February 21, 2016
One of the great blessings of this worship space is our stained glass windows. Even if a person cannot hear the Scriptures read or understand them, these windows preach sermons about the nature of God and God’s work in the world. In fact, that’s one of the reasons churches began using stained glass windows in the first place—as visual sermons for those who could not read the Bible or the stories of the saints.
Certain key themes show up in stained glass windows in churches all over the world. Many windows depict actions in the life of Jesus—the Ascension is a popular one, as is Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. Many windows feature metaphors for God: the Lamb of God, Jesus as the Vine and we are the branches. The one image of God that I have 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 never seen this as a stained glass window, there is a mosaic of this metaphor 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, (“Jesus Wept”—or more literally, “The Grief of God”), and the mosaic adorns the front of the altar. Above the altar is a gigantic window—not stained glass, but clear plate glass, looking out over the city of Jerusalem. The view includes Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
A mosaic is like a stained glass window, in that it also reconfigures little pieces of broken glass to create a whole new picture. The mosaic in the Dominus Flevit depicts fluffy little chicks in shades of yellow embraced by the white wings of a grown chicken (alas, accidentally or on purpose, it appears more like a rooster than a mother hen—I’m guessing someone couldn’t bear the idea of Jesus identifying as female, not even as a female chicken!). Anyway, the chickens are inside a round medallion, which is surrounded with 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.” That last phrase—”you were not willing”—is not part of the circle: it is in a pool of blood red under the chicks’ 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 opens with Zechariah in the Temple, learning that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a child (John the Baptist). When the time comes, Mary and Joseph bring their child to Jerusalem, where Simeon and Anna deliver their prophecies over the Baby Jesus. Later, when he is 12, Jesus takes his place among the teachers in the temple. All told, Luke mentions the city of Jerusalem 90 times in his Gospel. All the other writers of the New Testament combined only mention it 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 where God is betrayed. Nothing that happens in Jerusalem is minor. 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, in a chapel 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 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 have ever loved someone you could not protect, you get it. You want to heal what hurts, to block all attackers, but 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 out, all vital organs exposed. But if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.
That is how the chicken in Dominus Flevit is depicted. Her breast is exposed, her wings are open wide. It’s almost a comical image of God; which is part of why I like it. It is perversely not at all what we expect. The Lion of Judah, yeah, that seems like an image of Almighty God. The Eagle we sang about last week, that bears us up on its wings? That’s a nice strong image. The book of Hosea talks about God as a stealthy leopard, and we are familiar with God being described as fire or as wind. But nowhere else in the Bible 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 chooses as his self-description. Which, Barbara Brown Taylor notes, is pretty typical of him. “[Jesus] 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 text. Because it is a sermon that we need to keep on hearing—a reminder that being Christian means we are not about safety or security. Following Jesus means walking 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 this kind of risky, self-giving, fragile, and total Love. Not powerful, not mighty, and yet, world-altering.
We, the people of Trinity Lutheran Church, may not strike anyone as a powerful force for God. We don’t have a dozen programs, or so many people that we can hardly keep count. We don’t have an ad campaign, or an overflowing Sunday school, or a big budget. For that matter, we sometimes have trouble meeting the budget we do have. Many of us are elderly, sick, or unqualified in one way or another. We may look a little like fluffy baby chicks, unable to withstand a strong wind or to follow any clear direction. We might seem as useless as fragments of broken glass. But little fragments of glass, when put together by The Great Artist, can create something quite moving, something beautiful and new.
Not to mention 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 lifeblood of Christ. We know firsthand that strength doesn’t always look like a lion. It can look like a chicken. We know that because even in our weakness, Jesus comes to us, offering us everything.
And not only that, but Jesus the Mother Hen shows us that we have something we can give too. We 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 widely, and to embrace others who are vulnerable—the weak, the poor, the forgotten, the very old and the very young. It may not be safe, but it is holy. And if we mean what we say, then this is how we stand.
~Pastor Susan Schneider