I was saddened several years ago to read that the Crayola company—the people who make crayons—had discontinued all the so-called “natural” colors with which many of us grew up (remember “Burnt Sienna”?) in favor of new, more vibrant, electric colors. Their spokespeople explained that children were spending more and more time indoors and so were drawing less and less from life. The kids couldn’t use the colors with which you could draw grass, trees, flowers, and sky. They wanted colors that would replicate the cartoon images they saw on TV.
Whatever the reason, it is true that you and I and our children spend less time outdoors than our forbears did. We are urban, suburban people. We make our livings at great remove from the natural world. And though we may profess a love of nature, it is true that very few of us know or understand how to work a farm. Our love of nature may be deep and real, but it is less grounded in reality than was that of our parents and grandparent. It is also more sentimental.
Now I don’t claim a lot of personal authority to say any of this, because, frankly, I’m as urban a fellow as you’re likely to meet on life’s pilgrimage. I love the outdoors, and I run and walk and ride bicycles, but if you put me in a field or a henhouse or a barn I would be totally clueless. So imagine both my admiration and my shame this morning as I listened, with you, to Jesus’s comparison of Herod with a fox and his characterizing his relation to Jerusalem as “a hen gathering her brood under her wings”. Listening to Jesus is almost like hearing one of Aesop’s Fables: Herod, the wily Jewish king, is portrayed as a fox who preys on his own people. The Jews of Jerusalem are characterized Jesus’s beloved brood of chicks; they’re also, to change the comparison slightly, sitting ducks.
So the first thing today’s Gospel asks us to think about is the way in which Jesus, our Lord, our Saviour, and our teacher grounds his sayings in the stuff of life. Like the teller of a children’s tale, Jesus uses the images that arise from his hearers’ way of life. To call Herod a fox or to compare himself to a mother hen is a way of speaking to his audience in the terms they understand. They got him at first pass. For you and me, separated from the farm and the workshop, getting at what he means takes a bit more study.
Once we open ourselves up to the plainness of Jesus’s agricultural language, we should begin to hear the really surprising thing he is saying about his relationship to his people—and by “his people” I mean not only Palestinian Jews but us, you and me. Listen again to his words from today’s Gospel:
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
What Jesus is talking about, perhaps predicting, here is the fall or destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., several years after his death. So Jesus (and Luke, the author of this Gospel) are thinking about the predatory relationship of foxes (Herod, the puppet king in the service of Rome, and the Empire itself) and prey (the Jews, and all those who are seen as a threat to imperial power.) He expresses his desire to save the Jews from imperial Roman brutality by comparing himself to a mother hen who gathers her brood under her wings.
Now I’m not Farmer Gary, and I don’t know this from first-hand experience, but I have heard that one of the ways hens save their offspring from fire is to gather them, much as Jesus describes, under their wings. When that happens, the fire kills the mother hen but the covering of her wings protect the offspring from the heat. There are accounts of fires that ravage henhouses where live chickens have been found protected by the wings of hens in just this manner. This appears to be a way in which the species continues, by sacrificing the parent to ensure the survival of the child. So when Jesus compares himself to a hen gathering her brood under her wings in the advent of a looming fiery destruction, we should hear in that not just a loving, sentimental, motherly embrace. If we hear this agricultural comparison in all its fullness, we should understand it more deeply: a sacrificial self-giving in order to protect and finally save those in his care whom he loves.
So now that we’ve messed around together with Jesus in the barnyard, what does this Gospel have to say to us? I hear two things.
The first has to do with our need, as finite, created, natural, animal creatures to get out and engage with the natural world in a way that our grandparents would have understood. Now I’m not suggesting that you throw away your cellphone, your laptop, and your iPod and go out and work the soil. (Though doing so would probably be a good thing for all of us.) Given our obligations and the realities of our lives, few of us can do that. But there is a consistent stream in the literature of Christian and world spirituality which calls us to orient ourselves in the natural world. It is possible, as a modern person living a complicated and stressful life, to go days on end without any experience of the natural world of the outdoors. The problem with living that way is that one becomes unstuck, disconnected from the ground of our experience. Like kids drawing cartoon characters, we adults have forgotten how to use the natural colors in the original Crayola assortment.
So I would say that the first point this morning concerns our need to reorient and root ourselves in the natural facts of our animal existence. That should include some time every day in the outdoors if possible, and it should also include an awareness of what we eat and drink and where it comes from. I may not be able to go out and raise my own foodstuffs, but I should at least get a sense of where they come from—what kind of processes led to their production, what kind of human labor went into their harvesting. We stand in a wonderful web of relationships—to other people and the plants and animals around us—and we need to see ourselves in our proper context. Remember that God put Adam and Eve in Eden. Our natural home is not a palace but a garden.
So point one is that we should seek to emulate Jesus by orienting ourselves to the natural world of which we too are citizens. Point two comes from that comparison he made of himself to a mother hen gathering her brood under her wings and so protecting them from the ravaging fires of destruction. When you think about Jesus and what he means for you and me, keep in mind that image of the hen gathering her brood under her wings as the foxes and fires come near. That is the way Jesus is toward you and me. Once you root yourself in nature, you remember that nature is not just flowers and green grass; it’s “red in tooth and claw”. There are real pains and dangers and losses as part of natural and human life, and God’s promise to us this morning is that we are, like the brood of chicks under Jesus’s mother hen wings, in the embrace of one who will preserve and protect us from those things we fear the most. The drama of the Christian Gospel lies in the deep truth that God in Christ is like that mother hen for us: gathering, sheltering, protecting, preserving, even at the cost of her own life.
Lent is a time we have been given, as Jesus was in his wilderness experience, to cleanse and reorient and open ourselves to the deep, abiding truths of our relationship to the universe. The first truth is that you and I are natural, animal beings who can find ways, even amid the stresses and pains of postmodern life, to find a place to stand in God’s created world in which God has placed you and reconnect with the realities of natural and human life. As we say on Ash Wednesday, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is about taking on, accepting, and living into the stuff of our natural, dustly existence.
The second truth is that there is a deeper blessing to being human and alive than we might understand at first glance. Because that natural, created, dusty truth is not the only or final word about us. We are like those chicks gathered in a brood under Jesus’s mother-hen wings. The foxes and the fires of life are real, and they will always be coming toward us. But we can live our lives without living in fear of them because we are gathered in the sheltering embrace of One who means to save us. So throw out those electric-colored crayons, get out your old natural ones, and draw yourself a picture of yourself in the world which God has given you. Take some time to just live and be in the world in which God has placed you. And while you’re at it, look around you for a glimpse of Jesus’s sheltering wings. Amen.