Saturday, November 14, 2015

Sermon, "Prayerful: Praying Like Jesus," Matthew 6:5-13

Sermon 11/1/15
Matthew 6:5-13
Prayerful: Praying Like Jesus

            We’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a prayerful people. We’ve talked about being confessional, and being persistent in our prayers. And we’ve talked about how we’re bound together in prayer in the act of communion, bound together across time and space in the body of Christ. Next Sunday, we’ll practice praying through music. In two weeks, we’ll be focusing on prayers of Thanksgiving. Some of you have had experiences, even over these past few weeks, of the power of prayer, as you gave thanks to God for some prayer answered. Some of you have offered prayer at one of our meetings or studies – I’ve really been encouraging everybody to feel comfortable offering a prayer to God on our behalf. And so far, everyone has survived the experience! Today, though, I want to spend a little time thinking about Jesus, and how Jesus prays. Jesus does a lot of praying, and it seems like we can’t find a better example to mold ourselves after, right? So what can we learn about praying like Jesus?  
            I found this to be a more challenging question than I thought. The scriptures mention Jesus praying often, but they don’t always, or even usually, tell us exactly what Jesus is praying about, which makes complete sense, because most often, when Jesus prays, he has drawn away, by himself, away from the crowds, away from even his disciples, often. We know he does it frequently. And we know it seems to be a way he gives himself fuel, strength, for the work before him. What does it mean to pray like Jesus? I asked this question on facebook, and got some good answers:
            “I have always been struck by the fact that Jesus went away to pray; away from the crowds, away from the disciples, all alone with God.” “To pray like Jesus is to love each other through our daily trials and joys and to never judge each other.” “To be one with God.” “To pray without know that Your Father hears you and knows the desires of your heart. Talking to (sharing your heart with) someone who KNOWS you.” “Pray without ceasing...why is that is so hard to do sometimes? Like the disciples drifting off in Gethsemane...” “Pray with our sacred Story and Tradition so often and deeply that it becomes a part of who you are: the Story becomes my story. I am struck by the way [Jesus] has the sacred Story as his own vernacular (as did his mother, see the Magnificat and Hannah's song in Samuel). Perhaps also to pray the word so completely that you/I become the wordless living word-we incarnate and live the word/Word. And the quiet contemplative going apart from the noise to simply be with God.  “Praying with your mind, body and soul.” “Becoming one with the prayer.” I’m blessed to have some thoughtful facebook friends! What about you? What do you think it means to pray like Jesus?
            Jesus teaches about prayer a few times – and we’ve shared in some of those passages in worship – Jesus teaching us to pray persistently. Jesus teaching us to pray for forgiveness and offer forgiveness to others. Jesus teaching us to ask, and search, and knock, and expect answers in our prayers. In passages we haven’t read together in worship, Jesus talks about praying like a tax collector, who prays for mercy, rather than like a Pharisee, who tries to load up his prayer with telling of his good deeds, in order to somehow impress God. And of course, in our text for today, we hear that rather than trying to pray with the fanciest, most eloquent words we can find, actually, a good prayer to pray is quite simple. It’s the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer. Most of us pray it by rote – we pray the same exact words, probably one of the first prayers we learned. And often, without realizing it, our informal prayers cover many of the areas the Lord’s Prayer does: praising God; seeking strength to avoid evil; asking for forgiveness; asking for enough to get by each day. And, without realizing it, I think we see throughout Jesus’ life his embodiment of the prayer he teaches us.
            So what does it mean to pray like Jesus? Although we may not know the whole content of Jesus’ prayers, his most intimate conversations with God, between what he teaches and the discipline of prayer he demonstrates, I think we glean a lot.
            First, prayer is a pattern of his life. It’s necessary to him. He’s compelled to pray. He needs to pray. Jesus needs to spend time with God in serious conversation, and he needs to do it regularly. And the more full, the more packed the rest of his life is with the relentless needs of those around him, the relentless demands, the more Jesus prays. He doesn’t get too busy to pray. In fact, he can sustain his pattern of life because of the way he is grounded in his relationship with God. I think one of the biggest mistakes we can make in our life with God is when we view our time for prayer, for reading the scripture, for deepening our faith, for talking to God as optional, or extra, the first thing that gets “cut” when we are feeling overwhelmed or exhausted. It’s tempting, and easy to do. But the pattern of Jesus’ life tells us that immersing our life in conversation with God needs to be first, not last.     
            Jesus teaches us here and elsewhere to pray not for show, but for God. Not to try to impress God, but with humility. We don’t need to explain to God how good we are. God doesn’t listen to one prayer more than others based on our goodness. Our prayers are for God, and we don’t have to worry about impressing God. But all the same, we see that Jesus prayed always with confidence. His confidence was not in himself, but in God, and his relationship with God. Praying with confidence is different than praying with the belief that God will do everything we want, like filling all the requests on a giant wish list. Praying with confidence in God means trusting that God knows us, knows our hearts, loves us, and wants us to experience good, abundant, deeply satisfying life. That’s what we have confidence in. And we have confidence that nothing is impossible with God. That God can do anything. Knowing that, we pray with confidence in God.
            What did Jesus pray for? We don’t know everything. But we know a lot. He gave thanks to God many times. He asked for what he wanted and needed, for comfort, for God to make things easier. He prayed for his disciples, for the people he saw all around him who seemed lost and vulnerable. He prayed to ask for forgiveness for others He prayed that others would forgive each other, that they would experience unity and reconciliation instead of brokenness. He prayed for new life to come where it seemed death had won the day. He prayed again and again for God’s kingdom, God’s reign to be realize on earth. He prayed that he and his followers would be able to carry out God’s vision for the world. And he prayed, finally, that what he wanted most was for God’s will to be done on earth, even when it was so hard that it would cost him his life.
            I think we can, should, do pray for the very things Jesus prayed for. We can always ask God for just what we want and need. We pray for one another, and especially for those who seem lost, who are searching, who are vulnerable. We pray for forgiveness and that we might be more forgiving, that we might reconcile with each other. We pray that God’s reign is realized on earth – that God’s kingdom is made visible right here at Apple Valley – that we embody God’s hope for the world in this place, as much as we are able, as much as we can respond to God’s call. We pray for clarity about just what is God wants for us to do. And we pray, ultimately, that it is what God wants, God’s will, that is carried out.
            As much as we can, let’s pray like Jesus: with thanksgiving; with confidence; with hope; with constancy; with listening ears; with open hearts. Amen.


