Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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.” ’
Who Needs to Worry About that Fox? Luke 13:31-35
Foxes and chickens seem to turn up in all kinds of interesting stories, don't they? Throughout Japanese, African, and Native American folklore, foxes cheat, swindle, and sneak their way through life, often much to the dismay of the chickens and an occasional rabbit. In most stories of foxes, they are portrayed, at the very least, as devious and sneaky varmints, and, at worst, chicken-devouring predators. And, chickens, well, in most stories, no one really wants to be the chicken. They usually aren't very smart or brave, and they often end up as dinner. Remember the story of Chicken Little? Foxy Loxy is smart and hungry. Chicken Little is foolish and afraid. Chicken Little becomes dinner. Chickens and foxes, animals very common in the lives of most rural folks, often show up in stories meant to teach us something. Their very commonness makes them very good metaphors for human behavior. Jesus, that great storyteller and teacher, was quick to embrace a metaphor that he thought would help him communicate more clearly with people. He knew the power of chickens and foxes. He knew that sometimes a sneaky, dangerous presence was waiting to gobble you up. He also knew that chickens aren't as helpless as you think. He was willing to put his faith in the chickens. You see, Jesus has work that he must do, and no sneaky, conniving fox was going to stop him.
We have come to the point in Luke where Jesus has been at work for a while. You will remember that Jesus had identified his mission as similar to that of the prophet Isaiah. He quoted the prophet: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." That is exactly what he proceeded to do. He began to bring about mercy and justice. He proclaimed the kingdom and prophesied the power of God. He healed chronically ill people. He cast out demon after demon. He argued with Pharisees and teachers of the law about what was more important, perfect observance of the letter of the law or perfect observance of the spirit of the law. He has also spoken about how dangerous it will be follow him and build the reign of God. And, he has learned that his own cousin, John, has been murdered by the king, Herod. John had angered Herod by calling out his hypocrisy. Like a fox in a trap, Herod lashed out and had him killed.
The thing is, even though Jesus knew that his work was dangerous, he did not go about his work deceptively. He did not sneak around and work behind the authorities' back. That's what a fox would have done. And, remember, Jesus was no fox. He was not just trying to survive on what he could steal or sneak away in the night. His work required him to be out in public, to call out the injustices, and to argue with the authorities. His vocation was loud, prophetic, and messy, not sleek, sneaky, and foxy. Jesus' prophetic work was that of the chicken... pecking, squawking, clucking, crooning, brooding to save her beloved chicks, the people of Jerusalem. His whole life has been oriented towards caring for others, towards carrying the truth to his people and sharing the reign of God. He was headed to Jerusalem, the place where the chicks were in most need of tending and the place where powerful foxes were lurking and would do most damage. It might have been safer to sneak in. But, Jesus was a chicken. And, best I can tell, chickens don't sneak anywhere.
The Pharisees don't really seem to understand the bravery of the chicken. They are afraid for Jesus, even though he has been a thorn is some of their sides. Regardless of their disagreements, at this point in Luke, they don't want to see him killed. So they try to warn him that Herod wanted to kill him. That would stop him from getting to Jerusalem and tending to his mission. Jesus understands that his calling is clear and he dismisses Herod as a fox. Scholars tell us that in Hebrew tradition, foxes are associated with destruction, and in Greek tradition, with cleverness. Jesus knows that a fox may be dangerous. Jesus' knows that they can sneak in a coop and easily snap a chick's neck. Lest we forget the horrible beheading of that other prophetic chicken, John. But, a fox won't have the last word here. God will. And, God is calling Jesus to cure people and to banish demons. Fox or no fox, only when he is done will he leave Galilee and travel to Jerusalem.
Jesus is so confident in his calling from God to go to Jerusalem that he is completely unconcerned about Herod. Jesus knows his people's history well. Jesus knows that he is a prophet and that prophets don't always fair so well in Jerusalem. The prophets Uriah and Zechariah were killed in Jerusalem. The king Manasseh killed a whole score of prophets in Jerusalem. And, is some Jewish lore, the prophet Isaiah, the one after whom Jesus modeled his own ministry, was killed in Jerusalem. He may not foresee a long life for himself once he reaches Jerusalem, but, he's going to make it to Jerusalem. So, Herod's threats mean nothing. As Rev. Pam Fickenshur said, “he is annoying and capable, but not terrifying.” Herod may be dangerous and powerful, but, not more powerful than the Holy Spirit. Herod's threats cannot stop Jesus. This fox will not find it's way into the hen house.
