Sunday, September 3, 2006

(Life on the Vine: Love) A dozen roses: $49. Cultivating love: priceless

Life on the vine: Cultivating love in the midst of market-style exchanges
John 15:1-10; Luke 6:32-36

We live in a world where agricultural metaphors
are getting harder to relate to.
We’re getting farther and farther away from the soil,
and the stuff soil produces.
We eat lettuce leaves, cut, washed, packaged,
and shipped overnight airfreight from California.
If only our grandparents knew!

When Jesus used farming metaphors,
everyone got the point immediately.
We might have to work a little harder,
but I think they’re still the best way to understand
the Gospel call for us to live as God’s people in the world.

We already introduced the image of the vine,
and we’ll keep coming back to it,
and we’ve talked about seeds.
At the risk of completely wearing out the agricultural theme,
let me talk about a tree.
Specifically, the tree John saw in his vision in Revelation 22.
“The angel showed me the river of the water of life,
as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
down the middle of the great street of the city.
On each side of the river stood the tree of life,
bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.
And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

We need to begin with the end.
In this very last chapter of scripture,
a picture puts it all together for us.
This life that flows from God, that we’ve been talking about,
this river of the water of life that flows from the throne of God,
and of the Lamb,
has a distinct purpose:
the healing of the nations.
God’s mission in this world—
from the beginning to end of scripture—
is the reconciliation of all nations, all creation,
bringing all things back to the state of wholeness
that existed when God spoke them into being
in the first chapter of scripture, Genesis 1.
As we talk about life on the vine
let’s not forget the fruit and leaves produced by this life
are not for us.
They are not for our personal enjoyment.
They are not something we possess.
They are not some accomplishment we achieve.
The fruit of the Spirit is about God, not about us.
The fruit is a reflection of the mission and character of God.
And the mission of God is the healing of the nations.

So we’re going to talk about the fruit of the Spirit
in a radically different way than we usually do.
The way I was taught about this fruit,
was I should open my heart to the Holy Spirit,
and allow the Holy Spirit to work inside me,
so that my personal life would exhibit these virtues.
I should strive to be more loving, more joyful, more peaceful...
more patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.
The fruit was a list of personal virtues,
that served mainly as a sign I was being a good Christian.
I won’t say we were wrong for looking at it that way.
But we certainly were not seeing the whole picture.

When I read this book, Life on the Vine, about a year ago,
I saw a much bigger picture, and I came to love this picture.
Galatians 5:22-23 is a picture of life in Christian community.
The fruit of the Spirit is what God brings forth
when the church is the kind of community God intends it to be.

God’s mission and character were uniquely embodied in Jesus.
And the church is called to continue to embody
God’s mission and character.
And since God’s mission is the healing of the nations,
to be be Christian
is to be part of the community of people
that have become partners with God,
in God’s cosmic work of reconciling all creation.

Popular American Christianity looks puny in comparison.
The American gospel has an utter poverty of vision and imagination.
Making private spiritual experience or individual virtue
the heart of the Christian life,
misses the point of the Gospel of Jesus.
Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to the church for the express purpose
of enlivening it,
of giving it the power to reflect the character and mission of God.
So the fruit of the spirit is not just a collection
of commendable virtues, for me...and you...and you.
They are the embodiment—in the church, in front of the world—
of the kind of reconciled and transformed life
that God desires for all creation.

That’s why it’s worthwhile spending time learning to cultivate
the fruit of the Spirit in our life together.
The church lives in a world that’s cultivating all kinds of other fruit.
We have to work to prepare the soil, provide the conditions
so that the life of God might take root, grow,
and bear fruit for the sake of the world.
That the world might eat, and live.
Of course, the fruit of the Spirit will be made manifest
through our individual lives,
as we yield ourselves to the Spirit of God and to each other.
But the fruit is not ours.
It’s the fruit of the Spirit in Christian community,
to embody the character and mission of God to the world.

So now we can look at the first fruit with greater clarity.
Love is the first fruit.
Central in the Gospel story.
Central to living the Christian life.
In this morning’s gospel reading, from John 15, Jesus said,
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you;
abide in my love.”

So, if the fruit is a counter-cultural expression
of the mission and character of God in the world,
what does it look like to cultivate love?

The kind of love central to the Gospel is self-giving love.
God’s love that we see in scripture, that we meet in Jesus,
is unmerited love.
It is constant.
It enters into the experience of the other,
even in the face of suffering.
It offers up self.
So when we are called to cultivate love,
it means we are called out of ourselves,
called into a life of unconditional concern for others.
But our culture throws up all kinds of obstacles.

