A Hen in the Foxhouse

One of the most tiresome things about being a pastor is how we are portrayed in the movies or on television. I know it seems petty, but it’s real. I don’t if we have the worst stereotype of an occupation onscreen, but it’s certainly up there. Lawyers, of course, are a popular punching bag, but at least they also get heroes like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and the DAs on Law and Order. Pastors are almost always characterized as judgmental, manipulative, and hypocritical. And if they are not a terrible person, they’re generally shown as benign, but largely incompetent and out of touch.

It’s one of the many reasons that I love both the story and the now classic film, A River Runs Through It, which focuses on two sons of a minister as they grow up in and around Missoula, Montana after World War I. Not only is the minister depicted positively; he’s even Presbyterian! He raises his sons to love the beauty of creation and the art of fly-fishing, though as they grow older they begin to go in very different directions with their lives: Norman is a straight-arrow, while Paul is impulsive and a risk-taker who gets increasingly in trouble with both the law and a group of gamblers, but who refuses all offers of help to redirect his life. At one point, the minister father even gives a moving sermon which is clearly based on his relationship with Paul.

“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need,” he says, “and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.” While this minister father certainly did not approve of his son’s behavior, his response was one of love and concern, not judgment and rejection. Indeed, he was actually the recipient of rejection, not the source of it, because Paul turned away both his concern and his attempts to help, even though he clearly needed both. And so this father resigns himself to not being able to help, even while his love remains constant and complete.

We see Jesus expressing that kind of love and concern in our New Testament lesson this morning, as well. Only here it is directed towards the people of Jerusalem, to whom he is headed on a journey that will take him through the city gates to the sound of their cheers and, just a few days later, to death upon a cross to the sound of their scorn. The scene opens with Jesus receiving news that King Herod wants to kill him. Jesus responds by telling them to “go and tell that fox,” meaning Herod, that he is going on his way, and that Herod can’t stop him until he’s accomplished what he came to do.

Now speaking of groups that are usually depicted as negative characters, foxes probably feel similarly. As a general rule, characters that are foxes are smart, yes, but in a way that is cunning and cowardly, preying viciously upon the vulnerable while avoiding honorable fights and straightforward confrontations with the strong. And that all applies to Herod, who exercises political power despite being mistrusted by his Roman overlords and despised by most of his supposed people, constantly playing political games to marginalize rivals and eliminate threats to maintain his hold on power.

The center of that power is Jerusalem, and it is to Jerusalem that Jesus is headed. Jesus has no illusions about the danger that represents to him. Because Jerusalem is not just Herod’s own home turf; it is renowned for rejecting and killing the prophets that come to it, spurning any help that is offered with violence. And if Jesus had stopped there, we would have had the dynamics of a fairly typical religious power struggle: Jesus coming with prophetic truth and judgment to deliver to Jerusalem, and Jerusalem rejecting both it and him in return.  But as Jesus goes on, he says nothing about judgment. Instead, he offers up a poignant image of love and concern.

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing, and you were not willing,” he says. It’s an extraordinary image. Jesus does not depict himself as the watchdog going into Jerusalem to confront, overpower, and drive out or kill the fox. That’s the kind of image we would expect if we were hearing Jesus talk for the first time. Instead, he describes himself as a mother hen, seeking only to protect her children. It’s a reversal of the cliché about a fox in the henhouse; Jesus is a hen in the foxhouse, going into the lair of Herod to gather and protect his children. Of course, hens that confront foxes don’t tend to last very long. And, of course, neither will Jesus; it’s less than a week in the foxhouse of Jerusalem before he is killed, and until his resurrection three days later they naturally think that’s the end of him.

But it’s not just Herod who’s the problem; the children themselves don’t want to be gathered in the first place. The help that Jesus They don’t want the protection and comfort; they want to fight, they want him to fight. They want the watchdog, not the hen; they want sharp teeth, not a protective wing, to defend them. The part of Jesus that he has to give, as the Montana minister said, is not wanted. They want salvation and protection, to be sure, but on their terms.