Thursday, November 05, 2015

Sermon, "Prayerful: Communion," Hebrews 11:1-8, 13-16, 23-40, 12:1-2

Sermon 11/1/15
Hebrews 11:1-8, 13-16, 23-40, 12:1-2

Prayerful: Communion

How would you define a Saint? What does it mean, to be a saint? I’ve been reading a little bit about different religious traditions and what they understand by the term “saints.” Some traditions understand the term saint in more formal ways – there’s a process to be officially named a saint. And others have a more fluid understanding of what it means. How about you? How do you define a saint? What is a saint? In most any tradition, the folks I encounter are sure of at least this: A saint is something other than themselves. I can’t say I often hear people identify themselves as a saint. Are you a saint? And yet, regardless of tradition, if, instead, I ask folks to name those who have been saints in their life, those who have died, those who are living, people can usually quickly tell me people they view as saints.
            There are many ways to define the word “saint,” but here’s what I’ve found most compelling. A saint is a person who has an exceptional degree of likeness to God. Or, a believer who is “in Christ” and in whom Christ dwells. I imagine that might well describe the people you’d call saints in your life. People who make you feel like you’ve drawn a little closer to God from being around them, from knowing them, from loving them. People who you interact with and think, “I caught a glimpse of Christ today.” Is this not what it is to be saint?    
             Today, we reflect in particular on the communion of saints in the body of Christ. When we say the Apostles Creed, we say that we believe, among other things, in “the holy catholic church, [and] the communion of saints. Here, catholic, with a small c means the church universal, literally “according to the whole” – the whole collective Christian church, the body of Christ in the world. And the communion of saints means the spiritual unity of the whole body of Christ, living and dead. It acknowledges that our connection to our loved ones, and our brothers and sisters in Christ doesn’t break with the barrier between life and death. They are still a part of the church, still a part of the body of Christ, just as are we. The communion of saints means that we are bound up together with all who came before us, in our own individual lives, in the life of this congregation and its predecessors, throughout Methodism, throughout church history, throughout our biblical heritage. Their story is our story, still. We’re just part of a later chapter of this one great story God is writing with creation.    
            In our book study, Bearing Fruit, we were talking this week about congregational creation stories. Apple Valley has a creation story. Not just our beginnings a decade ago, but our creation story includes our predecessor congregations. Why did Navarino and Cedarvale and South Onondaga and Cardiff become churches? What events led to their creation? What vision of ministry did the leaders of those faith communities have? Each generation of faithful disciples tries to live out the promises of God, tries to express, to realize God’s reign, God’s kingdom on earth, in their corner of the universe. That’s what we see in our reading from Hebrews. The author crafts this beautiful litany that is the story of God and God’s people. It’s a story of generation after generation acting in faith that God fulfills the promises made, that we may catch glimpses of God’s promises fulfilled, even as they are still unfolding, still expanding, beyond what any one person, any one generation sees. Even as we bear good fruit for God today, we plant seeds that won’t bear fruit in our own time, but in the generations yet to come, who also will seek to be faithful to God’s promises. It’s our story with God, and it makes us – you and me – part of this communion of saints – as much as we seek to live into God’s promises, as much as we seek to fulfill God’s vision for the world as much as we can, in our time, in God’s way for our lives. When we do this work, when we, by faith, like all the people in our reading from Hebrews, when we live into and live out of God’s promises, we are part of the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses.
A saint, I said, is a person who has an exceptional degree of likeness to God. Or, a believer who is “in Christ” and in whom Christ dwells. I don’t think this happens by accident, like you might accidentally be someone’s doppelganger. If we are to have a “likeness to God” – if we are to be people in whom Christ dwells, I think we practice. We work at it. That’s what it means to be disciples – students of Jesus, who are trying all the time to be more and more like their teacher. And so I have a task for us, to practice our discipleship this month. Last year I asked you to count your blessings during the month of November. I asked you to think about, every single day, at least 5 ways in which you are blessed, by posting on facebook, or writing it down, or keeping track in some other way. I have them here – your scrap papers, your notes, printouts from online, even a calendar page with blessings filled in on every square of the month. So we know we are blessed.
