I have some show-and-tell here to share today, but first want to set us up a bit so we know what we’re looking at.
My first real encounter with the world’s complexities and brokenness came during the year some friends and I decided to take a year off of college and live in Atlanta. This was our first time ‘living on our own’ in the ‘real world’ and we were ready to make the most of it. The goal for the year was simple: attain salvation for ourselves from our naivette about life by getting jobs, learning how to cook, and figuring out how to live in a big city. And attain salvation for the city by getting involved in different ministries and helping out different people in need that we met. By the end of the year, we would have reached full adulthood, have helped save a troubled city, and thus be ready to finish our undergraduate studies.
As you may imagine, we didn’t quite reach either area of salvation – although we did do some growing up. We did discover beauty and grace present in the city, but we also discovered brokenness, violence, generational poverty, and racism. And we discovered that these problems weren’t going away any time soon. And it was disappointing for 20 yr olds to learn that. I guess we had figured that if we could open our arms wide enough, we could give the whole city a big hug, and everything would be OK. Maybe we’ve all had these times when our youthful idealism was deeply challenged.
I share this because there are similar themes going on in today’s gospel reading. We meet up with Jesus walking toward the broken, violent city, and we get a picture of how he holds together the ideal of the inclusive, loving embrace with the reality of the world as it is.
It starts off with a healthy dose of reality – a warning of a death threat put out on Jesus. Not all of the Pharisees were all that excited about what Jesus had been doing, but at least a few of them did have the love to warn him against going to Jerusalem.
Instead of staying in the northern Galilean countryside, Jesus had decided he was going to march on Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world that Herod controlled. More than any other Gospel, Luke makes this journey to Jerusalem an explicit part of his story. In Luke chapter 9, verse 51, after Jesus has already carried out much of his ministry in Galilee, Luke states that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Another interpretation of this reads “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” It is then understood that in the events that follow, Jesus is headed toward this particular destination. Luke reminds the reader throughout the next chapters about this. In Luke 13:22, nine verses before the reading from today, Luke states, “Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.”
The Pharisees sympathetic to Jesus’ cause see this as a tactical mistake and warn him to change course. Herod wants to take Jesus out as one diverting the hearts of the people away from loyalty to his regime. Jesus should keep doing his work on the fringes of society, not walk straight into the mouth of the beast. But Jesus appears to be as resolute as ever and his response does not fit well into the nice, buddy Jesus we sometimes imagine. Speaking of the political ruler of his time he says: “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 will finish my work. The “third day” was probably a common expression meaning ‘after a period of time.’ Jesus basically says, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing until I’m done. He won’t be deterred by political threats. In case we may think that Jesus is too caught up in bravado, he next makes a surprising move. He begins mourning. And his mourning has to do with his loving ideal that isn’t being realized in others. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it!” He then makes an even more surprising move, liking himself to a mother hen. “How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!”
Jesus is resolute in his march toward the city Jerusalem, but he also has set up a doomed scenario. Jesus the hen is walking right onto the turf of Herod the fox.
What I would like to share with you is this icon of El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero that Abbie and I have hanging up in our living room. I’ll pass this around in a bit so you can get a closer look. This is one of a number of contemporary icons by Franciscan brother Robert Lentz.
In the late 70’s El Salvador was on the brink of civil war with various death squads carrying out torture and assassinations across the country. Oscar Romero was specifically chosen to be archbishop because of his conservatism and lack of desire to have the church interfere in any way with political affairs. After a Jesuit priest who was a personal friend of Romero was murdered, however, he became an outspoken advocate of the poor who were being terrorized. He once wrote a letter to US President Jimmy Carter saying, “You say that you are Christian. If you are really Christian, please stop sending aid to the military here, because they use it only to kill my people.”
