Prophets and privateers: by their fruits shall ye know them

A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost at the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio. In the news this week, the crisis of immigrant and refugee detention centers continues. A presidential campaign rally broke into chants of “Send her back,” targeting a congressional representative. It is the fiftieth anniversary weekend of the first footsteps on the moon. We also memorialized a parishioner who died in the spring, and his wife of some sixty years.

From the readings: Amos had a vision of a basket of summer fruits, and the people’s just desserts.

Amos has been seeing visions of how things will end up. His basket of fruit, in Hebrew, is a play on words: fruits and ends. The fruits which he sets before our vision are the end, the outcome, the results of the people’s actions and inactions, religion and rebellion.

At best, a basket of fruit might conjure up appetite, and gratitude, and wonder at the Providence of God. I have been following, as I am sure many of you have, the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the first human footprints on the moon. But landing on a space rock, as astonishing an accomplishment as it is, is not an end to itself. The men who went there took Communion, took a Bible, took their sense of wonder. They understood that there is an end beyond our imaginings, in which all our journeys are begun and run their course; the imagination of our Creator.

We have mentioned Angus and Anna this morning, and we will again; Angus, as a physicist and an astronomer knew well this sense of wonder. In our book group this morning, we heard C.S. Lewis describe it:

“Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy.”

And so, in a shaft of sunlight, like a still life, Amos presents to us as a vision of endings a bowl of summer fruit – an appealing, appetizing image, you might think. But Amos’ words to the people do not match that palatable impression. They are, instead, a warning against strange fruit.

“Beware,” Jesus preaches elsewhere, “of false prophets.” He doesn’t mean Amos. Amos’ vision is faithful. But beware, Jesus says, “of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. … Thus you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20)

Amos warns the people to be careful of the fruit we produce. Jesus warns us to be wary whom we follow, into whose visions we invest our faith. Watch out for the fruit they produce.

Amos places before us a basket of summer fruit. We turn over the pieces, looking for something sweet – a glossy cherry, perhaps, or a crisp apple. But something is not right. There is a hardness to the grapes, and a waxiness to the skin of the pear. There is sawdust at the bottom of the bowl, instead of the dusting of peach fuzz that we expected to find. We have been fooled. The fruit is a fake. It is plastic and wood, made only to decorate the room. It is not even a still life. There is no nurture or nutrition in it. It is lifeless. It is a scam.

By their fruits shall you know them. If the vision painted for us does not nourish God’s children, nor foster their freedom, their health and wellbeing; if it proffers life with one hand and snatches it away with the other; if it distorts or defrauds, diminishes or shortchanges the image of God imprinted on any of God’s children, then it is a false vision. Watch for the bait and switch. Look out for the privateers who profit from false prophecy, while others bear the cost of their sin. By their fruits shall you know them. If the basket does not feed life, love, liberty, then it is false, and ungodly.

Try another basket. While on the surface, there is a blush to the fruit, underneath, it has gone bad. There is a bruise, and an infection that spreads from one apple to the next, until all dissolve together in their rottenness. Any new, good fruit that joins them risks their mould.

“I do not sit with false men, nor do I consort with dissemblers,” said the Psalmist. “I hate the company of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked.” (Psalm 26:4-5)

Of course, wickedness has become a matter of opinion to us; but by their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus. If they produce strange fruit (you remember the Billie Holiday song, written by Abel Meeropol: “ …strange fruit/blood on the leaves and blood at the root”); if they look to be producing or pollinating strange fruit, be very wary. If their fruit is poisonous to any one of God’s children, they are false prophets, and ungodly.

Fortunately, we have a healthier vision to follow. We have sounder and more sustaining food at hand. “Those who eat my flesh, and drink my blood,” Jesus says, share in the life of Christ. And those who abide close to the root and shoot of Jesus will bring forth fruit for the good of the world: lifegiving, healing, and sustaining food. That is the vision we would rather follow, and the fruit we would rather eat and offer to our neighbours, to our children, and at the altar of our God.

You know that this morning we are remembering particularly in our prayers Angus and Anna, bringing them home, as it were, one last time to Epiphany. One story that stuck with me was about how Angus would choose where to sit in this church. It was a system of randomized coin selections and manipulations that were assigned mathematical calculations that would eventually land on a point on an imaginary grid laid over the pews, and wherever that was, Angus would set himself and his family down. It was a system designed to promote equity and to eliminate bias. We each have a tendency to love best those who are like us, and to lean towards those whose sympathy we can rely on. But the love of God in Christ is unbiased and rather indiscriminate. The only way to buy into that, Angus felt, was intentionally and randomly.

“By their fruit you shall know them.” We recognize those who are sound of spirit by their actions, by their interactions with others, by the way in which they live out their faith in their daily life, in acts of wonder, of service, of kindness.

When we taste the good fruit, we know its sweetness, and its soundness. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit:

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22)

How could anyone outlaw kindness, such as offering water to a parched man in the desert? How would anyone pass a law against gentleness, and the tender treatment of the traveller found at the side of the road? Why would anyone want to draw up rules against love?

Instead, like pollen on the breeze, or like the bees, let us randomly and intentionally propagate good fruit, seeding kindness where we can, settling gently where we land, leaving footprints grainy with wonder, spreading love across creation; for by our fruits we shall be known.

C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1963), 91

Strange Fruit, by Abel Meeropol, performed most famously by Billie Holiday (YouTube)

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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