            I also asked us to think, last year, about how we are called to be blessings to others. God is the source of our blessings, but we also have the opportunity to offer blessings to others through our actions, through our love, through building each other up, through our words of affirmation. And that’s what I want us to focus on this year. Every day, I want you to think of a way you can bless someone, a way you can build up the community – not just the community of Apple Valley, but your work or school community, your family, your neighborhood, your global community even. I’m challenging all of us, each day of November, to bless someone else’s life. And I want you to be on particular lookout for people who might not usually get blessed by someone else. People, perhaps, that might not usually get blessed by you. People who are in some way not valued very much by society’s standards. Perhaps you’ll take this month to particularly seek after the sick and homebound, those who are living in nursing homes. Maybe you might focus on ways you can bless people who work in all sorts of customer service jobs – the person working at the convenience store, or at the fast food place. How often are they blessed by someone? Praised for their good work? Prayed for? Maybe you’ll bless some single parents. Some parents who stay home with children. Some local politicians – maybe even the ones you didn’t vote for. Maybe you’ll think of people you know who are struggling with addictions, or who have been in trouble. Maybe you’ll find that you have the power to bless someone who you’re usually fighting with. Even if you know there’s no way they’ll offer a blessing in return. Perhaps especially when you know that. You can choose the best way to do this, to offer your blessings. You can tag someone on facebook and tell the world how blessed you are to know them. You can write them a note, or make a phone call, and just tell them how much you value them, and God values them. You can do a task for them – help them with the dishes, or run an errand for them. Find someone’s boss and tell them what a good job their employee is doing. Tell a parent how great their child is. Every day, for 30 days, I want you focus on how you can be a blessing to someone else. We’re writing our part of the story, our story with God, our story of the communion of saints, of which we are part, and which we are growing into, the more and more we model our lives so that others see in us a likeness with God.
            Aside from the communion of saints, the other time we think about communion is of course when we share in the sacrament of bread and cup together. There are a few names for this holy meal. Some call it the Lord’s Supper. We sometimes call it the Eucharist, which means literally the Thanksgiving or more fully, thanksgiving for the good gift of grace. Sometimes it is called simply the Breaking of the Bread. But we most often call it communion, which means, “sharing in common.” This word for communion comes from Paul’s writings, in 1 Corinthians, when he says, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (the sharing together in) the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion (the sharing together in) the body of Christ?” It is in this holy meal that we find that we have communion in so many senses of the words. We commune with God, and with the real presence of Christ as we embody Jesus in the meal and as we are sent forth from the table into the world to serve. We commune with our brothers and sisters in Christ too – across time and space. On World Communion Sunday, we particularly focus on our connection across space, meditating on how we are bound together by the sacrament with Christians all over the world. But on All Saints Sunday, we focus on how we are bound together across time. We come to the table just as our forefathers and foremothers in faith came to the table. Just as the early church did. Just as the disciples came together with Jesus. As we come to the table, we are bound together, sharing in common with them this holy meal, not just by remembering the past, but as we reflect on how we are bound together in the present, and how even our futures are bound together as we work for the fulfillment of God’s reign. And so as we share in this common meal, we are bound together with the very people who we have lifted up today.
            We’ve been focusing on being a prayerful congregation. And the whole service of communion is prayer. The special prayer we share in as we ask God to bless our communion is called the Great Thanksgiving. And indeed, our thanksgiving is great, as we reflect on the fullness of God’s grace in our lives, grace that binds us together in the body of Christ, with all the saints of God, past, and present, and yet to come. Thanks be to God for this communion. Amen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Sermon, "Prayerful: Persistence," Luke 18:1-8

