The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“To Bear Good Fruit”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 7:15-20
‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will know them by their fruits.
Nick Ebersol was a member of First Pres and a long-time veterinarian in the community. When I met Nick, his wife was slowly dying of Alzheimer’s. They were making do in the house that was connected to what was his clinic now closed.
Dr. Ebersol had long gray hair; he looked a bit like a small Russian wolf hound. On my visits I would listen to Doc, as he was called, explain his life and marriage and the unfolding of their days. They were from a small Adirondack village not that far away, part of a community of farmers and settlers going back centuries.
I didn’t really understand what that meant until I walked the cemetery before the graveside service for his wife. Every other grave was an “Ebersol.” I must admit I was quite unprepared for what happened next. A small graveside service in a small North Country town is immediately family and a few others. Yet, within a matter of moments I realized that everyone in the county was coming to the service. The crowd swelled to hundreds and the quiet remarks I had prepared to offer to a handful now seemed a bit of a miss.
Yet, we persisted and began the service. About midway through my remarks, I noticed a black Labrador nosing her way through the crowd. And then something happened I will never forget. The Labrador walked inside the tent beside the casket where Doc and his family were seated. She walked right up to him and placed her head on his lap. As I spoke Doc slowly stroked the head of the dog. After I was done praying, the dog turned away from Doc looked around at the crowd and started off, seemed to just keep going, walking through the other side of the crowd that encircled the tent.
After the service, I made some inquiries. It turns out everyone had the same question: whose dog was that? Not only did no one know, the dog was gone. I remember thinking, what did I just see? The unknown dog came and offered the most powerful, comforting gift imaginable (what would be more assuring to a retired veterinarian than this!) and then she moved on. Was this some sort of moment of grace? A part of me felt like this was his wife bringing comfort. But do I really believe such things? Random and coincidence just didn’t seem to be the right response. The only conclusion I reached was this: I will never forget such a moment of beauty, something so compassionate, and true.
I was not really sure why this memory kept poking at me this week. It was as if the memory was coming to me the same way the Labrador came to Doc; it was as if I needed a moment of beauty to bring comfort. I don’t know about you but I need some beauty right now.
Four years ago when I preached after the election, I tried to be honest, I tried to be transparent. I feel the same today. Honestly, I’m tired and in need of consolation. There is so much work to do, so many bridges to be rebuilt, the river of anger is so deep and we need to swim across. And so, I feel like we need to take a deep breath, sit for a moment together, before we keep going. I need a wayward Labrador before I head out again.
Where we are going, or have been going, is through a revolution. Our whole lives are changing, a new order emerging, and that’s a lot of work. Please don’t half understand me: I am not speaking of the pandemic or the rise of the virtual. We have been living in the midst of a revolution for some time, not just 2020; the pandemic only makes it clearer.
The revolution is this: we are now living in self-definition. Our truth is not from the church, or the government, or from science: the truth must be our own. From time to time we can hear and see this revolution of self-definition. We see it as a momentous change or loss; we hear it in words and poems. A century ago, T.S. Eliot wrote The Rock, perhaps one of the clearest images of this whirlwind:
The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursue his circuit.
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.
There is not a lot of comfort in The Rock. But Eliot has never been a poet of consolation. His words were meant to stir and challenge, goad and illicit. And they have. We have been stirred and we are in pursuit despite the endlessness of what is before us. We are moving closer and closer, I believe, to the place Eliot hoped to find.
We see the folly of our endless speech with no trust of silence; we see the relentless weight of knowledge without wisdom. We opine: what good is knowing if there is no beauty? But mostly, and this is the true revolution, we are finding this within; we are finding truth on our own.
Some would rightly say, this is the good fruit of our tradition. We were bold enough to teach everyone to read and to give the sacred scripture to the people. And not only the scripture, but the church, and thus, the power. We protestant/protestors started this revolution and it is good.
