Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series. To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein. For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work. If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me.
What’s your favorite animal? If you could not be yourself, but had to choose instead to be another creature, what would it be?
Maybe you’ve seen some of those surveys that come across online: “Which superhero are you?”, or “Which city in the world should you live in?”
In the interest of researching this message, I took three online quizzes, each of which promised to tell me which animal I was most like, or from which I derived the most power. I’m here to report that I am an elephant. Or a butterfly. Or an owl, wild dog, or prairie dog (I think I threw one of the quizzes for a loop). I can own those choices, as different as they may be from each other.
If we can trust the Bible and the testimony of the church, Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, was pre-existent with God the Father. That is to say, the person of Christ was present with God the Father and was, in fact, an agent of the creation. According to the Gospel of John, “through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (1:3). So Jesus came up with the ideas for the animals. Which animal was Jesus’ favorite?
I don’t know if we can answer that question. But I do know the one with which he compared himself: the hen. You heard it from Luke’s Gospel a moment ago.
Have you ever taken one of those on-line quizzes and not liked the result, so you go back and answer it differently? “Oh, no, I can’t possibly be like that, I better check my answers…” Can you hear Jesus’ friends? “Whoa, Jesus, careful now. That just doesn’t sound right…a messiah like you? A chicken? No way, man…”
Last week, we talked about the rooster, and how around the world, it is a symbol for all that is strong, virile, and powerful. But that’s a rooster. That’s a cock.
If you’re a chicken, what are you? You’re weak. Afraid. Powerless. It’s a playground taunt, isn’t it? If you want to goad someone into doing something that they aren’t sure they want to do, how do you do it? You call them “chicken”. You belittle them by comparing them to a hen…which Jesus says he is like…
The gallus gallus domesticus with which we are familiar is a descendant of the Red Junglefowl. There are more than twenty billion of these birds on the planet today, making the chicken the most abundant bird on earth. Everyone, everywhere, knows chicken. In fact, when my friend John was traveling to exotic places in the world as a part of his work with PPG, I overheard him answer a question about his diet by saying, “I haven’t ever been to a place where they don’t serve chicken.” And that’s been my experience too (although I have eaten it in some very unusual ways, and I’ve certainly eaten parts of it that I’ve yet to find in American stores!).
If the chicken is the most common bird on earth, it may also be the most abused. In our quest for cheap eggs and lots of white meat and inexpensive fried chicken, we have created giant factory farms where millions of birds are kept in tiny boxes, with their beaks cut off, laying eggs onto conveyor belts as quickly as they can until they are considered “spent” and then destroyed. We do horrible things to these birds.
And if it’s not the most abused animal, I would at least suggest that it is the most taken for granted. Not many people think that much about chickens, but most of us have some interaction with them most days.
And if chickens are abused and omnipresent and taken for granted, well then, maybe it is easier to see how Jesus would compare himself to these birds.
Debbie Blue writes in Consider the Birds,
In Christian art, Jesus is represented more often as a lion or an eagle than a hen, even though he himself gives us the image: Jesus as chicken. Did the church veer away from this representation from the beginning because it was too emasculating? However Jesus thought of himself, or the revelation from God he embodied…we’d like to think of him as big and strong and awesomely powerful…
Christ does not come in power. This is a truth so deeply embedded in our narratives of him that it is hard to get away from – no matter how we might try. He comes as a baby. He is baptized by John. He heals some people, but he doesn’t even come close to being as effective as the smallpox vaccine… Jesus doesn’t dine with the emperor or slay dragons…
Jesus doesn’t make power plays.
Every time there’s a choice, the smart money is always bet on the Herods of the world. When Jesus is warned about the fact that all his talk about the Kingdom of God is making the Establishment Ruler very unhappy, Jesus calls Herod a fox. The fox is a clever, wily, opportunistic, and violent killer. That sounds about like what we know of Herod.
And in his next breath, Jesus compares himself to a hen. Herod is a fox, and I’m a hen, says Jesus.
If you know many children’s stories or fables, you can see where this is going. The image of the fox in the henhouse is a staple of folklore, and it’s a way of conveying the fact that, given half a chance, people will exploit situations or each other to their own ends.
