Sermon: Bearing Fruit

Bearing Fruit

A Sermon for The Plymouth Church of Framingham

March 24, 2019 (Third Sunday in Lent)

Audio File:



Luke 13:1-9 

1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ “





God gives that fruitless fig tree one more year. In all things God is merciful.


God may be merciful, but, that’s no reason to waste your life.


God’s mercy still demands fruitfulness of each of us.


There it is, that’s my sermon in a nutshell. For those of you who would like to tune out the remainder, you may now pick up your pew Bibles and begin to study.


Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Christians in America would like to believe in a God without wrath that saves a world without sin through a Christ without the cross.”   No fruit produced there. Dietrich Boenhoeffer considered this kind of faith, “cheap grace.”


So, we come on this third Sunday of Lent, to the question of sin, suffering, and repentance.


There are at least two ways of looking at suffering.


One is to say, it was caused by something. By someone’s actions. A popular variant on that theme is, if you sin, bad things will happen to you, in order to punish you for your sin, or bad things will happen to people you love, as part of God’s punishment of you. There are two corollaries, for those who believe this: If something bad happens to someone, they must have sinned to cause it. And, if you are good, good things will happen to you, because you deserve them.


Jesus blows that set of beliefs right out of the water, when he says: “”Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you…”


So Jesus seems to support the opposite view of suffering: God doesn’t send suffering as punishment for sin. Sometimes bad things just happen, without explanation. God’s judgment of sin is not the cause of all calamity. As the New Interpreter’s Bible says, “life is uncertain, death is capricious…” (NIB 270) Jesus says, there’s no simple explanation here. God is not an arbitrary punisher, but rather one who judges with compassion; one who is merciful in all things. One who gives even unfruitful fig trees more chances.


This, generally speaking, is the mainline, UCC view of suffering: we may not understand it, but we don’t blame God for it. God is merciful, God loves us, God is love, God offers grace to all.


But in the same breath as Jesus says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you…,” Jesus also says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”


Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “In the South, this is what we call giving with one hand and taking away with the other. No, Jesus says, there is no connection between the suffering and the sin. Whew. But unless you repent, you are going to lose some blood too. Oh.”1


God loves you, God is merciful, God eye is on the sparrow and you know God watches you, God would even have mercy on an unfruitful fig tree.


But that does not free you from responsibility.


In our 21st century mainline Christian lives, we seem to get off easy. We get to focus on the institution of Christianity, rather than the Christian life. When our work as Christians – either that institutional life, or our own soul searching – gets too hard, we can say, I’m not doing that any more. It’s too hard. I want an easier, more peaceful, more fun, more convenient Christian life. I’d really prefer not to teach Sunday School more than twice a decade, thanks, and don’t even talk to me about tithing, that’s evangelical stuff. Doing more work for church, so that we can be serving the community in God’s name – sorry, no time. Also, I come to church on Sunday morning for peace and refreshment and then I will go back to my real life. Doesn’t matter what I do there, you know, because God is merciful.


Well, that’s bogus. Let’s speak the truth, even the dissonant truth of Lent.


Yes, the Christian message is hopeful, comforting, resurrection-filled. But it is also challenging, calling us to bear the cross, carry the load, shovel the compost, and produce a harvest-full of fruit.


The world is not a better place because you’ve come to church this morning. In fact, you’re not a better person because you’ve come to church this morning.


Maybe, just maybe, the world will be a better place because you take your faith out into it. Maybe, just maybe, you will be a better person because God’s mercy causes you to bear fruit. But it’s not gonna happen unless you seek to bear God’s fruit. You’ve got to put God’s call to you first, regardless of the difficulty.


Lent ought to feel hard. Lent ought to make you squirm in your seat. It ought to make you stare sheepishly down at your shoes and try to avoid God’s eyes. It ought to make you take out your wallet and look deeper into it, wondering where all your money goes. It ought to make you look deeper in your life, wondering where all your time goes. It ought to make you look deeper into your relationships, wondering where all your love goes. And it ought to make you change something.


Jesus’ parable declares: God is a just judge and merciful creator. The two are in balance. God doesn’t send earthquakes, or cruel Roman governors. God sends a Messiah and messages of love and resurrection. But God still has demands of us: that we bear fruit.



This image, of fruit worthy of the divine gardener’s efforts, runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian testament.


In the first chapter of Genesis, God tells people to bear fruit.


Jesus says, we will be able to recognize righteous prophets “by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) and he says, The kingdom will be “given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Matthew 21: 43


But, God is not just the gardener, separate from the plants. Think about John 15 in which Jesus gives us another gardening lesson:


1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…5 I am the vine, you are the branches.


