Fruitfulness

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There is great danger in Paul’s image of the fruit of the Spirit.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and especially self-control are ripe for the abuse of works righteousness.  It is easy to take this fruit and turn it into an ethical treatise on how one must live one’s life.  This is especially true in the context of the whole lesson from Galatians 5 that is appointed for Proper 8c.  It is tempting to take this fruit, allow it to rot, and to chuck it at other disciples who we have deemed “not fruitful.”

But this is a serious misreading of the text because the reality, at least my view of it, isn’t that an apple tree works to make apples, but that an apple tree is because it produces apples.  Does that make sense?  Let me say it another way.  The fruit of the Spirit are precisely that, of the Spirit.  They are in no way the result of our own work, but simply what happens to those who have been caught up in the power of the Spirit.  These laudable qualities, “against which there is no law,” are the natural result of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

That being said, it is no doubt true that we can work to cultivate the fruit tree.  When we are walking close to the will of God, fertilized by the Word, we will no doubt produce better fruit in higher yields, but even when the Father seems far away, even when the Word is hard to hear, the Spirit remains, working within us to unite us to the Father.  As Paul wrote to open this passage (and is reiterated strongly in Romans 8), we have been set free in Christ.  We are set free such that the Spirit will produce fruit in our lives, even as we attempt to yoke ourselves once again to the bad soil of self-preservation.  As Christians, it is in our very nature to produce good fruit, the outpouring of the Spirit.  So relax.  Don’t work so hard to do what you can’t help but do in God, and instead, focus on the Spirit at work within you.  Allow yourself to be set free to let the Spirit produce in abundance.

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Leave your graves and be set free – a sermon

You can listen to my Lent 5A sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it below.

“Jesus tarried.” That’s how my preaching mentor, David Lose, says we should read Jesus’ two-day delay after hearing that Lazarus had taken ill. “Jesus wasn’t just held up, he intentionally waited, delayed, dragged his feet, tarried. Why? Because he saw in Lazarus’ death the in-breaking of God’s glory and he wanted to make sure no one missed it. And so he tarried two more days so that by the time he arrived Lazarus would have been in the tomb four days…”1 The story of the resurrection of Lazarus is perhaps the most carefully orchestrated event in all of Jesus’ ministry. Every thing Jesus does and says is carefully crafted for maximum impact.
It begins with a message from two dear friends, Mary and Martha. Their brother was apparently very sick and they wanted to Jesus to know about it. There is no indication that they expected Jesus to drop everything to be with them, but as the story unfolds, we learn that is clearly what they hoped for. Jesus has other plans. “This illness does not lead to death,” he says, knowing full well that that isn’t true, “but rather it is for God’s glory so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” So Jesus tarried, waiting two days to even begin journey from Bethany-across-the-Jordan to the Town of Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived. I really struggled with Jesus waiting, this week. I had a hard time with Jesus intentionally letting Lazarus die just so that he can resurrect him. I couldn’t understand why God would do something like that just to teach the world a lesson. To me, it made God feel arbitrary and capricious, until I read a commentary by Alyce McKenzie and the bigger picture opened up. “Jesus responds to Lazarus’ illness with [level-headedness]… He is not expressing his hope that, because of the miracle he is about to perform, he will be admired and praised. “God’s glory” is a reference to Jesus’ own resurrection. His raising of Lazarus from the dead will speed his own death, which will lead to his resurrection…”2 Just past our interminably long gospel lesson (the third in three weeks), we find that the resurrection of Lazarus is the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Pharisees. Jesus had the power to bring people back from the dead and even some of the Jewish leadership was starting to believe in him. That was it for the Pharisees, Jesus had to die. Jesus has to die, for us, so that his resurrection can once and for all bring about victory over death.
Jesus knows all of this, and so he tarries for two days, so that by the time he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus would have been dead for four days. First century Jewish belief said that the soul of the deceased lingered near the body for three days, but by day four it was certain that Lazarus was dead. Very dead. Really, super, duper dead. No one would be able to argue that a mistake had been made and that Lazarus hadn’t really kicked the bucket. Lazarus was dead and gone and everybody knew it by the time Jesus approached the city. Did I mention Lazarus was dead?
Martha got wind that Jesus was nearing town and she ran out to meet him. Clearly, she’s upset. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus already knows what is fixing to happen, and in a rare move, he lays it out there plainly, telling her, “Your brother will rise again.” The grieving Martha believes in the resurrection of the dead at the final judgment, but she doesn’t quite get what Jesus is saying to her, so he spells it out for her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Still confused, Martha returned home and sent Mary out to see him.
Mary runs to the feet of Jesus and cries out to him the same welcome that her sister gave, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This time, however, a crowd of mourners has followed her, and there is no time for Jesus to teach her about the resurrection, he’ll just have to show her. Deeply disturbed, knowing full well that he is about to raise a man from the dead and sign his own death warrant, Jesus makes his way to the stone hewn tomb where Lazarus’ body has been laid. After some debate, the stone is finally rolled away, and Jesus calls out to his friend, “Lazarus, come out!”
Here’s where the story gets really interesting. The once-dead man hops forth from the tomb, still wrapped in his burial cloths and Jesus says to the shocked crowd gathered around, “unbind him, and let him go home.” The obvious thing here is that Lazarus, still bound in his burial clothes, needs to be untied from those bonds in order to return to normal life, but given the conversation that happened earlier between Jesus and Martha and knowing that everything in this story is about Jesus doing something deeper, it seems clear that this is about more than some bands of cloth. Jesus didn’t resuscitate Lazarus, he raised Lazarus from the dead. Even though Lazarus will one day die again, he is already resurrected to eternal life while still bound to life here on earth. Jesus calls for Lazarus to be unbound, to be set free from the bonds of sin and death, and to be raised up to the Kingdom right then and there. Here’s the Good News for us, if it was possible for Lazarus, then resurrection is possible for all of us right here and right now. We too can be set free from the things that bind us: depression, illness, addiction, fear, disability, pride, hypocrisy. Even as we continue to live with them and struggle with them, as adopted heirs of the Kingdom, we are able to live beyond them and into the fullness of God’s dream for us.
In order to be unbound, however, we must first be willing to step out of the relative comforts of the graves that we know. Just outside the city of Bethany, Jesus told Martha that he was the resurrection and the life, and he still is, even right here in Foley today. He calls us to leave the comfort of the graves we have built for ourselves: the graves of addiction, guilt, and selfishness; the graves of materialism, workaholism, and fear of being left behind; the graves of depression, victimhood, and self-abasement. Jesus invites us to leave all that behind and live with him in the resurrected life, this very moment. Living the resurrected life while we are still living, breathing, feeling people isn’t easy. It means you might get your heart broken. It means you will have to craft a whole new identity. It means your focus will no longer be on you, but on the world around you. It means leaving what you’ve known and embracing the unknown. It means that among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts must be fixed where true joy is to be found, the Kingdom of God. Maybe this is what this season of Lent is all about. The word “Lent” comes from the lengthening days of spring. The days are getting longer and the sun is getting brighter. Even as we prepare for the empty tomb on Easter Day, the stone has been rolled away from our own tombs and Jesus is inviting us out into the light. Leave the comfort of your grave, be unbound, and enjoy the life of the Kingdom.
Every detail in this really long story is orchestrated by Jesus to help us see that he is the resurrection and the life: yesterday, today, and forever. The question remains, Do you believe it?

1 Dear Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1545 (accessed 3/31/14)
2 Edgy Exegesis, http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Lazarus-Is-Us-Alcye-McKenzie-04-04-2011.html?print=1 (accessed 3/31/14)