Monday, March 4, 2013

The Perishable and the Imperishable


Years ago in Atlanta my wife Joy and I were shopping at the local Kroger.  In the produce section we were struck by the name tag of an employee.  The badge bore his job title: Perishable Manager.
I’m sure that Kroger was telling us that this man was in charge of the perishable food section of the store.  Produce items are perishable.  Their shelf life is limited, they remain in their prime condition for a relatively short period of time, they begin to decay, and eventually they inhabit the compost heap where they return to the dirt from which they came.
John Singer Sargent's "Study of a Fig Tree"

That’s what Kroger meant. 
Joy and I are hopeless word people.  That’s why we enjoyed reading the name tag as a description of its wearer’s existential condition instead of a job description: a manager who is perishable.
Our simultaneous response: “Aren’t we all.”
There is a paradox at the very heart of human existence.  Like everything else around us, we come into being, grow, decay, and pass away.  We are perishable.
And yet we can imagine and have a longing for the eternal.  It is not only that we want to exist for all of eternity, but also that we want to be significant for all of eternity.  Who we are, what we have done, what we have savored, and what we have suffered count for something in the great story of all things.
Some people have dismissed this longing as a pointless fantasy born of superstition or fear or willful ignorance.  But even they bear within their souls a longing that they must learn to ignore or stifle into near silence.  Ironically, even these hopelessly sophisticated people will still strive to leave a legacy, a kind of immortal remnant of themselves, in the form of books written, achievements memorialized, or wealth and political power associated with a family name.
All of us have the sense that what we do while we are perishing can provide for us a significance that will not pass away when our frail hearts beat their last.  Jesus speaks to this infinite longing clearly and frequently.
Guy Rose's "Fig Trees, Antibes"
And while he does make it clear that our patterns of laughing and crying, making friends and drawing boundaries, respecting ourselves and caring for others have two possible eternal trajectories, my guess is that the widely held Christian view of heaven and hell leads him to sigh, “Oi vey.”
Jesus has come to bring eternal life.  Being in relationship with him is the key to eternal life, and that life begins even now.  At least in brief glimpses, thrilling foreshadows, and tempting foretastes.  
When who we are and what we stand for derive from our relationship with Jesus, then our identity persists beyond the veil of death.  We carry that relationship with us.  Or more accurately, that relationship carries us with it.
By contrast, we can opt for a life whose rewards are initially exciting but that will eventually prove fruitless.  Some people spend all their energies pursuing career success, wealth and possessions, physical beauty, social status, and earthly pleasures.  
They cannot imagine life without these things.  They draw their identity from them.  
Alas, you can’t take any of these things with you.  So when their EEG goes flat, they become nobody.  They no longer have anything to identify them.  This is not to say that they no longer exist.  Instead, they exist as a nobody of their own making.

In today’s Gospel (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus tells a parable about eternal life.  
There’s a fig tree in the midst of a vineyard.  The owner of the fig tree checks it for fruit and finds none, so he tells his gardener to cut it down.
The gardener asks the owner to give him one more year to tend and to fertilize the tree.  Surely it will bear fruit by then.  If not, then they can cut it down.
Eternal life is a tree that bears good fruit.  As corny as it may seem, Jesus is saying that eternal life is a fruitful life.  It’s alternative is utter fruitlessness.
God wants us to bear fruit, not because he requires of us a certain set of achievements in order to win his approval and affection.  Instead, good fruit indicates a healthy tree.  And a healthy tree draws its very life from God himself.
Marc Chagall's "The Tree of Life"

We yearn to produce fruit.  It is in our very nature.  In other words, we want to make a difference, to do something of eternal significance.  This can go wrong in at least two ways.  We can refuse to invest ourselves in life (as we learn in the Parable of the Talents).  Or, we can devote ourselves to things that seem to matter but that in the end matter not at all.
There is no sense in this parable that God only shows up in the end to assess the quality and the quantity of the fruit.  He has come repeatedly to check on the fruit tree’s progress.  This suggests continued concern for the tree’s well-being.  He has assigned a gardener to tend the tree.  
The conversation we overhear between the owner and the gardener is probably an excerpt from an ongoing exchange about the care and nurture of the tree.  In other words, God has not left us on our own only to then grade us at the end.  He is nurturing us, protecting us, and guiding us every day.  He offers us all that we need to produce the fruit of his work.
God does not require that we produce our own fruit.  He wants to see that we are bearing within ourselves the fruit of his own work.  His work is the work of the Spirit, the result of the cross and the empty tomb.  He is not asking us to justify ourselves to him.  On the contrary, he is asking us to depend upon him to justify our whole lives.  That’s just what the cross is all about.
Eugene Delacroix's "Christ on the Cross"

Like the tree, we identify ourselves with the fruit we bear.  The problem with the fig tree is that it bears fruit that will perish.  God wants us to bear fruit that does not perish.  
If our worldly achievements, good looks, social status, power, prestige, material comforts, and wealth make us who we are, then upon our physical death who we are perishes.  We can’t take that stuff with us.  
By contrast, look at the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  (Galatians 5:22-23)  These are not achievements that win God’s approval.  Instead, in his letter to the Galatians Paul is describing the outward and visible signs of a soul rooted in the Holy Spirit and a life bearing fruits of that Spirit.
Jesus tells this parable in response to the horror and puzzlement some of his followers expressed at the the sudden, senseless deaths of some people in Galilee.  His followers wondered allowed.  Does a pointless death like this mean that their lives were futile? Some of us may have had the same response to Newtown or to Aurora or to something even closer to home. 
Stanley Spencer's "The Resurrection: Reunion of Families"

Jesus’ message provides an entirely different way to see both death and life.  We are perishable.  Our lives are fragile and fleeting.  And yet through Jesus we can also begin receiving a life that endures and matters forever right in the midst of all the changes and chances of this passing world.
In Jesus Christ, God himself embraced our tender and vulnerable existence.  Even the death that shadows it.  On the cross and in the empty tomb, Jesus defeats our death and gives us his life.  A life that has passed through death and sorrow and suffering once and for all.
In Jesus Christ, the perishable longings and loves of this life become the imperishable fruit of God’s love.
This sermon was preached at St. Andrew's, Moss Bluff.

1 comment:

  1. I once discovered a wonderful quotation whose author I have forgotten: "Man is in love and loves what perishes." A less grand quotation came from a past story in the comic strip "Wilby Dunne." He was burying a man in an open coffin situation and there was also a fax machine in the coffin. The Reverend was explaining that he had told the deceased over and over that he( the deceased) couldn't take it with him, but the deceased remained convinced that someoone could fax it to him.
    I do believe that idolatry did and does kill. Idols diminish identity. They still do today.

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