Monday, May 11, 2015

Good Fruit-A Sermon for Rogation Sunday

“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.”
St. John 15:8

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

            I know it’s only the second Sunday in May, but I’ve had tomatoes planted in my garden for almost a month.  Whether they will bear fruit in a few month’s time, though, is up for grabs.  The plants were a gift to me from Jeff and Audrey Murray, who grew them in their own little greenhouse through the long months of winter.  They are heirloom tomatoes, four different kinds, and they’re supposed to come out with colorful, tender skins and delicious fruit.  I could almost taste them sliced on a cheeseburger as I prepared the soil for my little plants.
            You plant tomatoes for the fruit, for the joy of the fruit, for that special fresh, homegrown taste that those pink cardboard globes over at the Price Chopper can’t even suggest.  But to get the fruit, you have to follow the rules.  You need to do things the right way.  And so far as I know, I’ve followed all the rules for planting early tomatoes in upstate New York.  The plants were strong and vigorous when Audrey brought them to my office, dark green with thick stems.  She also brought a special organic plant food and plastic protectors, which I filled with water to keep them safe during the frost.  I gave them the sunniest spots in my garden, cleared out the yellow lilies for them and turned over and raked the soil.  I’ve watered the tomatoes regularly, covered them with newspaper on frosty nights, kept out the weeds. 

            But they look awful.  One of them is more yellow than green.  Another has brown spots on every leaf.  The strongest of them somehow peeked out from under the newspaper on that really cold night we had three weeks ago and its growing crown was nipped, and left a shrunken grayish mess.  I’m on the point of trying to decide whether I should keep nursing these things along, or cut my losses and go to Carefree Gardens for round two of the plants. 
Getting fruit, good fruit, is not easy.  There are some plants that anyone can grow: black-thumb proof ground covers, industrial grains drilled out by mechanical planters and sucked in by combines.  But plants with tasty fruit tend to be more delicate.  You need just the right conditions, as they’re much more sensitive to climate shifts and irregularities in the soil.  The plants themselves need to be strong, free from disease.  And the grower needs knowledge and experience.  He or she must follow directions with care and persistence, to nurse the plants through each stage of the growing process. And let’s be honest, good fruit usually relies on a little good luck—or we should better say, a measure of grace.  It depends on blessings beyond our control. 
We all want fruit.  That’s not just to say that we all like fresh heirloom tomatoes.  We all want fruitfulness in our lives.  That’s true for people whether they call themselves religious or not.  Saint Paul provides us with a wonderful description of bearing fruit in our lives in his letter to the Galatians. “The fruit of the Spirit,” he says, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control[1].”  I don’t know anyone who isn’t really longing for that kind of life.  That’s the kind of life we are trying to find in the decisions we make about our families and our jobs.  If we pray, it’s what we usually ask for ourselves and those we love.  Even when we make foolish choices, it’s usually because we think they will really bring some fruit into our lives: on the surface they promise some peace, or joy or goodness.
But bearing fruit is hard, in life just like in the garden.  We need the right kind of conditions.  We need to be strong and consistent in our lives, with a good foundation and the wisdom to make the right kinds of choices.  There are rules that make for a fruitful life, and though people might disagree on a few of the particulars, we know the general run of them: be kind to others, think before you act, be generous to those in need, don’t take yourself too seriously: you know what I’m talking about.  We know the rules, but we get them wrong so much of the time.  We can see what our lives should be, what they could be, but we never quite arrive there—it’s as if we just can’t push the plant through on our own until the harvest time arrives.
The world tries to help us with this dilemma.  It’s clear that the condition of our lives and our inner strength have a lot to do with this bearing fruit.  And so psychologists analyze our emotions and thoughts, sociologists study our communities, doctors probe the systems of our body.  And much of what they discover is helpful, but in the end, they tell us that there’s an awful lot we cannot control.  If you get started in life on the wrong foot, if you have the wrong kinds of friends, if your body has a given set of malfunctions and weaknesses, you’re never really going to make it. 
On the other hand, the self-help industry, in its various permutations tells us that if we just followed the rules for fruitful living a bit more carefully we would get the results we want.  If we just kept all seventeen of these steps in mind, and logged them all in this handy booklet, we would find the peace, and joy and self control we’ve been longing for.  You have the power to be fruitful: you just need to try a little harder.
I don’t know about you—but I just don’t think it’s that simple.  I’ve known people who seemed to have everything stacked against them in life, but yet were filled with love, and joy, peace and faithfulness.  And I’ve known people who have tried their darnedest, every scheme and plan and system out there.  And all the fuss and bother seems to make them more miserable than they were to begin with. 
Fruitfulness is about more than the conditions in which we live.  It’s about more than our inner makeup or the rules we follow.  In the garden, as in life, there’s some grace involved.  Fruitfulness comes as a gift, as something beyond our control, a blessing that we receive from the Source of life itself. 
 “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says.  “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me, you can do nothing.”  What He means is that the kind of life we really want is not a life we can make for ourselves.  It is God’s gift to us, part of the love he shares with us if we abide in Him.  To abide in God, to be connected to the vine of Jesus Christ, is to be in fellowship with Him.  It means trusting in God for help, turning to Him in prayer, reading His word, sharing in His Sacraments.  When you are in fellowship with God, he will make you fruitful, even when you are planted in the most unpromising soil.  Because He works in your life from the inside.  He makes you strong, and He reshapes your desires.  He gives you the strength you need to persevere to the end.  His life, His fruitful power, flows into you and makes your life fruitful.  As Jesus said to His disciples: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”  It’s His joy to begin with—God’s joy, but becomes yours as it is worked into your life, and bears fruit in the things you do and the way you feel. 
Jesus changes the metaphor a little bit when He talks about keeping the commandments.  “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,” He says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”  Here He’s talking about those practices that make for a fruitful life, those rules that a wise gardener follows to achieve the promise result.  In one sense, we become fruitful because we are connected to God, but we also need to take action.  This is action at God’s direction, prepared and assisted by His grace. He made life, and He made the rules that help us to live it well.  To keep His commandments is to take up those practices that come the promise that they will be productive, that they will help us to change and grow closer to that fruitfulness we long to see. 
In a few minutes, I will ask you all to complete the communication card in your bulletin.  On the back of that card is a list of opportunities, right here in this congregation, that are scheduled to happen in the next month.  These are all ways to put God’s commandments into action, to try out some of those things that will help you to grow in love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness.  You can help us rebuild a flood-damaged church down in Schoharie County next Saturday: that’s a way to grow in kindness.  Or maybe you’d like to come to the women’s fellowship brunch on Saturday morning: that’s a joy practice—getting to know other folks better and sharing a good time with them.  You could take part in our science and religion class in June—help grow your faith by dealing with some of those questions you’ve been asking yourself for a long time.  Or there’s practical things: helping set up for the annual meeting, or watching the kids during it: that could be about patience or self-control, depending on how rowdy they get.
To bear fruit, we need to keep the commandments, and we need to ask for that sustaining grace that is God’s gift to all who abide in Him.  This is Rogation Sunday, “asking Sunday.”  We ask God’s blessing on our seeds and flowers and fields, and we ask for his mercy and grace in our lives.  Without His help, we won’t see much fruit.  I’m not exactly saying that if I had waited to get those tomato plants blessed by a priest, they would be looking a whole lot greener today.  But it would have helped, and it surely will help all of us who hope for fruit in our lives. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Galatians 5:22-23.

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