Thursday, October 08, 2015

Sermon, "Fruitful: Jesus's Fruit," 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Sermon 10/4/15
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
Fruitful: Jesus’s Fruit

            In case you’ve missed it, we’ve been talking about fruit! Fruit, fruit, and more fruit. Next week, many of you will be helping out at our booth at the Apple Festival, but for those who are here, we’ll close with a final reflection on what it means to be fruitful, before we turn to some of our particular expressions of fruitfulness at Apple Valley, namely that we increase our fruitfulness by being prayerful, invitational, and missional. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you won’t hear any more about us being fruitful. I’m hoping that we’ll be returning again and again to being clear about the fruit we’re seeking. My hope would be that everyone here would feel confident expressing an answer if someone asked what fruit we’re trying to produce at Apple Valley.
            Still, on the last day we’re all together focusing on this in worship as our main theme, what is it that is left to be said. When I first sketched out our worship series, I was going to be talking about the verses in the gospels where Jesus looks at the crowds and sees how they need direction and tells the disciples that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, so pray for God to send more laborers into the harvest. But it just wasn’t connecting, wasn’t getting the import or urgency that I feel is attached to this work we’re doing on fruitfulness.
            Then I began thinking about how today is World Communion Sunday. There are many Sundays, many Sundays, when Christians around the world all celebrate the gift of holy communion. But World Communion Sunday is a day when we make particular note of the way we are bound together as people of faith by one bread, one body, one Lord of all. Our practices vary, but we’re bound together in that we are all members of the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ. To me, that means that we’re the expression of Christ in the world. As we share in the bread and cup, the product of the wheat of the field and the fruit of the vine, as we are filled up with the presence of Christ, we in turn become for the world the body of Christ. That’s what we pray when we consecrate the elements. We ask for God’s spirit to be poured out on the bread and cup, so that they might be for us the body of Christ and so that we might be for the world the body of Christ. We are Christ’s body in the world.
            And then it just kind of hit me, this phrase: We are Jesus’s fruit. As we starting thinking about the fruit we produce, and bearing good fruit, we talked about God’s promise to Abram and Sarai, which is basically that they would be fruitful, and their fruit would be fruitful. Generations of fruitfulness. That’s what God wants – fruit that is so good it bears more fruit. In the scriptures, Jesus is described as the first fruits of creation. First fruits are the best, in the scriptures, the best that gets offered to God, and Christ is the first fruit of everything. Christ is the first fruits. And as God calls us to bear good fruit, we’re tasked with this because we in turn are already the fruit of Christ!
            The awesome task, the awesome privilege, the incredible responsibility we have been given is to be the fruit of Christ. We, God’s children, drawing closer to God through discipleship, through following in Jesus’s footsteps, through claiming the life abundant that is really life – we are in fact Jesus’ fruit, what Jesus came to accomplish, the harvest of his work. We are Jesus’s fruit, Jesus’s harvest. And so people will look at us, watch us, observe our lives, and draw conclusions all the time about Jesus and his message, about being Christians, because they know too, even if they wouldn’t put it in these terms, that followers of Jesus are the fruit of Jesus’s ministry. What conclusions are people drawing from us, from you and me, from Apple Valley, about who Jesus is?
            In our scripture text today, we find the apostle Paul teaching the community at Corinth about communion. Apparently, some bad practices had developed quickly after folks started following Jesus. Gatherings of the faith community would take place at a member’s home, and usually a wealthy member, since they had spacious houses. Apparently, some people started making communion something where the wealthiest were served the best of the communion first, and lower class folks were only invited later, when sometimes the feast had already run out. Paul is outraged at such a corruption. If we demonstrate in the communion meal that we are one body of Christ, how can that be true if the meal turns out to only be offered for some? Paul condemns the disparity, condemns divisions, and says that anyone who comes to the table without discerning the body will be condemned. Discerning means perceiving or recognizing. So Paul says we have to “recognize the body” if we don’t want to be judged badly.
            So what does it mean to recognize the body? To discern the body in communion? It means that we recognize the presence of Christ in the meal, the presence of Christ in ourselves – that we are Christ-bearers – carriers of the presence of Christ into the world – and that we recognize Christ in each other. For Paul, then, the Corinthians failed to discern the body because the rich were forgetting that the poor were also Christ-bearers.
            We have been seeking after good fruit, and we will continue to do so. And part of that seeking is a process of discerning the body – recognizing the presence of Christ with in us, and the responsibility that comes with it, so that we can help others recognize the presence of Christ within them. We embody Christ in the world, because we are his fruits, and we in turn bear more good fruit, as we nurture and cultivate the seeds that God is planting.
            Teresa of Avila, a nun who lived in the fifteenth centuries, wrote this poem that has become one of my favorites:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

We are part of the harvest over which Jesus has labored. We’re some of his fruit, grown with love, with his own life poured out and into us. We are his fruit. We are his body. Let’s make for God a plentiful harvest. Amen.  

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Sermon, "Fruitful: Just Fruit," Isaiah 5:1-10

