Sermon – August 18, 2019, Proper 15, Year C
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Several years ago Barbara bought a small Myer lemon tree. It came in a pot and we let it grow for a couple of years in the pot outside. Eventually, we knew we had to plant it so that it could mature and begin bearing fruit. After a couple of years it seemed to be surviving if not thriving, but it did produce a few lemons every year. Then two years ago, a shoot sprang up out of it and grew very quickly. I was excited, thinking that finally our tree had reached a new milestone. Barbara thought this new growth might not be a good sign, but I would hear none of it. This year the shoot grew even more and looked quite healthy. But the rest of the tree still wasn’t producing very much. Then we visited some friends who have a small orchard in their backyard. We told them about our lemon tree and they told us that the shoot coming out of our tree was probably actually a sucker that was hindering the tree.
And so I did some online research and what I found confirmed what we were told. We learned that we needed to take our pruning shears and cut the sucker off right where it sprung out of the rest of the tree. The sucker was not healthy for the tree and indeed, it robbed the rest of the tree of nutrients. Still, it was hard for me to think that cutting off this branch was a good thing. It was so full of life and I feared that cutting it might hurt the tree and maybe cause it to die. However, I needed to trust those that knew better and prune our tree so that it could hopefully produce good lemons in the future. We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds for our tree.
As I reflected on our Gospel reading for today, I realize how my experience with our lemon tree illustrates one of the things our passage is telling us. We need to prune away those things in our lives that lead us away from God. Jesus says “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” Jesus wasn’t calling on his disciples to burn it all down to the ground. He wasn’t trying to incite anyone to riot and cause destruction. Rather, he was alluding to the refiner’s fire, by which ancient goldsmiths and metalworkers would purify their gold and silver. The Old Testament prophet Malachi looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and compared it to a refining fire when he wrote “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.”
The refiner’s fire can only accomplish its purposes when the heat is turned up to extraordinary temperatures. The dross is burned away and only the pure precious metal is left. This is a little bit like pruning the bad branches off of our lemon tree. It is important to cut them off so that only the healthy fruit producing branches are left.
Make no mistake, the process of purification is not without a great deal of pain. With metals, the ore must be super-heated to very high temperatures so that the dross will burn away. With trees, the bad branches must be cut off and thrown away. And with the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, our sins and corruption must be burned and pruned away.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes “But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”
The process of purification is a very serious thing, and often profoundly uncomfortable for us, but one we must all go through. Just as the metal dross must be burned away, and the bad branches cut off and thrown away, so our own sins and corruption must be cut out from within us. This will be a struggle for each one of us throughout our lives.
Purification doesn’t just end with us individually though. As the Kingdom of Heaven extends throughout the earth, the whole world must also be purified. And this means that evil, sin, unrighteousness and anything that is in rebellion against God must be cut out. And this will mean pain, division and resistance. Just as we will resist God’s transforming grace in our lives, so the world will resist God. How many of us with weight issues have an easy time dieting and eating healthy foods or keeping to an exercise regimen? How many of us with spending, gambling, alcohol or other issues have an easy time controlling our addictions? Our bodies, hearts and minds resist God’s transformation. Why should we expect this to be any different for the world at large?
This is why Jesus says “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Once again, Jesus isn’t trying to start any riots or civil wars. He is not trying to inflame passions or divisions. Not at all. The very nature of the Kingdom that Jesus is inaugurating is one of peace and healing. But Jesus knows that the world very often would rather stay mired in its sin and corruption rather than submit to the transforming love that Jesus offers. Jesus is telling us to be realistic. He is not encouraging division for its own sake but is rather telling us what will happen. Jesus wants us to be fully prepared for what will come.
This is why Jesus then speaks about the need to correctly interpret the present time. Jesus wants us to be prepared for what’s coming. Just as Floridians need to board up their windows and secure their homes when the weather service forecasts a hurricane, so we need to be prepared for opposition and hostility from the world as it reacts against the refining fire of God’s transforming love. If we aren’t prepared, we might lose our heart and our faith and fall away from God.
Our passage from the book of Hebrews speaks to this. In our passage we hear about how God repeatedly rescued the Israelites when they trusted in him. The author of Hebrews gives examples from throughout the Old Testament of how God miraculously rescued his people. But then the passage takes a more somber turn. We hear of believers who kept their faith in God even though they were subjected to great suffering and persecution. These saints kept their faith in God even as they suffered. They suffered without getting to see the promised ending.
