“Assessing the Harvest: Fruit or M & M’s?”
October 9, 2011
Our new director of Christian education, Brianna Schwenk, told me of a conversation that she had recently with one of the children in our church school.
“Do you ever talk with Rev. Lovin?” he asked.
I think a somewhat puzzled Brianna told him that yes, we talk with each other quite frequently. Why?
“Well,” this young member of our congregation replied, “I was just wondering. Because Rev. Lovin talked with us about love in the children’s message and you talk about the same thing in Sunday School.”
Brianna and I agreed that it would have been much cooler if she could have told him that we have some sort of psychic or Jedi mind powers. But we just talk.
And so I know, as do the parents of children—and maybe some of the rest of you—I know that the children in our congregation have been learning about what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”—a phrase in his letter to the Galatians that describes the characteristics of a Christian community. That’s why Brianna and I have been talking with the children about love—it’s part of what the Spirit of God produces in our lives and in our congregation.
It’s an agricultural image. Richard Hays, who teaches New Testament at Duke University, says that Paul is not so much exhorting the Galatians to cultivate these qualities as he is painting a picture of the harvest the Spirit produces. The bulletin board in Rockwood Hall tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is not a coconut—it is love, joy, peace, and all those other qualities that Paul lists in his letter to the Galatians.
I once read that instead of thinking about fruit, most churches usually focus on M&M’s.
M&M’s. You know: Money and Members. And actually, we’re doing pretty well by those measurements.
As we start to think about our giving for the coming year, the good news is that members have been very faithful in fulfilling their pledges. Our treasurer tells the Trustees that she is cautiously optimistic. And, you know, it’s great to have a church treasurer who is both cautious and optimistic.
I want to thank you for your giving. Your giving funds our programs of Christian education and music. It keeps our building in repair as it is used by community groups such as Narcotics Anonymous as well as by us. And your giving touches the lives of people around the world through our mission spending. Your faithful stewardship makes a difference in the lives of countless people. Thanks again.
Or consider members.
So many people have been interested in this congregation that we’re currently holding our third new member class this year. You’ll meet our newest members next Sunday. The new members that we will welcome are nine of 23 adults who will have joined this church this year. We are growing at a healthy rate. With strong programs of Christian education and music, vital worship, warm and welcoming people, and a strong and faithful presence in this community, our congregation is attracting people. And we’re keeping them too, getting new members involved in the life of this church. Thanks again for being a great congregation!
Money and Membership—we’re doing well with both. And that is really something to celebrate. This is not the case for the large majority of mainline Protestant churches in this state and throughout our nation. Many are facing what one person calls a “financial meltdown” and they’re losing members. So let’s rejoice and give thanks to God for the good and different thing that is happening here.
As we celebrate, however, we need to remember that we’re really not all that interested M&M’s—even though such statistics are what we report each year. And the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about M&M’s, whether plain or—my favorite—peanut.
The Bible is more interested in fruit. The harvest that we anticipate is one of love, joy, hope, peace, patience, long-suffering, and kindness.
So the real question for us as a congregation is “How much are those qualities a part of our life together?
The question is not, “What new and flashy programs can we come up with to make it look like something’s happening?” but “How can we cooperate with God’s purpose? How can we co-create with God?” “How can we, simply and bravely, live lives of faith?”
The money and members of this congregation are not what we seek. They are a by-product of a congregation that seeks to be faithful to God in our belief and our doubts; a congregation that seeks to show God’s love in our community and in the larger world; a congregation that seeks to welcome all people and speak up for their basic human rights.
None of these things are necessarily easy or to be expected. And so we should give thank we see such evidence among ourselves.
The psalmist gives us a powerful image of a good tree, planted by the water, yielding good fruit in season. The lack of rain this summer has taught us again what happens when trees and plants don’t get the water that they need. A congregation planted by the water, a congregation that is nurtured by worship and prayer and action in the world will be fruitful in good times and bad. Such a congregation has a reservoir of strength and hope to draw on when resources are scarce.
So Paul can write to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” This is not a call to be glad when the sun is shining and the birds are singing. “Always.” Rejoice always. Paul said that he had “learned the secret of being well-fed and being hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” That is to say, he is like a tree planted by water.
Paul was one for lists. To the Galatians he listed the fruit of the Spirit. To the Philippians he gave a list of things to think about: whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise. Now, it’s said that there’s nothing especially “Christian” about any of the items on this list. But Paul wants his readers to mull over these qualities, to give them consideration, and see how they might take shape in their lives, in our lives.
Then he concludes: After all that thinking, “Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen.” That is: just do it.
We discover here the roots of our Congregational emphasis on covenant rather than creed. What we think and what we think about are important. What matters even more is how we live with each other.
The fruit of our congregation is shown in our actions. The joy of discipleship is gained through, as one person said, “sitting with the dying, loving the unlovable, feeding the sheep.”
Of course, there’s a lot of what I call the “left-hand-not-knowing-what-the-right-hand-is-doing” activity as well: Members visiting others who are sick, shut-in, or in nursing homes, financial giving that supports mission work around the globe, comforting those who mourn, living as people of faith at work, at home, and in the community. A lot of the ministry of our members happens in secret and yet makes so much difference to individual lives and to the life of the world.
Keep on doing the things you have learned…
We aren’t involved in this city because we have a little extra time and energy and money. These are not activities we engage in because we’re good people looking for a good cause.
They are our witness to the love of God made known in Jesus Christ.
They are central to who we are as the people of God.
If we fail here, we fail to be a church—regardless of how much money and how many members we have. We seek fruit, not M&M’s.
The challenge for us is to become true stewards—not just people who look at money and members. True stewards care for the trees of our lives and the tree that is this congregation. They tend the trees in such a way that good fruit is produced.
Stewards are responsible for the care and use of what they have. This is not a passive enterprise. Those who tend an orchard do not sit back and leave it all to God. They fertilize and water and prune.
As stewards of all the gifts God has given, we are called to be active—in giving, in loving, in service, in learning.
In the days ahead I invited you to look again and see what God is doing within us and among us. Look around. I think you will see much that calls forth our gratitude, our worship and our gifts.
As we begin to think about what God might yet do, let us be open to the Spirit of God poured out like water on thirsty land. With that kind of openness, I am certain that there is much more that God might do.
Continue to be fruitful.
Abound in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—so that others will know us by our fruits.
May we find the harvest plentiful this fall.
 Hays, “Galatians,” IB, vol. XI, pg. 328.