Lent 2C (February 21, 2016)

It’s finally happened. Jesus has gone completely bonkers. As often is the case when someone loses it, what set him off was something you wouldn’t expect to do it. “Psst. You should leave; Herod wants to kill you.” It’s a big deal, but what does Jesus do? “Oh, he wants to kill me, does he? Well, you tell that fox I’m the mamma hen …who can take care of herself, thank you! And you know what? I’m planning on getting killed anyway, but I wouldn’t die here on a bet! This kingdom is a joke. I’m going to Jerusalem. THEY know how to kill somebody. Oh, I would have gathered them like a hen gathers her chicks if they weren’t so obsessed with their precious house. Well, let ‘em cry ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ This’ll be one Passover they don’t forget!”

He’s clearly impatient and very upset about something; we can’t expect him to make a ton of sense. Guy says he’s a mother hen… I can’t figure out what to say about this.

You want to look at Genesis with me? I love the ritual in this scene. Not to belittle Abram and God’s verbal exchange—that God reckons Abram’s faith as righteousness is crucial to Christian theology—but I am fascinated by this ceremony. This appears to have been how the ancients made high stakes promises. God tells Abram, “bring a heifer, a she goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon.” Abram is rich, but this is a fair portion of livestock. These animals would produce wool or milk or eggs and be butchered for meat. (Everyone ate meat, but sparingly.) God says, “Cut the mammals in half, but not the birds”—whatever—“and set the pieces over against each other.” Then the parties in the testament ceremony would pass between the animal pieces. It ritualistically says, “If I fail to hold up my end of the deal, may I be cursed—ripped in half!” Either both parties would pass between the animal pieces, or only the submissive party would. Amazingly, God takes on the submissive role: God alone passes between the pieces. When ceremonies like this ended, the animals were neither burned as offerings nor eaten. The animals, having been used for cursing, were cursed. You covered them with dirt and got away from the area. God may have taken on the submissive role; Abram had to give up burgers and brisket and goat cheese for a while.

That may have been an important part of the ritual. When the testament or covenant ritual involves giving up a ton of food, it may force you to think about hunger. I have no statistics on hunger in Abram’s day. Some of our young people could tell you quite a bit about hunger today, after having done the 30 Hour Famine last week. They could tell you that a child dies from hunger-related causes every 11 seconds. That one in four children worldwide is irreversibly underdeveloped because of malnutrition. That nearly 20% of the people on earth live on less than $1.90 a day. And that there is enough food on earth to give everyone the nourishment they need, but that food is concentrated in wealthy areas where we overeat, and is out of reach for those who are hungry. In other words, the whole global political and economic system is set up such that some of us get to eat, and others don’t, and the ones who don’t have no say in how that is decided. Perhaps while Abram watched God pass between the animal pieces, a part of him thought of the food that was lost to him and anyone else, and what that might have to do with God.

God used the ritual to help Abram. Rituals like this are ways that God keeps us thinking creatively about God. They aren’t proof that God exists or is faithful. Rather, they help us think of ways God is at work in the world. Repeated rituals keep the Word of God in our minds. Luther writes in his Large Catechism, “When we seriously ponder the Word…it always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devotion, and it constantly creates clean hearts and minds.” We play with images or ideas and come to deeper understanding. Rituals, like God having Abram forego the cheeseburger tonight but then God calling down curses upon God if God should fail to be faithful, help Abram come up with ways to think about God and see God at work in his world.

For us in the Church, Holy Communion is probably the most obvious and historically most prominent example. By the mid Fourth Century the Church was seeing the Eucharistic meal as the locus of Christ’s presence. We were singing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” as part of the Meal liturgy because we believed that Jesus was present. Luther himself elevated the bread and cup during these words in a symbolic, “here he is, folks!” Here is the true Passover Lamb. Here is the bread of life. Here is the blood of the new testament.

New testament. A new testament ceremony. God cuts another covenant with us. God makes covenants left and right in the Torah, so it’s not unprecedented for God to do this. Again, God chooses to be the submissive one: God does all the work, frankly won’t let us get involved lest we think we had done it ourselves. And again, the slaughtered animal is deemed “accursed,” this time by hanging from a tree, or two pieces of tree stuck together to make a cross. Only this animal—a human who, you will recall, has chosen to identify himself as a mother hen—is also the self-proclaimed bread and wine, the Passover meal. In this new testament, Jesus takes the place of the slaughtered animals. And Jesus—the mother hen—is also our meal, our ritual for thinking about God creatively. Jesus, is a cursed chicken dinner.

Yes, you heard me right. The mother hen—who can with her bare beak fight off foxes (or kings) and would protect us from them if only we would let her, who has given life to each one of us and broods over us—is what’s being served at the table. Jesus is a cursed chicken dinner. If you find the idea of Jesus as a cursed chicken dinner offensive and/or odd, then I’ve succeeded in conveying how radical and scandalous Jesus was to his contemporaries, and how radical and scandalous his followers were after he died. “Wanna come with me this morning, Doug?” “What are you doing?” “I’m going to eat the cursed flesh and drink the cursed blood of a god who called himself a hen and got killed. …then there’s some coffee and fellowship time.” No offense intended to vegetarians or folks who don’t like chicken—no offense beyond the offense that this is to everybody. We’re at the most offensive breakfast in town. We’re eating cursed god meat.

That says something about who we are. No? I mean, this stuff is cursed. We can’t even ethically share it with hungry people. If we were Abram, we’d cover it with dirt and walk away and never talk about what happened here. If we eat this cursed food that ethically we could not share with the starving, we stand in solidarity with the starving. This ritual meal, in which God encourages us to think creatively about God, makes us people who would rather eat what nobody wants than see anyone go hungry. This meal in which we eat what hung cursed from a tree makes us into those who don’t get to ask where dinner came from. This meal in which we eat what would have been covered with dirt and abandoned makes us into those who are desperate enough to rummage through the trash in search of food. This meal makes us Valpo’s own irreversibly underdeveloped, extremely impoverished, with no hope of a meal and rapidly dying off. This meal makes us people we would rather not even admit exist.

This meal makes us Jesus’ friends. For Jesus does not rush to heal those who are healthy, or feed those who are satisfied, or forgive those who are righteous (though he loves all of them). Jesus rushes to those who have no food, no escape, no hope. Jesus goes to those who have no way to get bread without a miracle. The Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino writes, “The type of sinner pardoned by Jesus is the person who is living under oppression, the person who is despised by those who are just in society according to the law and who is condemned to a life with no future by the law itself.” Jesus seeks out those who are starving because the rules by which our world plays says they are going to starve, and Jesus feeds them. When we join Christ in solidarity with the starving, we become those he feeds and we become those through whom he feeds.

So we occasionally get ridiculous complaints, from Herod, or whatever fox has succeeded him. We get Pharisees or their 21st Century Chicagoland Area equivalent, helpfully telling us, “You know, if you keep giving food to the hungry and trying to change the rules of the game so that everyone eats, Herod is going to come after you.” And if we’ve spent enough time in solidarity with those who scavenge for what the world throws away, well, we might get impatient or upset. And we might just say, “Here’s what you can tell that fox.”