One of my more interesting endeavors, as a kid growing up on a farm, was raising chickens – starting with my own peeping boxful of “The Rarest of the Rare” chicks that came in the mail one summer day. I managed to keep most of these alive into adulthood, and they in turn increased and multiplied into a sizeable flock of free-range chickens in a multiplicity of colors and shapes.
The downside of free-range chickens is predation. “Nature red in tooth and claw” was a fact of life I got used to as a child, frequently coming upon the half-eaten remains of one of my birds or even watching helplessly as a hawk descended upon a chicken who’d made herself an attractive target out in an open field.
The worst scenario was when a predator killed a hen with a brood of chicks. If the chicks were tiny, even if they’d somehow escaped being eaten themselves they were most certainly doomed, even when we tried to slip them into the nests of other setting hens. Sometimes the substitute mother would attack the orphaned chicks; sometimes she would accept them but they would not accept her; they’d wander off, cheeping piteously, and slowly disappear, one by one. Sometimes an orphaned brood would be half-grown – fully feathered, able to find their own food, but simply not old enough to be on their own. At the bottom of the literal flock pecking order, constantly harassed by the other chickens, these poor creatures would become bedraggled, stunted, wounded…oftentimes they would finally either succumb to predation themselves or just sicken and die.
In the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday we hear Jesus reassuring his friends that he was not going to leave them orphaned; that they would be taken care of by a Comforter, an Advocate. The first hearers and readers of this Gospel were in a Christian community that needed a lot of comfort. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, yet Jesus had not returned as they had assumed he would; they were being thrown out of their synagogues and disowned by their families; they were alienated not only from their own culture but from the Greco-Roman culture around them as well. One can hear, in their experience, the words of the old spiritual: Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.
What the Word says to them, and to us, in this text is: You are not alone. No matter how bad it gets, no matter how lonely and lost you may feel, you are not alone. God’s very Spirit is with you.
I have heard this message myself. And the interesting thing is…so have a lot of other people, in the context of their own lives. And those of us who have heard it seem to have a remarkable tendency to wind up running into one other in interesting ways, and introducing ourselves, and sharing our stories: “Yeah – that’s how it was with me too!”
Like a hen gathering her chicks, Christ gathers us in. "Gather us in and hold us forever, gather us in and make us your own."
Mother Hen With Chicks by Helen Ann Buteau