This past Sunday, the priest at the Anglican Church we’ve been attending, gave us a “Liturgy Moment.” It’s a brief explanation of why we do something in the liturgy.
He spoke about “the gathering” which is sometimes a hymn. It is, he told us, a time to remember why we are coming to Church. At least that’s my recollection. I had a virus or something that mimicked depression and it knocked me down and out of regular operating procedure.
But I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.
My answer as to why I attend Church on Sunday morning has ranged widely over the years. I was afraid of going to hell. I needed community. I thought I absolutely had to.
At this season of my life, I go to be reminded that there is hope and good left in the world. I sit with clients who tell me the most heinous stories of abuse, molestation, rape, defilement, and addiction. They let me into their pain of their life, which has led them to sitting there in front of me. I have a great counselor face. I don’t let their pain show. Oh, there are times after they leave I have to shake it off.
But I have to go one and meet the next person, unassuming and non-judgmental.
After a week of this, I need to be reminded that there is something good, something hopeful, something divine in this life. My belief in God has been separate from my attendance in Church (yes, yes… I know), but in this season, it may be even closer than I realized.
Continuing with the idea that the plans for the future of the UMC have been presented in mostly practical convenience and not grounded, by most, in theological discussion, I want to continue what I began earlier. Having established earlier that, by our standards of faith, the UMC is bound to the moral law, that the moral law is a part of the divine nature of God, and that God wove said moral law into creation itself, we are ready to progress to the next point. The moral law of God, as a part of His nature, and woven into creation, is a nexus between the Creator and His creation. Because of this, it is vitally important that we consider God’s moral law while properly discerning the future of the UMC.
Consider the following snippets from sermon 34 as they reveal to us traits of the moral law. ” Now, this law is an incorruptible picture of the High and Holy One that inhabiteth eternity. It is he whom, in his essence, no man hath seen, or can see, made visible to men and angels. It is the face of God unveiled; God manifested to his creatures as they are able to bear it; manifested to give, and not to destroy, life — that they may see God and live. It is the heart of God disclosed to man. ”
“The law of God is all virtues in one, in such a shape as to be beheld with open face by all those whose eyes God hath enlightened. What is the law but divine virtue and wisdom assuming a visible form? What is it but the original ideas of truth and good, which were lodged in the uncreated mind from eternity, now drawn forth and clothed with such a vehicle as to appear even to human understanding?”
“The law of God (speaking after the manner of men) is a copy of the eternal mind, a transcript of the divine nature: Yea, it is the fairest offspring of the everlasting Father, the brightest efflux of his essential wisdom, the visible beauty of the Most High. It is the delight and wonder of cherubim and seraphim, and all the company of heaven, and the glory and joy of every wise believer, every well-instructed child of God upon earth.”
These traits which we are bound to by our standards of faith, are demonstrated here to be far more than a simple list of rules that we must follow, but rather they are a reflection of the divine radiance and majesty of God laid forth before us in a form which we can observe, lest we be overwhelmed in our frailty by the magnificence that is God. Not only that, the moral law is a copy of the very mind of God (in so far as we can understand it), and as such, should not so easily be dismissed. If indeed the moral law is all virtues in one, divine wisdom, the beauty of the Creator, and the joy and wisdom of the well instructed children of God on earth, then surely it needs to be the basis of our decision making going forward.
Much of this may sound very high brow, or theologically heavy such as to be resigned to scholarly debate alone, but we must remember that Wesley was a man rooted in practical theology, that is a theology that is not only to be discussed in the ivory towers of the academics, but also a theology that is to be used in day to day life by the faithful. While it is good and right to apply this to our decision making about the future of the UMC, we must also understand that said decisions will affect our day to day living within the community of the faithful. The wrong choice here has the very real consequence of taking the moral law, as a basis for our practical day to day lives, and twisting and perverting it to something that is barely recognizable as “the visible beauty of the Most high”. The wrong decision does not only affect the future of the UMC, and it’s followers, but runs the real risk of warping the message of the very nature of God that He has woven into all of creation. In trying to discern this, at first glance it seems we are left with the Euthyphro dilemma which asks us if something is morally good because it is commanded by God, or is it commanded by God because it is morally good. It is a question with no real answer and it seems then that we are left only to confusion of the matter, but we are lucky to have our rich Wesleyan theological heritage which rejects the entire premise by showing us truth by the moral law. Wesley says, “It seems, then, that the whole difficulty arises from considering God’s will as distinct from God. Otherwise it vanishes away. For none can doubt but God is the cause of the law of God. But the will of God is God himself.”It is not only the will of God we are trying to discern here, but rather God Himself, His very nature, in applying the moral law to the decisions regarding the future of the church. As a tenet of Wesleyan theology, if we get the moral law of God wrong in our decision moving forward, it is not merely a mistake, or a wrong decision, it is getting God Himself wrong. It will mean that we have not just improperly discerned God’s will for the UMC, but we have improperly discerned God period. That is what is at stake, according to our Wesleyan theological heritage and standards of faith. While the stakes are high for the church, they are even higher for us, the laity who are ministered to by the church, as the practical way that we live out our lives might indeed become tainted by the church improperly discerning God.
So, to the plans. Which of the plans then best reflects the moral law, and as such best reflects the nature and attributes of God? Which provides for the practical theology that Wesley endorsed and called for as a guide to our day to day living? Which plan best provides for a reflection, however imperfect, “the incoruptable picture of the High And Holy One”? As human beings, creatures who were created if you will, we are subject to the created order of things in which God wove the moral law into. Which plan reflects that? Which plan allows for the moral law to, as Wesley said it must in sermon 25, “remain in force, upon all mankind, and in all ages; as not depending either on time or place, or any other circumstances liable to change, but on the nature of God and the nature of man, and their unchangeable relation to each other.”That is the question we should be asking looking forward.
