031322 Lent 2c Facing Foxes as Hens

The sermon begins at minute 23:20 of the video

Gen. 15; Philippians 3; Luke 13

     What do we do with our fear? The Bible keeps saying, don’t be afraid, but it usually says it to someone who is already afraid of something, and with good reason. God told Abram not to be afraid to die without leaving an heir; his age made that a reasonable fear. The Psalmist gave many reasons to be afraid: evildoers eating his flesh and the threat of war. The Philippians feared being judged for their association with other Christians who did shameful things. The Pharisees told Jesus he should fear Herod. We’re all afraid of something. The question is: what do you do with your fear?

       Those same Scriptures shed light on that question as they offer images of faith and courage, of patience and promises, of vision and mission. It’s hard to miss the parallels to what’s going on in Ukraine when the Psalmist writes, though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in God. We saw this in action on Wednesday when the Kyiv Classic Symphony Orchestra played a concert on the main plaza of Kyiv under threat of bombs or shooting at any moment. And we barely need our imagination to see President Zelensky as the hen facing the fox in this morning’s Gospel. It’s like he’s telling the world to send the president of Russia a message: Go and tell that fox for me. You may be more powerful than I am, but we Ukrainians will be doing the work of resisting and hoping until we finish our work. Their courage and fearlessness is inspiring the whole world.        

       Ukraine isn’t the only hero in this story. I’m also touched by the people of  Poland, whose generosity and courage inspire equal respect. The United States has a cap for refugees from Europe of 10,000 per year. Poland – about 10% of the size of the U.S. – has already received over a million Ukrainians. One Ukrainian journalist describes what she saw in a Polish border town: thousands of Ukrainians have escaped by train to this railway station. There, they are met by an enormous banner in front of its entrance that reads, in both Polish and Ukrainian: “You are safe here.” Dozens of Polish volunteers provide Ukrainian refugees with “everything for free”, as another sign says – food, water, clothes, phones with prepaid plans, accommodation, legal advice. While I was there, the volunteers mingled among the crowds, helping displaced Ukrainians find food, hot beverages and somewhere to sit. Bishops in Poland and western Ukraine admonished the faithful even before the war started. One bishop said, we are ready to welcome people in churches, provide them with food and water. We have organized first-aid courses for priests, religious and laypeople to care for the injured if necessary. Like the Psalmist wrote, though war should rise up against me, I put my trust in God.

       Rabbi Abraham Heschel said that the role of the prophet is to cast out fear. When our hearts are afraid, we’ve forgotten the plot of the story. God is not only the author of all things – the God of Genesis, Mother of all creation, the beginning Source. God is also the God of promise of things that will be, of new creation, of the future, of tomorrow. Jesus hadn’t forgotten the plot of the story. The Pharisees tried to get him to act on his fears in a threatening situation – “Herod’s on the hunt.” Jesus had neither the time nor the energy to expend on fear: Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now. Today and tomorrow I’m busy clearing out the demons and healing the sick; the third day I’m wrapping things up. He’s headed to Jerusalem where he would face a showdown with the powers of evil. Meanwhile, he’s preaching, healing, eating with sinners and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus knows that the greatest danger is not one that Herod would bring, but the danger of being diverted from his mission.

       The Ukrainians and the Polish people are helping

us understand the image of Jesus as a hen, revealing important truths about God and each other that we tend to overlook or deny. This image first became real for me when I was in Jerusalem learning Hebrew, and traveling around Israel studying its geography. One image that remains clearly in my mind is the view of Jerusalem from a small chapel on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. Called Dominus Flevit – The Lord wept – it refers to Jesus weeping over the city that had refused his ministrations.

       The altar is centered before a high arched window that looks out over the city. Iron grillwork divides the view into sections, as if it were a stained-glass window, except that the subject is alive – the city itself, with the Dome of the Rock in the bottom left corner and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the middle. On the front of the altar is a picture of what never happened in that city – a medallion with a mosaic of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. She looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies.

       But it never happened, and the picture doesn’t pretend that it did. The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin of today’s Gospel: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills 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! That is the way a hen loves. All she can do is open her arms. She can’t make the chicks take cover there. It is a posture of vulnerability –wings spread, breast exposed. A hen may be nurturing and protecting, but her strength is no defense against a fox. As one writer put it, Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will do is stand 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.

       That’s what happens in Jesus’ story, and today it’s happening in Ukraine. The fox slides up one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When the cry of the hen 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. We must face the truth that there are foxes and there are chicks in the world. Chicks need to be protected against foxes; there are no guarantees they will be. 

       Jesus laments that Jerusalem would not allow him to gather its children under his wings. But don’t be deceived: it was not the children who refused; it was the rulers – like Herod, the fox. Herod and Jerusalem won that battle. They succeeded in killing Jesus, the hen. But they lost the war. Jesus’ courage is still remembered, and still brings strength, while Herod is merely a footnote to the story. So today, Russia and its president are likely to win the war in Ukraine, though the jury is still out on that. But, have no doubt, the courage of President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people will be remembered and retold long after the current president of Russia is gone and forgotten.

       How do you want to be remembered? How will we respond, even when the war is nine time-zones away? I want to be more like the Ukrainians and the Polish. Defeat may come before victory. But hen-like love touches the soul of the whole world and becomes a force, an energy, that contributes to the eventual victory. As we sang last week, Love will be our Lenten calling, waking every closed, cold spirit, stirring new life deep within till the quickened heart remembers what our Easter birth can mean.