I never suspected that as a father I would wind up learning how to make so many animal sounds. Our young daughters naturally love to hear the noises different creatures make and, with increasing frequency these days, love to traipse around the house, pretending to be the animals, themselves. I am often drawn in and requested to mimic the roar of a lion or the trumpet of an elephant. When she’s guarding her snack from me, our three-year-old Clare will often fend me off with the fierce growl of a “mean bear,” as she calls it. Laura, our one-year old, can pant just like a dog. We expand our farmyard and jungle onomatopoeia on a monthly basis: we’ve got cats that meow, frogs that ribbit, and giraffes that chew. (Since every picture of a giraffe our daughters have ever seen shows the animal chomping on a mouthful of leaves, our girls have decided that a giraffe says >chew<, an idea that was only reinforced during our visit last summer to the Richmond zoo which affords its visitors with the singular if not slimy opportunity to feed giraffes from the palm of one’s hand.)
I suppose that if Jesus were to show up at our house one day, he’d cluck like a hen. At least, that’s what we could assume from the comments he makes outside Jerusalem, which we hear about in today’s gospel reading. It’s interesting: in all of the New Testament, Jesus compares himself to an animal only once. Although there are several times, specifically in John’s gospel, when he is referred to by others as “the Lamb of God,” and there is a reference to him as the “Lion of Judah” in Revelation, the only time he reaches into the animal kingdom and pulls out a metaphor for himself is this instance in Luke’s gospel, and he chooses a mother hen. We might expect the choice of something more extraordinary or rare, an animal that we would automatically associate with bravery or divinity, yet it is this run-of-the-mill resident of the local farm with which he identifies. It is the maternal, feminine image of a chicken—and a chicken with babies, no less—he chooses to describe his relationship toward Jerusalem, the city toward which he is travelling with his disciples.
Having spent the entirety of my life in the suburbs or the city, I’ve never had the chance to see this barnyard phenomenon. YouTube, which I scoured this week for visual examples, produced nothing satisfying. Apparently a hen, in most cases, will watch over and protect any chick from an egg it incubates. Supposedly at the first sight of danger—a hawk soaring overhead or a fox prowling in the pen—the momma chicken opens her wings and the chicks all come scurrying for shelter underneath. Then she drops her wings again, pulling every one of them in close. And there they remain until the threat has subsided. This survival mechanism serves two purposes: it both protects them from predators and keeps the chicks warm at the same time. According to what I’ve read, the hen is even prepared to offer her own life for the sake of her babies, should it come to that point.
I don’t know at what point the chicks outgrow their mother’s wingspan, or at what point they don’t feel the need to run their for shelter anymore, but this act of seeking shelter and warmth against their mother’s breast is how the each generation of chickens is reared And mother hens never seem to lose the habit. There are even some varieties of hen out there who will welcome into their broods a chick that they haven’t hatched, as if they are the foster moms of the whole coop, poultry parents with such a strong instinct for nurturing that they’re concerned for the preservation of every little baby in the farmyard.
Well, this is how Jesus understands himself in relation to God’s people, which is symbolized by that city that embodies and epitomizes the character and hope of a whole nation, Jerusalem. He stands on some road in Galilee, face firmly set on going there. Speaking from God’s own point of view, he laments the fact that, while he has lifted his wings on occasion, the chicks never come scurrying to him for shelter. He stands in the place many former prophets had stood, looking longingly at a people who had, time and time again, forsaken their role to live as a beacon of justice and compassion for themselves and others. God had given them so much, guided them through so many years, and yet they routinely wanted to go their own way, pursuing others’ ideas of greatness and power.
Considering Jerusalem’s track record for receiving prophets who suggested they repent and turn around from those ideas, it was dangerous for a prophet to enter the city. What’s more, some foxes have been prowling in those parts, and yet the residents of Jerusalem don’t seem to be concerned about their safety. With Pilate in charge, justice has been corrupted and the Roman occupiers have been allowed to tax and enslave. Yet, when Pharisees come to warn Jesus away from Galilee for fear of what Herod might do to him there, Jesus displays that fierce impulse of nurture. He loves God’s people, and despite Herod’s threats, his ministry of healing and casting out demons will not be deterred. He cares for God’s people, and no amount of prowling and snarling from Herod or any other fox will prevent Jesus from responding to their needs of preservation. And so he clucks and raises his wings—on that day, the day after, and all the way into Jerusalem—hoping they’ll recognize the sign and run underneath.
