Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Mt. 7:15-20 A Tree and Its Fruit
‘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.
This week I read something that bummed me out. And, so, what do I do, as a pastor with a keen sense of compassion and care... I tell you, my congregation, all about it. Because that is exactly what you need right now: bad news. Because we have had such good news lately that we definitely need to even it out a little. Alright, here it comes: The Episcopal Church commissioned a study they are calling “Jesus in America.” I read about it in an article by Emily McFarlane Miller and Jack Jenkins. When you want to study something in a population, like, say, an entire country, it’s impossible to ask everyone the same things. It would take forever and you would definitely miss people. So, instead of making the task impossible, people who are good at numbers and good at demographics and sociology, work out what amount of people need to be asked something for it to represent at larger whole.
The marketing firm our cousins in the Episcopal Church worked with decided that they would poll 3,119 Americans and ask them questions about how they viewed Jesus and how they viewed Christians with the hopes of better understanding Americans’ general attitudes about Jesus and Christians. Within this group of just over 3,000 people, they spoke to Christians (of many varieties), people who were part of other religious traditions, and people who are not religious at all. This isn’t the part that bummed me out, by the way. I love polls like this: Yes! Ask lots of people the same questions and let’s see what they say! The former sociology major in me thinks this is all very fun. But, then, I kept reading.
The very first question I read was this one: What characteristics do you associate with Christians in general? There were 19 characteristics and they had to say how well each characteristic described Christians. The people who were surveyed who were Christians gave answers that I was happy to hear: 57% of Christians said Christians were giving. 56% said Christians are compassionate. 55% said Christians are loving. Other top responses were respectful, friendly, honest, humble, sharing, and truthful. If you asked me, as a pastor, how I would hope Christians would understand ourselves to be expected to act in the world, I would likely have included most of this list: giving, compassionate, loving, honest, humble, and truthful. About 20% of Christians also said we’re judgmental. I am inclined to see that as a good bit of self-awareness on our parts. Because we are, too often, judgmental. None of what I just shared bummed me out. Here’s what did.
Non-Christians had a very different list of common attributes. 50% of Non-Christians surveyed said that Christians are hypocritical. Almost as many, 49%, said Christians are judgmental. This same set of people also said that Christians are self-righteousness (46%), and arrogant (32%). This part... this is what bummed me out. For as much as Christians seem to know what God calls us to be (loving, giving, and compassionate), non-Christians, when interacting with and observing our behavior in public, do not see or experience us living out this calling. Instead, Christianity as they understand it, is hypocritical, judgmental, self-righteous, and arrogant. If a tree is known by its fruit, our non-Christian neighbors are seeing a lot of rotten fruit.
It’s not like this is new information for me. I know plenty of non-Christians, some who have never been Christians and some who have left the Christian churches that they were once a part of. For those who left, sometimes it was because they just realized that Christianity wasn’t meaningful to them. Much of the time though, it was because Christianity as they experienced was deeply harmful, unkind at best... at best... deeply abusive at worst. The very worst things that have ever happened to them happened at the hands of someone with Jesus on their lips.
Plenty of people who have never even been a part of Christian communities have been and are being harmed by us. Not even passively harmed. Actively harmed by the things we say and do right now. There is a war going and the guy who started it said he’s doing so, in part, because of his Christian faith. There is deadly anti-transgender legislation being proposed by and approved by state legislatures across the country right now and all of the people who have proposed it claim that it is a necessary part of their Christian faith. In one state, a legislator who is a Christian minister has proposed a bill that would charge a someone with a potentially lethal ectopic pregnancy with a felony if they were to seek the medical procedure necessary to save their life. He says it’s his duty as a Christian to sentence these people to death. Too many Christians are growing wicked, wicked fruit.
Now, my hunch is that you might be having a similar reaction to me upon hearing these examples. You might be saying, “Well, these people aren’t really Christians.” Or, you might say, “not all Christians are like that.” I have said both these things a hundred times. And, I think I can make a pretty good argument as to why each of the examples I listed is not an action that actually adheres to the Gospel. And, while those statements can help me feel better, like I’ve made a robust defense of proper Christian faith, it doesn’t blot out the fact that countless people have been harmed by Christians. So many, that a randomized survey of the American public shows non-Christians being deeply suspect of us. And, frankly, a bunch of Christians are being harmed, too. See, this is why I was bummed out. Maybe you’re bummed out, too.
When we hear confirmation of wicked fruit that is common in our community, it can be tempting to grow defensive or quit listening or, as some Christians are inclined, decide that any critique of how we live out our faith is an attack on God. Being told the truth about the harm people see you do is not persecution, particularly in a country where most people who are religious are Christians and when so much civic life is based on our religious foundations. I also don’t think not thinking about a problem addresses the problem. Bishop Michael Curry, the head of the Episcopal Church in the United States, describes the problem this way: “There is a disconnect between the reality of Jesus and the perceived reality of Christians.” There is an expectation of behavior in the world that is laid out by Jesus in the Gospel. Christians know what is expected of us. We have to find a better way to actually live it out.
The “Jesus in America” survey says that Christians and non-Christians alike understand Jesus as an important historical figure. And, most of the people surveyed, 58%, Christian and non-Christian together, believe that Jesus taught to love God and love neighbor. Jesus taught a lot of good things, but these are good places to start! And, listening to how our neighbors experience our actions in this world is another place to start. If we want to repair harm in this world (that’s part of what loving our neighbor is... repairing harm), we should ask ourselves, what can we learn from those who don’t worship among us? Or, to go along with today’s text, what kind of fruit do people see us growing? As Bishop Curry says in the article, “You can only begin the process of healing when you have a proper diagnosis.” May we listen to the truth our neighbors share. May we live more fully into the promises we have made. May the world notice God in that which we grow. And, may our fruit be dripping with God’s love and justice.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
The survey summary: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/jesus-in-america/
The article about the survey: https://religionnews.com/2022/03/09/episcopal-bishop-curry-says-more-to-do-as-poll-shows-christians-seen-as-hypocrites/
Diana Butler Bass: https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/next-year-in-kyiv?s=w
Wil Gafney, "Lent 2" in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Jayne Davis: https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/7-spiritual-practices-for-the-new-year/
The James Baldwin quote I mentioned at the end of worship is in this essay by Yotam Marom: https://medium.com/@YotamMarom/what-to-do-when-the-world-is-ending-99eea2e1e2e7
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.