Of Chicks and Hens

For the reader of Scripture, one of the more humbling aspects of Biblical imagery is its tendency to use animals as metaphors for humans. After all, who really wants to be compared to sheep? But I imagine, too, that very few people would want to be assigned the fate of the goats. Nor is it flattering to be likened to the dull and stupid beasts that perish, or to wolves that deceive, or to wily foxes, or certainly not to dogs that eat the crumbs under tables.

So, we could do worse than to be compared to the avian offspring of a mother hen. Baby chickens are, after all, awfully cute. What grumpy person wouldn’t be somewhat cheered up by the image of a little chicken, covered in soft, downy feathers ambling about on unsteady legs?

And being compared to the brood of a hen is all the more compelling when we reflect on the protection that accompanies it. The hen is far more than a testy barnyard animal with ruffled feathers. The mother hen, newly delivered of offspring, has one purpose: to protect her young and to provide a blanket of warmth to nurture them. The mother hen spreads herself, almost sacrificially, over her little ones to shield them from harm. The mother hen is in the most wonderful sense deeply maternal and concerned with the welfare of her baby chickens. In the end, comparing ourselves to little birds under the all-encompassing care of a mother hen is not so bad.

Is it really a stretch, then, to imagine that Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem is in some sense directed to us, who were grafted onto the branch of Israel? Are we not, in some sense, a brood of fumbling, newly-birthed birds, whom God desires to gather under his wings when we have gone away from the nest ?

In his lament, it is as if Jesus, in despair over Jerusalem’s rejection of God’s will, is speaking as the voice of God. He is pronouncing words from his heavenly Father to all times and places, words from a mother hen to her disobedient brood. Lest we presume that Jesus’s mournful words are directed at only one specific city in the first century AD or to one group of people who persistently scorned God’s word of truth, we need only look around us now to see the continual repudiation of those who speak in God’s name.

How many of God’s prophets have been killed since Jesus’s lament over the Holy City? How many modern-day disciples of Jesus are ignored, rejected, and worse yet, murdered? It seems that Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem has continued its plaintive cry of sorrow and has followed, almost as a shadow side, the proclamation of the good news to the ends of the earth. Because wherever the good news has been preached, it has also been shunned.

And if we are little chicks in a time in which prophets and seekers after righteousness are stoned and killed, there is comfort and hope in the protective wings of God, who is concerned not only for the sparrows of this world but also for the little tiny chickens that need some direction in their journey of faith.

But if we are in some sense complicit with ancient Jerusalem in its renunciation of God’s truth, and if we are the heirs of the ones who stoned those sent by God, we are surely different from little, innocent chicks. We are not quite the cute progeny of a hen, snuggling our helpless, defenseless bodies under the incubatory cover of a protective parent.

If we’re honest, to be compared to the brood of a mother hen means that we are far closer to more self-sufficient chickens, those precocial birds who are capable of straying from the mother hen’s nest, soon after birth, while still returning back to the fold for warmth and nourishment.[1] In reality, these birds are not quite so guileless. They have garnered enough independence to have their feathers ruffled and engage in squabbles. They can also be cruel, as they nip at one another to vie for places of importance in the pecking order.

In an ideal animal world, the young chickens begin to imprint or bond themselves onto their mother soon after birth. In this nurturing relationship, the mother is a source of guidance and gentle discipline for her young. But it doesn’t mean that the chicks won’t rebel. And it doesn’t mean that the little birds won’t fail to bond with their maternal guide and wander away in errant behavior.

The mother hen, you see, does not control her young. She offers her body as a shield against harm and as necessary heat for growth, but at some point after birth, the mother hen must wean her chicks from herself. They must learn to survive in the wild world on their own without the safety of a nest to which they can return.

 If we are to adopt Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem as relevant to us and to our context, it is clear that we live in some kind of in-between time, between two worlds: the world of Jesus on earth and the world when he comes again. We live with the imprint of God on our world that was left by his only Son, an imprint that is frequently neglected and ignored. And yet we look ahead to a time to come in which that imprint’s full clarity is reclaimed.

In this in-between time, our house has truly been left to us. We journey between the time of Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father and his coming again in power and great glory, to judge both the living and the dead.

And meanwhile, in this transitional time of the earthly journey, the deliberate wandering away from the shelter of the divine wings has led to chaos, darkness, and evil. God’s less-than-innocent little birds have ventured forth from the nest in willful disobedience, viciously biting one another, tearing one another to pieces, and making a mess of things. The pecking order has gone awry, so that some act as if there is only room for certain members of the brood to nest under the shadow of God’s wings. And God’s holy houses have been turned into arenas strewn with the carnage resulting from cruelty and hate.

