Sunday, December 11, 2016

From the Apple Tree, Learn Its Lessons

Consecration and Celebration of Renovation of Troy-Korean United Methodist Church
November 20, 2016

Scripture Readings:
·        Acts 2:43-47
·        Galatians 5:22-23
·        Revelation 22:1-2

            Thank you for the invitation to be with you and preach this afternoon.  I am delighted to be with you today.  Today you are celebrating a significant achievement, the renovation of your church facility so that it can be a place where disciples of Jesus Christ are made across the generations.  You all have committed yourselves to building a place where God’s love can be shared and known and lived for the generations that are currently here, and for generations yet to come.  This is a joyous day.
            You want today to be a celebration across the generations, so I want to begin with a story from my childhood.  I enjoy apples.  I like them crisp, and I like them to have a little sourness in their taste.  I grew up in the state of Minnesota, in the northern part of the state, and the growing season there is not long.  Yet apples grow there.  They don’t grow particularly big, and they tend to stay pretty green, but I liked them that way.  When I was growing up there were no apple trees in our yard, but there were in the neighbors’ yards, and from time to time I would help myself to some of those neighbors’ apples.  They were green, and pretty sour, yet delicious.  It was not the right thing to do, to take apples from trees owned by others, and I got into a little trouble for it.  I still love apples, but now when I want them, I buy them in the store or at a fruit stand.  I no longer climb the neighbors’ trees and help myself.
            Knowing something about how apples are grown, I can understand why some of my childhood neighbors would not appreciate me taking some of their apples.  There is a proverbial saying about fruit trees: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.  The second best time is now.”  If you were to plant an apple tree next spring, it would take between two and five years for the tree to produce apples.  If you planted apple seeds, it would take between five and eight years before your tree produced apples.  Here is a twist to the whole process of planting apple trees for their fruit.  Apple trees must be planted in pairs in order to bear fruit.  Apple trees are not self-pollinating.  They need other trees, and they need a different variety of apple tree to pollinate.  With all that work involved, no wonder people are kind of protective of their apple trees and are not very fond of neighborhood boys coming to eat some of their apples.
            There are lessons here for us today.  I am not here to encourage you to plant apple trees as your next renovation project, though if you do, I hope I am your bishop long enough so that if you planted such a tree, I could come and share an apple with you in a few years.  There are lessons here for our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.  Remember, Jesus used fruit trees to teach us.  “From the fig tree learn its lesson” (Mark 13:28).  From the apple tree, learn its lesson.  So here are some lessons from the apple tree for us today on this day of celebration.
            It is important to plant seeds early, and to keep planting seeds.  The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.  The second best time is now.  It is important for we disciples of Jesus Christ to plant seeds of love and grace, wisdom and joy.  They can take time to develop, and they can keep growing from generation to generation.  Today, we are celebrating the laying of bricks, the hammering of boards, the painting of space.  More important, however, are the seeds that are being planted and will be planted in this space.  Think of this space as God’s garden, a place where we will plant seeds of love and kindness, joy and compassion, grace and wisdom.  We will plant seeds and water them with our prayers and our smiles and our hugs, and we trust that God will bring wonderful fruit to life because of this space.
            Think with me more deeply about fruit, using the image of the apple as we think about “spiritual fruit,” and about fruitful ministry.
            It is not uncommon these days, when we take about fruitful ministry to talk about making new disciples of Jesus Christ.  We talk about ministry fruits, and we count.  We count the number of professions of faith in Jesus Christ.  We count the number of people who attend worship.  We count the number of people involved in small groups for faith formation – Bible study groups, prayer groups, book groups.  Numbers matter, counting matters, but not because of the numbers themselves.  Counting matters because these numbers represent people – people who are in need of God’s grace and love in their lives, people who need to be reminded that they are created in the image of God in a world that often tells them they are not enough, people who need to be reminded that with God there is hope in a world that often seems to lack hope, people who need some sense that their lives matter and that they can contribute something unique and beautiful to the world.  Acts 2 reminds us that the early followers of Jesus Christ knew about counting.  “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
