Toward the end of the most recent story from my favorite author, George Saunders, the title character of the story, who is also the first-person narrator, and also happens to be a fox (the kind with a bushy tail), asks a poignant rhetorical question that is born of his recent interactions with humans. “Why did [God] do it so rong,” he asks, “making the groop with the gratest skils the meenest?”
The fox in question, is known as Fox 8. Fox 8 is a dreamer, whose dreams have been augmented by his close observations of humans. But at this moment of despair he has just related what happened when he spent a day exploring a mall with his good friend Fox 7. Forgetting for a moment that the construction of the mall had resulted in the loss of the foxes’ habitat, polluted their river, killed the fish, and flattened the hilltops from which the foxes could previously see all of creation, Fox 8 and his pal Fox 7 had been enthralled by the mall and its wonders: a floor like glass, fake rocks, real trees, the Gap, a carousel, and best of all, a Food Court!
Fox 8 reflected on the experience: “Never had Yumans seemed so cul. We were sarounded by splender no fox could curate. Hense, we were fild with respek. Cud a Fox do this? Bild a Mawl? Fat chanse! The best we can do is dig are Dens.”
But on leaving the mall, the two foxes encounter humans in a way that changes everything: a pair of workmen wearing hard hats, who, quickly decide that the foxes are unwelcome pests that must be dealt with. On seeing the foxes, one of the workman removes his hard hat, takes aim, and throws it at the foxes, but misses. But the second man has a better eye. He takes off his hard hat and hurls it at the pair of foxes, hitting Fox 7 “skware in his face,” with horrible consequences.
“…suddenly,” Fox 8 tells of his friend’s demise, “his nees go week, and he gives me one last fond look, and drops over on his side, with blud trikling out his snout... and what cud I do but flee?” Why did God do it so wrong, making the group with the greatest skills the meanest?
Today in church we encounter a sublime moment of simplicity with Jesus and his closest friends still together at the conclusion of the Last Supper. This is Jesus’ last opportunity to teach his friends, and to instill in them what all his teaching and ministry have meant, and what his death and resurrection will imply.
You don’t need me to add colorful dimension to the irony of Jesus’ sole commandment to his disciples (and hence to us) to love one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” How can we try to answer any questions about life and the human condition by resorting to scripture, when we have been so generally woefully unable to live by this sole commandment of the Gospel of our Lord? How can any believer in Jesus ever hurl a Bible verse at another, when we have not been able to even squeeze the juice out of this one verse? Why is it so hard for us to love one another? Oh, why, why did God make the group with the greatest skills the meanest?
Sometimes, as a preacher these days, it seems easier to ask the hard questions than to find the good news. One of the reasons I am such a fan of George Saunders’s writing is that he is very comfortable with the hard questions, but he seldom leaves me feeling as if there is no good news.
And the world needs such story tellers. The church ought to be full of such story tellers.
We ought never to stop reciting to one another the stories of the Creation, and of the Fall; of the Flood, and of the Rainbow. We should know by heart why it was that the children of Israel needed to get out of Egypt, and how it happened.
We should be able to recount the story of the passover, and the lamb, and the Red Sea. Just as we also need to remember David slaying Goliath, and recall how ruinous he was as a king.
We should tell the story of Job to each other over and over again, and moan with inner horror at everything that befalls this good man. We should remember that in the forty-two chapters of the book, no good explanation is ever provided for why all this happened to him. But we should always know what’s coming on the last page, when we hear that “God restored the fortunes of Job.”
We should try to out-do one another in describing what it was like when the breath of God filled the valley of dry bones, and those old bones came to life, remembering which bone the hip bone’s connected to, and the elbow, and the ankle, and what is the answer to the question of whether these dry bones could live.
We ought to allow the prophetic call for “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream” to permeate our preaching, overtake our dreams, and inform our politics.
We should recount to one another again and again what happened when Mary told them to “do whatever he tells you.”
We ought to aim to have hearts like a widow with only two pennies to rub together; and gratefulness as ready as the tenth leper’s; and faith as strong as a centurion’s.
We should discuss those few steps that Peter took on the churning water, and remember why Jesus turned to look at him.
Everyone should know how many baskets of leftovers there were after the five thousand were fed, and what you do if you have a hundred sheep and one of them goes missing.
We should worry less about Samaritans and more about just trying to be good. And we need to remind one another about that father who watched night and day for his prodigal son to come home.
Children should be told that the earth quaked at the decisive moment of salvation, and the sky went dark.
And if we readily recall that once there was a battle in heaven with Michael and all his angels arrayed against the powers of darkness, then we should also sing as often as we can about the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, especially when every last thing seems rotten to the core, and we are faced with crying, and pain, and death, and we are in danger of forgetting the promise of the risen and glorified Christ that “I am making all things new!”
And we need to ask ourselves, in light of all these stories, why, oh why, did God do it so wrong, making the group with the greatest skills the meanest?
Immediately after asking that question, Fox 8 finds himself in a forest “the like of which I had never seen before, so deep and green and grate-smelling it made those holes in my nose go super wide with sheer delite. O, the lite threw the Trees! The moving shadows when the wind wud blow! The millyun grate smells, such as water not far away! The wind in the hi part of the Trees, and sometimes a branch will crak!”
There, in that forest, having been lost for days, or weeks, or more, and separated from his old fox friends who had been displaced by the mall, Fox 8 meets a new skulk of foxes. These new foxes are healthy and kind, and they still have a forest to live in. They befriend Fox 8.
And soon Fox 8 is dreaming about going out to find his lost, old, displaced friends, to bring them from their vanished habitat into this new paradise. He imagines that on the way he would show his old friends the mall, and its fake rocks, and the Gap, etc., but he would urge them on: “If one was skared I wud say: Don’t be skared. And make a joke. If one was slow I wud give a push from behind with an enkeraging snout. If one was looking around all freeked out, I wud calm lee go: Fokus, fokus. If one was old... I wud carry him or her on my bak.”
You see why we need such stories, don’t you? Especially if we are going to tell each other that by this everyone will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another.
Although he wouldn’t say it, and he might not think it’s true when I do, George Saunders is writing about Jesus when he writes about a savior who wants to lead his friends out of a lost past and into a new and hopeful future. Moses did it once, for a chosen few. But Jesus has done it once and for all.
And even if it is part of a story about a fox, we still need to tell and to know such stories, that might encourage us to love one another. We need such stories like an encouraging snout. And sometimes - when we are beginning to suspect that there is no good news left in the world - we need such stories to carry us on their backs.
We also need to remember that sometimes being a Christian is not as hard as we make it out to be. It is possible that sometimes we over-think things. For instance, we are not clear what it means “to have love for one another.” And being uncertain of such a thing is a sure sign that we are over-thinking it. We could start by not wanting to shoot each other so much.
Sometimes you can learn a lot from a fox - at least a fictional one with bad spelling, but a strong sense of the divine purpose. At the end of his missive to humans, relating the loss of his habitat, his family, and his dear friend, as well as his adoption into a new community and a new home, Fox 8 says this this:
“If you Yumans wud take one bit of advise from a meer Fox? By now I know that you Yumans like your Storys to end hapy?
“If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser.”
Or, as Jesus said to his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
19 May 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
* All non-biblical quotations are from “Fox 8” by George Saunders, Random House, 2015. N.B. that Fox 8 is not a good speller.