Hen in the foxhouse | Lent 2 |21 February 2016


Texts: Psalm 27, Luke 13:31-35

 The image on the bulletin cover is a mosaic inside the Dominus Flevit church.  The church is located on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, and commemorates two occasions in Luke’s gospel:  The one we just read, when Jesus speaks of the people of Jerusalem and compares himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings.  And when Jesus later approaches Jerusalem and weeps over the city, lamenting that it does not know the things that make for peace.  Dominus Flevit means, “The Lord wept.”

Personally, any Bible story that features a chicken as one of the main characters is one that gets my attention.  Especially when the chicken = Jesus.  I love that in the mosaic the chicken has a halo.  Awesome.  Our three backyard feathered girls are doing just fine through the winter, although their egg production has trailed off a bit.  They’re still saints and miracle workers for turning our food scraps into tasty eggs.

Jesus the hen cries out, “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.”  It’s a loving maternal image, of protection, and shelter, and sanctuary.

Back in December we hosted an evening gathering for the BREAD organization – the annual research kick-off.  A little ways into the meeting I noticed that one of the other pastors was motioning to get my attention.  After realizing that he wanted to talk, right now, I slid out of my seat and we huddled quietly in the back of the sanctuary.  He had what seemed to me at the time like a very random concern.  He wanted to know if our lights in the foyer were on a motion sensor.  He’d noticed that they had switched off, and was worried someone might have come in from the street and turned them off.  I said Yes, the lights are on a motion sensor, and they do switch off if no one has been in that space for 15 or 20 minutes.  He was reassured by this, because, he said, a person who would turn off the lights might use the darkness as a cover to do harm.

A couple days later I was casually wondering what this had been about.  Why would this pastor be concerned about something that had never even entered my mind?  That someone would come in off the street and shut down the foyer lights?  After a little more wondering, a few pieces started coming together.  I remembered that six months earlier a young man, a white supremacist, had entered the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  After participating in a Bible study, he pulled out a gun and proceeded to shoot and kill nine people, all of them black, all the while yelling out racial insults.  I remembered skimming over an article about how various African American congregations were training their people to be prepared if their church was targeted – what initial signs to look for, and how to respond if the unthinkable started happening.  I remembered the seriousness with which that pastor had spoken to me in the middle of that BREAD meeting.   It started to sink in that this pastor, an African American man, had been living with a kind of vigilance I’d never considered necessary.  When he saw the lights go out, it triggered a whole scenario in his head.  Part of his pastoral care duties involved helping his people prepare for their own sanctuary being violated with violence.  It puts another spin on sheltering your people under a protective wing.

When the new Bible study lunch group met this past week we discussed our experience of race alongside this passage, including our own sense of safety and comfort as white people.  One person noted that her life has never been in real danger, and we nodded our heads.  Metaphorically speaking, our lives have, for the most part, been lived underneath the wing.  How much of this has been the Divine wing, and how much of this has been the culturally-constructed protective wing of privilege is yet to be sorted out.

This led into a related discussion about how easily we make people out to be “the other.”  Of the six gathered around the table, two had gone through their entire elementary, middle, and high school years without ever having a non-white person as a classmate.  Another had only one, K-12.  A couple others had extensive international and intercultural experience.  But we confessed that we still share this impulse of seeing “otherness” in people who look different than us.

One person noted that these are deep biological mechanisms we’re born with.  Along the evolutionary line, we developed instincts to detect difference and otherness – to keep us safe.

We noticed that in this gospel passage, safety and security are presented as an option that Jesus chooses against.  We’re used to viewing the Pharisees as the bad boys of the gospels, but in truth they had a lot in common with Jesus.  So when several of them speak up for Jesus’ protection we can take them at their word.  Luke writes, “At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’”  It’s probably a well-intentioned warning, but Jesus has already thought it through.  He’ll soon refer to himself as a hen who longs to gather her chicks under her protective wings, but first he sets the stage by referencing another animal, a fox.  You can go tell that fox, Herod, that I’m going to do my thing and that I’m coming his way.  Herod, of course, represents more than just the person of Herod.  Jesus knows that Herod is merely the most recent representative of a system that tries to preserve itself at all costs, at the expense of anyone who challenges it.  Live in the shadows, keep a low profile, let the fox do its thing, and everything will be OK.

Jesus explicitly rejects this option.

But he doesn’t exactly set himself up for success in calling Herod a fox and himself a hen.  A hen in the foxhouse doesn’t stand a chance.