Sermon 9/27/15
Isaiah 5:1-10

Fruitful: Just Fruit

            Last week, I gave you some homework. I asked you to think about the “so thats” that make up what you do and why, and what we do here at Apple Valley and why. Apple Valley is here so that what? We worship so that what? We act in ministry so that what? I hope you had an opportunity to struggle and wrestle with these questions a bit this week. If you haven’t yet, and you need another worksheet, or if you didn’t get one last week, I have more right here for you! We spent some time at our Bearing Fruit Book Study talking about these questions, thinking hard about how we answer them. I’ve you’ve been finding it a bit challenging, I’ll give you a helpful strategy. You can’t always settle for your first answer. You aren’t always getting to the heart of the matter the first time you fill in the blank. So you have to adopt the attitude of a curious child. The favorite question of a curious child is “why?” But children don’t often just settle for your first answer to a why question. They ask it again and again and require of you more responses until they finally hear something real from you, something that is more deeply satisfying. (Or, of course, until they get the dreaded “because I said so,” but that’s not what we’re aiming for here!) Our so that question is really just a fancied up curious “why” question. And we have to keep asking it past our first easy answers until we get to the real stuff.
            So if you’re trying to think of, for example, why we have a music program, and your first response is that music makes our worship more interesting, then I’m going to ask you why it matters that worship is interesting. And if you say interesting worship matters so that people stay engaged in what we’re doing in worship, I’m going to ask why it matters that we’re engaged in worship. Do you get my point? I want you to keep asking yourself they why/so that question until you get to a compelling answer, like, “We have music in worship so that music speaks to our spirits in a way that opens us up with more of our heart to hear God’s message for us.” Now, I’m not saying that is the right answer. But it is one meaningful, satisfying answer we might give to the question. And then, when we have a meaningful answer, it helps us look at all the decisions we make regarding music and make them in light of the fruit we’re looking for in that area of ministry. Is it worth it to replace broken tone chimes? Yes, of course. Why? Because through the tone chime ministry, we might in fact be creating a space for people to open their hearts to God’s call. That’s why we’re playing, and so it is worth it to invest in it. Or, it might help us assess what kind of music we incorporate into worship. Which music helps people open their hearts and souls to God? That’s a different question than which is the most fun to sing, or which music is the most toe-tapping. Knowing what fruit we’re looking for will help us figure out what we want to plant and how we need to cultivate what we’ve planted. Knowing why we’re doing what we do at Apple Valley, what so that we’re seeking will help us as we think about how we spend our time and energy and resources.
            Thankfully, we don’t have to come up with the fruit that we’re seeking after all on our own. We’re not starting from scratch. We’ve already heard from God through the witness of the scriptures some of the fruit that we’re meant to cultivate in our lives. For example, the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians that we should seek to cultivate the fruit of the spirit in our lives – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In this case, we know the fruit, the so that already. Instead, our focus then is on how to cultivate that fruit in our lives. I’m going to do what so that I develop the fruit of gentleness. What are you doing in your life that helps you become a gentler person? What steps, what actions, what practices are helping you with the “so that I exhibit the fruit of patience”?
            Today, we’re thinking about other fruit that God says is must-have fruit. God says we are meant to bear the fruits of justice and righteousness in our lives, in our world. We’ve heard our scripture reading from Isaiah 5, and we’ll get to that, but I want to jump ahead in Isaiah a bit first, to the text that formed our call to worship today. The prophet Isaiah writes about God’s people when they fail to follow God’s commands, but Isaiah also describes in beautiful imagery what happens because of God’s grace and forgiveness and when God’s people return. Isaiah says “A spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” (Isaiah 32:15-17) Justice and righteousness go hand in hand in the scripture. Righteousness means living in a way that we’re in right relationship with God and everyone else. Justice is God’s vision for a world of set-right relationships. They go hand in hand – God’s vision for a just world is fulfilled when everyone lives righteously. Berlin and Weems, the authors of our study book, say that the mark of righteousness in our lives is when we’ve been transformed by our relationship with God. In other words, others should be able to see the evidence of the righteous fruit in our lives. God says we’re meant to seek the fruits of righteousness and justice. And so we have to ask ourselves, what are we doing in our lives, how are we living, how are we cultivating the garden of our soul so that we’re producing the fruits of righteousness and justice?
            When we turn back to Isaiah 5, we read a passage that is known as The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard. As I said, Isaiah describes what happens when the people fail to follow God’s commands. In particular, this passage is about what happens when God’s people fail to live and act with justice and righteousness. In the text, God plants a vineyard, but is surprised to find wild fruit instead of good fruit. The actual word in Hebrew where we read wild literally means “stinky.” There’s a vineyard full of stinky fruit, and God takes action in response. God says, “I will make [the vineyard] a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed; and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” Isaiah continues, “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” God criticizes the people for building huge houses and huge estates so that there’s no room left for others to live. Earlier, God asks, “What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” Because God finds no fruit of justice or righteousness, God stops cultivating the vineyard. And it’s clear from the text that God isn’t just abandoning a vineyard that needs help. God sees that the people have willfully failed to produce justice and righteousness. They’ve actively cultivated fruit that stinks by their failure to care for the poor and oppressed, by their obsession with their own accumulation of wealth and riches. Not only do they fail to produce righteousness and justice, but they have been actively producing bad fruit that undermines righteousness and justice. This kind of behavior – mistreatment of the poor and vulnerable – God hates.
            Many of you probably took note of the news that came out recently citing Syracuse as one of the poorest – and increasingly poorer still – cities in the nation. It is not much of a claim to fame, is it? If you want to see some stinky fruit, just read the comments online on any news article about poverty, and you will find it filled with comments from people who seem to just loathe people who are poor. What kind of fruit of justice and righteousness would God find in Onondaga County? God expects us to cultivate the fruits of justice and righteousness. God expects that our lives will be transformed by our relationship with God, and that because of that, we will work to set our relationships with each other to rights as well, and we will work to ensure that others have access to the same wholeness, the same abundance that we have experienced through our relationship with God. What is it that we are doing so that we produce the fruits of justice and righteousness?
            I’m sure many of you have also been following the news of Pope Francis’s visit to the US this week. He’s been speaking in every venue, among other things, about the increasing inequality between the rich and the poor. But he also encouraged people to cultivate hope: “A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city,” Francis said. “A hope which frees us from empty connections, from abstract analyses or sensationalistic routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city.” (1) Our hope is in God, knowing that we can’t create righteousness and justice on our own. Instead, we’re laborers in God’s vineyard, working hard for the fruits of righteousness and justice. And God’s hope is in us, as God waits to see the fruit of our lives. What will we do, friends, so that God finds the fruits of righteousness and justice at Apple Valley? “A spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.” Amen.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sermon, "Fruitful: Have We Fruit?," Luke 13:6-9

Sermon 9/20/15
Luke 13:6-9

Fruitful: Have We Fruit?

