Creekside Church
Sermon of February 21, 2016

"A Wing and a Prayer"
Luke 13:31-35

Rosanna McFadden


Good morning! I have been brooding this week, in part because of this text which we have from the gospel of Luke. Actually, I have been brooding for the past month or so, but since studying this passage, I have a better word to describe just what it is that I have been doing.

In case you’re not familiar with the word “brooding,” let me unpack its meaning a bit, because it has some curious history and double meanings: both of which are present in this account. Please bear with my English literature geekiness: I find this really interesting stuff. A brood is a collective noun for a group of baby birds that hatch at the same time and are cared for together. These are generally a nest of eggs from the same female bird, often a chicken or duck because they are domesticated for their egg-laying abilities. Are you with me so far? Brooding can mean sitting on a nest of eggs -- if you’re a chicken. If you’re a person, brooding is to think about something continuously, to dwell on it, to ponder it, to be gloomy or moody. So how do we get from baby birds to thinking about something all the time?

How about the expression of fussing like a mother hen? Cluck, cluck, cluck. Is everyone warm enough? Where are the babies? One, two, three, four . . . where’s the other one? Everybody get over here. Are you all OK? Cluck, cluck. Aw! A hawk! Everybody under here, c’mon, c’mon. There it is. Taking care of little ones is a 24/7 job; enough to turn even the cutest chick into a mother hen. So here is this concept of brooding. We find it in the words of Jesus, and Jesus is talking about himself. He says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” Clearly, Jesus is comparing himself to that mother hen, fussing and clucking and tending her brood, trying to gather them under her wings to protect them. When comparing himself to this hen, Jesus is also referring to an ancient Jewish image of God. Birds have always had a special place in spirituality, because they move between heaven and earth. Birds are one of the images of God’s Spirit -- moving over creation, descending on God’s chosen. But there is also a biblical image of the wings of God which is less concrete: Psalm 17, Psalm 57 and Psalm 61 each talk about hiding in the shadow of God’s wing, or being in the shelter of God’s wing. The idea is that the wings of God hover over all creation. Wherever we go, and whatever we go through, God’s love shelters and protects us.

I’m sure Jesus’ hearers would have understood that that mother hen, brooding over her chicks is also an image of God, caring for and protecting us all. But Jesus’ statement has more layers than that. A mother hen protecting her chicks is vulnerable herself. Vulnerable and self-sacrificing: she hides the chicks under her wings so no predator will see them: the hawk will see her instead. Our passage begins with a couple Pharisees coming to warn Jesus that Herod is out to kill him. This is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who had ordered all the baby boys in Bethlehem to be killed after Jesus’ birth. Herod Antipas is the son who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist. He is not a nice man. But Jesus isn’t worried about Herod. Jesus says in effect, “Herod. Tell that old fox I still have work to do.” Calling Herod a fox was not a compliment. Foxes are shifty and wily and can’t be trusted. Foxes hunt at night; they steal chickens. Jesus isn’t worried about Herod, because Jesus already knows how he’s going to die; he isn’t going to get hunted down by Herod; Jesus has chosen to die in Jerusalem.

I don’t know how many of you have seriously considered your own death or the death of someone you love. I know that some of you have. I have not had the necessity or the courage to face the reality of my own death. When I was in my 20s and 30s I remember having late-night conversations around the question, “If someone could tell you the time and manner of your own death, would you want to know?” It was always a theoretical conversation, because none of us really thought we were going to die.

This wasn’t theoretical for Jesus. By this point in his ministry he knew that Herod was out to get him and that the Romans would probably be involved somehow. He wasn’t going to die peacefully at home: both stoning and crucifixion are public deaths that are designed to be humiliating and agonizing. It had to be Jerusalem, and it was going to be soon. Jesus knew that there was still teaching and healing to be done, but the foxes were closing in. It had to be Jerusalem because Jesus was a prophet; and Jerusalem, the site of the Temple and the center of the Jewish world was where he was called to teach and heal and live and die.

