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FRUITFUL LIVING - FAITHFUL LIVING

Date: 
OCTOBER 28, 2018
Speaker: 
Rev. Kenneth Landall

Fruitful Living – Faithful Giving

I was hoping to find a catchy story to introduce this stewardship sermon on fruits and vines and branches, something horticultural perhaps, but, alas, I could find nothing. The only thing that’s kept going through my head is that old rock ‘n roll song, “I heard it through the grape vine” – but that doesn’t quite fit. So, let’s begin by digging in, looking for the root issues, and let’s try to plant some seeds for future growth.

Perhaps you noticed in our three scripture lessons today a common element – the word fruit or fruits, used in different ways, yet with some commonality. From each of these three examples perhaps you and I can get some directions for living more fruitful, productive lives, which especially in this stewardship season might lead us to more faithful giving – we can only hope!

The passage from Deuteronomy was probably originally recited in a liturgical context, a litany perhaps offered at the temple, since it is very God-centered. The writer, perhaps Moses himself, asks the believer to do something quite specific, to take some of the first fruits of the ground (other places in the Bible say a tithe or ten percent), to take some of their first fruits, bring them to the place where God’s name dwells, and give them to the priest. The reciting of the story of Jacob and his children, their bondage in Egypt, their miraculous deliverance, and their arriving at last in the land flowing with milk and honey, reminds us of God’s great mercy and care for the children of Israel, and for us as well. The passage concludes with the suggestion for them to worship and celebrate with all the bounty which the Lord God has given to them.

This reading from Deuteronomy is more than just an interesting fragment from early Hebrew history. It’s a word for us today as well. If we are to be faithful stewards, you and I are to offer our first
fruits to the Lord, our offerings of time, talent, and treasure, gifts given out of our abundance.

We also live in a land flowing with milk and honey, and Cape Cod itself, especially in late autumn, is almost like paradise, and we have been blessed with much. So, we are to give to God out of our abundance, in gratitude for God’s benevolent and always-present care. Our giving is to be from the best we have, and is to be a high priority.

There was a knock on the door of the hut occupied by a missionary in Africa. Answering the door, the missionary finds one of the native boys holding a large fish. The boy says, “Miss Eddy, you taught us what tithing is, so here, I’ve brought you my tithe.” As the missionary gratefully takes the fish, she questions the lad: “If this is your tithe, where are the other nine fish?” At this the boy beams and says, “Oh, they’re still in the river. I’m going back to catch them now.”i Here was a young Christian who took tithing of first fruits seriously, and who had discovered the joy of giving. I pray that each of us might know this joy ourselves.

To live fruitfully, our giving is done out of our abundance and with deep gratitude. Such giving here at Dennis Union is done not just to meet the needs of the church. This is why we separate our church’s budget-making process from the stewardship pledging process. Of course we know that we need money to support our church’s many missions – and we’ve featured some of these missions during October – and also to support the variety of our ministries here, for example, our upcoming new pastoral leadership. But our hope and prayer is that these needs will be more than adequately met if each of us will faithfully give in response to what God has already given to us. Our giving, hopefully, will be more than a fulfillment of an obligation, but rather, a joyful response to the blessings we’ve received.

In our second lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, the Apostle refers to a prayer that he is constantly praying on their behalf. It’s a prayer we could offer for ourselves, for us individually and for us together as our church, changing lives here and beyond.

Let us pray that we too will be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, which comes, not so much from our diligent efforts, as from our willingness to be more open, more receptive, and more dependent upon God’s grace. For many of us, this is something we struggle with. And yet, when we are more open, more receptive, and more dependent upon God, we will automatically become more faithful.

Our prayers for more spiritual wisdom and understanding are for a very specific purpose – not to make us feel good, not to make us feel morally or religiously superior – but rather, so that we can lead lives worthy of the Lord, that is, live as God wants us to live, and “bear fruit in every good work.” Our faith is lived out in the good works we do. As the Letter of James puts it: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” The fruitful life is one in which, because of our faith, we bear the fruit of good works.

There’s a classic illustration about a young boy who is on an errand for his mother. He’s just bought a dozen eggs, when walking out of the store, he trips and drops the grocery bag. The eggs break, the sidewalk is a mess, and the boy tries hard not to cry. A few people gather to see if he is OK, and to tell him how sorry they are. In the midst of all the words of pity, one bystander hands the boy a dollar bill, turns to the group and says, “I care a buck’s worth. How much do the rest of you care?” Words don’t mean much if we have the ability to do more, and don’t.ii

In John’s gospel, Jesus gives us an extended metaphor, beginning with the words, “I am the true vine...” Grapes and vineyards are important symbols in the Bible. The Hebrew prophets refer to Israel as the vine or the vineyard which, despite careful cultivation and pruning, has grown wild and is no longer capable of bearing good fruit. When Jesus declares that he is the true vine, he is making a fairly radical statement. Here is a vine which will be capable of producing the sweetest grapes the world has ever tasted.