For centuries now, candidates for ordination in The United Methodist Church have been asked questions, with only the smallest variation, that John Wesley asked of those who said they were called to preachers in the Methodist movement at its beginnings: “1) Do they know God as a pardoning God? Have they the love of God abiding in them? Do they desire nothing but God? Are they holy in all manner of conversation? 2) Have they gifts, as well as evidence of God’s grace, for the work? Have they a clear, sound understanding; a right judgment in the things of God; a just conception of salvation by faith? Do you speak justly, readily, and clearly? 3) Have they fruit? Have they been truly convinced of sin and converted to God, and are believers edified by their service?” Wesley said that “As long as these three marks concur in anyone, we believe [that one] is called of God to preach.” These questions are asked now near the beginning of a candidate’s ministry process, and I’ve had that phrase on my mind this week. “Have they fruit?” Have we fruit?
We started our book study this week on Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results by Tom Berlin and Lovett Weems. (It’s not too late to join in, by the way.) In the book, Weems and Berlin urge congregations and church leaders to think about the fruit that their ministry bears. What’s the fruit of our work as the church? Our fruit, what comes of all that we do, is, should be, our purpose, the reason we exist. Your purpose, they argue, should answer the “so that” question. Anything you do in the life of the church, or in your own individual life even, should have a corresponding so that purpose that is the fruit of what you do. Here’s what they mean: think of a hobby you enjoy, and then think about why you enjoy it. You might say, “I like to go running so that I keep my heart healthy and strong.” Everything after the words so that is your purpose. Although other things might happen when you run, the so that is the real fruit you are seeking after. So, you might have fun running, but that’s not why you run. Likewise, if the fruit you are seeking is a healthy and strong heart, you can get there other ways than running. Focus on the fruit that you want – a healthy, strong heart, and then you can decide which way to get there – which process of planting and growing and cultivating your fruit makes the most sense. And, you may find out from your doctor that running isn’t helping you achieve your purpose. You aren’t strengthening your heart with the work that you’re doing. If what you really want is the fruit of a healthy heart, you’ll need to do something else than you’ve been doing. Does that make sense? The fruit that we seek is the so that – the purpose, the aim of our ministry. Think of these so that statements of Jesus: “I have come so that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” “For God so loved that world that he gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.” The gospels show us a Jesus who was remarkably focused on his purpose. He had joy and laughter and relationships and all sorts of experiences, but everything we know of Jesus in the gospels points to the fruit he’s cultivating, to his so thats.
All too often, church and church leaders do wonderful things – but with no clear sense of why they are doing them. Churches don’t really know what fruit they are trying to grow, and so their mission and ministries are sort of a collection of things that seem interesting or usual for churches to do. Maybe they produce a little bit of fruit here and there. But there’s no real intention, and so the harvest isn’t exactly spectacular.
What is the fruit that we’re seeking after at Apple Valley? Apple Valley is in ministry in the world so that what? Weems and Berlin suggest that churches can ask this question of every part of the life of the church. We have a choir so that what? It’s important to us to have a children’s ministry so that what? Asking these questions are especially important for smaller congregations like us. We dream big, and we should. But we also have to use our resources in the best ways. We can’t do everything. What can we do well? What fruit will grow best here? What fruit is God envisioning as just the right crop for Apple Valley? Being clear about the fruit that we’re hoping for can change and focus our ministry together. What kind of fruit are we growing here, and how intentional are we about it? Gardeners don’t just plant unknown seeds and wait to see what pops up, because you can’t plan very well that way how to give things the right amount of room and sun and water. We plant tomato seeds expecting to harvest tomatoes!  
Today we hear a brief text – a parable known as the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree. Jesus talks about a man who planted a fig tree in a vineyard – an unusual action right there, as fig trees aren’t usually part of vineyards – and he comes looking for fruit on the fig tree and finds none. So he says to the gardener – the one who would care for the tree on a regular basis, “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” But the gardener pleads the case of the tree, asking for one more year, so he can dig around the tree and fertilize it. And then, if it bears fruit next year – all is well. And if not, then, after much effort, the gardener will acquiesce, and the tree can be cut down.
There’s a lot to think about in these short verses. First, the question of the man who planted the fig tree is rightfully wondering why you would keep a plant around that isn’t growing anything. If the purpose of the tree is to grow figs, and it isn’t growing figs, maybe you can plant a new tree that will bring you the fruit that you want. But the gardener also makes a strong case: sometimes, the potential for the fruit is there – but you need to do the work of tending and cultivating to have the fruit actually grow, kind of like my cactus. Should my cactus be thrown out because I’m a bad caretaker? Or should I get my act together and work on cultivating a plant that will blossom and blossom as it is meant to do?
This parable shouldn’t surprise us on either count. First, we shouldn’t be surprised that God is pretty intent on us bearing good fruit with our lives. God wants us to discover and fulfill our life’s purpose, so, so much. And I think God wonders what we’re up to if our lives show no fruit for the endless amount of busy-ness we seem to achieve. But we also shouldn’t be surprised that God is advocating even at the same time for second and third and fourth chances. I think if this parable continued on, we’d find the gardener, if the fig tree still had no fruit, suggesting yet another solution. Our creative God comes to us in so many ways, looking for the way that will help us bear the fruit that God dreams for us.
            I read a fascinating article this week, which is actually a few years old, about a group called Guerrilla Grafters in San Francisco. Apparently, several neighborhoods are lined with pear, plum, and apple trees that are ornamental, intentionally non-fruiting trees. In other words, fruit trees that are meant to never bear fruit. Tara Hui, the founder of Guerrilla Grafters, thought this made no sense at all. Apparently, the city was worried about the mess fruit trees might cause, and rodents that might be attracted to the fruit trees. But Hui thinks the benefits are far greater than such concerns. So she and a group of Guerrilla Grafters graft fruit-bearing branches onto the non-fruit-bearing trees. And then the fruit is accessible to anyone who picks it. It’s easy to do – you just make a slit into a branch on the host tree, insert a branch from the fruit-bearing tree, and tape them together. “Once it heals, it connects. Basically the branch becomes part of the tree,” said Hui. 
            What’s even more interesting is that the Grafters won’t do this to just any tree. Instead, they graft only onto trees that have been nominated by someone who has volunteered to be a steward of the tree, someone who “promises to maintain it and make sure that fruit is harvested and does not become a hazard.” Although some of the grafts will take a few years to completely blossom into new fruit, some results are more immediate. "Two months after we grafted [one tree], it flowered, and we went back again and saw little pears on it," Hui said. "Some passersby must have picked it and had it, which is the idea. There's no ownership of these trees. There's just stewardship."
            Grafting to get fruit where you haven’t been is actually in the Bible too. In his letters, Paul spends time trying to explain why he sees his ministry as focused on reaching the Gentiles, those who are not Jewish, when the Israelites had always understood themselves to be God’s particular people. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes that the roots make the branches holy. But, he says, if some branches are broken off, new branches can be grafted on. A wild olive shoot can be grafted on to share the rich root of the olive tree, he says. And neither new branches nor old branches are superior to each other, because it is by God’s grace that branches can remain part of the whole. Indeed, Paul says, God has such power that even original branches, broken off, can be grafted back in yet again. In other words, God is looking for branches that will bear good fruit, and God will go to any length to make healthy branches part of the tree, and beyond that, God will never count as totally hopeless even branches that are broken. They might even yet bear fruit, by the power of God. (Romans 11:16-24)
            Asking ourselves, each other, this congregation “have we fruit” shouldn’t scare or intimidate us, because grace abounds by the power of God and by the creative Spirit of the one we serve, fruit can grow even when it turns out we planted ornamental trees. And so trusting in the gift of God’s grace, we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. We’ve got every reason to put our whole hearts into bearing good fruit, whether it is what we’ve planned all along, or whether we have to graft some new branches onto old, or whether broken branches need to be sewn back onto the tree.
            So then, so what Apple Valley? We continue to be church here in this place so that what? You are living your life as you are so that what? You’ll find in your bulletin a little worksheet that I’d like you to take a stab at filling out. It’s about this so that question in some different areas of our life together. There are no grades, no wrong answers. I’d really like you to try filling it out, so that we might talk more together about what we’re growing here. Apple Valley, do we know God as a pardoning God, full of grace? Has God gifted us beyond measure? Have we fruit?