            You have built new space, and more space, and you have renovated your space because you want to reach more people.  You want more people and new people to share with you in worship.  You want more people and new people to be part of your Bible studies and prayer groups and book groups.  You want to be fruitful in your ministry in this way.
              But just as apple trees need to be planted together, and different varieties of fruit need to be present for healthy pollination, so, too, should we think about other kinds of spiritual fruit.  We count, and numbers matter because numbers represent people.  Fruitful ministry is ministry that grows.  Yet numerical growth is not the only kind of spiritual fruitfulness that matters.  We also want to help people produce fruits of the Spirit in their lives.  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
            I am going to say something here that is a bit risky, but it is important.  If the only kind of fruitfulness we think about is growth in numbers, and not also growth in these fruits of the Spirit, we are missing what is most important in God’s garden, in God’s orchard.  I would rather have fewer people who are producing these fruits of the Spirit in great abundance than more people who gather in the name of Jesus but are not producing the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Of course, we do not have to choose between numerical fruitfulness and fruits of the Spirit fruitfulness.  They are meant to cross-pollinate, but we need to be intentional about that cross pollination.
            There are many reasons my heart aches and breaks for our world.  There are too many starving people in our world.  There are too many people who live lives under brutal regimes.  There are too many children in our world who lack basic health care.  There is too much blind hatred.  Among the most heart-breaking things in the world to me, however, are persons who at one moment proclaim the name of Jesus Christ, and who the next moment speak with voices of hatred, or prejudice, or exclusion, people who perpetuate worn out stereotypes about the other, and evoke fear of the other.  We need to be the kind of church that helps people cultivate deep in their hearts and souls these fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Numbers without the fruitfulness of the Spirit produces only bitter fruit.
            There is even a third kind of fruit that matters, that is important if we are to have the kind of cross-pollination of the Spirt God asks of us as followers of Jesus.  Hear these words from the final chapter of the Bible.  “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” (Revelation 22:1-2).
            This is such a beautiful image, God’s grace and God’s love as a river, watering the tree of life, a tree that produces fruit, and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.  You had a dream, and we celebrate that dream today.  You had a dream of building a place that is welcoming to people who want to know God’s love in Jesus Christ.  You had a dream of building a place where people could come to grow in that love of God, a place where people’s lives are changed, where the fruits of the Spirit flourish – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  This is a good dream.  Never forget that as important as the dream represented here today by this building project is the larger dream of God for the world.  The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  God is finally not just about the church, though the church matters deeply to God.  God is not finally just about individual lives, though each of our lives matters and is precious to God.  God is finally about the healing of the nations, about a transformed world – a world of love and justice, joy and peace, beauty and reconciliation, kindness and compassion.  This is a third kind of spiritual fruit that is vitally important to the cross-pollination of the Spirit.
            As we celebrate and consecrate this place today, acknowledging the hard work and generosity of so many, my prayer is that this place will be one that welcomes many.  My prayer is that this place will be a place that is numerically fruitful.  My prayer is that this place will be a place that is rich in the fruits of the Spirit, that lives touched here will be graced with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  May such fruits shine brightly in the sun and touch the world with a delicious sweetness.  My prayer is also that the kind of lives produced here will touch the world in ways that bring healing to the nations.  Our world, blighted by prejudice and hatred, marred by exclusion and neglect, shattered by violence and inattentiveness to the natural world, our world needs spiritually fruitful people who touch the world in ways that move toward the healing of the nations.

            Learn the lesson of the apple tree – the importance of cross-pollination of the Spirit so that lives can be made different and the world transformed.  God bless your work.  God bless this space.  God bless our lives.  God bless the ministry that happens here, and through our work, God bring healing to the nations.  May it be so.  Come, Spirit come.  Amen.