We are now, though, poised at the most unsettling yet profound moment of this path. Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of it two hundred years ago and his words are coming true. He wrote we must be self-reliant. And by this he did not mean the ability to fix things or to make our own way or earn our keep. Nothing wrong with any of those, but they are far from what he meant by self-reliant. What Emerson meant and what we are so close to today is this: we must make up our own mind. We must ask the question of truth ourselves and be honest. We must become, in essence, our own prophet and thus our own test.
The good side of this is the freedom and skill to explore what is true and false; this is our glory today. The unsettling part is that we must risk the possibility that each of us are wrong, that what we held as dear is false, or what we shouted and demanded was foolish or worse, an injury upon others. This is the path of self-reliance or self-determination; this is the vision Eliot hope to reveal: we cannot make up the truth or demand our wishes as if they were good (justice and mercy are not mine to make), but I must believe them, trust them, be reconciled to them by my own determination. My faith in you is not a gift; it is honesty and courage.
A number of years ago I was in a hospital board meeting and we were discussing patient information/confidentiality—what is often called HIPPA for short. As the conversation moved around the room, I grew more and more concerned, for it was clear that our definitions and strategies were false. We were being dinosaurs. Finally, I took my phone out of my pocket and held it up. I listed off all the things the phone could do and said, “we no longer have control of information or privacy. This is in the hands of everyone who walks through the door. We have to be honest about this.” We were looking at the world as if the revolution of self-determination was not yet.
A few decades ago, William Easum wrote a book called Dancing With Dinosaurs. It was a humorous but honest warning to pastors about how difficult it is to change the church, to bring about a new way of thinking; it’s like dancing with dinosaurs. And sometimes what Easum said was very true in terms of people, but I believe he missed the mark on the church.
The church is not a dinosaur. The church is the place in which the revolution for the freedom of the individual, self-determined and self-reliant, persists and continues and moves forward. Sometimes the path is well-worn and smooth; other times it is hard going and full of brambles, briars and thorns.
I feel like we are emerging from a hard patch. Hence the need to breathe for a moment, to rest along the way. We need a wayward Labrador to come this way and bring comfort; we need a baptism and a birth to bring us joy and refresh our spirits. The brambles are thick; the falsity of anger and hatred we just walked through was relentless. But when you seek to find the truth for yourself, to test your own prophet, there will be times of exhaustion.
In January of 2020 HBO pulled the movie, Gone With the Wind. There was frustration and questions regarding their choice. What is wrong with Gone with the Wind? When they re-released it, they did a wonderful thing. The movie was put back up but it was put up with an explanation of the lost cause. The lost cause is the version of the Civil War that fueled Jim Crow segregation. Margaret Mitchel was deeply influenced by Thomas Dixon and his novels and the racism and bigotry that built segregation. In their explanation they said, in essence, watch the movie, and then, decide for yourself.
HBO was not looking to dance with dinosaurs, nor was it seeking to be the lord of our conscience. They were recognizing our revolution. We must find the truth; we must reckon with our beliefs and our definitions. If we are honest, such information could lead to knowledge and such knowledge could lead to wisdom where we know what is stillness and silence and beauty. It could and, if we are honest, it will. But we will never find freedom in fearful silence or dishonesty.
We will, each of us, find the freedom that comes from being honest; and, we must ever build a church that is not a shackle but a key to unlock the blind prisons. Here we will find the power to live in honesty, not the crippling of dishonest bravado.
We need each other to find freedom. The irony of self-reliance is that we find how much we need each other. To find the freedom of the truth in the depth of wisdom we need to build this church together. The church for the next generation is in our hands.
Right now, we in the midst of the annual stewardship campaign. Here is the moment we ask people to give to support the church. And please do. Yet, even more importantly right now, give honesty, give courage, give your strength so we may build a place of freedom. The revolution we began 500 years ago continues. We are this change today.
Right now, maybe, we need a moment to catch our breath, to abide in a respite of grace. I need this moment of rest so to get back to work. We have a church to build that gives birth to freedom and truth. We have good fruit to bear. Amen.
- Isaiah 5:1 - 7
- Matthew 7:15 - 20