Sermon, "Fruitful: God and Good Fruit," Revelation 22:1-5, Genesis 2:4-9

Sermon 9/13/15­
Revelation 22:1-5, Genesis 2:4-9

Fruitful: God and Good Fruit

            Ok friends. Summer vacation is over, for better or worse, and now it’s time to see what you remembered. This year, we’re going to be focusing on the four themes that we touched on briefly in turn this spring. We’re going to take each one, dig into them, in depth, and figure out what God is calling us to do and how we’re going to respond. And those four themes – and here’s a tip if you’re forgetting or haven’t been here recently – they’re in the bulletin on the bottom right – those four themes are: prayerful, invitational, missional, and fruitful. And this fall, for the next several weeks, we’re thinking about God’s call to be fruitful. We’re starting with this not just because this happens to be a great time of year to be thinking about harvest and gathering in fruit in a church called Apple Valley. No, we’re starting here because for me, being fruitful is the umbrella over the other three themes. Being prayerful and invitational and missional are ways in which I hope we can express our primary purpose: being fruitful disciples of Jesus.
            I shared with you in the spring that there are literally hundreds of references to fruit and fruitfulness in the scriptures, running from Genesis to Revelation, in the history and prophets and poets, in the gospels and letters. Everywhere we turn, the scriptures are talking about fruit. We’ll talk about what it means for us to be fruitful, what kind of fruit God wants us to have, how we cultivate our good fruit, and what happens when we’re fruitful in the weeks ahead. But today, I want us to think about the source of our fruitfulness, who is, of course, God, our creator. God created us to be fruitful, and created a fruitful world. Fruitfulness is a part of God’s very nature. But I hope, today, we can figure out a little bit more about what that does and doesn’t mean. And to do that, we’re looking at the beginning and the end of our scriptures: Genesis and Revelation.
            In Genesis, we find an account of creation. We studied the account in Genesis 1 a few weeks ago, and here we get another telling of creation. But in both, we find an abundant God. Here, we find God creating human beings, and God brings the first human, Adam, to life by breathing into him. God’s breath gives life to humanity. And in Hebrew, the word for breath is also the word for Spirit – God’s breath in us – God’s spirit in us. And we read that the people are placed in a garden, a paradise, where “out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” From the beginning, God sets humankind in the midst of fruitful abundance.
            In Revelation, in the very last chapter in our Bibles, in John’s vision of eternity, we read: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Trees in eternity that bear good fruit perpetually, year-round, with giant leaves, meant for the healing of the nations. According to John, the end is as fruitful and abundant as our beginning, all given to us by God. We begin and end with images of God’s abundance, God’s nature of fruitful overflowing goodness.
            Clearly, being fruitful is a good thing. The lush vivid goodness is meant to be a gift to us. I often joke with people that fruit and dessert are separate food groups that never need meet. Fruit isn’t dessert. Fruit is fruit. Chocolate is dessert. But such a concept is certainly modern. Fruit is sweet and full of natural sugars and represents a gift, a pleasure, an indulgence even. This is what God wants in the world: sweet gifts, offered to us again and again. The psalmist says “taste and see that Lord is good.”  
            We serve a God who creates with a generous abundance and calls forth from us good fruit. And yet, somehow, we get off course. A few weeks ago, I shared with you the creation story of pointless people – of the snake convincing everyone that the point of life is to see who can get the most points. I think we get obsessed with being productive instead of being fruitful. It’s easy, maybe, to confuse the two. After all, we talk about produce, a noun, the products of working the land. We can produce good fruit, right? But we twist things from God’s vision for us into something that eats away at our souls.
            My favorite Christmas movie is Santa Claus, The Movie. I am a child of the eighties, and it is a classic eighties movie. One of Santa’s ambitious elves named Patch, played by Dudley Moore, comes to Santa with a great idea for increasing toy production. Basically, he envisions a toy assembly line, which will construct toys for children with great speed and efficiency. Another of the elves and his team feel that the hand-crafted work they’ve done with toys for centuries is worth the time it takes. But Santa can’t deny how much more they can get done with the assembly line, so they give it a go. Everything is going smoothly – until the quickly-made toys start falling apart and unhappy families throw the broken pieces away. Santa and the elves return to their slow, careful toy making process, and Patch is disgraced. Maybe a Christmas movie example seems out of place in the beginning of September, but I couldn’t help but think of it when I was thinking about the difference between being productive and being fruitful.
Every once in a while, I’ll hear someone say, “Well, you have to remember that the church is a business.” Sometimes, this comes up in the concept of talking about budgets and finances and figuring out how to make ends meet and wanting to adopt practices that for-profit businesses use. I understand what people mean. And certainly, churches and business both have budgets. But when it comes to the reason for existence, and the guiding values, and what makes a church church – what we find is the difference between fruitfulness and productivity.
            Businesses operate as part of this crazy economic system that runs our world. Our whole system is structured on a myth of scarcity. How many commercials and ads have you seen with the word “while supplies last” as part of the offer? Or “limited edition”? We are meant to understand that the fewer there are of something, the more valuable that thing must be. It’s a mindset that says if there’s a limited supply, I better make sure I have it, so that I don’t run out, so that my needs are met, so that I can possess something. The myth of scarcity allows us to be ok with the fact that some people have nothing, because we can pretend there’s just not enough to go around, and that it’s ok for some to have 100 times, 1000 times more than others, because they’re just making sure that they don’t run out. In the system that runs the world, we try to produce the most we can, at the lowest cost, while creating the highest demand for a product by giving the impression that we’re’ just about out. 
            But God desires fruitfulness, not productivity, which means both that God cultivates abundance and overflowing goodness at every turn, and that God is not productive in any way that would fit in a nice business model of supply and demand. There are none of us who cannot bear good fruit for God. This isn’t an offer God makes only to some. We’re not trying to produce the most or the best or the most exclusive or the fanciest whatever. Instead, God calls for us to be fruitful, with more than enough fruit for everyone, fruit that tastes good, that satisfies, that fills you up. And the best fruit comes not from an assembly line, not from a factory, try as we might to make it so. The best fruit, the most tasty, with variety, and longevity, the most enjoyed fruit – it comes from gardens, from orchards, from creation, from sun and rain and harvest.
            In the weeks ahead, we’re going to think about what kind of fruit we have to offer – personally, and as a congregation. What do we have to show for ourselves? What is our life making? What’s the impact, the fruit, of Apple Valley? But I want us to know what we’re talking about, what we’re looking for, when we start looking for signs of fruitfulness. We’re not looking for the biggest pile of stuff. What we find might not measure up to any best business practices. But will it be sweet to taste? Will it fill us up? Will there be more than enough for everyone? If we can say “yes” to those questions, we’ll be talking about fruit that belongs in the garden of our generous, abundant Creator. Amen.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Sermon, "Summer Days: Camping," Genesis 12:1-9

