Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Fig Tree Moments

Sometimes I get asked to preach.  Although I am a natural teacher, I mostly feel like I am not a natural preacher, so I usually write out my sermons word for word.  The good thing about having a written copy is that I can share it with with people who ask me for it.  After Sunday's sermon, I received several requests for copies...so...I guess I will go public with this one.  The assigned text was Mark 11:20-25 and the theme was "Signs of Hope and Healing."

Mark 11:20-25 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) from Bible Gateway
The Lesson from the Withered Fig Tree
20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 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.24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”


Signs of hope and healing – how wonderful it is to focus on the love and power of God as we walk together on this Lenten journey, as we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem and toward the cross.


At the start of our Gospel reading for today, we find the disciples walking past a fig tree, shriveled up to its roots. Peter asks Jesus about it, and Jesus launches into a little lesson for the disciples about the power of faith and prayer. Before we dig into Jesus’ teaching here, I think it will be helpful for us to backtrack a little bit to see what led up to this moment of teaching. Beginning with Mark Chapter 11, verse 12 which says:

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, Jesus 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, Jesus 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.

By the next morning, the fig tree is shriveled up and dead. Peter says, “Hey Jesus, check it out – that tree that you cursed yesterday is totally dead.”

Now if I were to ask you to shout out the names of some of your favorite miracle stories from the Gospels, some illustrations of God’s great power, some of the most inspirational stories of hope and healing, my guess is that not one of you would say “Hey, what about that story of Jesus cursing the fig tree!”

This story is a little strange, right? Jesus is walking along with his disciples, feels hungry, sees this tree with leaves on it, goes over to see if he can grab some fig snacks, and when there are no figs, he points to the tree and says “May no one ever eat from you again!” -- Even though it was not even the season for figs. And then 24 hours later, boom, this tree is a shriveled up, dead.

We can’t know exactly what Jesus was thinking or feeling in this moment of cursing the fig tree, but it appears like Jesus was just downright hangry, (you know, hungry + angry = hangry) which seems just a little bit out of character for Jesus. Let’s try to get a little clearer picture of the whole fig tree incident by looking at it within the context of Jesus’ journey to the cross.

The day before his encounter with the fig tree, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and the crowds were shouting Hosanna. In verse 11 we read that after all that hoopla, Jesus went into the temple and looked around at everything, and then it was late so Jesus left Jerusalem and walked back to Bethany. The next day, as Jesus walked from Bethany to Jerusalem, he is distracted by his hunger and curses the tree. And then? He keeps walking, marches into Jerusalem and marches right into the temple and starts flipping tables, accusing the money changers and church people of being robbers and hypocrites. Then it’s evening and Jesus goes back to Bethany.

The next day, Jesus is on the road again, walking to Jerusalem and there it is: the fig tree - withered down to the roots.

I think we cannot imagine how difficult this last leg of Jesus’ journey to the cross must have been. Jesus knew what was coming. He had to stay focused. This point – to stay focused – is one that Jesus makes throughout the Gospels – let nothing distract you from doing God’s work – not money, not stuff, not figs. Whether Jesus was angry at the tree, at the chaos he saw the night before in the temple, at himself …for whatever reason, he cursed the tree. And because Jesus is the Son of God, his curse held power, and that power was observed by Peter and the disciples. Jesus uses the moment to make his point: stay focused, Jesus says: “Have faith in God…have no doubt in your heart… believe what you say will come to pass…whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.”

Miguelito was not quite one year old when his mother brought him to the Mission of Healing. He was very small, not much bigger than a newborn. He could not sit, he could not hold his head up, he was too weak. He was born with a cleft palate. When his mother fed him the milk spilled out of his nose and mouth. She had kept him alive, just barely, through drips of milk making it into his stomach, through persistence and through prayer. Miguelito’s doctors had diagnosed him with failure to thrive, but they could not do surgery to fix his mouth until he was bigger and stronger.

Miguelito’s mom brought him to our team in desperation, hoping for a miracle. Dr. Zach is an allergist. He examined Miguelito with so much love. Nurse Jean knew just what to do. She had seen babies like Miguelito before. She knew he needed a special feeder. Our team went into action. We prayed for Miguelito. We walked and found rides to pharmacies all over San Salvador to buy up all of the preemie formula we could find. Jean bought small nipples and bottles. We delivered everything to the Miguelito’s family.

We traveled home. We prayed for Miguelito every day. Jean bought a Haberman feeder and we shipped it to Miguelito. We bought cans of formula and shipped them too, but the Salvadoran customs people would not accept them and a month later the shipment landed back on my doorstep. There were some moments along the way when we were angry and frustrated. We didn’t give up. We wrote letters to customs and recruited couriers from the area to carry preemie formula in every suitcase that traveled to El Salvador over the next year.

