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Consider the Birds

The Hen

Scriptures: Psalm 91, Matthew 23:37-39

So, we come at last to the final feathered friend in our summer sweep of biblical birds.  There are surely a bunch that have been overlooked, but I think we’ve done pretty well.  In case you missed a few, let me remind us of where we’ve all been:

We started this series with the sparrow.  That was back at the church picnic in June.  We only got about half that service in, though.  It’s the first time I’ve ever had a sermon called on account of rain.  But if sparrows are your bird, you’re in luck because that reflection is up on the website with the others, so you can still check it out.

Otherwise, we’ve managed to keep the roof closed on Sunday mornings, so the rest of this summer’s birds did indeed come home to roost. 

We looked at the pigeon, the goose, the quail, the ostrich, the raven, the vulture, the rooster, and now finally the hen.  Our scriptures are a veritable aviary of feathers and flight.

The fun part about these services, for me, has been the chance to spend some time considering the birds themselves.  Marvelling at these brilliant and amazing, sometimes very strange, and sometimes very ordinary, creatures.  I’ve enjoyed looking at their pictures and listening to their sounds.  And more often than not, considering the bird before us has opened up the scriptures in new and profound ways.  A different angle on a familiar story.  An image that takes on new meaning when we stop to imagine what is being described.  It makes me wonder what other revelations might be waiting for us in scripture, in the world, in our lives.  Waiting for us to stop, and look and listen, and consider what we find before us.

So we wrap up today with the hen. 

Hen for web

Like the rooster last week, not an exotic bird.  In fact, among the most common kinds of birds in our daily experience.  Especially if we count the hen in its butchered and prepared form.  Most of us know that kind of bird better than any other.  The hen is a very common bird, but also a unique bird within the scope of the biblical aviary.  Of all the feathery flock that we’ve considered this summer, the hen is the only bird that Jesus uses to describe himself.  “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” 

The imagery of shelter under the wings of God is not new here in Matthew.  There are lots of scriptures that talk about God’s care and protection using the image of God’s wings.  We’ve heard one of them from Psalm 91 already, but there are no shortage of others, especially in the Psalms and the Prophets:

“All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36)

“In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass” (Psalm 57)

“Let me abide in your tent forever, find refuge in the shelter of your wings” (Psalm 61)

“For you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy” (Psalm 63)

“He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Psalm 91)

These wings are a beautiful image of safety and assurance.  God’s presence and protection, wings that gather us in and hold us close, keeping us safe from the battering of enemies and the storms of life.  But what kind of bird is attached to those wings?  What is the Psalmist imagining over and over again in moments of fear and despair?  What creature keeps coming to mind in these cries for help and protection?   Could it be a hen?

hen with chicks for web

And why not?  The hen is a wonderful figure of maternal care.  The mother who gathers her chicks, keeps them close, huddles them behind her wings and faces the danger on their behalf.  What more could we ask for in times of distress? 

The one time that Jesus compares himself to a bird, he turns to the hen.  This seems worth paying attention to.  So, what do we discover about Jesus when we consider this bird?  Jesus points us towards the hen, how might the hen point back to Jesus?

Well, picking up where we left off last week with the rooster might be a good place to start.  Wendy suggested that Peter’s bird reflects a certain cocky, macho culture that Jesus’ disciples seemed stuck within.  Over and over, these squabbles and cock-fights about who will be the greatest.  And Peter himself boasting with great confidence that even if all others shall deny Jesus, he never would.  But the rooster announces Peter’s night of betrayal, and shatters his delusions of strength and greatness. 

It will not be the way of the ring or the battlefield.  It will not be the way of domination, crowing victory over the body of a vanquished opponent.  Jesus steps out of the ring and offers himself to the world in love and vulnerability.  Peter will have to do the same before he can take up his calling as a leader in the fledgling church.  He will have to confront his failure and his brokenness, let go of his visions of power and glory.

But if not the rooster, wired to fight for his place at the top of the heap, then what?  Well, Jesus says, consider the hen.  Not the barnyard alpha male, but a mother with her chicks.  A mother who gathers her brood to herself at the sign of danger, sheltering them under her wings, hiding them behind her own body offered as a first line of defence.  That is what Jesus longs to be for the children he so loves. 

If you push too deep, of course, these images and metaphors quickly break down.  Hens can be plenty vicious themselves, especially when a bunch of them gang up on a common enemy.  It might be a dangerous intruder, but it could also be another hen or even one of their own chicks.  And roosters are no doubt more than just macho fighting machines. 

But as a counter-image to so much that we might expect, Jesus’ reference to the mother hen is still striking.  Especially as it frames his final descent into Jerusalem to be arrested, tried and executed.  Looking over the city, he laments for all these children whom he longs to draw to himself - to gather under wings of healing and mercy.  But they have not been willing.  They will not rest in this shelter, instead they will turn on Jesus with a blind fury.  And Jesus will stretch out his wings, but they will be nailed to the arms of a cross.  The mother hen, offering her body, ready to die for the sake of her chicks.

Of course, most of the time we refer to hens by another name.  More commonly, the hen just gets called a chicken.  And as it turns out, this name is a pretty straightforward insult.  Especially from the perspective of a cock in the ring.  Nobody wants to be a chicken.  A chicken is a coward, a crybaby, a weakling.  All it takes is a few “bauk bauk bauks” on the schoolyard to reduce a child to tears or convince them to do something truly unwise.  People can be merciless to each other, especially when someone doesn’t seem to fit in or live up to cultural expectations. 

