As a Hen Gathers
A colleague who lives in the country among about 30 birds, reflected on her week and today’s passage with these words:
Totally in poultry mode, here. In the last week and a half, we’ve had a guinea fowl killed by a hawk and then somebody dumped three roosters in our yard, one of which got taken by a fisher (basically a monster weasel from hades). We managed to eventually catch and safely house two of the roosters–who we hadn’t wanted or asked for, but for whom we’re now responsible.
So, that’s where my story meets the Gospel, just now. And there’s something in it all about living in the feather-strewn mess between catastrophe and communion..[i]
Isn’t that exactly where our passage opens: Jesus, the Pharisees, and a feather-strewn mess! Indeed we’re on the way toward Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week, the crucifixion, and yes, resurrection are about to unfold. Jesus is travelling with or runs into some Pharisees who warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. At this point, no one should be surprised that Jesus has gained the attention and perhaps the wrath of the Roman authorities. I wonder if the Pharisees friendly or adversarial? It’s hard to tell, but their warning speaks truth. Herod, will, in fact, be a decision maker in the story of Jesus’ death. Jesus hears the warning. A person with common sense and an inkling of self-preservation might have flown the coup. But, Jesus does not turn away. He is not persuaded to change his journey.
He’s steady in his course. Confident is the son of God in his mission-even when walking toward certain death. He will continue casting out demons, and performing cures until Jesus is ready—Jesus is not on Herod’s time table.
Jesus responds directly with a bit of flare:
“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am…[busy]!” Jesus responds that he will be about his work for three days. He will continue on…toward Jerusalem. We can assume his working for three days is a reference to his death and resurrection.
Here is where this passage takes an interesting turn. Jesus switches his tone. He laments over what has been, what is, and what is to come. ”Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Jesus knows the danger inherent in this relationship. And it’s the witness of scripture that Jerusalem is a telltale for the relationship between God and the people. When the community listens, Jerusalem is a great place to be. But when the community wanders and loses its way…they epitomize the problem. They kill prophets.
Jesus recognizes the power, the death that awaits, the reality of his situation, and he responds to the fear, power, and death in typical Jesus fashion: he does what is not expected. He flips the equation and returns evil with love. “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!” Jerusalem, I know you, I know what you are capable of, I want to help, my arms are wide open, and you are not willing. So many chicks, so little time. God’s chicks are scattered:
They have forgotten the voice of their mother.
They have lost God’s vision and hope.
They devour the very people who are trying to point towards God’s vision.
They are not willing to be gathered.
They will allow the Messiah to die.
They follow the fox.
And, who can blame them. Jesus stands up to the barnyard bully as a hen. Now, there are quite a few Biblical images for God from nature and wildlife. Jesus could have chosen one of those. “What about the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? What about the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a mother hen does not inspire much confidence.”[ii]
And dear Jesus, since you’ve decided to pick a new animal, and you’ve landed in the poultry family, why not choose a rooster? They at least have talons and a pointed beak to fight off predators. Religious art even leans towards images of roosters rather than hens. It’s hard to find a strong hen image. There are very few hymns that proclaim, “Jesus is my Hen”. It didn’t really catch on. In a fight with a cunning canine, Jesus represents Gods’ self as a defenseless hen. No wonder some of the chicks bailed.
Really, are we surprised at Jesus’ choice? It’s in his bones to flip the world on it’s axis. What can we learn about Jesus, and more specifically, what can we learn about God from this image? I’ve learned a little about chickens this week. I don’t think being compared with a chicken is especially affirming—they are not particularly grace-filled creatures. Chicks are pretty cute and fuzzy, granted, but chickens have pecking orders that can result in starvation for those at the bottom. It hits a little to close to home. However, a mother hen is about the best the poultry world has to offer! Here’s a few things I’ve learned about mother hens:
Toward the end of the day, as it “starts to get a bit dark, a hen will make clucking noises. She’ll sit down on the ground and the chicks will scurry under her wings and body feathers.”[iii] A mother hen “[places] herself between her chicks and whatever might harm them. She attends them so carefully, and does everything in her power to fit every single chick underneath her for warmth and protection. [iv]”
Strong. Fearless. Defiant. Protective. These are not fluffy, weak descriptors. For this mother is no sissy.