When we say that there’s a fox in the henhouse, we generally mean that there’s a predator afoot: your shady brother-in-law was just named power of attorney for your parents, or the industry lobbyist has been appointed to develop government policy, or a four year old has just volunteered to guard your pile of candy.
The fox gets into the henhouse. In spite of how we try, that’s the way of the world. It happens. Most days, much of our experience has something to do with foxes running amok in henhouses.
And then Jesus turns that on its head, and says that his way of life is more like the hen in a fox house. Jesus looks at Herod and at those who would try to warn him to keep his distance and says, essentially, “Yep. The world is a violent, scary, sleazy, and dangerous place. But I am not going to allow those things to change my nature. Tell Herod that this hen is right here.”
The way of Jesus is summarized in a poem written by Kent Keith. Mother Theresa thought so much of this that she had a copy hanging on her wall in Calcutta. It’s called The Paradoxical Commandments :
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.
The Apostle Paul saw that the power of Christ was the power of love, and he recognized that it was a weak and foolish power when contrasted with the things that often typify our world. And yet he claimed that at the end of the day, love was the only power that mattered.
It doesn’t make sense. Somehow, the mathematics of the cross and the empty grave add up to more than the total of evil and violence in the world – but it’s hard to see that on some days.
In fact, in my experience, those who demand proof of this truth are rarely convinced, because love looks so powerless when compared with hate.
But when people experience this firsthand, they know.
The power of the hen to which Jesus compared himself is not the power of force of arms or might. It is not the power of violence or brute strength. No, the hen’s power is that which shields the vulnerable and protects the weak. The hen’s strength comes in her willingness to place herself between her children and anything that would threaten them. It is the power of love.
Today, the call of the Gospel is for the people of God to ask for that power to infect our hearts. To ask the Giver of all gifts to invade our lives with this kind of power.
In this power, we will find that we are able to look at young brown men and remember that they were created fearfully and wonderfully and are called to live in humility and service. In this same power, we will find that we are able to look at police officers and remember that each of them was created fearfully and wonderfully and is called to live in humility and service.
The way of the world is the love of power. The way of the world is to look at people and see a type. All cops are jackbooted thugs. All young men of color are gangbangers with no regard for other people.
The way of Jesus is the power of love. The way of Jesus is to look beyond type and see individuals. To believe and to remember that each of us carries within us a spark of the Holy, and to call forth that spark from those with whom we relate and to display that spark in our own lives.
We are more accustomed to the way of the world. We are used to seeing the fox in charge of the henhouse. It’s predictable and reliable, and a safe bet to say that the rich will get richer, the weak will become weaker, and those on the margins will be pushed further out and eventually over the edge. That makes sense to us. It’s logical.
Yet Jesus and Paul call us to a new reality in which the power of love is central. Life in this reality calls forth a new culture, and demands new language and fresh habits. And, like any new culture, it will take time to learn, and it is more readily learned when adopted by a community that is willing to reinforce the core truths of that reality on a daily basis. We need each other to model this power of love because it is so easy to forget.
You see, when you look up information on the fox, you’ll find that it’s described as a solitary, opportunistic feeder that hunts live prey. The fox is on his own, and in it for himself.
Yet the hen is a complex social animal that lives in and relates with a group. Hens exist in the community of the flock. They need each other.
Let me invite you to join in this new reality by remembering today that you are surrounded by the love of God. You are shielded by the arms of Christ. You are enfolded deep within his heart. And let me remind you that you are sent out into the world as an agent of that love. Together, we are called to be a demonstration of that love.
And for me, at this point in our story, demonstrating that love needs to involve being closely attuned to the stories of all those who might be lumped into a category or a type and refusing to treat them, first and foremost, as that category or type. Being a hen in the foxhouse means standing with those who are vulnerable. It might even mean standing between those who are vulnerable and those who would wield power unjustly or inflict harm. It means love.
Jesus isn’t naïve. He knows exactly what will happen. “Go tell that fox where he can find me.” He knows what’s going to happen later that same week, when the powers that be string Jesus up. But Jesus also knows what’s going to happen at the end of the story, where somehow being a hen in a foxhouse is the Godly thing to do.
I know, it sounds crazy. But it just might work. So far as I know, this kind of love, this kind of hen in the foxhouse lifestyle, is the only means by which death has been defeated. That’s good enough for me. Now, hold me to it. Amen.