Before we continue, a brief word about viticulture, grape growing. Vines and branches are connected; this is how the fruit develops.

The branches depend on the main vine for their sustenance, but not every branch produces grapes, and those that do not, are cut off. In the time of Jesus, they were used for kindling. The fruit- producing branches are kept short by pruning, so that they will stay close to the source, the main vine, thus producing sweeter grapes.

Jesus refers to pruning, done by God, the vine-grower. This is the discipline, and at times the hardship, that is part of the Christian way of life, part of the cost of discipleship. God never promises us a rose garden, but rather a grape arbor. And grape branches must be pruned in order to yield the best results, for as Jesus says, a “branch cannot bear fruit by itself.”

Sometimes “Mother Nature” does the pruning. It was decades ago at about this time of year. We were in our first church in western Connecticut, and there was this huge snowstorm in early October that brought down many trees, mainly because of the weight of the heavy snow on the still leafy branches. At the parsonage where we lived, there was a beautiful apple tree in the back yard, and though it survived the storm, it lost a number of limbs, including one large branch that split off from the main trunk. The branch dangled from the trunk with just a few fibers and bark. Remarkably, the next Spring, leaves started sprouting forth, probably because of the sap still contained in the branch, but no apples ever appeared again on that particular branch. The reason – it was almost entirely separated from its source of nourishment.

When you and I are not connected to our Source, to God, when we are so self-centered that we feel we can make it on our own without relying on God’s help and guidance, our lives will not be as fruitful as they could be. Jesus drives home the point even more forcefully when he says: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” But we may react, Oh, come on now Jesus! Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration? There are lots of things I can do on my own. This may be true, but the things that we do, the deeds we perform, the talents that we have and use, the goals we attain – will all be to a certain extent deficient if we are separated from the source that can sustain us.

Apart from Christ, even good things can become tainted, and our acts of service can become opportunities for pride, manipulation of others, resentment, or self-glorification.iii Like a light bulb that won’t work until the socket cord is plugged into an electrical outlet, so our light will not be able to shine fully until we are connected to our power source.

Finally, Jesus says something that affects us as individual Christians and us together as the church. He says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” There can be no fruit without the branches. We are the branches for Christ the true vine as we live and work and play in God’s creation. You and I, as faithful stewards, are the branches. It is through the branches that the vine bears fruit. And together, you and I are the body of Christ – his feet that must run for him, his hands that must carry for him, his heart that must be compassionate for those in need – we are the body of Christ and through us God’s will gets done. This is what we mean with our stewardship slogan this year: “Dennis Union Church – Changing Lives Here and Beyond.” Together, we are the body of Christ, the church, and through us, by God’s grace, God’s will gets done for the benefit of others and of ourselves.

Can you hear Jesus calling to us? “Come, help me in the saving of the world! You have it in you; just stay connected to me; I need you. Come, labor for me. Come, reach out to others. Come, be my people, follow in my ways, and let me be your Lord.” The fruitful life is the one that stays connected to the Source of all life, and the fruitful life is the one that takes the responsibility of being a branch of the vine very seriously.

As we consider our pledging responsibilities for Ingathering Sunday on November 18th, think about the possibilities. Maybe God will challenge you or me to a new level of giving, perhaps to consider proportionate giving. Maybe you or I will be inspired to move toward tithing – or to move beyond tithing. Maybe we are ready to take a leap of faith, to take a risk, to open ourselves to new possibilities for personal growth.

As we consider our pledging responsibilities, will we remember the rich blessings each of us has? Will we respond joyfully and gratefully with our very best, with our first fruits, not because we have to, but because we are thankful for all that we have, and want to share a portion to further God’s realm? Will we pledge prayerfully, praying not only for ourselves, but also for God’s will to be done in our church? Will we pray for spiritual wisdom and understanding, for the strength to stay connected, to abide in Christ? Will we pray for God’s guidance, so that what we decide to give will truly represent us, and will truly glorify God? Will we pledge responsibly, remembering that we are branches of the vine, and that it’s up to us to bear the good fruit through our works? And, as we pledge will we remember that whatever we pledge, God, the benevolent vine-grower, will bless it and bless us, and love us unconditionally?

I believe that God loves this church, and that God’s will will be done through you and me. I hope that each of us will approach our pledging responsibilities by saying “yes” to each of these questions. If we do, we will be living fruitfully and we will be giving faithfully. And if we do, I am confident, that with God’s grace, our church will reach new heights in mission and ministry, and you and I will reach new depths of spiritual growth. So may it be. Amen.

“FRUITFUL LIVING – FAITHFUL GIVING”

Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Colossians 1:9-14 John 15:1-8

i  Parables, Etc. 4.11.4
ii Stanley C. Brown, on the Internet

iii The Clergy Journal,5-6/87, p.46

 

Rev. Kenneth C. Landall Stewardship Sunday October 28, 2018