Sunday, February 24, 2013

(Lent 2) How to face our fear of foxes

Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

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President FDR is famous for saying,
“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
But FDR should have given credit to Henry David Thoreau,
who a hundred years earlier, wrote,
“Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.”
The poet Robert Frost gave that saying a humorous twist,
when he wrote, “There’s nothing I’m afraid of . . .
like scared people.”

Poets and presidents agree, fear is bad.
It’s the enemy of the good life.
It keeps us from doing what we ought to do,
or being what we ought to be.
And if we are Christian, it’s even worse.
The message we get is . . .
having fear means not having faith;
if we had trust in God, we wouldn’t be afraid.
So, not wanting to be a bad Christian,
we hide our fear, we deny it.

Fear is a destructive thing.
Fear keeps us from living fully, which is a shame.
Of course, there is some fear that helps us live.
Fear keeps us from walking headlong into danger.
That fear is healthy.
It is part of being human.
It is the gift of a loving Creator God that made us human.

But the fear that paralyzes, that destroys relationships,
that incites violence,
is not from the Creator, but from the Evil One.
And this is the fear of our age—
a fear that drives us away from others,
that makes us self-protective and isolated,
instead of open and hospitable.
This is the fear that lies behind the polarization in our culture—
over gun control, economics, the role of government,
and lots of other issues.
This fear is not life-giving, it is life-draining.
It keeps us always in our comfort zone.
It prevents us from following Jesus into the unknown.
It robs us of the full and abundant life God intends for us.
This is the fear scripture warns us about.
“Be not afraid,” the Bible says, repeatedly.
“Fear not, I am with you always.”
“Perfect love casts out all fear.”
And from today’s psalm reading:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”

But how do we actually go about managing our fears?
How do we at least control them, instead of letting them control us?
How do we face them, overcome them,
and let them be replaced by deep peace?

Well, let’s take a look at Jesus.

I find today’s story from the Gospel of Luke, ch. 13, most fascinating.
Jesus was in Galilee, with his disciples,
traveling about teaching, healing,
interacting with the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders.
I say interacting, because he was, as yet,
not in an all-out conflict with them.
They were still trying to figure Jesus out.
There was plenty of tension, of course.
On a number of occasions,
the Pharisees were annoyed, perplexed,
or outright offended by him.
But they weren’t his sworn enemies, yet.
They were still inviting him to dinner in their homes.
The Pharisees and Jesus both had a greater enemy to worry about—
King Herod and the Roman Empire.

About this time, Jesus made his intention clear
that he was beginning a journey
that would take him into Jerusalem.
It was the Pharisees that warned him.
Tried to get him to go the opposite direction.
He was already close enough to Jerusalem,
and they knew Herod wanted to kill Jesus.
They told him, “Leave this place. Go where it’s safer.”

I absolutely love Jesus’ response, in v. 32.
Here’s what he said to the Pharisees.
“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.’
Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way,
because it is impossible for a prophet
to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”
He’s saying, basically.
“I’ve got too much work to do, to be killed.
I’m busy today, tomorrow, and the next day.
Being martyred just doesn’t fit into my schedule right now.”

I would have liked to have seen the twinkle in Jesus’ eye,
when he was telling the Pharisees
his reason for not being afraid of Herod, the fox.

Now, I don’t think for a minute
that Jesus was making light of Herod,
that he didn’t realize that Herod was, indeed,
a real threat to his life.
We know enough from historical records and archeology,
that Herod was a most cruel and heartless despot.
He was brutally oppressive, feared by all,
killing his own family members when he had to,
for political reasons.
He beheaded the wildly popular John the Baptist.
He wouldn’t think twice about doing the same to Jesus.

But Jesus chose a fascinating pair of metaphors,
for Herod and himself.
First, he calls Herod a fox.
Then in the next verse he calls himself a mother hen—
a hen who wants to gather her chicks under her wings,
to protect them . . . from the fox, presumably.
The chicks are the people of Jerusalem,
and Jesus pours out this moving lament,
a lament of a mother,
whose children refuse her breast,
refuse to come under her wings,
she loves them, but she needs to let them go,
even if it means going to destruction.

That’s a great metaphor in itself, of a way to live with our fears.
Like chicks, we find strength being in community,
under the protection of the one that formed the community.
By nature’s instinct, little chicks know where they belong,
together, in a flock, with their mother.
It’s by that instinct that they live.

So it’s understandable that Jesus used the image of hen and chicks.
It’s understandable the psalmist wrote poetry about
finding refuge under the shelter of God’s wings.

God doesn’t want us to be afraid.
God wants us to run, together, en masse,
and seek shelter under God’s mothering wings.

I could say a lot more about that metaphor,
of Jesus as mother hen, and we her chicks.
I could go deeper to find what we can learn from it
for dealing with our fears.

But what intrigues me in this Gospel story today,
is Jesus’ response to the very real threat of Herod, the fox.
In this story, he makes himself out to be a small, feathery hen,
at risk of attack by a fox who is out for blood,
but he is not afraid.
If you’ve been around hens—
and I have, we always had a backyard flock growing up—
then you know that by nature,
hens come completely unhinged when threatened.
They start cackling and flapping and running in circles
if they so much as see a shadow of a bird flying overhead.
There’s a reason why, if someone is afraid,
we call them “chicken.”
And a fox is the worst possible threat to a chicken.
They are easily overpowered.
Jesus is facing one of the most threatening foxes in history,
but he is clear-minded about it.

