A Hen in the Fox-House

Lent 2C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”  Yet, the people of ancient Israel, who for a thousand years since King David, prayed for God to re-establish the kingdom, could not open their imagination wide enough to recognize God’s answer to their prayers. The sprawling institutions of faith obscured their vision of the faith. The city ruled that fox, King Herod, would not give way to the New Jerusalem of the lamb, the little child, and the warm embrace of the mother hen.

I cannot sit in judgment of them. ‘History is loaded with examples of emperors, strongmen, and rulers who prayed at an altar as the pastor of their people, and then rose from their knees to unleash all the demons of Hell on the earth.’ (Diana Butler Bass).  We see this tired pattern playing out in Ukraine today. The autocratic, controlling style of Russia seeks to reassert itself over the more open, tolerant system of democratic pluralism.

Jesus enters upon this scene like a hen in a fox-house. It doesn’t look like a fair fight. Yet for all his obvious power, Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and the son of Herod the Great, seems to have spent much of his life running scared. Who can forget his birthday party when he told Salome he’d give her anything she asked for if she’d dance for him, and when what she asked for was John the Baptist’s head on a platter, he gave it to her because he was afraid of what might happen if word got around that he was a sissy and a chicken? (Frederick Buechner)

Leave it to God to turn the very thing no one wants to be into the highest virtue. Yet who among us doesn’t want to be taken under wing into a community of love and belonging?  What person doesn’t desire such safety and protection? Jesus calls us into a holding place of God’s love where we become residents of the New Jerusalem. We, like chicks, follow our mother hen into the shadow and valley of death and threats of violence.

Despite this, the history of Christianity, the religion of the Prince of Peace, is like the story of a Jekyll and Hyde struggle between the fox and the hen, a struggle between domination and communion. How many churches demand control and submission?  How many are focused on liberation and friendship? Jesus modeled the way of the hen. The domination structure of what became most of Christendom was a betrayal of Jesus himself.

This struggle isn’t exclusively Christian. It isn’t just in Ukraine. This skirmish is taking place in every major religion (and more than a few minor ones, too) on the planet right now. Theologian and Historian Diana Butler Bass comments, “In some places, the struggle has provoked violence and war. In other places, it is mostly a cold war. Occasionally, it seems a mere family squabble. Domination or communion? That is the structural crisis that animates most everything most everywhere in religion right now — and it is the only global frame that makes sense of it all” (Diana Butler Bass, War is Evil, The Cottage, 3/11/22).

Hoping against hope, Abraham believed he would become ‘the father of many nations’ although he was as good as dead already, (for he was about 100 years old) when he and Sarah finally had a child (Romans 4:19).  We hear an equally preposterous promise in today’s gospel. We must become like hens in the fox-house to enter abundant life. Face up to tyrants and bullies inside and outside the church by walking the way of the cross. We are to do this, not because this is Lent, or because Jesus told us, or because Jesus is the boss, and we should do it or else. We do this because Christ Jesus has shown us who God is, and thus, how the world works –how we work, and who we really are.

The truth of this gospel is supported by testimony from our daily lives and the natural world. Taste and see. An open-systems community, like the physical world itself, is based on relationships, not roles or duties but bonds of friendship, sisterhood (or brotherhood), respect, charity, forgiveness, and justice.”  (Ilia Delio, Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015), 124–125) “When we redirect our energy and attention away from our internal maelstroms and toward others’ needs, we are pulled toward wholeness and health. We are living in the Kingdom of God reality that fueled Jesus’ life and ministry.” Rick Lawrence, Executive Director of Vibrant Faith, “The Healing Power of Service,” Friday Thoughts, 3/11/22)

Researchers compared two approaches for undergirding self-worth, —one inward-looking and one outward-looking. The first approach focused on giving people self-image goals—”obtaining status or approval and avoiding vulnerability during social interactions.” They were asked to promote their positive qualities to others and avoid revealing their weaknesses—that is, to be like foxes. The second approach focused on “compassionate goals,” or “striving to help others and avoiding selfish behavior.” In other words, be like hens. They were asked to explore “making a positive difference in someone else’s life.” The result, according to the study’s authors, was that “participants reported higher conflict and symptoms on days that they most pursued self-image goals but noted higher perceived support and lower symptoms when pursuing compassionate goals.” In other words, hens feel more self-worth than do foxes.

As we deepen our relationship with Jesus, we extend ourselves, our time, our treasure, our wings to shelter those in need. Jesus reminds us: “God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). This drive to help others generates a burst of depression-fighting energy. Therese Borchard, founder of Project Beyond Blue, an online community for people who struggle with chronic depression and anxiety, recalls what psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger said when he was asked: “What would you advise a person to do, if that person felt a nervous breakdown coming on?” Menninger, she says, upended the expected response (“Go see a psychiatrist”) with this: “Leave your house, find someone in need, and do something to help that person.”

There is no community of love and belonging while we live everyday like foxes rather than hens.  All these thousands of years later, Jesus still laments over us.  Jesus calls us to find shelter in his embrace. “If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed … 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 cry wakens 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 feathers. It breaks her heart . . . but if we truly are [a living sanctuary of hope and grace] then this is how you stand (Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Century 2/25/86). See, we must become like hens in a fox-house. This is how we live. This is how we are most happy.  This is how grace lends support to our mental health. This is how we are free. This is how we enter the undying life of God.