Sermon: Producing Good Fruit

22401563_BG1The young management consultant had an interview with the president of a major advertising firm. The young man was nervous. At that stage in his career, it wasn’t very often that he got to talk to the president of a company. The appointment was at 10:00 a.m., for one hour. He arrived early. Promptly at 10, he was ushered into a large and airy room, with furniture upholstered in bright yellow. The president had his shirtsleeves rolled up and a mean look on his face. “You’ve only got 20 minutes,” he barked. The young man sat there, not saying a word. “I said, you’ve only got 20 minutes.” “Your time’s ticking away. Why aren’t you saying anything?” “They’re my 20 minutes,” replied the young man, “I can do whatever I want with them.”

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Not only is Jesus referring to himself, who died and rose again, but he is also referring to us. We must die to self, grow in Christ, and produce that good fruit. We are called to be the mustard seed in our Gospel today – small, but with purpose and results. Not only is this something Jesus instructs us to do, but is also something we have vowed to do – from the baptismal covenant, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” Our response, “I will, with God’s help.”

I have been told that there are some folks who can grow corn in Montana. I don’t believe it. I tried in Butte and I tried in Anaconda. The ears I grew were something less than pathetic. Now, when I lived down south with my granddaddy, we could grow just about anything: corn, squash, beans, all the good stuff. One year my Grandaddy got a hankering for some strawberries, so he planted two long rows in the front garden. They came in good and those first strawberries were wonderful; however, by the end of the summer we were swimming in strawberries. We had eaten all the strawberry pies we could eat, canned enough strawberry preserves to last a lifetime, and if we should show up at the neighbors with one more bag of strawberries I feel certain they would have sicced the dog on us.

Now consider this from a spiritual perspective: we are to grow in Christ and we are to produce good fruit. So, if you were called on by the Lord to display the fruit you had produced, what would it look like? My Montana corn or my grandaddy’s strawberries?

One of my favorite sayings of the desert fathers, “If a man settles in a certain place and does not bring forth the fruit of that place, the place itself casts him out, as one who has not borne its fruit.” We are to produce good fruit; therefore, we must wisely use the time we have been given.

That young management consultant had his twenty minutes. We can look at the span of your life as he looked at those 20 minutes. They are ours. We can do anything we like with them. We can squander them. We can spend them building up for yourselves treasures on earth. Or, we can use them – or at least a portion of them, say 10% – to produce an abundance of good fruit. Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

Produce good fruit so that your Father in Heaven is glorified.

 

 

Sermon: Lent III RCL A – “Forgiveness, Pt. 3 – Obedience, Guilt, Imitate”

images-19The new priest is nervous about hearing confessions, so he asks an older priest to sit in on his sessions. The new priest hears several confessions, then the old priest asks him to step out of the confessional for a few suggestions… The old priest suggests, “Cross your arms over your chest and rub your chin with one hand.”… The new priest tries this. The old priest suggests, “Try saying things like, ‘I see, yes, go on, and I understand, how did you feel about that?”  The new priest says those things, trying them out. The old priest says, “Now, don’t you think that’s a little better than slapping your knee and saying, ‘No way! What happened next?'” – I’m not sure if this would be a good time to encourage you all to go to confession during Lent or not.

It is in the fifth chapter of James that we hear specific instructions on healing: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil.”   A few verses later, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”  James is showing us that there is often a link between sin and sickness, therefore he encourages us to confess our sins to each other.  Often, when we hear these instructions we think of the confession between a penitent and a priest, but James is also talking about Christian speaking to Christian as a means of accountability.  For example – if you have a problem with ___, then you can confess this to a trusted friend or even a group of trusted friends who will in turn hold you accountable.  They do this not so they can beat you over the head when you slip and fail, but so that they can support you in your time of weakness and give you encouragement when you hold strong.

So we confess our sins to God and to a priest for absolution.  We confess to one another for accountability and encouragement, and finally we confess so that we might receive forgiveness from the person who we injured.

Back in the day before I was the saint that you see standing before you today, I had a favorite expression for someone who had injured me in someway when asked if I would forgive them.  I heartily responded, “I wouldn’t spit on them if they were on fire.”  That left very little room for reconciliation and Jesus was not amused.  Yet finally I heard that call from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  I understood that I must learn to forgive as I have been forgiven.  For me, I also discovered that there were three main reasons that compelled me to forgive: obedience, guilt and imitation.

