Sermon: God’s motherly love

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
The Second Sunday of Lent, 17th of March 2019

Luke 13:31-35

Yesterday I had the enormous privilege of preaching at the ordination of Carlynne Nunn at Brunswick Uniting Church. I was very excited and deeply honoured when Carlynne asked me to preach, but also a little worried. Over the past two weeks, as Carlynne and I emailed each other back and forth about readings and themes, we first had the news of George Pell’s conviction and then heard his sentencing. In that sentencing His Honour Chief Justice Kidd quoted from a Court of Appeal decision:

The exposure over recent years of the extent of the incidence of abuse of children in our community by persons entrusted with their care has created much distrust at all levels and threatened the very capacity of adults to interact in a normal healthy fashion with them.

If that is true of all adults, it is particularly true of priests, ministers, Sunday School teachers and Youth Group leaders. Where once we were automatically trusted, now we are almost equally automatically distrusted. It can feel like a hard time to be a Christian.

This congregation is also going through a hard time. Over the past few years we have lost many of the pillars of the community. Some have down-sized and moved away; others have become residents of aged care facilities; and we have buried quite a few of them. While the deaths of people like Ken Speakman and Bill Haining and Keith Butler and Alma Learmonth and Kath Taylor and Heather Grimmett were not untimely, and in every case we were able to celebrate long, rich lives, they have still left a huge hole in our community. And I know that my resignation will make life difficult, too. Ministers come and go, that’s normal, but the transition can be hard. Almost no one likes change; I personally hate it, even if the change is for the better.

And then on Friday we heard about the gunning down of innocent worshippers in mosques in Christchurch, the slaughter of people at prayer by a white Anglo-Celtic Australian who claimed to be committing terror in the name of those of us who are also white Anglo-Celts. My heart broke on Friday as I listened to the news. As Australians, New Zealanders are our closest and dearest neighbours. As Christians, Muslims are our cousins; like us, are People of the Book, children of Abraham. When they hurt, we hurt with them. For that hurt to be inflicted by an Australian is just devastating. On Friday night I took flowers to the two mosques I know of in Hobsons Bay, and after church today I hope that as many of you who can, will join me at the Australian Islamic Centre’s Open Day to show our sympathy and solidarity. But while these gestures are important, they are tiny flames dropped into a sea of despair.

Today, the gospel reading offers us some comfort. It might not initially seem comfortable; we’re in the Lent and Jesus is on the journey towards his death; Jesus describes himself as a hen and Herod as a fox, and we know how encounters between hens and foxes end. And yet Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem offers us an image of God’s astounding love and unfathomable protection.

Jesus says of Jerusalem, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’. By comparing himself to a hen Jesus was doing something new. The Bible is full of metaphors that compare God to an animal, but they are all fierce, wild animals: lions and leopards and bears. Whenever people are described as taking refuge under God’s wings, the wings are those of an eagle, not a hen. And yet here Jesus compares himself to a homely, vulnerable, humble mother hen.

Jerusalem is going to kill Jesus, but Jesus does not threaten it. He does not describe himself as a lion or a bear who will mangle and devour his murderers. Instead he laments over it. He laments for the city that will reject him, in the same way that on the cross he will pray ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ and tell a repentant thief: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:34, 43) We see here, as we do throughout the gospel according to Luke, Jesus’ astounding compassion towards even those we might want him to condemn.

I love this image of Jesus as a mother hen. One of the saints whose writings I have found most helpful is Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth century English mystic who was the first women to write a book in English. She wrote about Jesus as mother, describing his maternal love for us, and said:

A mother’s work touches us most nearly, is carried out with the greatest alacrity, and is the most reliable. Its nearness is because it is the most natural, its alacrity is because it is the most loving, and its reliability is because it is most true. No one could even perform this service perfectly except Christ alone … This lovely, loving word Mother is so sweet and so close to the heart of nature that it cannot really be used of anyone but him and she who is his own true mother and mother of us all.[1]

There has been a lot of discussion about the difficulties of describing God as ‘Father’ can cause for people who had abusive or neglectful fathers, and describing Jesus as ‘Mother’ could create the same difficulties for those who has abusive or neglectful mothers. But even if our relationships with our parents have caused us harm, we can turn to a God whose love for us is without limit. We can know that we are included in the chicks who are gathered under Jesus’ wings. Whenever I pray with those in hospital or aged care facilities I pray that they will be surrounded by God’s love and care, and in my mind is this image of a brood of chicks being gathered under a hen’s wings.

And while the hen might seem to lose to the fox; while Herod seems triumphant when Jesus is executed on a cross, at the heart of our faith is the belief that ultimately the hen will triumph. In the encounter between hen and fox, the hen’s self-sacrificial love is affirmed and confirmed by God in the resurrection. The message of Christianity is that love wins, love always wins. To again quote from Mother Julian:

Spiritual enlightenment came [to me] with the words, ‘Do you want to know what our Lord meant in all this? Learn it well: love was what he meant. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? Out of love. Stay with this and you will learn and know about love, but you will never know or learn anything else from it – not ever.’ So I was taught love was what our Lord meant. And I saw with absolute certainty that before God made us he loved us, and that his love never slackened, nor ever will.[2]

It is because of her certainty of God’s love that Julian of Norwich was able to make the shining affirmation for which she is best known: ‘all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well’.[3] In times of difficulty, post-Royal Commission, during congregational change, grieving the Christchurch massacre, as we walk with Jesus on the road to his death during Lent, we can rely on the God who loves us as a mother and protects us as a hen protects her chicks, and hold on to the hope offered to us by a fourteenth-century mystic, that ultimately ‘all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well’. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1987, p. 124-5.

[2] Revelations of Divine Love, p. 169.

[3] Revelations of Divine Love, p. 55.

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