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Growing or Rotting
February 12, 2023

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto


I had a favorite tree in my childhood. It was in our farm yard and had a swing hanging from one of the limbs. I spent hours on that swing, singing, talking to myself, making up stories, thinking. A favorite time of school was Tree Planting Day. Not only were we excused from class, we planted trees and enjoyed learning about conservation .

When Jews began returning to what was then called Palestine in the early part of the 20th century, they found a wasteland. Over the years, the Turks cut down forests, leaving stumps and desolation. The Jews did a remarkable job reclaiming the land, draining swamps, growing crops. They began with tree planting. There is an ancient rabbinic saying. When the Messiah comes, everyone must stop whatever they are doing, and run out into the street to greet the Messiah, unless you are planting a tree!

A retired pastor reflected on the congregations he had served. He said, "Every congregation I've served can be divided into trees and posts. I call them trees and posts because when you put in a tree it begins to grow; when you stick a post in the ground it begins to rot. I've had a delightful time watching trees grow. But it is a sad business watching posts decay." In the spring, back in Minnesota, before we let the cows out of the barn where they had been confined all winter, it was my job to walk through the pasture and push on the fence posts. Some had rotted to the point where a slight push would topple them. Before the cows could be allowed their freedom, the rotten posts had to be replaced.

A tree stretches its roots, reaching for water, reaching for nutrients. A post just sits there, rootless, letting the rain and damp soil turn it into rot. A tree grows, a post rots. A tree reaches for the sun, a post is content in itself, completely self-centered. A tree becomes a thing of beauty, providing shade from the sun and havens for birds; a post loses its strength, loses its color from rotting, and becomes good for nothing but to throw on the trash pile. 

Some churches are like rotting posts. Paul certainly had his hands full with the Corinthian Church. I am amused by those who tell us we should try to be more like the New Testament church. The Corinthian New Testament Church was full of factions, squabbles, jealousies, and fights! We don't know how many letters Paul wrote or how many visits he made trying to straighten them out.

Congregations that are like posts are rootless, self-centered, decaying, dying, with no life, no beauty, past-oriented, looking backward to the good-old-days, waiting to be discarded and resistant to new ideas, new ministries, and new people. 

Some congregations are like trees--sending their roots deep into the Holy Spirit, growing, becoming things of beauty, and providing havens for people.

What about our church? Is it a tree or a post? I enthusiastically affirm that our church is a tree, a growing tree. Back in August in my first sermon, I said that there is an elephant in the room with an ugly name—division. Today I see a church growing, planting deep roots in the Holy Spirit, people coming for prayer and blessing at the kneeling rail, I see people spiritually growing in two book studies, three Bible studies. I see happy people greeting one another at Snack ’n Chat. Yesterday we had a glorious party at the parsonage with many visiting, eating, playing games, enjoying one another. I see people saying “Yes” when asked to serve and give. Contributions to missions through the Joy of Giving broke all records and our operating fund ended 2022 with a $17,000 balance. I see new people. A recent visitor emailed, “Thank you for welcoming me with open arms — it was the best church service I've ever experienced.” We are not a divided Corinthian Church. We are a growing tree.

What about us individually? Are you a post or are you a tree? If you are a tree, trusting and growing in the Lord, your roots are drinking in the water of the Holy Spirit, you are flourishing and producing fruit. Even when heat comes, even when drought comes, even when trouble comes, you don’t topple over like a rotting post, you stand firm, your leaves stay green and you continue  to bear fruit.

In the Scripture lesson read this morning, Paul uses a different image, but with the same meaning as trees and posts. Paul uses the metaphor of milk and solid food.Quite exasperated, Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 3:1-2), “ I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready.” They had not moved from being people of the flesh to becoming people of the Spirit. On what basis did Paul make this indictment? What convinced Paul they were still mere infants in the faith, and not maturing? Jealousy and quarreling—signs of spiritual immaturity. 

 Paul's challenge is quite clear. We are either growing in the Lord, maturing in faith, going on to perfection as John Wesley challenged, or we are not. If you are not going on to perfection, what are you going on to? If you are not growing, you are dying. There is no neutral ground, there is no status quo. It is said that the decline of the Model T Ford began when rival General Motors started to offer models of different trim and color. Henry Ford resisted change. He stubbornly insisted that the Model T was the best car and people could have any color they wanted as long as it was black. Henry Ford ingeniously gave birth to the mass produced automobile but it almost remained too long in its infancy.

Are you still drinking spiritual milk, unable to grow and eat solid food? Are you a tree or a post?  Let me ask some questions for reflection. Think back over the previous year. Compared to one year ago,

Have any of your beliefs changed; do you have any new insights, new discoveries?

Are you reading and studying the Bible more?

Is prayer a greater part of your life? Do you look forward to a time of prayer?

Have you talked about Jesus with anyone?

Are you more tolerant of and more accepting of people who are different from you?

Do you know what are your spiritual gifts? Do you know what is your call?

Do you have a greater sense of peace (less fuss, feverishness, anxiety, intensity, intolerance, pessimism, worry)

Are you gentler?

Are you stronger (more able to resist temptation, more willing and able to stand up for the mistreated, the disadvantaged)?

If you answered No to any of these questions, make some changes. There is room for growth in your spiritual life. Soon you will be receiving a survey with opportunities for you to stretch, get outside of yourself, grow new branches, deepen your roots, produce fruit.

Are you a growing tree or a rotting post?

© 2023 Douglas I. Norris