Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
It is a delicate task to speak about mountains being cast into the sea on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I choose this passage because its initial impression on me was that it spoke about something powerful, something significant. As we acknowledge what this day marks we also look forward to what in many ways stands as the beginning of the year for the work of the church. As pastoral staff we decided to develop a series this Fall that would help us face various topics and issues that we shape and that we are shaped by. Over the weeks we will look at the environment and economics, technology and inter-religious relations. Squarely facing the pressures that come from these areas can often feel like facing a mountain. Even more challenging is that in the Mennonite church we attempt to face our mountains without the traditional means of dynamite. We attempt, whether or not we succeed, to approach the mountain without violence. We affirm in fact that it is at the mountain that we un-learn violence. As First Mennonite Church’s vision statement reads we seek to be instruments of God’s grace on earth. So what of these instruments, these tools? And what of the mountain before us?
Our reading this morning comes at a pivotal time in the life of Jesus. Until now Jesus spent his time away from Jerusalem teaching and healing in the countryside. But in chapter 11 we begin Jesus’ final week as he enters Jerusalem expediting his path lethal destination. In our chapter Jesus enters Jerusalem three times. His first entry is the so-called Triumphal Entry that we recognize on Palm Sunday. Here Jesus is acknowledged as a messiah, one set apart to liberate the Jewish people. But that is all that happens here. Mark is less dramatic than Matthew or Luke that have Jesus immediately storm the Temple and drive people out. In Mark, Jesus enters the Temple and it says that he looks all around and sees everything then, being late, he leaves the Temple and spends the night outside Jerusalem.
The next day he travels again into Jerusalem and hungry he comes across a fig tree hoping to find at least a snack. But it is bare and he curses the tree as another example of the barrenness and corruption he sees around him. From there he enters the Temple, drives out those buying and selling and he overturns the table where sacrifices are sold and he bars anyone from carrying objects into the Temple. Jesus engages in a direct and risky act of civil disobedience disrupting the daily operations of a major religious, political and economic centre. He kicked over a computer in the New York Stock Exchange, overturned the desk in the oval office and broke a window in the Crystal Cathedral all in one event. It is not hard this year to see the potential of such socially symbolic acts and what they can spark as we have seen in the Middle East and England. But rather than capitalizing on the immediate impact of his actions he again leaves the Temple, leaves Jerusalem and sleeps outside the city.
The next day he sets out to enter Jerusalem for the third time. You can imagine the disciples might feel a little unnerved at this point. The people welcome Jesus as a messiah, a rebel leader opposing the government. Jesus’s actions could easily have sparked a riot as the city’s population swelled leading up to Passover. The authorities are looking to kill him, labelling him some sort of terrorist. And with all this they head back into the city. On their way Peter notices the fig tree Jesus cursed and sees how it withered down to the root. I am not entirely clear what Peter made of this sight. Perhaps he took it as note of courage seeing that they were indeed following someone who would root out injustice. Or maybe the reality of what was going on sunk in and he became aware of the real implications of their actions seeing that some may well wither away in the coming days. Whatever the motivation Jesus stopped and spoke to the disciples saying,
Have faith in God. What I tell you is true, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.
This passage as it is stated here and in the other Gospels has been taken in many unhelpful and harmful ways. This passage can lend itself to theologies of health and wealth telling us that if only we believe enough then good things will happen. This passage can lead Christian into a sort of anti-realism or blind faith that does not address real and pressing issues. This passage can lead to escapism which, as we will see, is the opposite of its intention. This passage, instead, culminates in how we are to be shaped as instruments of grace.
Jesus’s teaching here on prayer can only be understood in light of his comment about the mountain and the sea. The first thing that must be made clear is that Jesus’s comment is not about some abstract, figurative or spiritual mountain. He is not referring to a mountain of frustration, a mountain of disappointment, or whatever other obstacle may arise. Jesus does not tell his disciples to speak to a mountain but to this mountain. The mountain that arises before them, the city of Jerusalem, the peak of which is the Temple. Jesus is not giving a pep talk about overcoming the odds. Jesus is continuing his confrontation with the injustice and abuse of power enacted in the heart of Judaism. Jesus is teaching his disciples about being on the side of God who is always opposed to the political, economic and religious abuse of power which was what the Temple represented at that moment. Jesus tells his disciples to ask without doubting that this mountain will be cast into the sea. This is not about the power of positive thinking or of hoping for a miracle. Jesus’s call to not doubt is a call to a unified vision in this matter. Throughout the Bible the mountain represents the site at which humanity and God can be restored in right relationship. When that place of peace is destroyed by humanity’s desire for power then that mountain must be cast back into the sea so that it might emerge re-created, reborn. The allusion here may even be to the Flood story where it says in Genesis that waters swelled so mightily that they covered “all the high mountains under the whole heavens.”