Well, we might say, of course Jesus isn’t afraid of Herod.
Jesus is divine. Jesus knows all.
He knows that he is heading toward the cross, anyway,
and God will raise him up on the third day.
So he faces this threat with a clear resolve.

Well, I think that’s a spiritual cop-out.
Jesus faced Herod, as one human being faces another.
Jesus’ divinity never, I believe, never negated his humanity.
It complemented his humanity.
It did not overtake it, replace it, or negate it.
Jesus was, in fact, afraid of what was coming.

We know in the Garden he was under extreme stress about it.
He agonized deeply, begged his father for a reprieve, a way out.
So afraid was Jesus about what was to come,
that we are told it was like he sweat drops of blood.
His divinity was not a convenient short-cut around
the deep human experience of fear and dread and stress.

So as Jesus was journeying toward Jerusalem, toward Herod,
I am convinced he was not immune to deep fear and dread.
So how could he be so calm and reflective and almost dismissive
when he answered the Pharisees?

I think it’s because he was so clear about his mission and his identity.
He knew who he was.
He knew why he was there.
Knowing those two things put him on solid footing.
He was in a good position to engage the enemy,
when he was clear about who he was,
and why he was there.
He knew he was a prophet, that God had anointed him.
And he knew he was there in order to go to Jerusalem,
and proclaim the coming kingdom.
proclaim the reign of God.

Knowing who he was, and knowing God’s intention for him,
gave him the strength to put the rest of it in perspective.
“I have work to do here, for which I’ve been sent.
And that must be completed,” Jesus said.
“A prophet cannot be killed outside of Jerusalem,” he said.
The fox didn’t frighten Jesus,
not because Jesus knew he was divine,
and therefore could beat the fox in a fight.
No, it was because, even as a human being,
he was secure in his calling and identity.
People who are not secure in themselves,
are people who react in unhealthy ways when threatened.

I see this all the time in individuals.
And I see it often in groups, in institutions,
like the church,
maybe especially the church, in these challenging days.

There are foxes out there
who threaten the life of the church.
They are opportunistic,
and would be happy to have the little hen for dinner.

There are huge powerful systems in this world—
economic systems, political systems,
military-industrial complexes,
built upon greed,
manipulating others for our advantage,
amassing power,
thirsting for revenge—
these systems, as powerful as they are,
are inconvenienced by this little hen of a church,
that preaches a message of self-sacrificial love,
of generosity without payback,
of radical forgiveness,
of willingly letting go of power.
This little hen is annoying to them,
and gets in the way of getting their agenda accomplished.
In much the same way, I think,
that powerful and brutal King Herod and his armies,
were annoyed and threatened
by the carpenter rabbi from Galilee,
and his message about a new peaceable kingdom.

The systems of power can take care of this little annoying hen,
by either killing it off quickly,
or if they don’t have the political will to do that,
then the next best thing is
to co-opt it for their own purposes.
In other words, get the church to go mainstream,
get the church invested in the systems of power,
so it benefits directly from them,
and starts taking the same self-protecting, anxious posture
of those power-systems.
I think we have seen this happen in the church.
Today the institutional church is fast losing
its privileged position in culture,
and in these systems of power.
So the church is getting anxious and protective.

I think I also see this anxious response
when the threat seems to come from within.
As the issues that polarize our larger culture,
inevitably start to polarize the church,
we get afraid, we get anxious,
and we start reacting out of our anxiety.
We start using the method and means of the power systems
in order to get what we want.
Instead, we should step back and get a clearer picture
of who we really are,
and why we are here.

Jesus faced his fear of the fox,
by being clear about his identity and mission.

We can face our fear of foxes—
both the big bad foxes outside who threaten to break in,
as well as the foxes inside the henhouse—
by returning to the foundation of our identity and calling.

Churches who are all about being the community of Christ,
living together like our lives mattered to each other,
and who are all about being partners with God
in God’s mission of healing the world,
are churches who are calm and centered and reflective
when they hear about the foxes out there.
They don’t go running the other way.
They engage the enemy without fear,
knowing that God will not abandon them.

And this same clarity filters down, I believe,
to the individuals who make up the church.
When we are part of a movement greater than ourselves,
when we find meaning by engaging with God’s mission,
we can handle a lot more of the personal challenges
that come our way, as well.
Because we are not facing them alone.
Like the chicks under the wings of the mother hen,
we find solidarity and peace,
even when the threats are real.

So the answer to facing our fear of foxes,
is not to run the other direction,
and is not to lash out wildly at whatever threatens.
It is to reaffirm who we are in Christ Jesus,
and what is our higher calling,
and to pursue it.
Today, and tomorrow, and the next day.
One day the church of Jesus Christ will finish its work.

But for now, today,
even as Jesus took comfort that it was impossible
for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem,
may we draw strength knowing it is impossible
for the faithful prophetic church to be killed before our time.
May we also be too busy with our work of God’s mission,
to waste time worrying about the fox.

Shall we pray?
Lord of the church, Lord of our lives, Lord of the universe,
may we not be overcome by fear of that which may threaten us,
from within or without.
May we instead run to you,
our mothering God with her sheltering wings . . .
and may we also stand with the strength of conviction
that we are your beloved children,
and we are here to participate in your mission,
and there is no one, and no thing,
which can take that from us.
In the strong name of your son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, February 24, 2013

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