Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Gospel of Mark Challenge -- Reflection Five: Cursing the Fig Tree; Cleansing the Temple

Some time ago, one of our parishioners asked me about the passage in Mark 11 in which Jesus curses a fig tree and it dies. I had hoped to write on this sooner, but moving house at the beginning of the month followed by a week of conferences delayed things a bit. Subscribing to the adage, “better late than never,” here is my reflection:

The story of Jesus’ cursing of a fig tree occurs in the second half of Mark chapter eleven, following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The day after, he goes out to Bethany and comes upon a fig tree in leaf. The tree however, has no fruit. Jesus curses the tree and says to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Jesus then returns to Jerusalem, goes up to the Temple and overturns the tables of the money-changers in what has become known as the story of “the cleansing of the Temple.” The next morning the disciples and Jesus pass by the fig tree again and Peter points out that it is withered to its roots. Jesus then proceeds to give a short “sermon” on faith and prayer.

Just what is happening in this complicated text? I must admit, that I had not originally intended to comment on it. Upon, reflection though, it not only illustrates a number of key Markan themes, but also gives us a nice example of Mark’s literary style and structuring. The “book-ending” of the story of the cleansing of the Temple between the story of the cursing of the fig tree has been referred to as a “literary sandwich.” Mark does this on a number of occasions. It is generally an indication that he intends the two stories to interpret each other. So, just what are we to make of this “literary sandwich?”

Let us consider for a moment what the two stories have in common. Both immediately follow his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, perhaps indicating something of the coming kingdom, namely, an element of judgment for those who do not receive him.

Let us ask what it is about the fig tree that he finds so objectionable. The tree is in full leaf, but it does not bear fruit. It looks healthy, productive and verdant. But is it? And what of the Temple? Let us remember that during the time of Jesus, an impressive multi-year reconstruction project was underway. It had been inaugurated as part of a massive building programme throughout Judea by Herod the Great. The edifice was fantastic. It was meant to be a place of great piety and devotion. But was it? Was it like the fig tree that appeared healthy and verdant, but bore no fruit?

It has been suggested by many scholars that Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree is an enacted parable in which Jesus not only offers caution about the Temple establishment, but indeed passes judgment on it. Like the fig tree, so too with the Temple, not all is as it should be. Appearances are deceiving. There are wolves in sheep’s clothing (to borrow from one of the Matthean sayings of Jesus – Matthew 7:15). Of what sin is the Establishment guilty? Mark tells us that as Jesus approaches the fig tree he is hungry, but it has no fruit. The people of God are hungry -- hungry for the living God. The people of God are hungry – hungry for righteousness and justice. The people of God are hungry -- hungry for peace and reconciliation. Mark seems to be telling us that in all these things the Establishment failed.

This would seem to be very bad news for us in the Establishment we call Church. Dow we not recognize ourselves in this struggle? Do we not see ourselves, within our great edifices, failing to offer hope, failing to offer justice, failing to offer peace, failing to offer the living God? Are we any better? Has the Church fared any better in changing the world than any other establishment in any other time or place?

Well, as God is our judge, God alone will know. But I do wish to suggest that there is good news in the passage. Whereas Jesus cursed the tree and caused it to wither, likewise he cleansed the Temple. Of course the Temple is not simply to be understood as the physical temple in first century Jerusalem, but stands for all human institutions that seek to do the work of God but periodically fail in the task. He prophesied to it. He called it to account. He cleansed it. And in doing so he offered hope. Hope is found not in our own works but in the work of God in Christ. We can work for the kingdom, and so we should; but as St. Paul said, not I but Christ in me – the hope of glory. The tree was cursed, but we are cleansed. God is sovereign.

Finally, Mark concludes the story with Jesus’ saying on faith and prayer. “Have faith in God,” he says. This is the kind of faith that moves mountains, because it is not our faith but the faith of Christ. It is the faith of Christ that moves the mountains of our lives and rolls the stones away from the tombs in which we are buried. What is more, it is the faith of Christ that calls to account, transforms and cleanses our human institutions. What should be judged as failures are redeemed by a loving God.

