“God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone – but also on trees and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Martin Luther once said that and I know
our fig tree has preached several powerful sermons for us, but today she’s really outdoneherself. For those of you new to the story of our fig tree, fig trees are meant for more of a Mediterranean climate, but we have one that has immigrated north to the garden behind the church. Several times, this tree has come back from the brink of death. Once, I went out in the early spring and was horrified that everything, including the tree, had died. But that was just my lack of familiarity with the ways of a garden and soon new life was sprouting and branching out … More recently the tree was battered by winter freezes and the bark cracked. I waited in vain for spring to come to the tree and it looked like a lost cause but then, a few brave, green spouts poked through and turned into branches and even produced a handful of figs.
But this time, our fig tree was dead for real. The entire trunk of the tree split open exposing the vulnerable core to the icy elements and nothing green or living was seen for a whole year. We cut it back and hung a flower basket from a dead branch. An official from the Parks Department saw it and said it was officially dangerous and had to be cut down and so my husband chopped it down to the ground. The fig tree was officially gone. Well, it didn’t belong this far north anyway. That’s what you get when you go where you don’t belong.
But there are things afoot that you and I cannot see. In the case of our fig tree, something was happening deep underground. The tree was gone but the roots were still there. And I know this because those roots produced a new tree that grew up all around the stump of the old one and this summer she is giving us bowls of bountiful, sweet, juicy figs.
I posted the photo on our bulletin cover in color on Facebook and a friend responded by sharing the poem we heard read, a poem that makes a connection between immigrants and fig trees in places where they are not expected to be fruitful and generous. And now our fig tree points her brave, beautiful, leafy branches to the woman in today’s gospel and says: She’s. My. Sister.
Now why would our fig tree claim her as kin? Well, she too was cut down and cut off. Mark’s gospel introduces her as a mother who is desperate to get help for her child. This child is a piece of her heart and she would go to any length, climb any mountain, cross any stream, breach any border for the sake of her child, the fruit of her womb. And like many desperate parents before her and after her, this is exactly what the woman does. We are told that she is a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin. For Jesus and his community this means that she was a pagan, unclean by birth, a foreigner, an official alien. And the official ruling declared her and her child to be cut down and cut off- from hope, from contact, from healing, from a future. No wonder our fig tree recognized her as a sister.
And there are so many. There are still around 500 young children separated from the parents who followed in our sister’s footsteps and thousands cut off in detention because of other mothers and fathers who said goodbyes to older children to go on their own, for the same reason. Because you want your dear children to flower and flourish. You want them to stretch their branches in the sunlight without fear. You want the fruit of your womb to live, but the officials of our nation are cutting them down and cutting them off. From contact, from hope, from a healthy future. It’s what ICE did to our fig tree. It’s what ICE is doing to God’s children.
And there are so many others. Shantee Tucker, a trans woman of color, was killed on September 5th in Philadelphia. She was 30 years old.
Dejanay Stanton, a trans woman of color, was killed on August 30th in Chicago. She was 24 years old.
Vontashia Bell, a trans woman of color, was killed on August 30th in Shreveport, Louisiana. She was 18 years old.
The fig tree claims them as sisters too. Cut off and cut down. And often from the pulpit, from the pews, from the very places where they should be able to put down roots and stretch out in the warm sun and breathe free, sharing their hard-won, sweet gifts.
The rain falls on our fig tree like tears, weeping with the prophet Jeremiah: “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!”…but instead of tears, too many churches have blood on their hands. In such cases, mother church has become a monster not unlike the officials in Gilead.
If you’ve not read the Handmaid’s Tale or seen the TV show, Gilead is a totalitarian state which has overthrown the United States government. Among other official rules, women exist for the sole purpose of having children. No variation in gender expression or sexual orientation is permitted. National security depends on strict roles for men and for women. and the logic is no children, no nation. Blessed be the fruit is a common greeting and in the mouths of such officials becomes a kind of curse. Those who resist are quickly cut off and sent to labor camps or publically hanged.