How much did Jesus have to love Jerusalem in order to walk towards it, rather than away from it?  How much did his biting critique of it as the killer of prophets have to come out his underlying, overwhelming love for his people whom he longed to gather together, to hold them safely and securely, under expansive and sheltering wings?

What does it mean for us to walk toward Jerusalem, rather than away from it?  Not that any of us are planning on getting ourselves crucified, but on a more local and day to day level, what does it look like to walk towards injustice, rather than opt out of the struggle?  Or simply to allow our eyes to be opened and our consciousness and awareness to be transformed?  Like realizing that even being in a space like this, a sanctuary, with little to no fear that we will be targeted for who we are, is not always a “privilege” that everyone has.  Just being aware of that can make us more compassionate people.

Locally, here are some interesting statistics to consider.

In 2013 Business Insider ranked Columbus as the 21st most racially segregated city in the US.  That’s better than Cincinnati #11 and Cleveland #8.  Better than Milwaukee #2, or Detroit, #1.  But in the national context we do live in one of the more racially segregated cities.

A different study in 2015 out of the University of Toronto ranked American cities by economic segregation.  And Columbus ranked second worst in that study.  Only Austin, Texas is more economically segregated.

Well,, we love our city, our county, we love its diversity, its parks and libraries and food and entertainment and bike trails, its people.  Lord knows we love our Buckeyes.  We love Columbus.  But there are many ways that it keeps people separated from each other and perpetuates all kinds of systemic and generational problems that result from that.

What does it mean to walk toward Jerusalem rather than away from it?  To question and challenge “Herod?”  What does it mean to both live under the shelter of the Divine wing while also venturing out from the comfort of the nest that our culture has prepared for us?  A comment from our group was that white privilege and the “safety” it provides comes with a great spiritual cost.  Not only do we not feel the daily need for Divine protection, something the Psalmist expresses so often, but we can easily be blinded to what’s really going on around us.

These are open questions and I’m grateful they are questions that many of you have been working on for a long time.  Throughout this year I encourage us to tell not only troubling stories, but also good news stories of how you and others are walking this walk.  Perhaps several of you have brief stories to tell during the reflection time after the sermon.

Given the way Jesus sets this whole scenario up, it’s remarkable there’s anything to celebrate about what went down when he did enter Jerusalem.  The extraordinary claim of Christian faith is that when the hen went into the foxhouse, the hen won.  Not by any standard measure.  Not by outfoxing the fox, but by refusing to play the foxes game, and using a different kind of power.

I want to end with a piece I saw this week.  It’s a rewrite of 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, written by a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams, for folks who are right in the middle of conflicted spaces.  And as I read this, perhaps you want to look again at the bulletin cover, the haloed chicken, and consider the fierce power of the hen in the foxhouse.

This was written earlier this month by Peter Haresnape of Christian Peacemaker Teams.

If I speak about courage and justice, and siding with the oppressed, and speaking truth to power no matter the cost, but do not speak about love… I am just a loudmouth orator, a white saviour, a shameless self-promoter.

If I am excellent at nonviolent communication, and I take great pictures, and I know all the latest anti-oppressive lingo, and I can analyse racist systems so as to dismantle them entirely, but have not love, I am nothing.

If I fully embrace the work of prophet and activist and martyr, and get dragged away by the riot police or bombed by the military of my own country, but have not love, that is no use to anyone.

Love is patient. Love survives evil, war, oppression. It remains when the teargas clears and the children go back to school. It is still there when the water is protected. Love is kind, not arrogant, not insisting on its own way, but making space for joy and truth even in the hardest circumstance.

Whether it is love between two people, or love of a person for their community, or love of a community for its land, or love of justice and peace and equity, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Clever words will be forgotten. The most interesting facts are subject to revision. The best sermon you’ve ever heard – you will forget. Right now, everything we do is flawed and inaccurate. But. One day we’ll experience Truth with a Capital T. And then all this will be unnecessary.

Before I was mature, I was immature. In becoming mature, I left behind ways of speaking, thinking and reasoning that were immature.

Right now we’re hearing murmurs, reading translations, seeing shadows on the wall, but one day we’ll see face-to-face.

Right now, half of the time I’m guessing, but one day I will know beyond all doubt – and I will be fully known.

What remains when it is all stripped away is three things:
Faith that the flawed world as we see it is not all that there is;
Hope that the next generation will live in a better world;
and Love to give us the strength and motivation to build it.

The greatest of these is Love.