Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The fox and the hen

When I was a child we lived on a couple of acres outside of town in an old farmhouse.  There was a barn next to the house, and some smaller sheds and outbuildings, and although we didn’t have pigs or cows or chickens or geese, we did have dogs and cats.  At any given time we might have a couple of dogs and half a dozen cats, which worked fine because the animals were usually outside.  We didn’t worry about fencing or leashing the dogs because the house was well back from the road, and the neighboring houses were few and a good distance away.  The cats also came and went as they pleased, and some of them spent more time in and around the house, and others preferred the outbuildings and the fields.
The top part of the barn was a haymow, which you climbed up into on a ladder fixed to the wall, and at the base of the ladder was a small windowless room.   I guess it had been used to store a smaller amount of hay so the farmer didn’t have to climb up into the haymow and throw some down every time he wanted to feed his horses and cows.  And there was still hay on the floor of this little room, about a foot deep, and at least a couple of times that I remember, one of our animals decided that this would be a good place to give birth to her young.   I know it happened at least once with puppies, and there’s a story about that which will have to wait for another day.  And it happened at least once with kittens, because I remember the morning my brother Gordon got up early and went out to the barn to visit a litter of kittens, and came running back into the house, calling for us in alarm to come and see.  And we ran to the barn to find that every one of the kittens was dead, their little bodies scattered here and there, their necks torn and broken.
There is no way to know what kind of animal it was that did this, but my money is on a fox.  Foxes typically kill their prey by gripping it by the neck and shaking.  They also kill more than they need, when the opportunity arises, and bury the leftovers for later.  Perhaps the mother cat had been gone and returned, or one of our dogs heard a noise from the barn and went to investigate, and surprised the hunter before it could carry its prizes away.  And I’m going to say it was a fox, because that’s what Jesus calls Herod in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke.  Some Pharisees have come to warn him that Herod, the ruler of Galilee, the one who threw John the Baptist in prison and executed him, now is out to kill Jesus so he should move along from there.  And Jesus says, “Go and tell that fox that I have work to do, healing the people who need healing, and I will not leave here ‘til I’m done.” 
I don’t think Jesus calls Herod a fox because he’s a sly trickster, or a charming rogue like the foxes in the children’s songs and folk tales that we know.  He calls him a fox because he is an opportunistic killer like the one who came prowling around our barn.  I take Jesus’ saying that way because he goes on to say more to the Pharisees about the work he has come to do.   He tells them that when he’s finished there, he will move on from Galilee, but not because he’s afraid of Herod—but because he has a further mission to carry out with respect to the people of Jerusalem.   And Jesus uses an image to describe his intentions toward Jerusalem and her children, which could not contrast more sharply with the intentions of men like Herod—they are like foxes who prey on the people whom God loves, but he is like a mother hen, who wants only to gather them underneath her wings, and keep them together and keep them safe.
Jesus is going to Jerusalem because he has to, because he is a Jew and Jerusalem is the place toward which all the desire of his people is bent.   All their hopes for justice and peace, for unity with one another, for the vindication of their people and their peculiar religion against the nations that oppress them, are focused Jerusalem.  Because that is where sacred revelation says that God has chosen to make his name and his glory dwell.   This invests that place with an extraordinary sacred power.  This results in giving the people who possess that place, and control access to it, political and economic power.  And one could be forgiven for assuming that Jesus’ purpose in going to Jerusalem is to confront those people and challenge their power.  Certainly it appears that the chief priests and scribes who controlled the temple in Jerusalem looked at him that way.  I think we can suppose that a great many of the people who followed him from Galilee had the same idea.
But this passage in Luke seems to say that Jesus’ business in Jerusalem is not with her rulers, or at least not with them alone.  He is not going there to overthrow them, or reform their institutions, or take the reins of their power.  Jesus goes to Jerusalem not as one who is seeking to get anything, power least of all; he goes as the prophets before him went, as one who is sent.  It is power that sends him, the power of the Holy Spirit of God.  In response to the desire of the children of Jerusalem, their longing for the presence of God, Jesus is coming with the power of an answering desire.  It is the same desire that came to Abram with the invitation to a covenant relationship, and the promise of children as numerous as the stars.  It is the desire for a people, who will live together in the land that the Lord will give, in unity and justice, and holiness and peace.  It is the desire of a mother to gather her children under the shelter of her wings. 