The mother hen on the cross also becomes a chicken.  Beaten, mocked and spit upon, derided by all who passed by.  “If you are the son of God, come down from that cross!”  “He saved others, but he can’t save himself!”  “Let God deliver him if he wants to!”  See, you are no king but a small, weak man on a cross.  Bauk, bauk bauk, baukauk!

How did chickens get such a bad name?

I wonder if it’s because they are just so utterly domesticated.  At least roosters still have enough of the wild asian jungles of their ancestors in them to put on a good fight.  But hens – chickens - have been made so thoroughly into animals of human captivity.  We raise them, breed them, eat them and take their eggs.  These days especially, in the throes of modern factory farming, most chickens don’t ever see the light of day.  Crammed into barns, hovering over conveyors, biological machines for the production of eggs.  And those bred for their meat are engineered to grow at breakneck speed, becoming so obese in a matter of weeks that many cannot walk. 

But even the chickens that you find running free on small family farms or maybe urban backyard coops - they are still just chickens.  Scratching the ground and pecking away at the feed their keepers provide.   Their eggs whisked off every morning and their reproduction carefully managed.  They are fully domesticated.  Their homes and their survival linked to human partnership. 

Could it be that in Jesus, God chose to become domesticated and live among us?  God chose to make a home with us, to link God’s own life to ours, to join with us in a common existence.  As the great hymn in Philippians puts it, Christ though in the form of God, emptied himself, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). 

Domestication is really a kind of partnership.  Animal species that have become domesticated in human communities have done so over the years because there are obvious advantages for survival.  Food, shelter, human protection.  And these adaptive relationships have led to some profound and beautiful connections between the human and the animal worlds.  But domestication is also a movement of profound vulnerability.  An open invitation to mistreatment, abuse and misunderstanding.

And there is no doubt that we have had our way with Jesus over the years.  We have domesticated him, domesticated God, to a troubling extent.  We have made Jesus over in our own image.  Whitewashed, sterilized, compartmentalized and packaged for easy consumption.  We have enlisted Jesus for our own pet projects, to further our own shifting interests.  A safe, house-trained, inoffensive Jesus.

Consider this picture. 

Sallman head for web

For how many is it familiar?  This is one of the most common images of Jesus floating around North American Christianity.  It’s been reproduced more than five hundred million times, on calendars, posters, wallet cards and pasted to the walls of Sunday School classrooms.

It was created by a devout Christian advertising illustrator named Warner Hallman for the cover of a magazine.  A portrait made to be marketable, to be attractive and readily consumed.  A Jesus for the modern age.  Hallman’s Jesus is perfectly domesticated.  Clean, attractive, out of any historical context, and pretty clearly white.  In a study conducted in the 1990’s, respondents to a survey answered overwhelmingly that they liked Hallman’s portrait because it shows just what Jesus looked like. 

That’s the risk of the relationship.  Of coming close enough that people can get their hands on you, whether in violence or more subtle manipulation.  We might find ourselves longing for a wilder God.  One less conformed to our needs and sensibilities.  A God who confronts us with darkness and mystery, with awe and wonder, with a vision that disrupts our settled domestic life.  And that God is there, ready to be found when we have eyes to see.

But still God insists on coming to us. 

Mosaic for web

God chooses to enter our world.  To live near us and among us.  To share our community and our experiences.  To cultivate the kind of intimate relationship that cannot be done at a distance.  It’s a movement made out of love, though often received with scorn and violence, and certainly with misappropriation.  What kind of God would do that?  What kind of God would become weak flesh and blood, tucked up in a swaddling blanket?  What kind of God would submit to human form and its limitations?  What kind of God would submit to human judgment and misunderstanding?  What kind of God could you possibly crucify like a common criminal? 

A weak and useless God, if a God at all.  A chicken God.  “Bauk, Bauk, baukauk!”

And yet, this chicken God shelters us under wings of mercy – even when they’re stylized for mass consumption or spread on the cross.  This chicken God offers his body for our protection and for our nourishment.  This is my body, broken for you.  My blood, shed for you.  Do this, every time you eat and drink together, in remembrance of me.  The shelter of God’s wings is also a place of receiving what we need, of being fed by God and filled with good things. 

If a chicken is an insult, it is even moreso a foodstuff.  We first know chickens as something to eat.  And we do eat them, in astounding quantities.  North Americans eat almost twice as much chicken on average, as either beef or pork.  The go-to versatile protein, farmed aggressively to meet our voracious appetites for meat.

The mother hen, chicks gathered under her wings, will likely as not end up on the butchers table one day.  This is my body, broken for you.  Jesus feeds us from his own body.  The bread of life, the holy gifts that enter us into the very life of God among us. 

We have domesticated Jesus for consumer culture, but his invitation truly is to come and be fed.  Not by processed nuggets or slick and appealing marketing, but from a body broken for us.  To be fed through God’s own life, offered to be shared.  Fed so as to know the God domesticated among us, to know grace and mystery and wildness transformed into something we can see and taste.  Fed so that we might know the shelter of wings that gather us in and hold us together.

Christ, the mother hen, become chicken for us.  Taking all of our scorn, our taunts, our violence, our misunderstandings, our hunger and our stubborn unwillingness.  Bearing them on the cross with outstretched wings.

This ridiculed chicken is the bearer not of cowardice, but of hope.  This mother hen offers everything, with unbreakable love.  Sharing gifts that cannot be thwarted by any abuse of domestication.   Through death, Christ will rise again.  And our ordinary, human, domestic life will be carried with him into the very heart of God.  God’s home with us.  Our home in God.   Refuge in the shelter of God’s wings.

Amen.