Bearing Fruit that Leads to Growth
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, November 16, 2014
Colossians 1: 1-14 Luke 10: 25-37
The longer I am in ministry, the fonder I become of the pastoral letters. I particularly resonate with the initial greetings because they offer gratitude for the gifts and faithful ministry of local congregations. They demonstrate a desire both to hear and to share news of how God is at work in different locales, offer encouragement in the face of difficulty (and there is always difficulty), and they hold out the promise that God is not finished working in, with and through us. The pastoral letters offer an assurance that God is up to something in the world – and that we (WE) are privileged to participate in what God is doing. This gives rise to a hope that cannot be shaken under any circumstances.
In this opening passage, Paul and Timothy tell the congregation in Colossae how the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the world, even as it has been bearing fruit among the Colossians. The prayer of Paul and Timothy, therefore, is that the congregation in bearing fruit will grow in the knowledge of God so that they may lead lives worthy of God. Let me say that again: The gospel is bearing fruit and growing in (all) the world, therefore Paul and Timothy have not ceased praying that as the Colossians bear fruit they may grow in the knowledge of God.
I said that twice because I had to read this passage a few times myself to realize what bothered me about it. And then I noticed that Paul and Timothy have reversed the usual order of things. The usual progression is that plants grow, and then they bear fruit! As Jesus once said,
The kingdom of God is as if
someone would scatter seed on the ground,
and would sleep and rise night and day,
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he does not know how.
For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself;
first the blade, then the ear,
after that the full corn in the ear.
In other words, things grow and then bear fruit. Fruit is result of growth. But this text suggests otherwise.
I asked my eight year old son last night, “Which comes first, growing or bearing fruit?” and he said “Growing, of course.” I then told him that the Bible open in front of me said “bearing fruit leads to growth” and he said, “How?”
Well, it may be obvious that the faith, hope and love of the Colossians must become “visible and embodied in the daily life of the church” – “bearing fruit in all good works” – but it is the working out their faith in concrete practice that enables them to grow in the knowledge of God and God’s will.
We are, of course, most familiar with the former
- faith without works is dead
- be hearers and doers of the word
And we assume the one should always lead to the other. Faith>Works; Hearing>Doing.
But the authors of this letter seem to be suggesting something like
- we make the road by walking, or more simply
- we learn from experience.
This really caught my attention because I have been pondering the relationship between knowledge and action in preparation for a retreat I will be attending this week on environmental stewardship. And what I have been reading suggests that we are very poor at translating faith into action, hearing into doing; that what we know rarely influences what we do.
For example, I read an article on Tuesday called “The Secret to Turning Consumers Green” which is subtitled, “It isn’t incentives. It isn’t information. It’s guilt.” The author says that, “though about two-thirds of Americans [report] that they are active in or sympathetic with the environmental movement, it has proven tough to get the average consumer to make even relatively simple changes, like using energy-efficient light bulbs or caulking drafty windows.”
Apparently no amount of consumer information about how such action would save money, reduce carbon emissions, or embody social responsibility, NOR the offering of generous financial incentives, leads consumer and homeowners to make necessary changes in the behavior. The magic ingredient, the secret of the articles title, it seems, is peer pressure.
Consider this study involving those placards in hotel bathrooms that urge guests to reuse towels. Over a three-month period, researchers tested two different placards in a 190-room, midprice chain hotel.
One card was headlined “Help Save the Environment” and urged visitors to “show your respect for nature” by reusing towels. The second read, “Join Your Fellow Guests in Helping to Save the Environment” and noted that 75% of guests participated in the towel-reuse program. The guests who were exposed to the peer pressure—the fact that so many of their fellow travelers were doing it—were 25% more likely to reuse towels.
A follow-up study found that tweaking the wording on the placard so it was specific to the guest’s room (as in: nearly 75% of guests who stayed here in Room 331 reused their towels) yielded even better [results].
Another study involved “public-service messages hung on the doorknobs of several hundred middle-class homes in San Marcos, Calif. All urged residents to use fans instead of air conditioning, but they gave different reasons for doing so.
Some residents learned they could save $54 a month on their utility bill. Others, that they could prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gases per month. A third group was told it was the socially responsible thing to do. And a fourth group was informed that 77% of their neighbors already used fans instead of air conditioning, a decision described as “your community’s popular choice!”
