I want to tell you about a mother hen. My beloved friend Chris lives in Ithaca, N.Y. and has worked, for years, at the Farm Sanctuary in nearby Watkins Glen. One day, she went to a local feed and farm store. It was the “chick days” and, of course, she had to have a look. There were 13 little puffs of chick magic in a wire-bottomed cage. Chris was alarmed to see that one of the baker's dozen was face down and very clearly not doing well. She asked to be given the fledgling so she could take him to the Cornell Vet school. There, the amazing Dr. DeMatos wasn’t able to save the chick, but did humanely euthanize the little being. Chris went back to the store and asked to purchase the remaining 12. After some days of negotiation, 6 remaining chicks were finally released into Chris’s tender care.
So began her journey of raising 6 bantam chickens . . . in her spare bedroom. They grew, were healthy, and Lola----was a sweet little lemon chiffon chick who soon began sprouting snowy white feathers. When it was warm enough, in late May, and the chicks could be out from under their heat lamp, Chris and her partner Karen would take them outside so that they could begin to explore the grass, bugs, and dirt, and learn to dust-bathe. Soon, however, Chris realized that Lola wasn't keeping up with her siblings. She would peep an alarm type call, and the other chicks would all scurry back to her. A day or so later, she stopped eating.
Chris made another trip to the Cornell Vet school, this time with little Lola. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but gave her an antibiotic and she resumed eating. She seemed back to normal until she began staggering when she walked. Chris suspected Lola was having a neurological reaction to the medication and stopped the antibiotic. Soon, Lola lost all ability to walk. It is not surprising that Karen and Chris began creating ways to help Lola still be a chicken..
Chris used a backpack to take Lola to and from work safely, and a dog stroller so that the chicken would be safe and contained while Chris was out on the farm working.
Using an old metal music stand and some canvas, Chris fashioned a sort of sling so that Lola could be cradled somewhat weight-bearing, but also supported. They filled a kitty litter box with dirt so that Lola could dust-bathe and eat and continue to learn to be a chicken.
Over time, Chris became Lola's legs. Lola went to work and social gatherings with Chris. She sat on the kitchen counter in her backpack while Chris made dinner. This is a photo I took of Chris and Lola at a picnic we were attending in upstate NY. Chris and Lola were virtually inseparable. And, oh: that little chick that once fit in the palm of Chris’s hand . . . became her heart.
One day, Karen put Lola down outside, near the coop filled with other chickens. Karen left Lola for only a minute to go inside to change her clothes. In that blink of an eye, a hawk swooped down and snatched Lola away.
Immediately, Chris, devastated, began searching for Lola. Knowing that a hawk takes its prey to a secluded spot, she scoured the area, begging and pleading for any deity to help her find Lola alive.
Soon, realizing that Lola was dead, she began to pray that she would find her remains. Logically, there was no reason for Chris to have ever been able to find Lola . . . but it was as though a voice told her to go back into the brush, down the road a bit from the house. There, she found Lola’s carcass.
It was probably not any comfort to Chris but, because of Lola, the other chickens on the property were spared. Chris did find comfort, however, in the sentiment of a friend who said, “Lola did not live the life of a chicken. But her death was a chicken's death.” Chris, in her grief, began to recognize that Lola’s time on this earth had been fulfilled. In her memory, Chris had Lola’s image tattooed on the inside of her arm.
Chris, the nurturing mother hen, had given Lola as good a life as was possible. Lola, the vulnerable and seemingly powerless lame - chicken had lost her life and the brood in the henhouse had been spared.
The image of Jesus as a mother hen (as reflected in our scripture for this Sunday) may not be one all of us would have chosen. Why couldn’t Jesus have used, as a metaphor for himself, the image a lion or a grizzly bear, or even a hawk? Chickens don’t have a lot in the way of defenses: no sharp teeth or claws; not even much of a beak. Surely there is a better analogy, something, perhaps that could lash out and destroy the enemy. And yet, this image of a mother hen with puffed out feathers sitting with chicks beneath her warm body is how Jesus describes himself. The power of love and courage over and against the power of teeth and claws.
In a world dominated all too often by “might makes right” and appetites honed to “devour the enemy,” Jesus’ metaphor seems, unsatisfactory; with feathers flying, chicks scrambling for cover, it looks as though the fox has won. And, we know, it’s all about “winning.”
I love what preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says about this text: [The hen] had refused to run from the forces, and she had refused to become one of them. Having loved her own who were in the world, she loved them to the end. She died a mother hen, and afterwards she came back to them with the teeth marks on her body to make sure they got the point: That the power of foxes could not kill her love for them, nor could it steal them away from her. They might have to go through what she went through in order to get past the foxes, but she would be waiting for them on the other side, with love stronger than death.
Brown continues: I have never really thought about the church as a mother hen, but I am thinking about it now. The church of Christ as a big fluffed up brooding hen, offering warmth and shelter to all kinds of chicks, including orphans, runts, and maybe even a couple of ducks. The church of Christ planting herself between the foxes of this world and the fragile-boned chicks offering herself up to be eaten before she will sacrifice one of her brood. The church of Christ staying true to whose body she is, by refusing to run from the foxes and refusing to become one of them.
Luke tells us that Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, grieves for the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it . . . . The Gospel writer Luke mentions “Jerusalem” ninety times in his story: however, there is no previous account in Luke of any ministry in Jerusalem. For Luke, Jerusalem is the theological center of the universe; because of this, it needs to be memorialized that the action of God happens but is rejected — right there in Jerusalem.
Jesus, having just been warned about Herod’s plan to destroy him, looks out on the the Holy City and sees that interstitial gap between Divine desire and human unwillingness. Take a moment, if you will, to visualize that familiar image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo, God's and Adam's fingers almost touching. That space in-between is what Jesus grieves . . . .
Jesus laments, seeing that cleft in that iconic city, this city, every city. In his grief, he longs to occupy that space, to be like a mother hen with her fragile chicks beneath her wings. As he makes his way into Jerusalem — the city that will devour him — he will indeed fill that hollow space and it will overflow with his wondrous love.
All too often, the church is so consumed with self-preservation that it fails to be the church of Jesus Christ; the church willing to offer up itself in order to protect others; the church willing to be devoured for the sake of the chicks.
As we hold in our hands the weak, the sick, and the vulnerable, may we feel their heartbeat as our own. As the church, may we seek to live not as the world lives but, rather, as Christ lived, for the sake of the fragile, suffering, pariahs of the world. May we gather up all those who long for protection as well as those who need it but may not yet recognize their need. May the church become the the beating heart that fills the empty space. May we in this place, assemble beneath our warm bodies, all who come near, lest we forget that, nailed up there on the cross, Jesus gathers us all in under God’s wings.