Friday, June 24, 2011

Sermon on June 19, 2011 Rev. Yves Pizant (translated by Dr. Marianne Robins)

Culte (the French word for 'worship service') Santa Barbara 19 juin 2011.

The Dried Up Fig Tree

Mark 11:11 – 24

Jesus dries up a fig tree that bears no fruit : the initial meaning of this story is quite clear. It is obvious that WE are the fig tree ; that we have to bear fruit, fruit of love, of justice, of forgiveness, as Paul often calls us to do. The fruit of the Spirit, is about our lives and what we do, our habits, all that we give to others, to the world, and to God.

The fruit do not benefit the tree that bears them ; it’s quite the opposite, the fruit are given to others, this is the very reason for their existence. What this story tells us is that if we don’t produce fruit, if we are concerned only with ourselves, if we are content, like the fig tree, to bear only leaves, then we will wither.

And yet, a vexing little sentence should catch our attention. Only Mark uses it : Jesus sees leaves, does not find fuit, and Mark adds « this was not fig season ». If it was not fig season, how could Jesus accuse the fig tree ? This seems quite unfair. Mark’s sentence seems to ruin this edifying story. Perhaps we should just dismiss this little sentence of Mark’s, but then we would miss the depth of the Gospel teaching.

Rather, let us start with this sentence, and try and figure out what it gets at, its meaning. Remember, the text deals with us, with our capacity to produce fruit for others. The question is : « at what particular time should we give fruit to those who ask for them ? »

We can read the story from two vantage points. On the one hand, there is the logic of the fig tree, that bears fruit only when it’s convenient, only in season; on the other, there is Christ’s logic who asks us to give fruit when others need them, even if this is not the right time for us.

The fig tree’s logic is our logic, the one our nature draws us to, and first and foremost, it is the logic of self-interest : I am willing to give to others, but I will choose the time, and I will do it when it is convenient. This is not Christ ‘s logic : for him, you have to bear fruit when you are asked to give it. The time to give fruit is not for us to choose, it is when the other needs it and and if « it is not the right time », well, it is still time. For indeed, at no time can we say we are not obligated to do anything for God or for others, it is always time to give and to serve.

What Mark tells us with his vexing little sentence, is that, if we adopt the logic of the fig tree, we will never do anything ; the only thing we can then hope for is to wither. The time to give does not need to be marked on our calendars ; it come when someone needs and asks. The parable is clear on this.

We can take this further, because this text presents another challenge : nested in the parable of the fig tree, there is another story, that of Jesus driving out the merchants from the temple. There has to be a relationship between these two episodes, or they would not have been arranged in this way.

If you remember, the merchants’ activities were related to Jewish worship. Jews came to the Temple to set things right with God. They bought pigeons, or some other kind of animal to be sacrificed on the altar, and they changed money to buy offerings. This was part of a set of rituals, of religious deeds that took place in the very presence of God, in the Temple.

Yet both Jesus and the prophets clearly stated what God wants from us : « what I want is love, not sacrifice. I don’t want you to clear your consciences by acting religiously, by going to the temple, by offering sacrifices, by giving money to the Church, by doing good works. What I want is love ». When he drove the merchants out of the temple, Jesus said : « you have turned (a religion of) love and prayer into (a religion of) good conscience buying – a way to make yourselves feel better. This is not what God wants from you. You don’t need to act religiously to clear your consciences, but you need to give the fruit, the fruit of the Spirit. »

What matters in the end is not whether we are a regular church goer or stand as a pillar of the church, but whether or not we bear fruit. Here we stand, in the place of the fig tree.

But there is more : what does Jesus find on the fig tree that so displeases him ? Leaves. In Hebrew, the tree leaf, means « that which climbs » ; but it also means « that which climbs towards God », that which gives meaning to sacrifice, to total sacrifice. Jesus sees a fig tree covered with leaves, much like a human full of good deeds, who makes sacrifices for God in the temple. So Jesus hopes to find fruit, love, but there is none. So he declares that if our lives are about sweeping our consciences clean with religious duty, it will lead us nowhere but to withering.

Also, the question of timing was crucial to the Pharisees of the 1st century. If you remember, Jesus often had to battle to heal the sick on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, however, told him « this is not the right time », but Jesus replied : It is always the right time if we can act. Jesus transgressed a religious order that essentially forbade deeds of love at specific times. This is what the parable of the fig tree is getting at : Jesus does not respect the Pharisees’ time-table, he heals because here, right in front of him, a sick person needs him.

As for the leaves, we can take this even further. There are only two passages in the Bible that mention the fig tree and its leaves : the passage in Mark, and the Genesis story (Gen. 3 :7-8). Adam and Eve, ashamed of their sin, and their nakedness, try and hide themselves with fig leaves. The fig leaf, for Adam and Eve, and symbollically for us, is a good conscience acquired cheaply, a mere external cover. But God refuses it ; rather HE will cover their imperfection, HE will dress them, and will forgive their sin. It is only when we say : « yes Lord, I am not perfect, I am hiding myself behind leaves, I don’t produce the fruit you are expecting from me, God, forgive me », then and only then does God cover our shame – he does not want us to live out of our good conscience and to hide ourselves superficially.

At the end of the story, the disciples wonder why the fig tree has withered. Jesus replies : if you had faith, you could dry this fig tree, you could do even bigger things, even command the mountains to throw themselves into the sea.

Some have understood this to refer to the power of God, to His capacity to perform miracles –the disciples were really impressed by what Jesus had managed to do, and thought they themselves could do the same if they had enough faith. But let’s be serious. What is the point of drying up a fig tree or throwing a mountain into the sea ? This has no value whatsoever. How can we think that Christ would waste his time to flaunt or brag about miraculous power ? This seems to tell us that we need to dig deeper.

What Jesus actually says is that, if we have enough faith, we can kill the fruitless fig trees that grow within us, we can destroy all that does not bear fruit for others in our life. We need plenty of faith to drag the dead and dried branches out of our lives. In the same way, Jesus tells us that we should throw into the ocean the mountains of selfishness, uselessness and fruitlessness that have settled in ourselves.

If we had faith, we could get rid of all these sterile fig trees, throw out all appearances, all pretenses, fig leaves that help us put on airs. WE could throw into the sea the mountains of lies we tell ourselves, our selfishness, throw out all that stands in the way of God as Isaiah writes : « every mountain and hill shall be made low … to prepare the way of the Lord »

This is not an easy task, to pull out this tendency to grow only leaves, because they benefit us, they give us good conscience, and that is not unpleasant.

Fruit, on the other hand, exhaust the tree –they are all that we give to others. That is why Jesus simply says : have faith in God, this is the most important. Our relationship to God is not bartering, as it is with the merchants in the temple. Faith is no fig tree that produces fruit when it pleases it. Rather, ask forgiveness from God : it is always the right time, he will give it to you, without compensation, without conditions.

This is why I tell you, concludes Christ in verse 24, « whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours ». God gives what we ask for in our prayers, not whatever we ask for, of course, but what the text is talking about : it gets us rid of the useless and sterile mess in our lives, and leaves only the most essential : faith in God. IF we can ask for this, in all sincerity, God will give it to us. We will then gain, from him, the power to produce the fruit of the Spirit… and this is what will remain in Eternal Life.



Blogger regheta said...

This is SOOOO good!
Thanks for sharing it!!

Will there be more sermons by Rev. Yves Pizant? Where can I find more of his English sermons?

12:42 AM  

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