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 Foxes and Hens in a Troubled World

Sermon - 2/24/13
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 13:31-35

I want to begin with a little music trivia -- Simon and Garfunkel. We'll see if you can do better than the first service :) Bridge Over Troubled Waters, right? "I'd rather be a sparrow than a. . . " Snail! "I'd rather be a hammer than a . . . " Nail! "I'd rather be a forest than a . . . " Street! "I'd rather feel the earth beneath my . . . " Feet! Good, you got most of those right!

So, what would you rather be -- a minnow, or a whale? A whale, right? Whales eat minnows -- rather be a whale :) Now this next one, I didn't see coming in the first service -- would you rather be a Crow or an Eagle? [Shouts of "crow" from the first pew] Those that don't know -- the last name of this pew right here is 'Crow' :) April, maiden name is Crow, now Oristano. But it's supposed to be Eagle :)

Would you rather be a sheep or a wolf? Most would say wolf -- unless you want to be eaten, right? Would you rather be a fox or a hen? Now, think about that one for a minute. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be the one eating, instead of the one being eaten, right? I know, foxes don't have the best reputation, but keep that in mind as we read the text for today, Luke 13: 31-35:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.”34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

Those of you out there are saying "I told you 'hen' was the right answer" :)

Before I get back to that, though, the first thing that jumped into my mind when I read this at the beginning of week (working on my sermon) was the way the Pharisees are presented here. We're used to the Pharisees being the arch enemy, right? And here they seem to be on the side of Jesus -- they're concerned for him, they're warning him that Herod wants to kill him.

We assume that Pharisees are hypocritical, self-righteous, egotistical Bible-thumpers, right? In reality, they're no different than preachers today. Uh oh :) Hypocritical, self-righteous, egotistical Bible-thumpers! I know what you were thinking :) But seriously, we have to be careful about stereotyping, whether we're talking about characters from ancient times or today. And Pharisees, as much as any other group, suffer from that kind of prejudice in the way that we portray them.

We think, well if you're a Democrat you must be liberal, if you're a Republican you must be conservative. And that's not true. Or if you're young, you must prefer our first service, and if you're. . . . . not young, you must prefer this service. But look around -- we have younger folk in this service too, and 'not young folk' in the first service :)

If you live in Eugene, you must be a Duck fan. If you live in Corvallis, you wished you lived in Eugene!

So, my favorite story to tell, that shatters stereotypes, was a week before Judy and I were married. We lived in West Berlin at the time, we were young, students, trying to save money. The East German Airlines flight was $200 cheaper than anything out of West Berlin. And so of course we take that. The only problem was that means you have to fly out of the East Berlin airport, which means you have to go through the infamous Berlin Wall, through the passage-way there, through passport control. Judy was leaving a week before me, to get ready for the big day, do all that bride stuff. So I go there to the place where you go through the Wall on the Western side, and there's this no-man's land between the West and the East, and there's a guard tower, with a guard with a machine gun, up above watching over this no-man's land. So I kiss my soon-to-be wife goodbye, and she starts to head across there, carrying her big suitcase for the trip.

All of a sudden this voice comes down: "Halt!". "Carry! Carry the suitcase for the young woman!". Yeah. "Yes Sir!". You don't argue with the main with the machine gun! So I carried her suitcase across the no-man's land. So, turns out this East German border guard, anti-American, freedom-hating communist . . . . . is a romantic :) With a heart. Totally changed the way I perceived boarder guards from then on. No wonder the Wall collapsed -- bunch of pansies :) By the way, the other part of that story is that the East German airline, Aeroflot (with plans held together with chicken-wire and duct tape), couldn't make it across the Atlantic without refueling. Also, you have to know, because of the post-war agreement, only the 4 Allied powers (Britain, France, United States, and Russia), were allowed to fly into Berlin. So you had to board a Russian puddle-jumper to take you to Warsaw to get on the East German plane that would then take you to New York. And it had to stop twice to refuel, once in Newfoundland, and once in Berlin! So you get on the plane in Berlin, fly to Warsaw, change planes, come back to Berlin. . . .yeah, no kidding, thank heavens that system is no more. We survived.

So, my point here is to be careful of those stereotypes. The Pharisees, like border guards, are real people, with spouses and kids and hopes and fears no different than our own. And we make them out (meaning the Pharisees) as incompetent fools at best, or evil-incarnate at worst. In reality, they're decent people who did their best to be faithful to God's law as they understood it. As you read your Gospels, always keep that in mind.

Jesus takes their advice, politely, and ignores it. Because he's not going to be deterred from his mission that's going to take him to Jerusalem. Much like Martin Luther, called before the authorities to recant his heresy, said "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise". And so too Jesus. So he tells them to inform Herod that he will do tomorrow as he did yesterday, until his work is done on the third day, which is a subtle reference to Easter, when his work is complete here on earth.

The second striking element that I find in the story is this contrast between Herod as the crafty, sly fox, and Jesus as the protective mother hen. So as I noted at the beginning, even if the fox is not seen as the most honorable of creatures in the animal kingdom, I think most of us would prefer to be the fox than the hen, with the fox in the henhouse, etc. And so it makes a rather startling comparison between these two.

Now, is this intentional? That is, is Jesus thinking, comparing Herod the fox to himself as the hen? Perhaps drawing a contrast between the violence of Herod and his nonviolent way. That's one way to read it. The other way, is Luke intentionally crafting the story this way, for the same purpose, or because of the benefit of hindsight -- foxes do the killing, hens are the ones that get eaten? A little bit of foreshadowing?

