One of my favorite comedians is Brian Regan. He talks about the childhood horrors of daunting and complicated spelling rules. His teacher pulls him out of a daydream and asks him:
"Brian, what's the “I” before “e” rule?"
"I before e... ALWAYS."
"What are you, an idiot, Brian?"
The teacher explains it to her drifty pupil:
"”I” before “e” except after “c” and when sounding like “a” as in neighbor and weigh, and on weekends and holidays and all throughout May, and you'll always be wrong no matter what you say!"
Regan says: "That's a hard rule. That's a— that's a rough rule."
Hard rules and rough rules. I want to suggest that Jesus set the bar pretty high when it came to some rules. It’s common to think of Jesus as a carpenter ... his father, Joseph was a carpenter, and we sort of assume Jesus was, too. But if he was, he was also a farmer ... a gardener ... because he spoke frequently of farms and farmworkers ... of sowing seed and gathering the harvest. One particular event in Jesus’ life shows that he was a pretty hard-headed gardener ... a pretty “stern” gardener. There were some hard rules ... some rough rules for working in the “fields of the Lord.”
Jesus entered Jerusalem in the event that we remember on Palm Sunday. It was the first day of the last week of his life. It’s now the following day in the morning. Jesus walked back into Jerusalem with his disciples. He was hungry and walked by a fig tree hoping to get some figs to eat. But where there should have been abundant fruit, there were only leaves. The tree had stopped bearing fruit ... and while it may have been a lovely tree, it no longer served the purpose for which it was intended. And so Jesus curses the tree and it instantly withers and dies. Now Jesus wasn’t being a gardening brute as much as he was making a statement, and the statement was this: “Bear fruit or go out of business.” Now be sure of this: the fig tree was not just a fig tree. For Jesus and his disciples, the tree symbolized the faith of Jesus’ upbringing ... and in his mind, that faith had stopped bearing fruit and had, in effect, put itself out of business. Jesus simply stated the obvious ... he named what was already true. The tree ... his faith ... had stopped bearing fruit and had effectively ceased to be in the business for which it was intended. These are “hard rules” ... they’re rough rules ... but they are “true” rules.
For the next five weeks we will be engaged in all kinds of ways in learning some of the essentials of being a “fruitful congregation”. And one of the fundamental underpinnings of all we say and learn and do is that congregations ... churches that bear no fruit beyond themselves whatsoever are functionally dead ... like the leafy, but fruitless fig tree. These are “hard rules” ... they’re rough rules ... but they are “true” rules.
Now, I want to assure you that I don’t think the judgment of “fruitlessness” is one that can be applied to Shell Ridge Church. But it is always fair to ask about the quantity and the quality of the fruit we bear.
At my home in my back yard is a peach tree and an apricot tree. One year about four summers ago they each bore so much fruit that some of the branches were literally torn from the tree by the weight of the fruit. Since that summer the sum total of fruit from both trees wouldn’t fill a small grocery bag. Those under-fruiting trees ought to be worried about their future. To the extent that we identify any under-fruiting tendencies in ourselves, we should be worried because the “natural law” of churches is that under-fruiting churches suffer and slowly die. It’s a hard rule ... it’s a rough rule ... but it’s a “true” rules.
Starting today and ending on Thanksgiving Sunday we will consider five practices of fruitful congregations. Congregations that are faithful in attending to these basic practices and deepening these practices will never have to worry about the quality and the quantity of the fruit they bear. The five practices are: radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity. Let me say again: congregations that are faithful in attending to these basic practices and deepening these practices will never have to worry about the quality and the quantity of the fruit they bear. Each Sunday we will lift up one of these five practices. In sermon and song and even the commitments we are invited to make, we will bolster our fruitfulness. But it won’t end there as the church’s coordinating council and ministry teams and various church committees will also consider these practices and their profound implications for bearing fruit in the world around us. We’ve heard the hard rules, the rough rules ... here’s a good rule ... a generous rule: a church and its membership that takes these five practices quite seriously and weaves them into its life at every level can expect to thrive and grow and minister compassionately well beyond its walls and even beyond what might be thought possible. That’s a good rule ... that’s a generous rule.