Sermon 8/30/15
Genesis 12:1-9

Summer Days: Camping

            I’ve told you before how significant an experience going to camp was for me as I grew up: significant for my life’s journey, my faith development, my call to ministry. And I’ve told you that I grew up attending Camp Aldersgate, up in Brantingham, NY. Before Upper New York, and before we became North Central New York, in fact, my conference was the Northern New York Annual Conference, and Aldersgate was our camp. Everyone in my family went to Aldersgate. My Aunt and Uncle met there. My cousin and her husband met there. Everyone from our church went there. Eventually, when I was still a pretty young child, we became North Central New York – all Apple Valley’s predecessor congregations were in the Central New York Conference – and suddenly Casowasco became a part of our Conference. I had never been to Casowasco, but I heard about it, of course. It was the fancy camp. In fact, it wasn’t really like camping at all. It was practically like taking a vacation in a hotel. Not really going to camp, like at Aldersgate, where you stayed in rustic camping. Or even more so, like the year I went to Adventure Camp, and we stayed in tents out in the Wilderness Area all week. That was really camping. Or even more so, like the Backpacking and Canoe Trip campers, who actually travelled all week, and stayed in tents in a different place each night. Now that was really camping. But Casowasco? With a lakeside mansion to stay in? How could that be camp?
            Of course, I had never been to or seen Casowasco. And I never wanted to either. And then, in high school, I served as one of the youth representatives to the conference’s camping board, and our meetings were split – half at Aldersgate…and half at Casowasco. I felt like a traitor, stepping onto the grounds of the camp. Ok, I had to admit, it was very lovely. But it wasn’t camp. And then, I attended a youth event there, for a weekend. And ok, I had a lot of fun. But it wasn’t really camping, of course. And then some years passed, and I went to college, and I went to seminary, and I started in my first year as a pastor, and it had been a while since I’d been to camp. And I was helping out now as the leader of the conference youth I’d once been part of. And in my first year, I dutifully brought my sleeping bag to meeting and slept on the cold, hard floors of local church as I had when I was a youth. And then I bought an air mattress. And then I bought a nicer air mattress. And then I realized that when I had the choice of place to go for a retreat – I was heading not to Aldersgate, but to Casowasco, or someplace like it. Somewhere where you didn’t have to leave your cabin and walk to a washhouse to use the restroom, and instead, enjoyed the lovely view from your room in the old mansion on the lake… Of course, I still love Aldersgate. And I can still make a case for it being more like “camping” than Casowasco. But now you all know the truth. I’ve come to prefer my comfortable surroundings more than “real camp” experience of Aldersgate. (1)
            What kind of camper are you? An Aldersgator? Or more like Casowasco? Tents? An RV? Or is a fancy hotel the closest thing to camping you do? If you do a quick google search or go on a site like Pinterest, you can find a lot of images and ideas for “Glamping” – that is, glamorous camping, camping with a lot of frills and bells and whistles. Is this really camping? Is this your kind of camping? This week, as I was preparing my sermon, I got thinking about this tendency. We have this tendency, many of us anyway, to want to settle down. That’s not a bad thing, of course. Settling down often means buying a home, or finding a career that you want to stick with, or having children, or getting married – some of life’s many blessings are things we associate with settling down. Putting down roots.
            I wonder, though, if we’re always aware of the difference between settled and stagnant. Think of bodies of water. A body of water can be calm, settled, and placid, but that’s an entirely different thing than water that is stagnant, dead, and lifeless. A placid body of water still has life and air and movement. I think of a study I read earlier this year that said Americans sit too much. Now, this is probably isn’t news to most of us. We’ve all read stories about the general declining health of our citizens. But what’s interesting about this latest study is that the results showed that even for people who regularly exercised every day, the exercise was not enough to counteract the negative effects of sitting still for the rest of the day. Of course, some folks are challenged by various concerns and moving around all day isn’t a real possibility. But for most of us, we’re sitting around all day out of choice. More than ever, Americans spend their days sitting: at work, at home, in front of a computer, in front of the TV, in front of our smart phone screens and tablets. The study indicated that we need more regular movement throughout our day, every day, in addition to regular focused exercise, to be really healthy.
              I had all this in mind as I was mulling over Abram’s story in the scriptures this week. We talked about Sarai and Abram back way back in January, when we were talking about the new names God gives. But our focus is a bit different today. Today, I want us to think about Abram’s camping trips. See, Abram was just a man, with a wife named Sarai, who was living life, when for no named reason whatsoever, no particular quality to note in their character, no explanation given, God tells Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This happened when Abram was 75. And we read, “So Abram went.” It’s my favorite part of the passage. He asks no questions, not a single one. He just goes. He packs up all his possessions, gathers his family, and they set out to Canaan. And then from there they go to Shechem. And from there, we read “he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent.” And from there, the text says, “Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.” Along the way, he builds altars to God, signs of worship. But they’re temporary. Because Abram and his family are living in tents, and they’re constantly moving. They’re on an extended camping trip. At a word from God, he’s become nomadic.
            Being a wandering, nomadic people – that becomes the story of God’s people – they’re on the move for so much of the Old Testament in particular. Being a people on the move is so central to their identity that when they do finally settle down, the law is filled with admonitions to be particularly welcoming to the strangers, the foreigners, because they for so long were wanderers themselves. And God is clearly a moving God. Remember, last week, when we read Genesis 1 together, God was described as being a wind that was sweeping over the face of the waters before anything else was even created. Already moving.
            Eventually, though, after generations, God’s people want to settle down. They want to be in one place. And they want God to be in one place. They clamor for a king, a way to be just like other nations, and those kings really want to build God a temple, a place where they can go and know that God will be present. Everyone wants to settle down. Settling down isn’t bad. And God blesses and encourages some of these impulses in our biblical witness. But sometimes the settled seems to turn into the stagnant. And the people who want to stay put also don’t want to follow God – physically or spiritually – anymore.
            I think of our own Methodist heritage. In early Methodism, John Wesley, the founder of the movement, was an itinerant preacher. He didn’t have one fixed congregation. Like Abram, he was a wanderer. He preached in fields, wherever he could. And when Methodism took hold in young America, circuit riders went from town to town to preach and teach and bring the sacraments. Methodism was a movement. It was mobile. Wesley, responding to advice that he “settle in college” to teach, that he “out to sit still,” responded, that he looked on all the world as his parish. (2) What was once a Methodist movement of revival has now become an institution, a denomination. And that’s not bad – I love The United Methodist Church. But an institution still has to have movement within it, lest it become not settled, but stagnant.
            The thing is, our God is always on the move. Always active, living, moving, getting into every corner where there is need and pain and injustice – God is always right in the thick of that. And God is always calling us to follow. Jesus’ call is an active one: Follow Me. Go where I send you. The disciples in Acts are called apostles, which literally means “the ones who are sent.” Their very identity encompasses movement. Nothing about God is stagnant, and God means for nothing about God’s people to be stagnant either.
            So, I’ve got to ask you – is your faith life, your relationship with God growing? Moving? Settled? Or stagnant? Are we too comfortable to respond to God’s call? I’m not saying God’s calling us in the same way God called Abram – no two stories are the same with God. But I can’t think of any stories of God calling someone that were calls to keep doing exactly what they’d been doing. No stories of scripture where God says, “Looks good, Beth. Now just keep doing that exact same thing forever and ever Amen.” God’s just got too much energy and too much life and too much joy for that, and a world that experiences joy and life and energy too unevenly for us to not be a people of faith who are on the move with God. On the move as we send dollars with campers for life-changing experiences with God. On the move as we send nets to Africa to help end devastating malaria. On the move as we send some of our church family into new adventures in new stages of their lives. On the move as we welcome new faces and new lives into this place. On the move even to next door or to co-workers or family members who are seeking the face of Christ and can find it in us.
            Grab your tent. God is on the move. And I think we’d better follow. Amen.

