Monday, 22 August 2016

Brer Fox & Mother Hen

This sermon was preached on the morning of February 21st 2016, the second Sunday of Lent. The readings were Genesis 15:1-12,17-18, Psalm 27, Phillippians 3:17-4:1 & Luke 13:31-end.
I love stories. If you ever want to capture and hold my attention, then start me off with a ‘once upon a time’. And if you want me to stop what I’m doing, tell me a story about gods and origins. A story that has been handed down through the ages, or a twist on those tales. I like that kind of tale so much, I even studied Greek and Roman literature and drama at university, and despite that, I still enjoy reading about Odysseus tricking the Cyclops, and the greed, stupidity, and pride of the Greek pantheon of gods, and the ingenuity of the people with whom they interact.

I find it fascinating that different cultures have the same kinds of stories. Tales of people wandering, cast out from home; tales of heroes battling fantastic and horrendous monsters; tales of tricksters, getting their way using their wits and deception to beat the strong and the powerful.

I think those trickster stories are, out of them all, my favourite. I’ve mentioned Odysseus already, the great Greek hero who used cunning and guile to win the battle of Troy, devising the famous Trojan horse, but there are also countless examples of stories of the trickster god in many mythologies; from the West African Anansi the Spider, who makes up for his lack of strength and size with his wits alone, to the Norse Loki, an amoral schemer, always looking out for himself, and back again to Africa, to Hare or Rabbit, the archetype for Brer Rabbit in the Uncle Remus stories, who bested Bear and Wolf and Fox with cunning plans and tricks, and always came out on top. Even in our Judeo-Christian tradition, we have the patriarch, Jacob, who is known to have tricked his stronger, elder brother, Esau out of his inheritance and his father’s blessing. Having been a small, non-sporty child, with a talent for arguing, these characters were my heroes – they could talk themselves out of (and unfortunately, into) trouble, and best any of their brawnier, more powerful enemies using just their mind and their tongue.

In our Gospel reading today, Luke sets us up for a great trickster story. Christ even refers to Herod as a fox. You can just see Luke’s readers wondering just how he’ll get out of this one. Imagine the tale being told in the style of Brer Rabbit:

Well now, the vipers came to see Brer Rabbit, and said to him, ‘Get away from here, lickity-split! Brer Fox has heard the tales told of you, of how you are showing him up, and he wants to kill and eat you, if’n it’s the last thing he does!’

Brer Rabbit thought for a moment, and said to the vipers, ‘Go and tell Brer Fox, “I am too busy to be killed and eaten right now. For today, I am curing Brer Tarrypin of a cracked shell, and Brer Elephen of a cold in his trunk, and tomorrow, I am curing Brer Billy Goat of a sore throat, and curing the rest of the animals of all their ailments, but on the third day, I will be finished.”’

Oh-ho!’, thinks the reader, ‘this is going to be good!’ We’re being set-up for a fantastic tale of how Christ comes up with a great, cunning way to outwit Herod on that third day. ‘Tell Brer Fox he can come eat me when I’m good and done’, is how we want Christ to continue, with a knowing wink and a plan up his sleeve, as we rub our hands and anticipate the great trick he’ll play on Herod.

But that’s not how Christ continues:

“I am too busy to be killed right now. For today and tomorrow, I am curing the sick, but on the third day, I will be finished. And while that is happening, I must go to Jerusalem, because that is where I will be killed.”

There is no cunning plan to get out of his death. Christ hears the worldly powers telling him they want to kill him, and he basically says to them, “I understand. You will kill me. Just not you, Herod. It’s not your place. I will be killed by the worldly powers in Jerusalem, not Galilee.

He doesn’t play the game. He doesn’t conform to the story.

The fox of worldly cunning and guile wants to kill our story’s hero, and our hero says ‘OK’, and continues his journey towards that death.

Our hero is no wily Brer Rabbit, nor sneaky Anansi the Spider. These are not the animals he picks to describe himself. He doesn’t even refer to himself, in great Biblical tradition, as the mighty Lion of Judah, or the powerful Eagle, on whose wings his people will soar.

Christ, instead, refers to himself, of all animals, as a mother hen, and his audience must surely have seen he was referring to his powerlessness in the face of a snarling, angry fox. In the only animal image Christ uses to describe himself in the Gospels, he is a chicken. A weak, feeble chicken, longing to protect her brood, to hide them in her shelter, but knowing full-well, as any chicken facing a fox must, that she will lose, and be killed, and the chicks will scatter.

There are no weasel-words to get him out of the situation, no scorpion-dance to confuse and beguile his attacker, and no zebra-herd in which to run and hide and let the weaker, smaller animal get picked off. There is only his meagre body, to offer up in exchange for the lives of the brood, and the road to Jerusalem, where the sacrifice will take place.

We must surely, in the face of such an image, stop and take stock. When was the last time you saw God depicted as a chicken? We hate this image of a weak, feeble God. It is blasphemous. 

God in the mouth of the Fox?
It is offensive that our God, who flung the multitude of stars (that Abram could not count) into space, is so weak that he does not, will not, cannot fight back. It is outrageous that he does not become the lion and attack. It is incomprehensible that he goes willingly to his death for his flock, knowing even yet that his death will cause his flock to scatter and fall away.

It is an offensive image of God. And yet… this image is the one that Christ chooses to claim as his own as he sets off on his journey to his death.

That road on which he journeys, to the axe and chopping-block of Jerusalem is, understandably, the road less travelled. It is a narrow path, overgrown with weeds. It is anathema to the world, whose god, as we heard from our Philippians reading, is their belly and their mind is set on earthly things. Small wonder, then, that the fox’s power seems more appealing, more able to protect, more safe than this Chicken-Christ. Even though the fox clearly only has his own interests at heart, if we kow-tow to the world, and keep our heads down, we might, for now, stay safe, out-of-sight.

The fox is powerful and cunning. The hen – our God – is vulnerable. Our God shows us a different road, a different way. Christ does not deal with worldly power on the world’s terms. The hen is no trickster. She does not fight, does not flee, does not open her mouth. Christ is radically, actively passive. He chooses to lose.

We know where that choice leads for him.

With God, it has always been this way. In creating the world, God surrendered his power to give power and freedom to his creation, to give power and freedom to us. In inhabiting the world, God surrendered his power to live with us, among us. In saving the world, God surrendered his power to die as one of us.

And now, this Lent, once again that hen is on her journey to save us, to die for us.

Christ invites us all, whoever we are, Brer Snake or Fox, Brer Weasel or Tiger, Brer Monkey or Sheep, to journey there with him, through this season of Lent. To accompany Christ on the journey towards death. To challenge the story of the world, of the lust for power, of tricks and self-gain, and to choose vulnerability and powerlessness. It is not an easy path; it was never that way, but this is Christ’s call to us – to choose to lose, and in doing so, change the world. To choose to be the hen.


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