4 Lent Year C: Gen 15:1-12, 17-18; Ps 27; Phil 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, February 21, 2016
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
The forest fire had been brought under control, and the group of firefighters were working back through the devastation making sure all the hot spots had been extinguished. As they marched across the blackened landscape between the wisps of smoke still rising from the smoldering remains, a large lump of the trail caught a firefighter’s eye.
As he got closer he noticed it was the charred remains of a large bird that had burned nearly half way through. Since birds can so easily fly away from the approaching flames, the firefighter wondered what must have gone wrong with this bird that it could not escape. Had it been sick or injured?
Arriving at the carcass, he decided to kick it off the trail with his boot. As soon as he did, however, he was startled half to death by a flurry of activity around his feet. Four little birds flailed in the dust and ash then scurried away down the hillside.
The bulk of the mother’s body had covered them from the searing flames. Though the heat was enough to consume her, it allowed her babies to find safety underneath. In the face of rising flames, she had stayed with her young. Her dead carcass and her fleeing chicks told the story well enough”she gave the ultimate sacrifice to save her young.
The hen was the only chance those chicks had for safety. She, being willing to lose her own life, had gathered them up under her wings to herself. At the point of terrible pain and death, when she might still have saved herself, she chose to stay.
When a hen senses danger or feels her chicks are threatened, she will spread out her wings and her chicks will run under her feathers so that she might cover them and she will not leave them unprotected no matter the cost to her. When the cat comes too near or the fox gets in the hen house, the hen will cover her chicks and even sacrifice herself if she needs too for her offspring’s safety.
Jesus’ image of Herod as fox and himself as hen is intentional in its meaning. Here in the midst of his work in Galilee, under threat of Herod who has recently beheaded John the Baptist, Jesus does not use images of violence or force to demonstrate his salvific power. Instead, the Incarnate God’s self-image is the image of humble protector”a hen gathering her brood under her wings. Jesus the Christ is a chicken.
And yet we know that Jesus is no chicken, he is no coward. Cowards don’t die for others; they don’t stand up for their beliefs regardless of the cost. They don’t cover their children and die in forest fires so that others might live. Jesus is no chicken and yet, it is this image of Jesus as a hen covering her brood that neither attacks nor defends but simply protects us by offering herself for our salvation that we are invited to embrace at the start of Lent.
This image of Jesus as shield and protector is not a difficult one for us to embrace. The more difficult aspect of this imagery is that it is feminine in nature. Too often our image of God is defined by the masculine”the Father and the Son. We use lots of masculine pronouns and relate to God as the one who will fight the demons and prevail. But we do ourselves a disservice and God an injustice by limiting the image of God. God is not a really, really old dude with a really, really long white beard sitting on a golden throne, floating on white, fluffy clouds. Neither Gandalf nor Dumbledore are full or complete images of God”though, granted, they have something to offer.
If we can begin to embrace the feminine in God, we might also begin to discover that defeating our enemies doesn’t always take strength and power. Might is not always right. A mother’s nurturing love and protection can speak to us in ways that a father’s cannot. Imagine, for just a moment, God as a mother to whom you cling and peek out from behind her skirts at the world around you. How safe and protected you might feel. How even though your surroundings are scary, you are anchored to someone who loves and adores you and that brings you great comfort and security.
I am not saying that God is a woman and that we have to think about her in that way. But what I am trying to do is get us to embrace the image of God as masculine and open it up to allow other images to enter in. Jesus offers an image of himself in the feminine, but in our other readings today we are given several images of God. After making a covenant with God, Abram sees God as a smoking fire pot and flaming torch that passes through the pieces of the sacrifice Abram has offered. By being pot and heat, the image of God encompasses provider and partner. Abram has provided the sacrifice and God’s own self is the fire. They are partners in this covenant and through that partnership; we too can enter into a covenant relationship with God, partnering with him to do his work in the world.
In the psalm, we are given the image of God as light”a non-corporeal entity that we can see but not touch; the image of God as light for us in dark places when all other lights go out”the image of hope. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul describes Christ’s body as one of glory, not flesh and bone. Flesh and bone are sources of humiliation that must be transformed and it is only through Christ that we can be conformed to the body of his glory.
Images are powerful; they communicate feelings, stories, and plans. They have been used since the beginning of time. We cannot know God in any sort of fullness or completeness; God is mystery. Yet, the image of God as question mark is an empty characterization that cheapens God and the mystery that surrounds him. It is not in the dumbing down or the limiting of images that help us to relate and know God, but in the opening up, in the multitude of ways that we can see and know God in our midst that gives him and us depth and purpose.
It is when I see the image of God in the unconditional love of my basset hound, Buttercup, waiting expectantly for me whenever I return home; or the unexpected smile from a total stranger when our eyes accidentally meet; or the sunset over the water; or the bird who will sacrifice her life for the lives of her children, that I can begin to connect to the deep well of a life in the image of God. You and I, we are made in the image of God. But we are not the only images that express who God is or connect us to a deeper understanding of God.
The image of God that Lent invites you to embrace is not simply male or female, masculine or feminine, it is so much more. It is fire and light and glory. It is a hen covering her brood that neither attacks nor defends but simply protects us by offering herself for our salvation.