"The Hen and the Fox", Lent 2C
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Lent 2C 2004 Luke 13:22-35
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One of my earliest memories is of Augusta, Georgia. It was in the early days of American entry into World War Two. It
was during the first several years of the mobilization of the vast Army, Navy, and Air Corps sent across the seas to liberate
Europe and Asia from the Axis conquest. My father was a Captain of Infantry, commissioned from the ROTC unit at then Clemson
College on his graduation in 1936 and now recalled to active duty for the build up. He was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
Like all junior ranking families during this tumultuous time there was no housing on post and we had to fend as best we
could. I remember that where we lived was a cozy little place in the yard of a much larger house. It had a large room or so
it seemed to a three year old in 1942 with an efficiency kitchen, and dinette and a sitting area. There was a bedroom I had
a cot in the corner and my parents had the double bed. And there was a bathroom.
I was free to play with the two young daughters who lived there. They were about five years older than I so I got to be
pulled in wagons, dressed in various costumes, and treated as though I were a doll. I loved it, especially the attention the
two young girls lavished on me.
Thirty years later at the end of the Vietnam War when I had finished the Staff College at Fort Leavenworth and was assigned
to Strategic Plans on the Army General Staff in the Pentagon, I met those girls again. It was at Pohick Church, which I had
joined in 1973. As I came to know the people there, I was chatting with two sisters, both married to colonels, one Army and
one Air Force. The Army couple hes now a retired major general live near my daughter and grandchildren in Atlanta small world.
As career service people will, we traced the places where we had served. I told about my early memories of Augusta and
Fort Gordon and that backyard place where I lived. They remembered playing with a little boy. I said that I think the family
was named French at which they laughed wide eyed and said Thats us and you were the little boy!
And whats more, they said, You lived in our converted chicken coop. You lived in the hen house!
As I was thinking about those days getting ready for today, I thought about the other encounters I had had with hens and
roosters chickens of every variety. I remember leghorns and Rhode Island Reds and other varieties I cant even remember. My
grandmothers had all sorts of chickens running aabout their yards. I remember my grandmothers wringing the necks of chickens
and hanging the headless corpses upside down from the clothesline to drain out the blood. And I remember the steaming stink
when they then were plunged into fiercely boiling cauldrons of water to loosen the feathers as part of the preparation for
Most of all I remember as I grew up playing touch foot ball in my grandmother Dillard's front yard where the chickens
had been running about and often coming up reeking and stinking afterward myself. It may explain why I am fond of neither
chicken nor eggs surely it is unhealthy to eat anything from a creature than can cause such terrible smells.
I also remember my grandmother Scott taking me into the hen roost to gather eggs. I didnt really want to have anything
to do with it, but I loved being with my grandmother. As long as I was with her the hens were docile letting her slip her
hand beneath them and collect the daily egg. They knew her and trusted her. They also knew that I didnt particularly like
them and they would spread their wings and peck whenever I was sent to gather eggs. They didnt know me like they knew her
and they resisted.
In 1992 when I was a seminarian assigned for the summer to Cople Parish just up in Westmoreland County from us, I was
sharply reminded of the hen image that Jesus used in his lament over Jerusalem. I was heading back to where I was staying
about dark and on the country road ahead of me there was this turkey hen stopped and standing right in the middle of the road
facing me. As I came closer I thought she would move but she kept looking at me and then to one side or another. As I stopped
a few feet away I saw that she had her wings spread downward and that her brood, her chicks, were running in and out from
under them on the road. I watched fascinated as she slowly brushed them along to safety into the woods beyond the ditch of
the road. A hen gathering her brood under her wings.
I sat transfixed in the middle of the road myself for a while as the words of todays gospel were recalled to mind. O Jerusalem,
Jerusalem, cried our Lord. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her
wings, and you were not willing.
But of this image, one commentator has said: Of all the images Jesus could have picked out of an aviary, a hen or chicken
seems most bizarre! Chickens scuttle about, they hunt and peck for food. They certainly have never been used as a model for
highly intelligent animal life. T hey are awkward and certainly not aerodynamic. An eagle has a certain majesty to it. Swans
are beautiful and the mourning dove has a beautiful and maudlin quality about its call. Penguins are good swimmers and storks
have, in some cultures, the reputation for bringing people good luck. Even hummingbirds can fly backward and are curious enough
to gain our attention. But the lowly hen? To suggest this as an image of God is so remarkable, undignified, and unsettling
that we hardly know what to do with it. If a hen is a metaphor for God it is hard to imagine what kind of a God that might
point to! (1)
Well, perhaps not. Our God went battered and beaten and bleeding to his death on the Cross. That, too, is hard to imagine
when we think about it.
But this is a lovely image of a mother hen facing danger and hiding her chicks under her wings, gathering them there to
There is an old story told of a grass fire in the barnyard. It burned through the dray grasses and scattered piles of
hay with a high wind behind it, and the animals and birds simply did not have enough time to run and escape. When the fire
had done its worst, the farmer came to look at the damage. He found in one corner a mother hen, its wings spread wide, its
feathers black and burned. The hen was dead.
But when the farmer started to pick up the dead hen, her half dozen chicks ran out from beneath her wings. In the face
of the fire, she had gathered them under her to protect them from the danger. And she saved them. (2)
It is and interesting and not accidental thing that Jesus had also said this about king Herod, when he was told that Herod
wanted to kill him: Go and tell that fox for me, Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow,
and on the third day I finish my work.
There was a metaphor where I grew up in rural South Carolina for when someone was causing trouble that the fox was in
the hen house. The trouble was that most people just sat by, clucking helplessly, and didnt gather the people the fox was
after under their wings.
After the battle of Waterloo, someone asked Wellington if the French were brave. He said, "Yes, the French were brave.
The English were only brave 5 minutes longer." (3) In difficult times, when the foxes are loose in the hen house, our
task is to be steady enough, brave enough, to keep our eyes on Jesus and our minds on mission.
1. Is God a Chicken?, Aha!!!, 8 March 1998, p. 47, quoted in David Mosser, What City is Worth Weeping Over, SermonMall.com
for 7 March 2004.
2. A Life Given, Aha!!!, 8 March 1998, pp. 47-48, modified as quoted in Ibid.
3. As quoted in Stephen M. Crotts, Fear: How To Deal With What Nobody Wants, SermonMall.com for 7 March 2004.