I think that’s the part we can relate to the most, even if we express it in very different terms. In the first century, wanting a Messiah on their terms meant a warrior, a watchdog that would take care of all the foxes trying to deceive and control and devour them. Here in the 21st century, I think what many of us want is actually that protective mother hen’s wing, a shelter in which we can hide from a dangerous and scary world that seems to contain threats against us. After the past few days, watching yet another white supremacist commit yet another mass murder against yet another group of vulnerable and innocent people in yet another house of worship, this time in the tranquility of New Zealand of all places, how many of us want nothing on earth more than a safe, protective wing under which to take refuge, to shut out the ugliness and uncertainty and danger of this world and find a little warmth and peace? Because it is increasingly clear that the world is full of such people, not isolated lone wolves but a network of foxes: cunning and cowardly, preying viciously upon the vulnerable while avoiding confrontations with the strong; gathering in the shadowy holes of the Internet to exchange an evil ideology, encourage and support each other’s reprehensible plans, and celebrate each other’s terrible actions after they happen.

As I watched people responding online to these most recent attacks, one of the clearest common themes beyond support for the victims was exhaustion. We’re tired, tired of responding to yet another outbreak of this global plague of hate. Tired of having to condemn white supremacy again, that it seems to be up for debate much less that it seems to have such strength. Many people in my parents’ generation and older feel despondent by the kind of overt and aggressive white supremacist movement that they believed was defeated, or at least exiled to the margins of society, decades ago.

Many people in my generation and younger never expected to see white supremacists have such energy and confidence and public support in our own lifetimes. Though it must be said that the people of color I know, who experience the ongoing reality of white supremacy in ways that we white people generally do not begin to comprehend, never believed that the foxes were extinct in the first place, they had just become more clever. But for the rest of us, the temptation is to want a Savior who offers the power to let us escape all of of what seems to be an unexpected threat, even if just for a little while: let us be insulated and distracted and protected from its power and malice in sanctuaries like this one, or the ones in our own hearts. That is the help from Jesus that is wanted by so many of us. And it’s understandable. It’s human. But it is not the help that Jesus gives.

Early in the response to the attacks, I saw people using the phrase “Kia Kaha” to express concern and support for the victims of the attacks and for the people of Christchurch and the rest of New Zealand. I realized I had heard it before, but couldn’t remember the precise meaning or significance, so I looked it up, in the modern day oracle of Google. It is, as I suspected, a phrase in the Maori language, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Roughly translated, it means “stay strong,” and was first used to respond to another calamity in Christchurch: the devastating earthquake that struck there eight years ago.

But, as with many translations, the English words don’t quite do the phrase justice. When we in the United States hear the words, “stay strong,” we tend to hear it in individualistic terms, as if it is saying that each person should stay strong, should marshal the resources from within to endure the horrors of the event. So it’s no wonder we are exhausted. But the Maori words come from their word for a kind of traditional rope that is fashioned from twisting coconut fibers together, and which is used for lashing together separate objects into a larger whole, like a boat or a house. It means, in other words, to stay strong by staying together, for it is only in staying together that we have the strength we need to do what we must do.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, as his followers, the help that he gives us is not to stay under his protective wing and avoid the powers of sin and evil in the world, no matter how much we might want that. Sanctuaries, like this one, are not places to retreat but to regroup and be restored before going back out again to serve Christ in the world that he still loves so much. Because we do not stay chicks; chicks grow up and become hens themselves, with their own wings to offer shelter and comfort and protection to others.

And so if we are followers of Christ, that means we follow him: doing what he does, being hens in the foxhouses of the world, in order to proclaim and live out the gospel truth: that God’s love is more powerful than the world’s hate or fear; that God’s grace sends even death itself running for a hole to hide in with its tail between its legs; and that, in the words of another Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner, which often circulate after days like the one in New Zealand, and sounds similar to the anthem we just heard. The grace of God says, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us.” And it can’t, because in God’s grace, we stay strong and stay together, with God and each other, not out of our resources, but out of the very presence of the Body of Christ in the world. And there is nothing, nothing in heaven or on earth or under the earth, which is stronger than that. So Kia Kaha is not just a comforting affirmation, it is a prayer.

In Jesus Christ it becomes a prayer and we as Christ’s followers, as Christ’s body, don’t simply offer that prayer, we help answer it. For it is Christ who calls us and sends us to offer the help that is needed, regardless of whether it’s wanted. The help of God’s grace and peace and love that stops at nothing until the last fox is gone and every chick is safe.

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