God’s desire to gather his brood from all nations under his wings of maternal protection has been disrupted by vile distortions of God’s truth. The wings of divine protection have been wings contorted by wayward chicks into weapons to slaughter the innocent. And too many in God’s vast brood of birds have strayed far from the imprint of their heavenly Father.

Surveying the landscape, it might seem that God has indeed abandoned our house to us. It might seem that we are left impotent with our broken wings, unable to fly the coop when the fighting begins and escape to safety. It can appear as if there are no longer wings under which we can take refuge to shield us from the wretchedness around us.

But God doesn’t smother us with wings. God’s wings, broad and generous in love, honoring the dignity that comes with freedom, will not restrain us in the nest against our will. God has left us the gift of his imprint on us, but we must choose to claim it.

Even among the torn feathers and in spite of the horrid exclusions of the pecking order, Christ’s promise still remains. He will come again. And when he does, we must be prepared to greet him with confidence as the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord. This greeting will be unlike the sardonic “Hosannas!” of Jesus’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, which quickly morphed into cries of “Crucify him!” This greeting, our greeting, will be one that announces the fulfillment of God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

For the gentle, protective wings of the mother hen are still awaiting the return of the prodigal brood. The mark of the mother hen, offered to the offspring of this world so long ago, is still waiting to be recovered and realized in word and deed.

Betwixt and between, in our earthly sojourn, and in the holy mysteries of the Mass, we, too, adopt Christ’s plaintive plea over Jerusalem: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” As earth and heaven meet in this glorious banquet, we turn back to God’s nest and offer up our cry for God to gather again that aimless brood, hobbling with their broken wings amid torn feathers and wounded bodies.

Responding to Christ’s lament with our own, we turn back to the heavenly roost with our own entreaty: Oh, Christ, how we want to see you again, face to face! Oh, Heavenly Dove, how we long to dwell once again, all nations, all broods, under the span of your wings. Oh, Father, take our house and make it yours again.

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
10 March 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

[1] Wolter, Michael, Wayne Coppins, and Christoph Heilig, The Gospel According to Luke (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017), 205.

Posted on March 17, 2019 .

A Wandering Aramean Was My Father

A wandering Aramean was my father;  and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.  And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which thou, O LORD, hast given me. (Deut 26:5-10)

A wandering Aramean was my father.

A certain fascination prevails these days with genetic antecedents and genealogical research.  It’s a fascination that, I have to admit, mostly eludes me.  When I go to Ireland and they hear my name, they tell me it’s so common I could be from anywhere.  Little do they know that I am more Slovak than Irish, but I remain satisfied that my parents did not name me after my maternal grandfather, Andrishku.

It may seem strange to begin Lent with talk of family trees.  But you can read the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert as a paternity test administered by the devil, who begins it all by challenging, “if you are the Son of God.”  So it seems like safe ground to tread.

You might wonder why on a day like today we don’t hear the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden - of that first trespass that turned the faucet on and left it running.  If it was the church’s intention to ask us to wallow in our sins all day long, and rub our noses in it, then such a reading might be a good idea.  But contrary to much conventional wisdom, the church’s best and true intention is not to berate us about our sins (not even on the first Sunday in Lent) but to show us the way of hope.

From where we are, she could have followed a number of breadcrumb trails back in time.  One of them would have led to a rainbow.  But the trail she follows traces a line back to Abraham, who was called by God to leave everything behind and go where he was led, with the promise that God would make of him a great nation.  Then Abraham’s faith was tested, when he was commanded to do the unthinkable and sacrifice his Son, Isaac.  Abraham passed the test.  Isaac lived, and he begat two sons Esau and Jacob.  Their complicated relationship is a story for another day.  Isaac bestowed his blessing on his son Jacob, saying, “May God almighty bless you and make you fruitful... that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien - land that God gave to Abraham.”  And Jacob dreamed of God’s blessing, and of heaven, and eventually he wrestled with God, and God gave Jacob a new name: he called him Israel.  Israel then carried the blessing of his father Isaac, who carried the blessing of his father Abraham, who had entered into a covenant with God, that God would give to Abraham and his descendants all the land from “the river of Egypt to the... river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kennizites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

Record keeping, topographical maps, and geological surveys being what they were in those days, the specificity of the real estate was what you might call imprecise, despite the apparent detail.

By the time Moses led the children of Israel through the desert, the lands of the Kennites, the Kennizites, the Kadmonites, the Rephaim, and the Girgashites, had already dropped off the list.  But a new designation appeared that had not been included with the description provided to Abraham.  The land to which God’s children were being led by Moses was now said to be a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex 13).

