Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18
Philippians 3.17 – 4.1
Sunday 13 March, 2022
Being chickens, not foxes ©Suzanne Grimmett
We have parish chickens. They are mostly ridiculous. The fact that they have names like Habacluck and Eggzekiel does not make them any more dignified. They are forever needing to be protected from themselves as they wander too far, threatened by cars, dogs and even larger birds, and are always attempting to become mothers by sitting with great determination on empty nests for weeks on end.
If you were going to choose a metaphor for the saviour of the world, you would not choose a chicken. A lion…now that is an image of God we might prefer. The lion of the tribe of Judah evokes an expectation of the messiah who will be of David’s line that has nothing to do with the ridiculous vulnerability of poultry. A lion after all is able to scare off or destroy the enemies which might threaten or harm us, and I am sure many of us would like to see that kind of ‘lionish’ God descend on the aggressors we see in the world at this time.
In the mixture of animal metaphors we have today, we also hear Jesus calling Herod “that fox.” Foxes are noted for their cunning, yes, which may be the main reason Jesus chooses the metaphor. But they are also incredibly destructive. The saying about ‘ a fox in the henhouse’ is true- if you have ever seen the results, you will know that nothing is left alive. We once had a sneaky and silent fox turn up in our suburban backyard after having scaled a six foot fence and wriggled under the chicken pen wire- what I found in the morning looked like a scene from a horror movie. Surely a lion would be a better match for ‘that fox’ than the mother hen Jesus chooses as a metaphor to describe himself in the words that follow.
Others have seen in these words of Jesus a reference to God brooding over the waters in the Genesis account of creation, or likening it to the eagle in Deuteronomy that stirs up her nest, flutters over her young and spreads her wings protectively over the people of Israel. But I don’t actually think either of these images connect with the heart of what Jesus seems to be saying. The longing Jesus expresses is about gathering…and about children who refuse to be gathered and come to great harm, forever divided against one another. Indeed, the old sacrificial system was dependent upon division and sacred violence which created a unity and security amongst some groups by scapegoating and excluding others. The old way of purifying a people by sacrifice, rituals and exclusions was being turned around by Jesus with his radical teaching of forgiveness and love of our enemies. Jesus says he longs to gather in the children, and he will continue to work for this gathering despite threats and hostility. But simply asking others to believe in this new way was never going to work – Jesus had to enact it in his own life and his own body for us to understand.
This theme of gathering in a world that seems to thrive on division and exclusion is a strong one in Luke’s Gospel. Elsewhere in Luke we hear Jesus saying, “Whoever does not gather with me, scatters.” The image is of loving gathering in of all creation based on mutuality and communion rather than on the hierarchical systems common to all human and religious history that seek to control and dominate. In John’s Gospel, we hear the high priest Caiaphas speak of the way Jesus would gather by creating in himself the sacrifice to end all sacrifices saying;
“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the scattered children of God. (John 11:49-52)
This is not the avenging lion of Judah but the mother hen who will offer her own body to the fox rather than have her children destroyed. The chicken is the last animal you would choose if you knew you were going to be up against the fox, but it is a visual embodiment of non-violent love. If you have ever helplessly watched on as someone you love is suffering or choosing a pathway that you know is destructive for them, you may relate to the mother hen who would stretch out her wings and accept the jaws of any fox if it could only spare your beloved. The mother hen has no sharp fangs or talons or horns to attack any foe, but only her own body to shield her children. What the mother hen has in abundance is absolute commitment to her young.
But does it make a difference? Surely, we just end up with carnage this way…as in the fox loose in the henhouse? Would we not be better hitching our wagons to a more muscular expression of Christianity that can defeat the foes and then we can get on with the peaceable kingdom? Unfortunately, I think this has been the failure of Christendom throughout history. Where Jesus expressed his compassionate gathering through the image of the mother hen, Christianity has again and again chosen more violent images and been hell bent on bolting the story of Jesus the suffering servant on to a story of triumphalist empire.
The war in Ukraine can be understood as a religious – and specifically Christian -war in a part of the world where violence is even more sacralised by cultures which don’t see divisions between church and state. The Russian version of religious nationalism appears to be driven by a particularly strong hierarchical structure of domination and division, complete with what seems to be a belief in the divine blessing to rule over Ukraine. This kind of determination to rule over and control may be comfortable invoking a God is who like a ravening lion or wily fox, but can have nothing to do with the God who seeks to gather all of her children under her wings in defiant commitment to their loving care, even if it means her death.
Jesus knew the violence waiting for him. Yet the message he gives to be relayed to Herod is a defiant one. He tells him that he has work to do- healing the people and casting out all the demons that control them- and he will continue that work in spite of the political resistance. We too, have work to do, and it is work that is uniquely ours. And while we might prefer to believe that everyone likes us and wants the best for us, this is not true. We will meet resistance and hostility just by seeking to live into a world of forgiveness and peace. There is always a political dimension to pursuing a goal of a world built around loving communion rather than hierarchical control. We have work to do and we need to listen to the Spirit and ask for God’s guidance as we seek to join with Christ in gathering the lost, the wounded, the oppressed and the excluded.
I do not know how humankind can respond to naked aggression with peace. I do know, that the God to whom we bear witness does not suffer any, whether individual or nation or group, to be excluded and scapegoated. Jesus the great gatherer would spread wings over Pharisees and Herod alike, and grieves that instead humankind chooses domination and division over communion. I also know, that God does play favourites, lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry, whilst overturning the thrones of the powerful despots. What is our part to play? That is ours to determine, both individually and corporately, and we need to be people of prayer to find both the wisdom and the courage we need if we are to continue, in spite of resistance, to be about the work we have been given. Like Jesus, this will be the work of gathering; gathering through reconciliation, forgiveness, compassionate care of all life and the realisation of justice. It will be work that trusts not in the strength of armies or the will to dominate but in the power of love and freedom. Maybe we will need every bit of the fearless commitment of a mother hen if we are going to witness to Jesus and show others by our lives that we really mean what we say.
 Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (pp. 196-197). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.