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HUNGER | Matthew 21:18-22
May we be met today as the blind men were on the road to Jerusalem, and our eyes opened; May we be filled today with food that nourishes and satisfies the hunger of our bodies, our minds, our spirits, through Jesus Christ who is all and is in all, Amen.
Good morning, Redeemer. It’s good to be with you again, last minute as it is while Pastor Jen is resting and recovering at home. I come to you frazzled and harried as my family navigates all kinds of potential changes to our lives in this first call journey. We often find ourselves with frayed nerves, doing our best to stay in the moment, but often failing.
So this story about a cursed fig tree hits close to home. Which is funny, because on first read, it just seems weird, random, and out of place. In fact, when I saw this was today’s text I audibly sighed and sent an “oh no” text to Pastor Jen. It is -- no lie -- a passage that we joked about in Seminary. No one wants to preach about it because it’s like squeezing blood from a stone -- or like pulling figs from a tree that’s not yet in season to produce fruit.
Not only that, but when I searched for wisdom from my go-to preacher's, like Dr Wil Gafney, Rev. Otis Moss, and Rev Traci Blackmon, they were quiet. It seems none of the progressive, womanist, or liberationist voices I follow find this passage particularly remarkable.
Old conservative white men, on the other hand, have lots to say, mostly about judgment and performance and how we can tell “real” christians from fake ones who “bear leaves” but not fruit and whom, therefore, God will doom to everlasting withering, and while that’s all very interesting, it’s actually not. Not to me, anyway, and not today.
Because what I see, when I’m left to my own devices, to notice what I notice and follow the threads that pull at me from the text, is not an object lesson on God’s coming judgment of other people so much as another snapshot of Jesus and his disciples, regaled in their full humanity, being very person-y at a moment of profound tension, and still making meaning amidst chaos and hunger.
So let’s look for a moment at the context of the text. The day or days before Jesus cursed the fig tree were the Longest. We aren’t told exactly how long the journey took in hours or even days, but we do know that Jesus and his disciples were followed by a huge crowd as they traveled the 17 miles literally up from Jericho to Jerusalem. Along that famous road -- the very same one on which Luke’s Parable of the Good Samaritan is located -- Jesus is met by two blind men crying out for healing. While the gathered crowd condemns their begging, Jesus goes to them, is “moved with compassion,” and heals them. The now-seeing men get up and join the march to Jerusalem where, upon Jesus’s triumphal entry, we hear the gathering mass proclaiming, “Hosanna, Hosanna -- behold the Rescuer is here!” After that, Jesus goes into the Temple where, famously, he flips tables and calls out the money changers for turning God’s house of prayer into a den of thieves.” He then spends the rest of his day curing the blind and the lame, and angering the religious leaders. And finally, FINALLY, after all that, he leaves the city, goes to Bethany and spends the night.
It’s the next morning when Jesus returns to the city after all that, that we come to this interlude of the cursed fig tree.
Jesus is tired. Jesus is hungry. Jesus whom we have seen all over the gospels retreating to rest and nap and get away from the crowds has only had one short night’s sleep. So I’m betting he’s still pretty energy sapped, right? But he’s gotta go back to the city and face the crowds and his critics all over again.
It’s on his way there that our very Hungry Jesus spots a fig tree. Now, Jesus knows that fig trees are not in season to bear fruit, right? It’s too early. But this one has leaves, and usually if a fig tree has leaves it’s also bearing figs, but this one wasn’t. So Jesus, being hungry, and tired, and sapped, and heading straight back into the robber’s den, loses all his calm and curses the tree. “Ugh! May NO FRUIT EVER COME FROM YOU AGAIN!” And it dies. Right there on the spot. The Word that created all things, spoke, and the tree died.
