A sermon delivered by The Rev. Mary Cat Young
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tuckahoe New York
To choose to be the Hen.
There is a logic problem that you may have heard about the fox, the hen and the bag of feed. There is one boat and a ferryman, and all three of these items need to make it safely across the river. If the hen and the feed are left together, the feed will be eaten. If the hen and the fox are together, the hen will be eaten. The ferryman can only take two items at a time, and the question is how many trips must he make. The answer results in the ferryman taking extra trips back and forth in order to keep the fox from having the hen for lunch.
Perhaps we ought to have some understanding of the ferryman in the story. His job is simply to bring things and people to and fro across the water. To make sure that while they are with him, in his care, they are safe. But in this problem he has to be attentive to those he is leaving behind, as well as those who are in his immediate care. He has to be thoughtful about how he arranges the cargo, choosing on each trip to make a safe passage for his passengers as well as those items waiting their turn. He must interact with the predator and the prey. He has been entrusted with them at least for this moment in their lives.
I wonder if we ourselves have had the experience of being the ferryman – not the victim, not the perpetrator, not the passive witness, but the one who has a job to do, but also been given eyes to see – to see that at times we are called to be more than our job description, to be aware that as we walk with others through their brightest days and darkest nights that the choices we make matter. How we interact and engage with one another, whether we choose to interact or engage at all… I’ve been thinking a lot about this in terms of Lent, and Lenten disciplines. Particularly as I learn from people their decision to be more intentional with their time, in their interactions, in their choices of engagement with the world around them.
Last week we began our Lenten journey with the scripture that brought us into the desert with Jesus, into his Lenten season of self-denial, of opening himself up so that he might be shaped and formed through prayer and fasting into the person, the leader, the Christ he was made to be, so that when he was faced with the temptations of hunger, celebrity, and earthly authority, he was not shaken, he was not deterred from the bigger needs that he could see in the world around him.
Needs that he intended to meet, not by seizing political power, or wealth or attention – but by being present to those who needed healing, needed to experience the depth of God’s love, needed to be made whole so that their lives might be dedicated to sharing that story with others, so that, eventually, as that story was told again and again, others might come to know the wholeness of being in community with one another and with God.
Jesus did not falter at the temptations of the devil because he was building up the kingdom of God, bringing together one person to one person, and inviting them to connect with the next person, teaching them to see one another as connected parts of one body, seeing across difference, allowing the healing of one to be a healing that touched the lives of many.
When we choose our Lenten fasts, and spiritual disciplines and practice them, our choices matter. They matter because they have the ability to teach us where our own weaknesses are.
Facing and owning these parts of ourselves is part of our counter-cultural practice of Christianity in this day as it was in Jesus’ day. After all, who else do you see in the world focusing on their own weakness, as opposed to the weaknesses of others? The Lenten practices we engage in matter because they invite us to take on or try new things – things that we are afraid we cannot do, or that we cannot do alone, thus the gift of the whole community being about this for a season of time together.
They matter because we set out to do something and in 40 days we can look back and see how far we have come, whether we made it all the way through or not, we practiced intentionality, we practiced looking at ourselves, taking stock, making room for God to take up space where other things or habits or indulgences had taken up residence. And regardless of how successful we were or were not, we are still a part of the celebration of the renewal of the world, the reconciliation of all creation to God in Christ, and through Christ and with Christ.
Perhaps the ferryman in the story is a Christian – practiced at seeing the needs of others. He saw the need of the hungry fox, he saw the need of the vulnerable hen. He made a choices about how he would engage with each of these animals – each of these members of the community his small boat was carrying on each trip. He did not have control over where they came from or how they came to be in his life at that moment, but he did have the opportunity to play a role in being a companion and to offer an opportunity for safe passage to them in the time that they were together. Where they would go when they made their way to the other side, he could not say, but he could care for them in the time that they were together.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus refers to Herod, an earthly ruler and holder of power and authority, as a fox – a predator – one who will slyly do or say whatever it takes to get his way – and in this case, his way or his desire is not only to see Jesus, but to see him meet the same fate as John the Baptizer.
Jesus likens himself to a hen – a mothering creature, a vulnerable creature who can only use her invitation to gather up the chicks and children around her to find safety and protection in the the warm embrace of a community gathered. But Jesus knows that danger lurks even still, as we know there is danger outside of these walls where we gather to be nourished in Christ, to share in the loving embrace of community with one another.
Jesus teaches us that even in the face of those who would hunt and harm and even kill the weak and vulnerable. Again and again, he teaches that death should not be a deterrent to us for looking and seeing and doing what is right for those we encounter, those we are called to see and care for and be companions with for a period of time. Indeed we are called to follow his example, to let love win the ultimate victory, to be willing to lay down our lives for the other, should we be called upon to take that risk. It sounds extreme and yet, in we are faced with news of violence and shootings every day in our American context and in places around the world.
In this world, in this year, in this season, where have you been called to see, called to be a companion, called to take risks in the face of power and authority, to be vulnerable, to make choices that matter?
Let me remind you, much like the Lenten discipline that you have undertaken, you do not do this alone. You are a part of a community of the body of Christ. You are a part of Jesus’ story of defeating death and the devil by loving your neighbor as you are loved by God.
I close with the following poem, shared by a living poet, a Methodist pastor, found on Facebook and I share it here with permission. It is a brief and beautiful reminder that despite it all, as followers of Jesus, we are invited to choose to be the hen.
The fox prowls,
the hen spreads her wings.
The fox will kill,
the hen give life.
The fox will live,
the hen will die.
The fox knows what he is doing
but not as well as the hen.
The fox too will die,
his killing unfinished.
But on the third day
we will see what it is
to be the hen.