Sermon 10/25/15
Luke 18:1-8

Prayerful: Persistence

            What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “Christian values” or “Biblical values”? Maybe faith, hope, love, joy, peace? Some of those fruit-of-the-spirit words Paul talks about? Of course, those things are in there, in the scriptures. Lots of good lessons about all that good fruit we might cultivate in our lives, just like we talked about over the last several weeks. But there’s also several stories that seem to highlight values, personal characteristics, that we don’t really know what to do with. Jesus commends to us in one parable a household manager who deceives the master of the house for his own benefit, and he’s labeled as shrewd, something, apparently, we’re meant to admire. In our Bible Study last spring we read several stories about women who were tricksters, finding sneaky ways to exercise some control in a society where they had little power. And these trickster women become, in fact, part of the family tree of Jesus himself. And today we’re looking at a parable that lifts up what is nicely called persistence, but is more commonly known as nagging.
            Jesus tells a parable, and Luke tells us that it is meant to show us that we’re to pray always and not to lose heart. Jesus tells us a story about a judge who neither fears God nor respects people. There’s a widow who keeps coming to him day after day saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” A widow would be among the most vulnerable in society – a woman, no husband, no standing in society. Typically women were not even allowed to be in court, part of the proceedings. But here she is, demanding justice. The judge refuses. But eventually, even though, as he himself knows, he doesn’t fear God or respect anyone, he decides to grant the woman justice so that she will JUST QUIT BOTHERING HIM. And Jesus says, won’t God grant justice to you who cry to him day and night? Won’t he help you? I tell you, he will grant them justice quickly. And yet, when the Son of Man comes – will he find faith on earth?
            This isn’t the only story like this. We read another text from Luke, not long ago, that is fairly similar. In this story, Jesus says, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked … I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” And Jesus concludes saying, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
            Persistence. The word means “shamelessness” or “unembarrassed boldness.” Nagging. Asking again and again and again. There’s two categories of people that have this quality down to a T, I think: children, and parents. My mother often tells my brother about the saying: nags are not born, they’re made. When she’s reminding him, again, to do something that he has forgotten, again, to do, he might get frustrated, but she knows what brings about results. Children have their own special techniques when it comes to nagging. How many pets are part of households because of children nagging for a kitty or a puppy? How many second helpings of dessert are granted because of nagging? 
            Persistence. Of course, maybe it isn’t that unusual of a value to admire. Rather than calling it nagging, though, we might talk about endurance. Determination. Perseverance. Relentless pursuit of a goal. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The little engine that could. There’s a runner determined to build up to a marathon, or to beat their fastest time. A musician practicing the same measure over and over until they get it right. Scientists testing theory after theory until they get it right, searching for a cure for a disease that seems untouchable until a breakthrough comes. We value that kind of perseverance through obstacles, through adversity, right?
            Still, why exactly would we need to show persistence in our prayers offered to God? Why would God answer our prayers because of persistence? After all, perseverance against challenging obstacles implies we have to get beyond something that has been put in our way. Are we trying to wear God down? Change God’s mind? Do we have to convince God, persuade God, to answer our prayers? I struggle with such a concept. And yet, why else would persistence be so valuable?
            I think persistence in prayer is more about us and the changes persistent prayer works in us than it is about God. It impacts us, speaks to our needs more than what God might need from us. Persistent prayer reveals our truest heart to God, our heart’s desire to God. Imagine if a parent said yes to every single thing a child ever requested, if a parent granted every single request that passed the lips of a child. Yet, when we long for something, when we ask again and again, when we are relentless in our need for something, things are different. When a child has asked for the same thing again and again and again – not just in five minutes, but over five months – a parent knows the child is expressing sincere, heartfelt desire.