There is something about being one fig tree, in a vineyard with many others, on a farm full of plants, all rooted in good earth, all tended by the great gardener, that ought to give us comfort. We are not alone. We live in God’s world. We are part of God’s good garden. Christ is the vine, and we are the branches, and we can bear good fruit.



Our family friend, John Henry, had been in recovery a year or two. Someone unexpected had invited him to his first meeting, dragged him there, really, insisted that it was time for AA. It probably shouldn’t have worked – I know it doesn’t work when you drag someone – but somehow it did, thank God, and he sat at a recovery banquet and found a new life. He was starving, at least spiritually and emotionally, and there he found food. He started to rebuild, or he started to be rebuilt. He connected, or reconnected, to God, who pruned and watered and spread good compost on John Henry’s roots until he bore good fruit. And when his own fig tree was growing well once again, John Henry started tending the rest of the garden. He started a business, a strange and humble thing: a packing and shipping service, tucked into the back of a mini-mall. For a certain period of time in Nashville, if you mail-ordered candies from small-batch makers, John Henry’s company was responsible for the bubble wrap and the box the candy safely traveled in. And the folks who worked there? They were pretty much all in early stages of recovery. It probably shouldn’t have worked, but that business succeeded, in all senses of the word. That business turned a profit, and helped turn lives around. Someone looked at John Henry’s fig tree and said, one more year. A little more rain and sunshine and compost. Someone loved on him. And having grown into new life, he made it his business to invite more folks to tend the other fig trees in the vineyard to new life and new fruitfulness.


May whatever we do, as individuals, or as a congregation, bear fruit in God’s orchard.


1  “Life Giving Fear” by Barbara Brown Taylor. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 4, 1998, page 229.

Sermon: Leaning Forward Into the Vision of God


Leaning Forward Into the Vision of God

A Sermon for The Plymouth Church of Framingham, UCC

March 17, 2019


Audio File:


Friends, in light of the terrible attacks on the mosques in New Zealand, I want to say something before the scripture reading and my sermon.   First and foremost, let it be said from this pulpit that we offer support and love to our Muslim neighbors near and far. In the words of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, “We weep with those who weep. We rebuke those who choose the path of division and violence. We vow our solidarity with our Muslim neighbors and our prayers for the grieving and the dead.”  I have written letters of sympathy and solidarity to send to the Islamic Society of Framingham and the Islamic Society of Wayland that you may add your name to after worship.


We have a tradition at Plymouth Church of focusing in worship on the same scripture that Faith Workshop is studying, so I have known today’s passage would be from Genesis 15 for weeks.   But it seems good and worthy and perhaps even Spirit-led that our text today focuses on Abraham – the spiritual ancestor of three faiths, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. All three of our faiths draw from Abraham.


Our passage comes from the time before Abraham gets his new name.  To set Genesis 15 context: in the first 10 chapters of Genesis we hear a cosmic history, and we hear promises made to all of creation. In the eleventh chapter, we move from the cosmic to the individual, from all of creation to one – seemingly random – man and his family. Yet God’s call to Abram, and God’s covenant, are, we are told, will make this family a blessing to all nations (Genesis 22:18), – in them, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Abraham’s story lasts many chapters but our focus today is on the promise God makes to Abram in chapter 15, that his descendents would be as many as the stars.  Listen, for the word of blessing God has for us, in this morning’s scripture passage.


Text: Genesis 15:1-12; 17-18


After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

7Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.


17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…”



Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and enlighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters.  Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen. (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)




That night, Abram must have feel like the Psalmist:


3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;

4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  (Psalm 8)


We can trace our spiritual lineage all the way back to Abraham.


We are proof of the promises made to Abram on that starry night a few thousand years ago, that his family would grow and grow, to be as many as the stars visible on a clear night, standing outside Abram’s tent.  We, members of the Christian tradition, the Jewish tradition, and the Muslim tradition, our faiths have been nurtured by the assurance and promise God made to to this particular person.


This one particular person, Abram, that God cares for.  God, who in Abram’s faith spoke worlds into being, God who cast the stars into the sky, God loves Abram so much to that to him God makes a promise, unlike any made before.


This is part of the mystery of our faith, that God, the creative force in the universe, the one who transcends time and space, that God is our God.  God cares for each individual one of us the way a mother hen gathers each of her chicks under her wing; the shepherd who counts all of the sheep; the psalms tell us God knows every hair on our heads.




The promises you just made to Juliette are as concrete, as specific, as tender as those God made to Abram.  We walked her down the aisle and showed her the people who will raise her up not to be afraid. Who will give her the stars – or at least a galaxy of love.  Who will journey with her her, wherever life leads.


We, as the church, promised to care for this child. We promised to help her hold fast to that which is good and to return to no one evil for evil. We will love her and show her with our lives how Christians live. We proclaimed that by this affirmation we are inseparably bound with her.


