The Brooding Hen
I have not spent much time with hens. Being raised a city-girl, my experiences with chickens and roosters have consisted mostly of two extremes. The first association is of being allowed to hold soft fuzzy yellow chicks, gently, gently, gently at the Fort Wayne Children’s zoo. The second of hearing my grandmother tell me horror stories of how afraid she was of them because when she was a little girl in Kentucky and would get up in the night to use the outhouse they would peck at her toes. So, that’s it. There’s my chicken expertise. The yin and the yang of chicken wisdom. And so on Thursday, realizing I needed a little first-hand hen knowledge, I drove over to pick up Grayson early from school. I did this because at Peace Montessori, where Grayson attends, there is a great big red barn on the campus, and in that great big red barn, behind one big sliding rickety barn doors and then behind one smaller wooden door with a special latch there is a carefully built hen house with heat lamps and straw scattered on the floor. And in that cozy space there are eighteen very social and surprisingly gentle clucking hens and one big loud rooster. The administrator at the school didn’t even look at me strangely when I asked if I might go out to the barn and sit with the chickens for awhile, she just smiled and handed me the key and said, “I like to do that too.” And so for ten minutes or so, I sat on the straw floor in my dress pants and listened to the pecking of beaks and the soft fluttering of wings and the gentle clucking and wondered what it would be like to be held safe under the downy wings of love, just as Jesus longed to hold Jerusalem. I considered what it meant that the homely hen, she who lived in the backyards of humans for thousands of years, was the inspiration for Jesus’ metaphor.
This morning’s lectionary text, the second in our Lenten journey, is sort of a wild-card in the Lenten line-up. There are so many different directions and different possibilities of what Jesus meant, and of why we need to know this, and how we integrate the knowledge into our modern living. It’s a bit of puzzler, actually. What we know is this: Jesus was approached by some Pharisees, those who historically have misunderstood and criticized him, who tell him that he needs to leave the area where he is preaching and teaching for Herod is out to kill him. You’ve heard the name Herod before right? Remember? That king that wanted to kill all the baby boys shortly after Jesus was born? Well, this Herod, Herod Antipas was his successor and had made up his mind about Jesus, whom he viewed as a threat. This was the Herod that killed John the Baptist, the Herod that Jesus had to answer to in his final days of life. As theologian Barbara Brown Taylor once said, “Consider the contrast: Jesus has disciples; Herod has soldiers. Jesus serves; Herod rules. Jesus prays for his enemies; Herod kills his.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Chickens and Hens” from Bread of Angels). And we have to remember that Herod had the support of the Roman authorities, while Jesus was seen as a threat to them. The differences could not be more striking.
After the warning of the Pharisees, Jesus responded with uncharacteristic curtness, with what seems like anger, “Go and tell that fox for me…” and then Jesus goes on to explain his plans which the disciples would have heard as a game plan for the next few days, but which we hear with our twenty-first century ears as a foretelling of the saga which will unfold.
And then, here’s where things get a little perplexing. Even knowing that Herod was after him, even knowing that he was not safe, even knowing that there was a threat to his life, Jesus turned himself toward Jerusalem and spoke those historic words which we have heard again and again, “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!” Reading the words we can imagine the lament in his voice. Setting his face toward Jerusalem even as he seems to know what awaits him there. So why did he go? Why did he keep walking? In the midst of the chaos when he would have had every excuse to flee, he cared instead for the people of Jerusalem, for his people, and he paused to speak a word and offer a metaphor which invited others to seek shelter and redemption under his healing wings of grace saying, “If only I might take you in, if only I might place you under my wing, if only I might be your mother.”
I told you that I knew little about hens, and so after my little field trip to visit the hens at the school I came home and spent some time reading about them online, trying to understand this metaphor that Jesus wanted to express. And in doing that, I learned something I was not aware of before, something that I almost missed by growing up so separated from an agrarian culture. Hens are utterly defenseless. They have no way of attacking a predator back. They have no way of outrunning those animals which are intent on destroying them. And they are utterly selfless in their devotion to their young. When a fox or a varmint approaches to kill, the hen has only courage and commitment to keep her chicks safe. Facing the sharp teeth and long claws of her attackers, all she has is the ability to throw herself over the bodies of her chicks, extending her wings over them, letting herself be devoured first in the hope that they might be spared. Hens do not run from their aggressors, they hunker down and offer themselves as sacrifice for their children.
And so when Jesus calls Herod a fox and refers to himself as a hen, there is great significance attached. The weapons that Herod will use to attack are not the ones that Jesus will use to defend. In the face of wily cunning, Jesus will choose self-sacrificing devotion. In the face of naked aggression, Jesus will choose genuine selflessness. And lovely as this image is, it’s also a little disconcerting, isn’t it? Does anyone else other than me feel like wanting Jesus to fight back? Does anyone else want to yell, “The fox is coming! Get out of there! Go! Come on…this is not going to end well!”
But, the reality is that this is not the way that revolutionary and radical love works. Jesus will not return violence for violence, but will instead, gather up those who hear his voice, and understand his message of peace and hold them safely under his wing even as the foxes growl and the storm approaches.
It is Black History month and I recently watched a powerful documentary on PBS about the first of The Freedom Riders those civil rights activists, black and white alike who, beginning in 1961, made the brave decision to board Greyhound and Trailway buses and travel into the heart of the south where segregation was deeply entrenched. Their mission was simple: to draw awareness to the need for equality and to face resistance with nonviolence and love. It is a painful documentary to watch. The raw hatred in the eyes of Ku Klux Klan members (and of course it’s only their eyes that you see underneath those masks of hate), the spittle running down the faces of the riders when they would get off the bus to rest, the utter brutality and the beatings. It is tempting to want to call out as you watch the film, “Don’t go, don’t do it, don’t subject yourselves to this kind of cruelty! Spare yourselves the pain!” And yet, you know. You know that they had to go. You know that their faces were set. You know that Mississippi was their Jerusalem. You know that if change was to come, the journey had to be made. And even though the foxes growled, I imagine those brave riders were sheltered under the wings of the one who knew a little something about sacrifice. The mother hen that protects all her chicks.
And so we keep marching on our own Lenten journeys, fixing our sights on the places where we are called to go, even if those places scare us or don’t feel safe. And when the road becomes too rough, or when the future seems too uncertain, we remember that we always have a safe place to hide, a place where we are embraced in downy softness and held warm in the bosom of God.