            More than that, persistence in prayer is more about us than about God because it shows our commitment, our faithfulness. I think we have some pretty short attention spans sometimes. I think of our constant, instant news cycle. Something is headline breaking news today, and the next day we’ve forgotten it ever happened. I think of the story of Martin Shkreli, a pharmaceutical CEO who increased the price of an important drug in the treatment of AIDs and cancer from $13 a pill to over $700 a pill overnight. His name and his story were everywhere for a few days, and he announced that he would lower the price of the pill. But he hasn’t – not yet anyway. And I wonder if part of his strategy is to just wait until we forget about it. Wait until the spotlight is off of him. Wait until we’ve moved on to some other story. We speak often about “15 minutes of fame.” Sometimes I wonder if that’s how much time we spend bringing what we claim are important concerns before God. 15 minutes. Maybe less. One mention, and we’ve moved on. What does it mean if we can’t even be bothered to hold something before God in prayer consistently? Persistently? Our persistent prayers are acts of faithfulness, to God, and to one another as we lift each other up in prayer, as we seek for justice through prayer, as we hold up the marginalized, the suffering in prayer. Can we keep the needs of our friends and family and community and world on our hearts for more than just a few minutes? Or have we forgotten our prayers just after they’ve passed our lips? I know God has not forgotten. But do we? Our persistent prayers are prayers of faithful commitment.
            And ultimately, I think persistence in prayers aligns our hearts with God’s heart. It is God who is ultimately persistent, persevering, in seeking after us. It is God who is relentless, who never ceases to seek after us, who never stops searching for the lost sheep, who never stops hoping for the prodigal child to return, who never ceases in calling our name. If persistence is unembarrassed boldness, then certainly God is ever the most persistent of all. And when we persist with our prayers that we offer to God, we find ourselves in fact on the same page. We find God already laboring to bring about peace and healing and justice in the world, seeking to change hearts, and open minds, and transform souls. I think sometimes when we pray with persistence, God isn’t suddenly hearing us. Instead, we are suddenly hearing God. I think of the long and relentless work of the Civil Rights movement, and all the prayers offered to God to change hearts and break down the walls of racism and hate in our nation. I don’t believe for a moment that God needed to be convinced to created change. Rather, we needed to realize what God had been saying all along, when we realized our voices crying out to God for justice were in fact in harmony with God’s cry for justice through the ages. With persistent prayer, our hearts sync up with the very heart of God.
            And still sometimes, our persistent prayers just make a space for God to enter into our pain, our struggles. Writes Peter Woods, “The [suffering and struggling] of life somehow directs that the longed and worked for perfection does not always follow according to my schedule Yet despite all my experiences of suffering, stress and unsatisfactoriness I still cry out to my ABBA and long with God that it could all be different. Somehow the calling helps. It helps even if nothing changes. I have discovered that it is far more consoling to have a God who feels the pain with me and who longs for a better world than to have a MacGyver God who fixes everything at my beck and call. A Mr Fixit God leaves me fickle and superficial. It would seem that, for Jesus, faith doesn’t fix things as much as it gives the capacity and courage to bear the unbearable.”
To pray with persistence is to make ourselves so very vulnerable. To pray with persistence is to come before God with unembarrassed boldness. That’s not a phrase I’d very often use to describe myself. Unembarrassedly bold. Not quite me. But for God? To be faithful? To be vulnerable to God? To have God share in my suffering and my struggle? To find myself working alongside God for justice? To show God my heart? Maybe for all that, I can, with boldness, bring my prayers to God. Again. And again. And again.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sermon, "Prayerful: Confession," Nehemiah 1

