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.