Texts: Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35
Clarence Jordan was widely known as a dramatic and compelling speaker and storyteller. He is famous for having founded Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia – a pioneering interracial farming community in the deep South during the 1940s. In the 1950s and early 1960s he and his followers braved violent physical, legal, and economic reprisals in making their colony a success. Jordan is also famous for his translations of the New Testament into unvarnished modern American English. Of his writings, it has been said that the Gospel’s nitty-gritty comes through with bite and hope, speaking to racists, politicians, the rich and the poor, black and white, people of faith and people with little faith. His words are a “sun-drenched and sweat-stained realism that cuts across millennia to bring new relevance to Christian beliefs about humanity and God.”
Listen now to Jordan’s translation of our Gospel text for today, Luke 13:31-35.
Just then some church members came to Jesus and said, “You better clear out of here in a hurry, because Governor Herod wants to kill you.”
Jesus said to them, “Go tell that sly old fox that today and tomorrow I’m casting out demons and carrying on my healing work. The day after that I’ll be finished. You know, I’ve got to keep going today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, because it just isn’t proper for a prophet to get killed outside the state capital.
“O Atlanta, Atlanta, you who crush the life out of your people of God, and ostracize those who try to show you a better way, many a time I’ve wanted to bring your citizens together as a hen gathers her biddies under her wings, and you would have none of it. All right, your city’s future is left up to you. But I’ll tell you this: you won’t see me around again until you’re crying out, ‘Please, God, send us some dedicated leadership.’”
In the spirit of Clarence Jordan, let’s bring it a little closer to home.
“O North Carolina, North Carolina, you who crush the life out of your people – the elderly, the sick, the immigrant, the children, the poor – with your political gerrymandering, and ostracize those who try to show you a better way, many a time I’ve wanted to bring your citizens together as a hen gathers her biddies under her wing, and you would have none of it. All right, your state’s future is left up to you. But I’ll tell you this: you won’t see me around again until you’re crying out, ‘Please, God, send us some dedicated leadership.’”
Could a passage be any more relevant for our day? When we look at what’s happening in our world, in our state, how often do we lament, “Please, God, send us some dedicated leadership.” And Jesus is still saying: “Many a time I have wanted to bring your citizens together as a hen gathers her biddies under her wing but you would have none of it.”
On the western slope of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, sits a small chapel called Dominus Flevit. The name comes from Luke’s Gospel, which contains not one but two accounts of Jesus’ grief over the loss of Jerusalem. According to tradition, it was here that Jesus wept over the city that had refused his ministry.
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 stained-glass window. The difference is that this subject is alive. It is not some artist’s rendering of the holy city 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. Two-thirds 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 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.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “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.” Taylor goes on to say: “Given the number of animals available, it is curious that Jesus chooses a hen. Where is the biblical precedent for that? What about the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? What about the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a mother hen does not inspire much 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 pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is 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.”
This image of “protecting the chicks” reminds me of my childhood. I have shared with you before that in my home and church growing up, I didn’t know about Lent. It was not on my religious radar screen. But Easter, we would celebrate Easter full on. New clothes (my least favorite part), sunrise services followed by pancake breakfasts, corsages and flowers of all types, a big Easter service with lots of music, more food and, yes, Easter bunny presents. But in my home there was another tradition. On Easter morning, my sister and I would awake to find two baby ducks and two baby chicks in our bathtub. I have no clue how this tradition got started but what I do know is that every Easter morning I would run to the bathroom to gather my duck and my chick.
I would spend hours taking care of my brood of two. Shoe boxes would be turned into lush beds. Bigger boxes would be renovated to make space for my babies to play. I loved taking care of my babies. But inevitably the time would come when my duck and my chick could no longer live in my room and the bathtub could no longer serve as a duck pond. It was then that dad would drive me first to the local pond where my duck would be released into the care of the other ducks living at the pond, and then to the neighbor’s farm where my baby chick would join the other chicks. That day was always a hard day. I had to trust and have confidence that someone else would protect and care for my biddies. But it was never easy to have such confidence.
What is most interesting to me about our lectionary readings for today is how this Luke passage is paired with Psalm 27 – a psalm of confidence. David writes:
“God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid…Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident…I believe that I shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living. Wait for God; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for God.”
I don’t know about you but sometimes it is hard for me to believe in the goodness of God. I can get so overly focused on all that is wrong in our world that I forget to look for God’s goodness. I see all the hurt and pain and suffering in the world and here in our own community and I lose confidence. Fear begins to fill my heart. Darkness pervades and the light seems far too dim. That is why David’s words are so important for us to hear today. God is our light and stronghold. Our hearts need not fear or be afraid. We can be confident and even believe that we shall see the goodness of God here and now. How, you ask? How can I see God’s goodness in the land of the living? Simple: we see God’s goodness by being God’s light; by being God’s love; by not giving into our fear. We can have confidence and believe in God’s goodness because we are God’s goodness. You, me, all of us embody God’s goodness. And the Lenten journey is about discovering the goodness of God that lives inside each of us.
David concludes his psalm by saying, “Wait for God; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for God.” This we know: when the Biblical text speaks of waiting, it is not a passive waiting. Biblical waiting is not sitting still and being quiet when people around us are hurting. Biblical waiting is not about holding back when our neighbors can’t get the health care they need. It is not about waiting for someone else to speak up for our children who are getting behind in school because they live in poverty. It is not about enjoying our own comfort when so many are working two and three jobs and still can’t make an honest wage to support their family. No, biblical waiting is about recognizing that God is at work even when it doesn’t seem like it. It is about having the confidence that love is stronger than hate; and that the darkness does not overcome the light. Biblical waiting is about having the courage to say to the Pharisees and the Herods in our lives that we will not give into our fear but rather face it. It is about following Jesus’ example and saying, “today, tomorrow and the day after” I have work to do because there are people in our world who are hurting and suffering. It is about living with our wings spread and our breast exposed. For sure, it is a vulnerable posture. But if we are to believe in the goodness of God in the land of the living, it is the posture we must take.
Some Sundays I wish I could stand in this pulpit and say to you that our work is done – that we can take today and tomorrow and the day after off because someone else will do the work that needs doing. But I can’t. Our work is not finished. We are needed at our back door and down on Jones Street. We are needed in the prisons and in the hospitals; in the boardrooms and in the classrooms. We are needed to spread our wings wide, to stand vulnerable to the world while we call to us the brood of God’s beloved. We are beholden, through the legacy of Jesus, to gather the brood – all of God’s creation – close to our breast and to be the light, the safety, the warm meal, the restful place. It is our job, as followers of Jesus, to see God’s goodness, and to be God’s goodness. We are needed – today, tomorrow and the day after – to be God’s goodness, one to another, here and now. God is counting on us – even placing confidence in us – to care for God’s brood in this world.