He gave it all to the end, like really. If I am not confusing my rooster memories, I believe that that was my first go at making coq au vin(rooster in wine, a famous French provincial dish). ¡Viva Mr. MacGregor!
It is stunning to me that in this little story we have in St. Luke’s gospel Jesus describes King Herod, who is after Him, as a fox, and then He describes Himself in terms of a chicken. Foxes and chickens don’t mix; at least not from the chicken/farmer side of the fence. Although it cost him his life, Mr. MacGregor averted a flock disaster. A fox in a hen house, if given a chance, will kill every bird in there, even though it is only going to take one. I don’t know why. It seems, from our eyes, pointless carnage, (which is pretty impressive that we see it that way, considering the pointless carnage we daily unleash upon the world). Jesus puts these two images together in a most unlikely, unexpected way.
As I said last week, I am using a series of questions to guide our movement through the Lenten lectionary. Our question today is fight or flight? Jesus was warned that Herod wanted to kill Him. When threatened, our instinctive response is usually fight or flight (or freeze, but “fight or flight” rolls off the tongue better). What did Jesus do?
Client kings like Herod wanted one thing: to keep the Romans off their backs. And the one thing (besides non-payment of tribute) that garnered the attention of the Romans was unrest. An upset population breeds unrest (and Jesus and His disciples upset a lot of people). Everyone with power in that system was scandalized by the revolutionary things Jesus did and said. They felt threatened, and powerful groups under threat are very dangerous.
For most of us, if we are threatened we fight back, or we flee, we run the other direction, or we just freeze, we don’t do anything. These are natural responses, instinctual responses to a threat. A cougar threatens a deer and it turns its antlers or turns it tail, right? Or two dogs meet, usually either one submits (a type of flight) or there is a fight. A bunny freezes in place, desperately hoping the fox doesn’t notice it. Natural. But as humans, as much as we sometimes feel enslaved by our biology, seem captive to the urges we feel, or excuse ourselves because of them, we do have choices. Be they instinctual desires orfears, in our conscious state we have a say in following them or not. What so many religious teachings, particularly our moral teachings, do, is subvert (or attempt to subvert) the lesser angles of our natures: our instincts. Many of our religious teachings ask us to give pause and consider the world in terms other thanour base instinctual nature. We are asked to consider the world and our place in it in terms of right or wrong, or in terms of divine will, to consider that there is a larger purpose to our lives than eating and procreating. In the animal world, Willow wants Cocoa’s bone, so he growls and takes it. It’s a dog’s life. The sexual mores of the barn yard are perfectly acceptable for Sir Timothy and the hens, or Sweet William the Dwarf Nigerian goat and whatever does are within reach, but regardless of what the ads for Las Vegas or what the examples of too many powerful men might have you believe, that is not acceptable for people. We can (and must) do better.
Obviously not all instincts need suppressing or re-channeling. Our religious life also supports, nurtures, encourages those instinctual aspects of ourselves that call forth empathy, courage, protection, connection, community. Apropos to our text this morning, there is an instinctual response to crisis besides fight, flight or freeze. Feminist psychologists have described this as a feminine crisis response, thus not historically recognized by traditional (read patriarchal, male-centric) analysis of responses to crisis. This response: gathering and tending.
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” This is such a striking image. Have you ever seen a hen with a brood of chicks? It is a remarkable sight. Hens are not ferocious like a mama bear, but are at leastas protective. They are incredibly attentive, their wings stretched wide, the feathers spread into something between hands and a fence to hold a bunch of cheeping balls of fluff all together, no mean feat as you know if you have ever fooled around with chicks. People talk about a bunch of mother hens clucking around someone in need… that is what hens do, and it is lovely. What an image of God! What an image of a religious leader! Imagine following a Messiah who actually desired to care for you like that, those big warm wings steering you right, keeping you safe, cluck-cluck-clucking all over you.
Jesus gathered and tended. That was His Galilean ministry. How many did He feed? How many did He teach? How many did He heal, and make clean, and restore to right relationship with their community? How many gathered around Him to hear His voice, to touch the hem of His rode, or climb a tree just to get a glimpse of Him? So many. Everywhere He went they came and were cared for by Him, gathered and tended by the Son of God. But in the text, He tells those Pharisees that he so desired to do that, to gather their children around Him like a hen gathers her brood under her wings “…and you were not willing.”
Jesus wanted to gather and tend to the children of Israel. He wants to gather and tend us. But we, like them, are generally not willing. His love, the shadow of His wings is offered freely, to all. That’s the doctrine of Grace. It is always offered, the love of the foundation of the universe. But offered doesn’t mean received. If we are not willing, we can’t experience the love of God. That grace given love can only be accepted, can only be received if we are willing to meet Him half way. “Repent!” is the refrain. Repent means to turn, to change the direction of your life. You don’t need to be changedyet, but you need to be willingto be changed, willing to change. Repentance isn’t a destination, it is a path. And most of us, most of the time, we’re not interested. Like my Christmas sermon, Jesus is the gift that everyone needs, but no one actually wants. Not when you consider the full implications of that gift. Being gathered and tended by the ground of being made flesh and dwelling among us? Bring it on! Oh, to get that we need to change how we live? Change how we relate to people, even thosepeople? I don’t know. Who cares about the meek? Love our enemies? That is impossible (besides being unpopular). Turn the other cheek? What is He talking about, I’m not a weakling? We hate the (insert current enemy of civilization So no. As we say in our Eucharistic prayer this Lent, “…we would not see your goodness in the world around us; and so we violated your creation, abused one another, and rejected your love.”
So what did Jesus do? He didn’t fight. He didn’t flee or freeze. He gathered and tended, but they weren’t (and we aren’t) interested. What did He do? He persisted. He stayed the course and did not waiver. He did not gravitate towards conflict, but neither did he avoid it. He knew what was going on around Him and He went forward doing what He needed to do, regardless of the Roman occupation, regardless of Herod’s violence, the Sadducee’s plots, the Pharisee’s skepticism, the crowds’ tepidness, regardless of His own disciples’ tone-deafness and ineptitude He stayed the course, doing what needed doing. Even knowing what drinking from that cup would mean, Jesus walked to Jerusalem, to the judgement seat, up Golgotha, to the cross and into the heart of God and all.
He knew the price He would pay. Foreshadowing is dripping from this passage today. He not only spelled out a formula of three days and set a course for Jerusalem the prophet killer, but He also placed Himself in the role of the hen to Herod’s fox. A protector willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of those in their care. Jesus offered Himself for the sake of us all. That’s the Passion unto Resurrection story. But how? How did His death save us? Was He a blood ransom, taking onto Himself the punishment we deserve? An offering to placate an angry God? Did He throw Himself into the breach, sacrificing Himself on our behalf? Was He a moral example or a scapegoat, or does some other theory of atonement have it right? From the very beginning of our Christian heritage a lot of people have thought very long and prayed very hard about that and no one has theanswer. But those are just the theories. What is important is that Jesus died for us. And three days later He rose in glory, for us. And resurrected, He walked the earth and then He ascended into heaven to the right hand of God. And here we are, 2000 years later, gathered around this table like He told us to. And here we are, about to say or sing, as He said we would, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Hosanna in the highest indeed! AMEN.