“To Bear Good Fruit”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture: Matthew 12.22-37 (NSRV)
Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Kathy doesn’t ask me to read books. She asks me to stop reading them. On the rare occasions she does, there is a purpose. She brought me the first book in the Harry Potter series and said, “Can you read this? See if it is okay for our kids.”
I made it half-way through, and I could understand the concern. The book was filled with magic spells and kids who were living in a school for witchcraft and wizardry. There were hexes and potions and flying broomsticks. Hence, I said, “It’s fine, the kids will love it.”
And the kids did love it. “It is a story about coming of age with friends, it is about finding courage,” I told her. Through the years all of them plowed through the books. I watched the movies with them. I thought it was a lot of fun until I realized something greater was at play than a coming-of-age young reader novel.
I realized these books are their common ground. J.K. Rowling provided the imaginative metaphors for a generation. Important parts of life like friendship, love and hate, good and evil, power and compassion were all there. One day after coming home from the office I sat down and finished the first novel, then the second and third; I kept going to the end.
What I came away with was not a new definition of what matters most in life for me. Those were long ago set down. What I found was the glory of seeing how my kids came to theirs. I could now follow their cryptic references or the not-so-subtle digs about what house you are in and what character seems most like you, or how having a squirrel as a Petronus made sense.
I did have an ahah moment. The unique insight I took from the Harry Potter books was the idea of words being magical. Book after book the characters struggle to find the right words for a spell, words that would magically transform their surroundings or appearance or abilities. What I realized was how magical is our thinking about words. We don’t think of it in terms of spells or hexes, but we very often devote enormous amounts of time trying to find the right words to say at the right time to a particular person.
Most of this desire for the right words is giving someone a piece of our mind, or saying something brilliant to convince. Sometimes our words are just a diatribe to bring shame. Often people will relay a speech to me. In the end I ask, “you said that?” The answer is always, “No. I couldn’t.” But they wanted to, they wanted words to magically transform a relationship.
To say Jesus assigns words a great deal of power is fair. In our teaching today it seems as if words are all too important. Like many of his teachings, he makes parts of life so extreme you are left with a sense of “this is impossible.” If we are to be judged by every word we speak, well, then I am doomed. You may not be as bad as me, but I average at least five-to-ten dumb things I speak a day. Add stress, confusion, a poor night’s sleep and my intelligent-to-stupid word ratio tips heavy to the dumb side. I am a walking faux pas.
Yet, like all his teachings, the truth is not lived with a literal interpretation. Fortunately, there are clues here that makes what seems impossible very livable. What looks to rob us of power could in fact be a source of freedom.
The first clue is naming. Jesus tells the Pharisees you name the tree good, or you name the tree evil. This is close to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, you will know a tree by its fruit. This bearing of good fruit is the ethic of compassion, the thirst for justice. Be the tree of good fruit. You must always be living as the tree bearing good fruit. Here, though, Jesus takes this teaching of an individual life and makes it corporate.
We name the tree good; we name the tree evil. This naming is what we make in the definitions, the words of our generation. These words are the imbedded definitions we use every day. We use them but we do so without ever seeing them as such. We call things good and we call things evil, but we often forget we do this.
A good example is Critical Race Theory; this has been in the news lately. At the heart of the Critical Race Theory is a recognition that naming people by their race and using that name to exploit people by their race is not a good definition; it’s a bad tree.
You might think that questioning such a definition, such a name, is sensible. But when you challenge a basic definition, when you suggest what was thought of as a good tree is a bad tree, well, this creates turmoil.
The Pharisees decided to kill Jesus (because he was healing everyone and bringing compassion and loving the outcast?). No. They plotted against him because he called them evil. The Pharisees took issue with this. They didn’t say, “hey, yah, I see your point. Our devotion to the sabbath enslaves people, the law imprisons those it was meant to free. Now that you put it that way, I get it.” No. They said, “you’re of the devil.” Not us.
The second clue is treasure. Jesus says treasure . . . is in us. But what kind of treasure? Is it the treasure of heaven or treasure moth and rust ruin, thieves steal? What treasure is in us? Again, he changes this from a personal ethic to a communal one: this is a treasure we bring forth. In our words we show a treasure, a shared commodity, definition.
We are close to magic words here. Treasure is power. And this power is mysterious. Treasures of the heart are not for all. Jesus says, don’t cast your pearls before swine. Don’t toss your treasure about. Treasure has a right time, right place, right person for words to have their power, affect.
