By: Christa Meland
It’s time to become more intentional in our manure spreading—metaphorically speaking, Bishop Bruce R. Ough told members of the 162nd session of the Minnesota Annual Conference.
In his Episcopal Address delivered Tuesday, he reflected on the plan for living generously set forth by Jesus in Luke 13:6-9. In this parable, a gardener pleads with the owner of a vineyard not to cut down a fig tree that hadn’t produced any fruit for three years. The gardener offers to spread manure on the soil around it in the hopes that in one more year the tree would bear fruit.
Ough pointed out that the parable uses crude, impolite language to underscore the message that it’s time for drastic, earthly measures.
“The point is clear,” Ough said. “The time is short; you have one last chance to put things right before the judgment—one last chance to bear kingdom fruit…You had better get your manure together before it is too late. Be fruitful or perish!”
Anyone here need a second chance? Anyone here need a little more time to offer everything to God? Ough asked attendees. “God wants to give us a second chance…God wants to give us a little more time to bear fruit.”
The good news for the Minnesota Conference is that the Journey Toward Vitality—a roadmap that outlines the conference’s vision and the strategic pathways that will get us there—is already producing kingdom fruit.
The number of Minnesota United Methodists engaged in hands-on mission increased 7 percent from 2014 to 2015 (on top of a 36 percent increase the prior year), and there was an 8 percent increase in the number of people served through outreach, justice, and mercy ministries. And for the first time in many years, there was an increase—of 1 percent—in the number of people received on profession of faith.
Still, the barriers to fruitfulness continue to pose a danger to this momentum, Ough said. God has given us all great gifts to go forth and fertilize—to give an already fruitful ministry the nourishment it needs, to love someone whose soul is drying up, to call someone out of darkness into Christ’s marvelous light, to spread our manure around!
“The only things constraining us from unleashing God’s gifts are our own impoverished imaginations, our fear or disdain of change, our scarcity thinking, and our tendency to limit who we embrace as our neighbors,” he said.
Ough compared scarcity thinking to a popular PlayStation 2 ad that depicts fleas being “trained” in a glass jar. After three days, according to the ad, the fleas will only act within the boundaries of the jar, even they are released from it. Those who follow Christ should not allow themselves to become so entrenched, since doing so can force us into patterns that blind us.
“We are not called to let imaginary lids limit our ministry, witness, and generosity,” he said. That’s especially true when it comes to those who differ from us.
“Jesus was constantly expanding the boundaries of whom God loved and included in the kingdom,” Ough told attendees. “It often seems as if we are constantly trying to more narrowly define who is included and who is not…It is God’s extravagant, unmerited love and grace that sets the ultimate boundaries for defining who is our neighbor.”
Once our eyes are opened to our neighbors, the example of Christ is to share with them. Ough called on members of the annual conference to consider their “Pearl of Great Price,” taken from a parable in Matthew 13. What stories of God’s work in our lives, he wondered, are pearls? And what good are those pearls unless we give them away?
In all of this, he reminded the annual conference, God is our patient ally.
This is a debate deep within the heart of God: Should we receive a justified judgment, or miraculous mercy? Ough asked.
The answer, according to the story of the gardener, is mercy. The manure spread over the fruitless tree is a metaphor for forgiveness, grace, and mercy, he said. But the expectation is that the combination of fertilizer and time will bring forth a harvest. The gardener has interceded on our behalf so that we will be engaged in our task as fruit-bearers.
Ough told Minnesota United Methodists to give themselves completely to that work.
“Put some fertilizer on your story and go bear fruit!” he said. “Live and witness with generous abandon and unleash a mighty, magnificent, and miraculous torrent of God’s generous love, grace, and justice upon the world. Let’s go spread some manure.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church