(Mark 11: 12-25)
Have you ever read something in the Bible and thought – wow – I didn’t know that was in there, that is not what I think of when I think of the gospel? So have I. In our Bible in One Year monthly meetings, we have found ourselves time and time again asking the question – what happened, how did that appear in the Bible, what is this story about? How do we find good news in these stories, stories of murder, incest, cursing, betrayal, how do they tie into our faith? For the most part, the church has “handled” these stories by ignoring these stories. Our scripture reading for today comes from the gospel of Mark, chapter 11, but has never been assigned in any lectionary readings, a sure design to avoid the awkward problem it presents. Over the next few weeks Steve and I have opted to dive head first into these challenging passages, these oft-ignored passages and to dig into what they mean to us as Christians. As a part of our story, our scripture they ought to be woven in to our faith, wrestled with, not just ignored. With all that being said, our scripture reading this morning is the awkward story when Jesus curses the fig tree and cleanses the temple. It comes this morning from the gospel of Mark 11: 12-25, listen now for God’s word to us:
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.
‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’
50 miles southwest of Paris in the town of Chartres is the beautiful medieval Cathedral, Our Lady of Chartres. A stunning work of architecture amid a town that was the destination of medieval pilgrimages, a place of holiness. Inside the beautiful medieval structure, is the earliest labyrinth of its type, a paved labyrinth lying nearly 50 feet in diameter in the nave of the Cathedral. This labyrinth became a pilgrimage destination for many Christians, seeking a walk with the holy, seeking time with the divine, in need of prayer.
A few weeks ago my friend Richard led a group on a labyrinth walk in Arkansas, myself included. Before we entered this holy walk or journey in Arkansas, Richard began describing this labyrinth journey – how it’s a powerful prayer tool, a powerful way for people to encounter God, to grow in their spirituality. Richard talked about how he visits labyrinths all over the world as part of his walk with God. He shared with us the time he went to visit that beautiful labyrinth on the floor of the nave in the medieval Cathedral of Chartres, following a pilgrimage to France, a journey to the small village outside Paris, he found himself looking for the labyrinth, searching the massive cathedral in hopes of finding the beautiful sacred space. When Richard finally found the labyrinth, he found it covered, covered by rows and rows and rows of folded wooden chairs. Lying underneath those rows of folded wooden chairs was one of the most sacred old labyrinths, a way that Christians for centuries have experienced God.
Why is the labyrinth in Chartres covered with chairs?
Its not bringing forth the full fruits of what it can be, of what it can offer the world, the peace it can offer the prayerful people who walk it, the hope and closeness it brings to those who pilgrim to it – instead it is covered in chairs, functioning to serve a purpose not nearly as great as it could, not nearly as wonderful as the purpose it was created for, not nearly all that the world needs it to be. I tried and tried to find out why the labyrinth in Chartres was covered in chairs but found no answers, no function for what the chairs may be offering; I’m sure they were put there for some reason, to meet some need but in the process they took away the beauty of that prayerful holy space.
Today’s text from the gospel of Mark is not the Jesus we like to think of, not the Jesus we paint pictures of – Jesus with a slight smirk on his face healing little children in a white robe with a hint of a glow around him. This is not the Jesus characterized in Mark 11, not the Jesus we like to think of. We don’t like to think of a foul-mouthed Jesus, a Jesus who flips over tables, a Jesus who curses a fig tree when it is not in season, a Jesus who gets angry, a Jesus who becomes impatient. This is not the well-tempered, mannered, loving Jesus we tend to think about. But this is indeed our Jesus, our Lord and savior, our messiah. This is the God we worship.
This text is hard to take in, excluded from the lectionary and included in our “awkward moments” series because to be honest, Jesus comes across as a real jerk, he curses this fig tree for doing what it is supposed to do, for not bringing forth fruit in a season when it was never supposed to bring fruit. And then he rips through the temple overturning tables, preaching loudly and uncontrollably. This is not the Jesus we like to think about. How does this story fit into our story of faith?
Allow me to nerd out here for a moment….The piecing together of two stories, like the two we just read from in Mark 11, is kind of a “Markan special” it’s not found in any of the other gospels- Matthew, Luke or John, it’s a trick scholars call “intercalation” in fancy terms, or a “Markan sandwich” in layman’s terms. Markan sandwiches piece together two stories, starting by telling one story, interrupting the first story to tell a complete second story and then returning to finish story #1. The use of this technique hints to us that these stories have something in common, that they are pieced together for a reason and that reason is because they illumine one another, their pairing hints at the interpretation and meaning of each.
In the fig tree story Jesus curses the tree because it does what it is expected to do and in the temple story he gets angry at the temple because it doesn’t do what it is supposed to do – it functions as a modern day bank not a temple. What are we to do, who is this unreasonable Jesus, how does this story make sense? In both stories however, in the fig tree and in the temple, what Jesus needs is not being met, the best version of these things is not what Jesus finds. What Jesus needs – fruit – is not present, what Jesus needs – a holy worshipping community is not present.
For Jesus, “it’s not in season” wasn’t enough of a reason, or “we needed a functioning bank” wasn’t enough of a reason. For Jesus, he needed the best versions of these things, the best version of the fig tree and the best version of the temple. The convenient excuse seems not to please Jesus, the “not now, maybe later,” “that sounds like too much” or “I don’t think I can” excuses just aren’t cutting it with Jesus. Jesus refuses to settle for the C-versions of these things.
When I was in the eighth grade I went through a bit of a pseudo ‘rebel-phase.’ I stopped trying in school, didn’t do my homework, study for tests, etc. It didn’t take long for this to catch up with me. After a few weeks of no-home-work, no studying, I was forced to bring home a report card filled with Cs. I gave it to my Mom who asked why I was getting so many Cs, what had happened, these grades weren’t good enough, I had before gotten As, so why was I all of a sudden getting Cs? I responded to my Mom, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset, a C is average.” A few days later I stood outside of Tappan Middle School waiting for my mom to come pick me up, 20 minutes after the scheduled 3p pick up my Mom’s black jeep came into the parking lot. I got into the car, furious at my mother for making me wait. I said “why are you so late picking me up?” She looked to me and said, “well I was thinking, I’ll just be an average Mom from now on.”
Just how my mother was angry with me for settling for the average version of myself, I was angry with her for showing me what “average” or “status quo” looked like. And just as frustrated with that settling for convenience, for average, for “status quo” is Jesus. Jesus refuses to be ok with us settling for passable versions of ourselves, for showing off our goodness when we aren’t bearing the full fruits of what God created us for, what God needs us for. God refuses to let us settle for C-versions of ourselves, for C-versions of our church, for C-versions of our world.
These are the things Jesus curses – the chairs covering the holy journey of the labyrinth in the Cathedral at Chartes, the C-version of myself I presented. Not the best versions of who we can be and who God needs us to be.
The temple and the fig tree flaunted their goodness – serving a functioning bank, and an out of season fig tree – but did not bear the fruits Jesus needed them to bear, they were respectable, they were what was expected of them, but they were not the things God needed them to be.
A few weeks ago I heard a story about a family in some church. The family was a well to do family, nicely put together, came to church regularly, went to Sunday School. They did all the right things that good Christians ought to do. During one Sunday School hour, which they of course went to – as good Christians do – a man came to speak about the ministry he was working with in the Middle East. The man described the intense and tragic suffering of the people he worked with and the ways the ministry worked along with these people. The man asked the congregation – who will work with me on this ministry, inviting the people to join with him in his ministry of service to those suffering from intense and tragic things. The family’s daughter left that Sunday School hour and declared to her parents that instead of going to college next fall, she was going to go to the Middle East and serve in the ministry she had heard described, to work with those who were suffering and offer hope and love.
The father of the daughter replied, you can’t do that. You will be going to college next year, just like you’re supposed to. The daughter went to college that year as her father had told her to do but continued to keep up with the ministry she had heard about, a ministry she felt connected and called to. She came home from college that year and again declared to her parents that she would not be going back to college the next year and instead would be going to the Middle East to serve the least among us. This time, putting her foot down that this is what she would do.
The family drove to the airport together and dropped the daughter off for her work in the Middle East. As the daughter walked away into the mosh of security lines, the father began to weep, the mother looked at him and said, “I know, I’m going to miss her too.” The father looked at the mother and said, “no, its not that – its just – we raised our daughter to be a respectable Christian, I never expected she would become a real Christian.”
A respectable Christian, not a real Christian. The father realized that the daughter was becoming the fullest person she could be, the best Christian she could be, the realest Christian – a person who goes beyond what they thought they could and into the very place God needs them to go.
She was not appearing good, like the temple Jesus cleansed, but rather she was being good, bearing fruits which God needed, doing all that God has called her to do; not doing what is ‘enough,’ but rather doing what God needs her to do, being who God needs her to be, being who God has called and created her to be. In a broken and hurting world, God needs us to be the very best versions of ourselves, the people God created, the people God called, to bind up the broken-hearted, the love the suffering, to heal the broken, to love the stranger.
I want to be perfectly clear here – God is not calling you to be something that you are not, more than you should be, an unattainable version of yourself, God is calling to you to be the person God knit together in your mother’s womb, the person God knows you to be, the person Gbod created you to be – the very best version of yourself, the very person God needs you to be, the very person God put on this earth to do wonderful and amazing things.
As the psalmist writes in Psalm 139 – “you have searched me and known me – you knit me together in my mother’s womb” – God created you, God named you, God claimed you, God knows you. God knows you completely, knowing the wonderful things you can do, knowing the wonderful things Christ has in store for you, knowing the beautiful ways you can be at the work in the world and God refuses to let you be any less than that.
I grew up listening to my father, Michael’s, sermons and some of the stories have stuck to me like glue, stories that have shaped my understanding of the world, stories I’ll always remember. One of my favorite stories is a love story, a wedding story. Before the wedding of a couple my Dad asks the couple to write to one another love letters, “write privately” he tells them, “don’t show the letter to anyone, not even to each other. Just seal it in an envelope and give it to me.” He then selects excerpts of the letters to share on the day of the wedding in his meditation, a celebration of the couples love for one another. In one wedding for two graduates from the University of Michigan the entire congregation, hired planners, cellist, family, distant friends and pastor were moved to tears by one of the letters.
The groom wrote about how his wife-to-be loved him. He said that his fiancée’s love was most amazing because she loved him as he was, imperfections, male foibles and all. That was amazing enough, he wrote, but even more wondrous was the fact that her unconditional love had this way of pulling him to grow to be more worthy of it.
Her love did this without ever implying that he wasn’t worthy of it. Her unquestioning love took him as he was, but somehow nudged him to be a better man without ever saying that there was anything wrong with him.
John Bell’s hymn “Take O Take Me As I Am” brings this out as well. The hymns sings “take I take me as I am, summon out what I shall be.”
The great love that groom wrote about is the same love that John Bell writes about here, the love that is so great it brings out the best of us, the most of us, not anything that we weren’t meant to be, not anything but that which the God who knit us together in our mother’s wombs knows we can be. The absolute most, best, versions of ourselves, the versions of ourselves that are lived out in Christ who loves us so deeply, who knows us so completely, can summon out.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.