Take obedience.  Some folks choose to go to work out of obedience, which can sometimes be closely linked to fear.  Obedience in that they know what is expected of them and fear that they will be fired if they don’t.  The same line of thought applies to forgiveness.  Consider Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant: a servant owed a great debt to his master and yet was unable to pay when his master called in the debt.  He therefore begged his master for forgiveness and the master forgave the debt and let him go; however, when that servant went out he encountered someone who owed him a debt and demanded that it be paid.  When the man said he couldn’t pay the servant had him thrown into prison until he could.  When the other servants saw what had happened they went to the master and reported it.  The master recalled the servant and said to him, “‘You wicked servant; I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”   Jesus concludes by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”  There are times when we may also forgive someone out of obedience to the command to forgive and out of fear of the repercussions of not forgiving.  Is that forgiveness?  Yes, as long as it is from the heart.  As long as we truly forgive.

Second, we may choose to forgive out of guilt.  Take for example the parable of the father who had two sons.  The father went to the first and said, “‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’  ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.”  Jesus asked those who were listening to him, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”  “The first,” they answered, but the question for us is: what turned the first son’s heart?  Probably a number of things, but I suspect it started with guilt.  “Dad asked me to do this [grumble.  grumble.]”, yet off he went.  In a similar manner – because of guilt – we may choose to forgive.  If I am being hard hearted and not wanting to forgive, but then look at an image of our crucified Lord and recognize the price he paid for my sins that I might be forgiven… guilt.  Plain and simple.  The guilt of my own sin and understanding the price paid by Jesus for those sins, will compel me toward forgiveness.  Is that forgiveness.  Again, yes, as long as it is from the heart.

So we can forgive out of obedience and guilt, but I would suggest to you there is an even better way: imitation.  Why do you do something in a particular way?  Oh, that’s how my dad always did it.  Why are you a dentist?  Oh, my mother was a dentist.  We imitate the behavior we see from others.  In the first paragraph of the first chapter of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, “‘He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,’ says the Lord.  By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.”

Ephesians 5:12 (NIV), “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  “Follow God’s example” is also translated in other versions as “Be ye therefore imitators of God.”  That word “followers” / “imitators” is translated from the Greek word “mimEtai” (μιμηταὶ)  It is where we get the word “mimic.”  What is it we are to imitate / mimic as dearly loved children of God?  “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.  Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’”  That is what we are to imitate.  We forgive, because Jesus forgives.

If you forgive from your heart out of obedience or guilt, then you have done as Christ commanded.  You have forgiven because you have been told to forgive and know that you must, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; however, in being a follower / imitator / mimic of Jesus you will forgive – not because you have been told to do it – but because you want to be like Jesus.

Is that asking too much?  Is it to hard to want to be like Jesus?  If so, then to paraphrase George Herbert, set it up there as a mark, something to aim for “since he shoots higher that threatens the moon, than he that aims at a tree.”  Forgive by any means you can summon, but seek the higher way of imitating Christ.

Sermon: Lent I RCL A – “Forgiveness, Pt. 1 – Where to Begin?”

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The Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and the persecuted.  Have you ever read those and thought to yourself, “I am so going to hell!”  There are days when I think that my ticket is already stamped.  This notion  of going to hell is only confirmed when I consider the seven deadly sins.

Pride.  How could I possibly be prideful when I’m the humblest person I know?  Greed?  Yeah.  Here’s a good one, lust.  You know what I think of when I think of being lustful?  Roy Orbison.  No.  Not Roy himself, but that song of his, “There she was just walking down the street, singing do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do.  She looked good, she looked fine, and I nearly lost my mind”  What is wrong with me?  Sloth?  Wrath?  Gluttony?  Please!  Just look at me.  I couldn’t come close to measuring up to a single one of the Beatitudes, but give me the seven deadly sins and I’m batting 1,000.  I am most certainly going to hell and my only consolation is that I can look around the congregation and know that I’ll at least have several friends with me!

In our Gospel today Jesus was able to overcome all the temptations that the Devil threw at him – worldly pleasures, fame, power, everything – but if you were to set a double beef cheeseburger, large fries and an ice cold Coca-Cola down in front of me, I’m fairly certain that I would commit at least half of the seven deadly sins.  If you set that same double beef cheeseburger, large fries, and ice cold Coca-Cola down in front of somebody else, I would probably break the other half.

I know it is Lent and we aren’t suppose to be having any fun in Church, but I’m sure you see the point as it would apply to a wide range of sinful activity that’s a bit more serious than a double cheeseburger.

St. Peter implores us, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”  As a Christian people, that is the goal, but so often we end up in the same boat as St. Paul, “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

Pride is at the top of the list of the seven deadly sins, because it takes a great deal of humility to admit that we have sinned.  Think how difficult it is to go to confession, how much humility it takes to confess your sins to another –  many can’t even make themselves practice this sacrament, but if we do humble ourselves, we can recognize that we have sinned, that we have damaged our relationship with God.

