A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 28, 2010.
Read this text with a sharp eye on the imagery it evokes and it’s hard not to notice how the animal world is featured in this story. Admittedly it’s all words and dialogue yet the conversation uses words that create visual images in our brains when we hear them. Thus in a very subtle fashion, we “see” this story as well as we “hear” it. I suspect we understand the imagery through our emotive antennae where we differentiate between danger and safety. What we see evokes a feeling and all that seems to be intentional to underscore the meaning of the words that are said.
Jesus responded to a threat the Pharisees laid on him and he answered back derisively calling Herod “an old fox.” Words have power especially when deeper meanings are attached by drawing upon the imagery. Jesus was acknowledging the reality that Herod could, with the simplest decree, put a halt to Jesus’ ministry. Recall John the Baptizer’s beheading. But by calling Herod “an old fox,” Jesus put him in the category of the annoying petty thief, clever and capable, and in the end, not all that terrifying. Obviously he was minimizing him.
“Tell that old fox …” is just what you think it is. It’s a demonstration of confident power in answer to the power of the threat:
“(Think I’m worried about Herod?)
Tell that old fox today I’m casting out demons and performing cures, tomorrow too.
Then on the third day I finish my work.
Yet today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way
because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem”
(Based on Luke 13:32-33)
O my … Jesus shows no signs of fear or anxiety and plainly tells the Pharisees what his plans are. He’s living out in the open where if anyone wants to threaten him, they’ll have to come out into the open to carry out their threats.
The signs of fear and anxiety are everywhere around us. Terrorism, the healthcare debate, partisan politics filled with ugly and hateful language for anyone who believes differently than we do, economic hardships marked by unemployment and economic stagnation, despair and worry. As poet Adrienne Rich once wrote in her poem, An Atlas of the Difficult World, it only takes a bit of ice on a road or a few cells dividing out of control to steal away our loved ones.
We catalog bits and pieces of difficult news as a daily litany fearful of what might destroy us until all those fears seep into our consciousness as we try to protect ourselves from the threats we perceive in the world. This past Wednesday night a team of thieves broke windows in seven cars of Holmeswood members and others who were here for the evening activities. From triangulating when various persons arrived at church, we understand that these thieves operated very quickly in breaking windows and rifling through the cars. This morning, I thoughtfully decided where best to park my car and locked it.
We can choose to react in fear and shut something important, something essential in us down, and the tendency is to close down to the fear unwilling to live in defiance of the nature of anxiety. Pam Fickenscher tells us we can “collect these kinds of stories of loss as warning signs that constantly tell us which paths not to go down, until finally we are stuck in our ‘safe’ zones, limiting our activities, our relationships, our sharing of resources with others.”  She wisely points out that we can spend so much time, guarding our health, our possessions, and our safety that we miss the point of traveling this life at all. Maybe this is an example of Jesus modeling that safety and security may not be the faithful life.
One last thing about how Jesus handles the threat of Herod. Notice how he frames his response with “today, tomorrow and the next day?” He says simply, “If you want to know where I’ll be, here’s my agenda” as if he’s calling Herod’s bluff. Don’t go looking all over the countryside, don’t even put your spies out to tail me, he seems to be suggesting. I’m intrigued, however, by the 3-day scenario of “today, tomorrow and the next day.” He even uses the phrase “the third day” in such a tantalizing way one cannot help but wonder if Jesus is looking over the horizon to when he enters Jerusalem and “today, tomorrow and the next day” turn into Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning, the third day. Then on the third day I finish my work,” he says that as if it has some importance it seems to me. What do you think?
Then Jesus turned the imagery on its head and referred to himself as a brooding mother hen whose wings are spread in order to comfort her chicks by offering them her wings where they willing gather.
Two strong images … both meant to convey by contrast two very different ideas, but not really ideas we hold in our cognitive thoughts as much as they’re emotive images meant to help the listener feel something rather than to think an idea. The fox makes us feel a sense of threat because foxes are sneaky and always after something they can kill and eat. That makes the protectiveness of the mother hen stand out even stronger. The chicks feel the threat and seek out the protective wings of the hen for safety
Realize they’re not thrown down simultaneously in one breath nor do the two need one another to exist in the story, but they’re surely thrown down alongside one another in the subtlest of ways in a manner we can’t ignore. Jesus was subtle but he wasn’t ignorant of what he was doing. It’s so obvious when you see it you can’t ignore it. So, some have preached this sermon and titled their sermons, “The Fox and the Hen,” as if it was another of the many barnyard fables!
Along the side of the Mount of Olives as one winds down from the crest of the hill down to the Garden of Gethsemane, one passes Dominus Flevit, a Franciscan chapel built to commemorate the powerful moment when Jesus was moved to tears over Jerusalem in Luke 19. Built in the mid-1950’s, it stands looking across the Kidron Valley to the Temple Mount where in the time of Jesus, one could marvel at the Temple itself (today the two structure on the Temple Mount are Islamic structures of worship). Jesus looked across the valley and wept over the rejection he felt.
Here’s how Barbara Brown Taylor describes the chapel: “Inside the chapel, the altar is centered before a high arched window that looks out over the city. Iron grillwork divides the view into sections, so that on a sunny day the effect is that of a stained-glass window. The difference is that this subject is alive. It is not some artist’s rendering of the holy city but the city itself, with the Dome of the Rock in the bottom left corner and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the middle. Two-thirds of the view is the cloudless sky above the city, which the grillwork turns into a quilt of blue squares … Down below, on the front of the altar, is a picture of what never happened in that city. It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb resembles a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. There are seven of them, with black dots for eyes and orange dots for beaks. They look happy to be there. The hen looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies. The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin. Translated into English they read, ‘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!’ The last phrase is set outside the circle, in a pool of red underneath the chicks’ feet: ‘You were not willing.’”
They’re perhaps the saddest words in the whole Bible: But you were not willing. Over and over again we’re impressed with the freedom we’re given – free to chose or not to chose. Free to say yes and free to say no. The relationship is never forced and God always offers more than one choice. We’re free. Free to enjoy God’s garden or free to eat from even that tree God says no to. Free to get in the boat with Noah or free to try our luck swimming. Free to say “I’m in,” or “I’m not.” Free to get up close with Jesus, like a chick to a mother hen, or not to.
Mother hens have a special cluck they make and when they make that noise all their baby chicks come running and they scurry to get under her wings as if they were completely safe from all those outside threats that would do them harm. If you’ve been raised on a farm, you realize there’s not always safety under those wings, especially if a fox is slinking around the chicken coop.
The cross looms large, even in this story, and Jesus is brave with Herod’s wish to kill him and the subtle threats the Pharisees seem all too eager to deliver on his behalf. Jesus is the mother hen and her clucking doesn’t scare anyone away. She has no sharp teeth, no weapons.
“All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body … If the fox wants her chicks, 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.”
 Adrienne Rich, An Atlas of the Difficult World, Poems 1988-1991, W.W. Norton and Company, 1991
 Fickenscher, Ibid
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “As a hen gathers her brood,” Christian Century, February 25, 1998, 201
 Thanks to Burt L. Burleson, “The Fox and the Hen,” for this section of the sermon on human freedom, DaySpring Baptist Church, Waco, 3/7/04
 Taylor, Ibid
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).