Houses of prayer and fig trees out of season.
Holy Week is upon us. I’m not sure when Holy Week became important to me. It certainly wasn’t during my youth, nor in the first few decades of my adult life. Maybe it was in my early forties. Maybe it started with a changed attitude about Lent. There was a year when I was in a business meeting on Ash Wednesday and it seemed more important to go to church than lunch. Maybe a year our two later I quit scheduling travel and avoided unnecessary events during Holy Week. I even left work early to get home in time for church. Maybe I’m remembering wrong. Anyway one thing led to another, and here I am, a late vocation priest, retired at that. Who knew such a thing could happen?
Holy Week has come to be a mixed blessing and curse of ordinary time doing ordinary things combined with daily worship, time for contemplative prayer, and reflections on troubling scripture readings leading toward the cross. In other words, it’s a week of clashing gears, cognitive dissonance, routines out of place, the normal in hiding.
Consider Monday’s gospel reading. On his way to the temple, Jesus demanded of a fig tree what it could not produce: figs out of season. In the temple he proclaimed that this house of prayer for all peoples had been turned into a market place for shops catering to the needs of worshipers through business practices of theft and deception. You know what happened. He drove them out. What a mess. That’s no way to make friends or converts. Leaving, he and the disciples passed the now dead fig tree, which led Jesus to say something about the power of prayer.
Monday in Holy Week might be a good day to reflect on how well our churches live up to their obligation to be houses of prayer for all peoples. It gets complicated. More than once I’ve struggled with making the church I served open to people who came to worship, but with expectations that we would become something other than Anglicans worshiping in the way of the Episcopal Church. Some mega churches and religious media personalities appear to have followed in the footsteps of the thieves and deceivers of gospel notoriety. Some churches are open to everybody, but as houses of entertainment instead of prayer. Others are clearly not open to all peoples, but only those stamped with a seal of approval. The universal objection to observations like these is, yes but. Yes, but you don’t understand our special needs and intentions. Yes but, which I have used frequently myself, should always be suspect. It’s often sleight of hand for avoiding Jesus’ stern eye. If Lent is a time for disciplined self examination, then Monday in Holy Week is the perfect time for congregational leaders to engage in church self examination.
And then there’s the poor innocent fig tree, cursed and killed for no good reason. How is that an object lesson about prayer? Think about it. We’re quick to send thoughts and prayers to victims of violence. Saying “God bless you” to sneezers is still popular. When someone asks for our prayers, we almost always say we will. We clergy offer God’s blessing at every worship service, and on everything from wheat, to boats, to birthdays. What do we think these blessings and prayers do? Have they any power? Jesus says they do, more power than we can imagine. Not the Hogwarts spells kind, but something far more mysterious and powerful over which we have little control.
If blessings and prayers for others have such power, what about curses? Cue the fig tree. If “God bless you” has power, what might be said about “God damn you/it?” Is it just a figure of speech? Pay no attention? I don’t think so, but let’s lay it aside for the moment and consider the other damning things we (including me) are prone to say when we share damaging gossip, lie and mislead, express dislike of another in threatening, violent ways, or just pick away at the minor faults of one another? However much we might hate to admit it, they’re all forms of cursing, and they have real power. What does scripture say,”bless don’t curse,” “let no evil speech come out of your mouth.” That poor little fig tree is a powerful object lesson. Pay attention. Which brings me back to “God damn you/it.” The word God may be just a place holder for the Holy Name, but it’s to be held holy and honored for the place it holds. Isn’t that in the Ten Commandments somewhere? I think so. To invoke God’s name to damn anything, even excused as a harmless figure of speech, is to curse with the same mysterious and uncontrollable power as a blessing. It’s to kill an innocent fig tree, and it’s likely to rebound with punishing force on the one who utters it. Jesus was putting great power into the hands of his disciples. I think he was warning them to be careful about how they used it. Some of that power is in our hands too.
Monday in Holy Week. It’s not an easy day. It demands self examination I’d rather not do. Maybe Tuesday will be easier. Nope, just looked ahead.