FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF METUCHEN
Mark 11: 12-26
“The Temple and The Tree”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
March 10, 2019
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
A few years ago, I was to be away for a Fourth of July and the new associate pastor, fresh from seminary, was slated to preach. I called him to my office in May. “You are going to preach on the weekend of the Fourth,” I said. “You might want to start thinking about this now. How patriotic are you?” He laughed and said, “I am a citizen of heaven,” and ran out of my office laughing.
Later in the day he returned to my office and said, “do you think it would be okay if I removed the American flag that Sunday and placed the Christian flag in the front of the chancel?”
I did some quick math in my head and said, “yes. It will take a few months for the folks here to fire you and then there will be a dust up with the presbytery but if my math is correct we will be right on track to interview the next class at Princeton. So go right ahead.”
He laughed; I didn’t.
A few days later he came into my office and we talked. I spoke about the national holidays and how you don’t have to turn the Sunday service into a political rally, but Memorial Day is real. How do you honor in worship those who gave the full measure of devotion? Veteran’s Day is real; you are living in town with the most heavily deployed Army base in the country; are you simply going to ignore that?”
I let those questions linger for a moment. From this point on I listened more than I spoke. What I heard is the struggle almost all young pastors face: what do you do with nationalism, with military conquest, with the sacrifice of those who served and preserved your freedom? How do you respond to those in worship? The associate at the time, Casey, was a smart, sensitive young man. I assured him he wasn’t going to solve this riddle or provide the most profound answers in the next seven weeks. But he needed to try.
I tried to leave him with two pieces. The first was our national anthem. I said, “read it carefully and notice what makes it unique. It is the only national anthem that I know of that is a question. Does the banner still wave over the land of the free and home of the brave? Does it? There is a lot room in such a question, I suggested. Our country, like Lincoln said, is an experiment. Ask yourself, what are we testing? That might be a place to start.
The second thing I suggested was to read the Gettysburg Address or the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln. Listen to his humility and his hope. There are a lifetime of sermons for the Fourth of July in each one, I said. Sometimes you can find the best in people in the worst of times.
Nationalism has been in the news this week. Thankfully not ours, but the nationalistic question of Israel/Palestine. The new Congresswoman from Minnesota who is Muslim made some caustic comments about the powerful Israeli lobby Aipac as well as the nation of Israel. Her words have fueled airwaves and twitter and even led to a bill in Congress essentially designed to chastise her.
Thomas Friedman wrote a great article about this dust up. And it is a dust up. He said, the freshman Representative has mostly likely not received good counsel as to how to spend the capital of her first term. Smart. But what he said about our response to her was even better.
When describing the response to her critique Friedman wrote, that our loud and angry defense of each side of this question “only reinforces a fundamental rule I have: I love the Israelis and the Palestinians, but God save me from their American friends. When they recreate and fuel their conflict here in America, and on college campuses, they only sow more division, distrust and make things worse. And that’s the last thing the good people in Israel and Palestine need.”
There are only a few things that can get us as fired up as nationalism. Lots of stuff can make us mad or get us riled up, but only a few can touch a place as primal as love of country. Probably the only real rival to nationalism is the church, religion, tradition. We all have beliefs; and we all can get really upset when someone dismisses or denigrates them. Remember the two dinner party taboos: politics and religion. There is a reason they are “verboten.”
I once did a long study on the unique experience of church boards. The study came about because there is a profound difference between serving on a board for a hospital or the YMCA or a library and serving on a church’s session.
People cry during session meetings. Not all the time, but sometimes. Nobody cries at a hospital board meeting. People declare the end of the world has come at church board meetings. Not all the time, but sometimes. Nobody declares the end is nigh at a library board meeting. Things can get heated perhaps. Those who still yearn for the Dewey Decimal System can get pretty worked up. But in the end the Library of Congress System is the way, the truth, and the life.
We get offended if people talk about religion in a way that is contrary to our beliefs. It is not just a difference of opinion, it is not just that we think someone is not very bright: an opposing religious belief can be deemed worthy of going to Hell. And you can see that is pretty extreme if you ever calmed down.
In our reading from Mark today, Jesus pretty much offends the two most sacred parts of first century Judaism. He criticizes and curses the temple (religion) and the fig tree (the symbol of nationhood for the Jewish people). You are right to be puzzled by the random, capriciousness of the cursing of the fig tree. I mean, what did that poor fig tree ever do to Jesus? The cursing of the tree appears random because we don’t equate the fig tree with the flag. The fig tree was the living symbol of the land, the promise land, the hope of Zion. Jesus cursed the tree- think of the symbol of America, the flag. Perhaps the story takes on a different level of interest now.