 (1) Be not alarmed, friends of Casowasco and Aldersgate. Both are lovely camps, with real camping. They’re just each their own. Just go to camp somewhere!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Finding a Direction

You may have noticed that I have stopped posting lectionary notes recently. Life has been a little crazy, and for a couple of weeks, I forgot. And then, I started thinking about what I wanted to do with this online space. 

I have lectionary notes on here for the whole three year cycle - you can find them for whatever text you need by searching the blog, using the archives, searching by tag. I will continue to post my sermons each week. 

But for now, other than that, I'm thinking things over. I'll keep you posted!

Sermon, "Summer Days: The Great Outdoors"

Sermon 8/23/15
Genesis 1:1-2:4

Summer Days: The Great Outdoors

            When I was in Sunday School in about 5th grade or so in Westernville, NY, my class didn’t have to be in any of the skits for the Children’s Sunday pageant. Instead, we each got to pick and read our favorite passage of scripture. I already had lots of favorites, and I hadn’t yet discovered my current long-lasting favorite – “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” But out of my favorites, I decided to go with the creation story found in Genesis 1. I thought it was so beautiful. And I loved the part about how we’re created in God’s image. I’m not sure, looking back, whether my questions about creation came first, and then I chose to read this text in worship, or it is was the other way around. But near the same time, I asked my Sunday School teacher Mr. Waldo how it could be that God created the world in seven days if dinosaurs lived and became extinct all millions of years before people came around. I had learned the first thing at church and the second thing at school and both sounded right to me until I tried to put them together. Adults can respond in a lot ways, sometimes not so helpful ways, when kids are asking faith questions. But Mr. Waldo just said that God’s time might not be measured like our time, and he thought they could go together just fine – both what I had learned at church and what I had learned at school.
            I’ve never forgotten his response, and I always give thanks for it when I remember, because it really enabled me to always see the way we describe the world in faith language and the way we describe it in the language of science as things that go hand in hand – two ways of talking about the same thing. When I read Genesis 1, I’m not looking for the science of how the earth got here – and I don’t think that’s why the author was writing. The author wanted us to know some essential things about God, the world, and our relationship with God. And the author wanted to communicate in a particular literary style. It’s poetry. It’s a hymn. Genesis 1 is practically a piece of liturgy – it’s a call to worship. I still find it beautiful.
I read about a neat activity for Bible study that I’ve since used with study groups or prayer stations – and I will hopefully try here sometime with you. It’s called Bible Blackout. You take a passage of scripture and print it out on a sheet of paper. Then you read the text and circle all the words that stand out to you. And then you take a sharpie and black out all the words except the ones you’ve circled. And you’re left with a kind of poem that you’ve created out of the scripture passage. When I did this with my youth in Liverpool, I worked with the creation text that we read today, and this is the poem I came up with:  
“God created deep waters. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. And God saw good. So God created humankind in the image of God and blessed them. God saw everything, and indeed, it was very good. And God rested.”
Boiled down, that’s the message of creation I get from Genesis 1: God created. And God saw good, good, good. And humans are created in God’s image and blessed. In God’s image. When God created us, God made us reflections of God! Each one of us! A sacred gift. And God saw it all, and saw us all, and saw that it was very good indeed. Good enough that God felt ready to take a bit of rest. That’s a good story, this hymn of creation, that tells us a deep truth that we’re still struggling to accept. I think most of scripture answers a question, and figuring out the question can help you understand the text. I think the question, in this case is: are we inherently good or bad? People? The world? Good or bad? Theologians have actually debated this – created new religious movements because of their beliefs about this – for thousands of years. Are we inherently sinful and bad? Or, at our core, despite what we might become or how we behave, or how we choose that which is not what was intended for us, are we, in fact, good? The author of Genesis 1 has a pretty straightforward answer to that: good.
I don’t know if, in ancient times, people felt closest to God in places other than the great outdoors. I’m sure some people especially felt God’s presence in the Temple. Certainly, though, even the writings of the poets and prophets in the Bible – the Psalms, Job, Isaiah – it is clear that even though ancient peoples spent much, much more of their time outside than we do, still they were filled with awe and wonder and a sense of closeness to God as they observed the world around them. Still today we’re filled with wonder when we head outdoors, and for many, it is easier to find God in nature than elsewhere. Maybe outdoors, maybe in the midst of creation, it is a sliver easier to remember that God is Creator and that God chose to create us, and that God called us good. And yet, we’ve become such an indoor people, that I wonder how often we forget what would otherwise come so naturally to us.
I was walking one day a few years back at beautiful Green Lakes State Park and spotted two teenage girls sitting near the water, enjoying the view. And then one said to the other, “It looks just like a computer screen.” I remember going to see a set of caves one time while we were on family vacation in Lake George. I had found out about these caves doing a little research for our trip, and had convinced my mom and brother to go. It was taking a while to get there. A bit out of the way. My family was complaining a little bit about the drive. And just then we started passing signs put up on the road that said, one word per sign: “Can’t move the caves closer to the road.” I think, though, that we’ve come to have this foolish belief that we can control nature, and we’re surprised again and again when it is beyond us. We want nothing to keep us from the crazy rhythm of life we have established. And so we try to box ourselves in, try to build up walls, literal and figurative, between us and creation, sometimes preferring to view it from our window. We’re surprised when wild animals crash into our wild-free world. Frustrated when we can’t keep our life at a consistent 70 degrees no matter what season it is – God knows – seriously, God knows that I am thankful for air conditioning and heat. And we don’t even think about how crazy it is that we have access to any kind of food we want from any part of the globe at any time of the year.