I don’t know if Robert Lentz had this passage from Luke in mind when he was creating this icon, but it is full of connections with the text. In the background, where you may expect angels in a traditional icon, there are two military helicopters hovering above a village with a barren landscape. Beneath one of the helicopters is a house on fire. The only people present are in the foreground, with Archbishop Romero holding a young boy with tattered clothing. Romero is looking much like a mother hen sheltering her children while the fox is wreaking havoc all around. The fate of this mother hen was the same as the fate of the mother hen in the gospel. Romero was assassinated on March 24th, 1980 while performing the mass in a small chapel.
I’ll pass this around for you to take a closer look at and if it doesn’t get all the way around before the sermon is over just keep passing it and the final person can come place it back up on the table here.
Jesus was quite aware of the dangers that awaited him. If Jesus knows he most likely won’t make it out alive, why does he keep moving forward? Is Jesus a compassionate mother hen, or just a crazy old bird? Given the forewarning and the opportunity to fly the coop, Jesus keeps walking toward Jerusalem.
For those who have ever asked why Jesus willingly walks toward his death, right into fox’s lair, you ask a worthwhile question. It’s a question theologians have been asking and writing about for quite a while now. Starting from the New Testament writers, the church has developed a whole language to try and talk about what all this means. The beliefs and doctrines that flow out of this are important, but they can only point us toward something that cuts much deeper – the experience of encounter and relationship that looks very similar to Romero holding a small child.
Here, in this passage, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem because he is madly in love with its people and its murdering leaders. A love that takes the form of one of the deepest expressions of love we know of – that of a mother for her children. He’s madly in love with these children who are destroying others through crucifixions, death squads, military occupation, and entrenched racism. He’s madly in love with these children who are destroying themselves through drugs, pollution, and suicide bombs. The hen is in love with all us chicks. The hen is even in love with the fox. The hen knows deep down that a fox is just a scared little chick having an identity crisis. And he’d like to gather everybody together under his wings because we’re all in God’s flock.
He’s in love enough with all this craziness we have come to call civilization that he walks right into the middle of all of it and keeps going until the same people he loves come to see him as a threat to all the things they hold dear and decide he needs to be eliminated. In the end everybody seems to agree that Jesus isn’t welcome. Of course this isn’t a surprise to Jesus, but it is a cause for mourning, which is exactly what he is doing here in this passage. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.”
As people of faith, we know that we must identify with both sides of this scenario. We want to find ourselves alongside Jesus, whose heart flows with love for his people. But we first must confess that we are also like Herod and the citizens of Jerusalem. In choosing to walk toward Jerusalem, which is really us, Jesus has shown us the extent of God’s love for us. We find ourselves in the middle of the violent city, with the experience of constantly being approached by one who wants to gather us together in a safe place. One who wants to forgive us for all of our violence and complicity with evil. A momma hen with her wings wide open to crawl under. This is where our true salvation begins to be formed. Much more than belief in any particular doctrine, it is accepting that we are being approached by one who loves us like a mother. Jesus saves us from being foxes by displaying clearly for us that all of our foxing around leads to death of innocent people. Jesus saves us by inviting us to take shelter under his loving wings and to grow up into mother hens who welcome others under our wings.
In looking at this icon of Romero with the helicopters posing as angels, and in listening to the daily news, it is clear that the fox is still on the loose. It has a way of living on even though Herod is long dead. But it is also true that our mother hen is alive and well. One of my favorite quotes from Archbishop Romero is “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the hearts of the Salvadoran people.” Jesus walks toward Jerusalem because he knows something about death that we can only barely imagine, something that stretches even beyond our youthful idealism. Death is not the end of the journey. However God chooses to grant it, there is hope for resurrection. The hens can’t beat the fox by killing him, but they can refuse to become foxes themselves and grow so numerous and emboldened that the fox gets worn out and goes back to the woods with his tail between his legs. Or maybe, one day, the fox will realize its just as much a little chick as all the rest of us and take off its costume and mask and join in under the embrace of the great Mother Hen.
If there is a word to end on here, it is a word of invitation, and it is this: My fellow little chicks, our mothering God is approaching us with arms, wings wide open, forgiving us for all the harm we have done each other, and inviting us to take shelter in her care.