Sermon for October 8, 2017
Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom
He was known as the meanest, angriest man on his block. A nasty old cuss, he had a drinking problem, a sick wife, and he had made an enemy out of everyone in the neighborhood. He would chase the neighborhood kids out of his yard until one day he got so angry, he grabbed his shotgun, ran after the kid playing basketball across the street and fired right into his back. Then he got into his car and headed to Kmart and started shooting people in the parking lot randomly. Then he headed across the street to the Winn-Dixie, killed two rookie police officers, both in their 20s, then he went into the store. Those customers that couldn’t escape by the back door, or that didn’t hide in the freezer were held hostage. The siege lasted for 7 ½ hours, until under a fog of tear gas the police were able to creep into the store aisle by aisle until they captured him. He had killed 6 people and wounded 14 others. The man’s name was William Cruz and the town was Palm Bay, Florida, where I grew up. And although you may not know or remember his name or the incident, at the time it was international news. That was in 1987 when I was 8 years old. It is the first time I remember encountering that kind of random and senseless killing and violence. At the time we were shocked that that sort of thing could happen in our own town, and we couldn’t imagine something like that happening again. Who would have imagined that 30 years later, such acts would become almost common and the death toll rather minor?
I spent a fair amount of time being angry this week. I was angry on Monday morning when I heard the news of yet another act of senseless violence in our country. I was angry that this disgusting act was perpetrated not by some foreign power or terrorist cell, but by one of our own. Most of all I was angry that I wasn’t in the least bit surprised. Who wouldn’t be angry that such a thing keeps happening in our land with no solution in sight? A lot of people are angry. If you watch the news, read the paper or turn on your computers, you will find almost unlimited amounts of anger. The pro-gun lobby is angry at the anti-gun lobby. Democrats are angry at Republicans. It would be very easy for me to get caught up in one side of that anger. I could deploy facts and figures. I could march and protest and believe me, I have done it. Those things do serve a purpose. But what happens when anger becomes your go-to response for everything that challenges you? I was in a meeting this week with a very angry person. They weren’t angry with me, they weren’t angry about Las Vegas, the person was upset about something else entirely, but the anger in this person was palpable. The person just seemed angry at the world. I thought to myself: “gosh, it must be terrible to be that mad all the time. What must this person’s life be like if lurking around every corner is another opportunity to be outraged?”
I began to realize that maybe anger is the real problem here. Don’t get me wrong I think our country has some serious issues that we need to address. There are times when I think we should be outraged, but I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the emotional energy to be mad all the time at everything that is going on in the world that I don’t like. I am tired of society telling me that I need to be constantly offended and constantly mad all the time. I am not going to invest what little energy I have left at the end of the day into cultivating anger. I want us to be able to actually take some corrective action on some of the serious problems in our society, but we will never be able to address them or do anything constructive about them until we get over our obsession, our addiction to being angry and outraged all the time. This is the state of our country right now: we are addicted to being outraged. We will look for it. We will parse everything someone says to see if they might have possibly made a misstatement and then we will pounce on it, drag that person down, destroy them in any way that we can and then go on, proud of ourselves at doing a righteous deed. We are angry and we are proud of our anger because it makes us feel righteous. We don’t know how to find that righteous feeling anywhere else so we find it in anger. As long as we can keep feeling angry at someone or something, we can keep feeling righteous about ourselves and our way of life. We don’t have to really look at ourselves as long as we can stay focused on how wrong someone else is.
So you are either for me or against me. There is no room for compromise. And therefore we make no progress on creating a healthier and better society for all of us. There is just more division. Everything is black and white; right or wrong. God forbid people with different viewpoints should actually talk to each other or listen to each other. God forbid we should actually move people by winning their hearts and minds rather than just overpowering them. No, we would rather encase ourselves in our anger. That feels more comfortable. That makes us feel righteous. The addiction has gotten worse in recent years, but don’t go looking for one person, or one party to blame, and it’s not the internet’s fault either. The anger in our country has been growing for decades and our response to the problem has just been to create more anger. If all our anger is producing is more anger, then maybe we might try sowing something else for a change. Now I’m not saying that it isn’t right to be angry sometimes, of course it is, but if that is all you ever are, then I think there is a serious problem there. Jesus felt anger too, but even in his most desperate hour he didn’t live in it. He didn’t feed it. Instead he showed us a better way.
God has given us so much. Christ has promised us so much. We have so much to be thankful for. God has given us so much, and given it to us freely. We didn’t have to earn it. But, that does not mean that God doesn’t expect our lives to produce fruit. Just because we have the promise of forgiveness and eternal salvation in Jesus does not mean that God no longer cares what kind of fruit our lives produce. Quite the contrary, because we have been given so much in Jesus, we should care so much more about how our lives are a testimony to God’s love. That’s why Paul said that he regarded “everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
For Paul, to be in Christ means that he no longer has to be concerned about his own righteousness. He doesn’t have to feel righteous all the time. His righteousness comes from Christ. He doesn’t have to find his righteousness in anger; his righteousness comes from God. That doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t get angry; he did, but Paul also recognized that anger was a product of the flesh; something that when left unrestrained will lead you away from the true righteousness that comes from God. In the Letter to the Galatians, what one might call Paul’s angriest letter, he says to his readers:
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh…Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these.
I know plenty of Christians that latch on to that word fornication and they get so excited that their minds must tune out and miss all those other works of the flesh, maybe they will tune back in for drunkenness and carousing, but they definitely miss anger.
Paul goes on to list the fruit of the Spirit. Now if you grew up Roman Catholic you might have been made to memorize the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit. Well Paul only lists nine. How y’all ended up with three extra is beyond me. Paul says:
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
That is the fruit of the kingdom. That is the fruit we are meant to cultivate. That is the fruit Our Lord is looking for. Those are the grapes he has sown in his vineyard, and those are the attributes that he expects to see in those that bear his name. If we are supposed to be working for the kingdom, then we need to be paying attention to the fruit our lives produce. Memorize those fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Do you see them when you look at your life, when you look in the mirror? Do other people see them in you? Are we seeking to cultivate those fruits in our children? Are we electing people that demonstrate those fruits in their lives? Can we use those powers to listen to people with whom we disagree and maybe find some common ground? Can we plant and nurture love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control and make this vineyard we live in a little more like the one God planted with choice vines in Isaiah 5, and a little less like the one that we have created with our wild grapes?
There is a John Mayer song that I love called Belief. It begins with the line:
Is there anyone who ever remembers changing their mind from the paint on a sign?
Is there anyone who really recalls ever breaking rank at all for something someone yelled real loud one time?
I love those lines. And as I have watched our country descend into this constant state of anger and madness, I am aware that it’s natural to get angry when someone does something that hurts or offends you, or says something that you disagree with, but living in that anger doesn’t fix anything. We need to make our country a safer place for everyone, but we aren’t going to do it with anger. Anger is what has led to these horrendous acts of violence. There are moments when we should genuinely be outraged, but we can’t live in that space all the time. We can’t cultivate that wild grape.
One of the things that makes our parish so unique and strong is that we are mixed: different politics, different races, different sexual orientations. How is it that we are able to come together week after week in this community? It isn’t always easy. There are moments of anger I assure you, there are wild grapes, but we get past it. Love is so much stronger. If we Christians really want to make our country, our society and our world a better place we will do it by winning people’s hearts through love, not by shouting angry slogans. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I don’t find anger in that list. I guess it must be a part of the problem. Maybe anger isn’t a fruit we were meant to cultivate.