Cast your mind back over the other churches that you have attended or visited. Think about the art, the holy images, that adorned their space. Stained glass, icons, painted reredos, images on or above the altar. Did any of those holy images happen to include… a chicken?
At St. David’s Episcopal Church, in Bean Blossom, Indiana, their altar area includes an image of the Holy Chicken. More specifically, a mother hen, with a halo, and her wings spread over her chicks. The presence of the Holy Chicken image at St. David’s goes back to 2007, when one of their associate clergy, Tim Fleck, preached a sermon on this very Gospel text that comes to us today.
Here’s the image – I know it’s hard to see from a distance; come take a closer look later, it’ll be with our other holy images around the font. Tim took this photo himself, in Palestine, in a little church on the side of the Mount of Olives. The church is called “Domine Flevit,” or “The Lord Wept,” and it commemorates the spot where Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem – its stubborn cruelty, its hopelessness, its inevitable doom.
The chicken image is a mosaic on the front of the altar. It depicts Jesus as a protective mother hen, a visual interpretation of his words in our text today: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Tim recounts having this image up on his computer screen, as he reflected on the sermon at his day job, and having his co-workers find it HILARIOUS. There’s just something funny about chickens, and this chicken in her heroic and noble pose was definitely LOL-worthy. Others were a little bothered by the depiction of Jesus as something as humble, ordinary, and stupid as a hen.
Tim says, “The lowly hen doesn’t have much of a biblical pedigree… God and the prophets are compared to eagles, to leopards, to lions: to tough, macho animals. But this scripture and its parallel in the Gospel of Matthew are the only places in the canonical scriptures that even mention the chicken.”
Chickens are not strong, or fierce, or beautiful. They’re close to the bottom of the food chain. They can’t even fly. Jesus calls King Herod a fox, in this passage, just before he likens himself to a chicken. When a fox and a chicken enter the ring, we know who’s going to come out at the end of the match – with feathers on his snout. The smart money is always on the fox. But Jesus sides with the chicken.
All the chicken has going for her is what you see, right here: her protective love. A love so strong that she will put her own body between her chicks and the teeth or claws of a predator. If someone wants to get to her children, they’re going to have to go through her, literally. That won’t deter most predators much; her beak and claws are no match for a fox, hawk, or raccoon; but given the choice between abandoning her chicks as tasty snacks for whatever’s after her, and making a getaway herself; or sacrificing herself in the hope of saving them – she chooses the latter. The foolish, the loving, the holy choice.
In an essay on this text, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. 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, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”
I should say, here, that I know very little about the nobility and self-sacrificial tendencies of actual chickens. Jesus is alluding to what chickens are said to do -just as the images of pelicans, found in many churches, show a mother pelican feeding her young with her own blood, nourishing them at the cost of her own life- a beautiful and rich image that probably has nothing to do with any actual pelican behaviors. (By the way, if you don’t know where St. Dunstan’s pelican is,
you should go on a little hunt later…!)
Jesus identifies with that allegorical chicken. He sees the danger that surrounds Jerusalem, that stalks God’s children, hovering low overhead, or creeping through the tall grass nearby. What danger? All kinds – wretched poverty, the oppression of greedy and merciless rulers, disease, political and religious instability, the kind of kill-or-be-killed mentality that develops in desperate and marginal circumstances. Remember: forty years after Jesus’ trial and execution, Jerusalem will lie in smoking ruins, the great Temple torn down, not one stone left upon another.
Jesus sees this future; he sees the suffering and struggle of the present; and his heart aches, aches, for the people of Jerusalem, God’s people Israel, who have lost so much, and have yet more to lose. But like the hen, all he has to offer is his stubborn love. Tim writes, “All the hen has to offer is her refusal to abandon her children and her willingness to die for them, even as they ignore her and wriggle out from under her wings. All the hen has to offer is her faithfulness.”
Let’s turn from one strange image in today’s Scriptures, to another: the smoking fire-pot and flaming torch floating around between chopped-up animal parts, in today’s text from Genesis.
This text comes from the portion of Genesis that tells the long story of God’s covenant with Abram, later re-named Abraham – stretching from God’s first call to Abram to leave his father’s house, in chapter 12, and follow God to a new land and a new destiny; through the difficult story of the binding of Isaac and the sacrifice of the ram, in chapter 22. In chapter 15, where we find ourselves today, God reiterates the promises that God has already made to Abram, in chapter 12 and chapter 13: you will have many descendants, and they will live in a homeland that I, God, will give you.