Rather, Jesus, divine love in flesh appearing, God’s heart, beats with love that protects and nurtures. A heart of compassion with an intensity that puts itself directly between the chicks and the fox. She calls, clucks, to bring her children together near her body. Perhaps more importantly, she has a protective instinct with a relentless desire to gather up ALL the chicks, all the children of Jerusalem, even when we’ve caused pain. Even when we chicks can’t tell the difference between foxes and hens. This love laments, cries out with grief, at Jerusalem’s unwillingness to be gathered, and loves Jerusalem still. The Hen cannot be deterred by threats of death, by fear of what may lie ahead.
Perhaps it’s time to reclaim this bold image from our scriptures and write those hymns about God as mother hen. There are so many beautiful, bold images for God that it’s a shame we don’t hear more about this one, and other images that invoke female identity. How we name God, what images we hold up has powerful consequences.
As a teenager I travelled to West Lafayette, Indiana with my church to take part in the Presbyterian church’s largest youth gathering. Named Triennium because it happens every three years, it was a formative experience for me. I know we’ve sent young people there in years past, too. Growing up in a culture where church was the norm, it was certainly not the norm to be Presbyterian. So when we arrived at Purdue University and worshipped with 5,000 other young Presbyterians from around the country and the globe, my understanding of church grew exponentially. The music leader played a guitar and taught us to sing in Spanish—two things I’d never enjoyed before. It took me most of the week to understand how to do an energizer, but once we did, we danced in restaurants, on the bus, and anywhere the music was playing all the way back to Texas! But, the thing that surprised me the most was the theatre troupe that acted out scripture. During one service, the role of God was portrayed by an African American WOMAN. I remember sitting there, my eyes riveted to the stage in the middle of worship. God as a woman…who knew? IT blew me away.
That gathering changed my expectations for what could be. I felt closer to God because I realized God was bigger than gender or sex. More importantly I realized that if God could be feminine, then God could be with and inside me in new ways. God incarnate, God in the flesh, God indwelling in human form, held new, affirming meaning. Other people tell similar stories of revelation and discovery at Triennium. It is awesome to behold what happens when God’s people gather in the name of Christ and are willing to be led; are willing and able to be open to God’s vision.
Please do not hear me say that these characteristics are only found among women, quite the contrary. Bold, protective, fierce and yet vulnerable love that does not react with violence seems to be at the heart of Christ’s mission, and thus the heart of God. These characteristics are shared across humanity. They are not gendered. Yet it is rare for us to hear God imaged in a feminine metaphor and together this is reason enough to celebrate on a February morning.
How can we not celebrate when we realize that we are loved for who we are by our Mother who has loved us from the beginning, and will be there with us, regardless of what pain or fear we face, throughout our life and death.
God reaches her wing out for us. Yes, for each of her chicks!
We all, at some point need to be gathered in.
Reminded of whose we are.
Warmed by a gentle touch.
This passage reveals God’s desire; God’s heart. God’s response to death and fear is not to respond in kind, but to respond with open arms calling us to come together-to work it out-to gather nearer. God stays true to this image straight through to the cross. Even when we feel as if we are living in the feather-strewn mess between catastrophe and communion, God waits in anticipation and hope to gather us in.
What better news can we share with each other, with ourselves, with the world, than our trust in this glorious relationship?
Lent is the time of year to look deeply, examine ourselves and reaffirm that we will accept and re-accept God’s invitation to be loved, to be gathered, to live into the vision of healing and wholeness for the world. There are many foxes in this world, so may we be gathered by the Mother whose wings are tested and true. Amen.
© Diana Bell 2013
[i]Barbara Brown Taylor. “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood” Christian Century February 25, 1986, page 201.