We are trained to see all of life in terms of self-interest.
Self-concern is the dominant force in our culture.
It governs our personal choices.
It shapes the priorities of our institutions, including the church.
It guides local politics.
And obviously, national self-interest is the driving force
behind our country’s foreign policy.
If it’s good for us, must be good for the world.

Furthermore, we live in a culture that puts a price tag on everything.
Everything is evaluated with a cost-benefit analysis.
If it doesn’t have net benefit for me, why would I be interested?
We have taken the assumptions of the marketplace,
and applied them, without much thought,
even to human relationships.
Relationships become contracts,
a means to a better end for ourselves.
We are trained to be indifferent toward people out there,
who can’t do anything to enhance our lives.

This contract view of relationships has even infected marriage.
And I mean infected, in the worst sense.
It was a sad day when it became almost standard procedure
for a prenuptial agreement to precede a marriage covenant.
Our culture has little concept of marriage as mutual surrender.
How many people have backed out of a marriage covenant,
because “it was no longer meeting my needs.”
Happens every day.
People will continue a relationship
until it no longer meets certain needs.
When the needs stop being met,
they are free to dissolve the relationship, end the contract.
I’m not talking about staying in a relationship at any cost.
We do need to protect ourselves against relationships
that are violent, cruel, or dehumanizing.
There are appropriate times to leave.
But it’s too easy and too commonplace to walk away,
just because I have to set some of my needs aside.
The world says marriage is about having my needs met.
If that was the case,
there is no marriage that could ever survive a challenge like
stroke, Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, chronic mental illness,
or debilitating accident.
But we have real-life examples in our own congregation
that prove the world wrong on that score.

Contract-driven relationships are pervasive in our culture.
They characterize many of our friendships.
They define what it means to be a neighbor.
They affect the church, big-time.
And maybe that’s the greatest sin
against the Spirit-fruit of self-giving love.
Many churches make a blatant appeal to self-interest.
“Come to our church, and see what programs we can offer you,
to make your life more manageable, and enjoyable,
and personally enriching.”
We’re more subtle about it at Park View,
but I have to admit, there are shades of that kind of thinking
in our own church brochures out in the foyer.
We’re going to work at changing that.
Churches easily fall into the great temptation
of being market-driven,
and turning Christians into consumers of spiritual products.
Which of course, means they have to shop around
to get the best deal.
And when we stop getting the goods and services we want,
we look for another provider.
And we end up undermining the very purpose of the church—
which is to lay down our lives together
in an act of love and worship to God,
and participate with God
in carrying out God’s reconciling mission to the world.
Romans 12:1...”I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,
by the mercies of God,
to present your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
That verse will never grow a mega-church, I’m afraid.

We even begin to view our relationship with God as a contract,
evaluated on the basis of whether it works for me,
and “what’s in it for me?”
That’s what feeds the kind of shallow religious pluralism
that says, “Whatever you believe is fine,
just as long as it works for you...
if it meets your needs.”
That self-oriented angle on faith is a far cry from the apostle Paul.
In Romans 9:3, he said
he would gladly be condemned and cut off from Christ,
if it meant that others might be reconciled.

The Spirit of God is calling us to something deeper
than a faith that serves me and my needs.
We are called to bear the fruit of love—
love that is sacrificial, generous, and other-directed.

How do we get there?
How do we provide the right soil conditions, light, and water,
that will help God grow the fruit?
In this “Life on the Vine” book,
Philip Kenneson says one major way we do it,
is through worship.
Worship creates conditions for growth.
Worship is formational.

He suggests several ways worship helps to cultivate love.
In worship, we are schooled in the art of paying attention to the other.
We cannot love others without paying attention to them.
While the American marketplace encourages us
to be indifferent to others,
worship encourages us to pay attention.
Worship draws the focus away from ourselves,
and redirects it toward God.
We gather in worship not to get our spiritual batteries charged,
not to be blessed.
We gather to bless God.
We gather out of gratitude,
as a response to what God has already done.

And in worship,
we are schooled in the practice of giving and receiving graciously.
We give ourselves to God in worship,
and learn to receive the gifts God has to offer us,
graciously, freely, without a price tag.
A dozen roses might cost us 49 bucks.
But cultivating love is priceless.
Giving and receiving love is done without any accounting,
no contract, no tit for tat.
One of the central acts of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper.
The root words for “Eucharist” are literally, “good gift.”
When the bread and cup are presented, the traditional words are,
“These are the gifts of God, for the people of God.”

