Fierce Mother Love
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend WA, February 21, 2016.
Jesus is making his way towards Jerusalem. He has travelled through many cities and villages preaching and teaching and healing. Much is happening in this 13th chapter, mid way through the Gospel according to Luke. The chapter starts with Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath which is just not done… We know that there will be great repercussions. Parables then come streaming one after another… Jesus offers a sketch of what God’s reign is about … “It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” (Luke 13: 18-19). Jesus then offers another image… God’s reign is like… a small handful of yeast that causes bread to rise and become more than it could possibly be on its own.
There is one more story before we hear Jesus’ lament over the Jerusalem, the city that represents the heart of all that is amiss, a city that is evidence of the way that religion and culture have become misaligned with God’s dream and have strayed from God’s hope for the people. The imperial powers, the government, are off the rails. Jerusalem represents the regional home of fear and injustice. Jerusalem is also the epicenter of possibility. Jesus wants to stir the beloved out of their stupor. But there is one more story before Jesus laments the beloved city. We hear Jesus offer the image of a narrow door. Not everyone will make it through these times of trial but Jesus implores the people. In essence he says: “strive my friends… strive to follow the way of abundant life into a God’s realm in which power relationships are turned upside down. The power of Rome, the power of murderous magistrates is not the final word. There will be a reckoning and the earthly measures of power and success will no longer apply. In essence Jesus says: “I want you to understand this. It requires your participation. There will be a cost. The cost means that you realign yourselves with God’s way that offers life to all, not just to a few. Come this way, enter here. Follow me.” Once through the narrow door:
29… people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 30Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. (Luke 13:29-30)
It is at this point that there is a pause for lament. Apparently Herod Antipas, the son of the paranoid and murderous King Herod, who is known for the “Slaughter of the Innocents” at the time of Jesus’ birth, had heard what Jesus was up to and he was planning on bringing him in for questioning. The Pharisees are not always the bad guys. Jesus had been known to eat with them and teach at their tables, often in opposition to their ideas and ways, but Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees is always in the form conversation. In this moment the Pharisees are telling Jesus that Herod is out to kill him. Jesus responds:
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.’
When Jesus refers to Herod as a “fox” he is not giving a complement. He is not saying that Herod is sly and cunning. In ancient Israel foxes were deemed unclean. Great men were called “lions.” Jesus referring to Herod as a fox was essentially calling him an insignificant, morally depraved weakling and small-fry. Jesus wants Herod to know that he has more work to do before his mission is accomplished. He will not back down. Arrival in Jerusalem will inevitably lead to death… as had been the experience of many a prophet. At this moment Jesus is not the image of a kind and gentle shepherd. He is fired up. He has his bearings. He is not mincing words and he is going to continue moving forward to Jerusalem and something radically new is in the works. I am heading to Jerusalem… not just to die… for death won’t stop me… death will not be the end of the story… there is more to come after that… and you all are part of this great movement.
In the very next moment we hear Jesus express heart break as a parent’s heart breaks for her wayward children. The great city has killed, and will continue to kill, those who are most faithful. It doesn’t need to be this way. This is not the end of the story. What Jesus wants most of all… is for God’s people to love and care for one another, to feed one another and to lift up the poor and the oppressed… but alas… beloved Jerusalem hasn’t listened, it won’t listen… Jesus laments the great city that has not heeded the message of prophets who have been sent time and time again… Jerusalem’s unfaithfulness is wrenching. Jesus desires to gather up the wayward beloved and provide parental protection from their own misguided and unfaithful ways. He yearns to nurture and protect. “How often have I desired to gather you children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus wishes to teach and heal the children of Israel but they resist. His heart is breaking… the time has not yet come.
This is a passionate Jesus… who is using the imagery of the nurture and shelter…of a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her… this image may not have been at all strange in his time. In several places the Psalms there are references to God offering protection beneath the feathered wings of refuge but comfort:
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. (Psalm 91:4)
As Jesus laments Jerusalem he yearns to draw the whole world to himself, to nurture and protect against those foxes who are out for blood. Jesus so loved the world that he is willing to do whatever it takes, as a parent will do whatever it takes for his, for her children. In a 1986 article Barbara Brown Taylor writes of Jesus’ fierce passion:
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…
… Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first; which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter.
She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her — wings spread, breast exposed — without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart . . . but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.1
There are many images of Jesus, and not any one image can convey his fullness. Jesus has said: “I am”… the good shepherd, the light of the world, the bread of life, the true vine, the way, the truth and the life. The image of Jesus as a nurturing mother does not rise up familiarly to the top list, but the image is there and it has not been lost over the centuries. Almost a thousand years ago the Italian Saint Anselm, wrote: “And you, Jesus, good Lord, are you also not a Mother? Would a mother not be one who, like a hen, gathers her young beneath her wings? In truth, Lord, you are my Mother.”
The fifteenth century English mystic Julian of Norwich wrote of her intense experience of Christ. In her book Showings, Julian recounts her experience of being on the verge of her own death, with a desire to experience, as closely as possible, Jesus’ passion. In her writings Julian often uses feminine images:
- As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.2
- “Our saviour is our true Mother, in whom we are endlessly born” 3
- I understand three ways of contemplating motherhood in God. The first is the foundation of our nature’s creation; the second is his taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins; the third is the motherhood at work . . . and it is all one love.”4
Julian also uses many images for God as father. All the images of Jesus are incomplete. All metaphors for God, the “Uncreated Eternal” who is the great “I AM”… our God who is both knowable and beyond our full understanding… are incomplete. Today we hear Jesus crack open our understanding just a bit more. We are not to rest in any one image or metaphor but to invite the fully ineffable God to work in us ….to break us open… and then to break us open some more… stubborn concepts and all… that we may know ever greater life in God’s enduring love.
Motherhood is about birth, and heartache and nurture. We are invited to explore the rich imagery of the wrenching labor that will be taking place on Good Friday that will lead to the Easter of new life.
At the close of the 2006 Episcopal General Convention Katharine Jefferts-Schori, the then newly elected Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, addressed the convention. In her sermon she lifts up the image of Jesus as mother for our challenging and fear-filled times. She said:
That sweaty, bloody, tear-stained labor of the cross bears new life. Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation – and you and I are His children. If we’re going to keep on growing into Christ-images for the world around us, we’re going to have to give up fear.5
Jesus continues to call to us, even as he laments our stubborn ways.
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
1 Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Century, Feb 25, 1986. 2 Julian of Norwich, Showings, (296).
3 Ibid. (292)
4 Ibid. (97)
5Jenny Bledsoe, “Feminine Images of Jesus: Later Medieval Christology and the Devaluation of the Feminine,” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2011, pg. 56.