Sunday, February 24, 2013

Laughing at the Shadow of Death

Luke 13:31-35

31      At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, "Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you."
32      He replied, "Go tell that fox, 'I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.'
33      In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day-- for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
34      "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
35      Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

            Years ago, the Ku Klux Klan would make an annual march down Auburn Street in Atlanta, which was the main street of the Black population during the 1950s.  One Black resident of Atlanta that I talked to recently remembered those marches.  He said it was a frightening thing to see.  All these white robed figures would march down the street.  Hoods over their heads.  At one time, they were even masked with their faces covered.  The Blacks would watch with fear as these people would demonstrate a hatred for them – a hatred based only on the color of their skin.

            Then one year, sometime in the 1950s, there was a change in the way the marchers were greeted.  The Black Americans, instead of being afraid of the Klan, laughed at them. 

            And that was the last time that the Klan ever marched down Auburn Avenue.

            You know, laughter really is an effective way to pull the rug out from under some folks, or in some cases, to pull the thrown of power out from under them.

            It is the very way in which Jesus handles Herod in our Gospel lesson for today.

            Herod wants to kill Jesus.  And Jesus is warned by a group of Pharisees.  And in response to this frightening situation, Jesus laughs, and says, “You go tell that old fox, I was working yesterday, I’ll be working tomorrow.”

            I’m not too sure of who is being laughed at here and being called an “old fox.”  Oh I know that on the surface it looks like Herod is the old fox that is being laughed at, but I’m not so sure.  I have the feeling that the old fox whose throne of power is being pulled out from under by means of laughter is not Herod, but the death that Herod brings.

            The old fox is death.

            And Jesus dethrones that old fox called death by saying, “You go tell that old fox, I’ve been at work yesterday, I’ll be at work tomorrow.”

            Most of us could not dethrone death’s power over us in such a way.  Most of us would be more like the Black Americans on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue, frightened at the passing Klansmen.

            It’s difficult to laugh at the shadow of death.  For most of us are so frightened of it.  Most of us have no idea how to handle the prospect of our death.

            I heard about a Priest recently who, at the end of a funeral, turned to the casket and with the sign of the cross said, “My friend, may God grant you peace through all eternity.”  And then he turned to the congregation and family gathered around the open grave and continued, “And to whichever one of our group may be next for this cemetery – it may be the youngest or the oldest – it may be the most informed or the strongest in health – we do not know who it will be – but whoever’s time is next, may God grant you a peaceful death.”

            Now the person telling me about this had a strong negative reaction to these words.  I can understand why.  None of us likes to be reminded that ours might be the next funeral held in the church.  We don’t want to think that we might be the next ones headed for the grave.    There is something frightening about death.  There is something about it that you don’t laugh at in death. 

            But there is Jesus, laughing, and saying, “You go tell that old fox, ‘I’ve been working yesterday.  I’m going to be working tomorrow.’”

            He calls not only Herod an Old Fox, but also the death that Herod brings.  Laughing at it.  Not being intimidated by it.

            Jesus is not intimidated by death.  He doesn’t avoid his death or try to deny it like many of us do.  In fact, he sees everything in life from the perspective of his death.  And not just from death, but beyond death, from the perspective of his Resurrection.

            Jesus laughs and says, “You go tell that old fox, I was casting out demons yesterday.  I’ll be curing the sick today and tomorrow.  And on the third day, I’ll finish my course.”

            The third day.  An obvious reference to Christ’s resurrection.

            Early in my ministry, in fact it was while I was still in seminary, a professor sent me to the nursing home to visit some shut-ins there.  It was part of a class I was taking on ministry to the elderly.  I got to know one of the shut-ins pretty well.  Mentally, he was pretty alert, and we had a number of conversations.  Finally one day, I asked him, as one 23 year old to someone who was on the edge of being 100, “What is it like to be old?”

            It’s the kind of question only a very young person would ask.

            He thought for a minute and said, “I now view everything in life from the point of view of my death.”

            Without thinking, I pitied him and said, “How sad.”

