The Mother Hen Heartbeat: Learning Time at Harrow United Church for March 13, 2022 (Lent 2)

Audio File of Learning Time

This past summer, to prepare for our first actual vacation since the pandemic, which had us driving up to Thunder Bay and back, my wife and I bought a “new to us” vehicle. It’s a few years old, but still new enough to have features we’ve never had before- like the proximity sensor that warns us when we are reversing and maybe getting too close to something.

I know the vehicle has this feature, but it still surprises me when the system beeps at me.

Vehicles better equipped than ours can warn you if you veer out of your lane. That could be a very useful thing for a preacher- to know when I’m maybe heading off road into rough territory. That may happen today. If it does, I am sure that someone will let me know, later.

Jesus thought he was right on course, preaching God’s love and helping people, and making his way towards Jerusalem when he was warned by some Pharisees, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

It could be that the Pharisees were warning him to stay in his lane- and not drive head on into trouble. But why would they do that?

In most Gospel stories the Pharisees are not cast in a good light.  They are portrayed as the self-righteous, arrogant, law abiding sticklers who got their tunics in knots because Jesus didn’t following the letter of the religious laws.  It often seems like they are the villains in the story. 

What do we make of them warning Jesus about an even bigger villain, Herod?  I can think of two ways we might explain why the Pharisees would sound the alarm,and try to steer Jesus in a new direction.  

One explanation is they were honestly concerned about Jesus and wanted to help him.  Maybe these Pharisees were not like the others, which is a good reminder for us these days, that we cannot paint everyone with the same brush. Not all truckers, politicians, Russians, Ukrainians, you fill in the blank, are all the same. 

Another possibility is that Herod sent the Pharisees to Jesus on a secret, devious mission.  Maybe Herod didn’t want to show weakness, to give any sign he was worried about the teachings of a lowly, itinerant peasant preacher. He might have thought if he could just scare him off in a quiet way, there would be no public indication he felt his authority had been challenged. 

This might seem a little out there until we remember that in Matthew’s gospel it was Herod who tried to co-opt the Magi into his schemes. He sent the Magi on their way saying, “go and find him so that I may worship him”.

Not trusting Herod, and being warned in a dream, the Magi went home another route.

Herod had a track record of being wily.

When the Pharisees warned, “Stop, go a different way” Jesus didn’t put on the brakes, or turn from the road he was traveling, that led to Jerusalem. 

Jesus responded with a message for Herod.  He said, “Go and tell that fox for me ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” 

It is at places in the text like this that I see the craft of an excellent writer. The phrase “today, and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” is a powerful and poetic allusion to Good Friday, the day and night in the tomb, and then Easter morning. It is a foreshadowing of a story familiar to us, because we know what lies ahead in Jerusalem. That’s where we are headed through the lenten season.

I see that same poetic genius at work in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who offer the warning. We hear him say, “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now”.

It’s clearly not a compliment. I wonder if the Pharisees delivered the message as Jesus asked. It would not have made Herod happy.

In ancient writings the fox symbolized sneakiness, cunning, and slyness.  In contrast, the lion symbolized power, authority and regal stature. They were both predators.

Jesus sounds pretty snarky. Does his name calling surprise you? Do you like that he is not simply the meek and mild, get along with everyone guy he is so often portrayed as being? I think there are times when getting along with everyone can get in the way of telling the truth. Nice is not always good.

It’s helpful to imagine Jesus as more complex, with a full range of emotion. We can see him as more like us, and like us, living in a complicated world.

At this point, the tone shifts, and Jesus’ frustration with Herod gives way to his care for the people of Jerusalem.  This part of Luke’s story is a lament, a passionate expression of grief.

As people who have lived through a pandemic and are now seeing countries at war, we know a thing or two about lament.  We have grieved for the ways in which life changed and for opportunities that were lost. Our hearts sink when we hear of hospitals being bombed and thousands of people becoming refugees. 

