Gospel text: Luke 13: 31-35
by Ellen Sims
(On third Sundays at Open Table, we offer a contemplative service of sung prayers, silence, scripture, and enacted prayers at several prayer stations. Usually the sermon is replaced by a guided meditation or, as was the case this past Sunday, a brief and interactive homily. Below is the homily followed by a description of the prayer stations.)
We at Open Table have a special place in our hearts for chickens. I don’t mean as a popular dinner item featured (fried) so often at the church dinners of my childhood it was called the Baptist bird. I mean we have a relationship with a special group of chickens who live at L and R’s house and who provide fresh eggs for many of us who care about eating eggs from chickens treated humanely.
Our first chicken story begins with Open Table’s first Blessing of the Animals service six years ago. R and L had recently started raising hens in their backyard and brought one of their hens to receive a blessing—the first chicken I’d ever blessed that was not on a dinner plate. The service began with our singing “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing . . .” and as if on cue, Goldie the chicken began clucking while we sang “Alleluia, Alleluia.” The dogs and cats joined in melodiously. I couldn’t finish singing the hymn for laughing.
The next chapter in our chicken lore is sadder. A year or two later a Great Dane tore through the fenced-in chicken coop in L and R’s backyard and slaughtered half of their hens. R, home alone, had fended off the big dog as best she could with a broom before telephoning me to come quickly. That, by the way, was number 327 on my list of Situations For Which Seminary Did Not Prepare Me. As I drove to their home, I wasn’t sure what help I could offer but anticipated that maybe my job would be to clean up the carnage. Turns out a neighbor had done most of that. R, exhausted and distressed, instead asked me to round up the surviving chickens and put them back inside the patched together fence. “Sure,” I said.
My job was easier than you might think. The hens were traumatized, so most had hunkered down under azalea bushes. I just picked each one up and carried her to the coup: easy as an Easter egg hunt in which the object was the chicken instead of the egg. When I reported back to R, inside the house, she asked, “Did any bite you?” “R,” I said, “It didn’t occur to me a chicken might attack me” and thinking, “A warning of that possibility might have been nice.” I learned later that Goldie, the chicken I’d blessed the year before, was one of the survivors. Naturally, I’ve credited her survival to the blessing she received from me previously. I am honored that one of the newer chickens is named for me.
Chickens are inherently funny. From gags with rubber chickens . . . to the chickens trained to peck out a tune on tiny pianos . . . to the most primitive joke series of all that begins, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”. . . chickens make us smile. But today—and I’m just going to say it straight out—our Gospel reading puts before us an image of God in Jesus Christ as a chicken. Yet this unexpected metaphor Jesus created is absolutely heartrending and profound.
Before we get to the hen in today’s Gospel text, however, we have to acknowledge the fox. This pericope begins as the Pharisees, not usually Jesus’s allies, warn him that King Herod is gunning for him.
Jesus begins his reply this way: “You tell that fox for me . . . .”– daring to name the king as a predatory, dangerous animal. And Jesus continues with a message the Pharisees were told to deliver to Herod:
‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.””
How would you characterize Jesus’ tone? (Congregation offered responses including “defiant, determined, fearless, ironic, funny, authoritative.”)
Do you hear the humor as he continues? “I’m continuing on my way because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” (Still defiant, determined, even sarcastic.) Remember during his temptation in the wilderness far from Jerusalem, he was taken to the pinnacle of the Temple but promised by the tempter that if he jumped from that height, he’d be saved by angels. Yet we know that when he arrives again in Jerusalem he’ll be executed. And we know the Hebrew prophets of old were often persecuted and killed by the religious/political establishment. And we hear today Jesus anticipating his murder with this odd hyperbole, a form of humor used against the powerful: “Jerusalem not only kills the prophets God sends to save her —but it’s actually impossible for a prophet to get killed anywhere else!”
Let’s also consider the chicks of the hen. When Jesus transitions from his words for Herod to his feelings for Jerusalem, hear his tone shift dramatically:
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!
What is his tone now? (Congregation offered words like “tender, sad, gentle, protective, aching with concern.”) Now he speaks like a mother who loves the very children who are breaking her heart—because the children are in danger and because they’re not availing themselves of her comforting wings. Jesus is voicing God’s care for the children of Jerusalem. The chicks must be willing to come to the mother. The mothering God would do anything to protect her children—if only they were “willing.” But we humans have volition and choice.
Let’s consider at last the hen herself. Jesus could have created a metaphor in which the fox was pitted against a larger animal capable of thwarting the fox. If Jesus had envisioned his people being capable of fighting back, he might have described the old fox preparing to attack a mother eagle or lion. If Jesus had, like others rallying the Jews of his day, recommended the people revolt militarily, he’d have compared the people of Jerusalem to a mightier animal. Instead, he deliberately cast God’s children as sheltering under the wings of Jesus, who is as defenseless against a fox as a hen against a Great Dane. The hen will almost surely die protecting her brood. And her death will not necessarily guarantee the physical safety of her chicks.
Friends, our culture teaches us to be powerful in might. Jesus, however, teaches us to be powerful in compassion. Our culture teaches us to see violence as the cure for violence, to protect our children with guns, to respond to threats with shrill counter threats, to believe in an eye for an eye. Certainly, we feel protective of loved ones. Of course, we are to act against aggression. And there are times when force must be used defensively. But too often our culture’s first impulse is to muscle up.
In contrast, the Gospels depict Jesus offering a picture of God’s mothering love operating through vulnerability and compassion. It’s a countercultural image. It IS shocking. It IS risky.
Admittedly, this metaphor is not about a political strategy but about the character of God. But are we Christians (little Christs) not aiming to be more like Christ? If someone doesn’t stop the cycle of hatred, retribution never ends. If someone doesn’t deescalate the violence, peace never comes.
What a ridiculous image of God as helpless, hapless hen! Is God just chicken? Afraid to fight? Are we chicken if we don’t man up?
If only we were willing to try God’s way.
If only WE were willing . . .
VOICED PRAYER: Gather us under your wings, O God. May we be willing.
ENACTED PRAYER AT PRAYER STATIONS
1. PRAYING WITH ART. With markers, playdough, or crayons provided, create an image that speaks of comfort and protection: maybe a safe space that feels comforting (like the hen’s protective wings Jesus imagined), or a fresh way to picture a comforting, protective God. After your image has been created, pause to step inside it, figuratively, and experience a sense of calm and comfort in God’s presence—if you are willing.
2. PRAYING WITH SONG AND SACRAMENT. As communion songs are played and sung, you may visit the Lord’s Table as a place of refuge, a safe space for you and for everyone—if you are willing. Imagine the Christ feeding you tenderly from his body, as a mother feeds her child. Know you are safe and loved. Take the bread, dip it into the cup, and eat. During this prayer time you may sing prayerfully these communion songs from our songbook:
“Sanctus/Holy, Holy” on pp. 74-75;
“This is the Body of Christ” on p. 83;
“We Will Take What You Offer” on pp. 84-85.
3. PRAYING WITH GIFTS. As you give to support Open Table’s ministry, know that our church gives 10% of our offerings for use by the UCC to serve others. In addition, we collect special offerings quarterly to address needs around the globe. In two weeks we’ll collect our annual One Great Hour of Sharing offering, organized by many Christian denominations for health, education, refugee, agricultural, and emergency relief initiatives. When a typhoon devastates a city in Asia, or when disease, famine, or war makes refugees of thousands, we are already there with UCC aid you helped fund. Learn more about the special offering we’ll collect March 6 by taking a pamphlet and story located beside the offering plate.