Thursday, February 25, 2016

Foxes and Hens

January 21, 2016
Lent 2, Year C
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton
Christ Church, Exeter
A child at an orphanage in Cape Town, South Africa
Foxes and Hens

In the gospel lesson we just heard, two animals are mentioned. One is a fox and the other a mother hen.  Jesus uses a fox to warn us and a hen to inspire and gather us closer.

What I hope to do this morning is to describe some of the ways we live with the foxes of the world and how we, with God’s help, can become more like the hen – or at least the brood that is gathered under her wings.

From what I remember from last Sunday beyond how cold it was outside and how cool it was inside due to our boiler problem (now fixed) the focus of the lessons was temptations. It is where Lent begins. Always.  The devil tempted the hungry Jesus with food, power and safety, yet nothing could shake his trust and belief.  The forty days he spent in the wilderness only made his mission and identity more clear.

I like to think of this time, when we build towards Holy Week and Easter, as a fruitful time to tend to the basics and essentials. 

There was some talk this past week about what makes a good Christian – perhaps you heard. A certain bishop of Rome and a titan from New York engaged in a rather stunning dance as to whether it was Christian to put more effort in building walls than bridges.  It is never easy to guess what government policy Jesus would endorse, but we can always ask, and we should: What would Jesus do?

Starting there we can and should ask ourselves then: what should we do as we face
The trials, demons, obstacles, challenges and choices in our lives.   Would we end up in the same place? Can the “What would Jesus do?” work in a world that is so full of global unrest and domestic anxiety where the foxes of the world loom large? 

I am often asked by people who want to study the Bible – to go farther and deeper in their faith – as to where and how to begin. A good question in Lent and during those wilderness and dry times of our lives.

I point them to the psalms.  Any of them.  All of them.  We hear one each Sunday. These ancient words are not history, visions, parables or teaching, they are honest and real expressions from the hearts of people who wanted to sing and cry out to a God who gave life and blessings even when and if life looked pretty bleak. 

What I like about Psalm 27 that we prayed this morning is its honesty of living in the midst of hope and fear.  That is where I often find myself. 

1The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

2When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.

3Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

These are words that allow us to say: God is good.  Our light and salvation – the stronghold of our lives.  The rock.  The steady hand and guiding force.  And there is a need to say and affirm this always.   Last Sunday, when it was 9 below zero and 52 degrees in the church, I looked out at many of you with your coats and hats on and I saw a desire to live into this light.  We can draw comfort from what is expressed in this psalm: We are to wait for the Lord, be strong, and take courage.  v.5For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

The power of the words grows when we return to them again and again. 

It is interesting, isn’t it, how often repetitive fear is mentioned in Scripture.  Jesus constantly tells his followers not to be afraid. In the psalm, it is the evildoer, the adversary, the foe, the army, and the enemy that threatens. 

Let’s try to stake out what we know.  I don’t believe that it should be our goal as Christians to wish away all those who would do harm to us and those we love and disrupt God’s purpose in the world.  How tempting that would be…  Who, if given three wishes from a genie’s bottle would not wish for an end to war, violence, corruption, and exploitation and human trafficking. Who would not want their nemesis to just go away and leave them alone? Who couldn’t want to turn off the inner voice that tries to tell us that we matter less than we should?   

What ever we want to call it – the devil, darkness, evil, temptation, negativity – there is real power there to attract and entice.  Our decision and our direction is whether we will allow what we fear to shape us. To turn us into people Christ would not recognize.  To become the sum of our worst fears and anxieties.  

The psalm points us in a direction where we can find shelter.  It is in God’s presence – where we can behold God’s beauty -- where our true confidence comes.

Where do the fox and the mother hen fit in?

As Jesus travels closer to Jerusalem and the cross, he is moving, healing, teaching and casting out demons. People are noticing, the crowds are building, and the authorities are getting more nervous.  In an interesting twist, the Pharisees shed their normal bad boy image in the gospels and came to Jesus’ aid by warning him to “get away from here” for Herod wanted to kill him. “Go and tell that fox for me….” Jesus replied.  

Why did Jesus call Herod a fox? Jesus did so because Herod was complicit in the death of his friend John the Baptist.  He was a puppet, a stooge, an imposter, or a ruthless religious tyrant.  And Herod wanted Jesus dead before he could reach Jerusalem. 

What do we know about foxes? I occasionally see a fox come out of the woods in the back of our house. I’m always fascinated by foxes in their beauty, their movement and the sense that seem to be a magical cross between a large cat and a small dog.  

To call someone a fox, one is saying that the person is clever, agile and most certainly threatening. 

There is the expression that comes to mind:  “Don’t let the fox guard the henhouse,” which means: be careful about who holds positions of authority and trust, lest they exploit their position for their own benefit and cause harm.

Foxes and motherly hens are alive and well today.

On my recent visit to South Africa, what I found most interesting was to see up close how that country is living through the days after Nelson Mandela.  Though the evils of apartheid are behind them, the residue and impact of that system of racial cleansing and social engineering are still very much in sight.  It is as if the people of South Africa reached their Promised Land after years of oppression, led by their Moses figure Mandela, only to find many new challenges in building a just society in the new land.

Our visit took us to an orphanage in a black township in what is called the Cape Flats outside of Cape Town.  These townships were created decades ago when the all white government literally moved the black and colored populations out of existing neighborhoods – where some families had lived for decades – and moved them to the dry and dusty flats far from the center of the city.  They achieved their goal of total racial separation – apartheid – those divisions sadly exist even today. 

The orphanage we visited was full of babies and children, most of who were HIV+ and abandoned by their families. The staff were angels. The kids were playful and only wanted to be held. I saw God alive in that place, in the eyes of children who been rescued and who were being care for by saintly women getting paid next to nothing.  These are the mother hens of this world: protecting their brood from the foxes of this world.

When I visit these kinds of places I go through a familiar mix of emotions. The unproductive guilt of privilege certainly tops the list. 

My go-to spiritual friend Frederick Busechner wrote: “Sometimes we travel to get away and see something of the world. Sometimes we travel just to get away from ourselves. Sometimes we travel to convince ourselves that we are getting someplace.

The footloose Israelites were really … "seeking a homeland," which they died without ever finding but never gave up seeking even so (Hebrews 11:14).

Maybe that is true of all of us. Maybe at the heart of all our traveling is the dream of someday, somehow, getting home.”

When I travel and return to my home, I am often more aware of where and how I live.  I remember the sights and the hardships that I saw, but I try not to allow them to haunt me, but rather inspire me to make a difference in what I can.  What would Jesus do?   More importantly: what are we going to do?

I hope we can see the ways in which God still gathers us – like a hen gathering her brood.  Allow yourself to be gathered into God’s work. There we will find protection, comfort, meaning and holy purpose.