It might be hard to see the tree and the flag, the temple and religion. Yet, what makes it even more difficult in Mark is that he has not prepared us well for this critique and cursing. Matthew and Luke prepare the reader better for the temple and the tree.
If we were better prepared we would know that Jesus doesn’t curse the fig tree because it is bad; he doesn’t defame the temple because the temple is wrong. It is what we make of these that he curses.
Many teachings of Jesus point to this moment that are not in Mark. Jesus will say in Matthew and Luke foxes have dens, birds have nests but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head; they will both record Jesus as saying, if anyone does not hate mother or father he has no part of me; they record Jesus saying, let the dead bury the dead. Mark doesn’t record these. And thus, we are really not ready to process the temple and tree.
While the harsh saying about home and family and death are off putting, they are each part of the process of losing false confidence. You must become homeless, to find the freedom of home; you must become the orphan to find the joy of the parent; you must see death before you can find life. The good news is that Jesus’ teaching here are metaphorical and not literal. We are to lose the ideal of home, the ideal of authority, the ideal of life. And that sounds better until we realize that these ideals are really, really important to us.
The ideal of the temple (our religion and tradition) and the ideal of the tree (nationhood, land, culture): these are really important ideals.
Jesus is challenging the essential ideals of his time. He says the temple is a place of worship; it is not salvation. The land is the place to live; it will not give you peace. Mostly, though, he is saying, when the ideal of the church, or the perfection of the Bible, or the power of the clergy, or the demand of a tradition is our confidence, then we are not free. We have made them something they are not meant to be.
When we make the land everything, we make it something it cannot be. When our culture or our creed or our nationality is seen as making us more than others, then it makes us less.
Jesus said you have made the temple something it was not meant to be. You have trusted that the land would be miraculous and it is not. Jesus is challenging, cursing, the impulse to make things greater than they are. He does so because when we make them more than they should be we create their demise. The temple will be destroyed; the fig tree withers.
One more time. If the land is your goal, then you won’t find the kingdom of God. To be in creation we must see the limits of creation and honor them, not try to make them our power.
To the one who believes the land is everything my words are dangerous; to the one who believes the bible is everything my words are heresy. And so were the words of Jesus.
When the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him.
The good news in our passage is what comes after the temple and the tree. Jesus speaks of faith and prayer and forgiveness. And with these three he gives us three things that lead to the kingdom of God. These three: faith, prayer, and forgiveness have the power to move the mountains, to restore life, to bring all that is good. In these, he says, put your confidence.
The challenge, and there is a big challenge here, the challenge is that we must resist the temptation to put our confidence in things that cannot move mountains, restore life, and bring all that is good. And I want to be really careful here. Religion is good and then it is not good. Nations are powerful and successful and triumphant and then they are not. We know this. We know our devotion to the book, while good, has often times led us to do and say terrible things. I think of all the sermons preached defending slavery by good Presbyterian pastors and the good congregations who said, “amen.” This land is your land this land is my land, but there are a few moments when we were not gracious, not as sharing, as Woody Guthrie hopes.
When I sent the young associate to the national anthem and the writings of Lincoln I wasn’t trying to conjure patriotism in him. Nothing wrong with patriotism, but that was not the point. The point was to help him see the limits of national pride, the precarious quality of our life together. When Jesus curses the fig tree we could take that as a very unpatriotic act. But that would be a poor understanding of what he meant. Love the land, love this land, but don’t try to make it something greater than it is. Let your confidence be in faith, in prayer, in forgiveness and let the land be the land.
Nobody seems to be offended that Jesus cleared the temple. Somehow we see that as a kind of “finally he’s giving them a piece of his mind.” But no one thought that in forty years when the temple was destroyed and the Jews were banished from Palestine. They took the clearing of the temple as a warning about false confidence.
We need to love Jesus and live what he taught. But we must be just as ready to believe that our understanding of Jesus, our ability to live what he taught is flawed and limited and often times made into something it was not meant to be. What we believe about Jesus must never be seen as making us better than others. If we can hold on to that humility, then we can learn to live the lesson of the temple and the tree. Amen.
- Mark 11:12 - 19
- Mark 11:20 - 25