We never for one minute believed Miguelito would not make it. His mom, his pastor and our team were focused and persistent, not only in prayer but in action. Jesus said, “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.”

One year later Miguelito’s mom brought him to see us at the next Mission of Healing. He had had the first of several surgeries to repair his mouth and nose. He was dancing and clapping. Over the years, Miguelito’s friends from the US have never stopped praying for him. For a few years, friends helped to pay the bus fare so Miguelito could receive physical and speech therapy. When Miguelito and his family have been able, they has come to the annual Mission of Healing to check in with us.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was at the Salvadoran Lutheran Church offices, I felt a little tug tug on my dress, and I looked down and there was Miguelito! He told me all about second grade. Let me say that again, he told me all about second grade. He was talking, really well!

Have no doubt in your heart. Believe what you say will come to pass.

Over the twenty years in which I have been working in ministry with our brothers and sisters in El Salvador, I have witnessed many miracles. Miracles of healing without medical explanation, miracles directly orchestrated by God’s healing hand and through the prayers of faithful people. Miracles like Miguelito, who is a sign of hope and healing through prayer and focus and persistence. And then there are the losses, deaths due to violence and illness, which have brought plenty of anger and pain and grief, but over time seem to grow into signs of healing which call us as a community to love each other more, and to work together to be better.

People ask me all the time, “What do you do in El Salvador?” I spend a lot of time listening to people.

On a recent afternoon I learned that Alex, a young woman in our Salvadoran congregation, has malignant kidney cancer. She grew up in the church and went to school with support from a scholarship program. Despite having a baby at age 17, she stuck with her studies and graduated from the university and has been in her career for a couple of months. Alex’s scholarship sponsor, Sandy, is a cancer survivor. Over all of their years together, since Alex was in grade school, Alex has supported Sandy with prayers and encouragement. Despite many recurrences, Sandy is alive and Sandy believes she is alive through the power of prayer from Alex and her family. Who better than Sandy can understand the journey which Alex is on right now, with surgery, chemo, radiation and a grim prognosis? I helped orchestrate a phone call between Sandy and Alex. “I know I need a miracle, and with faith and prayer, I will live,” said Alex, with great conviction. We believe Sandy is a part of this miracle that Alex is praying for. Sandy and Alex are signs of hope and healing for each other - and for all of us.

Besides listening, shedding some tears, and orchestrating things here and there in El Salvador, I have also found myself recently being pulled into an important work of the Salvadoran Lutheran church in building peace. The Salvadoran Lutheran Church has within its DNA the strong call to build peace and seek justice, and to do so by being a very public voice in the newspapers, on TV, and in the streets. Bishop Gomez of the Lutheran Church is the leader of an organization called IPAZ – the interfaith pastoral initiative for the peace. In a country which has suffered under a culture of violence since the time of the Spanish conquest, and which in the modern era finds itself carved into territories and controlled by gang forces, only the churches speak about peace-building and dialog. At the IPAZ table, gang leaders who can never leave the gangs find themselves called by God to transform gang culture are working together with pastors and lay leaders for prison reform, for just treatment of juveniles, for an end to killing of innocents by gang bangers, for an end to recruitment of children and youth, and for an end to widespread abuse and vigilante justice carried out by police and the military. This work, from community walks to prison visits to advocacy with the Salvadoran legislature is filled with signs of hope and healing.

When we, as followers of Jesus are doing the work of the Gospel, when we speak words of hope, when we lay on hands of healing, when we pray for health to overcome sickness, when we march for change, when we build peace, when we advocate for justice, when we pray for good to overcome evil, when we do the work of the Gospel in at home, in this community, across the city, in the United States or El Salvador – we, like Jesus, have our fig tree moments.

Anger is human. Jesus walked from Bethany to Jerusalem filled with anger at the injustice of what was happening in the temple, in God’s house. The fig tree incident happened, but it did not distract Jesus from the focus of his journey. Jesus walked that walk between Bethany and Jerusalem, focused on the work which God sent him to do – to bring healing and hope to God’s people. Jesus channeled his anger to take a strong stand and heal the injustice and hypocrisy in the temple, God’s church. The next day, Jesus used the incident with the fig tree to teach a lesson about the power of God and the power of prayer, reminding God’s people that faith can move mountains into the sea, and with no doubt in our hearts, prayers said in faith are answered.

Jesus’ final words in today’s Gospel are about forgiveness – “forgive if you have anything against anyone so that your father in heaven my also forgive you.”

Gospel work is hard work. And forgiveness is the hardest work of all. Fig tree moments will come in the midst of this work, but Jesus teaches us not to let anger control our focus. Jesus teaches us to use our fig tree moments for good, to channel anger for positive change, to spread hope, and to bring healing.

Amen.

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