At this time, I invite you to take the apple out of your bulletin. Very likely it was hard to keep your apple IN your bulletin. That almost juicy red apple represents the first practice of fruitful congregations which is “radical hospitality.” What you’ll notice with this first practice is true of all of the practices. Something that most congregations might do modestly well is taken to the next level or well beyond the next level. Simple hospitality is something we do relatively well at Shell Ridge ... or so we might think. We have a fairly barrier free facility, we offer warm greetings and welcome to visitors, we sing songs like “Part of the Family”, we provide childcare and large print bulletins and even Sunday sermons carefully translated into other languages. That’s a little joke because Isabella knows that Google is the sermon translater and it does a crude enough job that she has to work even harder than you do to understand what the heck is being said from this pulpit on any given Sunday. So that’s a little of what hospitality is ... it is our sense of a warm and kindly welcome to any that might come our way. Now, even before we add the word “radical” though, we would do well to remember that that is OUR sense of our hospitality. We’d be wise to acknowledge that what we, who have been around a while, see and experience is sometimes almost completely unrelated to what a complete newcomer sees and experiences. For years the “curbside” views of this property and our buildings has been ... dismal. Landscaping in disarray ... tilting fences ... crumbling retaining walls ... peeling paint. Any of you here this morning who still think of yourselves as “new” came to us and joined with us in spite of that dismal “curb appeal” ... and we thank God that you did ... but imagine how many others have driven as far as the church driveway and then said ... hmm ... I wonder what the Unitarians are doing this Sunday?
The author of the book we’re using as our primary resource these five weeks says this about the message that something as simple and basic as our facilities say about us: “Facilities speak a message to people about what church members think of themselves, how importantly they take their mission, and how confidently they see the future of their church.”
It’s hard to practice even basic hospitality when the property and the buildings are scaring people away or making them wonder about the future of the congregation that worships here. Now be sure of it ... that’s an overstatement ... but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say, at the other end of the spectrum, that the enormous amount of work that has been accomplished over the last five to six months speaks volumes about this congregation ... what we think of ourselves, how importantly we take our mission, and how confidently we see the future of our church.
Hospitality not only takes into account the kind of welcome that people receive when they come to us and our church, but the degree to which we are willing to take our faith and our church to them. Have I told you about my Vitamix blender that is changing my life? Did I mention to you what a spectacular book or movie or restaurant I recently read, watched or ate at? Many of us are natural evangelists and spectacular promoters when it comes to many things in life ... but when it comes to our church and our faith we can become very quiet. In the months ahead, with the help of our Outreach and Growth Ministry Team, we’ll be working to help all of us—including your pastor—to naturally “give away” our church ... and the grace and love and meaning and purpose that we find here together.
Simple hospitality should be a fundamental practice of any congregation already. But RADICAL hospitality means that hospitality gets worked into the bloodstream of everything we do together, every committee and team, every meeting and gathering, every public event, every conversation and decision. Think with me in your minds eye all of the new changes that have taken place on this property, not just over the last five-six months, but the last couple of years ... the refurbished classrooms, their new murals, the new roof, new landscaping, new retaining walls, etc., etc., etc.
Now ... imagine that we don’t stop with the physical property, but continue into all of the decisions we make and all of our practices as a church ... continue into everything we say and do as it relates to the new members we already have as well as the new members we haven’t met yet. How will that change what we do and how we do it? Radical hospitality is hospitality that goes deeper and deeper and deeper into our congregational bloodstream ... nothing we do will fail to consider the stranger who might yet be our friend and our companion in this glorious journey of life and faith and compassionate ministry.
And now, in the Spirit of the call to “Be Fruitful”, let us take our apples representing our commitment to Radical Hospitality and “hang” them on our “Tree of Fruitfulness.”