I have been accused, and probably sometimes quite accurately, of being a perfectionist. Of course, we are actually a culture of perfectionists who are always trying to reach greater heights. We go so far as to separate people into archetypes and stereotypes based on – among other things – those that are the high energy take charge, Type A, people and those who are the “slow and steady wins the race”, or type B, people. The funny thing is that these distinctions are actually related to stress producing risk factors for heart disease. And while science tells us that B is the better choice, our culture tells us that unless you are the lead dog in the pack the view will never change.
Scripture tells us something else, and thanks be to God! It is God who is making all things perfect. In fact, God’s love is being perfected through you. That’s a fairly intimidating idea, but it is one we are told over and over in our scripture readings today. Yet, it is still intimidating if we think of the idea of God’s love becoming perfect in us from the perspective of measuring up. It’s intimidating if we think about our limitations. If we think about our losses – or even those resources and relationships that we just can’t seem to attain – then we get lost in the negative space.
Every painting, every work of art, every expression of life and vitality has some negative space. Shadows prove that the sun shines. Silence creates space for music to flourish. The awkward pause in every conversation gives space to consider the value of the person before you, and a confrontation creates the opportunity to demonstrate what we truly value. So much of life is supported and given meaning by the negative space. And while that space is important and meaningful, it is not the space that Jesus calls into.
Jesus calls us into the light and tells us that he wants us to bear good fruit! Have you ever thought about what this might mean? For that matter, why does he describe us as branches that abide in the vine? Where else is a branch going to live? Then there is the whole threat of pruning and being thrown into the fire. No thanks.
I understand the metaphor. Fruit is produced to reproduce the plant and provide resources for other organisms. A vine has to be pruned so that valuable resources and metabolic processes are not spent keeping branches that will not produce any fruit. The problem is that if we apply this directly to the church and we get a punishment and reward system that only values production. Not only that it can justify those feelings about how much of the load is being carried by the few who really seem to care.
Somehow I don’t think that’s what Jesus really had in mind. More than what we can do, this is about what God is doing. This is not about what I can do or what you can do. This is about the connection that we share that spills out into our lives, but is always grounded in our common unity as followers of Jesus.
The fruit we produce is not for us to consume. It is to share with the community that surrounds us. The fruit is not a product that we trade, it is the result of who we are. And who are we but a people of God? Who are we but a people with a legacy of faith to share, and prune, and grow in a way that demonstrates the active presence of God?
And how do we do that? We do it by loving others. I don’t mean simply being polite and considerate. I mean loving others by valuing their unique contribution to the song of life. When we do this, love testifies to love. When we look others in the eye and go out of our way to treat them with dignity then love has been perfected in us. But what happens when they don’t love us back? Mother Teresa said it this way:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
Mother Teresa spoke to the sense of futility that all of us feel sometimes, and while I think her words are true, I would argue on the last point. While I agree that God’s approval, our ability to love, and the love of Jesus are not dependent on others, I believe they find their fullness in our relationships. I don’t just mean the “How do you do and shake hands, state your name and business” relationships. I mean the type of relationships you find in community or maybe in an organism like a vine. There are those among us in all walks of life that we are related to simply by being alive. All of us together abide in – we live in, we exist in, we are immersed in like fish in the ocean – God’s love.
And we who bear the mark of Christ have certain fruit to bear. That fruit is borne when we testify – when we tell people that our story of redemption makes sense because of Jesus. Because this Jesus welcomed outcasts and ate with sinners and told people like you and me to go and do likewise, we believe that we can. And so, the fruit of redemption is produced for giving away. And this fruit – this perfect love – is not perfect because it has no blemish or scar. It is perfect because it includes the honesty of the cross. It includes our loss and pain. It includes the negative space that gives life depth and meaning. It removes fear so that fear is not even part of the conversation. The conversation is only and ever about reflecting the image of God in all we say and do.
While I think it is important to keep our focus on positive opportunities, the reality is that we are still limited and there is much anxiety and fear in the world around us. That’s actually why we are here – to demonstrate something better. Meanwhile, so many reports and arguments are flying back and forth after the death of Freddy Gray in Baltimore. You may have heard the story of the Southern Baptist Church of Baltimore. Although I can tell you their story, I think it will be more powerful if their Pastor, Donte L Hickman Sr., tells you himself.
The extension was called the Mary Harvin transformation center. It held 60 units of senior citizen housing. The lower level held workforce development and human behavioral services including life coaching and mortgage lending services. This does not seem like the type of branch that should be thrown in the fire!
Yet even with the flames burning in the background, this church produced fruit that demonstrated power and faith and love beyond anything that can be touched or built or destroyed. Pastor Hickman spoke of eternal things. He spoke of the resiliency of their faith community, of redemption, and of forgiveness. Even when the reporter tried to push him into a place of fear he responded by saying, “I’m a man of faith, and I see every negative as an opportunity to fight back with another positive.”
That’s what love perfected looks like – it sees even the deepest of human suffering as an opportunity for the greater good. The fruit we bear is simply the result of recognizing that God’s grace and mercy are active in all things. And we know that it is real in the fact that others can see it, feel it, and even taste it! As we come to the table today to be reminded of God’s love for us, let us seek to bear fruit that proclaims God’s grace and mercy, removes all fear, and finds its expression in love for loves sake. And to God be the glory for that. Amen.