Monday, March 11, 2013

The Fire in the Barnyard: Lent 2, Year C

Some of you may remember a science project from way back in the early ‘90‘s called Biosphere 2. It was a geodesic structure, the size of two football fields, set in the desert of Arizona. Biosphere 2 was to be a perfectly closed ecosystem in miniature, a series of self sustaining biomes that could support human life, as a starship might support human life in some distant future. Biosphere had a rainforest, plains and even a small ocean. In 1991, after several trials, and amid some fanfare, a crew of eight people were sealed inside, there to live and work. If you followed the story then you will know that the experiment didn’t work. The crew developed interpersonal problems; invasive marigolds and invasive cockroaches proliferated, one ecosystem got too wet, another too dry, oxygen levels dropped and carbon dioxide levels rose. The food grown did not have sufficient calories to maintain crew weights. A crew member became sick and had to be removed, which, in the eyes of some, compromised the integrity of the closed system. As it turned out, even with the best science in the world, we could not replicate in a closed system the web of relationships that sustains life on the planet. Maybe that is because the earth is not a closed system.

Most of the time, we live as if it was. We are encouraged to live that way. We get up, we go to work, we drive cars. We pick up our necessities at the market. We pass gated communities, go through airport security, sigh as our children are subjected to standardized tests. We turn on computers, go to meetings, and so on, encouraged to seek our own private pleasures and heal our private woes because that’s the best we can do.

But each year, during the six weeks of Lent, we are asked to step back and look at our lives, at our relationship with God. Last week we followed Jesus into the desert where he was tempted. This week, the temptations fall closer to home. Where, asks Paul to the Philippians, are our minds set? 

The story of Abram is one of the greatest tellings of God’s open system and God’s open heart, but it is also honest about the problems we face when we try to live with God. When God called Abram “Get up, go, leave the land of your ancestors for the land which I will show you and I will make you a great nation, so that you will be a blessing,” Abram said yes. Full of hope, he set out with his family and his flocks. Trouble is that years passed and nothing at all happened. Sarai remained persistently barren and the heir of the household was not a son, but a slave, Eliezer of Damascus. Abram’s temptation was not to answer God’s call, but to stick with it.

A great deal of the life of faith is precisely like this. For every peak experience, years of plodding around follows. It takes time for God’s promises to sink in, to be deeply understood, to be fulfilled. In contrast to the instant gratification of modern technology, the life of the spirit is a slow process. It is very easy, in a world of instant gratification to say, “Yes, God, I know you promised, but I still have no children and a slave born in my house is to be my heir!” 

God answers, but God does not do so directly. He takes Abram outside. Outside the closed world of his tent and his expectations. God shows Abram the stars. God shows Abram the open system. God asks Abram to offer up things of the earth. Abram does so, only to have a deep and terrifying darkness fall upon him. God enters his closed self in the form of a dream, reminding us that even in the fastness of sleep we are open to the universe. This story says that to be in relationship with God is to be open to surprise, for often, as both Abram and later Moses attest, we find God, not in the brilliance of our success, but in the vulnerable darkness of our unknowing.

Darkness reminds us that the journey toward God is not always clear. And thirteen more years will have to pass before Sarai is finally pregnant with Isaac. 

The Pharisees think that they are doing Jesus a very good turn when they warn him that Herod wants to kill him. Right before today’s Gospel opens, Jesus has made one of his prophetic, and potentially incendiary remarks, “Some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last.” This is just the kind of thing that tyrants mistake for a call for rebellion, and the Pharisees are telling Jesus to get out of Dodge.

Jesus does not give them a direct answer. Instead he says, “Listen. Go and tell that fox that I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work. I must be on my way, for it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.” 

Jesus does not answer the question. He says “Listen.” 

And then he speaks of curing and healing, of life and death, of the tensions between the word of God and the world of earthly powers. He calls Herod a fox. 

In the Greco-Roman world, Fox was the trickster, the one who could move effortlessly between the worlds, in Herod’s case, the worlds of Judaism and Rome. Foxes are adaptable. They land on their feet. Even if Luke is not especially fond of Herod Antipas, he holds a kind of grudging respect for tricksters, as we will learn later on, in the parable of the unjust steward. Tricksters almost always fall prey to their own tricks in the end, and this will happen to Herod. But if that is all suggested, the image does not stop with there. It continues to a mother hen and her chicks.

And this changes everything. We move from power and knowledge to a whole bunch of little baby birds, a not entirely comfortable image. Yes, God loves us. But Foxes also invade hen houses. They devour the little ones who have no place to run. The political message is clear. To live in an empire is to be trapped inside someone else’s world. Empires are closed systems. God and the universe are open. Where to turn?

As Biblical scholar and former Bishop of Durham NT Wright writes: 

“Though the word ‘fire’ does not occur in this passage, the powerful image Jesus uses here has it in mind. 

“Fire is as terrifying to trapped animals as to people, if not more so. When a farmyard catches fire, the animals try to escape; but, if they cannot, some species have developed ways of protecting their young. The picture here is of a hen, gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them. There are stories of exactly this: after a farmyard fire, those cleaning up have found a dead hen, scorched and blackened – with live chicks sheltering under her wings. She has quite literally given her life to save them. It is a vivid and violent image of what Jesus declared he longed to do for Jerusalem and, by implication, for all Israel.”

If this is a premonition of the cross, it is a powerful and compassionate image. The mother hen does not engage in atonement for a sinful humanity unable to pay its debts to God. This is raw rescue. God sheltering God’s frightened children in the midst of an absolutely impossible situation about which they can do nothing.” 

God asks that we do not run. God asks us to Listen. To Receive. To have the courage to be open. That is what we do in Lent. Don’t be afraid to be surprised. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! This is a poignant foreshadowing of what will in fact happen during Holy Week: the disciples will flee, they will deny having known Jesus, they will be scattered by fear. Today’s readings ask us to consider: From what do we run? Where, like Abram, do we feel stuck? What promises in our lives have yet to be fulfilled? Do we boldly stand before God with our deepest questions? Do we live in a biosphere that is closed and fearful, or open to the wind of the spirit? Can we trust God to take us under her mothering wings? Do we realize when we go out with Abram to number the stars that we are made of the very same stuff as they? Are we ready to meet God? 

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