A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer: 17 April 2020
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
With great and due respect to our bishops and the Liturgy Task Force who gave the church the holy gift of the Book of Common Prayer 2019, I still maintain there is no perfect lectionary: not the one we have been given, not its predecessors, not any that will follow it if the Lord tarries and the Prayer Book is revised. Perfect lectionary is a liturgical oxymoron.
So, I’m not overly surprised to be discombobulated by the Gospel lesson appointed for today; it is a quirk lying at the intersection of an imperfect lectionary and the church calendar. Here we are in Easter week — a week already made surpassingly strange by pandemic and isolation — and the lectionary plunges us headlong and backwards into the pre-Passion narratives of St. Mark: the Triumphal Entry, the cursing of the fig tree, and the final cleansing of the Temple. This retrograde motion presents us with a challenge and an opportunity bundled together: to read this narrative, and the entire Gospel of Mark, through the lens of the Resurrection. That’s likely what St. Mark intended all along; his abrupt ending is perfectly designed to compel the reader to re-read, to figure out what’s going on and to look for the clues that answer Mark’s central question: Just who is this man, Jesus?
As I read the Gospel, the Triumphal Entry has the feel of carefully staged and choreographed theater with just a thin veneer of improvisation. A donkey just happens to be in the right place at the right time. The stage hands and extras graciously allow the disciples to take the creature based solely on their word and promise, “The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.” Many in the crowd following Jesus just happen to have cut palm branches in the fields on their way into town. As for the “spontaneous” shouting — well, somebody had to start it; someone had to give voice to what was playing out here, somebody in the know. The Triumphal Entry a spontaneous event? That stretches my credibility. This event happened in this way and at this time precisely because God wanted it to happen in this way and at this time. Nothing is left to chance; God has his way. And that is a Resurrection reading of these Holy Week events: God inexorably working out his will through stubborn and sinful humans each vying for his or her own self-interest, yet each — in the mystery of God — contributing perfectly to the panorama of God’s purpose.
The Triumphal Entry is an inaugural parade — a king coming in royal procession to take his throne in the royal city. So the crowds shout:
Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest (ref Mk 11:9)!
Hosanna: the crowds keep using that word, but I do not think it means what they think it means. Hosanna: “save us,” or “save, we pray.” Save us from what? From the Romans, of course. For the brutal oppression of occupation. From bone-crushing poverty and spirit-crushing taxation. From fear that God has abandoned his people, broken his covenant, or lost his power. Hosanna: save, we pray. Indeed.
Of course, there will be a battle; that’s what rival kings and kingdoms do: Jesus and his rag-tag band of followers against Pilate and Herod and the assembled might of Rome — a new Judas Maccabeus. Is that what the crowds expect — that Jesus will now use the power he previously reserved for opening blind eyes, making the deaf hear, raising up the crippled, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons — that same healing power to now destroy Israel’s enemies in clear contravention of his own words, “love your enemies and bless those who persecute you”? Is that really what the crowd expects? Probably. Maybe. Honestly, I doubt they have even thought that far or that deeply. This is an emotional, gut level response that so easily bypasses the brain.
When we read the Hosannas today, we do so through the lens of the Resurrection. Yes, there was a battle, the only truly epic, life-or-death battle ever waged from the foundations of the world: the Light of the World, the Life of Men versus the accuser, the father of lies, and his foot soldiers death and hell. The shouting crowds had no idea, but we do through the lens of the Resurrection. It was like no battle and no battle strategy they could have conceived: winning by losing, living by dying, reigning by submission — giving up all to gain all. This is reading the Triumphal Entry through the lens of the Resurrection.
And then there is the fig tree. I love trees and I’ve always felt a bit sorry for this one. Jesus looks for figs out of season; it is time for leaves, not ripe fruit. Who goes to the apple orchard in April and grows angry when there are no Granny Smiths on the trees? No wonder the disciples were a bit confused by it all. Jesus uses this as an enacted parable about faith and prayer and forgiveness. Do not doubt in your heart. Pray, believing and forgiving everyone with whom you hold a grudge, and even mountains can be rooted up and cast into the sea.
But, can we read even this strange little tale through the lens of the Resurrection? The Resurrection heralded the dawn of new creation — St. John is crystal clear about that in his Gospel — the dawn of new creation and the beginning of the end of the curse that has covered the old creation like a pall.
Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you (ref Gen 3:17).
In a fallen and sin-infested creation, we expect trees without fruit: bitter figs, wormy apples. But in the new creation?
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him (Rev 22:1-3).
Forget barren trees in the new creation. This one tree produces twelve different kinds of fruit and is in perpetual abundance. Even its leaves have healing powers.
The real problem with the barren fig tree is simply that it failed to submit to its Creator, it failed to bear fruit for the Master Gardener, it failed to anticipate and participate in new creation. Where Jesus is — where the Resurrection is — there is no room for barrenness. This tree remained part of the fallen, sin-infected creation when it was invited into the glory of the Resurrection. And the Resurrection stood in judgment of it. Through the lens of the Resurrection, this barren tree gives us a glimpse of the judgment against all persistent barrenness and a glimpse of new creation abundance to come.
Well, time fails us now; the cleansing of the Temple is another tale for another homily. I close with a quote that has been attributed to so many different people — Leslie Newbigin and William Sloan Coffin among them — in one form or another. It is the essence of reading not only the Gospels, but our lives and our times — this time — through the lens of the Resurrection. When asked if he were optimistic about the state of the world, the reply came:
I not optimistic, but I am hopeful. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, you know.
That is reading through the lens of the Resurrection. Amen.