Meter readings found that those presented with the “everyone’s doing it” argument reduced their energy consumption by 10% compared with a control group. No other group reduced energy use by more than 3% compared with the control group. All four of the non-control groups slipped in the long run, conserving less as time went on, but those exposed to peer pressure continued to record the lowest average daily energy use.
The point is that while we like to think that our actions are driven by ethical or noble motives, or by practical concerns about money, they often boil down to that old mantra, “monkey see, monkey do.” Our behavior is driven by what we know, or perceive, our neighbors to be doing.
I can’t resist one more example from Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s book Fostering Sustainable Behavior:
A college gym’s locker room displayed a prominent sign urging students to conserve water by turning off the shower while they soaped. Only 6% did so initially. But when researchers planted an accomplice who shut off his water midshower, 49% of students followed suit. When there were two accomplices, compliance jumped to 67%, even though the accomplices didn’t discuss their actions or make eye contact with other students.
McKenzie-Mohr asks, with all these studies, “Is it warranted to believe that by enhancing knowledge, or altering attitudes, behavior will change? Apparently not! Education alone often has little or no effect upon … behavior.” We need our neighbors!
It was with this in mind that I turned to Paul’s and Timothy’s Letter to the Colossians. The letter implies that at some point, if not right from the very beginning, our capacity to understand the will of God, to discern the way of God among us, depends on our having already made certain changes in our lives or of hearing of such change in the lives of others. We bear fruit, and grow in understanding.
The capacity to change is of course first and foremost recognized as a blessing of God – in the sense that it is God’s power at work within us. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power.” But it is clearly enabled by testimony to how the gospel is bearing fruit (elsewhere) in the world and by the encouragement of others.
I thought about this as we received testimony and encouragement during our Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning. The Rev. Ted Miller helped us understand how to pray (or be prayerful) with people who are troubled. He did this essentially by telling us stories, sharing with us his own successes and failures as a pastor and hospital chaplain. He didn’t give us a how-to-manual for visiting the sick or distressed, or a list of scriptures to read or prayers to recite – he certainly gave us a lot to think about – but above all he demonstrated for us his own practice of mindfulness in ministry: First, trusting his relationship with God and offering himself to be used by God; second, bearing fruit by listening, sympathizing and suffering with, offering the unconditional hospitality of God to, the person he is visiting; and then, only then, perhaps, and in time, coming to understand what God was up to in the encounter.
In a very different way I received encouragement on Friday in the form of an email from Bill McKibben of 350.org. It offered an interpretation of the announcement earlier this week that the world’s two biggest polluters – the United States and China – have agreed to limit our carbon emissions by the year 2030. Bill said that this announcement is first of all historic (in the sense that this is the first time a developing nation has agreed to eventually limit our emissions), he noted that it is not binding, and it is not remotely enough to keep us out of climate trouble, but, BUT – most importantly – coming just six weeks after nearly 400,000 of us participated in the Peoples Climate March and 22,000 simultaneous vigils were held around the world, it is testimony to the power of social movements to bring about change. It is now hoped that the announcement by President Obama and Premier Xi will, in turn, bring pressure on countries like India who have likewise resisted targets of any sort to come back to the table with announcements of their own.
This is how change happens, in our world and in our own lives and in our congregations: by testimony, mutual encouragement, hope, and taking risks. We need our neighbors to help us do what we know is possible, and it requires us to be neighbor by example for one another.
With all this I mind, I would like to conclude by inviting you to listen to the final verses of the Letter to the Colossians – that long list of greetings that is easy to skip over – and to see how the pastoral letters are, at least in part, about making people who live in distant places neighbor to one another in mutual encouragement.
Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow-servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.
Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him. And Jesus who is called Justus greets you. These are the only ones of the circumcision among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. And say to Archippus, ‘See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.’
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.
I thank God that I am part this church community, for it helps me both to bear fruit in good works and to grow in my understanding of God’s way among us. I thank God. I know you do too.
 Stephanie Simon, “The Secret to Turning Consumers Green” Wall Street Journal October 18, 2010. http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704575304575296243891721972
 Also published in the Huffington Post: http://350.org/bill-mckibben-the-big-climate-deal-what-it-is-and-what-it-isnt/