March 13, 2022
Second Sunday in Lent
Today is the second Sunday in Lent, and our Lenten theme this year is “Journey with Jesus.” Every year the lectionary focuses on one of the three synoptic gospels for most of the Lenten season, and this year, the passages come from Luke. Luke, more than any other gospel, presents Jesus’ ministry as a journey. The journey narrative begins in Luke 9:51, when Jesus “sets his face toward Jerusalem,” and continues through chapter 19:27, when Jesus is ready to enter the city on Palm Sunday.1
This passage takes place on the way to Jerusalem, and it gives us the wonderful and unusual image of Jesus as a mother hen. There are several passages in the Old Testament that depict God sheltering people under wings, providing refuge and protection from danger.2 But nowhere else do we find a hen mentioned specifically. Why did Jesus choose this image? Would it not have been more appropriate, more fitting of our idea of the divine, if Jesus had said, I long to gather them under my wings like an eagle? Why did Jesus choose a mother hen? If we think this was just a casual comment, an offhand remark, we will miss the point of the passage. Jesus was on the road to Jerusalem. And everything he said and did on this journey provides a message about his ministry and his purpose.
The passage begins with some Pharisees coming to warn Jesus about Herod. Scholars have differing opinions about whether the Pharisees were sincere in their warning or whether this was a feint to get Jesus out of their territory. But the news they brought was true: Herod did indeed want to kill Jesus. Herod was obsessed with power: holding tight to it and eliminating anyone who might be a threat to it. Herod had already murdered John the Baptist. In chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel, Herod had notice of a new threat: this Jesus was performing miracles and attracting followers; some said he was John raised from the dead! So Herod began to fix his eye on this new target.
Jesus knew this. When the Pharisees came with their warning, Jesus told them to go back to that “old fox” with a message. Jesus’ calling Herod a fox had the same kind of connotation as in our day. Foxes were considered to be sly and sneaky; a danger to smaller creatures.
Jesus knew that the fox was out to get him, and yet, rather than fleeing, he went on toward Jerusalem to complete his work. Rather than running away, Jesus was walking right into Herod’s realm! As one person pointed out, outside of Jerusalem, one could be “on Herod’s enemy list, but out of his crosshairs.” In Jerusalem, however, “Herod’s hatred and his ability to kill [were] one.”3
Despite threats and warnings, Jesus had his own timeline. He would go to Jerusalem, the city that killed the prophets, but he would not enter the city until the time was right for the people to proclaim, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” That triumphal entry, Jesus well knew, would end with the same crowds crying, “Crucify him.” His reference to the third day foreshadowed his resurrection, when his redemptive work would be completed. But in the meantime, he was on the way; his destination was Jerusalem.
So Herod was the fox. And what was the fox’s chief prey, then and today? Chickens and their chicks. There is a reason for the old saying, “Don’t let the fox guard the henhouse.” Foxes and hens are not friends. And when under attack, the mother hen will go to great lengths to defend her children.
To love and care for children is a universal value. This passage seems fitting this morning, when we have had a baptism. The sacrament of baptism reminds us of God’s love for all of God’s children, and it calls us to make solemn vows of care, nurture and prayer. Healthy humans have a natural instinct to care for and protect infants and children, who are small and vulnerable. And humans are not the only species who do this. Animals have instincts to care for their young. The people of Jesus’ day would have been very familiar with this sight: hens protecting their chicks from predators. If you have ever been around chickens, you have seen what they do when danger approaches. The mother hen will make herself as big as possible, spreading out her wings to frighten away the predator, and then she calls her brood with a unique cry, gathering them under her wings, so that if all else fails, if the predator does not turn away but springs forward, she will take the brunt of the blow.
“How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” Jesus said.
As I was studying this passage, I came across an article that David Lose, former president of Lutheran Seminary, wrote several years ago, and it captivated me. The article was titled, “Courage and Vulnerability.” Lose talked about two kinds of courage: one, a spur of the moment action like pushing someone out of the way of oncoming traffic, and the other, he wrote, “displayed not simply in a single moment ... but in anticipating a significant, daunting, or even frightening challenge and not turning away from it but rather meeting it head on. This [kind of courage is] a matter of character...forged when one chooses to accept “challenges and responsibilities that one could avoid. It is this second kind of courage that Jesus displays” in this passage, he wrote.
What is so striking about the courage Jesus has is that it is a courage that intrinsically requires him to be vulnerable. Like the mother hen, he knows that stretching out his wings opens him to deadly attack. David Lose said, “It’s an image of unparalleled vulnerability.”4
On our Lenten Journey with Jesus, this stop outside of Jerusalem sends two strong messages. Jesus’ image of the hen gathering her brood shows us his great love for God’s children. And seeing Jesus’ love and vulnerability means that we---who are called to imitate him, commanded to take up our own cross and follow him—that we must have the same kind of love and vulnerability for others.