How does the story end? With words of forgiveness: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive your trespasses.” Forgiveness. He does not curse the fruitless vine of our lives but instead offers cleansing and forgiveness – to us as individuals and to us as a people. Thus, we stand not alone, withered to the root as if cursed, but as a temple to the Holy Spirit, enlivened through his abiding presence and through his faith, by his grace, offering his words of hope to a broken world.

c. 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Sermon I Did Not Preach

I prepared two sermons for last Sunday. One of them I never gave.

In our parish, as in many parishes across Canada, we celebrate Harvest Thanksgiving on the Sunday before National Thanksgiving. Given the events of the previous week and the turmoil created by the financial crisis, I felt very strongly moved to offer a sermon that would challenge those who, even in the midst of such crisis, still have so much more than many in the world.

However, after writing the sermon I found myself filled with considerable anger. Indeed, the process of writing brought that anger to light. I then found myself questioning my motives in writing such a sermon. Whence came my anger? I had hoped that it was righteous anger but was worried that it might be something else. I spoke with others close to me about the sermon and tried to sort out my motives and goals. I argued that, in the words of that great scholar and preacher, Walter Brueggemann, a preacher must always "bring a word from somewhere else." I had hoped the sermon would challenge those with wealth to reconsider the so-called financial catastrophe that the West was now facing. I had hoped to preach something prophetic. I slowly came to wonder if my anger might be founded more in jealousy and resentment than truly righteous indignation. The pulpit is never a place for a personal rant. If the anger was my own then all I would be doing was ranting. I never fully resolved to what degree I was accessing personal anger.

The second factor in my deliberations was the fear that the sermon would not be well-received. After all, I would be preaching to a largely wealthy group. In addition, what does a young (well, fairly young) priest who has no money invested in the markets and lives off the good graces of these same parishoners know about money or the markets? Could I possibly understand what those who are invested in the markets must be feeling at the moment? Would it be an act of self-righteous arrogance on my part to presume to speak to the situation? Would I be rejected for preaching a challenging word? If I failed to preach it for this reason, would I be a coward?

The third factor involved a comparing myself with my peers. This is never a good thing, but I am being honest, so I'll name it. Many of my fellow clergy with whom I was educated are strong social gospel and outreach priests. Care for the poor and advocacy for the marginalized forms a large part of their ministry. You will all know that I am something of an ivory tower priest. I am old fashioned. I visit the sick, I write, I preach. I must confess to feeling half a priest some days because I do not share the same passion for outreach as many of my peers. I suppose that when I felt the righteous indignation stirring within me for the gospel of God's "preferential option for the poor," that I must finally take up the call. But was I seeking to be someone who I am not?

I did not preach the sermon. I am not sure if it is because I felt the anger was my own rather than God's. I am not sure if is because I am a coward. I am not sure if it is because I realized that I am not really a social gospel preacher. In the end I felt too confused over my motives in wanting to give the sermon and as to why I wrote it in the first place.

"Preach compassion," said my wife, Athena.

Preach compassion. That is what I try to do every week. I knew that to do so would be authentic to who I am. I struggled with that at first. Am I never allowed to preach a word of challenge? Perhaps. But not this time, I concluded. So I wrote a different sermon and preached it (click here to read it). Several people responded that it had touched them and spoke to them. Should I have preached the first sermon? I do not know. I do believe in preaching the second one that I preached faithfully.

What follows is the sermon I did not preach. I present it not as the word proclaimed or interpreted. Rather, I offer it as an example of the process that we sometimes must go through when we preach a sermon. If I had preached this, would I have abused my call? Or, was I a coward in abandoning it? I leave that to God, for he his my judge.

Homily for Harvest Thanksgiving, Year A, 2008
Intended for Sunday, Oct 5th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Psalm 126


“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.”
Ps. 126:6

For those of us who grew up not in the country but in the city, or at least the suburbs, the distance between the field and the table can seem quite vast. Therefore, the church’s traditional celebration of thanksgiving, which focuses on the bounty of the harvest, can seem somewhat out of place. After all, when we have fresh produce and all manner of food from around the world at our fingertips, does it not seem odd to celebrate that we the harvest at all? Have any of us here in Thornhill laboured in fields this year? Are we preserving now what we have laboured over because we will not be able to find fresh food once the snow flies? Aside from the beautification of our grounds and some hobby gardening, how many of us rely on our own tilling of the soil for our annual sustenance? And so I say again, why do we celebrate the harvest?