            “Not at all,” said the old man.  “We are all dieing, but for most people, death is a secret.  People hide if from themselves.  But I know the secret.  I know I’m going to die.  And that helps me to treasure life, and to enjoy it.  Even here in a nursing home.”

            I have remembered that man’s words for a long time now.  And I think he’s onto something.  There is something very liberating about knowing that we are all dieing.

            Garrison Keeler is a radio personality who is heard each week on Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion.  He’s a story teller and in one recent show he told this story.

            A man was tilling manure into a field in the Spring, using a tractor and a disc plow. 

It was a long field.  The tractor was moving at five miles an hour, and the man was bored.  It was a warm day and the man wished he could be anything other than a farmer.  He was tired of working for his father.  Out of sheer boredom, he dozed off and started to fall backwards off the tractor seat. 

He woke up falling and, because the tractor was an old model with the throttle lever that was notched into place, the tractor just kept moving.  The man fell in between the tractor and the discs and, as he hit the ground, he grabbed on to the tow bar.  He hauled himself up as far as he could, but he couldn’t pull himself all the way up.  He just hung onto the tow bar with both hands as the steel discs were moving behind him.

His body was literally being dragged through the dirt and the manure.  He held on as tightly as he could because, if he lost his grip, he would have been cut in two by the moving discs. 

He was just about to lose his grip.  He didn’t even have enough strength to cry out or to weep – he just kept hanging on. 

The tractor kept moving, ever so slowly, until it came to the end of the field.  It began moving up the incline of a hill, and then into the woods. 

Finally it hit a tree and stopped, although the wheels kept spinning. 

It took him about ten minutes before he could stand on his two feet, climb up into the seat, and turn off the engine.

That man lost his life and got it back again. 

As Garrison Keeler told this story, he made the observation that he would think that after an experience like that you would have the feeling of absolute freedom and liberty.  All the weight would be gone. You would feel the sort of liberty that you read about in the Epistles when a person has died and has been reborn.

The sunsets are lovelier.

The friendships are richer.

Life is savored more deeply.

And you know, Keeler is right.  There is something liberating about realizing that at the end of our journey is a death and a Resurrection.

Jesus realized it.  He knew that he was going to die.  In this passage, he looks out before him and he sees Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you.”

            Jesus knows that he is going to die in Jerusalem. 

And yet, knowing that he is going to die does not paralyze him.  That doesn’t keep him from working.  Instead it liberates him.  “You go tell that old fox,” laughs Jesus.  “I’ve been working yesterday.  I’ve been working today.  I’ll be working tomorrow, until the third day when my course is finished.”

            Seeing his life from the perspective of his death and resurrection, liberates Jesus.  It takes all the fear of death away.

            When we can begin to view our life from the perspective of our death and resurrection into eternal life, we will be able to look at death as Jesus did.  To smile at it and to tell death – we worked yesterday.  We worked today.  We will work tomorrow and we will keep on working until our death and resurrection into eternal life.

            I have a friend who has two children, ages 2 and 5.  He was going through the early evening ritual one evening, getting the kids ready for bed – feeding them, bathing them, getting their teeth brushed.  They finished a little early and the 5 year old asked if they could stay up and watch a little TV.  The father agreed. 

            So the kids turned on the TV and on came an old program called the Incredible Hulk.
            I don’t know if you have ever seen the Incredible Hulk, but my friend watched as the screen showed his 2 year old and 5 year old a plane crash.  Bodies were strewn all over the airport.  Out of the wreckage came a green monster, the Incredible Hulk, wearing rags and picking up bits of the wrecked plane and throwing them into the air at terrified people.

            My friend began to wonder if this was the sort of TV show that a 2 and a 5 year old ought to see just moments before being tucked into bed.

            The 5 year old picked up on the anxiety and turned to the father, pulling out the thumb from his mouth he said, “Don’t worry Dad, we’ve seen this episode before and it turns out alright in the end.”

            The Christian can say the same of life and death.  We’ve read the Book – the Bible.  We know that it turns out alright in the end.

Copyright Maynard Pittendreigh, 2013
All Rights Reserved