Thursday, May 28, 2009

Produce or Go to Hell

Easter 5b.St.Barholomew.Ely
I want to ask an absolutely basic, simple question:
What is the point of being a Christian?
Christianity offers us hope for a final joy with God.
Sometimes that’s pictured as a place called heaven.
Sometimes it’s pictured as a vision of God’s beauty,
so splendid, so glorious – that we are lost in love.
Sometimes it’s described as the perfect serenity
that overtakes us when our will and God’s will
are perfectly aligned.

That hope is absolutely at the core of our faith.
But sometimes we put it the opposite way.
We put it in terms of punishment for those who don’t
think our way, live our way, pray our way.
We talk about hell fire and brimstone
for people who don’t get it right.
You can make a case for that kind of religion.

But most Anglicans don’t believe that is the core message.
It may have been C. S. Lewis who said
“We make a poor entry into heaven
if we are just backing away from hell.”

Fear of hell doesn’t work as a motivation for our way of life
because our way of life is about love – not fear.
As for heaven, I believe in it.
We need it. We need it to heal all the brokenness
and all the hurt of this life.
That’s why Jesus said he was going to prepare a place for us.

But I don’t think heaven is the main motivation
for Christian living.
Heaven is God’s free gift -- not something we earn
with our right doctrines and ethics.
So what is the point of being a Christian?

Scripture talks a lot about bearing fruit.
Isaiah, Paul, and Jesus all said we need to bear fruit.
Today’s Gospel lesson says that.

Some of the Bible verses talk about vines and trees
that don’t bear fruit,
so they get cut down and burned – just done away with.
Matthew Chapter 7, Jesus says,
“Every sound tree bears good fruit,
but the bad tree bears bad fruit. . . .
Every tree that does not bear good fruit
is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

So what is Jesus saying?
Produce good fruit or go to hell?
We know that isn’t right because
“by faith we are saved and not through works
lest any man should boast.”

Jesus isn’t talking about the eternal state of our souls
formed in the image of God, Genesis says,
destined for salvation, Thessalonians says.
When Jesus talks about bearing fruit,
he is talking about our lives – right here, right now.

Our lives are a precious gift from God
and a glorious opportunity
which we may make much of,
or we may waste.

Jesus is talking about whether this day of life
we have been given is to be wasted or used
for something of enduring – even eternal – value.
Fruit is what we make of the time we are given.
We can devote our lives to godly living;
we can devote our lives to selfish, double-dealing, cruelty;
or we can just get by, killing time as we go.

A lot of our so called entertainment doesn’t have to be
all that entertaining – just so it kills time.
We are given only a little time here.
So what are we to do with it?
How do we make it count?

Jesus calls the good use of our time “bearing fruit.”
“By this my Father is glorified,” he says,
“that you bear much fruit.”

St. Paul’s epistles and centuries of sermons and treatises
have taught us what that means.
There are two basic kinds of fruit – inner and outer.
Inner fruit is who we become.
It is about character.
Character is our habitual way of being.
We do something once and it feels strange.
We do it again and it is not so strange.
Eventually, it becomes our nature.

Just so, we can form a habit of lying,
a habit of callous disregard,
a habit of rudeness.
We call those things vices,
vicious habits that corrupt the soul.
As life goes on, such habits become more pronounced.
The longer we live, we get more and more the way we are.

Then there are the good habits
like kindness, gentleness, generosity,
honesty, humility.
We call those habits virtues
because they grow a soul that looks like Christ.

It’s not a question of will I get rewarded or punished.
It’s a question of who do I want to be when I grow up.
Will I end my life blessing this world or cursing it?

Each decision we make is a step toward becoming
one kind of person or another.

Then there is the tree that bears no fruit – either good or bad.
The barren tree, the withered vine.
That’s the life spent just getting by and killing time.
Time is our life. If we kill our time, we kill our lives.
God doesn’t need to punish us for that.
We have punished ourselves already.

Outer fruit is the mark we leave on the world.
Every one of us leaves a mark.
The movie It’s A Wonderful Life and Dickens’ Christmas Carol
are about ordinary folks like George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge
getting a moral inventory.
They get to see the mark they have left on the world.

Each day we touch others, doing harm or doing good.
The way we speak to a cashier, the way we drive our car,
the money we give to the poor
and the example we set for our children
– every step we take leaves a footprint.
We can act for good or act for ill.
And we can act in ways that will leave a lasting effect
or ways that will be blown away by the next strong breeze.

Christian living is about bearing fruit.
It’s about living in a way that touches the world for good,
and in ways that will outlast the mightiest empire.
Alexander the Great conquered the known world,
but his empire didn’t last generations.
Great fortunes have been built only to disappear overnight.

But the simplest act of Christian mercy,
even if it appears at the time to have failed to do any good,
lasts forever in the heart of God
and will shine in glory after the stars have all gone out.

And this brings us to the message of today’s Gospel lesson.
“I am the vine and you are the branches. . . .
He who abides in me and I in him . . . bears much fruit.”

Making our lives mean something, something good,
something that will last forever
– that comes from living in the love of Jesus,
trusting of the love of Jesus as the air we breathe
and the food we eat.
It means living Jesus day and night.

On our own, all our best efforts at self-improvement
will either fail from our weak will
or make us unbearably proud if we succeed.
All our efforts to do good in the world
will make us into meddlesome self-righteous do-gooders
who actually do more harm than good.