The issue is that for chicks, this is an instinctive response. Their response to their momma’s opened wings is, in a certain sense, pre-determined. They can’t help it. The wings go up, the hen clucks or gives some signal, and they are compelled by biological reflex to go underneath.
Those who live in Jerusalem, on the other hand, don’t operate on instinct. Those who have been created in the image of God, and set loose on the planet to roam at large—free-range chickens that we are—have will. We, like the folks of Jerusalem, have reason and knowledge at hand, flawed though those tools may be. We will, given the chance, often bite the hand that feeds us. We will, given the chance, kill the person who could save us. The wings go up, the signal is given, and we will still choose to press our luck right underneath the nose of the foxes and hawks that could eat us alive. We press our luck, living as though we have no need of the comfort of a faith community, living as though we can outgrow God’s nurture that is offered in the common prayer life of a congregation. We run the other way, suspicious that Scripture and the sacraments offer a false comfort and that a truer, better life lies elsewhere.
Worse yet, we will seek shelter under the shadow of any other substitute momma out there but the one who we’re created to. Free of that instinct to see Jesus as the one, true, loving mother hen—his words driven by nothing more than love and desire for our preservation—we are enticed with the temptation to find ultimate protection and warmth in just about any other relationship—with our education, our careers, our wealth, our friends, our passions.
And yet, we do occasionally glimpse signs of something like an instinctive response to Jesus as guardian. The blip in church attendance and involvement after 9/11 suggested, perhaps, that people sensed a need for togetherness and shelter against the the fear of forces that we perceive as deeply harmful. I have also heard some in the church make the prediction that the current economic downturn might, for whatever reason, lead some folks back to God and their faith communities for hope and support.
Yet, as encouraging as these trends may be, and as nice as it would be to have it a little more crowded under the wings, I’m not sure we should put our hope in them. Jerusalem, too, had a on-again, off-again relationship with God. The fact is that as long as we live, God’s desire to gather and nurture, is almost matched by our desire to wander and reject.
It would be easy for me at this point to decry and bemoan the statistics that show a steady, if not steep, decline in church membership and worship attendance not just in our own denomination, but in our nation as a whole. It would be easy for me to lecture about the lack of compassion we often show, the missed opportunities for mission and outreach, the dysfunction of the church, etc. etc., but to do so would really serve no purpose but to make people feel guilty (or self-righteous) and get you to look away from my own reluctance and forgetfulness about running to the eternal care of Jesus when I’m in need, which is constant.
After all, Jesus doesn’t do all that much lecturing anyway. He does preach and teach, but his ministry is built on healing, casting out demons, actions and words of compassion that are tantamount to lifting his wings and doing whatever he needs to get us realize it’s actually safe and warm under there.
It was my turn to lead chapel in Epiphany’s nursery school this week. Outfitted with photos of chickens and hens, I took this image to the three-year-olds and four-year-olds chicks on-site. I showed them the photos and asked them what a mommy chicken would do if a fox broke into the pen and sensed her chicks were in danger. Their responses, as you can imagine, were like a children’s sermon on steroids. One child suggested the hen would run tell the farmer the babies are in trouble. Another one was convinced that the hen would herd her chicks into the chicken coop and lock the door. A lot of them proposed that the hen would peck the fox to death, or, at least peck him away. Fierce chickens!
What I noticed is that every child knew the instinct of motherly protection. They knew the love of a momma. But not one of them ever supposed she’d protect them by actually taking them under her wing, putting her own life in danger, out in the open. And, truth be told, I wouldn’t have either.
So it is, even with Momma Jesus. There’s just know way we could guess that this would be the way he’d save us yet. There’s just know what that we could figure out, to deduce that he will hold back on the lecturing and really just spread those wings, spread those mighty arms, and take us in. Even on that day when we acclaim him as our king and shout hosanna (“God, save us!”), we would never suspect he’d go to this length, that it would come to that point. From the streets of Jerusalem, and into the wayward avenues of our own lives, this man will raise his own arms—on the cross—and lay down his life…out in the open.
So, practice your animal noises, if you must. Trumpet, oink, bark, growl, and ribbit. But, above all, listen for those words of love and practice running for shelter. Practice snuggling in tight. His wings are still open.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.