FRUIT THAT STARTS SMALL

June 30, 2008

1.  The Gifts of Time & Space

 

It came to me in a rush of adrenaline, like the moment a roller coaster peaks and begins to descend down a steep track.   This roller coaster, however, came in the form of a vivid memory.  Years after it occurred, I remembered the night Grover Wickenden had us over to his house.  I remembered the flaming candles in the dining room, the small nook of a kitchen overflowing with steam and delicious smoke.   And I remembered this elderly gentleman who wanted to be our friend…  He had lived on Main Street since moving to the area as the Director of the YMCA.   He moved there with his wife, Rome, and their blended families.   He moved there after a previous marriage had failed allegedly because of the long, cold winters in Vermont.  He moved there before Rome became ill and died in her sleep, and before the kids grew up and moved away.   Grover cooked for us, poured wine for us and smiled at us across the table where he would eventually, well after that night, collapse in a bundle of weary, but joyous, bones.   And, you see, in remembering the warm hospitality of that man, I’m about to suggest to you this morning how God plants seeds for his kingdom. 

 

God plants seeds for his kingdom through the gifts of time and space.   Let me repeat that using a different phrase: 

“I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”    

 

Parabolein in the Greek, means to throw alongside, and so this is how I imagine it happening.   In between both the major and minor experiences of our lives, before and after, the Spirit of Christ sows the ways that we might remember those experiences.   The Spirit throws down upon the ground various frameworks by which we might make sense of things.   And those frameworks, according to the three parables in this morning’s passage, all involve the gifts of time and space.  

 

2.  How Jesus Recommends We Use Them

 

Of course, time and space often do not seem like gifts at all.  When the downtown meeting starts at five o’clock and we have to do three or four different chores before negotiating the traffic on the South Hill, there doesn’t seem to be enough time.   When you’re flying on United Airlines and the plane is packed, your space in the middle seat, near the lavatory, doesn’t seem like a gift.   And yet, in spite of the limitations we feel, Jesus recommends that accept and approve the following images:

  • The weeds, which limit the growth of the healthy wheat. 
  • The smallness of the mustard seed, which may be consumed by birds; and
  • The tedious work of the woman, who must mix the yeast into the flour.

Each of these images plunges us back into the material world of time and space.   There’s no way to escape them.   There is no way to grab God’s secrets out of the sky.  The only choice, according to Jesus, is that make use of the gifts of time and space.

For example, the story is told of a father and his adult son who are estranged and not talking to one another.   This quiet feud goes on for years until the father decides to give his son his inheritance early.   He gives him a leather-bound Bible, which is the Dad’s way of trying to frame their relationship in terms of forgiveness and hope.

Unfortunately, the son’s response is not too hopeful.   With a sense of great resentment, he tosses the book to the back of his closet only to retrieve it years later.    Then, after all that time and all that space, with estranged children of his own, the son breaks down like a little boy and weeps bitter tears when he notices a yellowing note and a check that had been tucked in between the pages of the Bible.   The note read simply, “Forgive me.”   And the check had been made out in the amount of the son’s full inheritance.   All that time.   And all that space.  Jesus recommends that we use those gifts—as limited as they are—to try to understand why our lives consist of these relationships and not others.   Why these?   And not others?

 

3.  Time To Discern Good From Evil

 

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away” (Matthew 13:24,25).

 

You see, if there were ever a time when we might want to start over, from scratch, this would be it.   If there were ever a time when we might like to rip out by the roots everyone who might stand in our way, this would be it.  

My father once decided that he didn’t like the weeds growing next to our driveway.   So, like an astute mechanic, he began to bring home these old cans of motor oil.   After work, we’d see him spattering the black sludge onto the weeds.   But, when some of the oil spilled onto the azaleas instead, we ended up killing the flower bushes and having to blacktop everything that grew.

 

“Let both of them grow together until harvest…”   That’s not only good advice to the slaves in charge of the wheat and the weeds.   It’s also wise counsel to those who strive to live faithfully amid the evil influences that appear to be growing up all around us.   Our tendency, of course, might be wipe everything out, to yank up by the roots all the bad choices and bitter decisions and to totally cut ourselves off from those who make them.  To counteract this knee-jerk moralistic reaction, Jesus offers time—not time to purge and to purify others—but time to discern just how entangled we are.

 

4.  Space To Dream About Branching Out

 

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of all shrubs and becomes a tree” (v. 31, 32).

