Sermon: Bearing Good Fruit

“Bearing Good Fruit”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
August 11, 2019

Proverbs 10:11
The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
   but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

Matthew 12:33-37
‘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 judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be judged innocent, and by your words you will be found guilty.’

At Bible study on Wednesday night, we wondered about who Jesus was talking to when he said these rather intense words: “You brood of vipers! …on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless (some translations say “thoughtless” or “injurious”) word you utter; for by your words you will be judged innocent or found guilty.’ If he’s talking to us, then as Betty noted, “we’re all in trouble.” 

Because who among us hasn’t said an undeservedly harsh word to someone, a word that injured that person or harmed the relationship? We’re not talking about speaking hard truths in love or setting necessary boundaries; we’re talking about the words we wish we could take back, the conversations that haunt us years later; and even the off-handed remarks we didn’t realize wounded those who received them.

In this framework, we will all have something to answer for. Though it doesn’t feel terribly good – who wants to be judged by their worst words or actions? – I’m not sure that answering for them is a bad thing; faced with all the evil and injustice in the world, we want a God who will call to account those who harm us or harm entire groups of people; we want those wrongs made right. It simply means we have to be willing to have our wrongs called to account and made right, as well.

Part of that process, as we talked about earlier with our young people, involves changing the thoughts of our hearts. Because, as Jesus so astutely observes, what we marinate on in our hearts, what we steep ourselves in internally is sure to at some point overflow into our speech and our actions. So this passage serves as a reminder to catch ourselves when we are thinking uncharitable or judgmental things about others – or about ourselves! We can be so critical of ourselves – and to make a conscious choice to pivot toward “believing the best,” as a mentor of mine used to say. 

Whenever someone is rude, harsh, thoughtless, or even downright nasty to me or in my vicinity, I play a little mental game of imagining what could have possibly caused them to act the way they did. Maybe they just got terrible news or were freshly reminded of a great loss in their lives. Maybe they were raised in an abusive environment and carry the meanness of their upbringing with them. Maybe they are in pain that makes it hard to be pleasant or they have a brain injury that makes it difficult to filter inappropriate comments. Maybe they are lonely or depressed but don’t have a way to articulate it or seek help.

None of those circumstances excuse rude or harmful behavior – and certainly there are many people in those situations who would never dream of taking their struggles out on someone else. But running through those possibilities in my mind helps me respond with equanimity, out of compassion for the human being in front of me who may be suffering, rather than lashing back out of my own pain and resentment. It grounds me in empathy – I’ve certainly said unkind things out of frustration or pain, and as Jesus says a few chapters earlier in Matthew, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” It also helps keep my heart in the right place, so that if it does overflow, what comes out will be helpful for everyone involved instead of hurtful. Little by little, it helps grow my tree in goodness.

On another level, though, this passage isn’t meant to speak to us. (We’re off the hook! Just kidding.) Or at least, it isn’t meant to speak about ordinary unkindnesses. If we look back a few paragraphs, we realize that Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, whom he saltily refers to as “You brood of vipers!” The Pharisees were the keepers of the Law, charged with ensuring that others followed the commandments. But over the years, as the Pharisees’ holy zeal morphed into a desire to maintain the power that came with their status, God’s law of compassion, grace, and mercy became subsumed by strict, spirit-less enforcement of the rules. If you didn’t agree with their interpretations – and Jesus often didn’t – then you were a threat to their grip on the reins. 

These sophisticated hypocrites, as Sharon called them at Bible study, receive some of Jesus’ harshest condemnation because they had power. The Pharisees held people’s lives in their hands; they were the ones condemning Jesus for healing on the Sabbath or letting his hungry disciples pick grain on the Sabbath; yet eagerly calling for Jesus to stone a woman caught in adultery. They perverted God’s graciousness while raising their own profile as irreproachable stewards of the Law; they maintained an air of untouchable self-righteousness, all the while knowing full well the harm they created when they declared judgment on others. 

I spent a lot of time this week thinking about rhetoric in our country and the very real power of words. As I read about the domestic terrorist mass shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso; and Dayton, I came upon a blog post about something called “stochastic terrorism.” Though it was coined in 2011, the term was new to me. Stochastic terrorism describes what happens when politicians or celebrities use their platforms to spew hatred and bigotry towards a specific person or group: eventually, their rhetoric will “incite [a] random actor[] to carry out violent or terrorist acts” against the targeted group. Stochastic terrorism means these terrorist acts “are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable” – meaning that repeatedly stoking bigotry is almost guaranteed to lead to violence, but no one can say exactly when or how it will happen, which conveniently leaves the talking head who incited the violence safe behind a shield of plausible deniability. Think of the Rwandan genocide, where virulent Hutu leaders used the radio to stoke racist bigotry towards Tutsis; or the murder of gynecologist Dr. George Tiller while ushering at church by an anti-abortion extremist who had listened to a talking head’s months-long televised tirade against Dr. Tiller.