I contend that the precise address, coordinates, and exact location of the real estate in question had already begun to matter less than the nature of the landscape.  And what’s so important about the landscape isn’t so much its ability to support either cows or bees, but rather, the view.  And what’s so important about the view is that it originates in God’s eyes, not ours; it’s a matter of God’s vision, not ours; it’s a question of God’s promise, which becomes our hope.  (I mean, that is, if you allow for the possibility that when Moses was speaking to the children of Israel in ancient times, he was also speaking to Episcopalians in the 21st century - which I do!)

A wandering Aramean was my father... 

How can 21st century Episcopalians read these words aloud with a straight face?  How can we claim any share of the ancestral heritage of our Jewish forebears?  How can we dream about the land from the river of Egypt to the... river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kennizites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites?  And what about the view of a land that’s flowing with milk and honey?

Christians can never rightfully be settlers on land that belongs to others.  Certainly, we could never rightfully lay claim to New Jersey, let alone the land between the Wadi El-Arish and the Euphrates.  But we do not have to give up on the view that looks out onto a land flowing with milk and honey.  It is to such a vision that God is calling us today.  Our bondage was never the bondage of slavery in Egypt, but our sins, our selfishness, and the ways we have turned way from God - all these have treated us harshly, our sins have  afflicted us, our trespasses and our selfishness have laid upon us hard bondage that we sometimes feel we cannot escape.

But we might still cry to the Lord, the God of our fathers, when we realize what has become of us.  And the LORD will hear our voice.  He sees our affliction and our oppression.  And he is still able to deliver us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, to bring us into a land, so to speak, flowing with milk and honey.

For in that land God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  In that land, God’s reign will be established.  In that land God’s justice will prevail.  In that land, God’s hope will be proclaimed to the poor, the forgotten, the dispossessed, the alien, and the lost.  In that land the injuries of this life will be mended, illnesses healed, memories restored, relationships reconciled.   In that land our selfishness will be subjugated by God’s bounty.  In that land God’s peace will prevail upon us, so that we can at last beat our swords into plowshares.  In that land light shines in the darkness, and death is conquered by the power of divine life.  That is what is meant by a land that is a land flowing with milk and honey.  And it is our Promised Land.  We  don’t need to bother about the precise address, the coordinates, and the exact location of the real estate in question, since all that matters far less than the nature of the landscape, and far less than the view.

Like so many journeys, Lent begins with a reminder of where we have come from, precisely so we can reassure ourselves of where we are going.  Why else bother unburdening ourselves of all the extra baggage of our past, of our sins?  If we don’t have someplace else to go?  If God is not calling us to something better, something holier, something everlasting?  Why bother at all, if milk and honey don’t flow freely where we are going?

The call to repentance is a call to turn around.  And when we do, we can look back and remember where we came from, we remember who we are, and we remember where we were going.

A wandering Aramean was our father, and he went down into a strange land and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.  But our sins have treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.  Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of our misery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he is bringing us into a new place, which is no place, really, and he is giving us this land, which has no precise address, no coordinates, and no exact location.  But it is a land flowing with milk and honey: the milk of God’s love, and the honey of his mercy, which is to say that it is a land with an expansive view of hope.  

A wandering Aramean was our father.  And we remember who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
10 March 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 10, 2019 .

To Care and Not to Care

It is as sure as the sun will rise that every year on Ash Wednesday the lectionary presents us with the same passage from the Gospel according to Matthew. It is difficult not to identify with the hypocrites who disfigure their faces while fasting, especially when on this holy day we participate in our own act of facial disfigurement. And frankly, it might not be inappropriate to wonder whether there is a deliberately humorous irony in the choice of this particular reading for today.

What we hear from Matthew’s Gospel seems obvious enough. Do not be hypocritical—or perhaps a better rendering is “do not put on pretenses.” Tend to the heart rather than fixating on appearances. Do good works because Christian discipleship requires nothing less, not to gain favor in the eyes of others. Go about your pious activities quietly; your heavenly Father knows what you are doing, and that’s all that counts.

But as sure as the sun will rise and as sure as our bellies are full of naughty foods stored up for the Lenten fast, we will walk out of this church building tonight with black crosses smeared on our foreheads even though we have heard Jesus’s own words to his disciples to wash their faces when fasting. And the more scrupulous among us may be bothered by all of this.

I wonder, though, if we feel a tad hypocritical not because we actually believe that Scripture has prohibited us from putting ashes on our foreheads. Instead, I wonder, do we feel hypocritical because the seeming disparity between ritual and Scripture in the Ash Wednesday liturgy reminds us of the disparity between what we profess with our lips and what we do in reality?

Do we feel duplicitous in coming to the throne of God, year after year on this holy day to repent when we know that before long, we will stumble over ourselves yet again? The hand that traces the sign of the cross over our bodies will be the same hand that inevitably wrongs a neighbor. The forehead that bears the blatant reminder of our own mortality will be the head once again held high in arrogance. The lips that receive the gift of Christ in his Body and Blood will be the same lips that slander another person.