 

Now, before leaping into this next parable, I think it’s important to ask about the smallest or the most rudimentary aspect of faith.   Is it our adherence to the Ten Commandments?   Is it the desire to go to heaven when we die?   Or is it something so small that we sometimes overlook it entirely?

There’s an old episode of The Waltons, in which a new preacher comes to town, talking about sin.   He doesn’t so much talk about God, but about how swimming on the Sabbath day leads to sin and how dancing and playing cards and so forth are morally dangerous.   And then, through a series of bizarre circumstances, this same preacher finds himself sitting in the parlor of these two quaint sisters.   These elderly women are the guardians of their father’s secret herbal recipe, and to be polite, the preacher partakes of the beverage.  

He drinks and he drinks what turns out to be moonshine whiskey until he’s totally intoxicated.   Grampa Walton then drives him back into town where everyone can see how drunk he is.  Miss. Prism, the church’s self-appointed control freak, decides she’s going to weed out the false preacher.   And apparently she does.   Until John Boy and his father barge into the tent revival and declare how they are interested in what this diminished preacher has to say. “I’m a sinner,” he begins.   And from that small point all he needs are the gifts of time and the space to dream about branching out.   And maybe, just maybe, he needs one more thing.

 

5.  Mixing It Up Without Losing What It Is…

 

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour…” (v. 33).

 

Again, let’s pause for a moment and consider the smallest component of faith in Christ.   Isn’t it that we are forgiven sinners?   And, of course, if we are forgiven sinners, that means the only difference between us and the rest of the world is that we believe it.   Moreover, the point of all this belief in God’s mercy is not to set ourselves apart from all the big and bad people in the world, but to mix into those spheres of influence the possibility that the world is bending toward forgiveness.   “In Christ,” declares 2 Corinthians 5:19, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

 

6.  The Proximate Presence of God’s Reign

 

Words like these, you see, make it difficult for us to adhere to the theories of Edward T. Hall, who in 1966 launched a new field of study, known as Proxemics.   Proxemics analyzes how a person’s personal space will affect those nearby.   Personal space varies from culture to culture and from context to context.   But before we head too far down of you and I feeling threatened or feeling comforted by the amount of distance we maintain between us—could there be another kind of space that we’ve lost sight of?

 

7.  Latah Valley—All The Space & Time That We Need

 

On Thursday morning, Amy Diehl and Jill Wright came to the Latah Valley site to help clean the house and they brought with them their children.   There was Aiden and Tristan Wright and there was Ainsley and McLain Diehl.   Anyway, upon their arrival I heard them talking about going to the “secret room,” where they crawled around and played for about an hour. 

Then, when they came outside, I couldn’t resist.   Rather than working more on this message, I asked the parents if I could walk the kids down to the creek.   They said it was okay and so we slide down the steep slope and threw rocks and sand for about twenty minutes.   Back at the house, McLain sat down on the grass to empty pebbles out of his shoes.   He smiled and I heard him say, “Who thought that was fun?”   I turned and before I could raise my hand, all four of them had their hands in the air.

 

Is that personal space?   Is that quality time?   No, none of the above.   It’s all the time and the space that we need to grow up into the kingdom people that God intends us to be.

 

Amen.

1.  The Perspective of The Sower

 

When it comes to perspectives, everybody has one.   The homeless man on the street corner has a perspective.   The multi-million dollar heiress has a perspective.   The recently widowed father of three children has a perspective.   The abused wife has a perspective.   The immigrant from Russia has a perspective.  The paraplegic has a perspective.   The teenager addicted to drugs has a perspective.   The valedictorian has a perspective.   And on and on.   Everybody has been endowed with a unique perspective, a specialized vantage point, from which to view the world.   And yet, as human beings who have been created in the image of God, you and I are also free to imagine the perspectives of others.

 

Stephen Covey, in his best selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes a commuter train ride in which these small children had been going crazy.   Their father sat idly by as three boys and one girl jumped up and down on the seats, screamed at one another, throw toys across the aisle…   At any rate, another person on the train became disgruntled and approached the man.  He said, Excuse me, sir, but could you please take control of your children.   Just then, the father woke up as if from a trance.  He had been staring out the window, oblivious to the commotion.   He said, “I’m sorry.  We just came from the hospital, where my wife just died.   I guess they don’t know quite how to handle it.   I’m not sure I do either.”  

And you see, with that revelation, the disgruntled passenger, sitting next to that raucous family, begins to imagine life from a different perspective.   His perspective, your perspective and my perspective, of course, belong uniquely to each of us.   No one can truly understand what it’s like to be you, nor you to be me.   But, when we collide with one another on the train, or at the hospital, or by the sea, the possibility of another point of view washes over us.    