This call of Jesus to have faith in God and ask for the throwing of this mountain into the sea is the tension that the Christian tradition has inherited. We continue to speak and hold open the vision of the mountain of God to which all nations will stream where God will teach peace and enact reconciliation. However, we ourselves often colonize and control this mountain creating security points and borders that allow us to develop privilege and status through the exclusion of others. We at once proclaim the hope of this mountain and then in another breath we are called to have it cast into the sea. And what are the instruments, the tools, of grace that can navigate this tension?
Jesus enters the Temple the first day. Jesus looks around and sees everything. We are called to take account of our surroundings. We are called to examine, analyze and interpret. We are called to fix this gaze on the centres of power and influence that affect people’s lives through economic structures, political powers and religious institutions. Knowledge and understanding are instruments of grace. And once we have seen how these things work we are obligated to respond. Jesus returned to Jerusalem the next day and made no mistake about his relationship to the Temple. The Temple represented the meeting place of God on earth. As such it was to be a place of freedom where sacrifice and worship were to restore right relationships. The reality however was that the Temple became a place of control and bondage. There was a perpetual Temple-tax that was to be paid by all Jews and if they could not afford it some became indebted to those in power and even lost their land in order to pay off debts. Others would not have the appropriate animal sacrifices and so needed to purchase them. The other monetary taxes where required to be paid in the local currency and money-changers were required. And all this was carried on with the fees and service charges to profit those with the wealth to offer these goods and services. The mountain of God extracted wealth and did not distribute it. Jesus no doubt knew that his act in itself would not end the corruption and yet he clearly felt it was necessary to communicate through decisive word and deed that he understood the situation and placed himself clearly on one side. Direct symbolic action is an instrument of grace.
Then Jesus teaches the disciples about prayer. This is not in isolation to but in continuation with the preceding acts. Jesus teaches that if you do not doubt but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done. We have tended to interpret this as an economic formula. Belief is a currency and prayer is the transaction. If I have sufficient currency then the transaction will be complete and I will acquire my desired good or service. This thinking has only served to create another sort of debt bondage where individuals feel guilt or shame or despair in not understanding why God will not answer their prayers. Given the context of Jesus’s statement it might be helpful to understand prayer in terms of attention (I am indebted to Philip Goodchild for this characterization). Think of prayer as a sort of sustained attention, a continual tuning of our minds and spirits to a particular rhythm or direction. Prayer is not about a single transaction but about ongoing formation. Jesus is demonstrating to his disciples that God’s will is for the liberation and freedom of those struggling under bondage and hardship. Jesus is saying that this has always been God’s will. So to the extent that you do not doubt but believe and live in this vision, in this promise, then what you ask for will ultimately be done because it is God’s will. Prayer is the ongoing turning of our attention to those who are suffering and that which causes suffering and brings these things in relationship to the One who has come to set the captives free. In this way prayer is an instrument of grace.
The instruments of grace Jesus sets before us include the task of honest and frank observation and interpretation which should lead to some direct and decisive communication. And this is sustained by the ongoing turning of our thoughts and spirits, and in so doing the turning of our lives, towards the work of the Gospel which is freedom from bondage. We simply cannot underestimate these tools. In Jesus’s words we cannot doubt them because around the world other tools are being employed. The ten-year anniversary of 9/11 is not lost on me in preparing this message. Al-Qaeda employed instruments of decisive action against the United States in their attempt to have the mountain cast into the sea. In this past year rioters in the England responded with instruments of rage against the loss of rights and abilities that the country claimed was still accessible to them. In Africa citizens are not only seeing their conditions clearly but they are entering their ‘Temple’ turning over the tables of power. And all the while in the West the economy employs instruments of debt to leverage control over single individuals and entire countries. Consciously or not First Mennonite Church has accepted a bold vision statement in calling itself to be instruments of God’s grace. We have accepted the call to be forged as these tools; to learn their application and then employ them. May God give us the skill and may God give us the grace to be such instruments.