Sermon 3/13/2022

Date: March 13, 2022
Sermon: Out-Foxing Fear
Scripture Lesson: Luke 13:31-35
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

One of my favorite songs as a child was “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night.” It has been recorded by many artists as recently as 2019. We had the recording by Harry Belafonte. And we sang it over and over and over whenever we went somewhere in the car that was more than about 10 minutes away. The song tells the story of a fox invading a farm yard pen and leaving with a goose and a duck to take home for dinner. The dinner scene is captured in the last verse:

“The fox and his wife without any strife
Cut up the goose with a carving knife
They never had such a supper in their life
And the little ones chewed on the bones-o.”

The song perpetuates the classic view of the fox as fast, cunning, sly, clever, and devious. And the human effort at protection against the wiles of the fox as ineffectual. The fox outfoxes the humans. Again. And leaves them cowed and bereft. Pretty standard.

This concept of the fox is nothing new. As we heard this morning, it was a common image in the Palestine of the first century of the common era. So it is a classic metaphor that goes beyond modern times and western culture. Probably because there is some truth in it.

In the story we heard today, we are told of Jesus drawing on this image of the fox. Jesus is told by the religious authorities that Herod wants to kill him. We don’t know if this is true. It is possible. Herod has killed John the Baptizer. Herod is ruthless. Or do the authorities tell this to Jesus in hopes of closing him down; driving him into hiding? Getting him to stop his flamboyant acts of healing and confronting evil that are attracting followers with their great power? Are these leaders trying to be foxlike by deceiving Jesus? We don’t know.

But Jesus names Herod as a fox. Normally potential prey runs and hides when threatened by the fox. Instead, Jesus magnifies the threat against him. Jesus names Herod the fox in the story, maybe hurling the slam at the religious leaders as well. Then he elaborates upon the threat to his life. It’s worse than the religious leaders imply: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you!” Jesus knows what he is facing and it goes far beyond the wiles of Herod. He is facing a blatant pattern of behavior that has gone on for centuries and that will continue. It’s not just the threat of this one despotic ruler.

So, Jesus magnifies the threat, giving the threat power far beyond Herod. This obliquely disempowers Herod. And in a way it lays responsibility at the feet of the religious leaders because Jesus implies they are the ones responsible for the killing of the prophets. The religious leaders are trying put responsibility for the threat to Jesus’ life on Herod but Jesus is hurling it back at them: “You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you!”

Having magnified the threat that he is facing, we get an unexpected turn in the story. Instead of cowering in the face of the threat against him, Jesus makes it known that he will not run or hide. He will not seek shelter or protection. He will not be driven into submission by fear. In fact, quite the opposite. In response to the clear and present danger he knows he is facing, Jesus announces that he has work to do. And he is going to do it. In spite of the threat to his life. “‘Today and tomorrow, I’ll be casting out devils and healing people, and on the third day I’ll reach my goal.’ Even with all that, I’ll need to continue on my journey today, tomorrow and the day after that. . .” Jesus has a job to do. He has a mission. He has things that he needs to attend to as the Chosen One of God. He will not be driven into submission by fear. In fact, the idea that his life is threatened means he will redouble his efforts for his time may be short.

Jesus will not seek safety and protection for himself but he will seek to give it to others. The story tells us: “How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird [in many translations, ‘hen’] collects her babies under her wings — yet you refuse me!” Jesus will continue to seek to offer health, well-being, and life to all under the protection of the reality of God. He must spend his days exhibiting the flagrant, profligate love and mercy of God especially to those who have been neglected, forgotten, or worse, cast out. Jesus will name evil and will respond extravagantly. His behavior is driven by love and not fear.

Jesus images himself as a hen. He turns the image of passive prey for the fox into something positive and active and effectual. It’s not a weak, cowering, scared image, but an image with power to do good, to help others, to serve, to make safe and secure from the predatory community around them. Sometimes that predatory threat is even from the religious community. Jesus emphasizes that the love of God is like a hen actively protecting her chicks. And Jesus intends to spend his days demonstrating that love with power and passion. He has work to do. And neither Herod nor the religious leaders are going to keep him from his work.

There is a children’s book that I love that involves a hen and a fox. It is called Rosie’s Walk. Intricate illustrations of the farm cover the pages in autumn colors with lots of black detailing. My copy is on loan to my grandsons or I would show it to you! In the book, the hen, Rosie, goes about her business taking a walk through the farm yard. She goes across the yard. She goes around the pond. She goes past the haystack and the mill. She goes through the fence and under the beehives. And on the last page she is strutting into the chicken coop in time for dinner. There is a sentence on each page describing what Rosie is passing on her walk. That is the extent of the sparse narration. But on every page, not only does the picture show Rosie and the farm and the other farm residents, but there is a fox that follows Rosie on her walk, creeping along behind her, seemingly seeking just the right opportunity to pounce. But in each picture, the fox encounters some kind of hardship or peril or hazard. Something falls on the fox. The fox trips. The bees attack the fox. One thing after another happens to the fox in the pictures. And Rosie is completely oblivious to the fox and goes about her business. [See Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins.]

This makes me think of this story of Jesus that we heard today. He is being pursued by Herod, the fox, but he goes about his business. Though Jesus is aware of the threat, he still behaves without fear which is all the more impressive. Instead of wasting his efforts protecting himself, or using his power and ability to undo his enemies directly, he chooses to focus his power, his efforts, his work, on doing good. Not staying safe. And not defending himself. And not in self protection. And not in schemes to take down those who want to stop him. Instead he confronts evil, and danger, and threat, with the power of love, by doing good, by furthering the realm of God and living in the reality of God and inviting others to join him. He does not let himself be undermined, sidetracked, distracted or enticed by the threats around him. He will go about doing his work. Healing. Helping. Saving. Feeding. Forgiving. Gathering in. Creating beloved community.