Sermon 10/18/15
Nehemiah 1

Prayerful: Confession
            We are in the midst of what promises to be an extremely long election season, especially when you consider that we still have one election day before the actual election we’ve been hearing all about lately. The presidential election in 2016 is already taking up a lot of our energy. What are you looking for in a candidate? I’ll tell you one thing I’m looking for: a candidate who can apologize well, and can apologize sincerely, can apologize with humility. A candidate who can simply and clearly admit when they are wrong.
            I remember back in 2008, when Sarah Palin was on the ticket for the office of Vice President. She was speaking in Boston, one day, and talked about Paul Revere’s famous ride, and she made some reference to him riding to warn the British, instead of warning the colonists. Palin made a mistake, and in my opinion, the media went a bit overboard in jumping on her words, which seemed to me more like misspeaking than misunderstanding. Still, though, Palin’s reaction was even worse. Instead of saying: “Yes, I got that wrong. I screwed up. Sorry,” she dug in her heels, and insisted that Paul Revere also rode to warn the British, like to intimidate them. It would have been so much better if she’d just admitted her error. But she just dug herself in deeper and deeper because apparently, that was preferable to saying “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” Sarah Palin is certainly not the only candidate to adopt this behavior. That particular incident just sticks clearly in my mind. Republicans and Democrats and Independent and all the rest of the politicians do the same thing all the time. I’m not sure what the strategy is. I guess we have a cultural belief that people who are powerful and are good leaders are never, ever wrong. That they are above needing to apologize, perhaps. Certainly, the impression is that apologizing, admitting a fault is a weakness.
            Good thing we’re not like that, right? Well… It seems that apologizing is something that we are remarkably bad at as a whole. Some of us say it too much. I have a colleague who has a bad tendency to apologize constantly. I keep telling her I am going to make her an “I’m sorry” jar – a jar to put $1.00 in every time she says I’m sorry. But she probably couldn’t afford it. Maybe you fall into this category – apologizing for everything you do and say. I’m not sure that kind of apology is particularly powerful – except in being powerfully harmful to the self-worth of the person who is apologizing all the time. But for others of us, we apologize too infrequently, not too often. Think of these things we do to avoid having to say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.” We say, “I’m sorry, but…” and follow with basically an explanation of why we are not sorry at all. Or “I’m sorry that you got upset with me.” This is another non-apology, basically a criticism of the other party, rather than a sincere admitting of wrong. How about the phrase, “My apologies.” I find myself slipping into that phrase when I’m telling someone that I’m sorry I haven’t emailed them back more promptly. In my experience, the most powerful apologies are sincere, and direct. “I’m so sorry. I was wrong.”
            Today, we’re talking about a particular aspect of prayer: confession. As Protestants, and as United Methodist Protestants in particular, we don’t always focus a great deal on confession. When Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, one of his critiques of the Church was against the idea that we needed to confess our sins to a priest or to an intermediary instead of directly to God. And indeed, although some parishioners of mine over the years have sought me out to share a confession that had been weighing on their hearts, there is certainly no requirement that you would seek out your pastor or anyone else and confess your sins to them. Indeed, in our individualized, privacy-focused culture, such a concept is a hard sell. I taught a study once on Richard Foster’s Spiritual Disciplines, and in one chapter, he suggests the discipline of confession. He encourages readers to seek out a trusted person and indeed confess to that person in full one’s sins. What would you think of that? I can tell you my class struggled more with that chapter, that discipline, than any others. It can be so very hard to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” And maybe even harder to admit exactly what it is we are sorry for.
            In our tradition, individual confession is something we usually do on our own. And in worship, we might participate in a corporate confession. I tend not to include a prayer of confession each week, but often our morning prayer has a confessional nature, and usually when we are preparing to receive communion, our service includes a prayer of confession – the very one we shared today, and a couple weeks ago on World Communion Sunday. It’s easier, perhaps, to confess our sins if everyone else is doing it too!
            I think, over time, we’ve come to approach confession in our relationship with God in the same way we approach apologies in the rest of our lives. “I’m sorry, God, but…” “I’m sorry, God, that you don’t like what I’m doing.” “My apologies, God.” We have occasional times in our church year when we’re a bit more comfortable talking about repenting, turning our back on the ways we’ve wandered away from God. We start off Lent on Ash Wednesday with a time of penitence, admitting our sins, our brokenness, and seeking forgiveness. But most of the time, I think we’re convinced that as long as we don’t confess our sins to God, God won’t notice what we’re doing. I’m reminded of many parents telling children that it isn’t the wrong they did that is so bad – it’s the covering up afterwards, the lying, the hiding of the wrongdoing that’s so upsetting. Our failure to confess to God, to say “I’m sorry,” to say, “I was wrong,” is not so different from lying to God. Certainly, we’re lying to ourselves!    
