When churches first employed visuals like stained glass windows it was in order to instruct the people who were mostly illiterate and could not read the Bible or stories of the saints. One of the great blessings of this building is our stained glass windows. If you cannot hear the Scriptures, or read and understand them, you can look to these windows for sermons about the nature of God and of God’s work.
Many other congregations have similar colored sermons. Fans of stained glass church windows notice that certain key themes and ideas are frequently employed. Many, many windows depict actions in the life of Jesus—young Jesus teaching in the Temple, for example, or riding into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. In addition to stories, many windows feature metaphors for God: the Lamb of God, or the Jesus the Vine, sustaining us, the branches.
The one image of God that I’ve always longed to see in a stained glass window (but haven’t yet) is the one from today’s Gospel lesson, the image of Jesus as a mother hen, gathering us all like chicks beneath her wings. Though I’ve yet to see it in a window, I know there is a mosaic of this metaphor on an altar in a chapel on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. The chapel is called Dominus Flevit, the Grief of God, and it overlooks the city of Jerusalem—the plate glass window behind the altar features a view that includes Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
A mosaic is like a stained glass window, in that it also uses little fragments of glass to create a whole picture. The mosaic in the Dominus Flevit depicts fluffy yellow chicks cuddled under the white wings of a grown chicken (alas, accidentally, or on purpose, this chicken is not a mother hen, but a rooster—I’m guessing someone couldn’t bear the idea of Jesus identifying with a female, not even a female chicken!). Anyway, this little collection of poultry is surrounded by these words in Latin: “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, “you were not willing” is the part that is not part of the circle. It is in a pool of red under the chick’s feet.
This lament is in Matthew’s Gospel, too, but Jerusalem doesn’t mean the same thing to Matthew that it does to Luke. Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in the temple in Jerusalem. The very first chapter of Luke shows the priest Zechariah in the temple, learning that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a child. And you might remember that Mary and Joseph bring their newborn there, and Simeon and Anna deliver their prophecies over the Baby Jesus. When Jesus is 12, he takes his place among the teachers in the temple. And it goes on. All told, Luke mentions the city of Jerusalem 90 times in his Gospel. All the other writers of the New Testament combined mention it only 49 times. So you can see that Luke really loves this place. For him, Jerusalem is the dwelling place of God, the place where God’s glory will be revealed. It is also the place where God is betrayed. Nothing that happens in Jerusalem is minor for Luke. As preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “When Jerusalem obeys God, the world spins peacefully on its axis. When Jerusalem ignores God, the whole planet wobbles.”
She goes on to say, referring to today’s Gospel, “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.” And across the valley, on the Mount of Olives, this mother hen clucks for all she is worth, but the chicks are not listening.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch for many of us to imagine Jesus’ grief, to feel the echo of his lament in our own throats. If you’ve ever deeply loved someone you could not protect, you get what it feels like to open your arms without being able to make that person walk into them. Meanwhile, you are standing in the most vulnerable posture in the world. With your wings spread, all your vital organs are exposed. But if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand. This is the posture of a mother hen when her chicks are threatened. I can’t imagine why it’s not a common metaphor in stained glass windows.
Maybe why that’s why I like it. Perversely, a chicken is not at all what one expects. The Lion of Judah, yeah, that seems like an image of God. And the Eagle we sang about last week, that bears us up on its wings–that’s a nice strong image. The book of Hosea depicts God as a stealthy leopard, and we are familiar with ideas of God awing us as fire and as wind. But nowhere else in Scripture do we get the image of God as a chicken. No wonder some of the chicks opt to go with the fox, huh?
But a hen is what Jesus chose as his self-description. Which, Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “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 your chicks. Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, then he will have to kill her first. Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up to her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day, where both foxes and chickens can see her–wings spread, breast exposed–without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, this is how you stand.”
And that is why I am still looking for a stained glass window that depicts this story. Because it is a sermon that we can keep on hearing–a reminder that being Christian means we are not about safety or security. To follow Jesus means to walk into the face of trouble with open arms, trusting only in the power of Love. Broken bits of glass seem like the right medium to speak of that kind of self-giving, fragile, and total Love. Nothing powerful, nothing mighty, and yet, the kind of power that changed the whole world.
Trinity Lutheran Church may not strike anyone as a powerful force for God. We don’t have a dozen programs, or an overflowing Sunday school or so many people in worship that we can hardly keep count. We don’t have a big budget. Many of us are elderly, or sick, or lacking particular skills and talents. We look like little chicks, unable to withstand a strong wind, or like shards of broken glass that are of no particular use. But little fragments of glass, when put together by an Artist, can create something quite beautiful and new. And we have in our midst the most precious gift that anyone has ever known.
We have little fragments of the body of Christ, which we share with one
and all. And we have wine, made from grapes that have been crushed and pounded, which is for us the blood of Christ. We know strength may not roar like a lion. It may peep like a chicken. We know that in our weakness, Jesus comes to us, offering us everything. And not only that, but Jesus the Mother Hen shows us that we too have something we can give. We too can give ourselves, our very selves. Fed with the broken body of Christ and invigorated by the lifeblood of his veins, we too, are called to open our own wings, as a shelter to embrace others who are vulnerable–the weak, the poor, the forgotten. This way of life may not be safe, but it is holy. And if we mean what we say, then this is how we stand. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider