I suppose the entire nation knows about our little part of the world after the tornado last week. Harrisburg Illinois is 45 miles from my house. To add insult to injury, we had to endure the the Westboro Baptist Church protestors descending on our region with signs like this. They connect all of the world’s ills to our nations relaxed stance about homosexuality. In the name of religion, they spew out hatred. They are not truly Baptist and they are not truly a church. Their hatred emanates from hell not heaven.
In our reading from Mark, we learn of Jesus cursing a fig tree. Wow Jesus! Aren’t you being a little harsh on that fig tree? In Mark 11, Jesus passes a fig tree that is in full leaf, but not producing figs. He curses the fig tree. In today’s reading the disciples are passing the fig tree that jesus cursed and sure enough it has withered from its roots. Peter remembers Jesus cursing it and basically says to the others, “Check it out!” Jesus wasn’t joking. That tree is gone for good.
In the modern era, there would certainly be some local chapter of (CATUTOT) Citizens Against the Unfair Treatment of Trees protesting Jesus’ next event. And to be truthful, if Jesus came to my house, it might cost me my Bradford Pear tree. It has nice leaves, but no fruit. Isn’t this a little bit of an abuse of power. We can all understand Jesus using his power to calm a storm, but cursing a fig tree? How did this story make it in the Bible? At some point we know the church had to sift through true and false accounts about Jesus and decide which stories made the cut to be put in our Bibles. Imagine the meeting voting on which stories to include. The Virgin Birth-yes! The healing of blind Bartimaeus! Calming the storm-yes! Cursing the fig tree-seriously? Did nobody vote “no” on this one?
To understand this story, one needs to be familiar with something called a Markan sandwich. A Markan sandwich is a technique used by the Mark in which he takes a story and inserts right in the middle of the story a seemingly unrelated story. Google Markan sandwich and you can learn all about it. There are some nine Markan sandwiches in the gospel of Mark and this is my favorite. The key to understanding a Markan sandwich is to realize that the story inserted in the middle is the key to understanding the story the flanks either side of the story. This is my favorite Markan sandwich.
If all we know is that Jesus cursed a fig tree and came back later and it was dead, this is a ridiculous story. Inserted in the middle of this story is part of the reading from yesterday-its sometimes called the cleansing of the temple. Jesus walks into the temple and overturns the tables and drives out the buyers and sellers. This story is the center of the sandwich. The story of the fig tree helps us interpret the center story.
The story of the fig tree is not about figs at all. It’s about the Jewish temple which is all leaf, but no fruit. They have a form of godliness, but it is powerless to change lives. Jesus does not walk in to reform the temple, he utterly rejects the temple and its fruitless worship. Jesus in the temple is not the work of a reformer making tweaks to the present system, he instead curses the present system and pronounces it dead. He even announces that the new house of God will be a house of prayer for all nations.
Now the story of the fig tree comes alive. It looks like a fig tree, but it’s not a fig tree. It’s only decorative, but is doing no meaningful work. Is our religion decorative or are we bearing fruit? The rituals or religion are meaningless if they do not bear fruit. The system of buying one’s sacrifice at the temple was a system of convenience. The money changers were making a killing off a people. Even today, we can try to make church so convenient for people who no sacrifice is necessary. Today, there are still religious opportunists who use the church as their vehicle to gain great riches. Apparently, the segregation of the temple also bothered Jesus. He said his house should be a house of prayer for all nations. This kind of religion doesn’t need reformation, it needs demolition. Pastor Doug Cherry preached a great message in our church last week on bearing fruit. If our churches are not bearing fruit, they are only taking minerals out of the ground that should be used for churches that are producing. Lord, as you enter our churches this weekend, may you find fruit and not just leaves. May our doors be open to people of every creed and color and make us a house of prayer.
Westboro Baptist Church is a nuisance, but they are not to be feared. They are dead from the root-all leaf, but no fruit. A few weeks ago a lost a dear childhood friend to brain cancer. He was gay. I’m not a proponent of homosexuality, but I serve a God who loves all people and who weeps with those who weep. The church I belong to loves all people and invites them into a relationship, not a religion. Did anybody notice that I used the Markan sandwich technique in my article? This isn’t a story about Westboro Baptist Church or about fig tree. It’s easy to talk about Westboro and fig trees but harder to talk about ourselves. This is a story about us and whether or not our lives are lovingly bearing fruit.