Robbers’ Dens and Barren Trees

by Paul Hooker

A sermon preached in observation of the 160th anniversary of the founding of First Presbyterian Church in Fernandina Beach, FL, 18 November 2018.

Jer. 7:1-15 and Mark 11:12-25

It is a daunting thing to step into the pulpit of an old church, and even more daunting to step into such a pulpit on an auspicious occasion like this. Expectations are high, and I suspect more than a few of you are anticipating a pat on the back for a congregational life well-lived to date and a rosy-eyed vision of days yet to come. And you deserve it. God knows, this has been a faithful place for long-numbered years. It has endured storms both meteor-ological and metaphorical, and found a way to offer meaningful ministry to the center of this community since before this community was a community. It has been well-led and well-fed, well-intentioned and well-mentioned for most of its storied existence. You deserve a pat on the back.

Your problem is that pat-on-the-back preaching is not my homiletical strength. If you came hoping for that, you may be disappointed.

To tell the truth, pat-on-the-back preaching is not exactly biblical, either, and so I feel some justification. Take for example the passages from Jeremiah and Mark we read a few moments ago. Jeremiah and Jesus stand up to preach in the outer courts of the temple—the same location, albeit different temples five hundred years apart—but if anyone passing by on either day expected to hear words of congratulations on a job well done, they were, well, disappointed. Rather, Jeremiah and Jesus took a different approach to their messages.

Jeremiah’s context is a moment of extremity. Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar were massing outside the city gates for an assault on Jerusalem, while inside the city two political parties vied for control. One saw surrender to the Babylonians as the only way to preserve the city and interpreted the city’s crisis as God’s judgment on the people’s errant ways. The other pointed to the Temple atop Mt. Zion as evidence that, as long as the Temple stood God would stand with the city, and encouraged resistance to the invaders. In the midst of this desperate political struggle, Jeremiah stood up to preach.

The first words from his lips were all anyone needed to know where the prophet stood. “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord!’” Amend your ways, cried the prophet, or this temple will be of no more permanence and security than the ancient Israelite shrine at Shiloh, once a center of Israel’s worship but long since destroyed and annexed by other invaders. Your hope—whatever hope you have—rests not in the foundation of this Temple but in your return to obedience to the values on which the nation was founded: care for the widow and orphan, justice for those to whom justice is denied, faithfulness to God. And to clarify the point, he uses a most intriguing metaphor: “Has this house,” he says, “…become a den of robbers in your sight?”

When we hear that, most of us think of images of violence and criminality. A robber’s den must be a place of murder, mayhem, and theft. But, in fact, it’s the opposite: it’s the place where the robber gang goes after they’ve committed the murder and mayhem, a place of refuge, rest, and security where they can count and divide the loot and plan their next move. It’s what the old westerns call a “hide-out” where you go when the posse is hot on your trail. Has the temple become a hide-out for the Judaeans, a place of safe refuge where they can avoid the consequences of their actions? Don’t trust in that, says Jeremiah. The law has caught you, the Babylonians are at the gates; God is about to wreak havoc in your haven.

Jeremiah’s point is that faithfulness to God is not wrapped up in what happens inside the church. It’s not what happens inside the Temple that’s a problem; the Temple is in fact just fine. It’s what happens outside in the city that counts. It’s the way you treat the lowest and the least in the world: the homeless man in the street, the undocumented child at your border, the woman who cries for help in the wake of abuse or assault. If you are looking for protection, protect those who need protecting. If you want to be the church, be the church to them.

It is surely no accident that Mark chooses this precise metaphor to place on Jesus’ lips when Jesus ventures into the Temple courts that day. He sees the Temple in full operation, with animal sellers providing animals required for the sacrificial ritual and money-changers exchanging Roman coinage stamped with the image of the emperor for temple coins that bore no image of any living thing so as not to violate the second commandment. He sees, in other words, the Temple doing and being exactly what the Temple should do and be. And he drives them out, bringing that doing and being to a grinding halt. And he says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

We like to think of Jesus as exhibiting anger here, and who knows, maybe he was. We like to think that what he saw that day was dishonest commerce at the foot of the temple doors, and it provoked him to a righteous rage. The problem is that there is nothing in the text to suggest either that there was anything dishonest with the commerce in the temple court or that Jesus was angry or enraged—not a word; go back and look! And there is a good deal to suggest that this was a carefully calculated moment, all to make a point.

The calculation starts in v.12, before Jesus comes to the Temple. On his way there, he passes a fig tree, and Mark tells us, “he was hungry” (the only indication we get of Jesus’ inner state). Looking at the tree, he finds no fruit because—and Mark is carefully explicit about this—“it was not the season for figs.” So Jesus pronounces an end to the fig tree’s function, and moves on. But I have to wonder: was Jesus so out of touch with the natural rhythms of growth and harvest that he expected fruit when no fruit could reasonably be expected? Was Jesus expecting the fig tree to be more than a fig tree, doing and being exactly what it should be doing and being? Or is it that he knows that henceforth, seasonal barrenness can no longer be an excuse, and that being a fig tree in a fig tree world is no longer enough? After clearing the temple, as Jesus passes the barren fig tree, he tells his disciples that “whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you will receive it, and it will be yours.”

The point Mark’s Jesus seems to be making is not that Jesus can exhibit righteous indignation, but rather that being faithful is something larger, more encompassing going to church. The Temple, being and doing what the Temple is supposed to be and do, is no longer enough. It is not enough to seek shelter from the storms. Faithfulness forces us out into the weather to give shelter to others. This, I think, is why Mark uses the “den of robbers” quote from Jeremiah. Look beyond the Temple as a place of refuge, he seems to say, and see the Temple as the place where change begins. Pray, he says; believe, and the world itself will move. And then get out there and be part of the movement.

