Sermon from Easter IV: Invitation to Prayer and Action

Invitation to Prayer and Action
Easter IV; April 25, 2021
Mark 11:12-33

I have a partial explanation for the outrageous story of the withering of the fig tree. It’s only partial, and doesn’t really satisfy me (it may or may not satisfy you), but it’s what I’ve got. You know that Jesus’ favorite form of teaching is the parable: a story that makes a point. Some of his parables are very well-known: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and so forth. Well, some writers say that this story of the fig tree is an enacted parable. Jesus saw an opportunity to make a point, and so did something instead of telling a story about it.

Maybe. I don’t get blaming the fig tree for not producing figs when figs are out of season. But, being who he is, Jesus is allowed to be outrageous. Ruining the commerce in the Temple by violently attacking the merchants and money-changers was pretty outrageous. The fact that withering the fig tree is outrageous certainly makes it more memorable, and I think the enacted parable makes two points:

  1. Have faith
  2. Be useful

The fig tree is useless, so Jesus curses it. And he tells his followers that if they have faith, then their prayers can make wonderful things happen, such as moving a mountain.

Since the story of the fig tree surrounds the story of Jesus rampaging through the Temple, it’s obvious that Mark wants us to think about them together. Have faith; be useful. Together the stories are an invitation to prayer and action. Have faith to pray that wonderful things will happen; do something to act on your prayers. Rather than stand aside and whine, “Isn’t it awful what people have done to the Temple precincts,” Jesus does something about it. And Jesus judges the fig tree for being useless. Have faith; be useful.

To be blunt about it. Every time something awful happens in our society – another mass shooting, for example – our leaders in Washington wring their hands and say that their “thoughts and prayers are with” the victims. And then they proceed to do precisely nothing about it. An August 2019 Fox News poll of registered voters found 90% of respondents favored universal background checks, 81% supported taking guns from at-risk individuals, and 67% favored banning assault weapons.[1] Yet Congress does nothing, perhaps because we the people and especially we the people of Jesus do too little to demand it of them.

In his short epistle later in the Bible, James writes that if you and I say to the poor, “Oh, we’ll pray for you; may God see that you have food and clothing” and then we proceed to hoard our own food and clothing and money and do precisely nothing to help, then we are not really people of faith. We’re just spouting pious words (James 2:14-17). Yes, I know, none of us can do everything, but each of us can do something. Whether we help Jesus clear the shysters out of the Temple or we do our best to bear figs, we can do something.

It is good, it is always good, to pray for those who need prayer. Prayer is powerful. Prayer is a form of action. But to say “I’ll pray for you” when I have the capacity to do more is a cop-out. So, please, no more “My thoughts and prayers are with you” accompanied by inaction. Not from government and society. And especially not from us who follow the man who drove the money-changers out of the Temple and judged the useless fig tree.

Our Session this week started a conversation that I want to invite you to be part of. We’re praying and talking about how to engage our church in some action. Important note: When I say, “engage our church in some action,” that does not mean throwing some money at something, or telling the ministers to put more time into something in particular. It means getting you, the people of God, engaged in doing something that bears fruit. What they are struggling over is what that something ought to be. As of right now, there are two primary candidates.

But before I say more about that, I need to share something with you from the heart. I read something this week that encouraged me. I don’t have the answer to the questions, “What should the Church do? Where is the Church going?” Some of you believe I should know those answers. In the Spring issue of the newsletter of the Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation, the President (Gary Eller) wrote about a work by Susan Beaumont called “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going.” Gary wrote that “she takes the position that it is not helpful for pastors to act as if they know where the church is going when they really do not. Instead, the best leadership acknowledges that we are going through a ‘transitional,’ ‘liminal’ period when the old ways no longer work and new ways are being discovered.”[2]

So I share with you that I do not know where we are going. I have never known where we are going. I have always sought to create a space where together we can discern where God is leading us. And, frankly, I do not think God grants to any of us to see years down the road, but only to position ourselves to take the next step. “Have faith and be useful,” or in other words, “Pray and then act on what God shows you in your prayers.”

So your Session had a beautiful, faithful conversation this week – I cannot emphasize enough how wise and God-oriented our elders are – about some possibilities. I’ll tell you about two of them and invite you to pray and be prepared to act, and to talk about these things with each other and with your elders. Perhaps God will show you other mountains to move, too, but here are two.

Last year, after two years of discernment, we declared ourselves a More Light Church, a church that welcomes into faith and ministry a rainbow diversity of people. We have done very little with that decision. Now, that’s partly the pandemic, of course, but Jesus didn’t excuse the fig tree just because it wasn’t the season for figs. Some on the Session suggest we should engage the congregation in following through more on our commitment to openness and inclusion. So far it has largely been some members of the More Light Taskforce and our technical crew who produce our webcast: these have done the heavy lifting. The folks who raised this idea believe it is time to get more disciples more deeply engaged in our ministry of openness.

Another thing we talked about is getting involved in undoing systemic racism. I know that I have talked about it a bit in my preaching since the murder of George Floyd, and our Men’s Book Club has done quite a bit of reading about systemic racism. Moment of recap: systemic racism describes the sense that the systems of our society – government, religion, business – have racist practice and tradition built into them. The conviction of Derek Chauvin this week deals with a particular act by a particular person, but a question remains: is there something about policing in the United States that has racism built into it? One of the books the men have read emphasizes that the segregation of neighborhoods in and around our cities did not happen naturally nor is it only the fault of racist actions by banks, developers, and realtors: it was government policy.[3] Anyway, I hope I’ve said enough to explain what we’re concerned with. Is there something we can do as a congregation that will help address systemic racism? If we feel God is calling us to do this, then I believe that as we work together, God will show us how to do it.

Which is where Jesus’ statement “Have faith” comes in. If God wants us to move a mountain, have faith that God will show us how. But we have to be willing to work on it. Whether we get more of us involved in our activities as an inclusive church or we work at undoing systemic racism or both – or something else – have faith that God will show us how. We don’t want to be a withered fig tree and just keep telling folks that our thoughts and prayers are with them. Jesus invites us to pray and to act. Have faith. Be useful. And remember Jesus’ promise: whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. God will show us the way.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Blanton, Dana (August 14, 2019). “Fox News Poll: Most back gun restrictions after shootings, Trump ratings down”Fox News.
[3] Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liverlight, 2017)