Either way, I think that is clearly the case, whether it be Jesus or Luke, that it's very intentional. The reason I've come to that conclusion is because of what occurs between the two, when we have this reference to the prophets who get killed in Jerusalem. Now, you have to know, that this is neither certain nor accurate. John the Baptist is killed by Herod in Galilee, not in Jerusalem. So there's nothing that says prophets can't be killed outside of Jerusalem. And, as far as that goes, how many prophets can you name (before the time of Jesus) killed in Jerusalem? You're all Biblical scholars, right? :) Yeah, right -- who knows? It turns out there are 2 very obscure prophets, one named Uriah (not to be confused with the husband of Bathsheba) mentioned in Jeremiah, and the other by the name of Zechariah (not to be confused with the other prophet we know by that name as one of the books of the Bible) mentioned in 2 Chronicles. Very obscure, we know very little about them other than they were killed in Jerusalem. So it's not a sure thing. Jeremiah suffered in Jerusalem but he wasn't killed.

So why does Jesus say this?

And it's because that while that may not be certain for everyone, it's certain for him, right? This is his destiny. And it's a way of saying he knows what he's doing, he knows what lies ahead. So the point is that it would be deadly for Jesus, and so Jesus, then, is the hen to be killed by the fox (not Herod), but the fox Pilate. Because that's the way of foxes, and the fate of hens.

And that stands in direct contrast to the way of Christ. The way of the lion, dwelling with the calf. Of the wolf, lying down with the sheep. And that's the point of the comparison -- Christ is not the powerful, violent carnivore but the vulnerable, non-violent mother hen.

In football terms, even though the season is over (sadly :), it turns out Jesus is not the quarterback, you know, leading his team down the field. He's not the linebacker crashing the gap. He's not the 300-pound tackle blasting a hole in the defensive lion. He's the water-boy. Yeah. Bringing something to quench the thirst. He's the medic, tending to the downed player. Or better yet, he's Sandra Bullock in that wonderful movie "The Blind Side", right? The woman who looks out for her adopted, giant of a son, who's really nothing more than a frightened little boy inside. Destined, probably, for a life of drugs on the street (as was the case with his real mother) until Sandra Bullock's character takes him in to her protective care. A true story, by the way, of an actual football player.

So in the ancient, male-dominated world, where foxes eat the weak for lunch, this very maternal image for Jesus comes as a bit of a shocker. Kind of like that 11-year-old, Caroline Pla, I think her name is, in the news this week. Did you catch this story? The little girl who wants to play football in the all-male Catholic league of which she is a part. And the Archdiocese just doesn't know what to do with her. She, like Jesus, is shaking things up. Only Jesus does it not by busting heads or showing who is boss, but through that motherly compassion, taking in the weak and vulnerable under his wing, healing the sick, casting out the demons. Showing that concern for the outcasts of society.

This compassionate care for the weak is one of the central characteristics of Jesus. The one who is not deterred by the threats of violence, who is willing to stand up to bullies of this world on behalf of the vulnerable, providing care for those in need, as any mother hen would do.

Now, I don't know that a mothering hen is the best image for us to use in every situation, so you have to be a little bit careful of that. Because there is a time when we all need to break free from such protection, to make it on our own. But still, that image, I think, helps us to see the centrality of compassion to Christian faith and practice.

And so it's very appropriate that the single largest offering, special offering, typically that we take in this church, is for the Week of Compassion program. That program of Disciples that demonstrates the care of the church for those around the world that are often among the most vulnerable of any society. After that terrible tragedy in Newtown, just weeks before Christmas, Week of Compassion provided a grant to Central Christian Church in nearby Danbury for the bulk purchase of children's books dealing with trauma and violence for any family in the area, helping them to make sense with their own children of that tragedy. With thousands of refugees fleeing the Civil War in Syria, Week of Compassion is providing emergency assistance, food and water, to refugee camps working with our Orthodox Christian Church partners in that region of the country. While the news media has largely forgotten the devastation of the earthquake in Haiti from a couple years ago, Week of Compassion has not -- continuing to provide trauma support and medical assistance in the remote communities that are often overlooked by other agencies seeking to help that nation rebuild.

So whether working in Africa to eliminate a a very treatable form of childhood cancer, or in Serbia to give girls their first opportunity to finish school, Week of Compassion is working around the clock, throughout the world to show true compassion of the Christian community for those in the greatest need. And this is the best part -- because we work with churches and local communities and partner agencies there on the ground, and have -- count it -- 2 paid staff (Amy Gopp and her assistant) that's the only administrative expense (plus publicity like the flyers in your bulletin this week). Because of that, it is one of the relief organizations with the lowest overhead of any relief organization. So you know your gifts to Week of Compassion are going to those people who most need it, and not to pay for administrative costs. It truly is one of the shining stars of the Christian Church that makes our compassion known and felt around the world.

Week of Compassion is, in other words, the mother-hen of our faith. Gathering the vulnerable under her protecting wings. So your offering, whether this week or any time throughout the year, whenever you hear of another disaster anywhere in the world, reveals the compassion of Christ in you.

Now, it may be true that hens are still easy targets for the foxes of this world, today just as they were in the day of Jesus. But never forget, that power of the third day, when the work of Christ is made complete. And the powers of this world are turned upside down.

That power, reserved neither to the past nor for the future, but very much is available to us now, is most fully known in God's compassionate love for all his creatures. Foxes and hens alike.

Such is the true wonder of God's love and power, revealed in Christ for all of us.


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