Cultivating Our Best Fruits ~ Sermon for Laity Sunday

Injustice - HL (533x800)

Scripture Reading: – Luke 6: 36-45

{Update:  Video available here.}

Good morning.  Let me just start by clarifying that I only signed up for the “Lay Servant Academy” because they changed the name.  You see, it used to be Lay “Speaker” Academy, which would have sent me running for the hills trembling.  I thought, sure, I lead a committee, I’m on some small groups, I should go.  But, nevertheless, here I am, up here in front of you all, ready to speak.

Some of you may know me best as the twins’ mom.  You’ve probably seen me walking the halls with my boys or dropping them off at the nursery (or, let’s be realistic, you’ve more likely seen me chasing after them on that ramp in the Fellowship Hall looking frazzled and exhausted).  Actually, maybe you recognize me by my backpack here.

If I’m not wearing it, then surely my husband is.  Maybe you’ve wondered, why in the world do they wear that backpack?  Wouldn’t a standard diaper bag do the trick?

Yes, maybe this backpack does look a little silly.  Surely we are not going hiking after the service.  And it almost never goes with my outfit.

But, there is a reason, I assure you.

You see, when you may be required to carry two toddlers at any given time, (who may or may not be cooperative about being carried) a backpack is a must.  Unlike a standard one-shoulder strap diaper bag, a backpack won’t fall off one shoulder onto Twin A as you scoop down to pick up Twin B.  It was a trick we learned from another twin parent.  From someone who had been in our shoes.  And the advice was much appreciated as we struggled to figure out this parenthood thing.

Parenthood.  Talk about a lesson in eating our own words.  I promise, no hard feelings if you thought I was strange for wearing that backpack.   Before I became a mom, I’m pretty sure I made worse judgments about other parents.

My child would never talk back, my child would never cry in the nursery, my child would never throw a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store.

You name it, I probably thought, “Well, if I were his parent…”

Well, safe to say God has a sense of humor.  So, you think you could do better Holli?   Here’s two at a time.  Clearly Jesus was talking to me too about that log in my eye.

*****

I know you all have heard that familiar parable about judging others – about failing to see the log in our own eye but easily finding specks in the eyes of everyone else. Perhaps you also know of the subsequent “good fruits” proverb.

Have you ever considered them together? 

In this chapter of Luke, Jesus transitions directly from a biting cautionary tale about our propensity for judging others (while sparing ourselves) right into this imagery of a good tree bearing good fruits.   Perhaps the proximity of these teachings might serve to remind us that we often judge a tree by the fruit it bears.

It’s easy to look at a tree with beautiful, ripe fruits and say, “Ah, yes.  That is a good tree.  Surely, that tree, that seed, is of God.”  But what of the tree whose fruits are small, underdeveloped, or not yet ripe?  What of the tree planted in less than fertile soil?  What of the tree with exotic or unfamiliar fruit?

Could it be, too, that these verses together hint that our human condition – our very tendency towards judgment – might prevent others, prevent ourselves, from bearing good fruits?

Today, I’d like to consider these two parables together as we consider the very seed that will eventually produce good fruits.  What factors bring about its eventual blossoming?

*****

Our youth group recently returned home from a mission trip in Russellville, KY.  A few years back, I had a similar opportunity to travel on a mission trip to the Appalachian region, likely not too far from where our own youth just served.  If you think real poverty and hunger only exists outside our borders, one trip to some of these most rural areas of our country will show you otherwise.  While Appalachia is rich in natural resources, the beautiful and rugged terrain actually presents a significant problem….How do you farm on a mountain side?  How do you build a factory?  How do you create a sustainable infrastructure in these landlocked mountains.  Unfortunately, today, the answer is that we don’t, or at least not very well.  The poverty rates in Appalachia are more than double the national average.  Half of families in this region get by on an annual income of less than $20,000.  Full-times jobs are sparse and side jobs are unpredictable.

