In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus says, “How often have I desired to gather [you] together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Jesus’ image is tender: A chick would feel entirely safe nestled in the cleft of his mother’s wing. He would feel the softness of his sisters and brothers gathered in tightly ‘round. He would feel the warmth of community. He would feel that while he might be small, his mother is big. While he might be weak, his mother is strong.
It is unusual for Jesus to describe himself in terms of a feminine metaphor. More often, Jesus presents himself in the role of a strong, hardworking man: The sower, whose seeds fall on different kinds of soil. The shepherd, who searches for his lost sheep. The master of the house, who leaves a treasure with his servants in the hope that they will make it grow. Yet, here, Jesus describes himself as a mother hen. He evokes love rather than power.
At the same time, the image of a mother hen is hardly meek and mild. Hens tend only to gather their broods when they sense danger. Jesus’ story implies that the barn is under threat: The fox has found his way in. The hen stands ready to give her life to save the lives of her children. Jesus says, in St. John’s gospel, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus says in today’s reading: I want to love you that much.
The parallel to Jesus’ own story of self-sacrifice is not hard to see. But, what does Jesus mean when he says that we are not willing let him love us this way?
Consider the story from the perspective of the chicks: Like us, the chicks are attracted to the warm and tender image of being gathered under the wings of a parent figure who will love them and protect them no matter what comes their way. Unlike us, the chicks are willing to let their mother be in control. The chicks are willing to acknowledge their smallness and let her be big; they are willing to acknowledge their weakness and let her be strong.
No matter how attractive I might find the idea of God taking care of me, the illusion of self-reliance is usually more alluring. I like the idea of God’s protection, but I would prefer to be the protector. I like the idea of God’s provision, but I would prefer to be the provider. I like the idea of God’s bigness, but I have no desire to acknowledge my smallness.
The life of a chick is hard. Foxes are on the prowl, and the barn door is open. In my heart, I know that I cannot defend myself and my soul against the assaults of modern life, but I sure do want to try. There is no power to be had under the wings of my mother, no room for advancement, no sense that I am in charge. And so, I demure. I thank my mother for her very kind offer, and I choose to stand on my own, taking my chances with the fox.
Often, I enjoy success. My wits and my strength can carry me a good long way, but no one’s capacity is infinite. Someday – perhaps through a frightening diagnosis, or a deal gone bad, or an act of pure evil committed against us through no fault of our own – someday, each one of us will reach the edge of what we can handle. And, on that day, we will meet Jesus in an entirely new way; we will hide ourselves under his wings.
We spend our whole lives striving towards self-reliance, straining towards self-reliance, at times even gasping for self-reliance. And then, just when we think we have found it, self-reliance vanishes before our eyes. Jesus’ invitation in today’s gospel reading is to find our place under his wings now, before our inevitable moment of crisis, before we realize what he already knows: Self-reliance is a mirage.
Travel back in your minds to Jesus’ barnyard: Pretend that the fox is still at bay and assume that the chicks accept their mother’s offer to gather under her wings. What would their experience be? The chicks would feel entirely safe in a place set apart from their experience of the world. The chicks would feel the softness of their siblings gathered tightly ‘round. Sure, there might be the occasional bout of pushing and shoving, someone’s beak might accidentally poke someone else’s tummy, someone’s foot might sometimes end up on someone else’s face, but the warmth of the community would be unmistakable. There would be an overwhelming sense of security and belonging.
At its best, the church is a community of chicks gathered under the wings of a loving mother who is willing to give her life in our defense. We may not always get along perfectly well, but with God and with each other, we can know that we are at home; we can know that we are safe.
Imagine what would happen if we were to let God love us in this way, in a way that took the weight of the world off our shoulders. Imagine what would happen if we all felt completely secure. We might feel safe enough to be more generous, more honest with the people we love, more willing to step out in faith. A sense of safety is a precious gift in these turbulent times. A sense of safety is the sort of gift that can change the world.
Jesus says, “How often have I desired to gather [you] together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” Perhaps this Lent, we will be willing.
 Reference to Luke 8:4-15, Luke 15:3-7, and Luke 19:11-27.