 

“Listen!”  That’s how Jesus gets the attention of the crowds by the sea.   Each has come with his or her own perspective.   And yet, for a few moments, this teacher from Nazareth, challenges all of them to share the purposes, the plans and possibilities of “a sower… out to sow” (Matthew 13:3).   And what might that imagined perspective mean?   Well, in the first century, Palestinian farmers didn’t have the equipment necessary to cultivate their land like the farmers in Washington State.   So, rather than tilling or treating the soil with insecticide and fertilizer, sowers became very adept at broadcasting their seed.   That is to say, they did it indiscriminately and liberally.  In fact, if you try, you can almost see them, slinging these little spheres of potential growth in all directions around.   And what distinguishes them from their contemporary counterparts is that these farmers don’t worry about where the seed lands.  From the perspective of a sower, all that matters is the possibility of good soil.   Somewhere out there, amid the path, the rock and the thorn, somewhere a far-flung seed will find a place to truly grow. 

2.   Conditions on the Ground Mitigate The Gospel

Now, if we successfully assume the perspective of a sower in the time of Jesus of Nazareth, there will be a critical point at which we may wonder why we’ve done it.   William Willimon tells about the parents of a certain student who had just graduated from Duke University.   They made an appointment with the chaplain to complain.   “All we ever wanted for our daughter was for her to be was a good Presbyterian.   All we ever wanted was for her to get good grades, get a good job, get married to a nice man and perhaps go to worship on Sunday.   That’s all we ever wanted…  And here you’ve encouraged her to waste her life as a missionary to Kenya.”  

 

“I’m sorry,” replied Willimon.  “You’ll have to take up your concerns with Jesus.”   “All I did was cast the seed…”

  

You see, one of the reasons that we might want to indulge in the perspective of a sower is that the conditions we face in broadcasting the gospel are similar.   In other words, if our God-given and Spirit-informed goal involves the transformed life of a person who re-prioritizes her concerns according the message of forgiveness and new life in Christ—if that’s what we’re doing at Latah Valley—then we should not be surprised if merely one in four people will respond the way we hope they will.   One in four.  According to the teaching of Jesus, twenty-five percent of the gospel seed will yield the abundance of fruit that the Spirit intends.  

3.  Four Soils Correspond to Four Dynamic Responses.

What are we to make of those calculations?   Are they too low?  Are those implied figures more pessimistic than we might have assumed Jesus to be?   Or, could it be that he’s actually more hopeful than we can possibly imagine?   To answer any of these questions, we need to review the way in which the four soils in the parable correspond to four dynamic responses to the gospel message.   First, I want to suggest that the path, where “the birds came and ate” up the seed, bears a striking resemblance to the crowds who eat the bread of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand, but who don’t stay with him.   Second, when it comes to the rocky ground, the rich young ruler appears to be growing at a steady rate until Jesus asks him to sell all his possessions and “follow me.”   At this point, whatever had been growing actually hits a rock and dries up.  Third, in thinking about the thorns, I can’t help but notice the number of pet projects or political programs that Judas Iscariot, among other zealots, often allows to become intertwined with the gospel.   Eventually, these abrasive weeds begin to take over.   And that, of course, leaves the fourth and final type of soil, which the parable designates as “good.”   Good soil is considered good simply because it yields “a hundred fold… sixty fold… thirty fold.”   And what’s interesting about these numbers is that the largest one appears first in the sequence.   In other words, Jesus is not talking about the inevitable progress of belief; but he is talking about a sudden burst of abundant fruit… fruit that will sustain us over lesser yields.

In 1 Corinthians 15:20 and 23, the apostle Paul picks up on the same language, when he’s referring to the resurrection.   He writes,

“But each in his own order:  Christ the first fruits, then at his coming, those who belong to Christ.”

 

4.   Do Not Be Satisfied With Anything But…

Now I don’t want to make too much of this connection except to emphasize how in God’s glorious future there will be an abundance of good fruit in the form resurrected relationships.   And where, you may ask, does this abundance of good fruit get started?   Well, it starts with the meager one in four response that we get here and now in places like Latah Valley.  

