This Is How You Stand

There is an excellent article written by Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor that has been making the rounds this week. She writes movingly about this week’s gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary, in which Jesus laments over Jerusalem, wishing he could gather her people like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. I quoted a lengthy chunk of the article in my sermon from this Sunday — but there was more I could have shared, so much more I would have liked to say if the sermon hadn’t gone in a different direction.

Rev. Brown Taylor writes:

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.

Given the number of animals available, it is curious that Jesus chooses a hen. Where is the biblical precedent for that? What about the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? What about the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a mother hen does not inspire much confidence. No wonder some of the chicks decided to go with the fox.

But a hen is what Jesus chooses, which — if you think about it –is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks.

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 it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood”

This contrast between fox and hen — along with the repeated refrain of “If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand” — has been echoing in my mind, especially as I reflect on things happening in the world right now. Over the last two weeks, like many other people, I have been watching the events unfolding in Ukraine with horror: so much unprovoked aggression and violence and destruction, fueled by the ego of a lying, calculating dictator and his regime, seeking to increase his power; so many people displaced and forced to flee, so many lives needlessly lost.

But Putin’s expectation of a swift, easy military victory has been stymied at nearly every turn. Though outmanned and outgunned, the people of Ukraine have refused to just give up their country and their independence without a fight. They have courageously stood their ground and kept the Russian forces at bay. And practically no one has shown more courage than the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Instead of doing the smart, self-interested thing by fleeing the country, or at least hunkering down somewhere secret and safe, Zelenskyy has boldly remained in Kyiv, even despite numerous assassination attempts. He’s even been posting videos of himself in his office and on the streets of the city to show that he has not abandoned the people of Ukraine. Like that image of the mama hen, Zelenskyy is ready and willing to protect his people, even at the cost of his own life.

I don’t mean to say that Volodymyr Zelenskyy is perfectly like Christ (though they do at least have in common that they’re both Jewish) — nor am I trying to paint him as some kind of god or unblemished saint. From what I can tell, he seems like a pretty regular person, a former comedian turned politician, a man of faith who is 100% human. And that actually makes it all the more astonishing and inspiring that he is choosing to do what he’s doing. He has chosen to lead with courage and love, rather than with aggression or fear. He’s leading with love for his people, with courage in the face of danger, acting with integrity by doing the right thing rather than just trying to save his own skin.

The example he is setting is an inspiration — it’s a potent witness to what ordinary people can do when led by extraordinary love. And it’s a powerful reminder to us all that, when you mean what you say, this is how you stand.

Lutheran World Relief is working to deliver urgent support and care to the people of Ukraine, like critically needed items for families who fled their homes, and medicine and supplies for clinics. Consider making a donation to help these relief efforts for our neighbors in Ukraine.

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