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.