Those of you who spend time on the Internet know about something called “urban legends.” These are stories that attract enough interest that they are forwarded to thousands, maybe even millions of people around the world.
Here’s one such story: After a forest fire in Yellowstone National Park [in 1989], forest rangers began their trek up a mountain to assess the inferno’s damage. One ranger found a bird literally petrified in ashes, perched statuesquely on the ground at the base of a tree. Somewhat sickened by the eerie sight, he knocked over the bird with a stick.
When he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried from under their dead mother’s wings. The loving mother, keenly aware of impending disaster, had carried her offspring to the base of the tree and had gathered them under her wings, instinctively knowing that the toxic smoke would rise. She could have flown to safety, but had refused to abandon her babies.
When the blaze had arrived and the heat had scorched her small body, the mother had remained steadfast. Because she had been willing to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.
Now, as inspiring as this story may be, National Geographic says they never printed such a story. The National Parks Service says it never happened, not in Yellowstone or anywhere else. As I said, this is an urban legend. The story is completely false.
But–does it matter whether it really happened? The story’s message is faithful to Scripture readings for this second Sunday in Lent. 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!
If Jesus is the mother hen, then we’re the chicks who don’t trust the protective wings of God’s grace and love; unlike the chicks in the forest fire we often don’t stay under God’s wings but go off on our own. One of the Lenten devotionals I read this past week suggested that God’s people are more like cats than chicks, and you know what herding cats is like!
In last week’s reading Jesus faced his own inferno. There in the heat of the desert he was tempted to ignore the protective power of God and go it alone. Three times, in three different ways, he was tempted to rely on his own resources, to pay attention to his own needs, to look out for his own self-interest. Instead, he resisted the temptation, showing us how to remain under the protective wings of God’s grace.
The story of the mother hen and her protective wings is told a different way in today’s first reading. Early in the book of Genesis God appears to Abram. Abram had so far trusted God. Like Jesus, he had followed the Holy Spirit into the desert. God had led Abram away from what is comfortable and familiar. God had promised to be faithful, and had even promised an all-important heir to the childless Abram & Sarai.
But, it had been 25 years and still there was no evidence that God would make good on the promise. Late in life Abram and Sarai still had not experienced fulfillment of that promise. Abram is bold to ask, “What’s up, God? Are you faithful or not?”
And then Abram falls into a deep sleep. He has a weird dream, or vision, of animals that have been sacrificed, their carcasses split in two, and of a fiery pot and a flaming torch passing between the divided carcasses. This is a dream weird even by Old Testament standards!
Although it’s not obvious to us, the meaning of the vision is similar to the story of the mother bird in the forest fire: God’s promise to Abram is, “If I am not faithful to you, may I become as dead as these charred animal carcasses.”
It’s the story of the mother hen and the chicks: God says, Do you doubt my love? I am willing to die for you.
That’s a pretty powerful story–but, it doesn’t end there!
Our readings today begin and end with God’s love, power, mercy and grace. But within these stories is an invitation: Are you willing to follow Jesus? Are you willing to follow him into the desert? Are you willing to learn from God’s love for you, and then turn around and practice that same love toward one another? Are you willing to be that mother hen for one another?
In today’s psalm we hear these words: For in the day of trouble God will give me shelter; hide me in the hidden places of the sanctuary, and raise me high upon a rock. And later, Though my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will take me in.
These are more images of shelter and protection. But what does it mean for God’s people to “seek shelter?” What does it mean for us to be hidden in the hidden places of the sanctuary? Is God’s will that we be protected from all danger? Is our Christian vocation to save ourselves? Last week, as you remember, that was the temptation Jesus faced: to save himself. But this is the same one who later would teach: Those who save their lives will lose them; those who lose their lives for my sake and the gospel will find them.
Jesus learned to rely on God’s salvation. He learned that salvation doesn’t mean protection from danger and harm. In fact, there’s a good chance that, like Jesus himself, we will find ourselves led into the desert. But in the desert it may also be that we find resources that will save us from the temptation to save ourselves.
Another way to put it: the mother hen spreads her wings over her chicks; but although sometimes it may be in order to protect the chicks, more often it is to set an example for how the chicks are to live their lives. The chicks learn from the mother hen what it means to give life away for the sake of others.
So—maybe it’s true that God the mother hen protects the chicks. But the goal of Christian faith is not a lifetime of safety but faithful service. If we are protected from harm in one time it may be so that we can live, like the mother hen, to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others on another day.
We are a congregation that provides shelter. We are people who have been sheltered under the wings of a loving God. We are chicks who continue to learn from the “mother hen” how to provide shelter for others. We are a congregation whose wings create a safe haven for AA meetings, worship communities, for children, for people whose bodies and minds late in life become frail. The one who protects takes risks.
God offers us shelter—but not in order to keep us safe. God offers us shelter in one time so that we might later provide shelter for others. We are grateful for any shelter that God provides. But we don’t settle for shelter. Rather, we long to imitate the one who not only sacrificed for us but showed us a way to follow. Those who save their lives will lose them, Jesus said. Those who lose their lives for my sake and the gospel will save them.
May we with gratitude and courage follow the one whose wings have often sheltered us, the one who now sends us out to do likewise for others.