You made these promises to her sister a few years ago, also.


And to countless others who have come before, children and adults, you have made promises on the days of their baptism. God had a beautiful and personal bond with one person, Abram – that became a beautiful and personal bond with every child who came after. You have this kind of beautiful and personal bond with each person here. I have seen you uphold these promises, even in the short time I have been among you.

You have given the same care to those who have not been baptized yet and you have cared for people to the end of their earthly days according to those loving promises.

The ritual of baptism, even more than a moment for a community to make promises, is about repeating and rehearsing and re-living the promises God has made to this child, and to each one of us.


Those promises echo God’s assurance to Abram:

Don’t be afraid.

I love you.

I will be with you, and those you love, now and forever.

Your future is one of great hope.


Those promises are as tender as the moment God puts an arm around Abram’s shoulder and led him out into the still midnight, tilts his chin up to look at the sky, and asks him to count his children as the stars.  


In Abram’s story, we see the relationship between God and one particular person.  We have gone from God’s universal relationship – Adam is an archetype for all people; the rainbow covenant is with all the earth – to God’s relationship with individual people.  And that one relationship foretells God’s relationship with each one of Her beloved children. This covenant that God makes with Abram brings into being God’s relationship with individual people as numerous as the stars.  And that brings the story to Juliette. And that brings the story to each one of our stories. For not only are we among the daughters and sons of Abraham who number like the stars, we are, each one of us, a beloved child of God.



Lest we think Abram’s story is one of a perfect person of perfect faith – and therefore a story our own story cannot resemble – let’s talk for a moment about this man.


If I were picking people to whom to make such promise, I am not entirely sure I would have chosen Abram and Sarai. Abram has Sarai pretend to be his sister in order to pull a fast one on a foreign ruler. Later in the story, Sarai co-opts a family slave into bearing Abraham’s child and then casts her and the child out. And neither one of them believes God when God first says: you will have descendents more numerous than the stars.  Abram questions God’s promise. To put it mildly, Abram is flawed and Sarai is doubtful. And they are the people to whom God chooses to present this promise. God chose Abram and Sarai, flawed people, to be on the receiving end of a covenant. That says something about God. It says, God can use anyone for good. Sometimes you’ll hear folks talk about the strong faith of Abraham, and he was faithful: but also flawed, and God chose him, anyway. Which is good news for me, at least, as another flawed human being – and maybe good news for you, too? God calls and chooses and covenants with people not based on their worthiness, but based on God’s love. This is the first and most important identity we are given: beloved child of God, receivers of the most beautiful and tender promises imaginable.


It must also be said: it takes Abram a minute, to get to the place where he can trust God’s promise.  First he’s got to ask, really? But our text says he does get to that place of trust – “he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  


It might take us more than a minute to get there, and that is okay. When we are full of question and doubt sometimes what we have to do, even in the moments of questioning and fear, is to turn to another one of God’s beloved children and embody the promise for them, even so. Even in our own doubts, speak tenderly to our sisters and brothers.  Turn to the children who are here in this place, and say to them: Do not be afraid. There is hope. Turn to the neighbors down the road and across the ocean and say to them: you are beloved, you are my sibling, I stand next to you.


We have to lean “forward into the vision of God for the world even when the horizon extends far beyond our own lives.” (W. Dennis Tucker,


As Psalm 27 testifies, we believe that we shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let our hearts take courage; wait for the LORD!




Sermon: Transfigured

A Sermon for the Plymouth Church of Framingham, UCC
March 3, 2019

Audio File (Sermon Only):

Luke 9:28-36


28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.



Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and enlighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters.  Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen. (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)




When I was 19, I had a religious experience.

The very first night I was back on my college campus, a wild storm came up of the sort that only happens in summer, in flat lands, prairie and big sky places, such as southern Minnesota. I lived that year in a dorm that overlooked the soccer fields, and beyond them, the Carleton Arboretum. The storm rolled slowly and mightily across the sky, lightning building and flashing in small pockets of mile-wide clouds, thunder almost continuously booming. I have never before or since seen a storm like that one. Even so I have no excuse for my completely stupid action: I ran out into the storm. I stumbled down the hill and out to the middle of the soccer fields, which I had entirely to myself, and I laid down on the field and watched the sky and I jumped up and danced in the rain. I was sure I could touch heaven.  And I could see the dazzling glory of God.

I came back into the dorm, soaked, amazed. My roommate gave me a talking to as only a Texan with her back up can do, and I never ever again danced in the thunderstorm, so please do not hear this story as advice for experiencing the presence of the divine.

But, let me tell you, God’s surprising and awe-invoking presence in that one stunning moment helped carry me through a very tough year.


