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Sermons

Date Posted: March 18, 2019

There’s Room Under Those Wings for Everyone

When I was a child, it was quite clear to me that God was an old white man who sat on a cloud.  He—and it was always He—had made the world and then slipped away to monitor from a distance.  He had very good eyesight or a very strong telescope through which He watched all the goings on in my teenage life.

My parents and other adults yearning to maintain their influence on my life would remind me that God was always watching, and that there was some sort of book or tally that God was keeping that would be balanced at the end of all this—with consequences.  This reminder worked equally well for God or Santa Claus, which, it needs to be said, is the root of a great deal of the problems with how America understands itself as a “Christian nation.”

At this point in my life, I have come to believe that the image you have for God cannot be underestimated when it comes to how you live and move in the world—in every aspect of your being.  Images matter, because they carry meaning of value, worth, community, belonging, and compassion.

On one hand I sit with people whose life is framed around a struggle and rejection of a certain image of God.  Some wrestle with a cultural projection of God as a powerful white man and they yearn to have a voice, to claim their existence as a whole person of value and worth.  Listening to them, I imagine them with a hammer and chisel trying to chip away at old, calcified walls that have closed in on them and are suffocating and outright harmful.

Others have experienced a sort of bubbling up or emergence of a particularly powerful image of God that has stirred their souls and awakened a deeper purpose and meaning in their lives.  Listening to them, I see an image of someone striking water with a well, as the water rushes up and showers them.  It is refreshing and hopeful.

When I listen to others, I find myself sitting in silence with them as we realize that no image we have for God can adequately describe the Mystery.  So, we start there, with what St. John of the Cross imagined as nada, nothing.  Not that God is nothing, but that God is no-thing.  There is no thing that can fully describe God, so there is a feeling of release, relaxation even, resting.

The reality is that there are many images of God in our texts and in our tradition.  The reality also is that, perhaps, this makes us uncomfortable, because a part of us—our ego—wants to be assured that we are in control.

Today’s Gospel is a remarkable text.  Look at Jesus’s words: Jesus envisions Himself as a mother hen who gathers her chicks with the wily fox on the prowl.  How often I have desired to gather you (he speaks of Jerusalem) like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

Perhaps it is not an image of God that you have readily thought of.  Perhaps, being in Gainesville, Georgia, it wells up in your soul!  But there it is: Jesus like a mother hen gathering her chicks with an awareness of the danger the fox poses.

Not Jesus as an enforcer out to defeat the fox.  Not Jesus as wall or fence to keep the fox out.  Not Jesus as hunter, soldier, or ruler.  Jesus as a mother hen.  It is an image of feminine care and love, devotion and self-sacrifice that should remind us of images from Proverbs with how God’s wisdom as envisioned as chockmowth, in the Wisdom of Solomon, and as Sophia.  We are the recipients of such meaningful images of the divine as feminine, powerful, compassionate, loving, creating.

So, with parts of our culture holding that the only Biblical image of God is that of man, today we are given this image from Jesus himself of the Divine as a mother hen gathering a brood of chicks.  And we should celebrate this image for how it widens our vision when it comes to God’s being as well as for how it challenges our tendency to grasp and control.

As I have meditated on the image, given the pain we see in the world with brothers and sisters—fellow human beings—killed in egotistical and arrogant violence, I give thanks for this image today and for the permission the lectionary cycle gives us to reflect more deeply.

Here is a dynamic I have observed when it comes to images of God.  In every circumstance when I have encountered resistance, when someone has been upset at either what I have said when it comes to how I understand God or how I support others who are seeking a deeper awareness of God, it is always because they want to hold up an image of God that puts someone else in their place.  When I encounter resistance from someone—or in those moments of fear in my own heart—it is always because we want to maintain an image that strengthens our control, our power.

So, this has become a key test for me when it comes to images of God: does the image of God I hold seek to put or keep others in the place I envision for them, or does the image of God I hold seek to challenge me to grow more fully into the likeness of Christ?  Is my struggle directed outward to criticize or control others, or is my struggle properly directed inward with the hope for my own continued transformation and embodiment of Christ’s compassion?  Friends, this is a vital question for us to consider today, because the killing must stop.

Lest you think the image of God as a hen is overly domesticated, the image of Jesus as a mother hen gathering her chicks provokes me to consider that there may very well be room under those wings for everyone. I can’t explain this expansive room theologically, and I despise arguments around exclusivity that only prove the point of arrogance Jesus Himself was trying to resist.  I can only tell you how the image makes my heart sing.

We heard the choir sing this image last Sunday in our Compline service.  There, in some of the final prayers of our Compline service in the Book of Common Prayer, we hear these words:

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit;

For you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.

Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of your eye;

Hide us under the shadow of your wings.

There it is, my friends, this image of God’s wings covering us all and sheltering us in the threats of life.

In the image from today’s Gospel, Jesus shares his deep longing to gather the people like a mother hen.  But you were not willing, Jesus says.  With this indictment, we are challenged to wonder “why?”  Why do we resist this shelter that God offers us?

Well, on one hand, we may resist because we want to run around on our own, driven by our own agendas, celebrating our self-indulgent appetites under the banner of “freedom.”  And we put ourselves at risk of being plucked off and eaten by the predators that come our way.  But then we will cry out, “Where were you, O God!”  That is one way we resist: with just plain old stubbornness.

Another way we resist may be more sinister.  Do we resist consenting to being hidden under the shadow of God’s wings because, honestly, we don’t like the company?  Perhaps we cannot bring ourselves to accept that there really is room for everyone under those wings.  That the God who creates all people truly does love all people—even when we can’t get our minds around that fact.  And that drives us nuts because we would rather it be a much more exclusive environment in the softness of those feathers.

While the first type of resistance is just plain old stubbornness, this type of resistance is soaked in an arrogance in which the chick (that’s us, remember) can’t tolerate the compassion of the hen (that’s God, remember).

We would rather maintain our zero-sum game and our false message of scarcity and keep up the refrain that God’s grace is limited—even when, honestly, we just may be the ones who are resisting it out of our own arrogance.

So, we see there is nothing docile or quaint about this image of Jesus as a mother hen.  And we see how important images are, because they truly do offer us lenses through which we see the world and try to make sense of it.  Our image of God actually shapes our image of ourselves and our image of one another.  Friends, this is so important to keep in mind in days like this when we struggle with violence against some of the mother hen’s chicks.  What would it be like in this Season of Lent to reflect more deeply on our interconnection with one another?  Thomas Merton once said, ‘If I hate my brother and sister and wish to destroy them, I destroy myself also.’

If you would, please turn to page 132 in the Book of Common Prayer, and let us close with these prayers from Compline:

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit;

For you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.

Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of your eye;

Hide us under the shadow of your wings.

 

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Lent II, Year C
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
March 17, 2019