Fig Tree at the End of the World

Fig Tree

First Sunday of Advent | Luke 21:25-36

Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

Fig Tree at the End of the World

Fig trees are not early risers. At least, none of the figs that I have known—and that is more than you might think—ever grew leaves until it was clear that summer was underway. Everything else might be growing and green, but figs stand there, stick figures among the verdant growth of spring.

Whoever wrote the Gospel of Luke must have had the same experience. This fig tree passage was lifted from the earlier Gospel of Mark, but to “look at the fig tree” the author of Luke adds “and all the trees.”

Maybe the fig tree is a suitable choice. After all, Jesus isn’t pointing to an early warning system. He’s talking about the last minute buzzer. When the bunch of sticks that is your fig tree starts growing leaves, the end is nigh.

What end is that? The end of the world, judgment, trumpets, angels, lakes of fire and streets of gold?

Maybe. Plenty of literal minded Christians think so. Perhaps it is even useful to look forward to an impending judgment day: it keeps people in line, moderates behavior, contributes to a stable and law abiding society.

On the other hand, there is an alternative reading, a sort of theological minority report. Maybe the end is more personal, more existential. Rather than the end being nigh for everyone, everywhere, all at once, perhaps we might consider that each of us hears the trumpet blowing on our personal judgment day.

You can see how it can make the passage work, how everything Jesus predicts can be understood as applying to our individual lives.

Oh, dear.

Contemplating our own individual apocalypse takes away our ability to deny such a day might happen—everybody dies, so far anyway. There is no getting around it. And our personal fig tree? The older we get, the more leaves that thing grows.

FigTreeLeavesTwo_Watercolor_WebWait a moment, you say. This is the first Sunday in Advent. Isn’t this a time to contemplate the coming of the Lord, Emmanuel, God with us? Isn’t this when we look forward to Christmas and celebrate joy, love and peace? What’s with the little apocalypse speech?

You might ask whether we have to hear about hell and damnation again? Isn’t that sort of thing one reason so many people are leaving the Church and organized religion behind? They are tired of hearing about hell, the end of the world, and a God who appears to be imaginary?

After all, it’s been two thousand years since Jesus made those claims, and nothing whatsoever has happened.

The trumpet hasn’t sounded, angels haven’t flocked in from wherever they flock, and the world hasn’t come to an end. Nothing has happened.

And everything has happened. All of it has happened. All of it keeps on happening, to each of us, and our world ends, every single time.

The greatest delusion is not that God exists. The greatest delusion is that we will never die.

Ask anyone, anyone sane, and she will tell you that death is inevitable. Watch how she lives, though, and it is apparent that she does not believe it. Count the hours wasted, the petty pursuits, and you will conclude that your subject believes she will live forever. Truth be told, it is very much how most of us live.

Have you ever heard a very old person, near death, complain that it took so long in coming? Perhaps, but it is far more common that humans are mystified by the passage of time. We are amazed to find ourselves at the exit, to realize that we are hearing a trumpet solo, experiencing our own version of Christ coming again in clouds to make everything new.

Where does the time go?

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.”

Downer alert.

This is still pretty depressing stuff, you say. So death comes to everyone—it isn’t news, and it isn’t inspiring.

Jesus is saying that it ought to be. The length of a life is measured in time, but the value of a life is measured in joy and in peace and in love. As Tennyson said, As tho’ to breathe were life!

Life is an allowance. Spend it well.

Life is valuable. Keep your eyes on it.

Life is an opportunity. Use it.

Life is all we have. Live it.

Remember, that fig tree is going to grow leaves sooner than we think. In a way, all those crazy religious fanatics are right, and the end of the world is coming—yours and mine. We don’t know much about what happens in the next world, but that will take care of itself. Meanwhile, remember to live in this one.


From Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson…

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Fig Tree

Faith, Religion, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night

Van Gogh - Starry Night

Reign of Christ | John 18:33-37

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Faith, Religion, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night

Pilate was sick of religion. We can also tell, just from his portrayal in John’s Gospel, that Pilate was still bound by it.

“What is truth?” That is what he said when Jesus claimed to be the voice of truth. At least, that is the story that we have from the Gospel. We are not told who else was in the room, who might have reported the conversation. The Gospel claims that one of the disciples, not named, was known to the household of the high priest, that he got Peter and himself inside; perhaps that disciple or someone else was also known within the household of Pilate.