Now, In my holy imagination, this scene plays out like a freaky friday situation where two fed up family members lose their cool, make totally bonkers wishes from the depths of their tired selves, and magically switch places. Or, I see tired mother who’s been On for days, whose five kids or three kids or one small child -- because trust me, it only takes one! -- smells like a dump but refuses to bathe and they all need lunch and attention and a bandaid and answers to all the everloving Whys that ever were, and she needs a break so she goes to the kitchen to grab her favorite meat-and-cheese snack pack but they’re all gone and so she screams into the cold void of her refrigerator, “WHOEVER TOOK MY LAST SNACKPACK IS A GONER!” And poof! One kid disappears and the other ones all look on in amazement and go, “woah, mom, how’d you do that!” Only in this story it’s about the tree, and the hunger, and the exhaustion, and the ongoing reality that the people, his own disciples, like children, still aren’t grasping the full gravity of the moment, and he is still hungry.
I don’t know if any of you have ever had a hangry-exhausted meltdown in front of your kids or your coworkers or your family or friends, but I have. I have, in hanger and exhaustion, cursed at everything from trees to tires to, yes, my own toddler. I’m not remotely proud of that, but I am grateful to have Jesus as a living example here, not just because he, too, curses things when hangry and tired -- though I AM grateful to see that -- but because of how he answers the disciples who witness the curse and, like toddlers, go “woaaahhhh!”
Now, again, this is where a lot of generally white male preachers like to go on about how Jesus very purposely made this random leafy fig tree an object lesson to warn people about God’s enmity against all hypocritical piety, as demonstrated by a tree that bears leaves but not figs, and that is valid. We can hunt symbolism, wax philosophical or theological if we want to, but I don’t. I don’t think it has to be that deep.
Because his response here, taken at face value, is as profoundly human as it is profoundly God: He says, simply, “Your words have power. If you believe and do not doubt -- that is, if your will is as undivided mine was toward that tree -- you too can curse one dead, you can throw mountains into the sea. Whatever you ask for -- that is whatever you speak -- in prayer with faith, you will receive.” Jesus, like every parent who ever spoke boldly within earshot of a child, made his own meltdown a teaching moment.
At its most stripped-down, human, unphilosophical, basic level, this interlude about a cursed fig tree and mountain-moving faith, is a story about the power of hunger, the power of exhaustion, and the power of words when they all crash into each other. We are, in so many ways, like Jesus here, and like the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19, who fled into the desert and begged for death because he could not tell the difference between his need for food and rest, and his feelings of devastation and hopelessness. When our physical needs go unmet and unheeded, our emotional responses richochet like bullets. We end up feeling and speaking things that aren’t true and aren’t even really us but that do real harm, and they beg us to pay attention to what’s really going on.
So if it is a lesson about the power of hunger and exhaustion, then it also a lesson about the power of rest, of nourishment, and of knowing that just as chaos can be sown when we ignore our physical needs, peace can be sown when we honor our bodies. Put your own oxygen mask on first.
It could be said that the failure in today’s text was not of the fig tree which was just being a fig tree, but of the very human Jesus, who was so overwhelmed with need for rest, retreat, and food, and so burdened by the days he knew lay out before him, that maybe forgot for that moment He is the Word, by whom all things were made and in whom all things, including fig trees, have or lose their being; so when he spoke the curse in hanger, it took. Maybe not. If it’s weird to think about Jesus failing at something, take it or leave it.
What we know is that Jesus was tired, he was hungry, and so a fig tree died. And sometimes when we are tired and hungry and out of sorts, we too speak death.
So we are invited today, as we have been throughout this entire Lenten series, to notice our bodies. To notice how our physical needs like hunger and exhaustion shape and misshape our emotional reactions to the people and circumstances around us. We are invited to honor and attend to those needs, and to practice retreating before we speak from a place of want, so that, with rest and nourishment, we speak blessings and life instead.
In all this, may we practice compassion and grace for each other and ourselves when we fail, because we will. And may we strive to remember, especially when our mouths are about to run away with curses: Take a breath, have a snack, take a nap. Take a breath, Have a snack. Take a nap. Amen.
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