Right Neighborhood, Wrong Tree…

Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lectionary Texts:

Spring is starting to come into full bloom after some very chilly winter days. In addition to the blooming daffodils and the budding trees, I’ve been greeted every morning by our front-yard woodpecker…bless its heart…who seems to have mistaken our chimney cap for a tree trunk. If my alarm isn’t enough to wake me, the jack-hammer like insistence of its morning quest for food will surely get me out of bed. There are probably brighter and more savvy woodpeckers on our street who are happily feasting on the insects in actual trees. Our feathered friend at least has persistence, and perhaps some extra iron and minerals in its diet along with a well-polished beak. I found myself standing out in my yard the other morning, trying to coax the little creature towards a tree. But, to no avail. I don’t speak woodpecker, and it doesn’t speak English. And so it continues, day after day…

There are days when I feel a bit like that woodpecker: I’m doing the best I can, and doing it with persistence. But, it just isn’t feeding me. I’m reminded, in the world of metaphor, that sometimes I’m in the right neighborhood but perhaps not quite the right tree.

In today’s passage from the Gospel according to Luke, we are presented with two metaphors. Jesus has been making his way toward Jerusalem, teaching through parables which are intended to bring a deeper glimpse of the kingdom of God to all those who will hear. Before we even reach the passage of Luke’s Gospel we hear today, Jesus has been using metaphors of their daily lives…like yeast, and fig trees…in order to bring the words of this good news very near their lives, and their hearts. As we enter today’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus entering Jerusalem to preach and teach and heal. Just as Jesus himself is teaching, his colleagues the temple teachers…the Pharisees…come to him with their own message: Herod wants to kill him.

One’s status as a marked person is never a joy to hear. But, this warning really wasn’t news to Jesus. The ruler to which they were referring was Herod Antipas… the son of Herod the Great. Herod the Great…you’ll recall from the Christmas and Epiphany narratives…is the one who ordered the deaths of thousands of innocent children in an attempt to ensure that the infant Jesus caused him no earthly threat. Herod Antipas, who took authority after his father’s death, had already issued the order for John the Baptist’s beheading. So, Jesus has already had his own life threatened and his cousin’s life ended by the figureheads for this system of political and social oppression. Jesus has felt the weight of thousands of lives being cut short, all for fear of losing power.

That was true at the time of this Gospel lesson, and it’s still true today.

So, when Jesus says, “go and tell that fox for me…” he isn’t posing a metaphor about Herod’s cleverness. Right neighborhood…wrong tree. That’s a more western, European meaning, derived from Grimm’s fairy tales and Aesop’s fables. Scholars of Hebrew language and culture suggest that Jesus’ words are intended to deliberately point out the complete lack of authority and integrity of Herod with this turn of phrase, diminishing his leadership as one possessing neither majesty, nor honor. Foxes, your see, are the metaphorical diminutive to lions in this particular cultural metaphor. Lions represent authentic and honorable authority. The linguistic turn of phrase which is uttered by Jesus suggests that he is calling out Herod Antipas as the exact opposite of honorable, both in lineage and in action: Herod is a fox, son of a fox.

Strong words. Prophets are like that.

This passage is one of the times that we are called to recognize that Jesus…fully human, fully divine…is also fully prophet. Prophets see people for what they are but more importantly, they see structures for what they are: power, which corrupts; hatred, which destroys; fear, which builds false walls of protection for some and sends others fleeing. Prophets do the dangerous job of forcing us to look at hard truths, rather than scapegoat an oppressive system by focusing solely on the image of its figurehead.

Right neighborhood, wrong tree.

Jesus speaks a truth about the systems of power in this world which stand in the way of God’s nurturing and protecting providence. Siding up with the fox…even out of fear…doesn’t get the chicks any closer to genuine safety. Jesus, God-made-flesh who nurtures and provides for us, desires to enfold us, to gather us together as God’s children “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” That nurturing, divine love is right here, so close. And yet, the structures of this world can too easily distract us, collude us, pull us into repeating cycles that are unhelpful and ultimately, destructive.

Jesus, prophet and Son of God, has come to break that cycle.

Jesus also knows that people cannot kill prophets…not really…and not even people who are a fox. Prophets speak beyond their lives, and beyond their deaths, because they are conveyors of divine and resonant truths. The point of the prophetic is for us to see beyond what we think we see; to find the deeper truths instead of focusing on superficial distractions. Jesus’ exhortation as prophet is to see beyond the individual where we want to place blame, and instead to look long and hard at the systems which are keeping people imprisoned. It’s easy enough to blame Herod, the fox. It’s harder to blame the structure of false security that you’ve come to call home. And yet, Jesus does that too as he laments Jerusalem’s unwillingness and hardness of heart.

Like Jerusalem, we still struggle with those systems of power, oppression, hatred, and fear. And you can fill in the blank for whomever that fox looks like for you. Jesus the prophet calls us to see what is really happening and not to be pulled into its systemic cycle of hopelessness and fear. We do not need to be lured away from the work we are called to do because we fear for our safety. We do not need run away in despair. We have been enfolded, and are being cared for as children of God. God who loves and nurtures us has already and is still taking on those systems of evil and oppression on our behalf. We are not on our own, scrambling for safety through the might of our own merits and security. We don’t need to give up on God, either.

It’s a struggle as relentless and futile as the woodpecker in my front yard. But there is a voice calling to us, inviting us home.

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection offer us the nurturing wings of God’s providence to enfold us. In this Lenten season, think about giving up collusion with systems of oppression and fear and allowing yourself to be fully loved and enfolded. Take on, instead, the words of the psalm appointed for today:

“One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; *
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;
To behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter;
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock.”

Jesus utters prophetic wisdom that helps us see the systems of this world for what they are, and know that the powerful and personal love of God for all God’s children overshadows the conniving foxes of this world who would keep us blinded by fear, hopelessly pecking away at what can’t even feed us. Our home…our citizenship, as we hear in the Epistle to the Philippians…is in heaven where God dwells. And if we are enfolded together as children of our loving God, then our attention turns away from the world’s wants and towards each other’s needs: “my siblings, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

In this metaphor, we…the fledgling chicks…are also each other’s siblings. We need God. We need each other. And we need to be reminded that we’re already in the right neighborhood, listening to the voice of God who enfolds us, loves us, and instructs us.

So, let’s not get our beaks bent out of shape on the fake trees or get our feathers ruffled by the foxes of this world. Allow yourself to hear the voice of the prophet, to be enfolded, loved, and nurtured by the God who calls us together and makes us one.


About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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