"Heaven’s Pecking Order"

Don Hoffman pastor of Creston Christian Church, Creston, WA posted a sermon with that title on a public sermon email list 3 years ago. He gave permission for anyone to use it. I thought it was quite creative so I preached it as copied below. The church I pastored then did not appreciate it at all. I think my current church might appreciate it but I’m kinda gun shy at this point. Tell me what you think. The scripture it goes with is the gospel lesson for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, year C, Luke 14:1, 7-14.

This story was written by Don Hoffman who is a pastor in Washington state.

The henhouse was in a tizzy. Farmer Brown had invited all the barnyard animals to a great banquet next week in the farm house. The menu was to be strictly vegetarian.

One of the advantages of being a chicken is that you don’t have to worry what to wear to a social event. Hens are not fashion-conscious. Your everyday suit of feathers will do fine. Still, the henhouse had plenty to cluck about.

I’m sure you’re aware that among chickens something exists called a “pecking order.” So it was natural to assume that Henrietta Hen would be seated at the head table, and probably right next to Farmer Brown.

Henrietta was the unquestioned leader of the barnyard, and preened herself in the style of queens everywhere. She was surrounded by an admiring circle of flatterers who were making guesses about the table conversation. “I’m sure Farmer Brown will pleased with the way the barnyard has improved since you took over,” said one. “Oh, yes,” said another, “Farmer Brown will be impressed by the way we emphasize traditional barnyard values.”

There were requests, also, from chickens who wanted Henrietta to take advantage of her closeness to Farmer Brown to raise certain issues. Chiquita Chicken asked her to bring up the leaky shingle in the henhouse roof. Of course everyone had known that Chiquita would talk about that leak; it was right above her perch, and she never failed to squawk about it on rainy days. Unfortunately for Chiquita her low ranking on the pecking order was what kept her under the leaky spot anyway. She knew Henrietta would probably never mention it to Farmer Brown. And, of course, Henny Penny wanted compensation for the time she’d lost when the acorn fell on her head.

In the center of all this attention Henrietta stood proud. She had one simple motto: “Do unto others before they do it to you.” Henrietta had invested a lot of time and effort in climbing the ladder of success, and if she had achieved prominence by stepping on the heads of other chickens, so be it. Henrietta called this behavior “assertiveness,” “good business sense,” and “survival of the fittest.” She claimed the barnyard offered equal opportunity for all, and that her position was gained strictly on merit. Henrietta oozed self-confidence from every pore, and she never let anyone see her sweat. She referred to this as having a positive self-image.

Over on the far side of the barnyard was another, smaller group of hens, gathered around Lucy Leghorn. Lucy was at the bottom of the pecking order, and never hesitated to point this out. Her official motto was “Poor Pitiful Me.” She hardly ever opened her beak except to put herself down. She would talk about her incompetence at finding worms. She would talk about the ugliness of her feathers. She would talk about the low grades her eggs were getting.

It’s true that Lucy was at the bottom of the pecking order. She did have friends who would come up to her and argue with her poor self-image. They would try to take her under their wings and improve her social skills. But she would keep on knocking herself until they would get exasperated and peck her into silence. (Chickens have a limited range of behaviors.)

Lucy, also, was talking about Farmer Brown’s banquet. “The only reason I get to go was because they printed ‘all creatures’ on the invitation by mistake. I really don’t deserve to be there. I’ll take the seat at the farthest end of the dining room. In fact maybe I should eat standing up.”

Now, deep down inside herself, Lucy Leghorn thought that if she degraded herself enough, Farmer Brown would notice her humility, and raise her status, maybe even to the point of seating her at the head table. Like so many other chickens Lucy resented Henrietta Hen’s pushiness. She resented the fact that the other hens took Henrietta at her own valuation, that they believed her brags, that they allowed her to get away with puffing up her own accomplishments. She knew that Henrietta was really no better than she herself, maybe not even as good. Secretly Lucy Leghorn wanted to run the barnyard herself. She really wanted to trade places with Henrietta Hen. It was unfortunate for Lucy that just as the other hens acted as if they believed what Henrietta said about herself, they also acted as if they believed what Lucy said about herself.