We spent our week in Appalachia lending a hand at one of the over 20,000 homes in the region without complete plumbing.  We worked hard finishing the wall frames on a bathroom addition to a modest home, crumbling from years of disrepair.  While we felt hope with the relief an indoor bathroom might bring this family, what really sticks with me is an image of a little boy flying a June-bug kite.

You see, when you are passed back and forth between your mother (and her abusive boyfriend) on the weekends and your caring, but struggling-to-make ends-meet-grandparents during the week, and when you know hunger so deep that the mission team’s offering of a PB& J is like a lobster dinner, and when you go the bathroom in the woods, even in the dead of winter, small things can bring big joy.  You just might find some escape in catching a June-bug, tying him to string, and flying him high in the sky on a hot summer’s day.  A simple joy of childhood that not even poverty can steal.

What sticks with me from that trip was the complete and utter lack of resources in this rural area.  What sticks with me is the witnessing of the generational cycle of poverty that is so, so desperately hard to break.  Any assumptions, any judgments, I had brought with me to Appalachia about why people were in this condition were completely shattered upon returning home.  How do you pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you have no boots?

What often haunts me still today is wondering what kind of fruits that little boy had the resources to bear?  Did others continue to nurture, or did he fail to bloom in that region so rich in natures beauty, but so barren of the stuff of good fruits?

*****

This spring I attended the United Methodist Church’s Lay Speaker Academy.  In our “Basics Course,” we learned about the difference between acts of MERCY and acts of JUSTICE – both of which we are called to as followers of Jesus.  According to our textbooks, an act of MERCY is “anything one does to demonstrate love of God by caring for creation and neighbor.”  Not to pat ourselves on the back, but I’d say we are pretty good at acts of mercy around here.   We make meals for our neighbors, we knit prayer shawls, we volunteer at the food pantry, we pray for those on the prayer list and those unlisted, we travel to Appalachia (or Russelville, KY or the Bahamas) to help build shelter for those without, we raise funds to help cure disease and fight hunger, we mentor youth, we take our children to visit the nursing home, we recycle and bring in our batteries, we write letters to teachers, shut-ins, and service members, we make blankets for children in the hospital, and I’m sure I’ve left many, many other acts of mercy off this list.  In fact, with quick look at the July Circuit Rider, you can read more about how we support Lolly in her mission trips to Guatemala and about how we will soon be hosting our first “Really, Really Free Market” for the community.

So we’ve got a good start on this MERCY thing.  But what about acts of JUSTICE?  Honestly?  Acts of JUSTICE are hard.  We engage in acts of JUSTICE when we seek to “remedy the cause of homelessness, the cause poverty, the cause of debilitating disease, the cause of indignity.” Acts of JUSTICE get at the underlying systems and laws that create inequity in the first place.  And yes, this is where it can get tricky.  Here is where we might have to step outside our comfort zones – and, for many of us, when we might need to step out of our comfortable shoes to do so.

But consider how JUSTICE relates to MERCY.  Again, from our textbook,  “Acts of MERCY without acts of JUSTICE are like putting a bandage on a gaping wound.”

Sure, we put on a good and much needed bandage when we helped build that bathroom in Appalachia (and when we offered our PB & Js) but the wound of generational poverty is so deep.

So where do we start when it comes to justice?  How do we begin the long and hard work of helping another bear their best fruit despite the lack of resources or opportunity?  Despite a system that often favors the privileged?

While sweeping acts of justice (and eradicating the root causes of inequity) take time, there is one simple thing we can all do to start on the path towards JUSTICE.

Listen.

Jesus tells us, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” But he does more than just tell us this; Jesus shows how to listen.  Time and time again, we see Jesus at the side of those who have truly compelling stories.  When others looked away, when others were quick to judge, when others held their stones ready for the cast, Jesus showed us a different way.  He drew that line in the sand, and he did the unexpected.  He crossed over that line to be present with the very ones we see as “other.”

