Text: Luke 13:31-35
GOOD MORNING, FIGHT FANS! And welcome to this today’s feature bout for the world Super-Ultra-Really, Really Small-Bantamweight Championship!
ARE YOU READY TO RUMBLE?
In this corner, weighing in at 15 pounds, with speed, strength, agility, cunning, and intelligence, not to mention razor-sharp teeth and dogged determination, he’s the Doctor of Destruction, it’s THE FOX.
And in this corner, also weighing 15 pounds, she has wings but can’t fly, she can run on two legs but doesn’t always know where she’s going, and she can lay an egg with the best of them, it’s the Mother Of All Omelettes, THE HEN.
Fresh off a decisive victory over the mouse, oddsmakers have made the fox about a 1.3 million to 1 favorite. They are giving the hen about as much chance as they are giving Winthrop College in the NCAA tournament.
Now, it wouldn’t seem like much of a fight, would it? A fox vs. a hen. But that is exactly what we find ourselves with in our scripture this morning.
The whole idea seems kind of out of the blue, and the very first verse of our scripture today is surprising, if we think about it. Some Pharisees warn Jesus he better get out of town, because Herod wants to kill him. This is surprising because we often have this picture of the Pharisees as the bad guys. And often, they are the foils in stories from the gospels. Jesus actually had more in common with the Pharisees than with the other powerful and influential groups in Judaism, but in the New Testament we frequently find Pharisees who are opposed to Jesus. But here, some were friendly with and supportive of Jesus. Here, some Pharisees bring a warning to Jesus that Herod is out to get him. Perhaps they brought this word somewhat gleefully, we don’t know; and we have to wonder how they came in to such information – did they have connections with Herod or people close to Herod? Or was there a problem with leaks in the Herod administration? However they came into this information, these Pharisees are concerned for Jesus and warn him about Herod’s intentions.
Now you need to understand that Herod is not somebody to mess with. You may remember that John the Baptist got into a bit of hot water with Herod and wound up with his head on a platter. Now Herod was hearing about Jesus, and Jesus reminded him of John.
If you were told that the most powerful person in your part of the world wanted you dead, how would you react? It would take a lot less than that to make me a complete mess. But Jesus doesn’t flinch. “Go and tell that fox that I’ve got bigger concerns than his latest temper tantrum. I’ve got work to do. Look, I’m casting out demons, I’m healing people, and then I’m going on to Jerusalem. I may get killed, but if I do, it will be in Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets. (And which, by the way, is out of Herod’s jurisdiction.) So it did not change Jesus’ plans or affect his ministry, but maybe Jesus did pay at least a little bit of attention to Herod.
Jesus calls Herod a “fox.” Now, the connotations of the word fox have changed over the years. By the 20th century, being called a fox was not such an awful thing. My mother went to high school in McLeansboro, Illinois, and the school mascot was the fox. The sports teams were, and are, the McLeansboro Foxes. You might remember Jerry Sloan, whoi played for the Chicago Bulls and was the longtime coach of the Utah Jazz. Jerry was a McLeansboro Fox.
The implications of being a fox have changed since my mother’s and Jerry Sloan’s high school days. When Zoe was younger, I can remember us going to ISU basketball games and the PA system playing that classic Jimi Hendrix tune. When it got to the right part, I sang along, “Foxey Lady,” which Zoe enjoyed immensely.
Well, forget about those more recent connotations of being a “fox.” And Jesus is not paying Herod a complement – it’s not like our modern expressions, “sly as a fox” or “crazy like a fox,” which can actually be words of praise. In Hebrew language and culture, references to a fox had to do with their destructive nature. Herod had certainly been destructive, and Jesus’ words were definitely no compliment.
What is especially interesting here is the contrast between Jesus and Herod. Herod is bent on destruction, but Jesus is filled with compassion. He knows that Jerusalem has killed the prophets, he knows what awaits him there, and yet he has this deep, tender, love for the city and for the people. “O 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!”
I have seen hens try to gather their chicks. You probably have too. The vehicles line up at the school at 3:15, the school bell rings, and children emerge, but instead of going to waiting vehicles, they wander around, maybe play on the playground equipment. Chicks can be hard to gather in. Or maybe, when they are a bit older, kids go to the mall with their parents but don’t really want to be seen with them. The chicks don’t want to be gathered under the hen’s protective wings.
They are re-runs now, but I still like to listen to Car Talk on NPR. There was a show where a mother called in, wanting to buy a mini-van. She wondered what would be a good mini-van she could but for the family that their teen-age son would also like. Anybody see the problem here? Of course, Tom and Ray told this mother that it didn’t matter, that anything she might buy, her teenage son would be embarrassed to drive.
Chicks can be difficult to gather in. And it just pains our soul when our love is not returned. Most of us have at least some experience with love that is not returned. It might be a schoolboy or schoolgirl crush. It might be a devastating breakup or divorce. It may be love that reaches out to a child who has strayed and will not come home.
We have had various experiences of rejection. We don’t get the job, our proposal is not accepted, we are told we don’t make the grade. We work for years, giving our blood and sweat and time and effort for a company or institution, and in the end we are treated as though our contributions don’t really matter. We all know something of what it is to have our love and commitment come back empty.
