Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Fragrant Offering

I'm behind on the posts here.  My wife gave birth to our second child on 9/25 and we're delighted.  The blog will catch up in time.  :)

Sermon preached 10/2/2011, on the occasion of Mae Genevieve's baptism, and one week after Jude Robert's birth.

I’m hoping just now that I don’t become an experiment measuring the effects of sleep depravity on public speaking. Bear with me this morning. It’s been a big week. And it’s not just me, either, you, too - we Church - have had a wonderfully full week; full to overflowing:

The Quinceanera last Saturday - Jessica was beautiful - Jude Robert’s birth then on Sunday(!!), and those of you who graciously stepped up for me at just a couple of contractions’ notice, to lead our Sunday worship. (Bek and baby are well; we felt every one of your prayers.) On Thursday, a return to normalcy: a Vestry meeting. And then, on Saturday, a funeral for a man to this point unknown to our parish. We, Church, welcomed his family into our doors and joined our prayers to their own as, in the sure and certain hope of resurrection, we commended his soul to God. And, then, this morning, in just a few minutes, a baptism. Praise God! Mae Genevieve. You, Church, again, lifting her up. Promising to uphold her in her life in Christ. And then, also today, we Church begin our October conversation about financial stewardship. What we do as Church, as Christians, with our money.

It’s been a full week. On the surface, too much to do justice to any of it. Too much to be present to. But beneath the surface, a perfectly perfect week being the Church, the people of God bearing God’s fruit in this world. Bearing the fruits of the kingdom.

From our gospel this morning: Jesus says, “...the Kingdom of God will be...given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

Jesus was talking to the religious leaders of Israel. Israel, the people that God had set apart to be a light for all the nations. Israel, the people to whom God sent the prophets to encourage them in their faithfulness. Israel, the people to whom in the fullness of time God sent his only Son.

And this is the unedited version of the words Jesus tells them, “The Kingdom of God, Jesus tells them, will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

We could guess from this passage at the reasons that lead Jesus to say that Israel had forsaken its calling, but what we need not guess is what the calling had been, is, and will continue to be for God’s People: Bear fruit. “...the Kingdom of God will be...given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” That’s us. Grafted into the people called Israel. To bear fruits of the Kingdom. That’s our call.

The call to be fruitful is what allows a week of expected and unexpected events in the life of St Christopher’s - or your own life, for that matter - to be more than mere busyness, random interruptions bordering on chaos. Have you ever had a week of random interruptions, bordering on chaos, I wonder? Rather, the fruit of the kingdom is what we bear of our faith in our lives as we live them. We’re bearing fruit, good or bad, all the time. Discipleship, the way of the cross, means the disciplines, the internal order, necessary to flourish, grow good fruit, in the way of Jesus.

So in life and, as we remembered yesterday, in death we walk with one another following in Jesus’s steps, with the help of the Spirit. For all its unexpected interruptions, this past week at St Christopher’s carried the unmistakable scent, the aroma, of good fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Because the life of the Spirit isn’t predictable, but it does adhere to a certain shape. Which is to say that faithfulness doesn’t depend on our being in control. That’s good news. You can do it anywhere!

So I was talking with Chelsea, Asher, and Blu, who will present Mae Genevieve for baptism today. We were going over the service. I said that I would ask them - and you - if you believed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I explained that you would use lots of words, but that basically your answer is ‘yes.’ And I was telling them that I like to ask children if they know what that yes means for the way they will live their lives. I like to ask children because they are honest enough to say ‘no.’ They’ll say, ‘no, it’s not all that clear, you’ve still got some explaining to do,’ and they’re right.

I told Chelsea, Asher, and Blu the same thing I tell the children with the honesty to say they don’t know, and that is that, at a baptismal service, after we ask the ones about to be baptized if they believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we ask them another five questions. And these five questions describe the life of someone who has said ‘yes’ to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What it looks like. These are questions that enflesh our theology. These are questions of Christian fruitfulness.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

These questions, with the help of the Spirit, and the Church’s profession of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit give you all of the resources necessary for fruitfulness. And fruitfulness of this kind, fruit of the kind that smells like it was picked from the tree of Jesus, is the only real job of the Church.

Now, do you remember when I said at the beginning that we would be talking some this morning about financial stewardship? We’re going to start now, (fight the urge to glaze over!) but there’s a catch - we’re going to start talking financial stewardship, but we’re not going to stop talking about bearing fruit. We’re going to keep talking as if growing generous hearts (our giving) was part and parcel of the fruit we’re called to bear. This is also to say - and I want to say this clearly - that financial giving is not an objective that has any worth for Christians apart from our faithful embodiment, the living out, of the Gospel, being fruitful.

A practical example of how fruitfulness might reframe our conversations about stewardship:
Lots of people in lots of places from lots of churches are ready to tell you (if they haven't already) that churches need new people in order to meet their financial obligations. For many, this information is simply a given. It's how the church is going to 'work'. The starting place for what we do. So church growth, which of itself might have been a good - and really exciting - thing ("Go! Tell my disciples that I'm risen from the dead!") instead becomes code for maintaining - or finding - financial solvency.

*sigh*

I've never seen this mindset work, because it all but destroys the church's ability to value the next visitor through the doors as a person beloved of God (as our baptismal vows suggest, as opposed to a pledge).

Still, some folks dismiss the beloved-of-God argument, reminding me and my ilk that the church, in the end, is a business (a statement I might want to nuance, but probably can't talk the other person out of).

*double sigh*

Even so (and this is the point that connects to the fruit), the person who insists on the church as a business in search of new blood, new money, is not off the hook yet, I think, because by her own pragmatic standard she must still answer the question: 'What if the newcomers give as generously as you give? Is that good news or bad news for the Church?' (It's an honest question only made potentially uncomfortable by the conscience of the hearer.)

We are (and I am) never not called to view my stewardship, my discipleship, my lived response to Jesus, as priority number one. It’s not about my changing them out there, but God changing me, in here. Growing the fruit of a generous heart.

So growing on the outside (the good kind that sticks) requires growing on the inside. But growing on the inside might become so fruitful that we lose our financial motivation for outward growth altogether. That is, we might become so generous, we won’t need the other people’s money. What a problem. What then? What if we wake up one day and all we're left with is the awkward and embarrassing command he left us with: "Go! Tell my disciples that I'm risen from the dead!"?

That’s fruitfulness.

One last thought: “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” That’s us. But fruit is not the new people. Fruit is what the Spirit grows in the ones who follow Christ. Still, new people are very important, because fruit is what new people eat in order to live. You and me, like grapes from the vineyard, mixed up with Christ, made like the wine, the blood, of salvation. You and me, receiving the Body of Christ. You and me, praying to be made the Body of Christ for others. That’s pretty cool.

Here’s the take-home: In what ways are you taking seriously the call to fruitfulness, bearing Christ, in your life? In what ways are you taking playfully the call to fruitfulness in your life? He’s not asking you to control what you can’t; only to be faithful in the day to day walk with him. Fruitful living.
Kermit the frog said once, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” Fruitfulness is bearing your fruit such that the fragrance is beautiful. Your aroma, like Christ’s. Not only can you do it, after a week like this past one, I’d be remiss not to tell you, “You’re doing it already.”

And so my prayer for Mae, whom we’ll baptize in a minute, is also for us: May the one who has begun this good work in you bring it to completion.

Amen.



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