But Abram is having a little trouble with these promises. He’s an old man, and he and his wife Sarah have no children. He’s got some real doubts about this whole descendants thing, and what’s more, the land God has promised him seems to have people living in it already. A lot of people. God’s promises seem unlikely and remote. So Abram asks, How can I know these things will happen? How can I trust you?
That’s the context for this strange symbolic scene. The thing is, it wouldn’t have been strange to Abram – at least not in its general form. This was how people formalized covenants, in the Ancient Near East. We know this from other ancient texts and images, that help us understand the symbolic assurance God offers to Abram here. When two people, or representatives of two groups, wanted to establish a covenant – perhaps about a territorial boundary, or a mutual defense agreement, or an important marriage, or some such – they would cut animals in half, and walk together between the halves of the carcasses. Maybe part of the meaning and power of the rite came from the spilled blood – blood is a potent symbol of both life and death in Near Eastern thought and religion. Maybe the cut-up animals implied what would happen to the covenant partners if one of them violated the terms of the agreement – a grisly form of “Cross my heart and hope to die.” In Biblical Hebrew, the verb that’s used for forming a covenant is “cut” – you “cut” a covenant, grammar reflecting the ritual practices of the times, invoking those animal parts on the ground.
So God is using symbols that Abram could understand and trust, to say, as emphatically as possible, LOOK, I am GOING to do this thing for you. God strives to answer, once and for all, Abram’s plaintive question: How am I to know that I will have these blessings? That the good things you promise me will come to pass?
But while in this scene God uses the common cultural ritual of covenant-formation, there’s a really important difference: this covenant is one-sided. Normally, both partners pass between the animal parts. But here, only the symbols of God’s presence, the fire-pot and torch, do so. Abram simply looks on, a witness, a recipient.
Nahum Sarna, author of a classic study of the book of Genesis, concludes his analysis of this covenant scene, saying, “The astonishing fact [is] that [this] covenant completely lacks… mutuality. It is a unilateral obligation assumed by God without any reciprocal responsibilities being imposed upon Abraham. The use of established legal forms of treaty-making to express such a situation is a dramatic way of conveying the immutable nature of the divine promise.” (Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 127)
A one-sided covenant – a paradox, and very nearly nonsense, in the common understandings of Abram’s time and place. There will be – of course – a human side to the covenant. We get around to that in Exodus, and more so in Leviticus. Those who live as God’s chosen people will be called to live in distinctive and sometimes demanding ways, as a people set apart, the holy people of a holy God. But here, at the very beginning, the root, the heart of it all, the covenant, the relationship between God and humanity, is fundamentally one-sided. God always loves us more than we love back. God always gives us more than we give back. God always begins the conversation.
The thread that runs through these two strange images, the holy chicken and the torch floating between animal parts, is the thread of God’s tender and boundless love. Our prayers and liturgies name God again and again as Almighty, and surely God is mighty; but these images, and so many others in Scripture, tell us, too, that God is vulnerable. We can hurt God’s feelings. We can push God away. God is vulnerable to us because God loves us so damn much. Because God wants to be with us much, much more than we want to be with God.
I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to hold that in your heart as part of your understanding, your inner image of God. Every time the Holy Chicken catches your eye, think of God like that: of God’s heart revealed in the anguished love of Jesus Christ, longing to hold close a people who were just not that into him. Of God’s heart revealed in the ancient absurdity of a covenant in which one party promises everything to the other, asking nothing in return.
Of God – if you will – as that awkward boyfriend or girlfriend who forgives you too easily when you’re mean or careless, who says “I love you” first and then says it again just a little too often, or at the wrong moment; who stands in your driveway holding a boom box, playing a love song at top volume, to tell you how he feels about you, how he will always, unshakably, feel about you. No matter how many times we question. No matter how many times we turn away. No matter what the danger, what the pain, what the loss.
As Tim writes in his Holy Chicken sermon, “God will be there, putting herself between us and the foxes and predators of this world. God will be there with her wings outspread and her breast exposed, saving us at the cost of her own life.
God will be there, stretched out on the hard wood of the cross, vulnerable, but refusing to abandon her children. God will be there.”
Thanks be to God.
Thanks to Tim Fleck for his wonderful 2007 sermon “Chicken.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood,” (March 11, 2001), accessed at www.textweek.com March 3, 2007; quoted in Tim’s sermon.