Words are like rubber bands; they can get old and worn out and lose their “snap,” especially when used over and over again. Sallie McFague makes this point in her book Models of God, that our metaphors for God can get so overused we confuse them with what we think is God’s first (and only) name. We forget Father and Son and Holy Ghost are metaphors, descriptors of relationships we have with God – and we forget these are not the only relationships we can have, not the only metaphors we can use.
Which is why I love the passage below, from Luke 13; I was cruising for a text to meditate on this week, and to share in our Monday night Lenten prayer group, and I came across this one in the lectionary scriptures for next Sunday, the second Sunday of Lent.
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus], “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” [Jesus] said to them, “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. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” — Luke 13:31-35
There’s a lot of insider, quasi-coded communication going on in this text, but this isn’t sermon preparation so I’m not going to break it all down; I’m just going to dwell on Jesus the Mother Hen.
First comes the grin of thinking that if Jesus is the mother hen who wants to gather me in, along with the rest of the brood, then that makes me a Jesus chick. (I feel a t-shirt coming on, here ….) New words and new ways to use them give me the feeling that Jesus – God with skin on, after all – is right here with me, right now. Not just a used-to-be person who used-to-be with other people …
I stretch the metaphor around a little. “Our Mother Hen, who art …”
The first three words may feel too funny to be prayer, but if I stay with it …
“Our Mother Hen, who art brooding over us, hallowed be thy sheltering wings … Forgive our unwillingness to come into your embrace.”
Brooding … that’s how I like to think of Genesis 1:2. Some translations describe the Spirit of God moving over the primordial waters; some translations say hovering, and some say brooding. On this day, I am comforted to think of a mothering God not just moving over me, not just hovering near, but brooding over me. Leaning near, listening, watching, thinking about me; covering, protecting, providing for and guiding me, even when I am reluctant to accept these forms of love, unable to believe a Love like this is wrapped all around me, all the time.
The foxes can seem so much more real. I have mine. I am sure you have yours.
And what is it that this Mother Hen of a God wants to do? Gather me in … with you. Gather us together. Near enough to know when one of us is hungry, thirsty, lonely, lost … how else will we love each other? And if we don’t, who will?
God creates out of desire: we are part of this creation, made in the image of this desiring God. We desire love, and to love, and yet create myths of boot-strapping individualism, Darwinist meritocracy, lesser humans and greater humans, all to justify our separations and striations. We have a love/hate relationship with the very thing we are created for: our gathering.
I need a Mother Hen of a God to show me a better way. Otherwise the house I have created will be left to me: a house of things, not companionship; a house of pride, not mutuality; a house of silence, not laughter; a house of loneliness, not community.
Do you remember the movie Life as a House? Kevin Kline plays a man named George Monroe, who builds architectural models, wonderful little precise realizations of architects’ dreams. But all the while he carefully assembles these microcosmic models, his life is going to pieces around him on a large scale.
As the movie starts and we meet George, he is finding out that he has cancer, and that he is dying, and that death is coming soon. The fortune hidden in this bitter cookie is that in learning how to die you sometimes get one more chance to learn how to live, and in Life as a House, we see George struggling to learn this lesson, in the nick of time.
The classroom for the lesson is an old house he’s lived in for years. It is a wreck, still standing out of sheer force of habit. A little like George, maybe.
George quite literally ropes his teenage son into the project of tearing down the house and building a new one. This takes a lot of ropes. The boy, Sam, has to be hauled out of his dark Goth bedroom, stripped of his makeup and drugs, and transported out to the old house, which teeters on the edge of a coastal cliff.
George begins demolishing the house around them, and out of frustration and anger at his dad, Sam finally picks up a sledgehammer and takes a swing at a wall. George says “Yeah, I know all about anger at your dad. I hated my dad pretty much my whole life. And when he died and he left me this house, I hated this house and I hated living here and I hated myself. And now I’ve had enough of hate. This house is coming down.”
And so it does. Some scenes later, a long camera pan reveals George, sitting in a lawn chair on the just-completed foundation, like an ocean-front deck, sun settling into the shining sea in the background. But a foundation does not a house make, and so we get to see the walls come up, as slowly but surely a small community forms around the two-by-fours … nail by nail, beam by beam, shingle by shingle, George and his friends and family rebuild his house, his life, even as his body falls apart.
George’s story is our story, too. In the midst of every death and loss, there is a possibility for something new to grow, a freedom to be gathered in new ways, to take on new shapes, to build new lives.
I think of my mother’s approaching death; it seems to be wrapping around her like a cocoon. We on the outside are frustrated by what looks like an absence of quality of life. We are grieved that our words cannot reach her, and that her sounds and motions seem meaningless. But maybe this is just what it looks like for the walls of a life to come down, for the old stories to fall away, so that a new one can begin.
This is the nature of the Hen’s house, after all: it’s a place of many stories, many homes, many understandings … where new life is beginning, where we are invited into the warmth and company of gathered sisters and brothers, at their work and play and rest … where we can be gathered in, to find a friend or neighbor or loved one coming to us in our time of need, to whom we can say with a full and comforted heart, “‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”