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?