We live in a time characterized by stochastic terrorism, where the unsettling unpredictability of terrorist violence, particularly gun violence, erupting into everyday life is balanced only by the certainty that it will happen. We used to hear witnesses to a mass shooting or murderous rampage-by-vehicle say, “I never thought it would happen here”; lately that has shifted to comments like those made by Dayton residents Clara Jackson and Sara Quiñones: “Over the last two years, and definitely the last year, it’s unfortunately been in the back of my mind: When will it come here?” “I don’t know why I’m surprised; this happens all the time.” Mass shootings are “being normalized.”

Why are they becoming normalized, though? Why did I scan a concert hall for exits and places to hide while on a date with my spouse last weekend?

Certainly we are less connected to one another; less likely to belong to communities like this one where isolation and despair are met with connection and hopeful purpose. Our society produces angry, alienated people – those prone to lash out like the Dayton shooter – at alarming rates.

Certainly it is lamentably easy to legally obtain assault-style weapons that can mow down 20 people in the aisles of Walmart or kill 9 people in the 30 seconds it took police to stop the Dayton shooter. Our society is in thrall to the “idolatry of weaponry,” as Christian blogger Joe Terrell puts it. “An idol,” he writes, “promises safety, control, deliverance, and power; [it] promises to rid the world of evil. [N]othing [is] more crippling or fear-inducing than the thought of” the absence of an idol, and nothing is more “insatiable” than that idol. The evidence of our worship of weapons designed only to take human life, that we’ve put something other than God, as I preached about last week, at the center of our national life? We are willing to sacrifice our sense of normalcy, our public safety, and the psyches and even lives of our precious children for the illusion of control that a weapon-saturated society gives us.

And certainly, there is no end to the stream of bigotry flowing everywhere from internet comment sections to the office of the President – no end to the fodder for stochastic terrorism.

Last month the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., the “sacred space where America gathers at moments of national significance,” released a statement decrying this endless tide of hatred: “We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.” The faith leaders at the National Cathedral called President Trump to account, citing “dehumanizing words…from the President of the United States” as “a clarion call, and [a] cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human ‘infestation’ in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions.” 

They didn’t cite this morning’s scriptures, but they easily could have: the tree is known by its fruit; the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

Yet the National Cathedral leaders didn’t end there. It is important to denounce bigotry and hate-filled speech, especially when spoken from places of power, and to be quite clear about holding those who speak them accountable for ensuing violence, just as Jesus held the Pharisees accountable for the harm that their legal, yet hypocritical, posturing and policing caused. But it is also important to examine our own complicity: “What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough?” ask the National Cathedral leaders. “The question is less about the President’s sense of decency, but of ours.”

When we become immune to hateful, xenophobic rhetoric – when it becomes so normalized we are no longer shocked, either by the rhetoric or the bigoted violence it leads to – we contribute to an environment where hateful, xenophobic actions can flourish. When we let a relative or a coworker’s homophobic or racist comment go unchallenged, or when we refuse to examine our own prejudiced thoughts or words, we send the message that there is nothing wrong with the sentiment at the heart of those comments – nothing wrong with the internal attitude that gave birth to it. When we as a people let the leader we elected dismiss entire neighborhoods, cities, religions, and races as less-than – and say nothing – we are complicit in that leader’s grip on our nation’s discourse. 

As your pastor, I would much rather be preaching on something less controversial this morning: forgiveness, mercy, gratitude, even stewardship! Nobody likes to talk about money. 

And I would much rather not have to address another mass shooting, or another vitriolic news cycle. If only we lived in a world where the headlines were more compassionate, more just, more peaceful. 

But the Gospel teaches us that we have to work for such a world, not just wish for it. And Jesus’ words convict me that if I say nothing in the face of these abuses of power and of privilege – the power to wreak havoc on people you’ve been taught to hate, the privilege to incite violence with little repercussion – if I say nothing and such abuses continue, then I am a tree producing bad fruit – not good for much at all. 

A journalist wrote yesterday about how Latinx people had reached out to share their feelings after El Paso: “It is really the last few months that I feel not wanted by my fellow Americans and it hurts,” one woman wrote. “I know the vast majority of Americans do not feel this way about us, but we will need you to speak up.” 

“[F]or by [our] words [we] will be judged innocent or found guilty.” For the love of God’s precious children of every race and identity, it is long past time for us to speak up. Amen.