I suppose that the safe thing to do today would be to carry on church as if this week were no different than any other; as if the news were no different or certainly did not pertain to us. Certainly the town of Jasper has been very quiet in regards to the black lives matter campaign. It is as if this topic is just too sensitive, too painful and the risk of opening old wounds is too great. But a wound that is not properly cleansed becomes infected, can become septic. As Presbyterians we believe that we are called to be a prophetic witness in this community. Prophetic means that we speak on behalf of the kingdom of God, that we speak for the oppressed and the disempowered, that we speak for the marginalized and those who suffer under systemic racism and oppression. Still, it is tempting to play it safe, to avoid hot topics but I cannot today. The wounds of oppression and violence are too painful today. The relentless, systematic oppression calls out for cleansing.
How can I speak about bearing good fruit today when bad fruit and strange fruit are ripening? How can I speak about the good fruit when the bad is rotting and the strange is bleeding? How can I talk about good fruit when otherwise good fruit is becoming bitter with resentment and hopelessness? How can we be good fruit, how can we help others to be good fruit?
Some of you have probably harvested fruit as I have. You know what it is, to go out into the orchards with your bags, to climb the ladders and fill those bags with the most tender and delicious of ripe fruit. How some of this fruit would stain your hands and lips before the day was over. You know how the kitchen would be hot as women stirred large pots over the stove and the canning, the jamming, the applesauce making began. Before nightfall there would be a nice, flaky crusted piece of pie with vanilla ice cream, a reward for a good day’s work in the orchard. This is good fruit. The sweetness of a reward earned with a little sweat and labor. At times like those we feel content; life is as it should be and all is right with the world.
This is how it is supposed to be. That if you work hard and you do things right good things will come, the harvest will come and it will be good and it will be sweet. But for many among us, this is not true. For many of those around us to work hard and earn good things simply means having to watch others take it.
Gary Haugen is a lawyer who became involved in working to end poverty and hunger world wide. He is the founder of the International Justice Mission. In a TED talk given just last month he talks about his moment of insight into the hidden cause of poverty. He was in Africa and doing interviews to help learn about the causes of poverty and hunger and how mission organizations could better address them. One of his interviewees was a woman named Venus, a widowed mother of three, who walked 12 miles that day to sit with him and speak. Imagine that. Walking 12 miles across rough country in order that your voice, your words might matter, that you might give witness to that which eats away at your life and your hope. It must have been a burning desire in her to motivate her to walk that distance just to speak to the wealthy white american who didn’t know, who didn’t get it, who offered to listen. Can you feel that? How much it meant for her to be heard? How important it was to bear witness? As she shared her story of grinding poverty with this man, who is the vision of health and wealth, she shared that her poverty had cost the life of her youngest son. She shared how she had watched as he whithered away, his legs bowing from malnutrition, his eyes growing cloudy and dim, his body growing cold in death, and her inability, her powerlessness, to do anything about it.
Suddenly it makes sense doesn’t it? That she would walk a mere 12 miles that others might know, that they might also bear witness, that her son’s all too brief life would be mourned. Her passion, her need to speak out and be heard was a passion fueled by love, that we can all understand can’t we? It tears at our hearts to hear this story and we too want to cry out!
So what did she say that caused Gary Haugen, civil rights lawyer, international peace worker, to have this epiphany? She said to him, “After the death of my husband we did all right for a little while, that is until my neighbor Brutus broke into my home and threw us out. Until he stole our home, our land, all that we had, and threw us onto the streets.” She was, after all, a competent capable woman, strong and healthy. She knew how to work hard, how to till the land, how to grow her own food and she did just that and Brutus watched. When the harvest was ripe he came and he reaped it. Venus was left with bitter fruit. Suddenly Gary knew that giving to the poor would do nothing as long as predators waited to steal the hard won harvest of the poor.
For those of us who know we can call the police and they will come and they will help us and they will restore to us that which has been stolen we can look to our efforts and say that we will have earned the good fruits of our labor. Yes, we earned this! But for so many this is not the case.
It might be easier to see this injustice in foreign countries, to say that it happens over there but surely this sort of thing can’t happen here, right? But it does and how can we not lament? How can we not cry out? When one mother must watch her child whither away, another buries a son who played with a toy gun in the park, when another must bury a son illegally arrested and murdered, when another must bury a son shot during a traffic stop for which there was no valid reason. How can we not lament? Rachel weeps for her children and will not be consoled! How long can we refuse to see?
So many of us want to go to denial, to complacency, to victim blaming when this happens. It wasn’t me. We want to cry out. I didn’t do it. But the bad fruit and the strange fruit continue to ripen. My heart is heavy today. It is heavy not just with Freddy Gray but with so many, many others. Too many to name.
As much as I fear being overly political I fear being silent so much more. I fear the fruit my silence would bear. If Rachel weeps for her lost children the least I can do, the least we can do, is to weep with her. If Venus cries out for her lost son, if all of Baltimore and Ferguson and so many other places cry out, how can we not be moved? How can we not cry out with them?
Jesus calls us to pick up our cross and follow him so we’d better look closely at where he went, what he did. We are called to cry with those who have experienced loss far too soon. We are called to bring healing and hope to those who have none. We are called to mix with the untouchables and the unfit-for-polite-society people and call them brothers and sisters. We are called to provide food for the hungry. We are called to go into the wilderness and face our fears that they will no longer control us. We are not called to blame those who suffer for their own victimization. We are not called to sit in judgment or fix people; we are called to forgive the past and love and love and love. We are called to let our hearts break in compassion for those who suffer and we are called to let that compassion inform our choices and move us to action. This is the way of Jesus. It is not an easy path but it is a good path.
Our text today says, remain in me as I remain in him, remain in my love, if you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love. It’s easy to see that as a condition, if you do this then you will receive that, but perhaps it is more descriptive than conditional. Perhaps the need is simply to remain in Jesus’ love, to move, act, and love one another in Jesus’ love. To keep the commandments is to remain in the love of Jesus, it is to abide in him, it is to dwell in that love, to see the world from the position of that love, to move, act, decide from within that love. To let your heart break in compassion from that love. Romans 13:10 tells us that love is the fulfillment of the laws for love does no wrong.
If we still don’t get it, Jesus goes on to say, this is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends. Yes, you and you and you, are my friends. Can we look at those we meet on the streets, in the grocery store, in the news and say the same? We bear good fruit only when we abide in love. Abide in anger and resentment, abide in power structures and the fruit will go bad. Abide in our own craftyness and resourcefulness, our desire to say every man for himself and the fruit will go bad. Abide in anything less than love and we will bear bitter fruit. If we are bearing bitter fruit today it is because yesterday we planted in fear and anger, in resentment and self protection. It isn’t fair that we must harvest the bitter fruit that others have planted in their fear and self righteousness, their need for power and security but we cannot afford to plant today’s seeds in the same manner.
We must abide in love and we must plant in love. We must not become bitter or lose hope, we must not become angry or withdraw. We are called to love one another, really, truly love one another, no exceptions, no saying, ‘I love everyone but you because you piss me off,” but to love wholy and completely as Jesus taught us. This is the bearing of good fruit, the tangy, bittersweet fruit of compassion and love. This is the good fruit that will change everything. We must refuse to let the ground we grow in become infected with indifference, despair, anger, or fear. We must grow only in the holy ground, the sacred ground that is God’s love for all people. May it be so.