Rev. Teri Peterson
fox in the henhouse
Luke 13.1-9, 31-35
12 March 2017, NL3-27, Lent 2 (are you all in?)
This morning’s scripture reading is from Luke chapter 13, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along. Jesus has been teaching his disciples and the crowds who follow them throughout the countryside and towns. He has taught them directly about prayer, and he has spoken in parables about many things. He told them to let their light shine, and to look carefully at the circumstances and times they are living in for evidence of God’s work. Remember that each gospel writer gives us a different perspective on Jesus’s life and teaching—Matthew looks at Jesus from behind, through the lens of the whole Old Testament; Mark looks at Jesus from right next to him, as if they are holding hands walking together; John looks at Jesus from above, with a cosmic perspective; and Luke looks at Jesus from just in front, looking back, almost like a movie maker looking through the camera, trying to capture faces and details along with the background and context. He wrote his gospel around 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so he has more information about what is to come in the future, and sometimes we see that in his wide-angle lens, as in today’s story.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He 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. Yet 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.” Jerusalem, 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! See, 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.” ’
Today Jesus jumps right in with the age-old question of why bad things happen…or, as the main character in the musical The Book of Mormon asks God, “more to the point, why do you let bad things happen to me?” The assumption in the ancient world—and, if we’re honest, often today as well—is that tragedy is a result of sin. We intellectually understand and protest this view when it is given voice by people who, for instance, insist that Hurricane Katrina is punishment for allowing gay people to exist and live regular lives with the same rights as anybody else, or that the earthquake in Haiti is punishment for voodoo practiced during the centuries-old slave uprising that led to Haiti’s independence. We know those are ridiculous statements…and yet the same idea rears its head when we ask “why do bad things happen to good people?” Because underneath that question is some assumption that there are people who deserve bad things…we just don’t know any of them personally, of course, because “good people” usually means us and people we know and love.
In the case of today’s issue of the Jerusalem gossip chain, we have people who were going about everyday lives when a building collapsed—perhaps it was bad engineering, perhaps there was an earthquake, perhaps it was terrorism, perhaps it was just old and the infrastructure was compromised. Whatever the case, the tower fell and 18 people were killed. Were they worse offenders than everyone else living and doing business in Jerusalem? What did they do to deserve such tragedy striking?
Or the Galileans—of particular interest to Jesus and his disciples, as many of them are Galilean, and therefore often looked down upon as low-class, uneducated, uncouth—who had been on pilgrimage, went to the Temple to offer sacrifices, and were killed by the very government that was supposed to be keeping the peace… They were good, faithful people, going to church…were they particularly awful sinners, to be targeted by their own government?
When we put it so starkly, it seems ridiculous. And Jesus makes sure we are aware that the answer is always no: NO, there is no star chart of the worse and better sins, nothing that we can do that would cause God to rain punishment in the form of tornadoes or cancer or car accidents or gunshots. We all sin, we all fall short of God’s glory and call. Period. Every person, and every group or institution needs to repent—to turn around, away from sin and toward God’s way of love and justice. And God doesn’t use tragedy to try to force us to come back. Bad things happen, yes. We all sin, yes. Those are not related statements, though. Trying to figure out why God is punishing us with illness or heartbreak or disaster, or how we can guarantee our security against those things, will lead nowhere, because that’s not how God works.
Instead, Jesus tells us a story. A fig tree has been growing in the garden. It’s in the right place, it has the right name and qualifications, but it isn’t producing fruit. It is taking up space, using resources, claiming to be a fig tree…and it is in danger of being cut down. But the master gardener intervenes, promising to spend more time nurturing the tree. Digging around the roots, fertilizing, watering, pruning, caring for it, putting in the effort to help it grow into its purpose. During this year of the Lord’s favor, the year when God is making the kingdom come right here in the presence of Jesus, the fig tree gets a second chance.
This is how God works. Not by promising safety or security, but by investing time and energy, pushing us to look at our lives and the fruit we bear for the kingdom. We might get dirty, and sometimes the pruning is painful, and it might be harder work than we thought we signed up for, but ultimately the purpose of the tree in God’s garden is to bear fruit. Our purpose in God’s kingdom is to bear fruit…which will mean digging up the things we’ve long buried, getting our hands in the manure that is so gross and so life-giving when we use it for the right reasons, cutting off the branches that are siphoning away energy, turning our attention away from comparing ourselves to what other plants in the garden are doing and focusing on what the master gardener is doing, so turn from simply existing and trying to protect what little we have to bearing fruit that provides for all who encounter us.
It’s time-consuming work. Focusing on what God is doing, and doing what we are called to do, doesn’t leave any space or energy for figuring out how to best build a fence to keep everyone else off our little plot of land, or for passing judgment on people experiencing hardship, or for maintaining systems that ensure that water and nutrients only get into our roots and no one else’s. The spiritual work of looking honestly at ourselves and allowing God to dig and prune and feed is never about fixing other people, only about growing so that we can better serve other people. Bearing fruit doesn’t mean that the tree eats better—it means that the tree feeds better, and we don’t get to control who enjoys the fruit we bear in the kingdom of God. Our task is to figure out how to bear the fruit God calls us to give, and to learn to give it freely and generously, just as we have received freely and generously from others and from Christ the gardener who intercedes for us so faithfully.
It is in the midst of this that we jump to the end of the chapter and hear Jesus say of Herod, who wishes to see him, “Go tell that fox for me…I have work to do, and I’m doing it.” Herod has already killed John the Baptizer, and he’s been wanting to question Jesus and see if he is really the miracle-worker everyone says. But Jesus is busy with life-giving work, and has no time for death-dealing interviews. So he uses this beautiful, motherly, vulnerable metaphor: “long have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…but you were not willing.” Even the mother hen can’t force all the chicks to snuggle up together, to move as one in the direction she wants them to go.
So he warns them instead: we have set a fox to guard the henhouse, and we shouldn’t be surprised when that starts to go terribly wrong. It seems confusing how we could get here, but if we just look back at the chapter, it’s all there. We’ve been duped into believing that some people deserve bad things, while others deserve good things, and we’re always in the latter category ourselves. We’ve blindly participated in systems that feed us while starving others, and we’ve cared more about protecting ourselves than about bearing fruit. We’ve learned to blame God and sin rather than to dig down and uncover our own complicity and rather than pruning off the branches that we hang on to even though they hinder our growth.
When our image of God is of someone whose favor you have to earn and whose wrath you have to avoid, whose circle is closed, and who only calls and uses and speaks through people who meet a human-made set of criteria, it’s a short leap to believing that we deserve what we have and therefore must protect it at all cost, especially from those who are different. It’s an even shorter leap to believing people who don’t-have must be undeserving, must have made bad choices or brought it on themselves or be dangerous. All of this sets the stage for the fox, who is cunning enough to manipulate our fear and our desire for self-advancement. He then takes advantage of us all running every which way except under the wings of the mother hen. The fox counts on us judging each other rather than having compassion, and the fox’s power depends on us turning a blind eye to our own fruitless trees so we can stay focused on what we’re missing rather than what we have and what responsibility we bear.
Jesus, in contrast, spreads wide his mother-hen wings, knowing they don’t offer the kind of protection that the fox claims to promise—he literally uses the chicken, image of weakness and cowardice, to face down the fox. He calls us to gather round, stick together, and move where he moves. He calls us to unpopular self-examination, knowing it is the foundation for bearing fruit…and that is the purpose of residents of God’s garden: to produce fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, generosity, goodness, and self-control…fruit that feeds others, changes the world, and lasts well beyond anything the fox can do.
May it be so. Amen.