 

When I traveled to northern India with my mentor Jim DiRaddo, he would bring up the news about these mass conversions to the Christian faith.   We had heard reports about 20,000 and 30,000 people turning to Christ, and in a predominately Hindu culture this is a major claim.   Anyway, during our discipleship training programs, Jim would always ask, “Where are they?”   Where are the 20,000 or 30,000?   And his point, I think, is that some of these are like the seed that falls on the path and some are like the seed that falls on the rocky terrain and some are like the seed that falls amid the thorns.   So, why congratulate ourselves with those huge numbers when the real growth happens at a rate of one in four?   Why satisfy ourselves with the abstract figures of those who commit to the label of being Christian, when the real growth happens long after people have stopped counting. 

Every once in a while I love to imagine life and death from the perspective of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   Bonhoeffer is well worth a Google search on the Internet.   And if you are thorough in your search you’ll learn how this prominent German professor of theology would not settle for the Nazi-version of the gospel.   In other words, when many local churches ignored or encouraged the harsh treatment of the Jews because of their ancestors’ harsh treatment of Christ, Bonhoeffer kept sowing seeds of radical trust, in spite of differences in race or religion.   Later, as Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer took a trip to the United States and cast the same seed among the churches of Harlem.  Friends pleaded with him to remain in New York, but he returned to Germany and immediately began a series of radio broadcasts, denouncing the distortions of the Third Reich.   Eventually the Gestapo shut the station down, and hauled the pastor away.   In prison after prison he wrote letters and poems, sending them out to family members, friends and his fiancé.   And then, finally, just prior to his hanging in Flossenburg, Bonhoeffer did this amazing thing.   In the prison cell, next to his, a man had been crying about his impending execution in the morning.   Bonhoeffer told the man to put his hand on the wall and prayed.   The next day, a guard, who had become sympathetic to Bonhoeffer told him the news:  “I thought you’d like to know.  The inmate you prayed for last night.   He went to his death peacefully, without a whimper, with a prayer on his lips.”      

 

5.  Believe in the Possibility of Good Soil & Keep Broad-Casting That Gospel Seed.  

 

You see, here in this multi-purpose room, it’s difficult to imagine the perspective of a sower like that—a sower who faces prison walls and immanent execution and yet still keeps sowing seed.   It’s difficult to imagine the possibility of good soil when so many advise us to settle for something less.  

 

This week, the facilities services specialist called to inform me that Latah Valley could no longer store its signs at the school.  I told her that Craig, the custodian here, had given us permission, but that we’d come and get them.   Craig then called and apologized and proceeded to go one step further.  He contacted the boss of the facilities specialist and explained the situation—that our signs wouldn’t be used to coerce people or to defy the separation of church and state.   Craig shared how he believed that Latah Valley was good for the school and good for the community and good for the commuters driving by on Sunday morning… Good… Good… Good…  You see, something in him is growing.  And it’s growing from the ground up.   Thank Christ for that.

 

Amen.

1.     First, Second & Third Impressions…

 

We know the old saying.   Over years of training and through countless subliminal messages, we’ve had it drummed into our hearts, into our minds and perhaps into our souls.   Occasions for reinforcing the old saying arise in job interviews, business deals, social circles, blind dates and more.   And so, without further adieu, here is the old saying:

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

 

Now if this statement turns out to be true, or an accurate reflection of the way things are, I’d like to point out how damning and how demoralizing it can be.   Somewhere in the distant past, for instance, there’s a Christian Fellowship Gathering for college students.   Over 80 of my peers are gathered, singing songs of praise.   During a time for greeting one another, I observe a beautiful young woman approach from across the room.   She extends her hand first to my roommate, which gives me the opportunity to hear these words, “Hello, my name is Kathy.”   Then, as I also turn to shake her hand, I simply repeat what I have just heard, “Hello, my name is Kathy.”   Kathy then responds, “Isn’t that funny?  That’s my name too.”

 

You see, something like that happening to us might be the kiss of death, socially speaking.   If first impressions are all we’ve got, our only hope may be to make no impression whatsoever.

But, this morning, my ultimate hope is that we might see a connection between embarrassing disasters like the one that I just described and the life and ministry of the church.   Is it true, to start with, that Jesus of Nazareth always made a good first impression?   And can we explain the rise of the Christian faith in terms of the apostles always making a good first impression?   Based upon today’s passage in Matthew 7, my answer is NO.   Neither Jesus, nor his followers, could claim a winning streak of absolutely perfect first impressions.   What they relied upon to grow the movement, by contrast, were second impressions and third impressions and maybe more—because those seem to be the moments—those seem to be the seasons—when the trees that we’ve planted only begin to grow fruit.  

