“You Can’t Catch Me.” Luke 13:31-35, Philippians 3:17-4:1 Donald Dotterer, PhD, 3/17/19.
One of the best things I’ve done during my time in Rochester is participate in the Reading and Mentoring Program at the Rochester Elementary School. Thursday afternoons a number of us go to the school and read books to kindergartners who do not get read to much at home. It’s one of the ways that the church is making a difference in the lives of children and the community. You should consider about joining us if you can.
One of my favorite books to read to the children is the classic tale The Gingerbread Man. You remember the story.
Once upon a time an old man and a woman lived in a cottage by the river. The woman decides to bake a gingerbread man for them to eat and enjoy.
But when the old woman opens the oven door, out hops the Gingerbread Man. And he says, you know the line, say it with me if you will, “Run, run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.”
The Gingerbread Man runs away from the little old woman, the little old man, a pig, a cow, and a horse. They all chase after him. But the Gingerbread Man outruns them all.
But then the Gingerbread Man comes to a natural obstacle, the river. He didn’t know what to do because he could not swim.
There then appears a sly and hungry old fox. He offers to help the little Gingerbread Man escape his pursuers.
The fox says, “Jump on my tail and I’ll carry your across the river.” Which he does.To make a long story short, the Gingerbread Man keeps moving up the body of the fox from the tail to the fox’s nose. Once on the fox’s nose, the fox quickly flips the Gingerbread Man up in the air and gobbles him up. And that was the end of the Gingerbread Man!
Well, the moral of the story of course is that we need to be careful who about whom we trust. The fox tricked the Gingerbread Man and made him think that he was his friend. As a result of his trickery, the poor, unsuspecting Gingerbread Man was eaten alive. Today’s gospel lesson is about another fox. But it’s not about being eaten alive by the fox. It’s about how to not be caught by the foxes of the world. The fox in this story was Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet ruler of Jesus’ homeland of Galilee. This Herod had unjustly executed Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist on the whim of his unlawful wife’s bratty daughter.
In ancient Greek and Roman folklore the fox was thought to be clever, sly and unprincipled, as was the fox in our story about the Gingerbread Man. In this lesson Jesus is warned by the Pharisees that Herod is after him and wants to kill him.
Jesus has been stirring up the people with his teaching, preaching and healing. He had them thinking that he was their savior. This had gotten Herod’s attention, and not in a good way. The Pharisees tell Jesus to run, run, run as fast as he can to get away from Herod because his life was in danger.
But Jesus is defiant. He has no intention of running away. He tells the Pharisees to deliver this message, “Go and tell that fox for me. Tell him that I am casting out demons and healing the sick. I will finish my work.”
You hear that? Jesus is not afraid of this high ranking Roman ruler who has the power of life and death over him. Jesus is saying that God’s work will not be stopped by fear. Even if Jesus is killed for this, which of course he was, God’s work will go on, no matter what. In the end, God will be victorious.
But how can that be? How can God be victorious when the foxes of the world have so much power and control over the lives of ordinary people?
We know about fear, don’t we? Fear takes away our ability to think rationally and to use common sense in stressful situations. Fear can cause us to hate individuals and groups of people we don’t even know. No doubt about it, there is much that we can be afraid of in this world. We fear losing those we love and being left alone. We fear what may happen to our children and grandchildren in a difficult and dangerous world We fear losing our jobs, our homes, our reputations. We fear that the economy might crash or that we will get into a war. After 9/11 Americans knew for the first time what it was like to be afraid of terrorists. We are rightfully afraid of mass shootings. We may fear growing old; we can be afraid of losing our health. We can be afraid of dying.There are lots of things to be afraid of in this world, and many of them are real and close to home. To be afraid is part of the human condition. Fear is what enables the foxes of the worldto take advantage of ordinary people.
But Jesus is not afraid of the fox Herod. In fact Jesus seems to be challenging Herod to catch him if he can. Jesus is not afraid. And we need not be afraid either.
But why not? What is the solution? What is the cure for fear? Well, first of all, we have to be smart and help each other out. Because there are people out there who are ready and willing to take advantage of us and hurt us.In another lesson, as Jesus sends his seventy disciples out in pairs on a mission, he tells them to “be wise as serpents” (Matt. 10:16). That means that we need to be alert and informed about how bad people can be. Working together can overcome that.
Some of you attended the program at Riverview on scams on the elderly with the Beaver County District Attorney a few weeks ago. It was an eye opener for me. We learned that there are a lot of foxes lurking out there, preying on our older citizens right in our own communities, sometimes robbing them of everything they have. And fear is one of the weapons that the con artists use.So we need to help each other out to be wise as serpents.We need to protect one another. We need to be able to recognize a scam when we see one or when we see someone trying to take advantage of someone else. Christians, of all people, should not be naïve about sin in the world.
The second thing we need to do is to be people of faith in everything that we do. We need to always remember that what we experience on earth is not all there is. There is, in fact, another world, a spiritual world, and as believers in God, we belong to that world. We get an explanation of this in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that was read today. Now if anybody had reason to be afraid it was Paul when he wrote this letter. That is because Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison. That’s right. Paul is in jail and his life is in danger when he writes these words to his beloved church brothers and sisters in Philippi.