This is first-class brooding material. Jesus is literally looking out over Jerusalem and considering his own death. He’s contemplating this city, the capital of hiscountry, the center of his worship, and the homeland of his people, and he says, How I have loved you and longed to protect you, but you wouldn’t allow it. It’s a very tender side of Jesus, a part of him which we glimpse in his healing of people whom others wouldn’t even touch. This prayer for the people of Jerusalem -- and all of the people who were touched by Jesus’ ministry -- is especially poignant because Jesus knows that these are the same people who are going to kill him. And yet Jesus loves them and mourns over them and knows that he needs to go to Jerusalem. This is an extraordinary statement of love, but also an extraordinary display of courage. There is no boasting or bravado about how tough he is; Jesus simply acknowledges the grief he feels about what lies ahead.

I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon that I have been brooding for the past few weeks. This is mostly in the mother hen sense of feeling concerned for those in our congregation, and your family and friends who are sick or in distress. Some of these people are literally contemplating their own death and have talked about it with me. These are fine conversations to have, and I’m honored to be a part of them, but I am left feeling a bit like a mother hen, wishing I could gather everyone under my wings and shelter and protect them. Of course I can’t. If you have walked through the valley of the shadow of death with someone you care about, you know what I mean. I have found comfort, and offered comfort, through this image of the wings of God which are over us all. I realize now, though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, that that’s why the idea of prayer shawls to share in our congregation felt so important to me. If you weren’t at the Ash Wednesday service, you may not have seen the beautiful wool shawls and the variegated shawl which were knit by Lynn Foland, or the shawl from the Nigeria auction which we shared with Elkhart Valley. Since that Ash Wednesday service, I’ve become aware of other needs, some from outside our congregation, where a ministry of prayer might be welcome: Myrtis Justiniano has been gracious and skilled and swift enough to crochet several other shawls, some of which I have given away.

Prayer shawls have their roots in Jewish tradition: Numbers 15:39-40 talks about a fringed shawl, called a tallit, and the fringes are to remind the wearer of God’s commandments, and not to stray from them. A rosary from the Roman Catholic tradition functions similarly as an aid to prayer and a reminder to pray. Creekside’s prayer shawls can work however you want. If it reminds you to pray, that’s wonderful, but my intent is that they would be a tangible sign of the wings of God around us and the warmth and shelter of God’s love. You don’t need an actual garment to know this, of course, but sometimes it helps to have a physical reminder of God’s care and the prayers of our family of faith. It helps me to be able to share these shawls, especially in places where I cannot be physically present, and when I feel -- like Jesus looking over Jerusalem -- the powerlessness of not being able to gather and protect everyone in our congregation, and needing to surrender those situations to God’s care. I am blessed that unlike Jesus looking over Jerusalem, that I can pray over you, and I hardly ever feel like you’re going to kill me.

I want to say a final word and leave you with some thoughts to discuss in your Sunday School classes, your Lenten study groups, or to brood about on your own. The first would be to consider whether or not you would want to know the time and manner of your own death. Why or why not? The second is to consider the time and the manner of Jesus’ death. There are people -- educated, thoughtful people -- who would say that the purpose of Jesus’ life was to die on the cross, and that God had determined that event even before Jesus’ birth. I disagree. I would never diminish the importance of Jesus’ crucifixion as central to our faith, but I don’t think that for Jesus or for anyone else, the purpose of our lives is to die -- even if death is an inevitability. I’d encourage you to read Psalm 27, the psalm which is paired with this gospel reading in the lectionary. Read the whole thing, it isn’t long, but I was especially caught by the final verse: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord: be strong, and let your heart take courage.” I have been touched by the courage of people who are considering their own death and have the conviction that there is still meaning and purpose for their lives. I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” I believe Jesus’ purpose was to do the work of God his Father. God didn’t sent Jesus to earth to die, God sent Jesus to earth to live. That is God’s will for each one of us. We are called to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. These are deep theological waters I’m throwing you into, and I would encourage further conversations -- either for you to continue among yourselves or to have with me. I’m grateful so many of you are able to be in small groups where you can discuss questions of faith and belief, and I thank those leaders for their preparation. Thank you for your prayers for those who need to know that they are surrounded by God’s love. May God bless our brooding -- the contemplation and concern and prayer which are part of our lives together.

And now I invite you stand in the name of the God who raises us up and protects us with holy wings.


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