Gilead is a fictional TV show but if you’ve turned on the TV or looked on line and watched the hearings for Brett Kavanaugh as the next supreme court justice, a lifetime position, and hear him call regular birth control a abortion-inducing drug, you might get the feeling that Gilead is here. And it is here and for many it has been here since the start. The Lenape people who used to hunt where we sit this morning could tell us that. The enslaved Africans who used to harvest tobacco near here could tell us that. The families of black sons and daughters shot in cold blood with no hope of justice in our courts bear witness to that. If our eyes are open, we already see the reality of many people cut off from human rights with more joining their number, more cut off from humane health care, humane work conditions, humane courts of justice. And our fig tree says that she claims them all as siblings.
Our nameless Biblical sister- well let’s name her, Mirabel. It’s the name of a sweet, fig-like fruit and it means marvelous. Marvelous Sister Mirabel has heard the official pronouncements. She knows the rules that would silence her and cut her off, put her in handcuffs like those who tried to disrupt the proceedings in Washington, but she breaks free and approaches Jesus. She has the labels ringing in her ears: unclean, unclean, wetback, thug, tranny, and the onslaught of degrading words we’ve come to expect from the White House: “lowlife, retarded, dumb, coward, loser. Just look at her, I don’t think so!” The President even called a woman a “dog” on Twitter. It’s terrible, but not shocking. But here’s something that is shocking.
When Mirabel begs Jesus to help her daughter Jesus responds: Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Let’s be clear. Jesus is calling this woman’s child a dog. He is saying that he has come for the children of Israel, his own people and they take priority. They belong, they are rooted in the land. She is not. Her daughter is not. She is a dog. We have come to expect as much from the president but not from Jesus.
There are many ways to try to explain Jesus’ words that frankly sound like they are coming from the White House press secretary trying to walk back what’s been said: Jesus didn’t really mean it. He was only testing her. The word is really not so bad. In fact, Jesus didn’t say “dog” because if you knew Greek, if you were not a “dumb southerner” like Jeff Sessions, you’d realize Jesus said “little puppy.” Doesn’t everyone love little puppies? In any case, Jesus was not speaking for himself, he was quoting the language of his day. There is some truth in the last thing, this was the common language and thinking Jesus grew up with. Was this his human side in conflict with his divine side? You kind of wish Jesus’ PR person had deleted these unflattering sound bites.
But while we wring our hands and worry about it, Mirabel has no time to waste. She has a child whose life hangs in the balance. And so she claps back. “Sir even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Now’s the time for the officials to swoop in with their handcuffs. How dare she talk back like that? She is a threat to national security. Lock her up. Cut her off. Cut her down.
But Jesus says to Mirabel: “For saying that, you may go, the demon has left your daughter. So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, the demon gone.” Now I don’t know for sure if that child had a demon or if she was demonized, but what matters now is that she’s free. She’s well.
She is no longer cut off. She can open her arms to her mother who lifts her from the bed in joy. She can open her arms and raise them up to the sun.
It appears that this was a life-changing, liberating moment for Jesus too. He was freed from the stonecold official party line. He was freed from the boundaries that cut him off from Mirabel, her daughter and so many more marvels of God. Jesus listened to a voice from the margins, a voice from the other side that he been trained to avoid, from a woman once cut off and cut down and the truth of her words and her claim on his ministry struck down to the very roots of his divine/human being and from that moment on, Jesus’ mission would resist any and all limitations on who could bear fruit. And who could share the feast. All because of Mirabel, this marvelous, audacious woman.
Our own faith stories are rooted in the rich soil of this story. When we don’t see the fruit of our labors we’ve hoped for. When we are cut off or cut down from mercy, from compassion, from justice. When we tremble at the ICY hand of evil moving through our land and sometimes through our churches. Our fig tree tells us there’s more than meets the eye. Our roots run deep where nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. Our roots reach back to another tree, the tree of life envisioned in the book of Revelation with its “twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” You can see an image of it by a Haitian artist hanging over our doors. You can see that the one who died on the dead wood of a tree, did not stay dead and he comes to us, not with crumbs from the table, but with a feast— and now, rooted in that life-bearing tree we bear fruit- serving, encouraging, sheltering and feeding each other, as the poet says, strangers maybe never again.