Our Hebrews passage says “There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” This is an example of faith for us. This is what Jesus is preparing us for.
The world will oppose the spread of God’s kingdom and those of us who are followers of Jesus should not expect things to be easy. Instead, we must expect persecution and opposition. We need to prepare ourselves to endure this.
I read with interest one commentator’s thoughts on the challenge facing Christianity in America today. He wrote “As our culture changes, secularizes, and grows less tolerant of Christian orthodoxy, I’m noticing a pattern in many of the people who fall away: …the failure of the church isn’t so much of catechesis but of fortification — of building the pure moral courage and resolve to live your faith in the face of cultural headwinds.” In other words, one of the great challenges for Christians in America today is that we have not prepared ourselves for the world’s hostility and resistance to the coming of God’s kingdom. We should have paid heed to the weather forecast “red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” The sky was red in the morning, but we ignored it. But it’s not too late. We need to fortify ourselves and our Hebrews passage shows us how.
Our Hebrews passage concludes with the following exhortation: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
This brings us back to the words of Jesus in our Gospel and shows us how the refining fire of God’s love will fortify us to stand firm in Christ. Our Hebrews passage exhorts us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” We are called to prune from our lives everything that will draw us away from Jesus Christ. But that is not all. Yes, we are to avoid that which pulls us away from God, but we are also called to focus on God. We are also called to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” The Christian faith is not just about avoiding sin, it is about becoming disciples of Jesus and putting our focus on him. It is only by focusing on Jesus and drawing into communion with him that we can truly be fortified against the hostility and persecution of the world.
Recently I read a book discussing the future of Christianity in America by author Rod Dreher titled The Benedict Option. I found this book to be both insightful and challenging. In the book Dreher offers a number of thoughts on how Christians might respond to a world that is increasingly hostile to them. I’d like to read some excerpts as I think that they are sound words of advice for the Church today.
Dreher writes “We work, we pray, we confess our sins, we show mercy, we welcome the stranger, and we keep the commandments. When we suffer, especially for Christ’s sake, we give thanks, because that is what Christians do. Who knows what God, in turn, will do with our faithfulness? It is not for us to say. Our command is, in the words of the Christian poet W.H. Auden, to ‘stagger onward rejoicing.’” As our Hebrews passage tells us, we are called to be faithful even if we don’t always see the end purposes of God. We may trust that in the end, God’s purposes for us and promises to us will prevail.
In another place Dreher writes: “Love is the only way we will make it through what is to come… It has to be a kind of love that has been honed and intensified through regular prayer, fasting, and repentance and, for many Christians, through receiving the holy sacraments. And it must be a love that has been refined through suffering. There is no other way.” As followers of Christ, we need to be intentional about our faith. The author of Hebrews tells us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” As any athlete knows, you can’t just run a race without first submitting to the discipline of physical training, eating right, and mental preparation. Only after you have submitted to such a discipline will you be ready to race.
So it is with our Christian journey. We need be intentional and disciplined in our Christian lives. This includes putting away everything that draws us away from God, no matter how precious to us. It requires that we engage in a regular and disciplined study of God’s word in the Bible and a regular and disciplined practice of prayer. It means submitting our lives to God’s discipline, turning away from worldly pleasures and not seeking fulfillment in material things. It means that we need to worship God regularly with our fellow believers in church, where we hear God’s word explained, confess our sins, hear God’s forgiveness, and receive the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. It means being a full part of the body of Christ where we can support each other and hold each other accountable.
The readings in today’s lectionary are not easy for us to hear and obey. They require commitment and discipline from us. But the reward is even greater. The reward is the transformation of our lives by the Holy Spirit so that we can be pure, redeemed and sanctified sons and daughters of our Creator God. It is only if we work with Jesus as part of the Kingdom of God that we can bring the transforming love that this world so badly needs. We are the lemon tree in need of pruning, but if we submit to God’s transforming love, then we will bear much fruit. Fruit that the world desperately needs.
Let us pray,
Heavenly Father, creator of the world, give us the strength and perseverance to run the race that you have set out for us. Give us the courage and the will to subject our whole selves to your refining fire, that you will purify us and make us holy, a people set apart for you. Send your Holy Spirit to us that we may live committed lives of faith and discipleship. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.