However, because so few of us till the earth perhaps it is crucial for us to make our annual celebration of the harvest. I would suggest that we need to be reminded that our bounty comes not from the store but from the land, and that it comes from the hands of those who still labour against all odds in our quickly decaying environment, and most especially it comes from our creator who has made provision enough for all. All good things around us are sent from heaven above. We should ever remember this fact. Thus, I suggest that it is imperative that we make our annual celebration of the harvest to give thanks to God not only for the bounty that comes from the earth but also for the many blessings that we receive day by day at his hands, the bounty of our lives.

Yet, this calls to mind another reason for keeping the harvest festival, and sadly, it is the darker side of our bounty, and in it there is no cause for celebration or festivity. In our privileged society it is easy to forget that what may be seen to us even as an impoverished life may seem to those in other places as luxury. Even when we do without and find ourselves lacking in something, we may still have much more than so many others. And we must ask ourselves, very seriously, what have we done to till the earth for those who go without? What have we done to share the bounty of the harvest? What have we done honour all that we have received from God?

The psalmist writes, “The Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed.” It is easy for us to be glad when we have so much, and yet do we rejoice and give thanks to God for what we have received? Or do we complain and lament over what we do not have? There is a certain irony in the so-called economic crisis facing the world this week. We are crying that the sky is falling and yet, has the sky not already fallen for those who live daily with the reality of hunger in various parts of our world? Has the sky not already fallen on that child who has lost both parents to the ravages of HIV and now must raise her younger siblings into a world of poverty and hopelessness? Has the sky not fallen on them? And where have we been? In the course of a very short week, one world power has the will and the means to commit SEVEN HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS of the world’s bounty to bail out those who, even in the midst of tragic financial loss, would still be deemed wealthy by the world’s poorest children. Where is the seven hundred billion for those who die because we cannot find the will or the means to offer even the basic blessings we take for granted, like medicine and food. Why is there no moral ambiguity about finding seven hundred billion dollars to offer the rich (and yes, even the average working family in the west is rich by global standards), but when the suggestion is made that we help the poorest of the poor, the way is marred by moral obstacles and ambiguities and cries of “we cannot” for all sorts of apparently logical reasons. How dare we cry “they sky is falling,” when we should be giving thanks and sharing the bounty that God has given us.

The Lord has indeed done great things for us. Shall we believe that the Lord has great things to offer for the rest of the world? Shall we work with our Lord to bring forth his kingdom of justice and dignity for all? Did Christ not come for the whole world? If we rejoice in this life it is because we also know what it is to feel pain, loss, and poverty, be it poverty of goods or poverty of spirit. Each of us knows, in some way, what it is to hurt, to hunger and thirst, to lament, to lose. We may never have done without food or shelter, but we may have gone without love. We may, at some time or another, have been rejected or forgotten. And we all have, I am sure, from time-to-time, felt lost and alone. There are many kinds of poverty in this life. All of us have known some kind of poverty at some point in our lives. Thus, we know what it is to rejoice and celebrate deliverance from affliction, strife and need. We know what it feels like to be relieved of suffering and pain. To rejoice is to confess the reality that there is a way through our poverty, be it economic, material, emotional or spiritual, into the land of promise. As the psalmist writes, “When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion…Then our mouth is filled with laughter.”

As we celebrate this Harvest Thanksgiving festival, let us never lose sight of the fact that we have much for which to give thanks. The field is far from the table to us in the First World and it is easy for us to forget that we need to give thanks. But because so much comes to us so easily we should not forget that there are those for whom the field and the table are very close and sadly, for them the field is barren and the table is empty. We must pray for God to restore the fortunes of those who go without this day, but what is more we know from whence those fortunes are to come: the fortunes are to be found on our table, my friends, even in the midst of a so-called economic crisis. God has the will for all the needs of the world to be supplied. Do we? God has given growth to the earth that none might go without. Shall we hoard or shall we share? God has given us the compassion to feel the poverty of others; shall we walk alongside them in their time of need? They go along weeping and sow their seed. Let us join with them in sowing the seed our Lord has given us to share. If we do we shall find that we all shall come home with shouts of joy and thanksgiving in our hearts.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Gospel of Mark Challenge: Reflection Four -- You Are Not Far from the Kingdom of God

“The Kingdom of God has come near.” These are the first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of St. Mark. As the gospel unfolds, Jesus’ various miracles, exorcisms and healings all serve to underscore the reality of the closeness of the kingdom. It is therefore ironic that during his lifetime few of his followers really come to understand and believe that the kingdom truly is breaking through in their midst.

