A season of seeing

Passage: Luke 13:31-35
Date: March 04, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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The Kidron Valley separates the old city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. That western slope of the Mount is covered with monuments, graves, ancient cypress and olive trees, and churches. Among all of the historic things sits a small newer church called Dominus Flevit. Built in 1955, it marks the traditional site where Jesus paused to weep over Jerusalem. Inside its chapel, behind the altar is a beautiful arched window. A wonderful black iron grillwork divides it into variously sized sections. About 1/3 of the way up is a horizontal row of rectangles, with a thorny branch running its length, symbol of Christ's crown of thorns. The window's clear glass is filled with a panoramic view of old Jerusalem. From its ancient walls to the golden dome to the Church of the Holy Seplecre, and modern buildings beyond, the national capitol of Jesus' lament fills the arch.

On the front of the simple altar, a beautiful mosaic depicts that which did not happen. In its center stands a pure white hen, with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb resembles a crown. Her large wings are spread wide, sheltering seven fuzzy yellow chicks. They appear comfortable and secure under her outstretched pinions. It is almost as if the hen is ready to take on any who would threaten. Can you see this in your mind's eye?

Unfortunately, the mosaic embodies Christ's lament and not his reality. Latin words in tiny red tiles surround the medallion: "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 final phrase is outside the circle, in a pool of red under the chicks: "And you were not willing!"

Tragic irony undergirds these lines. Jerusalem served as the religious and economic hub of the people of Israel. Its walls protected the Temple, the dwelling place of Yahweh, God. It had been destined as sacred, holy space. Yet, the prophet Jeremiah had been condemned in that city. The prophet Zechariah had been killed there, this place designed to be open to God.

What is it about us as human beings that blinds us to God's active presence in our midst? It seems like we are wired to resist God's initiatives. Just watch the news. Just look inside. Have we learned to accommodate our faith to our cultural values so well that we are unable to see? Have we been so sucked in to our consumerist, militarist, violent society that we are blind to God's holy longing? Have we become so lost or so frightened in this post 9/11 age that we have fallen under the spell of foxes? Is this why so many people seem to be being eaten alive, broken, cast aside, not seen? Are we not in danger of losing our very souls because we do not see the heart of God?

The Bible is full of images for God: king, conquering warrior, father, judge, powerful lion. But hen? If we believe God is the speaker in Jesus' lament over Jerusalem, then for me this becomes a radical picture of God we say we trust. Have you ever seen a banner of Jesus with a hen on it? Are there any pew cushion images of God as a hen? Their absence may be a reflection, by the way, of our cultural perspective, one of power and arrogance. We who live in the most powerful nation in the world would much more likely see God as one who has "loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword," to quote from Battle Hymn of the Republic. Somehow the image of a hen and victory lane at the Daytona 500 don't go together. Yet the picture is here, and in other biblical places as well, in all of its deep caring femininity. Jesus' words overflow with such pathos: "and you were not willing!" You did not see.

Her name was Ruth. Pushing past middle-age, I met her in the early 70's. Thin sort of scraggly hair, physically handicapped, not particularly attractive, she was one that most of us would not see if we passed her at Freddies. She was born with muscle coordination problems, a form of cerebral palsy. As an infant crawling on the floor near the screen door, a spring snapped and blinded one eye. By the time I met her, she was functionally blind and was often in a wheelchair. Given her economic background, I suspect she had never shopped at Nordstorm; had never been to Europe; had never been a guest at the Mac Club; had never had season tickets to the symphony. Ruth lived in that highrise in the Hollywood district near Trader Joe's. In addition to government assistance, she kept herself economically afloat by doing phone surveys in the evening. Over four years, I got to know Ruth quite well. She was a member of the congregation I served. And for this knowing, I am very thankful. With huge physical liabilities, Ruth took care of herself, cooked her own meals, stayed employed, enjoyed great music on the radio, delighted in singing hymns, kept her mind sharp through talking books, and rarely missed Sunday worship. I can still see her holding our first baby, with tears of joy streaming down her face. She could not see Aimee at all, but that did not matter. Ruth taught me to see immense courage in what appeared to be profound weakness. Life for her was a constant struggle, and her commitment was to make the most of it, regardless. She taught me to see beauty in forms that my economic station in life had made be blind to. She was not difficult to look at, but my unconscious upbringing had conditioned me to not give people like her a second look. As a young minister, this medical disaster and economic failure taught me about pain and about joy. Over and over again, she witnessed to my spirit the reality of life in our suffering and dying Savior. Her indomitable spirit and her tangible faith opened my spirit to Christ in wonderful new ways. This severely disadvantaged blind woman taught me to see, and I am so grateful, grateful to God.

Jesus chose the image of a hen longing to gather her chicks to speak of his holy caring not just for Jerusalem, but indeed for the whole nation. A hen. When a hen is threatened, she has little in the way of defenses: a small beak, flapping wings, noise. She has no fangs, no sinewy muscles to pounce, no sharp claws to tear flesh. But, what we know about a hen is that if any other wants her chicks, they will have to kill her first. She will protect with all she has: wings spread, breast fluffed and exposed. She can only shield her babies with herself.

Which is what Jesus ultimately does, as it turns out. After the last supper, while in the garden, as all of his chicks slept, the opposition arrived. And by the next day the hen hung high, wings spread, breast exposed, pierced; chicks no where to be seen.

Do we see it? Do we see God's profound longing for us in Christ, powerful enough to suffer ultimately? The symbols of holy desire are spread before us. Christ's presence within them is powerful witness to such love. As we respond to his invitation, may our eyes be open in new ways. As we receive the bread and the cup, may even a tiny bit of our blindness to God, to each other, to God's world-may even a tiny bit of our blindness be healed.

O God, so work in us that we may have the courage, that we may take the risk, that we may be willing to see whatever you would show us these Lenten weeks. Open the eyes of our souls to see. First time, again this time-it does not matter. We ask for the sake of Christ Jesus. Amen.

(Some ideas from Barbara Brown Taylor, "As a Hen Gathers Her Brood," Christian Century, 2/5/98, p. 201)