St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent (February 21, 2016)

Liturgical Color: Purple

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee

A Merciful Embrace

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

What a powerful image! In the face of Herod, a sly fox—poised, powerful, and threatening—Jesus speaks of himself in our gospel this morning as a hen—guarded, weak, and vulnerable. Even in our urbanized culture, we can't miss the great and shocking use of the contrast between the hunter and the prey. The fox seeks to destroy, the hen wants to be merciful. But we, the text tells us, were not willing.

When I went to the Holy Land, I saw on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, a small chapel called Dominus Flevit. The name—Our Lord Wept—comes from this reading from Luke's Gospel, which is one of two times he records Jesus' grief over the loss of Jerusalem. According to tradition, it was here that Jesus wept over the city that had rejected him.

Inside the chapel, the altar is centered before a high arched window that looks out over the city. Iron grillwork divides the view into sections, so that on a sunny day the effect is that of a stainedglass window. But this is a live scene. It's not some artist's rendering of Jerusalem, but the city itself, with the Dome of the Rock in the bottom left corner and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the middle. Twothirds of the view is the cloudless sky above the city which the grillwork turns into a quilt of blue squares.

Down below, on the front of the altar, is a picture of what never happened in that city. It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb resembles a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. There are seven of them, with black dots for eyes and orange dots for beaks. They look happy to be there. The hen looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies.

But like I said, it never happened, and the picture does not pretend that it did. The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin. Translated into English they read, "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!" The last phrase is set outside the circle, in a pool of red underneath the chicks' feet: You were not willing.

Luke's Gospel begins and ends in the temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah learns in the temple that he and Elizabeth will have a child. Mary and Joseph bring their own child there when the time comes. Simeon and Anna deliver their prophecies there, and Jesus returns when he is 12 years old to take his place among the teachers of Israel. All told, Luke mentions Jerusalem 90 times in his Gospel, while all the other New Testament writers combined mention it only 49 times. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Luke loves the place—so rich in history and symbol, so dense with expectation and fear. Jerusalem is the dwelling place of God, the place where God's glory shall be revealed (Isa. 24:23). When Jerusalem obeys God, the world spins peacefully on its axis. When Jerusalem ignores God, the whole planet suffers.

If the city were filled with hardy souls, the situation would be far less dangerous. Unfortunately, it is filled with pale yellow chicks and at least one fox. In the absence of a mother hen, some of the chicks have even taken to following the fox around. Others are huddled out in the open where anything with claws can get to them. And across the valley, a white hen with a gold halo around her head is clucking for all she's worth. Most of the chicks can't hear her, and the ones that do make no response. They no longer recognize her voice. They have forgotten who they are.

If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus' lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. And this is the most vulnerable posture possible—wings spread, breast exposed. But if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand. Mercy—waiting, expectant, yearning.

How odd that Jesus chooses to use the image of a hen. It's tough to find a biblical precedent for that. He might better have chosen the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea's lurking leopard? Or perhaps the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a mother hen inspires little confidence. No wonder some of the chicks decided to go with the fox.

But a hen is what Jesus chooses, which—if you think about it—is fairly predictable. He's always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He's always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks. Jesus won't be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands 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.

Which he does, as it turns out. He sneaks up on her one night while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see herwings spread, breast exposedwithout a single chick beneath her. It breaks her heart, but it doesn't change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand. Mercy, waiting, expectant, yearning. (partially adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor, "As a Hen Gathers Her Brood", The Christian Century, 2/25/86, 201)

Mercy. It is protection for offenders, enemies, or persons in one's power. It is kindness in excess of what may be expected or demanded by fairness. It is forbearance and compassion. The image of a hen gathering, protecting, nurturing, is not bad at all as one of abundant mercy, defiant mercy, steadfast and abiding mercy.

Fox versus hen. Hunter against prey. Judgment opposing mercy. A stark and striking contrast indeed.

A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded death.

"But I don't ask for justice," the mother explained. "I plead for mercy."

"But your son does not deserve mercy," Napoleon replied.

"Sir," the woman cried, "it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for."

"Well, then," the emperor said, "I will have mercy." And he spared the woman's son. (Luis Palau, Experiencing God's Forgiveness, Multnomah Press, 1984)

Sometimes the hen fares well with the fox.

Sometimes not. Herod dispenses what we expect from a ruler—judgment, justice in the sense that the world uses it. Jesus goes far beyond judgment and justice. As we acknowledge on Ash Wednesday, the proper judgment for our sins is not what we receive. We expect the fox, but we get the hen. Where judgment is just, mercy is offered. Where justice is deserved; mercy is received.

What a joyous relief! We know the dangers, and we know what we deserve. And still, the mother hen is extending her wings. She would rather give her life than leave her children abandoned to the wiles of the fox.

The wings of Jesus' mercy offer shelter beyond anything we could imagine. We homeless chicks are brought into the protection of a new home. Gathered into one, we chicks are no longer chicken. We believe that our mothering Lord is able to provide for us and keep us safe from the dangers that face us in a world filled with foxes.

And so we chicks who have come to depend on and trust in him live life in a new way not bound to control and fear, but free to tell others of the ultimate gift who was sent to gather us all under his wings and into God's arms. To be sure, the foxes of this world will always be with us. Prophet killing, unfortunately, is still abroad in our world; but we are forever welcome and safe under the shadow of the wings of our Lord. We have been given strength to live new lives in this world and offer the same to everyone we meet.

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!

In tears, our Lord stands, with arms stretched out and open, unwilling to give up on Jerusalem or us, offering mercy, solace, love, and new life. Are we willing? Are we willing to be embraced? And are we willing to offer this blessed embrace to others? Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.



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