Sunday, April 23, 2017

Bear Fruit, Or Die - a Sermon for the Day After Earth Day

I don't often write out my sermons in full, but when I do, more often than not it is because it is more teaching than preaching. Since it has been written, I gladly share it with you - why should my congregation suffer alone?

From far away, he noticed a fig tree in leaf, so he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing except leaves, since it wasn’t the season for figs. So he said to it, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” His disciples heard this. Mark 11:13-14 (CEB)

- We know this is a parable, rather than history. 
- Otherwise, he is performing a petty and unjust “miracle” just because he is “hangry”. No, Jesus is giving us a sign.
- Commentators tell us that a fig tree should only be in full glorious leaf, IF it is fruiting!
- Throughout the Old Testament, the Prophets over and over again used the Fig Tree to represent  Israel, the People of God.
- Theologians suggest that this particular tree symbolized the Temple to Jesus - all done up in its fanciness and its trappings of finery. All leaf and no fruit. All show and no go.

In one of his commentaries, John Wesley refers to the tree today as the Church.

So, with this as our point of reference, let’s now go back to what the children and I were talking about. It is written in Matthew:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit. Matthew 7:15-20 (CEB)

We are called, as Christians, to bear fruit. We are recognized as Christians by others because we bear good fruit. What, then, is this fruit that both Mark and Matthew are talking about? This is how Paul described this fruit to the church in Galatia:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Galatians 5:22-23 (CEB)

In one of his letters to his church in Corinth, Paul stressed which fruit was the most important: LOVE.

Luke has John the Baptizer stressing the producing of the right kind of fruit:

Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. Luke 3:8-9 (CEB)

In his notes on these verses regarding the reference to Abraham, John Wesley reminded Methodists that being a member of a church, or even going to church regularly, is not enough on its own. We must have a change of heart, and that change of heart is proven when we do two things: we stop doing bad things; and we start doing good things! Or, as Luke says:

The crowds asked John, “What then should we do?” He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” Luke 3:10-11 (CEB)

As Methodists, we believe in the importance of doing good works as an exhibition and a verification of our faith and salvation; not as a pathway to faith or salvation..

It is written in the Letter of James:

My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity. James 2:14-17 (CEB)

Faith, as we can see, is not a thing we acquire and possess. Faith is how we behave, and how we treat others.

John Wesley often preached upon good works coming from good fruit. Potential church leaders had to first answer a series of questions; question number 3 was: do you have fruit? His sermons were full of the duality which has come to mark us as Methodists: faith and good works; piety and mercy; loving God and loving others. Wesley said:

It is incumbent on all that are justified (saved) to be zealous of good works. And these are so necessary that if a man willingly neglects them, he cannot reasonably expect that he shall ever be sanctified (made holy or perfected).

Are we zealous? We do not often think of methodical Methodists as being zealous, but about doing good works we must be.

Our Methodist Book of Discipline states that this Wesleyan emphasis on the relationship of faith and good works is what makes us uniquely Methodist. It tells us:

We see God’s grace and human activity working together in the relationship of faith and good works. God’s grace calls forth human response and discipline. Faith is the only response essential for salvation. However, our General Rules remind us that salvation evidences itself in good works. For Wesley, even repentance should be accompanied by fruits appropriate for repentance, or works of piety and mercy.

Well then. We are called to bear good fruit for a world that hungers for goodness. Is there any hope if we see ourselves, our church, our denomination, or the Christian Church as a whole, to be fruitless, or to be bearing sour or rotten fruit? Let us compare today’s reading from Mark with Luke’s Parable of the Fig Tree:

Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’” Luke 13:6-9 (CEB)

Wesley prescribed the fertilizer we must use to nourish the tree and to stimulate it to produce good fruit: getting to know God by reading and studying scripture; communicating with God through prayer and meditation; worshipping God in church and at home; getting to know each other better in fellowship and communion; and by letting others know God by performing acts of mercy. 

Luke tells us that God gives us second chances. But, what if we think it is too late? What if the tree looks dead? This first Sunday after Easter, surely we still remember that death is not always the end of the story? If any of us fall away from the church, there will be new saplings to grow in the light where our shadow once fell. If this church were cut down, a new one would rise up to fill the void. That is the nature of trees!

I, you, we, are trees:

  • By what fruit will others know me?
  • By what fruit will people know you are Christians?
  • By what fruit will Manhattan Methodist United Church be recognized and valued in Manhattan?
  • By. What. Fruit? 


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