 

2.     Don’t Be Impressed With The Tree Alone.

Gordon Atkinson is among those who now realize that we cannot allow ourselves to be impressed with the tree alone.   In a collection of blogs that he wrote, called RealLive Preacher.com., he claims that most people in the United States only know “Christianity from bad books, TV preachers and the people who watch them.”   In other words, given the time it takes to generate fruit, the vast majority of onlookers will assume that the tree of belief is all there is.  with the tree of belief itself.   That guy knows what he believes.   She really has all the answers.   And yet, today’s passage would make us wonder. 

I wonder, for example, what kind of behavior or what kind of relationships will be produced by that man’s mere belief in God.

I wonder what kind of actions or attitudes will arise from that woman’s shrill certainty.   Atkinson describes a new mother of two children, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.   As a person of faith, Jenny had asked the hospital chaplain to pray for one simple thing.  Holding up a needle point pillow, she said,

“I know I’m going to die… I need time to finish this.  It’s for my kids.   Pray with me that God will give me the strength to finish it.”

 

Atkinson did of course pray for the needlepoint pillow and in his words he called to mind how the children of this dying woman might cherish this thing, how they might sleep with it, how it might be put on display at her daughter’s wedding.   He prayed and believed that God would answer—how could he not?   However, a few days later doctors and nurses crowded into Jenny’s room while she suffered violent convulsions.   She died as Atkinson watched helplessly.   And the last thing that he saw as he shut the door was “the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor” (p. 14).  

 

You see, at first glance, an experience like that might destroy someone’s faith.   But mere belief in God is not as impressive when we’ve held hands with Jenny in the hospital.   What is impressive, however, is the perseverance of faith in spite of the lack of coherence.  “Every good tree bears good fruit.”   Wait and see what happens when your faith is asked to bear something. 

 

3.   Don’t Be Impressed With Any Kind of Fruit.

In the Clyde Edgerton novel, Killer Diller, a young orphan from the wrong side of the tracks has been transformed into the poster child for a Christian University in the south.   Wesley is given a full scholarship to the school in exchange for his promoted appearances on behalf of the institution.   Crowds of alumni, prospective students and financial backers are all impressed with his spiritual and moral transformation.   Wesley in fact epitomizes the very fruit for which this college would like to be known.   And yet, what also becomes obvious is that neither the faculty, nor the administration, nor the many of his supposed peers, genuinely care for Wesley.    And they aren’t really that interested when Wesley raises questions.   Rather, they use their relationship with him in pursuit of other goals.

 

Now, I’m relating the story of this novel to illustrate the difference between good fruit and bad fruit.   Don’t be impressed with just any fruit.   For example:  All the adulation and accolades in the world cannot displace the genuine trust and the mutual love that Jesus commands us to demonstrate to those who come from the wrong side of the tracks.   Programs and ministries that attempt to sell themselves by using people may actually bear fruit, but in the end, it will not be the kind of fruit we’re looking for, or the kind of fruit that will last.   Verse 19 puts it like this:  “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire.”

Now, when I read verse 19, I was reminded of two passages where something similar is expressed.   One occurs in Matthew 3:10 with John the Baptist, when he is calling people to repentance, or to a change of mind.   The other, however, occurs with the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:13—15, when he declares that the work we do, the teaching we do, “will be revealed with fire.”   The worker himself or the teacher herself may be saved, “but only as through fire.”  

 

“Fire,” in these passages, is the operative word.   And yet, before we get all medieval and assume that fire refers to God’s judgment alone, take another look.   What God intends to burn off and otherwise utterly destroy are the trees which bear bad fruit, or to break down doctrines and ideas and ideologies which do not foster forgiveness and reconciliation.   Wesley’s Christian University, if it refuses to change, will not have the legacy it dreams of.  

 

4. Latah Valley Celebrates Fruit Which May Not Initially Impress.

And so, this is why, at Latah Valley, we’d like to cultivate something more than mere belief in God.   We’d like to cultivate the good fruit of belief in God’s mercy.   We’d like to do something more than produce increasing numbers, or even a coziness among those here.   At Latah Valley, we will declare how God changes hearts, minds, bodies AND behaviors AND relationships AND how sometimes the initial impression we have of that change will not impress. 

5.   But We Will Recognize It Eventually As Good.

 

This last statement, I will admit, brings me to my knees.   And it will probably become my prayer on behalf of all of us for years to come.   Dear God, help us to recognize the full fruit that you are growing and producing as GOOD.   Help us to recognize.