We do not know. Perhaps Pilate himself told the story of what happened between him and Jesus, thinking to absolve himself.

Van Gogh - Starry Night Over the RhoneWhat is truth? It might be the answer of a man who knew the arguments of philosophers and theologians. It might also be the answer of a jaded politician, tired of the lies that surround anyone in power. Likely, it is both.

One of the most interesting points in John’s account is further down, in v.19:8 — Pilate is afraid when he hears accusations that Jesus claimed to be a son of God. It is an interesting response from a man with so much power. The Jewish leaders are angered by implications that Jesus is of God; Pilate is afraid. The Roman pantheon included many gods and many children of the gods. No doubt Pilate had heard the stories from an early age, and even this philosopher who could disparage the concept of truth still clung to his fear of gods.

Was that a sign of faith from Pilate? Or was it only the trappings of a faith that had degraded into mere religion and superstition?

How much of what we do is faith, and how much is just religion — habit, ritual, upbringing, superstition, magical thinking? It would be so much simpler to embrace atheism, just to rid ourselves of the entanglements of religion. The logic would be cleaner. Our role in the universe would be clearer. Imagine there’s no heaven, as the song goes.

The world would also be simpler without poets and story-tellers, without painters who transform our world into something new, something it is not, giving us some new way of seeing what we have overlooked or never realized.Van Gogh Starry Night (Drawing)

Lay aside, for the moment, the question of who is right, of which faith group has the proper understanding of God, of whether there is a right understanding to be had among us. Even if our search for God is wrong, even if the vision of our faith is dim, hampered by blinders, are we better off without it?

Life is simpler without faith, but is it better?

Consider Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. The painting isn’t very realistic. One may argue with perfect logic that gazing at the image might distort one’s apprehension of the true appearance of stars. Were we to burn van Gogh’s Starry Night, would our appreciation of the night sky improve?

The stars are more than I can see with my eyes. The energy riding in waves through this universe slips by unnoticed. I do not know what Van Gogh understood of such things, but his painting reminds me that life is more than what I see, more than I understand.

Bumper stickers tell us to Keep It Simple. Whatever life is, it is not simple. It is layered, complex, nuanced. It is beautiful. It is infinite.

Religion can be wrong, is often wrong. It can limit our thoughts, trap us in a too small cage built by rules and guarded by closed-mindedness. The rote practice of religion is only the ossification of faith, a thought experiment turned into prison walls.

A failed experiment is no reason to stop trying. On the contrary, it is the reason we try something new.

Rote religion is what happens when we think we already have all the answers. When we keep looking for truth, that is the expression of faith.

Van Gogh - Starry Night

Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down

Stone Pillar in Mountains

Mark 13:1-8  |  Proper 28 (33)

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down

We have a fascination with the dark. We cannot turn away from the spectacle of destruction or catastrophe, the specter of death. A plane crashes, an earthquake or storm brings havoc, ebola begins killing people, and we cannot help but watch. It’s mesmerizing.

The people near Jesus had just heard him admire a poor widow placing two coppers in the collection box, but being who they were, they missed the point. They did not know the truth of it, that God would value so small a thing. As soon as they walked out the temple gates, they began to look back, forgetting the lesson of Lot’s wife, admiring the buildings, the stonework, the massive scale of the temple complex.

Everything you see will be destroyed, Jesus tells them. All of the great stonework will be thrown down, all the great buildings of the temple will be in ruins.

It happened, of course. The Romans destroyed this second temple in 70 AD, responding to Jewish resistance with overwhelming force, just as the Babylonians had destroyed the first temple one a few hundred years prior. It was nothing new.

The 13th chapter of Mark is often called the little apocalypse. It portrays Jesus making predictions of a dire future. Prophecy in scripture is not really about telling the future — it is about the consequences of our choices. Prophecy reveals the truth about our relationships with one another, with God, with the universe. Some say that the calamities described in these verses came to pass with the destruction of the temple. Many scholars suggest that the presence of this passage in Mark’s Gospel means that it was written after the events described — how else could such a thing be foretold, they reason — but as Bob Dylan said, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. People of faith and good intentions have interpreted these predictions as pointing to that brutish Roman response, or to the dark ages with the collapse of western civilization, or to suffering yet to come, some future apocalypse. All of these interpretations are differing versions of the truth, different — albeit authentic, faithful, well-intentioned. All of them miss the point.

Even without the Romans, the temple would have fallen. Everything passes. Buildings fall, stones crumble—and that is nowhere to put your faith.

