A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year C
Gospel Lesson: Luke 13:31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘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. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 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! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
“The Fox, The Hen and the Kingdom of God”
The way Luke tells it, it seems that Jesus was having a very productive day in his ministry. Before we even get to the passage of today’s reading, this 13th chapter of Luke’s Gospel begins with Jesus offering up to the crowd the example of a fig tree that had only so long to be productive, or it would be cut down. Then, Jesus heals a woman who has been suffering for many years and subsequently, he is publically castigated by the religious authorities for his audacity in healing on the Sabbath. His response to the hypocrites who criticize him begins to garner praise from the crowds, but stirs up anger among the church leaders. Jesus doesn’t stop there. He compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed so small but which still grew into a tall tree in which birds nested in the branches; he then compares it again to grains of yeast that, added to flour, triple the dough in size. Then, he speaks of a very narrow door through which only a few will be able to pass into this expansive Kingdom of God of which he has been speaking. We enter today’s Gospel lesson right after Jesus’ pronouncement that “…some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
And so it is that in the midst of this particular moment of pastoral and prophetic ministry that the Pharisees come to Jesus and let him know that Herod wants him killed. As shocking as a death threat may seem on the surface, I doubt that it is news to Jesus that the magistrate of the land…the temporal authority that he has been repeatedly challenging since his very birth…might be very ready to see his ministry in Jerusalem come to an end.
What it is important to consider about the particular place where this Gospel passage begins is that Jesus had not come to Jerusalem to confront King Herod. Instead, Jesus came to do exactly what we’re hearing him do: he has been delivering a message to his own people; he has been speaking with and healing among and prophesying to the people of faith who were gathered around him, challenging them to consider their relationships with each other and to begin to see their role in bringing the Kingdom of God into its full potential. Jesus hasn’t come to town to challenge the temporal authority of Herod. Jesus has come to town to help his followers see that they, too, are essential to carrying out the will of God in their world. He was revealing a message for them about healing, community, and faith-driven action that could change the world as they knew it. This, he fully understood, was his calling and his ministry. So, what Jesus points out to the Pharisees, who try to distract him by planting fears about Herod, is that his ministry right there, right then to that congregation gathered in Jerusalem, isn’t finished yet.
In his words of response to the Pharisees, Jesus uses another allegory…this one, with images of a fox and a hen. In fact, when I first read today’s Gospel, I found myself calling to mind a little childhood rhyme my Grandmother used to recite whenever she saw me lurking a little too close to trouble:
The Hen roosted high on her perch;
Hungry Fox down below, on the search,
Coaxed her hard to descend
She replied, “Most dear friend!
I feel more secure on my perch.”
It’s interesting to me that Jesus refers to Herod as a fox. Foxes are smart and cunning, and often symbolize the deceptive nature of luring in unsuspecting prey. When we point out someone being “smart like a fox” we imply that they have motives beyond the surface which they are using to get exactly what they want. Jesus seems to be letting the Pharisees know that he is able to see beyond Herod’s threats, and likely able to see beyond their own use of those threats to have him head out of town before he threatens the status quo even more. It’s dangerous ministry for Jesus, especially in the home crowd.
It’s even more interesting to me that this passage goes on to reveal the very longing of Jesus’ own heart: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” The imagery Jesus uses of a nurturing mother bird gathering those she protects beneath the shelter of her wing really sticks with me and tells me something about the nature of divine love. It’s that same kind of love I was experiencing when my Gramma would loving hold out her wing to keep me from the temptations of trouble brewing. It is a love that protects, not attacks. After all, it’s not as if an army of chickens is going to wage war and out-power a fox. But it is true that when we are gathered together, the likelihood of susceptibility to sneak attack is minimized. It foils the fox to see the hens gathering together…it’s harder to isolate and cunningly lure one unsuspecting creature away from under the arms of its parent, gathered with its loving community. It strikes me that Jesus knows this, too, which is why this same Beloved Community is what he longs to create throughout his ministry.
But Jesus points out that as much as he longs for this beloved community, the people are not willing to receive it, preferring (it would seem) to keep drawing attention to the fox lurking at the proverbial hen house door.
So why is it so hard for the people of Jerusalem…and for us…to be willing to gather under the wings of a sustaining and nurturing God? Maybe it’s hard to believe that we’re truly loved enough to be enfolded with care. Maybe it’s that the thought of facing the fox scares us so much that we run away to a place we think is safe because the fox can’t be seen. Maybe it’s because we feel it’s our personal obligation to out-wit and out-smart the fox, and our ego convinces us that the protection of community will somehow make us seem weaker. Maybe we think we’re somehow better, smarter, holier or stronger than the community we see already gathering beneath the wing. The self gets in the way of the whole, every single time.
And so it is that Jesus sees us as we are, because we are deeply known and just as deeply loved. We enter this story through the eyes of a people who feel incapable of producing growth, who are in need of healing, who struggle with fledgling faith just like a mustard seed or a grain of yeast. Jesus is not only ministering to them…he is ministering to us, and with us, and he isn’t finished yet. Even when reminded that the fox is near, Jesus doesn’t scatter or flee. He remains, offering outstretched arms in which we can choose to take refuge. We aren’t forced there. We might not feel worthy to gather together with others. We might even reject that same outstretched gift of unconditional love offered freely to us. But Jesus doesn’t leave. Jesus speaks of, and lives into the prophesies about his ministry: in today’s Gospel we hear his prophetic voice reaching out to us before his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, before his betrayal, before that rooster crows three times reminding us all that the wings that want to enfold us are the same ones that we struggle so hard to avoid.
We hear this same echo in the Epistle reading, with Paul exhorting the church in Philippi to remember that “…our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ who will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” You see, it isn’t just our individual lives that are protected when we are willing to move toward that space of longing and nurturing of which Jesus speaks. There is something greater than our own self in our divine togetherness that gives us communal strength to divert the sly fox; this togetherness offered through the outstretched arms of love creates a Body…the Body of Christ into which we are drawn, and where are all made more, together. This journey that we are traveling…the journey through Lent, and the journey through our lives…offers us the opportunity to see what stands between our selves, and the loving arms that want to enfold us and nurture us…all of us…into becoming this beloved community, the Church, the transformed Body of Christ.