 

Some of you may have read or heard about the film-version of that scene of recognition in the Nicholas Sparks’ novel, The Notebook.   Noah and his wife, Allie, live in a nursing home.   They are both getting on in years.   But the tragic truth is that Allie suffers from Alzheimer’s; she can’t remember Noah; she can’t remember her marriage, her children’s faces, her grandchildren…   And Allie cannot recall the torrid, romantic adventure that helped her to choose Noah over another more affluent gentleman.   She can’t remember a thing about her own life.   But she does occasionally enjoy hearing this strange elderly man read to her from the notebook.   Anyway, in spite of doctors telling Noah to give up hope of Allie recognizing him, he reads.   And at the end of what of these readings, Allie blushes.   “That’s a good story,” she says.   “That’s our story…” 

 

Well, believe it or not, this simple scene illustrates my prayer for Latah Valley.   Every week we gather to hear the story.   And I pray for recognition.   I pray that you and I will eventually see the fruit, and we will say, “That’s a good story… That’s our story…”  Amen.

Today’s passage is considered a “Wisdom Psalm,” and that implies that of all the categories that we have for the 150 Psalms, categories that include the Royal Psalm, the Lament Psalm and the Thanksgiving Psalm, of all those categories, the very first one that we have in this hodge-podge collection of prayers begins with a commentary on everyday life experience.   Wisdom comes from our reflection upon life experience, and that’s why Psalm 1 doesn’t start with God or with a specific historic person like Abraham or Moses of David.   Right out of the gate, Psalm 1 describes for us the life of the blessed person.   And let’s be honest, it’s almost as if we’ve been invited to fill-in-the-blank here with our own names. 

 

Blessed is ______________ who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night.

 

Not too long ago, someone that I know very well forgot to put his name on a few of his math assignments.   On the top of the paper there had been a space allocated for the student’s name, but repeatedly this person just launched into the work, skipped the place for his signature, completed and solved every problem, and then rushed to turn it in.   Of course, this became such a chronic pattern that the teacher threatened not to give the student credit for his work.   She wanted to train him that part of the assignment involved personally and publicly identifying one’s self with one’s performance.   And this morning I’m suggesting that this is exactly what we must do in hearing Psalm 1.  

You and I must put our names upon this passage and not let the words float above our heads.   We have to intentionally not follow the advice of those who promise us easy advantage and selfish gain.   We have to commit ourselves to not standing in “the way of sinners.”   And finally, when the teacher calls the role to determine who is truly present and who is truly absent, you and I must consciously refuse to sit down in the “the seat of scoffers.”  

 

Now, I’d like to ask you a question, and it’s about scoffing.   But, you see, I’m afraid that if I lay this question out there, you’ll scoff.   What is scoffing?   Scoffing is not simply the act of ridiculing or poking fun at someone’s expense.   Scoffing implies that we keep our distance.   That we use our words and our body language to deflect people before they come too close.   And, as you may know all too well, when we make ourselves vulnerable there’s nothing more painful than a colleague, a friend or a family member who sits back, folds his arms and scoffs.  

 

There’s an intriguing moment in the Jane Austin novel, Emma, when Miss Smith is standing all alone at an elaborate ballroom dance.   One of the hosts of the party encourages the town’s cleric to please take Miss Smith as a partner in the festivities.   Mr. Elton refuses to dance, although he had just made known how he would love to take part.   And by his stoic manner it’s clear that he scoffs at the very idea of coming so close to a person of inferior rank and social station.   So, within today’s scripture passage, what we have similarly is an invitation to dance.   Latah Valley—would you like to dance?   Would you do me the honor of joining hands and hearts and minds, of moving in the same rhythmic direction?   And you see, our response to this summons parallels the extent to which we “delight in the law of the Lord.”  As we mentioned in Galatians 5 last week, the law might be summarized in terms of love of neighbor.   Moreover, the verb that’s used in verse two, “to meditate day and night” comes from the same root as the word, “to plot.”   And that implies that rather than plotting out our days in terms of achieving a certain social status that we instead step into relationships where people are in danger of feeling as if they are rejected and alone.    

 

The truth of the matter is reconciliation.   That’s what God plants along the streams of water.  God plants agents of reconciliation.  Those who do not sit back and scoff are like “trees planted by streams of water…”    And yet, before we go any further, I’d like to distinguish between the tree that we hear from in the Disney version of Pocahontas as opposed to the tree that will “yield” the fruits of the Spirit of God which we discussed last week.     

 

“All around you are spirits,” says Grandma Willow to the young native girl, as she contemplates the incursion of European settlers.  

“They live in the earth, the water, the sky.  If you listen they will guide you.”  