And in worship,
we are schooled in the practice of stewardship.
And no, I don’t mean learning to give more in the offering,
although if that happened, we wouldn’t complain.
I’m talking about the reminders we receive in worship,
that God is the owner of everything.
Worship puts our material possessions in perspective.
Kenneson used an illustration of a car ad, whose tagline went,
“Is who you are a reflection of what you drive,
or is what you drive a reflection of who you are?
It depends on what you drive.”
How preposterous!
To suggest my identity is so closely linked with my possessions.
But it’s what our culture tells us, in so many ways.
Worship says, “nuh-uh!”
Our identity comes from God.
God owns us.
God owns all creation.
We’re just taking care of things for God, for a little while.

That’s yet another way that worship
unhooks us from this delusion that love is an exchange
that is supposed to produce a net benefit for me.
No, love is the surrender of self.
Love is paying attention to others,
taking the risk of involvement in the lives of those around us.
Kenneson made an insightful observation, I thought,
when he said our culture is a voyeuristic culture.
We look in on the lives of others from a safe distance,
without any of the demands and risks of human involvement.
Voyeurism is what makes daytime TV talk-shows so popular.
It’s the motivation behind “reality TV,” and tell-all books,
and pornography, and web cams.
We get our pleasure from a distance.
We consume, as entertainment,
another person’s troubles, or body, or life.
Without any human involvement.
It’s a market-exchange.
With no resemblance to love.

Brothers and sisters, we are called to cultivate love,
in our life together as a community of the Spirit.
Let’s do that.
Let’s commit ourselves to walk with each other in a deeper way.
To help each other examine how we order our lives.
How much of our time is spent
primarily on self-interest and self-care?
And how much are we entering into the human experience
of those we encounter?
How much of an effort are we making to encounter
those who have a deficit of love in their lives?
It won’t just happen.
The default way of living is what Jesus described in Luke 6,
that we heard this morning:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?
Even sinners love those who love them.”
Yes, even sinners can do “market-style” exchanges.
Jesus said, try loving your enemies.
Love those who are difficult to love.
Love those who can’t give anything back.
Then you can call yourselves “children of God.”

If we as a community of the Spirit,
cultivate this kind of love in the way we live,
it will stand out, in a world of market-style exchanges.
The world will see, and take notice, that God is up to something here.
They will know we are Christians by our love.

That chorus from the 60’s kept going through my mind,
as I prepared this sermon.
But I thought it needed another verse,
to make clear what kind of love we were singing about,
so I wrote one.
The words are printed in the bulletin.
The first two verses are ones you know.
The last one is the one I added.

Let’s sing together. And then let’s live this kind of love, together.

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord (2x)
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.

We will work with each other, we will work side by side (2x)
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.
And they’ll know...

We will love when it’s costly, we will love without price (2x)
And together we’ll show that love demands sacrifice.
And they’ll know...

—Phil Kniss, September 3, 2006

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Anonymous said...

Phil - I certainly like the outword focus of the fruits and the focus on God and giving to others. However how do we give to God and to others without doing some work internally first. Does that work need to come first before the giving can be outwardly focused? I wonder if the sin occurs when we stop at the inner work and fail to focus the fruits on God and others. However it seems to me that is what the transforming nature of meeting God means. Once the inner work is started (but can never be completed)we cannot help but share the fruit with others. Perhaps the assumption is that the inner work has started and thus the outword flow is a natural result.


Phil Kniss said...

I like where you're going with this, Edgar, that the inner "work" is always in process, and always will result in fruit to be shared. However, in terms of "doing the inner work" first, and then being able to "do the outer work," I think I understand what you're saying (that our actions in the world need a spiritual foundation), but I would want to frame the issue a little differently. After all, it's the Spirit that does the work of transformation, and I don't want to compartmentalize the work of the Spirit into separate inner and outer spheres. We are one spiritual whole, and if transformation is real, it will be evident throughout our whole being and relationships.
So I am a little uncomfortable asserting that the Spirit just works "inside us" (whatever that means), and then we try to live out that new self in the world around us. The way I'm framing it, I don't think the sin you refer to is even possible--that is, to "do the inner work" and then stop. If our relationships and our way of living in this world are not undergoing transformation, we have not yet opened ourselves to the Spirit's transformation, and the so-called "inner work" we are doing must be a sham. In the realm of the Spirit of God, there is no such thing as inward transformation apart from a life being transformed wholly. Transformation is always in process, of course.