Sly foxes, mothering hens: A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, 2018

Another horrific massacre. Another white supremacist taking aim at worshippers. We’ve seen it at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, now the majhids in Christchurch, New Zealand as faithful muslims gathered for Friday prayers. The white supremacy and islamophobia that is so prevalent in our society is a worldwide phenomenon, flamed by social media and by politicians seeking to amass power and wealth by stoking fear, hatred, and anger. And too often, far too often, the hatred and white supremacy are coupled with a Christianity that is shaped more by nationalism and hatred than by the teachings of Jesus.

To repudiate such hatred and violence, to repudiate the dehumanization and demonization that underlie such acts, to reiterate where we stand, to proclaim a gospel of peace, love, and welcome are more necessary than ever, even when our words and message fall on ears deafened by hatred.

It’s worth pointing out that as followers of Jesus our allegiance is always first foremost to him, not to any institution or nation or cause that may want to claim us. As Paul writes in the letter to the Philippians—a city which was a Roman colony, populated by former soldiers, “our citizenship is in heaven.” We may want to interpret this only spiritually, but in the first century, and in the twenty-first, to use such language is challenges us to reflect on whether we put Jesus first, or instead put our nation, the color of our skin, or our political allegiances.

As a congregation, as people of God, it is not enough to shake our heads in dismay at the hate and violence in our world, it is not enough to offer our thoughts and prayers, we must take action, individually and together to challenge the culture of hate and white supremacy that is spreading in our nation and throughout the world, we must work more diligently, more urgently to confront the hatemongers. There are concrete ways of taking action. Later today, as our luncheon series of conversations around racism continues, we will learn things we can do when acts of racism are occurring. I hope many of you will participate. Next Sunday, at 2 pm, at a location yet to be determined, there will be a community forum on white supremacy—we will share details as we receive them.

We may think such events can’t take place here but the reality is that the prevalence of such hatred, and the easy access to assault weapons, means that no place, no community is immune from the violence. The ubiquity of social media, the normalization of hatred and white supremacy, make us all susceptible.

For us, the question is how our tradition, how scripture and our understanding of Jesus Christ can offer us resources not only to combat the hatred and violence in our midst, but also to offer what we believe to be a faithful interpretation and witness to Jesus Christ when too often our faith seems to used to foment hatred and violence, not peace, justice, and love.

On the surface, our gospel reading may not seem to lend itself to assisting in that project. A brief set of sayings which Luke moves from their location in Matthew where they are connected with Jesus’ teaching in the temple in the days leading up to his arrest and crucifixion.

There’s a lot here for us to consider but one thing that strikes me is the juxtaposition of the fox and the chickens. Jesus calls Herod a fox. For Luke, Herod plays a significant role as an opponent of Jesus. It’s not just that Luke locates Jesus, and John the Baptist chronologically in connection with the reigns of members of the Herodian dynasty; various of the rulers are also significant actors in the story.

So here, we should understand Herod as a representative of Rome, of the imperial opposition to Jesus’ message. Foxes are commonly understand to be crafty, sly, so on the one hand, Jesus is praising Herod for his ability to negotiate the difficult terrain of Roman power. At the same time, foxes are predators, seeking out prey wherever they can find it; and in our cultural memory, there’s no place where foxes are more expected than henhouses.

Is it coincidence that Jesus uses the image of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings to describe his feelings for Jerusalem?

As we continue to struggle with the rise of hatred and violence in our nation and the world, may we have the courage of Jesus to confront and name it, and the vulnerability and love to support and stand with those who are its victims.It’s quite remarkable. In these few verses, we see two very different sides of Jesus—perhaps even two very different aspects of his preaching, and by extension, our own witness in the world.

In the first, we see Jesus standing up to Herod, naming him and the evil he perpetrates. But even when confronted with the threat to his life, Jesus reminds his listeners that Herod has no real power over him, that he will continue to preach the good news, continue to heal people and to cast out demons. His fate, and his message, his life, is not dependent on Herod’s actions.

And then there’s the other image—a maternal, vulnerable image of a hen gathering her chicks to protect them. For all the power Jesus had, as we see on the cross, he gave up that power, offering up himself as a demonstration of God’s love, a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Like a hen shielding her chicks underneath her wings, the arms of Jesus stretched out on the cross embrace the world with his love.

I wonder whether we might take courage in Jesus’ example here, whether we might see in his words and actions direction for our own lives as we make our way through the world. To challenge the evil powers of this world, to challenge the systems of violence and oppression that threaten the most vulnerable, and to challenge those systems with courage, ferocity, and resolve.

Even as we do that, to remember the motherly tenderness of the image of the hen and her chicks, and to offer ourselves with vulnerability and love in protection and support of those who are the weakest and most vulnerable, to put ourselves in harm’s way for them. May our courage and vulnerable love be a witness to the world in these dark days.

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