 

Now, to be honest, that kind of philosophy is very attractive to me and to many others.   Disney knows how to push our proverbial buttons.   And, of course, who are we to argue that there are not “spirits all around…”?   Neither the Psalms, nor any other part of the Bible would necessarily dispute that.   However, what Psalm 1:3 does contend is that there is a depth of wisdom to be revealed by the Spirit of God, not just in creation, but in history and in community.   And it’s a depth of wisdom that can’t be utilized and that can’t be packaged and mass-produced and sold on Ebay to the highest bidder.    Wendell Berry has this great line about the limitations of the natural order of things.  He says,

“It is not allowable to love the Creation according to the purposes one has for it, any more than it is allowable to love one’s neighbor in order to borrow his tools”  (The Good Gift of Land, p. 273).

 

We can’t simply borrow the tools of the earth, the water, the sky because they help us get where we want to go.   We have to learn to love those things and those spirits simply because they exist, because God made them.  

 

In the documentary, Weapons of the Spirit, Pierre Sauvage returns to Le Chambon, France, where he had been raised as a child, during the Nazi occupation of World War Two.   The people of this small village, however, can also remember a time centuries earlier when the Roman Catholic Church had persecuted their Huguenot ancestors for rebelling against papal authority.   That background is important.  

Sauvage is a Jew, who with 5,000 other Jews escaped what German bureaucrats referred to as “the Final Solution,” a program that intended to incarcerate and exterminate an entire ethnic group.   Rather than facing life in a concentration camp, however, Sauvage spent the remainder of the war, being hidden, fed and cared for by Christian family who had a vicarious memory of suffering for their faith.   The matriarch of that clan had been a member of the Huguenot church in the village and she had listened to a sermon the pastor had preached on the so-called “weapons of the Spirit.”   Anyway, in this stunningly authentic moment, the film’s director breaks down in tears.  He hugs and holds onto the woman who had sheltered him, at the risk of her own life.   He hugs her and then has this say, “It was like hugging something solid, like a tree.  It was like hugging Absolute Goodness itself.”  

 

You see, the difference between Grandma Willow and that Huguenot woman in Le Chambon, France, couldn’t be more stark.   The personified tree in the Disney cartoon tells us that we get to decide what’s best for us and that the “spirits” of the earth, the water and the sky will guide us.   By contrast, the person hugged by Pierre Sauvage has been grown to be the way she is.   She has been grown to be this way by the Spirit of Christ.   And the fruit she bears betrays how blessed and how rooted she truly is.   Even the worst storms of human history cannot take her down…  And what about us?

 

Annie Dillard, it seems, is fascinated by mangrove trees.   She describes them as utterly durable and when their twisted roots and branches are cut loose from the shoreline, she marvels at the way a single tree will float, somehow mysteriously finding other detached trees in the turbulent surf.   And eventually a single mangrove, drifting and colliding in the ocean, has collected enough debris, enough muck of soil and sand, that it forms its own wondrous place and its own peculiar method for keeping time.   It “turns drift to dance” (Teaching A Stone To Talk, p. 152), writes Dillard, and that’s precisely what Psalm 1 recommends for us.

 

You may be here this morning, feeling as if the bits and pieces of your life are drifting further and further apart.   And, in this sea of despair, in this murky stream, it may seem that neither you, nor I have any alternative but to sit back and deflect the in-coming debris.   Don’t.   Don’t deflect it.   Let the bits and pieces of others bump into you.   And let the roots of the cross of Christ gather us together in one place and in one time.   And, by the Spirit of Christ, let’s become a destination of rest on the weary way.  

 

Amen.

 

 

Aside from its status as one of the four primary food groups, the very mention of the word, FRUIT, has inspired people for generations.  

 

My favorite fruit is banana,
So I eat one when I canna.
They taste real good and look so cute,
All dressed up in a yellow suit.

Who makes these bananas, anyway?
They do a good job, I must say.
Don’t know exactly how they seal ’em.
I think about that when I peel ’em.

—GrandpaTucker
Copyright ©1997 by Bob Tucker

 

That’s a poem by Bob Tucker that I offer as proof positive of FRUIT’S inspirational power.   FRUIT makes its mark in the world not only in terms of its nutritional value, but aesthetically, psychologically and spiritually.   In a Sunday School class, an old teacher taught the children memorize this verse:

Today I learned
Jesus is the Vine
With Him I grow
fruit very fine

Love and Joy and Peace
are three
of the fruits
Jesus wants from me

Patience, Kindness
Goodness too
These are the things
Jesus wants me to do

Faithfulness, Gentleness
Self-Control,
These are the fruits
Jesus wants me to grow 

And so, over the course of these summer months, time which may seem to pass so quickly, I’d like to recommend FRUIT.   FRUIT THAT RIPENS OVER TIME…

I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity…

 

So says the waitress, named Maya, in the award-winning film, Sideways.   And interestingly, the character offers this soliloquy after her friend Miles has bated her with question.   Maya had revealed that she likes the way wine makes her think and Miles responds cynically by saying, What do think about?  Hating your ex-husband?