Jesus was in grief over what was being done to his people. They were subjugated by the Roman Empire, who controlled Herod, their local puppet king, who in turn kept the religious leaders on a leash. Jesus looked at Jerusalem, the political capitol and religious centre of his country, and saw corruption, indifference to the needs of the poor, and religion that went through the motions, but shied away from true faithful living. No one wanted to rock Herod’s boat.

We can imagine Jesus shaking his head as he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”  We do not know what prophets Jesus was speaking of, although I wonder if he was thinking about John the Baptist who was beheaded by Herod, because John had pointed out Herod’s violation of religious laws, and his abuse of power.

Jesus’ lament continues, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  This is a beautiful metaphor for God’s love,, and one of only a few feminine images we can find in the Bible, which was written and edited by men. 

A mother hen will go out of her way to protect her chicks.  And if a fox gets in the hen house, the fox will have to deal with mother hen. 

Jesus knew Herod held the power in Jerusalem. He knew most in Jerusalem would play it safe and side with Herod.  But Jesus did not turn his anger or bitter disappointment on the people. 

He expressed compassion and care for them. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

It’s a wonderful image of community- all the little chicks together, and safe.

If Jesus were to look closely at the communities where we live, would he see us as happily gathered together, helping each other, sharing warmth and shelter?

Would Jesus look upon us and see some good things, but also see things to grieve?

It is of course a rhetorical question, because we are human, and we are works in progress. We can always improve. We can always learn, and find ways to do better.

One of the ways we have come a long way as a church, as a community of faith, is in our increasing openness in the ways we think about God. 

Mother Hen with her chicks is a decidedly feminine image for God, and it is not as shocking or surprising to hear it mentioned in church as it would have been when I was growing up. I know that makes me sound like an old codger. Back in my day…

In the church where I was baptized, and went to Sunday School, and later on became a Sunday School teacher, the images and language for God were always male. always authoritarian, and never to be questioned. I don’t blame those folks. But I do think they missed out. There were limits placed on the ways they were taught to think about God, about Jesus, about life, about everything. They didn’t know what they were missing, and what new possibilities can open up in life, when we open our hearts, and our minds.

If we are on a journey towards acceptance of a wider range of language and ideas about God, we may also be on a journey towards more openness about what it means to be human.

I don’t know how it is in your family, but when I talk to my kids, who are now 19 and 22, I marvel that in their world, in their lives, acceptance of, and friendship with people who have different gender and sexual identities is taken for granted.

They know that in many places, and in many churches, people who do not identify as heterosexual are not safe or truly welcome in their communities. Many people have been taught, keep it to yourself, don’t flaunt it. Don’t rub our noses in it. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t upset people.

Many younger people in my life find discrimination on the basis of where a person is on the continuum, the rainbow of identity, to be sad and confusing, and cause for lament. Some of my friends who want nothing to do with church will put this pretty high on their list of reasons church is not for them.

Shouldn’t there be room for all of us chicks, under the brooding Mother Hen? Shouldn’t this be one of our core values as followers of Jesus- that no matter what pain the world causes you, what labels or discrimination you have had to endure, there is room for you here?

My heart hurt this week as I followed the news about Florida, which is currently on the verge of passing two very disturbing pieces of legislation. One law would prevent discussion of gender and sexuality issues with younger students, and would bar schools from even considering creating or using curriculum that used the words “gay, or lesbian, or trans”.  As if these words in themselves are dangerous. 

Another bill about to be passed will make it illegal for teachers to even suggest that anyone experiences oppression, or privilege on the basis of race or sex. Wow. 

During Bible study this week, someone pointed out that one beautiful aspect of the Mother Hen image for God is that all the chicks are close enough to hear their mother’s heartbeat.

I want that for my kids, and for all their friends. I want that for all the children of God. I want to be able to say to people who feel lost, or sad, or lonely, or hurting, or tossed out of their families for saying certain words, or loving in a certain way, that even if the world is scary and cold, our church could be a place where you can feel warm, and hear God’s heartbeat. Amen