It wasn’t about the temple. That was only stones piled one on top of another, stones that had already been torn down once, the woodwork burned, the gold taken. The Babylonians — six centuries prior — destroyed the temple, destroyed Jerusalem, took the best and the brightest of the people into exile.Stones with Trees

The temple looked like it was made of stone, but really it was built of ideas. It was a symbol. All that the Jewish people thought of themselves, all that they thought about God, that is what the temple was.

And Jesus was never talking about buildings. He was talking about ideas. In particular, Jesus was talking about the ideas we construct about ourselves and the framework of beliefs that we have built up about God.

Ask the religious folk, and they will tell you all about God. Not that all of us are in the same temple. Oh, no—we’ve built lots of them, piling our stones higher to separate us from the errors of other religious folk.

Come into our temple, and we will tell you what God is like, or so the invitations go. Some people insist on telling you how God went about creation — this is how God did it, and how long it took — and they may even give you the date it happened. Other folk will explain God’s plan for the world and the universe, with explanations built either on the idea that things have gone as they should or that things have gone wrong, that there is something inherently flawed in the nature of our world. They will explain the future. (It’s really good for them. Maybe not so much for us, unless we join them.) We have constructed all of it, our entire religious framework, idea by idea, stone by stone, building walls around our ideas of God and walls around our ideas of humanity, so as to keep out other people’s thoughts.

Jesus said that it would all come falling down. Stone by stone. Brick by brick. Idea by idea.

So long as we think we understand God, we do not need to look. So long as we think we know God’s plan, we do not need to listen. We are safe within the walls of our belief systems. A belief system, no matter how well constructed, is not God any more than a telescope is a star. It’s fine to use a telescope. It is insane to think it creates the light we see when we look through it.

If ideas about God get in the way of finding God, let them go. If our own thoughts are so loud we cannot listen, it is time to be quiet. If our explanations about God prevent us from being open to God, our temple has become a prison. We need to tear down our walls.


Stone Pillar in Mountains

The Coins We Give Away

Mark 12:38-44 | Proper 27 (32)

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

The Coins We Give Away

It’s not about the money. We try to make it so — to turn this passage into a lecture on giving generously, to make it about donating to churches and to charities — but it was never about the money.

Two copper coins, half pennies, that is what the poor woman put into the collection box. Jesus saw her do it. At least, it sounds like he saw her. It’s possible that he just picked a woman and made up the story as a way to teach his followers, but that isn’t the plainest reading of the text. Mark writes that Jesus saw her putting two tiny coins into the collection and knew that those coins were “all she had to live on.”Coins Vertical

Was Jesus knowing about the coins a God thing? Secret divine knowledge? It may just be that he was paying attention to a poor woman, which is the sort of miracle we need to perform more often.

Either way, he knew what she had done. She gave everything. It wasn’t just money. It was everything she had left to keep her alive, her ‘living’ —the word is the one that gives us the English term ‘bio’ as in biography or biology. All that kept her alive, that is what she gave.

The rich people gave large donations. That was good, so far as it went. The money kept the temple operating.

And we should give to support our synagogues and churches, our mosques and temples. We give to support all the things that sustain love in this world, and God would have us love our neighbors as ourselves. Love the poor. The sick. Love the stranger in our midst, a command found at least 36 times in scripture. Those things need our coins. They also need our time, and they need our voices as well.

This woman threw herself out into the sea that is God, trusting she would be lifted by a different kind of whale than Jonah’s. That was good. Her gift caught the eye of Jesus and thrilled the heart of the Almighty. Perhaps being at the end of her purse, only two half pennies left, it was easier to let go of them. Somehow I think it was not. The sound of those copper coins dropping was a prayer.

“I lay down my life,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John. He doesn’t say that he dies, but that he lays down his life. Christianity is so full of people trying to explain the crucifixion, focusing on the death of the Messiah, that we miss the life. That is what Jesus gave—his life. He laid down all that he had and let the sea of humanity flood across him.

It is not the death of Jesus that saves us. It is the life. It is all that is God. Faith cannot be solely about something that happened two thousand years ago, or millions of years ago, or days. It’s fairly easy to love the past. We shape it in our minds to suit us. It’s harder to love the present, full of complicated, aggravating, conflicted people, but they need our love, and our voices, and our time. And we need to open our hands, let some coins drop, and reach out. In touching one another, we touch something of the Spirit of God.

Coins Wide