Jesus already knows from his experience in Galilee that God’s offer through him of forgiveness and love, of the healing medicine that breaks down walls of fear and exclusion and creates a beloved community, is perceived by lots of people as a threat.  He is astute enough to understand that the people of Jerusalem probably won’t care to hear about it; they prefer their little privileges over their less fortunate neighbors, or their resentments over their more fortunate ones, their fantasies of violent revolution, and party quarrels, and winner-take-all struggles for political and economic power.  And yet he is going anyway, even though he knows he is likely to suffer the fate that always seems to wait for prophets like him.  Because the desire of God will not be denied.  It must make its appeal, even though its only weapons are words of truth, and the love that never gives up hoping for an answering response from the beloved.  
It is a presidential election year in our country, and the candidates are abroad, appealing to the people.  And their message is strikingly similar, whichever party they seek to represent:  “Put me in the White House,” they say, “and I will seize power from your enemies and give it back to you.”  They may have differences of opinion about who the enemy is.  For some it is the billionaires, the Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs.  For some it is the socialists and government bureaucrats.  But all are agreed on one thing, which is the greatness of the people, who are the innocent virtuous victims of some predatory class.  It is hard to deny the appeal of this message.  Wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do to get out of the mess we’re in was to change the people in control of the levers of power?  Wouldn’t it be grand if we didn’t have to change the way we think or the way we live in any fundamental way?
Prophets like Jesus confront us with the emptiness of this dream.  That’s why we tend to kill them—because we don’t want hear about our own responsibility for the violence and injustice and waste that goes on in the world.  And we don’t want to know that God has a different dream, a dream of safety for all of us, and unity beneath the cover of her sheltering wings.  Most of all we don’t want to know that we have the power to turn in the direction of that dream, and that our turning is the turning of the world.  But God’s desire will not be denied.  The one who comes in the name of the Lord holds that power in trust for us, and offers it with unconditional love and absolute humility.  And he asks nothing from us but acceptance of his gift.    

Traveling lighter

In the summer of 1994 I walked from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney on the John Muir Trail.  It was 20 days in the wilderness, not 40.  And I wasn’t fasting.  I was carrying over fifty pounds of food, fuel, clothing and equipment on my back.  On the first day out, as I climbed the two thousand feet from Happy Isles to the top of Nevada Falls, with the weight of my pack making every step an effort and the pain in my hips, my shoulders and my neck almost reducing me to tears, I felt like I’d made a terrible mistake; and there was no way I was going to be able to keep this up for over 200 miles.  But I summoned up the will to fight through those thoughts, and as the day went on the climb became gentler, and I got deeper into the backcountry and left the crowds behind, and settled into a good, steady rhythm of walking and rest.  And the next day, and each day after that I got a little stronger, and the pack got a little lighter, and my doubts about completing the task I’d set myself grew less.  By the time a week had gone by, I had walked through Yosemite National Park, past Devil’s Postpile and Mammoth Mountain and was in the John Muir Wilderness heading toward Kings’ Canyon. 
It was a fairly remote section of the trail, and even though it was July I hadn’t seen another soul since the afternoon of the day before.  The particular morning I am thinking of was overcast and cool with a light rain falling, but I’d eaten a hot breakfast and had the right gear for the weather, and was feeling good.  I was hiking along at what I thought was a damn fine clip, when a slightly-built man, who appeared to be of East Indian origin, in shorts and running shoes, a windbreaker, and a fanny pack, passed me on the trail.  He did not stop to chat, and to this day I have no idea how he got there, or where he was going.  For all he know, he was out for a day trip from his lavish base camp, well-supplied by mule train, but the impression he left me with was of a wandering yogi, coursing through the mountains swift and free as an eagle.  And all of a sudden I was self-consciously aware of the great bulk of my backpack, and my lumbering pace, and I felt a bit of a fool.
