Thursday, September 24, 2015

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

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

Fruitful: Have We Fruit?

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


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

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

Fruitful: God and Good Fruit

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

Thursday, September 03, 2015

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

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

Summer Days: Camping

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

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