Sermon preached by Archdeacon Trevor Harrison at the Midnight Mass of the Nativity 25 December 2019 It’s a marvellous, wonderful,... read more
Gen 15:1-12,17-18 Phil 3:17-4:1 Luke 13:31-35
What did you think of that conversation in our Gospel reading today? There was so much happening in what was just a short single conversation: warnings, threats, longings, compassion, and declarations. So many players were part of it: Herod wanting to maintain power by removing anyone he saw as a threat, a bunch of Pharisees - this lot whispering words of warning to Jesus – not the usual portrayal of his relating to Pharisees, references to the people of the city of Jerusalem who were beloved of God and yet did not want to know it, and Jesus continuing to minister healing, reconciliation and wholeness all the while knowing that soon he would be in Jerusalem where he would die.
And there was some pretty strong language coming out of the mouth of Jesus: “Go and tell that Fox ” he refers to Herod as. We in NZ can only understand the nature of such a metaphor through documentaries or story books. We might perceive of a fox as sly or cunning. Perhaps presenting beautifully with sharp beady eyes, a striking coat and tail, and yet capable of planning moves to feed themselves and their young no matter what havoc they cause in doing so. Why did Jesus use such language to refer to Herod? This is not the Herod whose lust for power saw little boys under the age of 2 murdered when Jesus was born. No, this is his son, Herod Antipas. He was the one who had John the Baptist beheaded, even though he knew John was a holy man. It is this Herod who would later meet with Jesus in Jerusalem, and not getting what he wanted from him, he would send Jesus to Pontius Pilate and so closer to the cross.
There is another metaphor Jesus uses in this story. A metaphor of complete contrast: that of a hen and her chicks. At the tiny school where I taught we set up an incubator each spring with a dozen fertile hen eggs in it. The children would carefully turn the eggs twice a day and keep an eye on the temperature and humidity until the day came for the eggs to hatch. After a few years the old incubator broke down and sadly we were not a wealthy enough school to afford to replace it. However one morning Symone, one of the senior girls came to school with a hen – a bantam hen in a small cage, like the ones you might use to take a small animal to the vet. Symone brought the cage into the library where we gathered first thing in the morning and set it down. The children were intrigued. As we began to talk quietly about how this day would unfold, a small child let out a squeal. The other children looked at the cage but saw that nothing seemed to be different. However the attention of everyone was now not on our school day, but on the cage. What had that little person seen? As quietness descended again in the library, small peeping sounds could be heard. The children looked at each other, eyes bright with wonder. Almost unable to breathe as they waited. And then it happened. Slowly small feathery heads popped up amongst the wing feathers of the bantam or from under the soft feathers of her breast. The children watched in silent awe. The mother hen murmured in bantam language softly to her brood of chicks. At the slightest outburst from especially our youngest children, the tiny feathered heads disappeared once more into the warmth and safety of the bantam’s body and wings. As the children grasped what was happening, they grew quieter, and watched as the chicks emerged and ran over their mum’s back or scurried around the cage. 6 little fluffy bundles of downy feathers. The children learnt that day of the immense love the bantam hen had for her young. Symone spoke of the hen’s protection of her chicks should a hawk or cat appeared on their farm. The Bantam would cover her baby chicks with her wings, she herself becoming vulnerable because in the spreading her wings, her breast was exposed and her strong legs which might protect her hidden as she crouched low to ensure that her chicks were not visible. She would protect them even at the risk of her own death. She would call to her chicks to come running but each chick decided for itself whether it would run and hide in the safety of her body or not. And it is this love, this longing that Jesus is speaking of when he spoke of Jerusalem and the anguish when they rejected him. A deep and intense love that would soon see Jesus lay down his life for that city and for each of us.
As well as those metaphors, Jesus also spoke of his needing to keep working regardless of what was going to happen. Just a few weeks ago, we listened to this ministry from Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus stood up and read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)
In spite of the warning from those Pharisees to flee, Jesus remained and continued with the ministry God had given him, acknowledging that in time he would move even closer to death as he journeyed towards Jerusalem. And it is to this same ministry that we as Christ’s body here are also called. Amidst all that challenges us as the people of St Mary’s, displaced from our Sacred building, yes - even in the midst of all that is difficult just now, we are still called to be people of mission and ministry: members of the Community of the Cross of Nails whose calling is to be a people of peace and reconciliation, called also to be a people who minister love and hope to the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised. Perhaps as never before we have an understanding of what it means to be powerless and to be displaced. For us, a temporary displacement from our building, for many in our community and our world, it is a much longer vacuum as homeless people, as refugees, or as trafficked children, or as victims of war.
Not only does our Gospel reminds us of the mission and ministry we are called to, but the metaphor of the Mother Hen and her chicks also speaks to us as we face the changes in this worshipping community. Jesus is here with a gentle love, the kind that a mother hen has for her tiny defenceless chicks. We can be drawn, if we allow ourselves, under the protective wings of the one who loves us. The one who laid down his life for us.
There is an Annie Herring song released in the 90s, which has a repetitive phrase in its lyrics, “And child, when you're afraid, just come runnin' home” Those are “hen and chicks” lyrics. Come running home and shelter under the wings of Jesus. Psalm 91 also speaks of it with the words “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”
In my listening to people over recent weeks, it is apparent that a number of us feel powerless as we find ourselves in the midst of so much that is changing with our closed Cathedral building and with changes for Dean Jamie and for Anne who have led us so beautifully for these last years. In all of this, the invitation from Jesus just now, is to come running and dwell close to him.
Perhaps it is not the closure of the building or changes in the Ministry Team but other factors like an illness or the reality of the aging process or grief or other ways in which you find yourself feeling powerless. The invitation is still to draw closer to Jesus.
What would that look like for us? It is drawing close to Jesus with our tears, our strong feelings, our sadness, our fears, and our sense of powerlessness. And as we do so, we will find in Jesus, one who understands what it is to be taken to where he did not want to go, and to feel vulnerable and powerless. We will find him as we pray prayers like the prayer Jesus prayed over Jerusalem. His prayer was a lament, a cry filled with sadness and frustration. If you read the psalms, you will find there are many laments within that book. What is your lament just now? God welcomes those cries just as we willingly bear the cry of our own children when they are struggling. It is about drawing closer to God in prayer, allowing our lament, our cries, our hopes and longings to come to the place where there is grace, and the salve for our pain.
And then like the scrambling of the chicks settling down under the wings of the mother hen, as we watch and our eyes become accustomed to what is around us, we will notice each other and start realising what we do have: the gifts that remain here for us. Like being nourished as we receive in the Eucharist each week, knowing that we will always receive of this grace no matter where we worship. Like gathering together to treasure and encourage each other week by week, listening to and supporting each other. Like knowing that we remain deeply loved by God. Like the offering of worship through the music from our choir and musical director reaching into the depths of our being as God ministers to us through the beauty of this gift. Like seeing in the eyes of each other, an out pouring of love as the body of Christ here in this place. Yes, there are gifts even in this time of uncertainty.
As we look onwards into the days before us, we are invited to dwell in that safe place close to Jesus.
What will you hold on to as we journey together?
How will we support each other?
Where will our focus be?
And as we walk this difficult part of our journey together, how will we be a people of mission and ministry, for this will never cease to be our calling.