I often wonder how much we are like those disciples who hear those words but cannot quite believe them to be true. As I noted in a previous post, we long to believe that God is alive, active, and working in our lives and in our world, but so much of what goes on around us speaks to the contrary. Furthermore, if we do believe these words, “the kingdom of God has come near,” we often have our own particular ideas of what the kingdom of God means. Is the kingdom of God a small select group of holy individuals who have “got it right” with respect to their theology, doctrine, ethics, liturgy or prayer? It is tempting to think so. After all, the words that follow this proclamation of Jesus is the admonition, “Repent, and believe in the good news.” Thus, at first glance it appears that the kingdom is solely for those special people who turn from one way of life and believe all the right things. I wonder, though, if this is how we are to interpret this text. It seems that the first disciples interpreted it this way, for they turned from their former lives and followed Jesus. Yet, the fact that they continually got it wrong leads me to wonder if they really understood what this means, and thus, I wonder if we truly understand what Jesus meant.

As noted previously, it is often the demons and adversaries of Jesus that recognize the true nature of his mission, his true identity, and indeed the nature of the kingdom he brings. In many instances in St. Mark’s gospel, the scribes try to “trip-up” Jesus, and get him to say something by which he will incriminate himself. He usually turns the tables on them and they leave, themselves confounded. But as we turn to Mark 12:28-34 something very different happens.

The story goes like this. A scribe, overhearing a dispute that Jesus was having with someone, and being impressed with Jesus’ answer, asks a question of Jesus. Note that this scribe is not trying to “trip-up” Jesus, but something has been genuinely stirred within him. He is authentically seeking to understand who Jesus is and the message he brings. It is not a “trip-up” question, and although it might have been construed as one, Jesus did not take it as such. Jesus took the question as one offered faithfully with an open heart. He of course responded with what has become known as “The Summary of the Law” (which Anglicans today recite as part of our liturgy), namely, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” The scribe received these words as true, confirming them and intensifying them by elucidating to Jesus that he, himself, understands these precepts as being more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices. To the scribe’s affirmation Jesus responded, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

You are not far from the kingdom of God. Love God with your entire being and love your neighbour as yourself – this is the meaning of the Kingdom, and indeed, this is the reality of the Kingdom.. It should never be forgotten that these two precepts are interwoven, love of neighbour is always an act of worship, and God can be loved in service to our fellow human beings. If this love animates our very essence, then we are not far from the kingdom The disciples missed the point that God was in their midst, in Jesus Christ, and thus they failed to truly understand that the kingdom of God was at hand. The reality is that Christ remains in our midst today and the kingdom of God is indeed very near, yea, at hand.

Thus, we must repent. But from what shall we repent? We shall repent from our pride and vanity that we always know the mind of God. We shall repent from our judgment and criticism of others who also believe that they alone know the mind of God. We shall repent from a close-mindedness that keeps us from being open to the possibility of God transforming the world and the church. And we shall repent from the fear that keeps us from taking risks in following God and being reconciled with neighbour.

Thus, we must believe in the Good News. But what is that Good News to which we turn? It is the Good News that peace is our pathway and love our banner. It is the Good News that reconciliation is possible between us and God, and between us and our estranged brothers and sisters. And it is the Good News that we are never left alone in this world and all it throws at us. It is the Good News that the kingdom of God is very near indeed.

I certainly do not want to throw away the precepts of our faith, neither our theologies and doctrines, nor our ethics. Yet, I must say that the message of Jesus in Mark is one in which we are challenged beyond and through a religiosity that veils the kingdom and into a different sort of religious awareness in which the veil is lifted and we realize that the kingdom of God is not far off indeed. Let us therefore seek the Lord where he may be found. Let us turn from selfishness to love and we will find ourselves, with that faithful scribe, very close to the kingdom of God.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, my any means, without the express, written permission of the author.