            Sometimes, we forget about the hymn of creation. And we forget that God created us and called us good. In fact, another creation story is in our scriptures, right after the first, and it recounts, in Genesis 2 and 3, a story of Adam and Eve and a paradise, a garden where God walks. And then there’s this snake, this serpent. And then we see the beginning of the forgetting that God called us good, the beginning of the walls – between us and God, between us and creation, between us and each other. Walls and layers that we think protect us but in actuality hide us from God’s truth.
            David Erlander is a Lutheran pastor who’s written some of my favorite stories for adults, called Tales of Pointless People. This is the creation story from his perspective, adapted by Barbara Lundbald:
I am telling you that in the beginning, God created not one or two but a whole bunch of us. Lots of us. Because God knows that we love to play. So we did play all day and into the night. We splashed in the rivers. We rolled down the hillsides. We ran with the wind.
Until one day the snake came. At least they told us it was a snake. It might not have been a snake. It might have been someone in a three-piece suit with a cellular phone. Or it could have been a theologian with a very fat book. But what they told us was that it was a snake.
And the snake came to us, to all of us who were playing on the hillside and splashing in the water, rolling and playing and tumbling, and said, "This is foolish! You are wasting time. None of this makes any sense unless you learn to keep score."
We had no idea what the snake meant. But then the snake said something really interesting. The snake said "Whoever gets the most points will get this apple!" But we had no idea what points were. So then the snake said "I will teach you. . . ."
And so the snake did teach us how to keep points with our running and our jumping and our climbing. And so that whoever climbed highest got points, and whoever ran fastest got points, and whoever could roll down the hill fastest got points. Some things however, like frolicking, were too hard to score. So we gave them up all together.
Soon we were keeping score for everything we did. We chalked up the points for everywhere. We kept track so that we would know who had the most points because surely all of us wanted to get the apple.
Soon we were spending so much time keeping score that we didn’t have time to play.
Then God came into the garden. And God was wroth. God was very, very wroth. And God told us that we would have to leave the garden. Not only that — God told us that we were going to die.
Well, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s God who didn’t understand things! My cumulative lifetime score is now 12,263. By the time I die, it will probably be even more! We were like God’s slaves in the garden. We had to do everything that God told us to do. It was the snake who taught us to keep score, and now I’m teaching my children to keep score. I think they could reach 15,000. Maybe 20,000. Now we are free to make as many points as we can, to keep making points till the day we die and to teach all our children and our grandchildren how to make points. I’m really grateful to the snake. . . .
We know, friends, don’t we, that there is no end of ways in which we’re given the message that we are not, in fact, good enough. Not, in fact, good at all. Only by believing that we’re lacking, that we’re without, that we’re not enough can be convinced that we need to buy any number of things that promises is contains goodness itself. Enough points for us perhaps not to win the snake’s game, but at least to stop losing so badly.
Sometimes, I think our souls just long to get back outside. I remember travelling to an event in Dallas in high school, and the event was at a hotel right near the airport. And there was a tram that departed from inside the airport and arrived inside the hotel. And the whole event was inside. And there was no scheduled free time. And then I got back on the tram and went back to the airport and flew back home. I was never outside. And I felt boxed in, longing for the fresh air, the great outdoors. I think our souls long to be closer to a place where we remember that God created, and saw us, and saw good. I think we long to remember a time when there were no points, and no keeping score. Fortunately, the snake doesn’t get to tell the end of the story. Here’s how the rest of it goes:   
And then an ordinary fellow appeared from Nazareth - we said to ourselves, did any winner ever come from Nazareth? … And … do you know what he did? He went up to people like fishermen and whispered in their ear, "You don't need points!" And he sat down beside a Samaritan woman at the well and told her everything about her loser sort of life and said, "You don't need points either!" Then he sat down with Nicodemus, a teacher of the Law, and said to him, "You don't need points, Nicodemus." To Mary and Martha, to Joanna who was married to a very high official, to Susannah, Mary Magdalene, to Zacchaeus, to all of them he said, "You don't need points!" And those who gathered around him, listening to what he said about the kingdom of God being in the midst of them, soon looked at each other and him and said, "This kingdom is pointless!" Well, he didn't say a thing except to smile. They had pointless banquets where the guest lists were thrown away. They had pointless picnics on the hillside where everyone got plenty to eat, and there was still some left over. They even had a pointless parade into the city with children leading the way and people waving palms instead of swords. How pointless can you get!
But the snake, or the one in the three piece suit, or the theologian with the heavy book - I can't remember who it was, but it was someone with friends in high places - said, "This will never do. This will never do." And so shortly after that parade, they put him on trial. And they stopped him good as dead. And they sealed the place where they laid him to rest with a huge stone so that not even a whisper could escape that would ever say to anybody "You don't need points." And that was that. Except this morning-- This is strange. This morning some women came running to us, breathless, yet somehow full of breath. And they said to us, "You don't need points!" It was enough to make us think that that word had never died. But we said, "You've got to be crazy!" And we sent them away. And as they left, they were frolicking. I am not kidding - they were frolicking! Did you see where they went? (1)