Still, all the hens were good students of scripture. They all had read the parable in today’s Gospel lesson. And they all knew the story of Cinderella. There was just a chance that God, I mean Farmer Brown, would seat Lucy Leghorn at the head table. Lucy hoped for this. Henrietta Hen worried about this. And all the chickens wondered about this.

Then came the day of the banquet.

As the chickens filed into the dining room, they noticed that there was no “head table.” Instead the room was set with one giant circular table, of the sort that King Arthur and his knights might use. Around the table each place was marked with a name card. There was a certain amount of confusion as they tried to find their places. Strangely enough there was no resemblance between the seating arrangement and the barnyard pecking order. Some chickens who expected to be seated very close to Farmer Brown were seated very far away instead. Some chickens who were expected to be seated far away, were seated much closer. But eventually nearly every hen found her name card.

Finally, only three chickens were left wandering around searching for their place.

Henrietta Hen had found where Farmer Brown was sitting and seated herself next to him without even looking at any name cards. It was especially embarrassing, then, when a waiter came up to her and made her leave her perch. It seemed to take forever, passing around the circle of occupied places, knowing each hen was secretly laughing at her, until she reached a place as far from the Farmer as possible and saw her name on the card. For months Henrietta had kept her feathers ruffed out and seemed to be bigger than any other hen. Now they all noticed, as her feathers drooped, how small and insignificant she really was. And even chickens that had resented Henrietta in the past felt only pity for her now.

Lucy Leghorn had her wish granted, at least partly. No longer was she at the very bottom of the pecking order. She was not seated dead last. Of course it was hard to figure out what was first and what was last. But Lucy was not happy with what she did get. Lucy was seated next to Henrietta.

It was especially bad because Henrietta and Lucy couldn’t stand each other. They spent the whole meal eating their cracked corn in silence and trying to ignore each other.

But the real shock of the evening was seeing who was seated on the perch of honor beside Farmer Brown. It was Polly Pullet, one of the youngest and most junior chickens. She was normally ranked at only about a quarter of the way up the pecking order.

The room crackled – or cackled – with speculation. How could Farmer Brown have chosen Polly for such an honor? Then, at the end of the banquet, Farmer Brown stood up to speak.

“Welcome to my banquet,” Farmer Brown said. “I know you are wondering why each of you is seated where you are. My ways of organizing are not the same as your pecking order. The person I honor today is Polly Pullet, because she is so completely un-self-conscious. She doesn’t think of herself at all, neither to puff herself up nor to put herself down. She is too busy thinking about others. Those of you who are preoccupied with your climb up the ladder of success have already had your reward. Those of you who criticize yourselves in order to force attention or compliments out of others have already had your reward.

“The barnyard rewards ambition, and that’s alright for the barnyard, but not for me. I intend to reward those who are zealous for the Farm as a whole and for the welfare of every creature that inhabits it.

“The barnyard rewards chickens who blame themselves openly with great show, and that’s alright for the barnyard, but not for me. I intend to reward that true humility that thinks only of others, that doesn’t try to show itself off, that doesn’t make large flamboyant sacrifices in order to gain attention.

“So join me, creatures all,” Farmer Brown proclaimed, “in paying our respects to our guest of honor, Polly Pullet. She is our true hero for the evening for she does nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility considers others better than herself. She looks not only to her own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

And with that every creature stood and clucked, crowed, mooed, neighed, bleated, and oinked the name of Polly Pullet.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that it applies to the roosters just as much as to the hens.

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About Sarah The Vicar of Hogsmeade

I'm an United Methodist clergywoman with two daughters. I read. I geocache. I look for excuses to laugh. My Ph.D. is on Clergywomen and Grief.
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