At the top of the mountain, Jesus was at the pivot point of his life. Born for a purpose, baptized with water and Spirit, he had been teaching and healing all around Galilee. His close friend Peter had seen him, seen his true nature: not just a prophet, but the Messiah. And for the Messiah, there was more to do than preach. So now, Jesus had turned his focus toward Jerusalem.

Imagine, what this moment was like for Jesus.

Maybe, just maybe he wasn’t so sure of himself. Look at the people that gathered close to him. They were confused. They made odd choices. Peter, sweet Peter, bless his heart, he could see Jesus was the Messiah but he didn’t know what it meant. And there were James and John, who wanted to be first more than they wanted to serve. And as many people who were healed, just as many rejected Jesus. Maybe Jesus was doubting that he could make it to Jerusalem. Maybe he, fully human we are told, did not feel strong enough. Maybe he got like we do, so deep within the day to do that he needed perspective.

So, he went up the mountain.

Jesus had a prayer practice made plain by Luke’s gospel. He went away to pray. Sometimes alone, sometimes in a boat, sometimes with friends, sometimes up a mountain.

This mountain, traditionally thought to be Mount Tabor – is 1886 feet high, is in Lower Galilee and stands above everything around it. From it Jesus could see clearly the flat lands nearby. But he could not see to Jerusalem, so far to the south. He could not see all the way to the Mount of Olives, his next mountain. So he prayed.

And the text tells us he was transfigured, he became dazzling.

What a gift God gave to Jesus that day, to surround Her son with such a glory.

To put next to him two ancestors who had followed their own challenging calls.

To confirm his power and his path.  To give him strength for the journey to the next mountain.

Jesus could remember the words the dove whispered in his ear or roared from the sky on the day of his baptism, you are my beloved son.

And now the cloud enclosed them, and the voice, “This is my son, my chosen! Listen to him!”

Yes, it was for Peter and James and John, a call to follow.

But for Jesus, heart already turning toward Jerusalem, what must it have meant, to hear one more time:

My Son. My beloved. My chosen. The one I have sent. The one to listen to. You are my son. My beloved. My chosen.

On the mountain, a soul revived & sent.


It turns out, dazzling and glorious mountaintop moments are rare.  We can’t force them to occur. The most dramatic ones are once in a lifetime gifts.  But, encountering God’s loving presence does not have to be so rare.

Our own experience of transcendence begins

with pausing to pray,

climbing the mountain,

retreating from the crowd,

gathering our friends,



Maybe it is simply

breath caught again after racing,

clarity of reflection,

an opening to gratitude,

a feeling of belovedness,

a strengthening of resolve,

a quiet rest,

a glimpse of glory,

 the peace which passes all understanding.

Or maybe it is a dazzling mystery that astonishes us. That could happen, too.

Often it is the end of this passage that we focus on – when Jesus and his friends came down the mountain to continue preaching, healing, and calling for justice. We are indeed called down from the mountain to minister in his name. But today I want to invite you to be open to encounters with the holy, to holy and mysterious moments. To be open to mountaintop moments.

We go up the mountain for perspective and vision. We go up the mountain so we can believe, when we are in the valley, that the world might not be completely stuck, unchangeable, doomed.  Moments of glory strengthen us – in a letter ascribed to Peter himself, we are told: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19)  Holy moments make it more possible that we can believe that there is a power outside of ourselves, shining in glory, speaking to us Her children: you are chosen, but you are not sent alone. She is strengthening the world for change. And we do not carry the world alone on our shoulders. We go up the mountain to witness the glory of the Lord, so that we may know we are not alone. We live in God’s world.

So that we may know: we are not alone.  We live in God’s world.


This week, pouring over the this scriptural piece of mystery and wonder, I have also been praying for our neighbors in the United Methodist Church.  It is the denomination of my childhood and I feel deep ties to its theology and worship and great love for many friends who are hurting over a decision against LGBT inclusion in the global United Methodist Church.  We would say these words regularly in the church of my childhood: We are not alone. We live in God’s world. My prayer for queer and ally members of the UMC is that in this hard moment, they have some mountaintop moment to draw strength from.  Holy and divine moments in which they tangibly experienced God’s glory and God’s love. Transformative times with courageous mentors and lifegiving partners. I pray they remember hearing God saying to them: You are my chosen, my beloved. I give thanks for the UMC pastors, congregations and seminaries that are saying so clearly: You are not alone. You live in God’s world.  You are beloved, and chosen.


This is my prayer for you, as well:

Whatever strength you need for the journey;

Whatever moment of transformation and wholeness you need to get through the tough times;

Whatever religious experience you need to get through Lent,

May it be yours this Transfiguration Sunday.





Go forth

radiant with the holiness of God

transfigured by the glory of Jesus Christ

shining with the exuberance of the Holy Spirit

and strengthened for the Lenten Journey ahead.  Amen