Sermon, "Summer Days: Water Break," John 4:5-42

Sermon 8/16/15
John 4:5-42

Summer Days: Water Break

Over the years, I’ve tried several times to stop drinking Diet Coke. In high school, my senior year, I had a bout of kidney stones. The doctor wasn’t sure what caused them, but they suggested I try backing off the caffeine, and I would have agreed to anything they recommended to ensure no repeats of the kidney stones. So I just switched to caffeine free Diet Coke. But eventually, I started drinking it again – I had a become a vegetarian in my first year of college, and vegetarians are at less risk for kidney stones, so I felt like I could make the trade. And I’ve been pretty addicted to Diet Coke ever since. And several times, I’ve tried to give it up. One year, I gave up soda for Lent. I did really well all through Lent. I passed through the headache phase, that painful process where your body doesn’t respond well to missing out on caffeine. I still wanted Diet Coke when I saw it, but I managed to survive without it.
            Of course, without having soda, I needed to replace my soda with something else to keep hydrated. Soda actually isn’t a good hydrating beverage. Between the sodium and the caffeine, soda can actually make you thirstier than otherwise. So I drank a lot of water. I actually got my recommended eight cups of water a day. I learned to really enjoy water. And I found that the more I drank of it, the thirstier I was for it. It quenched my thirst, yes, but it also created in me a need for it – it satisfied my thirst, and so I actually thirsted even more for it. And anyway, when I am the most thirsty, and the most in true need of something to quench my thirst, I would never or rarely reach for a soda. After a hard workout, or being active on a hot day, it is cold, thirst-quenching water that I would reach for.
So why am I so reluctant to give up the soda? Why am I so reluctant to make a change that can only be for my benefit? Good for my health? There’s nothing beneficial about Diet Coke, except the taste, and if I could go long enough without it, even the taste is not as compelling as it once was. I wish I could say I kept my Diet-Coke free lifestyle after Easter came last year. But you know better. Recently, I’ve been trying again to kick the habit. I did really well for a couple weeks, and then had just one – just one Diet Coke. But of course, that led to just one more, and you guess the rest.
I’m guessing we all have our Diet Cokes. Not, I mean, that you all drink Diet Coke. But we all have these things that we do, even though we mean, we plan, we commit, we resolve not to anymore. We promise and swear that we’ll do differently, we’ll be different. We’re in good company in this. The apostle Paul writes about it in his letter to the church in Rome. He says, “7:15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul gets it. We keep doing the very things that bring us at best, momentary satisfaction, but in the end, leave us more empty than when we started. We’ve talked about dreams and we’ll keep talking about dreams and you’ll probably get sick of hearing about dreams at some point. But the crazy thing is that so many of the things we dream about are entirely possible. We know how to accomplish the things we dream about. We know what it would take to do what we dream about doing with all our heart. And we still just don’t do it. Why is that? Why don’t we do what we want to do, and instead do things that take us farther away from our hopes and dreams? Why do we do things that undermine our heart’s desire? I’m not just talking about messing up on our diet plans. I’m talking about ways that over and over again we make choices and decisions that result in us feeling empty inside instead of filled up, things that make us feel far from God instead of close, things that make our dreams seem impossible instead of reachable. Why would we do the very opposite of what we mean to do if it is within our power to do otherwise?
One of my favorite verses from Isaiah asks these very questions. Isaiah writes, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Why? I think that we don’t believe we’re capable of meaningful transformation. Actually, that’s not quite right. I think, at the heart of it, we’re scared of meaningful transformation. We’re scared of new life, as much as we crave and long for it. I think that we don’t believe we’re worth the results of meaningful transformation. If we sought after deep and meaningful lives for ourselves, instead of the unsatisfying substitutes we let become our existence – I think it would mean that we care for ourselves enough, love ourselves enough to consider ourselves worth the struggle. Worth the hard work. Worth the time pursuing your dreams takes that quick, unsatisfying fixes do not. And so, scared of what change might bring, what change would mean, and not thinking we’re worth it, we choose the diet coke over the water again and again.
That’s the woman – a woman just like most of us in fact – that I think Jesus meets at the well in our text today. The gospel of John is the only gospel where we find this passage, and it marks the longest single conversation Jesus has with an individual in the scriptures. Jesus is travelling from place to place and his destination causes him to travel through a Samaritan city. The Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along. Remember, a couple of weeks ago I told you that in fact they were enemies, Jews and Samaritans. They had common religious ancestry, but over the centuries they had divided and come to have deeply different religious beliefs.
But, Jesus travels through this Samaritan town, and stops at a well. A Samaritan woman, unnamed like so many women in the Bible, comes to the well, and Jesus asks her to draw him some water to drink. She’s surprised. She’s a woman and a Samaritan, two huge reasons for Jesus not to speak to her. But Jesus tells her, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is [that is talking to you], you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman is naturally confused by Jesus’ strange talk. How can he get water without a bucket, she wonders? Jacob, their revered forefather got water from a well with the help of God. Can this man Jesus do that? Jesus answers, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman responds, even if not understanding fully, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus goes on to tell the woman all about herself, her history. She’s been reaching for Diet Coke over and over again. She’s had relationships with many men. The woman asks if Jesus is a prophet. They debate a bit, about their different religious views. But Jesus tells her, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the truth worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth, for God seeks such as these to worship. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman says she knows that the Messiah is coming. Jesus says he is the Messiah.
But that’s not the end of our passage. The disciples show up, surprised at Jesus’ conversation partner, but wise enough apparently to keep their thoughts to themselves. Jesus says something to them about food to eat, and they, like the woman, are confused by his talk. But Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to proclaim his work.” He talks about the Samaritans being ready for the harvest, ready to receive the good news. Indeed, the passage closes with the woman bringing others to meet Jesus, who believe that he is the savior because of her witness.
I want to share with you a poem, a monologue really, by Chris Kinsley and Drew Francis that gives us the voice of the woman at the well. Listen to her story:
I am a woman of no distinction
of little importance.
I am a women of no reputation
save that which is bad.
You whisper as I pass by and cast judgmental glances,
Though you don’t really take the time to look at me,
Or even get to know me.
For to be known is to be loved,
And to be loved is to be known.
Otherwise what’s the point in doing
either one of them in the first place?
I want someone to look at my face
And not just see two eyes, a nose,
a mouth and two ears;
But to see all that I am, and could be
all my hopes, loves and fears.
But that’s too much to hope for,
to wish for,
or pray for
So I don’t, not anymore.
Now I keep to myself
And by that I mean the pain
that keeps me in my own private jail
The pain that’s brought me here
at midday to this well.
To ask for a drink is no big request
but to ask it of me?
A woman unclean, ashamed,
Used and abused
An outcast, a failure
a disappointment, a sinner.
No drink passing from these hands
to your lips could ever be refreshing
Only condemning, as I’m sure you condemn me now
But you don’t.
You’re a man of no distinction;
Though of the utmost importance.
A man with little reputation, at least so far.
You whisper and tell me to my face
what all those glances have been about, and
You take the time to really look at me.
But don’t need to get to know me.
For to be known is to be loved and
To be loved is to be known.
And you know me.
You actually know me;
all of me and everything about me.
Every thought inside and hair on top of my head;
Every hurt stored up, every hope, every dread.
My past and my future, all I am and could be.
You tell me everything,
you tell me about me!
And that which is spoken by another
would bring hate and condemnation.
Coming from you brings love, grace,
mercy, hope and salvation.
I’ve heard of one to come
who could save a wretch like me
And here in my presence, you say
I AM He.
To be known is to be loved;
And to be loved is to be known.
And I just met you.
But I love you.
I don’t know you,
but I want to get to.
Let me run back to town
this is way to much for just me.
There are others: brothers,
sisters, lovers, haters.
The good and the bad, sinners and saints
who should hear what you’ve told me;
who should see what you’ve shown me;
who should taste what you gave me;
who should feel how you forgave me.
For to be known is to be loved;
And to be loved is to be known.
And they all need this, too.
We all do
Need it for our own.

For to be known is to be loved and To be loved is to be known. And you know me. You actually know me; all of me and everything about me … And that which is spoken by another would bring hate and condemnation. Coming from you brings love, grace, mercy, hope and salvation. Friends, we’ve got Diet Coke. And we’ve got Living Water. The choice seems so simple. It is simple, when we remember that God knows us and loves us. Knows all about us and loves us. And still wants to give us Living Water. God knows us and loves us and think we’re worth a deeply satisfying life abundant. God knows us and loves us and says we’re worth it. May we come to know, to believe what God knows already, and may we drink deeply of the living water springing up from the heart of God. Amen.