Because one of the things you find when you try to get away from it all is that renouncing worldly goods and comforts can become as much a form of competition as getting goods and comforts often is.  It’s not that I set out on my hike to prove that I was better than anyone else.  It was something I was doing for myself, to prepare myself mentally and spiritually to embark on a whole new phase of my life.  After seven-and-a-half years of living an alternative lifestyle in intentional spiritual communities, I was about to move into the city and get an apartment and a job and to try out living like an ordinary American.  But my encounter with the runner on the trail showed me that, while my initial intention in making this journey might have been humble and true, my newfound strength and confidence as a wilderness traveler had begun to go to my head.
I was just a little too proud of my courage in enduring the loneliness and dangers of the trail; a little too proud of my austerity in living, for weeks at a time, with nothing but what I could carry on my back.  I was just a little too proud of the distance I was traveling and the time I was making as I went.  I had left behind the home I’d known, and did not yet know where I would find a new one, and for the time being I was free of the trammels and turmoil of life down there in the flatlands; I was free of grubbing for money and jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with the other rats in the race, and was feeling more than a little sorry for those poor saps who were not so free.  But when that man ran by me in his jogging shorts I saw that my burden was not as light as I imagined it to be.
We have a tradition in the modern West of romanticizing wilderness.  We like to imagine it as a pristine world apart, reflecting back to us a peace and purity that is the total opposite of the noisy, ugly, frantic cities where we live.  But the truth is we don’t know how to travel in the wild except by bringing our world with us, even if it’s only what carry on our backs and in our heads.  Long solitude in nature shows us the naked truth of our dependence on human society, and how deeply our acquired cultural values and personal neuroses are embedded in our souls.  But the haunting beauty and grandeur of wild places can also give us a sense of the transcendent ground of all personality and culture that is the mystery of God.  That awareness doesn’t free us from the need and responsibility of life in human community.  But it does often leave us feeling inspired and even impelled to go about living it differently.
 And this is something I think the Bible understands.  There are a lot of stories of wilderness journeys in the Bible, but they don’t idealize the wilderness as a place that is desirable in itself, a place one would want to stay, if one could.  Maybe it is in part because the wilderness in biblical lands is a stark, desert landscape, but in these stories it is what anthropologists call a “liminal space,” a place you go through on the way to a new way of being.   The desert, in these stories, is a place of preparation, of stripping away what is not essential, and learning hard lessons, so as to be capable of handling something new, a new way of living that is a gift from God.
In the story of the Exodus, Israel wanders in the wilderness and goes through various tests and trials in preparation for receiving the gift of the Law.  They then screw up, and screw up again, and so must undergo more testing, for a total of forty years, in order to be ready for the gift of the promised land.  And the Gospel of Luke tells how, after the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus at his baptism, that same Spirit led him out into the wilderness.  There he fasted for forty days and the devil came to him, to test him; to test his understanding of what it meant to be the beloved Son of God, and to see if he was ready to return to Galilee on the Spirit’s mission of proclaiming good news to the poor.
The church is the continuation that mission.  And that means sharing Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit, which we received in a singular way in our own baptism.  It means sharing in Jesus’ identity, as members of his body and brothers and sisters in the family of God.  The whole purpose of the worship of the church is to continually receive these gifts, to renew his spirit and identity in us, so we might play our part in Christ’s messianic mission to the world.  We do this every week in our celebration of the Eucharist.  Every Sunday is a little Easter, the centerpiece of which is the remembrance of Jesus passion, death and resurrection. Just as the spring is the annual renewal of the life of the earth, Easter is the annual renewal of our lives in the spirit and identity of Christ, by our participation in Jesus’ journey through death to new and inconceivably abundant life.
To prepare mentally and spiritually to make that journey with him, we observe a season of fasting and penitence, which the church has traditionally imagined as like a journey in the wilderness.  It is a time of surrendering superfluous luxuries and distractions to discover what is most essential in our practice and our faith.  It is a time to confront the ways we are tempted to use religion as a patch over our unhealed neuroses, and a prop to our unquestioned assumptions, an apology for our cultural values, and above all as a means to our own ends.  But this journey of Lent is not an end in itself.  It is not a process we control.  No one cares, least of all God, how strong our willpower is, how many desserts we have forgone, or how many hours we have logged in bible study, meditation, and prayer.  All that matters is that we are ready, when the journey is over, to receive the gift of a new life.    

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.