 

You see, it would have been the perfect moment to vent.   Opportunities to vent negative thoughts come often and every day.   Every day the television news prompts us with the latest thing about which we ought to complain.   And every night, another dose of reality programming trains us in the art of talking trash.   Every month, another book publishes the sordid and sorry details about the life of the president, or about drug use of Barry Bonds, or about the pathetic parenting of Britney Spears.   Every day.  Every night.  Every month.  Every year.   And, of course, the cumulative effect of all this scandalous communication, the final result, the end product of men, women and children simply talking about hateful and hurtful things is what?  

 

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious,” writes the apostle Paul,

“fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these.”

 

One year I had a steady stream of young couples approach me about pre-marital counseling.   Actually, that’s not how it typically worked.   Typically, their mothers would call and ask if the church building would be open on a certain day and secondarily would I be available to do the wedding ceremony.   My response had to be practiced over time, and with much trial and error.   But eventually it came down to this:   I would not perform the ceremony for a couple who had already come to me with a date in mind.   What I would do amounted to a three to six pre-marital counseling sessions, during which I would ask why, with so many appealing options, they wanted to mention God in their wedding ceremony and why they wanted to make their vows in a church.   After plowing through those questions, we settled into an easier routine, a routine dealing with issues like communication with God, communication with one another and yes, finally, sex.   

 

So, here’s where the FRUIT comes back into the picture.   When I asked one couple to consider not having sex before their wedding day, they went down the street to the Lutheran Church and did the ceremony there.   When I asked another couple to practice the same discipline, they said, “Wow, no one has ever told us that before.”   Told you what, to wait?   “No, plenty have told us what we should do, but no one ever told us WHY we should wait.” 

You see, what I told both couples is what I’m trying to say this morning to those who give themselves to Latah Valley and to our future together:   I say, GOD INTENDS US FOR LOVE, FOR JOY, FOR PEACE, FOR PATIENCE, FOR KINDNESS, FOR GENEROUSITY, FOR FAITHFULNESS AND FOR SELF-CONTROL.   God intends us, individually and communally to bear those FRUIT.   And very definition of that FRUIT is that it RIPENS OVER TIME.  

 

Two passages from the Hebrew Scriptures help us appreciate this very dynamic:

  1.  Jeremiah 24 depicts a vision of two baskets of fruit.  One of the baskets is filled with fruit that has apparently gone bad, very bad, while the other basket is filled with fruit that is good, very good.   The spoiled figs, according to verse 8, represent “King Zedekiah… his princes and the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land…”   Apparently, God had commanded them to do the ironic thing of cooperating with the Babylonians and moving away into the towns, villages and cities of Babylon.   When they failed to obey that word of God Jeremiah describes them as figs that taste very bad.    The good figs, by contrast, are those Jews that were willing to uproot themselves and to wait for the blessings of change.
  2. The book of Daniel opens in the court of King Nebuchadnezzer, who by 597 BC, demanded that many of the exiled Jews eat the rich, red meat that the king himself enjoys.  Instead, Daniel and his colleagues secretly restrict themselves to a diet of only fruit and vegetables.   And the moral of the story seems to be that God’s people must rely upon a different set of resources, if they are to achieve a different set of goals.

 

You see, it is no mistake that the apostle Paul and Jesus are inspired by FRUIT.   FRUIT reminds them that it’s worth the wait.

Have you ever seen that commercial for orange juice where the shoppers are reaching into the refrigerated section of the grocery aisle?    There they are at Albertsons or Safeway or Costco, but when their hands extend themselves far enough they actually connect with the workers in the Orange Grove in Florida.   And, according to the advertising agency, the juice that comes from this grove gets into our hands almost immediately.

 

You and I, of course, may experience church like that.   We may occasionally reach in or reach out and then amazingly, by the power of God’s Spirit, we have love, joy, peace, patience and all the rest.   But more often than that, we wait and one day, what had once been a seed, what had once been a small, vulnerable shoot of green, what had once been frail tree with branches, produces a blossom and from that blossom at last, eventually comes the fruit.

 

Amen.