David Lose’s article about “Courage and Vulnerability,” was written in 2016, but as I read it, I could not help but think of Ukraine. Story after story of people who have shown inconceivable courage and vulnerability. The eighty-year-old man who lined up to join the Ukrainian army. He carried with him only a small case, containing two t-shirts, one pair of pants, a toothbrush, and some sandwiches for his lunch. When asked why, at his age, he was doing this he replied, “I am doing it for my grandchildren.”5
The unnamed man who stood in front of a Russian tank with his hands outstretched; the tank came to a halt, and he knelt on the ground before it. Courage and vulnerability.6
Countless photos of families saying goodbye; mothers with little ones sheltered in their arms, taking them to safety, while the men stay to fight. Courage and vulnerability.
And of course, the intense and ever-present images of Ukraine’s President Zelensky, who refused to be evacuated, choosing to stay with his people: an indelible example of courage and vulnerability.
In times like this, we may wonder what we can do that would make a difference. We want to follow Jesus, to have his love and care for others, to stretch out our arms, offering protection and safety. But we feel helpless. Powerless to do anything that matters.
And yet, from the example of Jesus, from what we see in this passage in Luke’s gospel, we come to understand that there is a difference between being helpless and powerless. There is a difference between being helpless and powerless.
Steve Koski, a Presbyterian pastor in Oregon, wrote a Facebook post about our feelings of helplessness in these times. He shared that several years ago, his wife was very ill; he said, she “spent 5 weeks in the ICU on a ventilator precariously teetering on the edge of life and death.” An ICU nurse saw his fear and vulnerability and gave him this advice: “She said, ‘You won’t find the power of your love wishing things were different or hoping things might be better tomorrow.” She told him to do what he could do, like taking lotion and rubbing it on his wife’s hands and feet—acts of love and healing. “The...power of your love is right here with you in this room. Right now...It is true that you are helpless but you are not powerless,’” she said.
When we think of Ukraine, he wrote, “We may be helpless but we are not powerless. We can choose to bring as much love, heart and soul ... as we possibly can.”
He shared a photo with his post: a photo we probably all have seen, of strollers lined up at the border of Ukraine and Poland. Polish mothers left the strollers there for Ukrainian mothers, fleeing with their children in their arms.
Steve Koski commented on that photo: “One Polish mother who went to the border with a stroller, a thermos of hot chocolate and flowers to greet Ukrainian mothers said, ‘In the face of such horrific suffering, I didn’t know what to do. I did the only thing I could think of which was to open my heart and extend my hand. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Today, I choose love.’”7
In his journey to Jerusalem, Christ made himself helpless, but he was not powerless. In his very vulnerability was his power. To quote David Lose again in his article on Courage and Vulnerability, “It is precisely this characteristic that Jesus embodies...–that God becomes vulnerable to all the vicissitudes of human life by becoming one of and one with God’s children through the incarnation....Jesus’ choice of this image has helped me realize that it is our vulnerability that spurs our courage and nourishes our strength simply because you can and will do things for those you love that you simply would not or could not do for yourself. And so...Jesus marches to Jerusalem and embraces the cross that awaits him there out of profound love for the people around him, a mother’s fierce love that will stop at nothing to protect her children,” he wrote.8
What can we do to open our arms in courage and vulnerability, to “open our hearts and extend our hands,” in imitation of the One who opened his heart and arms for us? How can we, embraced by Christ’s love, shelter others under our wings? Our call and our challenge this Lent is to ask that question and to find the answers we can. Our call and our challenge this Lent is not to give in to helplessness, not to feel defeated. We can be both courageous and vulnerable, to be helpless but not powerless.
Last week, the halls of this church were filled with people who had fled violence and terror, seeking safety in the U.S. These recent Afghan refugees lined up patiently, holding infants in their arms, pushing little ones in strollers. I walked among them, trying to smile my welcome, since we did not speak the same language. They were here to register for English language and citizenship classes, in a quest to make a better life for themselves and their children. Through our partnership with BEACON for Adult Literacy, MPC has for many years held classes here, and some of our members volunteer. Currently there are 185 students meeting at our church, Bethel Lutheran and online; they are from fifty different countries and speak a variety of languages. Now, these newly arrived refugees are swelling the numbers. Nearly 150 registered this past week, which means the number of students in the spring session, which begins March 21, will double.
How will we open our wings to them? Will we find space for more classes on our campus? Will we find volunteers to help this fill this tremendous need? Will we have the courage to be vulnerable?
I want to leave you with one more thought from David Lose. He asked, “What if in this passage we see Jesus not merely acting courageously but embracing who he was called to be for the sake of those he loved, and thereby inviting us to be who we are called to be for the sake of those around us? What would our community look like if we decided together to live whole-heartedly, making room to name our vulnerabilities in a cross-shaped confidence that God is with us and has given us sufficient resources – including each other! – [not to] simply endure the challenges before us but to flourish as we discover that God meets us most reliably precisely in our places of vulnerability?”9
May that question sit with us this week, as we continue our Lenten journey, that we would imitate the love of Christ for the world. Amen and amen.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church