“Brood Patch”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

May 11, 2014 – Mother’s Day

Scriptures:  Isaiah 49:13-18; Luke 13:31-35

 

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Connecticut Audubon Center at Pomfret. http://www.ctaudubon.org/sanctuaries/center-at-pomfret

If you go south on Route 169 from here, not too far, just 5 or 6 miles, a bit before you get to where Routes 101 and 44 split off… and if you turn left on Needles Eye, then continue onto Day Road… you will come to the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Center at Pomfret, and the adjacent Bafflin Sanctuary. Have you been there?

If you’ve been there, then you probably know that it is a great spot for bird-watching. It’s been designated as an “Important Bird Area.” It’s got a great mix of habitats—grasslands and shrublands and trees, beaver ponds and streams, and all the edges in between. The birds love it—more than 200 species of them—Wood Ducks and Waterthrushes, Barn Swallows and House Wrens, Ospreys and Kestrels, Yellow Warblers and Pine Warblers and Black-Throated Green Warblers—and that’s just a few from a recent list.[1]

We’re in the thick of the spring migration right now, so you can see even more species than usual. Those little critters fly for miles and miles and miles. Some of them traverse entire continents on their way from winter to summer. And as they go, we get to witness their amazing range of colors and shapes and sizes and songs.

But this sermon is not really about avian biodiversity.

 

Robin's nest with eggs.  Photo:  Maggie Fox.

Robin’s nest with eggs.  Photo:  Maggie Fox.

If you are a bird-watcher, or even if you’re not, then you may also know that we have entered not only migration season, but nesting season as well. Have you seen the clusters of twigs and string and mud and grass and feathers cropping up in bushes, in trees, even in secluded patches of ground? If you are a bird-watcher, or even if you’re not, you can’t help but know that spring is a season of growth, of birth, of newness of life—and our feathered friends are no exception.

But this sermon is not really about springtime, either.

 

When a bird lays her eggs in her nest, you all know what happens next. She incubates them. Whether they are baby blue robin eggs, or specked brown-and-white sparrow eggs; great big swan eggs or the tiniest little eggs of the hummingbird, when a bird lays her eggs in her nest, you know what happens next. She sits there and she keeps her babies warm while they grow.

If you visit the Audubon Center in Pomfret (or your backyard, for that matter), and if you come across a mother bird sitting on her nest, she’ll probably try to scare you off. But if you could get close enough to pick her up and turn her over and look at her underbelly, you would see a most extraordinary thing.

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Red-winged Blackbird with brood patch. http://bpbo.ca/?p=674

Scientists call it a brood patch. It turns out that when a bird is incubating her nest, the feathers on her belly get loose and begin to shed. In some species, she actually seizes them in her bill and plucks them out herself. Because those feathers that do such a good job of keeping that mother bird warm also keep her from sharing her body heat with those eggs. Those feathers that insulate her from the cold and the wet keep her from getting as close as she wants to get to her babies. So she plucks them out and exposes her tender, purpley-pink skin to the elements. She feels the cold of the wind, the wet of the dew, the prickle of the twigs and grasses that make up her nest. But she also feels the smooth, round shells of her eggs, nestled close and warm to her breast.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” cried Jesus. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!”

I don’t know if Jesus knew about brood patches. Probably not. But I’m sure that he did know about the intimacy of a mother bird incubating her nest. I’m sure that he did know about the sacrifice of a mother bird, who will feed her chicks even if it means that she goes hungry. I’m sure that he did know about the courage of a mother bird, who will feign injury to draw a predator toward her and away from her nest. I’m sure that he did know about the ferocity of a mother bird, who will flap her wings and ruffle her feathers and call out without hesitation, even in the face of an opponent much bigger and stronger than she is.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

 

Or, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

Our faith tells us that our Great, Living God—Author of the Universe, Creator of Heaven and Earth, Weaver of our Lives’ Design—our God was not satisfied with a distant, transcendent way of loving her creation. She was not content to watch from afar as we bumbled our way through our lives. She wanted to be closer to us, and she wanted us to be closer to her.

Bald Eagle with brood patch.  http://eaglenut.blogspot.com/

Bald Eagle with brood patch.  http://eaglenut.blogspot.com/

So she inscribed us on the palms of her hands.

She plucked out the feathers of her belly.

She came to us vulnerable, bare.

She stripped away her protection.

She exposed her tender, purpley-pink skin so that she could get closer to us.

She shed the insulation of transcendence, the mantle of exaltation, so that we could feel the warmth radiating from her breast.

She became flesh and bone, mortal and undefended.

In the mystery of the Incarnation, in the person of Jesus, God became for us a brood patch.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

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Detail of God, from Michelangelo’s The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets.

We are, most of us, accustomed to thinking of God as Father. Whether conscious or not, that image of an old, white-bearded, flowing-robed man perched among the clouds has made its way into our psyches and into our souls. For me, at least, and perhaps for you, the image of God the Father can feel distant, not close—aloof, not intimate. If I stop and think about my own father, this makes very little sense, as he and I enjoy a close and loving relationship… but nevertheless, God as Father evokes for me a far-off Creator, infinite and powerful and not-so-very-approachable.

This was not so for Jesus. In fact, when he called God “Abba,” which we translate as “Father,” he was saying something closer to “Daddy,” or “Papa.” He shook up the traditional language and broke open the classic images. He implied an intimacy, a closeness, that was very different from the prevailing understanding of the time. And when he told his disciples, “Pray like this: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Jesus did a radical thing. He implied that not only he but everyone could have that kind of intimate, familial relationship with God.

But somehow, over the millennia, Jesus’ “Daddy” has turned into our “Father.” It has lost its ability to stop us in our tracks, to shake up our traditional conceptions of God. It has become the norm, so common that many of us hardly think about what we mean when we say it, and—for me, at least, and perhaps for you—it has lost some of those intimate relational implications that Jesus intended.

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Eighteenth-century Russian icon.

Today, I wonder if the image of a Mother God just might be more in line with Jesus’ “Abba.” This is not to say that God is not our Father. God is far beyond gender, far beyond our words, far beyond our imaginings, and God can and should be addressed, as we did in our first hymn, by many names. If the image of God the Father works for you, if it gives you a sense of intimacy and closeness and comfort, then by all means, stick with it. But for me, at least, and perhaps for you, when we think of God as Mother, it shakes up our traditional language and breaks open our classic images. Does it sounds strange to you when I refer to God as “she” and “her”? It can stop us in our tracks and make us think about the meaning of the ways we choose to address God. And it opens up again some of that intimacy, vulnerability, closeness that Jesus offered. It opens us up again to the kind of close, familial relationship that God desires with us.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

 

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

On this Mother’s Day, I hope you will take a moment to feel the warmth emanating from that tender, purpley-pink skin. Take a moment to remember and celebrate the One who is Mother to us all, the One who stops at nothing in her quest to nurture, protect, comfort, and challenge us—the One who plucks out her own feathers, removes her own protection, who becomes for us a brood patch so that we might live, and grow, and sing.

 

 

 

[1] Connecticut Audubon Society, http://www.ctaudubon.org/center-at-pomfret/. Accessed May 9, 2014.