© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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 outside of 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.’”
I distinctly remember the first time I ever heard someone refer to God as Mother. I was a college student in small town Indiana and periodically attended the local United Methodist church. “God language” was in the news a lot back then, with the Methodist bishop of that area creating quite a stir by referring to God as Mother. One Sunday the pastor of that local church preached a sermon defending the bishop’s statement. And then he led us in the Lord’s Prayer with these words, “Our Mother who art in heaven…” I remember that I didn’t like that very much.
About the same time, there was an article in Newsweek Magazine about a controversial crucifix on display in the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. It was called “Christa” and portrayed a naked woman hanging on a cross. I remember I didn’t like that very much either. In fact, I didn’t like it so much that I wrote a rather heated letter to the editor. Thank God they never published it!
Talking about God as Mother is less controversial than it used to be. We understand language to be a product of one’s time. And we’ve also learned a lot about the Bible’s original languages and how those languages refer to the divine using both male and female imagery. For example, the Hebrew name for God “el Shaddai” can easily be translated as “the many breasted one” – a poetic way to say that God gives nurture to all of her children.
But Jesus was a biological male, right? And so we refer to Jesus as our Lord and our Brother. But Jesus as a mother? That’s just seems weird. But a few years ago I learned about how the concept of Jesus as Mother is actually a very old one. In the mystical theology of the High Middle Ages, Jesus as our Mother was popularized by such monumental figures in Christian history as Bernard of Clairvaux, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, and Meister Eckhart. Where did they get such an idea? Well, at least in part, from the Gospel lesson that Pastor Alison just read.
One day, and quite out of character, the Pharisees came to warn Jesus that Herod wanted to kill him. It was a chance for Jesus to run away and escape. But Jesus didn’t run and hide. Instead he replied rather provocatively: “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.”– a reference to the Crucifixion. In calling Herod a fox, Jesus was implicating him in murder and mayhem. Foxes were thought of as bloodthirsty and always looking for an easy kill, like in a henhouse.
Jesus ran with that association in what has become his famous lament over the city of Jerusalem. And I want you to pay particular attention to how he talks about himself. “O 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 hengathers herbrood under herwings, but you were not willing.”
This week I watched a YouTube video of a hen protecting her chicks. And it’s just as Jesus described it. The mother lifts her wings and the chicks run underneath them. And then she folds her wings back into place with the babies safely underneath. If a threat comes too close, she will peck and make noise and stand her ground. A mother hen can be fierce that way. But at the end of the day, if the aggressor is stronger than she, then all she really has to protect her chicks is her own body. She places herself between the danger and the ones she loves.
That’s just what mothers do. The tragic history of our world is filled with the stories of self-sacrificing mothers. Sometimes mothers stand in the way of bullets – like those in the New Zealand mosques desperately trying to shield their children. Sometimes they lay over their children during earthquakes. Sometimes mothers hoist their children to dry ground even as they themselves drown. The mother preserves the life of her children no matter what.
It was Herod’s job to keep the peace with Rome. But it was Jesus’s job to challenge the oppression of Rome. So the old fox, in order to keep his power, was determined to kill the mother hen and gobble up her chicks.
In some popular American Christianity, Jesus is portrayed as some sort of macho superhero. Those folks would have us believe that Jesus could have chosen to kill his enemies on Good Friday, but instead, in complete superhero self-control, he choses death. But that is not the way Luke tells this story. Instead, Luke shows us Jesus, vulnerable and human, hurtling his body against the systems of evil in order to protect the chicks.
The great preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes beautifully of this passage, and I quote “Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first. Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cries waken them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her – wings spread, breast exposed, without a single chick beneath her wings.”
The Gospel’s power is counter-intuitive precisely because it is not now, nor has it ever been, about brute strength or political power or the accumulation of riches. That’s how we think of power, sinful as we are. But the Gospel of the Hen is all about sacrificial love. It’s about putting yourself between the slobbering foxes of this world and those least able to protect themselves.
That’s what Jesus did. That’s what any mother would do.