The message here is that the way of love prevails. God is going to do what God is going to do. And there’s nothing you can do about it. That is what we hear from Jesus in this story. You can’t stop Divine Love. You can’t stop God’s care and compassion. Kill the prophets. And God persists. Kill Jesus. And Love still triumphs. We are testimony to that, here today, in the church, the body of Christ. Love prevails. And there is no violence or evil or threat that can stop it.

So in this story we see that we, too, as followers of Jesus, are to stay focussed on our work of demonstrating Divine Love in the world. There are forces that would seek to deter us, to threaten us, and to distract us. Society is busy trying to instill fear in us at every turn. Worry about crime. Get an alarm system. Worry about your retirement. Open an investment account to help someone else make money. Worry about your health. Buy this supplement. Worry about your job. Stop illegal immigration. And on it goes. The threats and dangers. Seeking to suck up our energies, our money, our dreams, and our votes. And all of that lures us away from spending our energies, our lives, on love, compassion, caring for others and the earth, and creating beloved community, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

In a reflection in The Christian Century magazine on this passage, the writer talks about being interested in chickens. She tells us:

“I don’t remember when exactly I decided that I wanted chickens. I suppose there’s always been part of me — part hippie, part farm girl wannabe, full-time reader of Mother Earth News — that has romanticized the notion of raising poultry . . . In this phase of my life, I acknowledge that I (probably) won’t become a suburban chicken farmer. But knowing that doesn’t stop me from cooing over them longingly whenever I encounter them in the spring at certain supply stores. It doesn’t stop me from reading books and websites about them, keeping an Amazon wish list of chicken coops, and learning which varieties produce different colored eggs.” [Jennifer Moland-Kovash, in The Christian Century, 2/23/22, p. 19.]

Of course there is no harm in fantasizing about raising chickens but sometimes I think we are tempted to fantasize about following Jesus. About being true Christians. We read the Bible. We read devotionals. We pray. We go to church. Maybe we watch videos about faith topics. Or listen to theological podcasts. Maybe we follow and even like organizations that are doing wonderful justice work or humanitarian work. But we are sitting at home. On our devices. Or in an arm chair. But not actually doing the work. Forgiving. Confronting the structures of society that cause poverty and threaten life. Offering practical, material help. Addressing the needs that fill our screens. We hear the echo of Jesus’ words, “Go tell that fox, ‘Today and tomorrow, I’ll be casting out devils and healing people, and on the third day I’ll reach my goal.’” Jesus was doing it. Not just talking about it. Or thinking about it. Or reading about it.

I recently drove past a bench at a bus stop. And on the bench was a brown paper grocery bag. And the bag was full. And there was a note written in large letters on white paper attached to the bag. It said: ‘FREE FOOD’ with a smiley face. Whoever put that bag on the bench was not sitting at home on a device. Thinking about doing something for others.

When people say that Christianity is under attack in this country they are right, but the attack is mainly from the fear campaign around us that seeks to shut down God’s dream of justice and compassion for all people. But as we heard today, Jesus won’t be shut down. He won’t let the fear mongers shut him down. Despite the fox, he will be the hen offering solace and protection and care. Because Jesus knows that you can’t take life from someone who is giving it away. That is what we see in Jesus. Herod will not take his life. The religious leaders will not take his life. The Romans will not take his life. He will give his life away. In love. And nothing can stop that love.

In closing we listen to an Arabian fable. It offers a different role for the fox, mixing our metaphors a bit, but the message meshes with the story that we heard from Luke:

“One day, a man wandered through a forest, and came across an injured fox. The poor creature had been pursued by hunters and had broken its legs in its efforts to escape. Now it lay in the undergrowth, helpless to find food.

“The man’s heart went out to the fox, but as he watched, a grizzly bear loomed up out of the trees, dragging the carcass of an animal it had killed. The bear appeared to ignore the presence of the wounded fox, but when it shuffled off again after its meal, it left the remains of the carcass close to where the fox was hiding. The fox devoured the meat hungrily.

“The next day, the man walked through the forest again. And again, the bear left a tasty morsel behind for the hungry fox. And on the third day, the same thing happened.

“The man pondered hard over what he had seen. ‘If God cares so much for a wounded fox,’ he thought, ‘how much more will God care for me. My faith is far too feeble. I must learn to trust in God as this fox trusts.’

“So the man went into a quiet corner of the forest and prayed, ‘Loving God, this injured fox has shown me what it means to trust you. Now I too commit myself entirely to your care. I trust that you will care for me just as you care for the fox.’ And with this, he lay down and waited for God to act.

“A day passed, and nothing happened. The man was getting hungry. A second day passed and still nothing happened. The man was deeply puzzled. A third day passed, and the man was angry. ‘Heavenly God,’ he cried, ‘you love that little fox more than you love me! Why won’t you care for me when I trust you so much? Why don’t you feed me?’

“At last, hunger forced the man back into the town. There on the streets he came upon a starving child. He railed on God in his rage. ‘Why don’t you do something?!’

“‘I have done something,’ God said. ‘I have created you. But you choose to behave like the fox when you could model yourself on the bear.’” [“The Fox and the Bear,” retelling of an Arabian fable, in One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World, Margaret Silf, p. 128, adapted.]

In the wildness of mercy, we are to be driven by love and love alone. To see to our own well-being, to take care of ourselves, we must be about God’s dream taking care of others and the world. There are chicks to protect. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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