University Congregational Church
Mar. 9, 2014
“The Last Week: Monday”
Although it has been a couple of decades, I still sometimes dream about a specific church council meeting I was attending. A discussion ensued about what to do with some of the small grassy areas flanking the church parking lot. It seems that the property coordinator had tired of picking up odds and ends from the grass, and under bushes. I didn’t blame him. Things like used food wrappers, human waste, stinky left-behind soiled clothes, and sundry other items being left there were evidence that homelessness was a problem in the neighborhood.
After some discussion, the property committee outlined three options:
- We could purchase some signs to post in each area. “Stay off the grass”
- We could add lighting to these areas so that people were not as likely to sleep, eat, or rest there at night.
- We could remove the shrubs and grass and pour concrete in those areas so that they were not attractive places to loiter.
No one mentioned that the church might want to reach out to the homeless in the neighborhood. Just as the vote was taken to pour concrete, a very strange thing happened. A man in tattered garb with a long beard came into the meeting. When he heard the conversation, he began upsetting tables, exclaiming loudly about dens of robbers and thieves. I couldn’t believe his outrageous behavior – disruptive, uncouth, cursing and carrying on. To act that way in a church! I was stunned.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent and the beginning of a new sermon series on the book “The Last Week” written by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. On Wednesday evenings, we are having a soup meal and study of the same book. There are copies of the book in the church library available for checkout if you want to follow along.
Each week, we will focus in on a specific day of the last week of Jesus’ life. Since today is the first Sunday in Lent, our focus day is Monday. The gospel of Mark identifies a few of Jesus’ activities on that Monday… including cursing at a fig tree and upsetting tables in the temple.
In Florence, Italy’s Basilica de Santa Croce, there is a beautiful fresco painting depicting the crucifixion of Jesus. The basilica was built in 1294 and is the main Franciscan church in Florence and the largest Franciscan church in the world. You will see the triptych fresco in your bulletin insert today.
A triptych is a panel painting that is divided into three sections. The middle panel is typically the largest and it is flanked by two smaller but related works. Usually, the outside panels of the painting give context or explanation to the center piece. In this case, the center piece depicts the crucifixion of Jesus while the left side shows his journey to Calvary and the right side is his ascent into heaven. Each of these panels is a journey – leading to the next.
The idea of a triptych is that the central focus of the art piece is interrupted through the lens and context of other related information. For this piece, the artists wanted to explain that the road to Calvary should be seen as the beginning of the resurrection. The cross is interpreted within the context of resurrection. In other words, the cross is not the end, but a means to resurrection.
Triptychs (like the one in Florence, Italy) are an artistic method to explain an event in a larger context. Our gospel writer for today used the same idea of a triptych in a literary form. When it is literary, this method is called “framing”. Framing typically starts with a story (called “a”) and then switches to another story (called “b”) and then returns back to story “a” to offer an interpretation. (By the way, we also see this pattern in music and in other disciplines). Part “A” provides a frame around part “B”. It’s easier than it sounds!
Our text for today is a frame of two familiar stories. The gospel writer of Mark puts this story on Monday of the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus and the disciples are coming from Bethany to Jerusalem. Hungry, Jesus sees a fig tree and, not finding any figs on it, pronounces a curse that it would never produce figs again. That is story “A”. Immediately, the story switches to an incident sometimes named “Jesus’ temple tantrum”, when Jesus finds money changers in the temple and upsets their tables. That is story “B”. The text concludes by going back to story “A” and says, “In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.”
The gospel writer wants us to consider these two incidents together so that they can interpret one another. The fig tree and the temple are compared and contrasted. The lack of fruit on the tree is compared to the lack of Godliness in the temple. When a church puts anything above justice, God rejects it.
When we separate the stories, we come up with all kinds of problems:
- The fig tree wasn’t in season. Why would Jesus curse it?
- The sacrificial activity in the temple was for God. Why would Jesus be angry about it? His behavior is stunning-really.
The gospel writer didn’t intend the reader to worry about figs or money changers in the temple. To separate the stories is to completely miss the literary genius of Mark. According to Eugene Boring, “Mark’s powerful story is not an accurate reporting of facts and it is not a collection of anecdotes. It is the thoughtful composition of an author who reflected on what he wanted to say and on the strategy for communicating it.”
The framing of these stories indicates that the issue at stake in Mark is that the worship of God cannot and should not exist apart from justice for God’s people. One of reasons Borg and Crossan advocate for this interpretation of the story is Jesus’ saying: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations… but you have made it a den of robbers.” In the ancient language of the Bible, a “den” is a hideaway, a safe house, and a refuge. Jesus was not speaking of a den where robbers are hurting people, but chastising the temple because it was not a safe place for refuge. The end of the frame for the temple story is that the fig tree had withered and died. So, Mark teaches, a church that neglects to do justice will die.
Jesus was not so upset about the specific goings on in the temple. He wasn’t condemning their worship or even their sacrifices. He wasn’t even criticizing the exchange of money, as so many have said. His concern was that the temple was not functioning as a safe place for the poor and the outcast. The temple wasn’t a place of social justice. Worse than that – that the worship of God wasn’t being associated with justice.
Let’s put that in a modern context. In 1998, Augusta Kansas had a major flood. US 54 was underwater. Businesses were underwater. The worst of the flooding hit the poorest residents in the town. They lost most – if not all – of the meager belongings they had. It was impossible to get around town. The devastation was life-altering for many people.
The Christian Church in Augusta became one of the shelters and FEMA centers for those who were affected. They called to ask if our congregation would come to Augusta to assist with cleanup, serving meals, or other work as needed. I was happy to, and offered to coordinate some busloads of Wichita churches to work each Saturday that month.
I began calling congregations around the area to see if they would participate. Several people told me that they couldn’t handle another mission at that time, and I understood. However, I had a most frustrating call to one specific church. Here’s how it went:
“Hello. I’m Rev. Robin McGonigle from such-and-such church, and I’m calling to talk with someone on your staff about taking people over to Augusta to assist with the flooding that has been going on there.”
“I’ll transfer you to our Outreach Minister”
“Hello. This is Rev. so-and-so.
“Hi. I’m calling to see if your outreach group or others in your church would be interested in helping our neighbors to the east who have been flooded out of their homes. We need cooks, people to sort donations, workers to clear damaged homes.
“I’m afraid not. Our outreach focus at this church is exclusively reaching out to people to tell them about Jesus.”
“But, sir, the poorest neighborhoods in Augusta have been flooded for several days. There are people who are now homeless, people who have no transportation, no food or clean water. They have to salvage what little is left from their homes before they are torn down. We have a bus of workers going on Saturday. All you have to do is get the notice out to your people that they are welcome to join us. If they end up volunteering to work in the flooded areas, we have even arranged for free tetanus shots onsite at a church in Augusta!”
“We don’t do emergency or disaster service at our church. Instead, we are trying to teach people who don’t know Jesus about him so that they are able to live with that joy and die with that security. That’s the most critical outreach anyone can do.”
It’s been 16 years, and I still think about this conversation. I heard through the grapevine that sometime shortly after, some bizarre incident occurred there. A strange man (probably someone a bit strange in the head) just walked in there and wrecked their building. It was clearly vandalism done by some enraged person. He tore up their church pamphlets, upended some tables, cursed at the few people nearby, and basically ransacked the place. To act like that in a church! I was stunned.