Mama Jesus Or Jesus Is My Chicken
Luke 13: 31-35
I am completely fine with it if all you walk away with tonight is the thought that Jesus is your chicken.
It’s a gift from Jesus himself, this image of him as a mother hen and us as his baby chicks in need of protection. It’s an exclamation of longing, Jesus’ longing for us to come to him, to nestle into the warm safe place under his wing. Why don’t we use this divine chicken language more often?
He’s talking with his disciples and a few Pharisees approach to warn him that Herod wants to kill him. Jesus says, Go tell that fox Herod that I am busy casting out demons today and tomorrow and on the third day, too. But then I’m on my way from here (Luke 13: 31-33). Does that sound familiar to you – “third day”? It’s supposed to. It’s for us, the readers, and it’s supposed to remind us that Jesus was crucified and then, on the third day, resurrected. It’s a way of saying that Herod’s plan will eventually work – but so will God’s. The third day is when the story makes sense and God has the final word.
Anyway, Jesus tells the Pharisees that that old fox Herod will just have to wait for that day and while he’s in the middle of going over all the days and his plans for prophecy and healing, he mentions that he’ll be killed in Jerusalem eventually. And then, at the mere mention of the name Jerusalem, he completely sidetracks himself, like a lover who hears the name of his long-gone beloved, like a mother yearning for her children. He stops addressing the Pharisees, and talks to Jerusalem instead. He blurts out, with pain and longing, “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!” (Luke 13: 34).
I mentioned to y’all last week that my dad grew up on a farm. I called him this week as I was working with this passage. For those of us who haven’t been around chickens that much, there isn’t much to go on here. Jesus wants to gather us up under his wing. I wondered how often chickens do this and in what circumstances so I called to see what my dad could tell me about chickens. He said, “They’re dirty and they poop a lot.” When I explained why I was asking and reminded him of the story he said, “Any time it’s raining or overcast or the weather seems bad in any way, that’s what the hen does. She opens up her wings wide and shelters her chicks. She does it when she’s trying to hatch eggs, too. Just completely covers them up in her feathers.”
Since before the eggs are hatched, the hen is mothering them, sheltering them, protecting them. When the fuzzy little chicks are running around the barnyard in inclement weather she flaps open her broad mama wings and calls them back home again. This is the image Jesus applies to himself. It’s not like he was in a debate and got called a chicken and then made the best of it, bending the image to suit his own purposes. He starts the whole thing. He refers to Herod as a fox – sly, cunning, clever, a thief, chicken-hungry – and then continues the metaphor by calling himself the mother hen.
I am pretty sure that if any one of us in this room were writing the lines for Jesus, we would have chosen something fierce and fox-eating. Herod’s a fox, but I have a taste for fox meat, Jesus retorted. I’m an eagle/wolf/panther! Not a vulnerable mother animal with babies to protect. And if it had to be a mother with babies don’t you think we would have gone all mama bear on him? But Jesus gives us a chicken. Unglamorous, somewhat comical, not strong or fast. An ordinary squawking barnyard mama chicken.
Jesus is our chicken.
Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest and writer who lives on a farm in north Georgia and, I believe, has chickens there, has some insight on this image Jesus gives us. She says (originally “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood” in The Christian Century, 1995, referenced online at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=638, 2/19/13),
“If the city were filled with hardy souls, this would not be a dangerous situation. 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 taken to following the fox around. Others are huddled out in the open where anything with claws can get to them. Across the valley, a white hen with a gold halo around her head is clucking for all she is worth. Most of the chicks cannot 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. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”
They no longer recognize her voice. They have forgotten who they are – who their mother is. Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often I have yearned to gather you up underneath my wings…but you were not willing.
Remember what I said last week about trying to do everything ourselves? It would be tempting to rewrite this image and claim Jesus the panther as the one who protects us. It would be tempting to try to protect the chicken herself, since she is so flappy and foolish-seeming. It would be tempting to follow someone else or to fashion some other sort of god who better suits our needs, rather than accepting this Savior who turns the other cheek and embraces sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes, and who leads the way through death. It is tempting to long for God to be more like we think God should be.
Remember Jesus, poised on the hill above Jerusalem? Remember the moment when he interrupts his own train of thought to blurt out with messy love and longing Jerusalem, Jerusalem? That’s the God we get – one who is thoroughly familiar with longing and who, despite all of the ways we little chicks go off running in the wrong direction, continues to emphatically yearn for us to come back and snuggle under his wing. You want a different image, a different kind of god? God gets that – God had something different in mind for us, too.
And you were not willing….we were not willing. We go off half-cocked, like chickens with their heads…well, you get the point. We like the stealth and sleek fox. We admire his clever cunning. We are easily lured into thinking he won’t hurt us, that we are exempt from his voracious appetite for chicken meat. That’s how we start to think when Mama Jesus seems too exposed and vulnerable, too chickeny. How can we give our lives to someone like that? If not a panther, what about the fox then? How are we supposed to build our lives around the one who just stands there, open, jugular exposed, loving us like that?
How can we not?
We know that love is stronger than death. We know what happens on the third day. It ought to be easier for us to build a life around this than it was for Jerusalem, living before the tale was told. But it’s not, is it?
It makes no difference. It has always been and is still very hard to live this way. It’s why God keeps calling us, longing for us to come back to that embrace, where we can remember who we are again. Living after this tale has been told makes no difference in how hard this is for us. But it also makes no difference to God; it makes no difference in how God loves us. The same God who stood with tears and longing on the hill opposite Jerusalem, calling our names with arms open wide, is the one who is doing that right now. For you.
This is the God we follow. This is the God who is our home. This is the God who persists and perseveres in loving us, no matter how unlovable we sometimes are, no matter how stubborn, no matter how much we would rather be loved by a panther.
Jesus is your chicken but you can turn your back on Mama Jesus’ longing and try to follow or fend off the fox and the rain solo. Or you can run as fast as your teeny chick legs will go into that embrace. It’s raining but under those feathers it’s warm and dry and feels like home. Like Mom.
Thanks be to God!
©2013 Deborah E. Lewis