            Part of our prayer life with God if we are to be a prayerful people is becoming a people who are willing to be honest with God about our shortcomings. Not because God doesn’t know them otherwise. But because true growth and strength in our discipleship comes when we bear our hearts to God and acknowledge our failure. We can’t move on, we can’t experience the fullness of forgiveness, we can’t embrace the new direction that is repentance if we’re still unwilling to acknowledge the truth about what we’ve said and done, or left unsaid and undone. So, we’re starting with some of the hardest parts of prayer with God.
The scriptures are full of prayers of confession. That shouldn’t surprise us, given that some people who end up dedicating their lives to serving God, following in the footsteps of Jesus, have very colorful beginnings. God seems to like to show just how very much our lives can be turned around when we’re ready to admit we’ve been going the wrong way. This morning, we’re looking in particular at a prayer of confession from the Book of Nehemiah, a book of the Bible you might not be very familiar with. Nehemiah was written in the late 5th century BC, and is a unique book among books of the Old Testament because it is primarily told in the first person point of view – a rare voice in the scriptures. We hear directly from Nehemiah. The events he describe take place after the Israelites had been exiled to Babylon, conquered by the Babylonians, and after the Israelites had finally been allowed to return to Jerusalem. But all is not well, “back to normal,” and Nehemiah returns to oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah, is the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes in Susa, the capitol of Persia. Cup-bearers were positions of high status. Because of the constant fear of plots to harm the ruling king, a person had to be considered highly trustworthy to hold the position of cup-bearer. The cup-bearer had to guard against poison or tampering with the drinks served to the king, sometimes even required to taste-test for the king. But this role also brought the cup-bearer a degree of closeness and confidence with the king. Cup-bearers had influence with the king.
Nehemiah, cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, learns that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As our text opens, we find him praying to God after receiving the news. He prays that God will give him strength and success as he asks Artaxerxes to let him return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of the walls. After our text for today, the king agrees, and Nehemiah is appointed governor of Judah. He rebuilds the walls, he wards off enemies, and he rebuilds the community to conform again with the law of Moses, making many reforms, including reforms to combat oppression of the poor, like cancelling past debts and mortgages. He meets with a lot of opposition, especially from the Jewish nobles, but he eventually prevails.
But our focus today is specifically on Nehemiah’s prayer. Before any of the events unfold, before everything turns around for Nehemiah, right in the first chapter, we read his prayer, his starting point, before he begins to carry out what he believes is God’s purpose for him. Nehemiah’s prayer is beautiful and flowing, but we shouldn’t be put off by the beauty of his words. The heart of the prayer is always what matters to God, just as a child’s “I’m sorry” is as powerful to a parent as an adult child’s more eloquent communication. Nehemiah confesses his sin, his family’s sin, and in fact confesses the sin of the whole nation. The people have turned away from God, and Nehemiah knows he, too, had turned away from God. From the scriptures, we know that Israel understood its time in exile as the consequence of failing to follow the commandments of God. And that’s exactly what Nehemiah says in his prayer: God, I confess for me, for my family, for my nation, that we’ve sinned, and we’ve stopped following your commandments. It’s pretty simple, his confession. And he follows it up by saying that he understands the consequences of his wrongdoing. But he understands something else, too. He understands that when people return to God, when they repent, turn back to God’s direction, God delights in offering forgiveness, reconciliation, new hope, and new life. So Nehemiah confesses, deeply sorry for how off track he and his people have been. But he doesn’t despair. Because he knows that it is God’s nature to forgive and rebuild and keep God’s promises even when we don’t keep ours. His prayer, his confession, is a turning point, a restart.
Confessing our wrongdoing is hard work. It involves some soul-searching, and a lot of vulnerability. It involves saying we are sorry, that we’ve been wrong, without trying to lessen the impact by couching our confession in explanations. But if we know, as Nehemiah did, that we serve a God who keeps promises, who forgives again and again, and who in fact loves to build wonderful stories of transformation from the most unlikely beginnings, we take heart. God is waiting for us to say that we’re sorry. And God is ready to say, “I forgive you. I love you. Now come this way. Follow me.”
God, I am sorry. We are sorry. God, I was wrong. We have been wrong. Please forgive me. Please forgive us. Amen.

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.