We, too, can be present.  You see, we can be not only the hands and feet, but also the ears of Jesus.   We can listen, really listen, to the stories of those with life experiences and situations much different than our own.   We can listen to the stories of our neighbors stuck in the cycle of poverty, the stories of our gay, lesbian and transgender brothers and sisters, the stories of immigrants, of those battling mental health challenges, of those navigating the world with physical disabilities, of communities losing child after child to preventable disease.

We can hear the stories of those whom society too often deems “the least among us” but whom our Jesus proclaims the greatest among us.

For when we can remove that wall of judgment and just listen, we might find that our hearts begin to open to the plight of our neighbor.  We might just start to see them as a brother or sister in Christ.  We might just hear God calling us to greater love, calling us to action, calling us to Justice.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Sherry preached on the parable of the Great Banquet and the all important guest list.   Her sermon reminded us that God’s guest list is inclusive and that those on the margins are welcomed first.  In speaking about how we know those on the margins, one line stuck with me.

“We know them when we live among them.”

Consider a similar statement recently made by Russell More, the head of the Southern Baptists Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.  In speaking about why there is increased support among Evangelical Christians for Immigration Reform now as opposed to the last reform efforts in 2007, More said simply,  “more immigrants have joined {our} congregations, giving {us} a better understanding of who they are.”

More immigrants have joined our congregations.  We have a better understanding of who they are.

In other words, “We know them as we live among them.”

Could it be that they had listened to their stories?  Could it be that these members now saw the immigrants among them as God saw them?   Could it be that they had heard that still small voice while listening to the stories of their neighbors?

Collectively, they said “Oh.  We get it now.”  They, too, are our neighbors.  Their story is our story.

*****

I experienced a similar opportunity to listen when I had a few kids.  When it was my baby (or babies) throwing a tantrum in the middle of IKEA, I had no choice but to humbly eat my words.  (Do you know how difficult it is to find a quiet corner to calm your screaming child in IKEA????  That place is a maze!)  Now, I find myself asking for advice from parents I once judged.

Now I constantly find myself saying, “Oh.  I get it now.”  Their story is now my story.

Have you ever uttered these words?

How often do we get such an opportunity as to see the world from such a radically different point of view?  For many of us, the transition to parenthood might be the most dramatic shift in perspective we’ll ever experience.  And this is typically a welcome transition.  Rarely, and thankfully, do we get a similar opportunity to change perspective from a place of privilege to a place of oppression.

But if we cannot wear the shoes of another, we can at least offer them a comfortable seat and a listening ear.  We can at least offer them a welcoming hand.  We can at least offer them an open heart.

We can at least offer them a step toward justice.

*****

We’ve heard a bit today about how our church is really quite good at MERCY, but, there are also opportunities right here at PUMC for real JUSTICE.  In your bulletin today, you have a special insert outlining just a few of the Justice Missions and ministries of this church and of the United Methodist Church as a whole.

I encourage you to take a look and learn about the opportunities to hear the stories of our neighbors.

There are many different ways in which we might feel led to help another yield good fruit. The path might look different for each one of us.  But consider this. When we love another enough to earnestly listen to their story, to see them as a brother or sister in Christ, isn’t it possible that by doing so, we nurture good fruits, the best fruits, in ourselves.

Listen.  Where are you being called to follow Jesus in the pursuit of justice?  How will you answer that call?

*****

Dear Lord, Let us be people of MERCY and JUSTICE as we seek to more fully live out your kingdom here on Earth.  Help us to knock down walls of judgment we’re so quick to build.  Let us better love our neighbors.  Let us really listen, really hear one another so we might help our brothers and sisters bear good fruits.  And let us do these things so that we might cultivate our own best fruits.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

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  1. […] recently had the opportunity to preach at my church.  It was a humbling and moving experience for me.  What an honor to be able to tell […]

  2. […] of my own backpack as we all gathered around the altar.  How it once carried diapers during its role as diaper bag, and how, soon, it will carry my books as it transforms back into the role for which it was […]

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