Apple Valley Dreams: Fruitful
Many of you are probably familiar with the musical My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle, the unrefined flower seller with a heavy Cockney accent is taken on as a project, by a snobby professor, Henry Higgins, to see if he can convince others that she is an upper-class educated woman. Along the way, though, a thoughtful suitor named Freddy Einsford-Hill falls in love with Eliza, and serenades her outside her door. Freddy sings, “Speak, and the world is full of singing/And I am winging higher than the birds/Touch and my heart begins to crumble/The heaven's tumble/Darling, and I'm …” but what he is, we don’t find out, because Eliza, frustrated with the men in her life, cuts him off, singing: “Words, words, words! I'm so sick of words/I get words all day through/First from him, now from you/Is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars, burning above/If you're in love, show me!/Tell me no dreams, filled with desire/If you're on fire, show me!” Eliza Doolittle has had quite enough of words. She wants to be able to really see if Freddy loves her.
Today we’re wrapping up my part of our series on Apple Valley Dreams. I’ve told you that I hope we are: prayerful, invitational, and missional. Today, I want to talk to you about what holds them all together, these dreams. I dream that we will be a fruitful people. In our text from Matthew, Jesus says we are known by our fruit. Good trees can only bear good fruit, not bad. Bad trees, conversely, can’t bear good fruit. We’re meant to bear good fruit, and not be people who call on the name of Jesus, but don’t actually do any of the things he commands us to do. If we do that – listen to his words, promise to follow, but then do our own thing, producing bad fruit, we’re like a person who builds a house with no foundation, which cannot stand against a storm.
But this text from Matthew is just one of many that I could have chosen for our “fruitful” focus. Aside from the gospel text we already shared today, the gospels are full of Jesus talking to us about being good fruit. When John the Baptist arrives, preparing folks for Jesus’ arrival, he says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance … Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Speaking to the chief priests and elders, after sharing what we call the Parable of Wicked Tenants, Jesus says: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” At the end of the Parable of the Sower Jesus says, “These are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” He tells this short parable in the gospel of Luke: “‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”” In John’s gospel, we read about Jesus saying, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” In one of his vivid “I Am” statements, Jesus teaches, “‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Jesus declares, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” Beyond the gospels, the writers of the letters and teachings of the early church echo Jesus, emphasizing the aim for young congregations to bear good fruit.
Do we have good fruit to show? Many churches are struggling with how to be in this 21st century climate. How do we exist as church in a society that is deeply changed from the culture in which many of us grew up and first started following Jesus? In the midst of these cultural transformations, not just individual churches, but the whole the denomination is struggling with clarifying our mission, our purpose, our direction. As a denomination, we’ve been focusing a lot on “church vitality” – what makes a church vital? Church leaders have been working hard to see if they can figure out what makes some churches thrive and others struggle. Are there commonalities among vital churches? As part of this push, some church leaders have pushed for better metrics – better ways of measuring what churches do. Churches have been encouraged to keep track of – and focus on increasing numbers of – visitors, new members, worshippers, baptism, people involved in small groups, people involved in outreach ministries, and so on. By certain measures considered meaningful by the denomination, then, churches can see how healthy they are, how vital they are, just like you might figure out if a child is in the right height and weight percentile for their age-group. There are parts of this that make sense to me. Sometimes it isn’t so easy to see what is healthy or unhealthy in a congregation, without really doing some close examination. But sometimes I wonder about what the best things are to measure. Are all churches that have more people worshipping than they did before healthy? Are all churches that are smaller than they used to be unhealthy? Probably not.
What I wonder, then, is if we can start figuring out whether or not we’ve got good fruit. Jesus is really interested in our fruit. Jesus wants to know what we’ve produced with our life’s work, with our ministry, with our faith, with our community. After all we’ve put in, what do we have to show for it? Are we producing fruit at all? Is it good fruit? Or do we keep planting and planting and planting, but whatever we’re doing is resulting in nothing that grows, or nothing that’s good? I think those are the metrics, the measures, that Jesus comes back to again and again. I think that’s both simpler, and more challenging, than other measures we might use.
I've had on my mind this week my first time at General Conference, the global decision-making meeting for United Methodists that takes place every four years. I attended in 2000, when I was a lay delegate from our annual conference. That year, we participated in an Act of Repentance for our history of racism as a church. If you don’t know our denominational history related to African-Americans in this country, I encourage you to do a little research, or ask me about it. Unfortunately, the church as a whole was not leading the way to say that slavery and racism and segregation were wrong. Some African-American leaders, fed up with being told to wait, to be patient, to be happy with what place their white brothers and sisters in Christ were willing to give them, started their own Methodist denominations. The African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal are Pan-Methodist churches connected to us that were formed in response to racist practices perpetuated by the church. Representatives from these historically black denominations were invited to our Act of Repentance Service in 2000, and at the end of the worship, Bishop Clarence Carr, from the AME Zion Church, said that folks from these denominations were not set up to be our judges, as they watched to see how much our Act of Repentance really meant; rather, they would be "fruit inspectors." What I heard in those words wasn’t someone saying they were going to be “checking up” on us, waiting for us to fail. What I heard was: “Please, please, please, don’t let this whole service, this whole act, all these words, amount to nothing. Show us your fruit, and then we’ll know you mean it.”
These words have been on my heart and mind this week, as I was preparing my sermon, and reading about the horrific act of racism committed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where a white man shot and killed nine black men and women on Wednesday. I can’t help but feel like we, as a society, don’t have much to show to our fruit inspectors. What can it say for us, for this atrocity to happen – and for us to be unwilling to talk about violence and weapons? For us to be unwilling to look at the ways racism exists today? For us to be unable to look into our own hearts at our prejudice and stereotypes and yes, racism, without getting defensive? For us to be unable to really want to build relationships that break down walls and cross boundaries? For us to be unwilling to be uncomfortable and ill at ease if it means we might have fewer massacres born of hate? Can we produce some fruit, here? Any fruit? Some good fruit? I know that we can. But I also know that it takes work, beyond words. An unwavering commitment. Serving, rather than being served. Following Jesus, as he invites us to join him out of our comfort zones. Prayer without ceasing. We can bear good fruit. God knows it.
Friends, I have such hope for this congregation and community. Such hope, such dreams for you and for me. And I believe that every dream God has for us can absolutely come true. But too often it is easier to just keep on keeping on than to actually follow in the ways of Jesus. It’s easier to say we’ll pray than to pray. It’s easier to come here and be with people we know and love – and we do know and love each other – than to push ourselves into unfamiliar places and move among strangers in order to share God’s love. It’s easier to give a little bit of help without asking too many questions about why people are poor and hungry and homeless. Easier to worry about what we like, what we want, what we need, than to work for others first. Easier to plant seeds and hope for the best, without working the field, without watering, without weeding, without pruning. Easier to let our dreams be the stuff of imagination and fairy tales. Friends, please, please, don’t let the dreams God is planting in our hearts amount to nothing. Please, please, don’t let us build a house on sand, only to have it wash away after the first storm. In everything we do, Jesus calls for us to bear fruit. To have something to show. To mean what we say. To actually practice what we preach. We’re disciples. Followers of Jesus Christ, seeking to do the will of God. Right? Let’s show it, do it. We’ll be known by our fruit. Amen.