Tradition holds that it was on Tuesday that Jesus cursed the fig tree, and now, some 2,000 years later, it is an often misunderstood parable that still confuses many. The parable can be found in Matthew 21, Mark 11, and Luke 20. This is the final day of Jesus public ministry before He celebrates the Passover. That is likely significant in and of itself, but I digress. So a brief summary of the story. Jesus, finding himself hungry, comes upon a fig tree that is not bearing any fruit. He curses the tree saying that from this time it will not produce fruit, and, from the moment that the curse was uttered, it began to wither. There is the beginning. It’s worth noting here that Mark tells us that it was not even the season for figs, so it was not a surprise that the tree had no fruit. Why then would Jesus curse the tree to not produce fruit? At a casual reading it almost seems mean spirited that He would do such a thing.
The first lesson here is fairly evident. This is a spiritual lesson to the disciples. Christ tells them that should they have faith they will be able to do this as well as move mountains. He is repeating a point that He has made earlier in telling the disciples that faith can move mountains. He has simply provided them with a very real world example that is quickly observable. By extension, there is the implication that if one does not have faith, they will wither, and eventually die. Pretty straightforward all in all, but I think there is more to it than just this.
Jesus is on his way into Jerusalem. He will soon be clearing the temple (according to Matthew and Luke at the very least). If you read the parable, you will notice that the fig tree has leave and seems to be growing well. Much like the tree, the temple, and many of the religious leaders of the day, had this very same appearance. In fact, through much of it’s history, Israel, as God’s chosen people, have had this appearance. All looked well from a distance, but when you see the tree up close, you can not help but notice that there is no fruit. I also can not help but think of the parable taught earlier by Christ of the fig tree that was not producing fruit (Luke 13). In that parable, the tree producing no fruit after several years is given a short amount of time to produce fruit else it be dug up. I can not help but tie these two parables together, though in truth some (perhaps many?) do not.
I think that it is important to remember that the fig tree is the third tree mentioned by name in the scriptures. We have the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis, then finally the fig tree mentioned as a characteristic of the promised land (Deut. 8:8), and then is again mentioned favorably in describing the conditions of the Israelite people under Solomon (1 Kings 4:25). In both instances we have the fig tree being a symbol of God’s provision and promise. By the time we come to Hezekiah and his rebellion against the king of Assyria (2 Kings 18) we see the king of Assyria offering trying to coerce the army of Jerusalem by offering each man his own fig tree. In a metaphorical sense, it is a human king offering Israel the provision of God. There are numerous other mentions of the fig tree.
In cursing the fig tree, Jesus has expressed His displeasure with the religious leaders of the day. This is certainly not a new thing for Jesus, but this is an especially graphic display of it. Note that Jesus is of course not expressing displeasure with God, nor is He expressing displeasure with the temple as a whole, but rather expressing displeasure with the way that the temple has been used and explained by those in charge. We only need to wait a few moments when Christ enters into the temple and clears it to see it played out. Remember too that Christ was hungry. It is not to far a stretch to think that he was seeking something good, just as He sought good in the Temple, yet all to often did not find it. So Christ has cursed the fig tree to no longer produce fruit as an expression of His displeasure with how the temple has been managed by those entrusted with it’s care. The fig tree has ceased to be representative of the provision of God to the faithful through the priests of the day, and has become a symbol of God’s displeasure with those people. Yet remember, this is only one tree, not all of them.
What then does this mean for today. Much in the same way, I believe that the fig tree is representative of the church and those entrusted with her care. Since we are all royal priests, that means all of the faithful. How have we tended the tree? Are we keeping her properly pruned so that she continues producing fruit? Do we need to dig around her and give her some time to start producing? Do we need to dig her up so that she is not wasting the soil? Is the tree cursed so that it will not produce fruit? Have we taken a fig tree offered by human kings instead of the tree of God’s provision? These are questions that we need ponder as we meditate in Holy Week. In many ways, each church is as a grove of fig trees, and each member is a tree unto themselves. As we examine the conditions in the church, we then too need to examine the condition of our own lives. Do we appear lush and green from a distance, but upon close inspection have no fruit? When Christ draws near us what will He see? We are an Easter people. The time of The Resurrection is near. There is still time as we have not been dug out of the soil so as not to waste it, but that time is finite. Each of us on our own must produce the fruit, and in turn enable the church to produce as a whole. In this Holy Week look to your soil and treat it as being dug around challenging us to produce so that we might not be dug up. We are an Easter people. Like the fig tree, we need to produce and act like it.
Our Father who gave us His Son
So that we would become His Children
I pray for the work we have not done
for the children who deserve the world but get nothing to eat
For the abused who need peace
For the homeless who need safety
For the oppressed still
For our selfish desires, our whims, our fantasies of self-righteousness preventing us
from everything but mere prayers.
For justice that it becomes more than a word, a trend, and a hammer
For love that it is lifted high, held tightly, and freely given
For hope that we no longer seem to have
For humility to be wrong, humbleness to forgive, and meekness to repent
I pray that we seek to work that next Christmas families are together
Presence is counted more than presents
The tree is remembered as a sign
The baby is born
And Your favor is spread upon all
For parts of the one Church Universal
That our brokenness cease, unified upon the fullness of the knowledge of Christ
For spiritual abusers in high places
That their harm to Your name be undone
For those that seek the context of culture rather than the kingdom of the Son
That the Gospel is once again proclaimed that the Son we celebrate
Redeems His people from their sins.