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March 13, 2022

Lately there have been a whole bunch of podcasts and television series about con artists.  Netflix’s “Inventing Anna” depicts the story of Anna Delvey, the 25-year-old “Soho Grifter” who passed herself off for four years as a member of New York’s social elite.  Netflix has also released The Tinder Swindler, which tells the story of Simon Leviev, who passed himself off online as the son of a billionaire and conned several Scandinavian women out of millions of dollars.

I’ve been especially intrigued by the story of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the Silicon Valley startup Theranos.  She promised a device that could run a whole range of medical tests at the grocery store or your local Walgreens with just a small drop of blood.  Holmes managed to persuade many rich and powerful people to invest in the company, in spite of the fact that the devices didn’t actually work as promised.  It’s a wild story of fraud and manipulation.

Though their scams are different, these tricksters seem to have a few things in common.  They long for money and power, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get that money and power, no matter who gets hurt in the process.  We watch these shows, I think, to examine their motives.  And to ask ourselves: Would we be duped? 

Jesus has his own ambitious trickster to contend with in today’s gospel.  When we meet up with Jesus this morning, he’s on a journey to Jerusalem.  It will take him about ten chapters in the gospel of Luke to make that trip.  It’s also a journey that Jesus knows will lead to the cross. 

Jesus knows the danger that awaits him, and yet he keeps moving down the road toward it.  He keeps doing what he knows it is his mission to do – healing people, loving people, feeding people.  Along the way some of the religious leaders come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him.  You remember Herod, the ruler of this part of the Roman Empire.  Herod likes nothing more than throwing his weight around, but he’s also deeply insecure and prone to violence.  Remember that not long ago Herod has had Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist beheaded.

Jesus is at no risk of being duped by Herod’s schemes. Jesus knows exactly who Herod is and exactly what he is up to.  That’s why Jesus calls Herod a fox.  Jesus gets that Herod will resort to anything, including trickery and bloodshed, to eliminate anyone whom Herod perceives as a threat to his power.  But Jesus doesn’t flinch.  He says, simply: I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.  I have a bigger mission to fulfill there, and for now I am doing the work right in front of me.

Jesus knows that prophets – those who speak the truth and stand up to powerful people – usually end up getting killed.  The foxes of the world do not care for any form of resistance to their power.  Herod embodies that combination of cunning and violence that we know all too well from history.  It is the currency of the world’s despots and dictators.

We see it in so many places.  We’re seeing it right now in Putin’s unrelenting cruelty toward Ukraine.  There are complicated historical and political dimensions to what is happening there, but Putin’s ego and thirst for unbridled power are primary factors in the horrific violence that we have seen in recent days.

Jesus makes it clear that he is not interested in that kind of power.  As we heard last week in the temptation story, the devil himself has already offered Jesus power over all the kingdoms of the world – if Jesus will worship him, of course.  Jesus says an unequivocal no.  Worship the Lord your God and only God, Jesus offers in return.  In today’s gospel, he simply calls Herod a fox and gets back to business.  The task at hand is, appropriately enough, casting out demons. Jesus stands up to the evil of the world by remaining steadfastly compassionate in the face of that evil.

Jesus offers us another image, one that is a stark contrast to the image of the fox.  He says: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

In the face of violence Jesus longs to be like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings – to offer shelter and protection to those who need it most.

I hear two things in that image of the hen.  The first is a profound vulnerability.  The chicken is rarely safe in a world full of foxes, but that doesn’t keep her from taking care of the little ones in her care.

Jesus also names our resistance to those sheltering wings.   We do not like to be vulnerable.  We do not want to need help from someone else.  We all need that help, that protection sometimes – but, as Jesus says, we are not willing.

In her book In My Grandmother’s House, the Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce tells a story about a time when she was driving through an awful rainstorm.[i]  As she drove through the unrelenting rain and howling winds, Dr. Pierce spotted a woman on the shoulder of the road pushing a stroller with a small child in it.  This was in a small Southern town, far from any residential areas, and she knew that there was no public transportation or hope of shelter except for a nearby gas station.

Dr. Pierce is the dean of the Howard Divinity School, a well-respected scholar and writer.  She is also a black woman.  The woman with the stroller was white.

In deciding whether to offer help, what Dr. Pierce worried about was not whether the woman would be any threat to her own safety.  She worried that the woman would perceive her as the threat – that she would become the object of the woman’s fear.  But Dr. Pierce also thought about the story of the Good Samaritan and eventually pulled over to offer the woman a ride.  Here’s what happens next in Dr. Pierce’s words:

The woman silently shook her head no.  I tried to fill the gap between us.  I reassured her that there was a gas station a little over a mile up the road where I could drop her off.  I asked her if there was anyone I could call to come and get her.  I asked again if she was okay.  She began once again to move forward with her rain-soaked stroller.

I played the only card I had left. “Please look,” I said.  “I have a car seat in the back.  I’m also a mom.  Please let me help you.”

The woman then spoke for the first time.  She said only this: “I’m fine.”

This story does not have Hollywood ending in which the woman gets in the car and they become lifelong friends.  The woman refuses the help.  Dr. Pierce drives away.  She does not encounter the woman again.

Dr. Pierce writes: “Far too many of us are neither whole nor safe. We are scared to offer help to the person on the side of the road.  And we are fearful of being the vulnerable person in need of help.  We feel unsafe in reaching outside our usual boundaries, anxious that we will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and maligned.”

It’s when love overshadows fear, she adds, that healing is possible.

That’s what Jesus calls us to this morning – a love that overshadows fear, a vulnerability that is more powerful than the world’s weapons.  In a world of aggression, Jesus shows compassion.  As buildings are being leveled by bombs, Jesus offers a shelter without walls.  In the midst of bloodshed, Jesus has shed his own blood to defeat the powers of death.

May we receive that care, and may we offer it.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] See chapter titled “A Question of Safety,” which begins on p. 101 of the Rev. Dr. Pierce’s book In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit.

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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.

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