Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
October 4, 2019 Worship Sermon - "A Well Pruned Life"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
The other day, I was taking a stroll through John Heinz Wildlife Refuge. It had been closed for several weeks because of damage from Hurricane Isaias, so I was glad to get back there and enjoy the beauty of the place. I passed the rest rooms, which are really just outhouses, and saw a volunteer cleaning them out. I know that is not a pleasant job, so I thanked the volunteer for helping to keep the refuge so nice. Then I said, “There’s a place for you in heaven.” As soon as I said it, I regretted it. Implying that he was going to heaven for doing good work is bad theology. Heaven is not a reward we get for being super good while we are here on earth. Heaven is life with God, and we get it because God loves us and forgives us in Jesus Christ. The volunteer, though, was a better theologian than I. When I said, “There’s a place for you in heaven,” he responded, “Yes there is, thanks to Jesus!”
That volunteer’s response resonates with what Paul is saying in our reading from Philippians. Paul begins the passage by listing all of his wonderful credentials… all the reasons one might think he had a place in heaven: he was a member of the right tribe; he was blameless under the law; he was a zealous defender of the faith. If good works are what get us into heaven, certainly, there was a place in heaven for Paul. But Paul says none of that matters. All his good works, all his credentials, are nothing more than a heap of manure. Because for Paul what matters is Jesus. You can hear in Paul’s words his deep love for Jesus:
"I regard 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. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death."
For Paul, a place in heaven means a place in Jesus. He was quite happy to leave behind all his credentials in order to claim the prize of life with Jesus.
Today, October 4th, is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, another person whose love for Christ inspired him to leave everything else. You may know that Francis was the son of a very wealthy cloth merchant in the 13th century. Although his father expected him to continue in the family business, Francis immersed himself in the Gospels and took seriously what Jesus said about selling all that you have and giving to the poor. His father was not happy with how Francis was squandering his wealth, so he took Francis to court and demanded that Francis pay him back for all that he had given away to the poor. Francis stripped himself naked and threw his fine clothing at the feet of his father and said, “You can have it! I renounce all my inheritance.” From that point on, Francis began to live a life of complete poverty.
Now, for most of us, the idea of voluntary poverty sounds masochistic; why would anyone want to deprive themself like that? But Francis didn’t consider himself deprived at all. On the contrary, he found tremendous freedom and joy in living without possessions. When he was working for his father, he was always concerned about maintaining his wealth and what might happen if he lost it. Now he didn’t need to worry about losing it. As a matter of fact, he was quite happy to give it away. For Francis, devoting himself to Christ gave him more bliss than devoting himself to possessions.
In Isaiah, we read about a vine that yields wild grapes. If you’ve ever tried to grow grapes, you’ll know that grapevines need to be pruned in order to bear good fruit. Without pruning, grapevines will send out hundreds of shoots that sap all the energy from the vine. So instead of sweet, juicy grapes, an unpruned vine will yield tiny little grapes that are hard and sour. The lives of Paul and Francis were like well pruned vines. Both of them turned away from the distractions that prevented them from following Christ. For Paul, the distraction was his own righteousness. For Francis, the distraction was wealth. They let themselves be pruned of these distractions so that they could bear good fruit in Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide in me and I abide in you, you will bear much fruit.” Jesus invites us to connect to him so that the Holy Spirit, like life-giving sap, can flow through him to us. Jesus the vine bears the good fruit of love, forgiveness, justice, and healing. Connected to Jesus, our lives can also bear that same good fruit. Sometimes we may be pruned of the things that distract us and keep us from bearing good fruit. But in Jesus we have what we need the most: God living in us. There is a place for you in Jesus Christ.