Here, Jesus poured his heart out, literally gave his own self for those who would not have him. “How I would have gathered you under my wings, but you were not willing.”
Jesus describes himself, of all things, as a hen. Not the kind of image most of us would choose. If we were to be identified with an animal, we might choose a proud lion, or a big tough bear, or a loyal dog, or a graceful deer. Or, if we had to compare ourselves to a bird, there would seem to be better choices—a beautiful swan or a powerful eagle or a wise owl. Even a colorful peacock would be better than a chicken. Jesus as a chicken?—it doesn’t exactly stir our spirits.
But we need to understand the image he uses. A mother hen, gathering her brood, out of love, out of care. A mother hen, whose only concern is for the safety of her children.
Have you ever seen a chicken hawk go after its prey? The old mother hen is often aware of the presence of the hawk in time to gather her chicks under her wing. With a furious fuss she squawks till her brood is safe by her side. She fluffs out her wings and protects the chicks with her own body. The chicken hawk dives and the old hen turns her body toward him and cocks a wary eye without moving from her children. The predator comes in again for the kill and the mother spreads her wings even wider. A third time he dives only to be thwarted by the determined self-sacrifice of the mother hen. She is too big to be a target and the chicks are too safe to be seized so the hawk eventually flies away.
Chickens may not be the most glamorous animals, but hens care for their young. A farmer named Ike told the story about the day that the hen house burned down on his grandpa's place just down the road. Ike arrived just in time to help put out the last of the fire. As he and his grandfather sorted through the wreckage, they came upon one hen lying dead near what had been the door of the hen house. Her top feathers were singed brown by the fire's heat, her neck limp. Ike bent down to pick up the dead hen. But as he did so, he felt movement. The hen's four chicks came scurrying out from beneath her burnt body. The chicks survived because they were insulated by the shelter of the hen’s wings, protected and saved even as she died to protect and save them.
That’s the image of Jesus’ sacrificial love for us that would gather his own unto himself and die to save us. A tender, self-sacrificing love. “How I would have gathered you under my wings, but you were not willing.”
While it is a moving and comforting image, when it comes to dealing with foxes, you have to admit: it would be nice to have something a little more solid, a little more intimidating. When the foxes of the world start prowling outside the door, it would be nice to have a little better defense than a mother hen.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells about going to a pre-release showing of a movie. Clergy in the Atlanta area were invited to a special preview of the movie Pale Rider, starring Clint Eastwood. She wasn’t sure what it might have to do with church, but she went. It turns out that in the movie, Clint is a frontier preacher with a past, only you don’t know what kind of past. He walked around in his clerical collar, looking deeply pained. Once when he takes his shirt off, you can see scars from three bullet wounds in his back.
One day he rides into a mining town that has been overrun by foxes. The corrupt sheriff is in cahoots with a bunch of armed thugs who shoot anyone in their way. For a while, Clint just takes it in, figuring out who the foxes are.
Then he goes to the bank and produces a key to a safety deposit box – a key to his past – and pulls out a drawer with two six-shooters and a beltful of bullets. He carefully straps it on his waist. Then he takes off his clerical collar and placed it back in the drawer. Brown said that the audience full of clergy just went wild. (Maybe they had dreamed of trading in a clerical collar for a six-shooter.) Go get ‘em, Clint! Go get those foxes and nail their tails to the wall! Which is exactly what Clint did.(1)
We might prefer a six-shooter to a hen, but Clint is Clint and Jesus is Jesus. He fought the foxes of the world without becoming a fox himself. All he had was his own body to stand in the way of the evil and sin and destruction the foxes would bring. And bring it they did.
When Herod and his gang came after Jesus and his brood, he didn’t have any six-shooters. He just put himself between them and the chicks and hunkered down like a mother hen.
A fox against a hen doesn’t seem like a fair fight. But this turned out to be one for the ages, and God bet the farm on the hen.
At first, it appeared the foxes had won. Feathers were everywhere and the chicks scattered. She died a mother hen, but that was not the end of it. The hen came back to the chicks, covered with teeth marks, and proved that the power of the foxes could not kill her love for them.
So there you have it: Jesus the chicken. The mother hen who offers her self for the life of the chicks.
In a mother hen, we have an image we may not have been expecting: one of courage, self-sacrifice, and unshakable care for her brood. It is a wonderful picture of God’s love for us. But God’s care and provision for us did not come without a price: Jesus gave his very self for all the chicks, even those who would not be gathered under his wings.
Now we might want to just leave it at that, a very comforting image of God, gathering us under her wings, loving us whatever the price. It is a beautiful picture and one we can take comfort from. But we cannot simply leave it at that.
The call to follow Christ is not only a call to be comforted and cared for. We are called to be as Christ. The Church is called to be Christ’s body here on this earth, and we are called to grow from chicks into chickens. Like Jesus, we are to give of ourselves for those who are vulnerable, those who are hurting, those who are lost. We are to stand up to the foxes of this world, not running from them, and not becoming foxes ourselves, but fighting hatred with compassionate love.
All the world may be betting on the foxes, but God is going with the hens. Amen.
(1) Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, p. 126. I drew heavily from Brown’s ideas for this sermon.