So Paul is in prison and his life is in danger. But this is his happiest and most joyful letter. We see in it the key to living in peace and joy no matter what our outward circumstances may be. Paul is talking about those who live as enemies of the cross of Jesus, those who have their minds set on what Paul calls here “earthly things.” Paul says, there is another way, a better way. Elsewhere he calls it the “more excellent way”(1 Cor. 12:31).
Paul says that this better way is to realize that our real citizenship is in heaven. That means that our home is in God, and that we are just passing through here on earth. As citizens of heaven we have nothing to fear because we have eternal life both now and forever. We need not be afraid because we know
that no matter what happens, everything will be all right.
The most common command in the Bible is “Fear not.” It’s said over 365 times; that’s one for each day of the year. It is a command voiced repeatedly by Jesus and said by the angel to Mary when the angel announces that Mary will bear the Son of God. The meaning is simply this—that the very presence of God takes away fear, fear of enemies and fear of the future. God’s presence doesn’t take away the danger, but God’s presence gives us the strength and courage we need to face the danger.
And the really good news, the unbelievable news is this--that in the end, when God’s kingdom comes, enemies will be turned into friends, and every tear shall be wiped away. After asserting the authority of God over the authority of Herod, Jesus announces that he will move on to Jerusalem. He will go there to fulfill God's plan, which was that he would be killed and then raised from the dead. Jesus says that he must go there because a prophet cannot be killed outside of Jerusalem. It is there, in this city, that Jesus knows that he will meet his fate as a true prophet of God.
What we have then is a lament of Jesus for the city. Jesus knows that Jerusalem is the city that kills its prophets. But still, he has great love for this city.This is a heartfelt call by Jesus to have the city of Jerusalem repent and be saved. Jesus laments the unwillingness of the city to respond to his love.
Now if we think about the nature of a city, I think we can understand what Jesus is talking about here.The biggest city near us of course is Pittsburgh. Like it or not, we are tied to this city in many ways. People from here travel there to work. We go to the big hospitals there. We get our news from Pittsburgh television and radio.
The truth is that cities fascinate us. We love them and we hate them. We love the cultural offerings, the symphony and the museums. We identify ourselves regionally with the sports teams, the Steelers, the Penguins, and the Pirates. We count on the health care we find in big city hospitals. We appreciate the cultural diversity that we just don't see in the suburbs and small towns. There is a throbbing spirituality in big cities that draws people to them. We need our cities. And deep down we love them. But at the same time we hate our cities. We hate the traffic and the smog and the dirty streets. We are afraid of the crime. We think the people there are rude and unfriendly. Many people say that they would never live there. In our cities we find the very best and the very worst of humans who live in community. The city is a wonderful metaphor of who we are as human beings. Jesus loved the city because he loved people, all kinds of people--good people, faithful people, people with problems, people of all races and nationalities, even people who do not know how to love. That is why Jesus says here that the people of Jerusalem who seek to kill him will be gathered under his wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings. You see, God wants to bring peace on earth to all people so we won’t ever have to be afraid again. That is our hope. That is our prayer. Until then, as N. T. Wright says, Christians live with one foot on earth and the other in heaven. And because of that, we need not fear anything that the world throws at us. The foxes of this world can never catch us because our real home is in heaven. The foxes do not control us, because in the end we know that God is in control of history and our lives.
In the fading days of the Roman Empire, a sixteen year-old boy was kidnapped by savages outside the border of the then civilized world. The thugs took him to a remote land beyond the sea. There he lived and worked under the harshest conditions.
The boy had never been very religious, but in desperation he began to pray every day that he might survive the horrible ordeal. After more than five years in bondage and captivity he escaped. He walked two hundred miles to a seaport. There he found passage aboard a ship that carried him home to his parents who begged him never to leave again. And that is what he planned to do.However, the young man was tortured by dreams and visions. He heard voices calling to him in the middle of the night. The voices said, “We beg you to come and walk among us once more.” The voices told him that he must return to the land of his kidnappers and bring the word of Christ to this savage land. And that is exactly what he did.
The young man’s homeland was what is now England. His kidnappers were Celtic tribesman from across the water, a place known as Ireland. And that’s how a young Briton named Patricius grew into an old Irishman named St. Patrick. So it is that the patron saint of Ireland is an Englishman by birth.[i]
I believe that saints are men and women who have found their home in heaven. St. Patrick didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland as many believe. That’s because the island is too cold for snakes.
But Patrick did drive the idol worshipping pagans out. And before he was done, he had converted most of the population of Ireland to Christianity.
But most importantly for us, this is a story of man who was not afraid to go and do what God called him to do in the name of Jesus Christ. Patrick was a man who had plenty of enemies: his kidnappers and the pagan Druids. There were plenty of foxes out to get him.
But his faith enabled him to overcome his fears and he did great work for God. We are called to do the same in our day in things both great and small.
So be not afraid! Be not afraid!
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Rick Beyer, The Greatest Stories Never Told, The History Channel Books, p.4-5.