Yes, as sure as the sun will rise and as sure as we are handed the same Gospel passage each Ash Wednesday, we have to admit that the apostle Paul was onto something in his letter to the Romans when he said that “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

 If we’re honest, this humanity business can seem like a cycle of despair, weighed down with our mortality and frailty. This evening, especially, we honor our desire to make a clean start of things, and still we know that our human nature will get in the way of the best-laid plans. Is there any way out of this mess?

If it were not gloomy old Ash Wednesday, we might be tempted to laugh, to laugh at the ritual absurdity of imposing ashes minutes after hearing a passage that seems to speak against it. We might be tempted to laugh at a God who, time and again, is merciful enough to forgive penitent humans who are constantly getting things wrong.

And maybe we should laugh. Maybe laughing at ourselves in all our fallibility is exactly what we are called to do on Ash Wednesday. Because when we take ourselves too seriously we fail to grasp that we are but dust. Humility demands recognizing our tie to the dust of the earth from which we were formed. Pride masquerades as false humility, unable to accept that God indeed hates nothing he has made. And knowing that we are but dust, can we laugh at the incomprehensibility of God’s mercy, like Sarah did when God promised her a child in her old age? Can we laugh in joy at a God who constantly forgives us, in spite of our mortal vacillation between good and bad intentions?

Living in all our human frailty before God’s limitless compassion is living in a place of limbo, where we accept that we are sinners and yet are forgiven, that we are redeemed and still in need of redemption, and that we are fragile human flesh nevertheless created for goodness in the image of God.

But in the best efforts to make amends this Lent, do we find that we are still looking for our reward? In the zeal to be the exemplary Christian and to get it right this year, do we navigate the waters precariously between the rocks of over-scrupulosity and not taking ourselves seriously enough?

It is about this human predicament that T.S. Eliot wrote so eloquently in his poem “Ash-Wednesday.” As he puts it, we are “wavering between the profit and the loss/In this brief transit where the dreams cross/The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying.” It is a twilight of angst and confusion, of wanting and not wanting, of desiring God and not desiring God. It is a twilight of sinning and turning back to God in repentance. It is a twilight of knowing we will mess up again and still we brazenly and persistently ask for God’s help not to do so.

In this place of transit “where the dreams cross,” we can only offer to God a prayer—again from Eliot’s poem—to “Teach us to care and not to care.” In our prayer, we long for a peaceful resting in God’s eternal graciousness, where our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing, even among the laughable perils of this earthly life. We pray that when we sound our trumpets and disfigure our faces and find ourselves worrying about the peccadilloes of piety, we might care a little bit less. We might care a little bit less so that we fully trust what God has promised, that Christ has won the victory and nothing we do can earn that reward. It has already been generously given.

In this place of transit “where the dreams cross,” we also pray that we might care a bit more when the apathy of life weighs us down and when we have given up hope that God can act and raise us up from despair. When our complacency bids us think that we have already received our earthly reward and need not turn again to God, we might pray to care a bit more. We pray that we might care enough to store up treasures in heaven rather than in the midst of decay and decomposition.

This place of transit, “wavering between the profit and the loss,” “where the dreams cross,” is where we give alms, pray, fast, and store up heavenly treasures not because we desire a reward but because we are fueled with thanksgiving for the certainty of God’s gift of mercy.

We look in the mirror at our disfigured faces on Ash Wednesday and we see the sober reminder of our mortality traced on our foreheads. It is an admonition to take ourselves a bit more lightly, that it is not all about us, even in our heartfelt postures of repentance. As we orient ourselves to God’s rising sun in the east, shining on our lives to announce his unceasing compassion, we pray to know when we should care and when we should not care. And precisely “where the dreams cross” in this mortal life between birth and dying we find ourselves at the foot of the cross in repentance.

We remember that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return, but even more so, that Christ is able to raise up that dust to new life. We can chuckle at ourselves and take ourselves ever so lightly knowing that all our foolish ways, all our overly pious strivings, all our self-consumption can be redeemed by Christ if we give ourselves to him. Our desiccated hearts and dried-up bones, tense with self-importance, can yet live and be clothed with flesh again in resurrected glory.

Mark my word: as sure as the sun will rise, next year on Ash Wednesday we will be handed the same Gospel passage. And we might find ourselves feeling a bit hypocritical and confused by all this irony. But as sure as the sun will rise and while we continue to live in this temporal place “where the dreams cross,” God’s faithfulness and goodness will always be as new as the morning and waiting for us. Yes, we will wander, and we will be privy to the changes and chances of this earthly life, but God looks on us on and laughs, winking at our sins, and beckoning us into his arms of mercy. And that’s as sure as the sun will rise.

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
March 6, 2019, Ash Wednesday
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 7, 2019 .