Defining words of a generation, the rules governing us, are invisible to us; they become instinctive instead of conscious. We can see this in how we defined and valued gender. Every generation has definitions of gender. When we look to gender we bring forth words, and sometimes we define one as powerful and another as weak. We castigate any who challenge our definitions. We trust this; believe this. We trust these definitions. We need them. This becomes our treasure: what is good and evil.
I have heard people castigate the struggle of the transgendered. They say, “this is not how life is supposed to be. When I was young you never heard of things like this.” No. It was very uncommon. But it could be many transgendered took their life in adolescence. It is only in redefining gender that some folks now have a chance to live.
This is hard stuff.
Jesus doesn’t help much. His talk of judgment makes this harder. Harder because: we are Pauline; we define judgment from the words of Paul. Our definition of judgement is something we can trip over, the day of judgment. We trip if we see the day of Judgement as our moment in the halls of heaven. Here we are in the moment of decision: are we sent to hell or to heaven.
Judgement for Jesus is different than for Paul. Paul is always looking to the heavens, to the cosmos. Jesus is always looking to the earth. The teachings of Jesus are all meant for the earth. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus isn’t warning of a frightful moment beyond this life. The day of Judgement is not an afterlife; the day of judgement is this life. It’s Tuesday. It’s any day. It’s the day we see: this is a bad tree, bad fruit.
Recently, I had lunch with a dear friend. My friend was the CEO of the Presbyterian Church for eight years. He ran the whole shooting match. During his time, the church began down a path of redefining ourselves. It was a tough time. But he helped us. We redefined a lot of things and one was how we use and abuse power. I thanked him for this because it now means a lot to me.
With my friend we recognized how we define power can bring hope or it can bring pain. We can name a good tree or a bad tree. And our words, while not magical, define us. Part of his work redefining the power of pastors.
Last week I said Protestant clergy are not vested with a power to govern. I don’t have the power to decide the way the church will go. If I told the session “it is my way or the highway,” they should, according to our polity, send me on the highway. But, last week, what we didn’t consider is the enormous power a pastor is given in terms of care and responsibility. The power of the office to guide and influence.
When I was young, I heard a story about a doctor. A surgeon comes in to perform knee surgery. The patient is awake and greets the surgeon. After looking over the knee the doctor says, “Scalpel.” Then, “forceps.” And then he says, “oops.” The patient looks up and says, “what did you say?” The surgeon says, “nothing, don’t worry.” And this is the part that always stays with me, “Hey, doc, I know what I mean when I say, ‘oops’ what do you mean when you say, ‘oops?’”
What we did as a denomination, nearly a generation ago, was to say people make mistakes. Absolutely. We have no delusion of perfection. Even more so we believe in forgiveness and restoration and regeneration and reconciliation. But there is a difference, a distinction, between the mistakes we make as individuals and mistakes we make as one entrusted with enormous power and responsibility. There are mistakes I make as a walking faux pas and there are mistakes I make as a pastor.
I thanked my friend for doing the hard work of redefining this power and its potential for harm.
It is one thing to make a mistake, to say the wrong thing as an individual; it is another to make a mistake as a surgeon. Not many people are entrusted with scalpels. And in the same way not many people are entrusted with the pulpit, the stole, the office. On most days, this responsibility, its weight, is easy. To be a pastor is a place of immense joy. But there are moments when the weight is great.
Jesus says my yoke is easy, my burden light. So it is because we are empowered by truth and mercy and justice. If we walk humbly, then the path is clear. The definitions we work with, the big definitions of life, Jesus makes clear for us. For the most part this is true. But then there are moments like this one where we need to do the heavy lifting of re-examining those definitions. What was invisible has become painfully clear in being broken.
In the coming months, we, as a congregation, will have moments, not all the time, not every Sunday or every newsletter, but we will have moments where we will be called to be honest about what it means to use and what it means to abuse power. If we are honest and transparent, we will come out stronger as a congregation. If we are dishonest or look to minimize or deny what it means when trust is broken, we will make matters so much worse.
I have not yet been here three years, but I can tell you my confidence is this: you are a congregation whose strength will rise to the challenge of what is true and good. We will find the good tree together. We will take courage and regain trust. Amen.
- Proverbs 19:6 - 11
- Matthew 12:33 - 37