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.