But if we live in the love of Jesus,
let his love flow through us,
then even our clumsiest fumbling efforts
will be blessed.
Even our sins will turn to good
as he weaves the results of our actions
into the fabric of his will.

I once lived with a Christian community that sang a simple song:
“Jesus in the morning,
Jesus in the noontime,
Jesus when the sun goes down.”
That’s a life worth living, a life that
begins and ends in the love of Christ.

Giving Yourself Heart And Soul

Easter 4b.Christ Church.Pioche
In our lesson from Acts, Peter says that Jesus
is the stone that the builders rejected;
but he has become the cornerstone.
The cornerstone is the starting point, the foundation,
the stone that holds the others together.
You can imagine it better if you think of the capstone
at the top of an arch.
Without the capstone, the others collapse.
Peter calls Jesus the cornerstone.

I want to look at how that plays out for us.
We are pretty disillusioned with our institutions these days.
Church people have abused children.
The military commits torture.

The government has lied to us too many times.
The Red Cross misappropriates donations.
Even the Boy Scouts have had sex and money scandals.
None of the institutions that order our community lives
command our faith and loyalty like they once did.
But we can’t avoid them entirely.
We have to live with each other,
and that takes organized groups.

So we participate in groups we don’t really trust,
but we do it with a divided mind.
We sort of believe in what the group is doing,
but we don’t trust groups.
We don’t completely trust each other.

We participate in groups,
but only for the moment.
We participate, but we don’t really belong.
And so they all compete for how much of our lives
they can claim.

We are inundated with appeals for money.
Give to Public Radio, Cancer, Alzheimer’s, abused women,
the Church, United Way, Sierra Club, and the PTA.
And we might give our money if it would just buy us out
of all the demands on our time.

Because we don’t belong heart and soul to anything in particular,
everyone is after a little piece of us.
There are two problems that make this so hard.
One is the problem of drawing our boundaries.
The second is finding a center of the circle
to draw the boundary around.

What is it that we are trying to protect
from all the demands.
If we have no other center,
then it is likely to be ourselves.
I draw the boundary around myself to protect myself.

But a self that is always being protected
feels cramped and stingy.
It feels like one more character
staking its claim – saying “no,
this is my time, my money, my choice.”

The thing is it just doesn’t work to live
and work with people
when there is no central value
we uphold,
no great truth we still trust in,
no ultimate beauty before which
we kneel in awe and wonder.

It isn’t possible to really live
except by giving ourselves to something heart and soul.
We have to give ourselves to something on someone
who is good enough, true enough,
to live for and to die for.
You know the old adage – it’s an old adage because it’s true –
you haven’t found anything worth living for
until you find something worth dying for.
That’s why we are so lost in this disillusioned age.
John Lennon said, “Nothing is worth dying for.”
That’s why he never gave us a vision of anything
to truly live for.

It isn’t so much a matter of literally dying for someone or something.
It’s a matter of living for it all the way.It’s a matter of giving ourselves away to someone or something
- because that’s what life is – self-giving.

It’s a sky dive.
It’s a bungee jump.
It’s shooting the rapids in a kayak of faith.
Life isn’t holding back but pouring forth.

We need one thing or one person
to belong to heart and soul.
Then when all the other demands come along,
we put set them up in the light
of what our life is truly about.

That’s what Peter means when he calls Jesus the cornerstone.
Everything comes together in him.
If we give our lives to Jesus,
then if we work for this group or that group,
we do it as a way to give ourselves to Christ.
If we say “no” to this group or that group,
it isn’t to protect ourselves.
It’s because we can glorify Christ better another way.

But the question is: why should we give ourselves to Jesus?
It is quite simply because he gives his life for us.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus says,
“I am the Good Shepherd . . . . (who) lays down his life
for the sheep.”
In the Epistle John says,
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us . . . . .”

Now it’s easy to read this wrong.
Jesus doesn’t give himself for us to put us in his debt.
He doesn’t give himself to make us feel guilty and bound.
If that was the deal, I’d tell him to keep himself
and let me keep myself, thank you.

But it isn’t like this.
Jesus gives himself for us because he thinks we’re worth it.
Jesus doesn’t love us in spite of who we are.
He loves us because of who we are,
even if we can’t see ourselves the way he sees us.

Being loved like that isn’t coercive.
He isn’t demand our lives or else.
Being loved isn’t coercive, but it is attractive.

And the greatest thing about Jesus
is his ability to enjoy us, to laugh about us,
to cry for us, to bleed when we bleed.
Jesus is the human face of love
and that’s what makes him God.
That’s what makes him worthy of our adoration.
That’s what makes him the cornerstone
of a life that makes sense.

No, Jesus doesn’t demand our lives.
But he invites us to give them to him.
He invites us to follow him,
because he knows that we are lost without him.

So how do we follow him.
It’s all in the Baptismal Covenant.
We’ll say it today.
It’s about prayer and study.
It’s about fellowship and sacraments.
It’s about standing for peace and justice,
respecting the dignity of every human being,
and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

If you want a prayer that will ease your way into this,
the 23rd Psalm is a pretty good one.
Commit it to memory and say it each morning and each night.
If you want an outline for a life that makes sense
even in this crazy world and this crazy time,
take the Baptismal Covenant home with you.
Read it. Ponder it. Apply it to ever choice you make.
And all the jumble of life’s demands will begin to fall into place.