But the committing of the sin is not the saddest part?  We can discuss the fact that we have sinned.  We can identify times in our lives that we committed horrible acts.  We can identify times in our lives when someone committed horrible acts against us.  We will gladly beat ourselves up time and time again for something we did wrong even if it was years ago.  I can stand up here, point you out, and say, “You are a sinner.”  With the exception of the very proud, most, in humility will hang their head in agreement and defeat.

During the Ash Wednesday service we recited the 51st Psalm and we can agree with the words David wrote, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.  Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.”

But you know what?  That’s not the sad part.  The sad part is that in the next sentence after I have said you are a sinner – in the very next sentence – I can tell you that you are forgiven – you are forgiven – and the sad part is… you won’t believe me.

Jesus said, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”  Again “Jesus said, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” And again, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  Peter declares, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”  St. Paul writes, “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”  St. John confirms, “I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of Jesus’ name.”  All that and many still won’t believe those words, “You are forgiven.”

Not only that, but believing that we are forgiven is almost as difficult as it is for us to forgive others.  That whole bit about “forgive, that you may be forgiven.”  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others.”  Yeah, there are days when I definitely don’t want to pray that!  Do you really always forgive others?

Forgiveness, in every form, is key to the teachings of Holy Scripture.  We know that it is a large part of our Christian identity, but what does it really mean?  I should probably spend Lent beating you over the head with your sins, but most of us don’t need any help with that.  So I’ve decided that during this Holy Lent we are going to look at the various aspects of this rather illusive topic.

To begin with, you have an assignment for this week: think about forgiveness.  No.  Not about who you should forgive or anything like that, but consider your ideas about forgiveness.  What do you think Jesus means when he says we should forgive?  How can we forgive ourselves?  Next week we will begin with many of the myths out there about what true Christian forgiveness is all about and see if what we believe is right or wrong.

In the meantime, consider these words Mahatma Gandhi: “The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

 

Sermon – Enemies

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Thomas a Kempis writes, “If you were but worthy to suffer something for the name of Jesus, what great glory would be in store for you, what great joy to all the saints of God, what great edification to those about you! For all men praise patience though there are few who wish to practice it.”  But it is in the suffering of the cross that we find our victory… Again, Brother Thomas writes, “In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is highest virtue, in the cross is perfect holiness. There is no salvation of soul nor hope of everlasting life but in the cross.”  I was reminded of all this in our reading.  We praise patience: those who turn the other cheek, those who gift wrap their cloaks, those who love and pray for their enemies, those who sacrifice.  We praise those who do, but who really wants to practice that?  In the cross – in sacrifice is joy – but who really wants to sacrifice.

Two brothers were playing on the sandbanks by the river. One ran after another up a large mound of sand. Unfortunately, the mound was not solid, and their weight caused them to sink in quickly. When the boys did not return home for dinner, the family and neighbors organized a search. They found the younger brother unconscious, with his head and shoulders sticking out above the sand. When they cleared the sand to his waist, he awakened. The searchers asked, “Where is your brother?” The child replied, “I’m standing on his shoulders.”

Jesus says that we are willing to do this sort of thing for our friends and those we love, but how do we learn to do it for a perfect stranger?  How do we learn to love an enemy in this same way?

The answer and the ability comes only by looking to the example that Jesus has set for us.  Paul says to us, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.”  We were once enemies of God, but through his great love for us we were reconciled to Him.  Paul goes on to teach us, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

It is in our very nature to want to repay the evils that have been done against us and our culture through various media does nothing but reinforce that sentiment, but Jesus would have us address our enemies and those who wish us harm in a different way.  He would have us walk with them.  Pray for them.  Love them.

We may not all have great enemies, but if we can learn to practice this with those who simply irritate us, then we will have made great strides.

 

Sermon – Be Perfect

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When we think of commandments of God, we always think of the top ten: I am the Lord thy God, Thou shalt have no other gods, Thou shalt not kill, steal, covet, etc.  The Jews considered these to be the first ten of 613 commandments – laws – that can be found in the Old Testament.  To break any of them was a sin and required that some sort of offering be made for atonement, anything from sacrificing a bull to waving a sheaf of grain.

Jesus, in his teachings, summed up the law for us when he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  These are also commandments, and for us, just as important as that Top Ten list found in the Old Testament.

