The Gospel and the Little Red Hen
Lectionary blog for Sept. 8, 2013
Pentecost 16 — Proper 18
Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1;
Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
By Delmer Chilton
In 2007 this was “Youth Sunday” at Friedens Lutheran Church in Gibsonville, N.C. Though I was the pastor, none of what happened that day was my idea; those little Tar Heels had a mind of their own. They did almost everything in the service. My role was to be the celebrant at the Eucharist and to make brief comments after their dramatic rendition of “The Little Red Hen,” which was the sermon for the day.
I thought it a brilliant and hilarious choice, but the youth director was afraid that the more literal-minded among the congregation wouldn’t get it, so it was my job to point out the connections between the story and the texts for the day. (And also to stall for time while the girls changed from their “chicken suits” into their free-flowing white dresses and tights for the liturgical dance accompanying the Creed; like I said, it was all their doing.)
So here goes — my homily on the connections between the texts for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost and the classic children’s story of “The Little Red Hen.”
It is tempting when reading our first lesson from Deuteronomy (30:15-20) to conclude that God is setting before the people a stark, legalistic choice, like the bully on the playground who says, “Play by my rules, or I’ll beat you up.” Way too many religious leaders have used that technique down through the years. “Choose to follow my rules, my ethics, my commands, or you will burn in hell!”
That version fails to recognize the law, the commandments of God, as a gift, a teaching, a help to God’s beloved people. The commandments were given to us to help us chart our way through life. Is it possible that God’s word of promise here is better understood as:
“Look, I have shown you the way. This is how one must live to successfully make it through life. If you do not follow this way, the consequences for you, and for others, could be very serious, very dire, could maybe even lead to death.”
In that light, God’s call to “choose life” is a call to take seriously the need to follow a strong ethical path through life. To “choose life” is to choose to be a part of a community that cares about and respects one another and looks out for one another, for that is what the commandments call us to do and to be.
In the story of the Little Red Hen, all the other animals refused to follow the rules, the guidelines, the commandments for being a part of a family, a community. They refused to participate in the things that make a community safe and productive for all involved. They refused to help, but they all wanted to reap the benefits of the work done by the Little Red Hen.
In our Gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus talks about what it means to be a full participant in a loving community. His words about sacrifice, giving up family and counting the cost, and taking up the cross are meant to bring home to his listeners and to us the seriousness of becoming a part of the kingdom of God, the community of Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor, died at the hands of the Nazis at the end of World War II. In his book “The Cost of Discipleship,” he pointed out the problem that he called “cheap grace.” Way too many of us accept salvation without being willing to take up our own cross of service and sacrifice in order to follow Christ. We are like the animals that want to eat the bread but don’t want to help the Little Red Hen bring in the crop.
In the original story, the Little Red Hen ate her bread alone. But our youth showed that they are good, little Lutherans and had learned their theology well. In their story, the animals repent and the hen shares her bread. This is how God is. God does forgive us our cold hearts and idle hands.
But we are called to respond to God’s free — notice I said free, not cheap — grace with lives of gratitude and discipleship. This day we are called to take up the cross and follow wherever our Lord leads.
Amen and amen.
- How do you respond to God’s free grace?
- What is the cost of discipleship?
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
You might also want to read:
Love is what it’s all about
The fox in our henhouse
Words for the week — are you God’s type?