No Fruit, but Faith

No Fruit, but Faith

* It will take a minute to set the context of this passage for this morning. There is far more going on in this story than just what I will read. At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the last time. The stage is being set for Jesus to be challenged by the authorities and for him to assert his place in the greater scheme of things, for all time. There is tension in the air for everyone to see. This is perhaps the reason Jesus acts in a somewhat uncharacteristic way (you know, he WAS fully human, after all.) His humanness is perhaps also why the gospel writer points out to us that Jesus was hungry (or as is said, sometimes, nowadays, ‘hangry.’) But he quickly snaps out of it, recovers, and delivers a time-tested and inspiring pronouncement. I invite you to hear the Word of the Lord, from the 11th chapter of Mark’s Gospel…

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.

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.

Mark 11:12-14, 20-24

No one really likes to preach on this passage of this ‘enacted-parable,’ (it’s kind of a downer – after all), but our circumstances these days might help us find more relevance in it than we expect.

The noted Biblical scholar and ‘go-to’ guy for Bible reference material, William Barclay, a Scots Pastor from some decades ago, says this: “There can be no doubt that this, without exception, is the most difficult story in the gospel narrative. To take it as literal history presents difficulties which are well-nigh insurmountable.”

Barclay goes on, in a very convincing way, to make some more potentially eye-opening statements. To be frank, he says, this whole incident does not seem to be worthy of Jesus. There seems to be a certain peevishness and pettiness to it all, unbecoming of Jesus. It is the kind of story told of ancient wonder-workers, but not Jesus. See, (he says), we have this basic difficulty: Jesus had always refused to use whatever miraculous powers he had for his own sake. He would not turn stones to bread to satisfy his own hunger. He would not use whatever extra powers he had to escape his enemies. He never used his power for his own sake. Yet here he uses his power to blast a tree which had disappointed him when he was hungry? (You might wonder why didn’t he just make a few figs just ‘magically’ appear?)

Peter is the one disciple who notices what’s going on, that Jesus’ words have caused the tree to wither. I imagine that Peter likely didn’t give it another thought. It wasn’t the season for figs, anyway; there was no reason for that tree to be bearing fruit in the first place. None of it made much sense, anyway, or so it seemed at the time.

It’s only in Jesus’ later words that we get an idea of what’s going on here- through making a tie between a barren tree and ‘moving mountains’, a connection we don’t usually make, at all.

This second reference of Jesus, though, is one that was common and well known in Jesus’ day- he was not it’s author. Numerous Biblical scholars cite the use of this phrase for one who could solve difficult problems or see a solution in a previously impossible situation. A ‘mountain mover’ was one who could work miracles with what appeared to be a dead-end situation. Moses was the best example (though he parted a sea instead of relocating a mountain), but the phrase could also be applied to the wisdom of Solomon and the courage of Joshua. In every case of being a ‘mountain mover,’ one thing above all was required: faith.

So somehow, in an odd way, perhaps Jesus was using that poor fig tree as an object lesson of what it means to have no faith.

Thus, I’ve carefully chosen my ‘chancel flowers’ for today to illustrate this. What I have in my vase today are backyard sticks, dead as doornails. I guess you could say that this is my version of Jesus’ ‘enacted parable’- part one. When I set out to decide what flowers I could find to symbolize this passage, this is the best I could do. They are something like the ‘dry bones’ that the prophet Ezekiel famously mentioned, void of life, waiting for the breath of God to enter and revive them ways that would be utterly impossible to achieve on their own. But there’s more than this going on with Jesus’ fig tree and mountain.

This episode is the last passage before Jesus goes headlong into Jerusalem, where he confronts the Temple chief priests, elders and lawyers, and ultimately Roman officials as well. The crowds will begin to swell and the controversies only increase. There will a tough road to hoe ahead, and Jesus knows it. So with this enacted parable, he is giving himself a pep-talk, and lets us listen in.

We would do well to carefully hear Jesus’ words. You could think of it like this… We ourselves are like the fig tree, living in difficult times. And as Rev. Jenn referred to in her wonderful children’s sermon earlier, we have been entrusted with great things, even though we are by no means perfect. We make mistakes. We drop the ball, (or the lightbulb), and don’t get it right all the time.

But Jesus continues to entrust us with his greatest gift. Jesus gives us his love, unconditionally, to one and all, and with that also what it takes to help others. To continue with the plant metaphor, if you like, Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, and without his lifeblood we perish- both individually and as a community of faith, even scattered as we presently are— and likely EVEN MORESO now!

Jesus’ admonishment to have faith, even as the fig tree seemed to have had none (as weird as that seems), tells us how we will end up without faith, disconnected from our source. Dry, brittle, lifeless and prone to crack up. (Snap!)

So how do we have faith in the midst of these trying days? (Isn’t that the question that we’re all asking, under the surface?) Perhaps you can pick up a new hobby; painting, or writing, or joining a virtual chess club; that might keep you preoccupied, but I’m not sure it will strengthen your faith. Lots of things like these are all necessary, for sure, but I wonder how well they connect us to the source life we all need. Through all the ups and downs in life that we’re experiencing on this odd and rocky journey through COVID together, it is best to go back to the basics.
When we admit what is going on in and around us- that it is very hard to wait, we begin to admit our humanness, and that’s OK… (Jesus didn’t like to have to wait for those figs to grow, either.) We are not perfect, any of us individually, or all of us, together. And then, as tried and true as it sounds, it is best for us to count our blessings. We are all loved by Jesus, equally, and forgiven, too.

Through these lock down days of Covid, I’ve wondered, as many have, how folks fared with this sort of thing back 1918, through a summer without a/c, or the internet, or a grocery store network like we now have, or credit cards, or even the hope of some sort of vaccine being in the works, for some time in the next year or so. In some searching online, guided by the good folks at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, I’ve found more comfort than panic and more assurance than alarm. Life was slower then, and the truths shared then hold as strong as today.

In the words of John Schmalzbauer, professor of Protestant Studies in the Department of Religion at Missouri State University, “Mostly, I get deep consolation that religious communities had to go through this before… They were able to respond with kindness, and with a sense of duty, responsibility and the common good — and those things can help carry us through this time, too.”

So what we do to share our faith together is critically important, to Zoom in as we can, to join in Bible and book studies, committee meetings and all the rest, and equally important keep up the food deliveries on Fridays, and reaching out to one another the best we can, in our relative aloneness and awkwardness that we live in.

The life that Jesus calls us to is to render the virus as penultimate, to see that even its crippling and lethal force is outflanked by the goodness of God. Faith does not wither because it knows in the deepest ways that the goodness of God will not fold in the face of the threat of death. It is always good to be reassured to know that that faith is entrusted to fallible folk like us.

So be assured that God blesses you where you are; that you are already equipped to share God’s goodness in more ways than you’ve ever imagined, and that God will present you with more opportunities to share your gifts in more ways than you have ever noticed before.

This is God’s work with us in Jesus, who calls us, loves us and redeems us, each and every day. This is what I believe, and I trust you believe it, too. Amen.