In our Gospel reading today, we have another commandment.  It was the last sentence, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Jesus has commanded us to be perfect.  Can I get a show of hands from those who have reached perfection?  Anybody?  Here is the kicker, if it is commanded – it is possible.  Be perfect – it is commanded by God, therefore it is possible.  To say that it is not is to be disobedient to the command.  So, what’s it going to be?

Would you believe me if I said that you are perfect? The truth is: You are.  St. Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”  For by one sacrifice – that is Christ death upon the Cross – he has made perfect forever those – that would be you – who are being made holy.

Through Christ, you have been made perfect, but note what Paul also said, “who are being made holy.”  You are perfect and you are being made holy.  St. Francis de Sale summed this up when he said that we are “Perfection seeking perfection.”  We are made perfect in Christ and each day, we seek to be made more perfect.

You may not believe this and believe me, you wouldn’t be the first, but be encouraged.  Think of it this way, expressed by St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, “Cast away that despair produced by the realization of your weakness. It’s true: financially you are a zero, and socially another zero, and another in virtues, and another in talent… But to the left of those zeros is Christ… And what an immeasurable figure it turns out to be!”

You may not believe that being perfect is possible, but you are perfect.  You are made perfect because Christ died for you and is in you.  You are perfect.  Your job as a follower of Christ is to seek to be made more perfect.  How do we do this?  My good friend Thomas a Kempis said, “If we were to uproot only one vice each year, we should soon become perfect.”  Perhaps today, though, we’ll stick with the words of Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  Most hear that verse and think of the cross they must bear and they are correct, but don’t miss that one important word “daily.”  To seek to me made more perfect in Christ is not something we practice only on Sunday.  It is a daily exercise.

You are perfect.  Seek to be made more perfect.

Sermon: Matthew 5:21-37

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Foxes’ Book of Martyrs tells us the story of Telemachus, a Christian monk who, in 391 AD, went on a pilgrimage to Rome. While there he noticed crowds flocking to the Coliseum to see gladiators do battle. He followed them in, only to witness a sight that repulsed him.

Emperor Honorius was celebrating his triumph over the Goths. Gladiators armed with spears and swords reenacted the battle.  After their reenactment the bodies of the dead were dragged from the arena and its bloodied surface covered with a fresh layer of sand.

In came a new series of gladiators. Some were armed with swords and spears, others with nets. The crowd watched with excitement as they sought to outdo each other. When a gladiator was wounded, his opponent would loom over him, waiting for the crowds verdict on whether to slay him or let him live. So great was the bloodlust that at times wealthier spectators would climb down to get a better view of the execution.

Telemachus watched with horror as people died, battles raged and the crowds cheered. Prompted into action this bald headed, robed figure found his way onto the arena floor. He ran toward two gladiators locked in battle, grabbed one of them and pulled him away. He exhorted the two gladiators to abandon their murderous sport. He appealed to the crowd to not break God’s law by murdering.

The response was anything but favorable. Angry voices drowned out Telemachus’, demanding that the spectacle continue. The gladiators prepared to do battle again, but Telemachus stood between them, holding them apart, urging them to reconsider. Driven by the anger of the crowd and their rage at Telemachus’ interference, the gladiators cut Telemachus to the ground, as the crowd threw missiles at him. Telemachus was killed.

Legend holds that when the crowd saw the little monk lying dead in a pool of blood, they fell silent and then began leaving the stadium, one by one.  Because of Telemachus’ death, three days later, the Emperor by decree ended the Games.

In this brief history we can see the work of a saint, but what struck me today was the crowd.  Most, I would hope, were opposed to the violence of war and murder.  However, having entered into the arena they were swept up in the event.  They cheered on the violence and encouraged the murder of the innocent monk.  They voluntarily subjected themselves to witness these horrors, they engaged a temptation, and in the process became complicit in then sin.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus makes several statements where he ups the standard, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  He speaks in a similar manner with regard to adultery, lust, swearing and more.  Like the crowd in the arena, these are offenses that we voluntarily subject ourselves to.  We walk into them knowing full well what we are doing.  Someone might anger us, but they don’t cause that anger to swell into a rage.  I may see a pretty girl walking down the street, but she is not the cause of lust rising up in me.  However, like those in the crowd, when we engage with a temptation instead of immediately walking away, then we may fall into sin.

St. Josemaria Escriva put it this way, “Do not enter into dialogue with temptation.  Allow me to repeat: have the courage to run away and the moral strength not to dally with your weakness or wonder how far you can go.  Break off, with no concession!”

When temptations arise in your life, do not entertain them.  Do not consider the “what ifs.”  Immediately set the temptation aside, not giving it the slightest edge.  In this way we can all live holier lives.