Now what am I suggesting to good folk gathered in good clothes in good faith on this good day? Just this: don’t get caught up in doing and being church to such an extent that you forget what doing and being church is really all about. It isn’t about how long the building has stood here on 6th Street in Fernandina Beach. It isn’t about whether the building is on the National Registry of Historic Buildings. It isn’t about the warm feeling you get when you walk in the door or how much you love the people you walk in with. Important as those things are—and they do have importance—they are not the point. And when you make them the point, well…that’s when the trouble starts.

In the last decade of the previous century, I served as pastor of a congregation in Atlanta; in fact, it’s where Wain Wesberry served as intern for three(?) years while in seminary. When I was there, Rock Spring was a medium sized Presbyterian congregation of about 250 members. I left in 1999 for other callings, and in the succeeding years the Rock Spring congregation went through some hard times. There were leadership controversies and financial struggles, and people found other places to go. I read an article in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution the other day reporting that the now 80 members of the congregation have sold off two and a half acres of its prime mid-town Atlanta real estate, including the church’s former manse and lower playground and parking lot, just to keep the fiscal life support machines running a little longer. I’ve often looked back on years and wondered what we could have done differently that might have set the congregation on a different course.

The people of Rock Spring loved their church, and they loved their church building. Loved it so much, in fact, that changing anything about it was anathema to more than a few. The bitterest argument I had as a pastor arose when we removed—temporarily—the front modesty rails and first two pews to make room for a small orchestra for a musical performance. It was as though the sacred ancestors were rolling in their graves. Love of that sanctuary was so overwhelming that the church did little else to reach beyond its walls. There were individuals in the congregation who gave out blankets and soup to the homeless on cold Atlanta nights, and there were a few intrepid souls who occasionally volunteered to staff the homeless night shelter at a nearby congregation, but for the most part “church” to most of those good people meant “sanctuary building” and the beloved friends they met therein and the warmth and security they felt in that building among those friends after a week’s buffeting in the rough-and-tumble world of Atlanta business.

Not that there is anything wrong with that: that is, in fact, the church being and doing what the church is supposed to be and do. The problem is that it isn’t enough. That congregation, for all its warmth and insular love, has become—to borrow Mark’s metaphor—a barren tree. One of the members of the congregation was quoted in the interview saying, “We know we have to change in order to attract young people.” Much as I love that woman, I can tell her that attracting young people won’t do it. It does nothing to reach out to widow and orphan. It does nothing to attend to the needs of migrants or undocumented or homeless. It doesn’t bind the wounds of the emotionally bleeding in the community. Most significantly, I think, it doesn’t follow the God whom no building can contain and who never stops moving in the world. It isn’t that God doesn’t love the good folk of Rock Spring; I know it is true that God does. But perhaps it is also true that God has seen that the church has ceased bearing fruit and simply moved on.

Both Jesus and Jeremiah would have us understand that faithfulness is not about individual morality and getting right with God. Faithfulness is not a private me-and-Jesus coziness, not some spiritual snuggle that allows me to feel safe and warm and special. It is rather a commitment on the part of the whole community—whether that community is a congregation like this or a nation that would call itself Christian—to be less concerned with its own security and more aware of the world God loves enough to risk dying for. The faithfulness to which Jeremiah and Jesus summon us does not separate religion from ethics. Rather, it understands that moral life in covenant with God involves rejecting the ways that harm neighbor. That moral covenant may start in this building, but it cannot stay here. It must bleed out into the spaces of our lives: work places and home places and voting places and learning places and commercial places and private bedroom places. It must be upheld in White Houses and state houses and migrant workers’ houses and your house and my house. If there is anywhere that covenant is not upheld, we cannot claim to uphold it here. Church—whether in 6th century Jerusalem or on 6th St in Fernandina Beach—is no shelter from the hard decisions about love and ethics. It is the place we learn how to make those decisions.

Here’s a poem.

Gods of Small Things

Let us be gods of small things,
lords of mice and roaches,
bastard sons and daughters
of happy, smiling gods
who bless their acolytes
with touchdowns and close-in parking.

Let us stand to the ends of things:
parting notes of postludes
in empty sanctuaries
apologetic exits
whispered at the door,
the echo of the deadbolt.

Let us walk the hallways after
light and hope burn out,
read from silent liturgy
prayers addressed to no one,
hear from mislaid hymnals
music no one sings.

Let us raise the chain-link fence,
last fence around the Table,
that bars the way to all
lest any come unworthy
to take the meal, until
the meal is taken from us.

Let us be the wrecking-ball;
swung from moral heights
we bring down the house
then hang condemned when done,
the evidence against us
stone not left on stone.

But let us be at last the rain
that falls on wrack and ruin
to wash away the stain
—see, even now it falls—
and waters wheat and vine
and pools in broken fonts. (1)

Here is my prayer for you. That you may be more than a robbers’ den and a barren tree. That you may be the rain that waters wheat and vine, until grows the grain for bread and the grape for wine. That you may be the font that, though broken, still holds the baptismal waters. That you may follow God into a strange new world where God is not in the temples but on the loose, and dwells with people of every sort, and wipes away every tear from their eyes. That you may move mountains. Indeed, that you may go out of here and move mountains.

(1) Paul Hooker, Days and Times: Poems from the Liturgy of Living. Eugene OR, Resource Publications, 2018, pp.8-9.