While Herod does not concern Jesus, the future of his people does. That's what he spent most of his energy talking about in this story. Jesus was really concerned about Jerusalem. Jerusalem, as the home of the temple, the building which housed the very presence of God, represented the whole people of Israel. As Jerusalem goes, so goes the nation. He must get there and share with him his good news of love and justice. He was afraid though. As we have already discussed, he knows his people's history. People do not always listen to prophets. He offers deep and sincere lament for his people's current state and also for a future that he fears, one in which they will ignore his words and refuse to build God's reign with him. He laments a possible future where the authorities will continue to hoard power and food, and the orphans and widows will go hungry, where the Spirit of compassion and grace at the heart of the Law would be lost in rigidity and self-righteousness. Jesus, who sees no future in the cunning of the fox, longs to offer the nurture and protection of the mother hen. He can build a future with compassion.
Jesus wants to brood over Jerusalem with a hen's fierce love and protection. Following Jewish tradition that sometimes describes God as a Mother (be it a mother eagle in Deuteronomy, a mother bear in Hosea, or a mother who has given birth and is nursing her child as is found in Isaiah), Jesus describes his relationship to Jerusalem this way: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" Jesus understands his Divine work as that of nurture and protection. Jesus will not beat his people into submission, as the tyrants of the empire do. Instead he offers the fluffed up, puffed up clucks of the mother hen, watching and gathering her chicks safely under her wing, nurturing them into the people God was calling them to be. This mother hen who would gladly, instinctively, put herself between the fox and her brood. She is vulnerable to violence, but willing to risk her own body to save her chicks. Even as Jesus knows his prophetic role puts him in harms way, he is willing to risk his life to tend to the needs of his people. With this one lovely brooding hen image, Jesus has reminded us that the core of call of the prophet is not anger or self interest, but sacrificial love. The work Jesus is called to is love, not self-preservation.
In our own world of sleek foxes and treacherous rulers, this fat mother hen is a welcome sight. Who would have expected that a chicken would turn up as an image of courage and love? I guess some farmers might. They've probably watched many a hen as she broods over and protects her chicks. I know that we once had a big brown hen who would have whooped anyone who bothered her chicks. I remember watching her as they gathered to rest: she would spread her broad wings wide and tuck the little ones in, ready to protect them from whatever came their way. We kids sure as heck didn't bother her because we knew that she would not hesitate to flog us if we got too close. I kind of like this chicken Jesus, who knows his love and work make him vulnerable, but follows his calling anyway. His ministry puts his life at great risk, but, he knows that to ignore his calling would be an even greater loss. So, he spreads his wings wide, inviting all of us chicks into his warm, sheltering embrace.
It is not easy to be a chicken. Chickens are so often targets for the strong, the cunning, and the hungry. In the end, the chickens my family had didn't fair all that well against our neighbor's dog. And, while that fox Herod was not able to hurt Jesus, an even greater predator awaited him in Jerusalem. We remember that Jesus, our Mother Hen, will still be a target for the sly and the conniving, even if he got away from Herod the fox. Jesus, like the mother hen, will only have his love and his own body to use to protect the one's he loves. He will not hesitate to use them. Once he gets to Jerusalem, there will be a point when all will seem lost, where the predators will have seemed to have made dinner out of our mother hen. But, the hen's sacrifice will not be the end of the story. Her love will be. We are here today as evidence of the power of that mothering, brooding, sacrificial love. We are the chicks. With a mother hen like ours, who really needs to worry about that fox?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources when writing this sermon:
Ruth Anne Reese: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2770
Scott Schauf: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1575
Arland J. Hultgren: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=509
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4530
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-2-c-courage-and-vulnerability/
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Pam Fickenscher talking about foxes: http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20100222JJ.shtml
David Lose's mothering images from the Hebrew Bible: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2460
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.