Last weekend Kathy and I finally got around to watching the movie, "Fantastic Mr. Fox", the DVD of which had been sitting on top of our TV set since mid-March. The movie is Wes Anderson’s 2009 stop-motion animated version of Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s novel of the same name. It tells the story of what happens when Mr. Fox decides to go back into the chicken stealing business two years after he had promised his wife Felicity that he would give it up for good.
I mention "Fantastic Mr. Fox" because of a line in today’s Gospel. When an admirer tells Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In the film "Fantastic Mr. Fox" the protagonist has a hole, but after two years of occupying it he decides he’d rather live in a large beech tree instead. As we know and Mr. Fox has yet to learn, there are good reasons foxes inhabit holes and not beech trees. Mr. Fox’s simultaneous decisions to re-enter the chicken stealing game and to move into an arboreal environment signal both a mid-life crisis and an example of bad planning, and the rest of the story involves the dangerous consequences of these actions.
Decisions, as we know, have consequences. In the case of this morning’s Gospel [Luke 9.51-62], Jesus makes his “foxes have holes” statement as a result of a decision almost casually announced in the Gospel moments before: ”When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In the early days of his ministry, Jesus appeared simply to be a teacher and healer. But as what scholars called his “Messianic consciousness” developed, he determined that the logic of his life and mission called him to take his cause to the center of Israel’s political and religious authority. So what we witness in this ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel is a turning point in the Jesus story. Jesus decides that he will go to Jerusalem, and he makes this decision knowing that he will run into conflict with some very powerful forces. The certainty of this conflict means that accompanying Jesus will now be a lot more dangerous than it was before.
"Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." If Jesus is such a nice man, you’re probably asking yourself, why is he saying these hard things about foxes and holes and the dead burying their own dead and not looking back after you put your hand to the plow?
My friend, the late Bishop George Barrett, once told me the story of being interviewed on television in its early days, when guests were asked to wear lavalier microphones, the kind you hang around your neck. During a commercial break the sound technician came to adjust his microphone: it was banging upagainst the bishop’s large, pectoral cross worn on his chest. The technician said, “The problem is the cross. It’s causing interference.” George Barrett looked up at him and replied, “It always does.”
The cross always causes interference. The people who want to follow Jesus have not reckoned on the reality of the cross as part of the transaction. Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem, and he knows that his critique of the Empire and the religious system that colludes with it will result in his being brought to a political prisoner’s death on the cross. Those who want to follow Jesus think that following him will be all about sitting at his feet and taking notes copying down his good advice. But Jesus knows that following him means being called into a life at odds with the forces of Empire, a conflict that will result for many of his followers in persecution, martyrdom, and death. “The problem is the cross. It’s causing interference.” “It always does.”
"Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." When we hear Jesus say these hard things we feel he is being uncharacteristically harsh on the well-intentioned people who want to become his disciples. But if we understand these sayings in the light of Jesus’s setting his face to go to Jerusalem, these sayings turn out to be not hard sayings at all but rather kind ones. In effect, Jesus tells his would-be followers, “You think you know what you will be getting into. But you don’t. Think twice before you sign on for such a life-changing and dangerous assignment.”
To be a Christian, to live under the judgment and sign of the cross, is constantly to be a voice for interference. It means that we will always bring the Gospel values to bear upon social, ethical, and cultural problems. Because the imperial presumptions with which we are called to interfere are always centered on power, the Gospel critique of those presumptions will always promote the voices and concerns of the powerless. In Jesus’s day and ours, the consequences of that cultural critique will not always be pretty. The cross always causes interference, because in signing on to be followers of Jesus we are signing on to be fellow travelers with him of the way of the cross. And while walking that way with Jesus promises ultimate joy and peace, in the near term it often delivers suffering and loss. "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
How do we make sense of all that? In today’s reading from the letter to the Galatians [Galatians 5.1, 13-25] Paul gives us some help. When he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” Paul articulates one of the great principles of Christian ethical practice: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Precisely because we have been set free by the cross of Christ, we now express that freedom by becoming mutually accountable to each other. Christian freedom is not license to do whatever I might think I want to. Christian freedom is lived out in responsibility to others in the belief that one finds life’s ultimate meaning in mutuality and compassion.
And as the test of this freedom, Paul gives us his famously enduring list of the fruits of the Spirit. Since Christ has set us free from enslavement to the Law, we are now free to live by the Spirit. But what does life under the guidance of the Spirit look like? Here his is answer: “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
When Jesus set himself to go up to Jerusalem he decided to stand with the nameless, powerless, voiceless people of the world and against the religious and political forces that would enslave them. So his going to the cross was not only an act of self-sacrifice. It was an act of self-sacrifice in the service of a vision of the preciousness of every individual human life. The decision to follow Jesus is always a costly decision. Globally and locally, socially and personally, you and I face challenges that will only be addressed when we decide to walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, to stand under the sign and judgment of the cross that always causes interference. Our social and personal problems will only begin to be addressed by our willingness mutually to subject ourselves to each other. I am not free if you are not free. And neither of us is free until everyone—even people we disagree with and don’t like very much—is free as well.
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Following Jesus always takes us someplace we hadn’t counted on going and gives us more than we bargained for.
In the end, “Fantastic” Mr. Fox decides both to retire from chicken stealing for good and to return to living underground. But in the process he has learned something both about the world and about himself. The call to follow Jesus as he turns from the comfortable world of Galilee toward the conflict and struggle of Jerusalem is a similar call into greater depth of awareness of ourselves and of the world and its pain.
A life lived with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem is never easy. “The problem is the cross. It’s causing interference.” “It always does.” Such a life always brings us into conflict and tension with the prevailing values of our world and culture, values that diminish human beings and destroy the soul. But if we put our hands to the plow and look forward with Jesus and not back, if we go with Jesus to proclaim the kingdom of God, the benefits will outrun the cost from the moment we say yes. And though like Jesus we may have to look around for a place to lay our heads, our new life will bear new and abundant fruit, and the signs of that fruit in our lives will be these: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. Amen.