It’s hard to believe that we are already to that part of the summer when the blackberries are beginning to ripen on the vine. The lettuce and kale are up and ready for harvesting; there are green tomatoes on the sprouting bushes; the cucumber and summer squash have big, bell-shaped yellow blossoms, and the wildflowers are just beginning to bloom. The hints of harvest—food, beauty, arrival—are already evident in abundance.
And even though the blackberries are still mostly green, I know that what will ripen will in fact be big, plump, sweet blackberries—the kind that have little seeds that sometimes get stuck in your teeth. They won’t be blueberries one year and raspberries the next; that’s not how growing works—we’ve seen this over and over again with our own eyes. It’s a blackberry bush, so it will produce blackberries—that’s part of the order of life built into our daily reality.
Working in the garden is a spiritual exercise for me—or maybe more than that, because it’s not something I do on purpose to deepen my faith; rather, it’s where I feel seamlessly connected to and a part of our loving creator God. I love the idea that when I work in the garden I’m alongside, attuned with God, who is always seeking to bring something beautiful out of people, places, and things that will receive the perfect gift of divine love.
In our scripture from Matthew today, we heard Jesus make this obvious and powerful point—by their fruits you shall know them—as he speaks to a huge crowd of people gathered on the Judean hillside. He has been teaching for quite a long while now, sharing the beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer and presenting what’s known as the Sermon on the Mount, offering much wisdom on how to live and grow in faith. In this passage, he is trying to warn those listening against the false teachers that would surely come after him. He says,
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Don’t get swept away with stories and promises, he says. Look at what these teachers are creating in their lives. What are the blossoms of their presence in the world? Do you see beauty, order, peace, harmony? Is there anger, suspicion, seeds of war? When we pay attention to the fruits of the life, we can easily see the aim, the desire, the truth of the heart.
In our passage from Proverbs, we hear this same wisdom to help us discern not only the intent and motivations of others but also to consider the impact our own behaviors can have on the people around us.
A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
2 The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly.
3 The eyes of the Lord are in every place,
keeping watch on the evil and the good.
4 A gentle[a] tongue is a tree of life,
but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.
5 A fool despises his father’s instruction,
but whoever heeds reproof is prudent.
6 In the house of the righteous there is much treasure,
but trouble befalls the income of the wicked.
7 The lips of the wise spread knowledge;
not so the hearts of fools.[b]”
Doesn’t it seem, from these practical and wise words, that recognizing the truth of life—and the intentions of people—should be clear and easy? And yet so often things feel confusing and murky, swirling around us in a dizzying and ever-changing narrative. The speed is too fast. The volume is too loud. We are inundated and overwhelmed by the flow of information. If only we could tune out the noise and let Jesus’ words be the compass that guides us: By their fruits you shall know them.
I was thinking of this passage from Proverbs when I ran across this quote from the children’s author Roald Dahl:
“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until it gets so ugly you can hardly bear to look at it.
A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
I don’t know whether you’ve ever read any of Roald Dahl’s stories yourself—they were popular especially when my kids were little. He’s the author of James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and one I’m sure you’ve heard of, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, later of Willy Wonka and Oompah Loompah fame.
Dahl’s stories were always quirky and sometimes darkly comic, with larger-than-life, mean adult villains pitted against good, smart, and resourceful children. Ultimately Dahl’s books prized the goodness, the kindness, the truthful among us, and his characters encouraged us to do the right things for the right reasons, to safeguard our integrity, and to always look out for those around you who were littler or had less power than you had. Book critic Amanda Craig wrote that Dahl, “was unequivocal that it is the good, young and kind who triumph over the old, greedy and wicked.” You can hear the fruits here: goodness, kindness, sweetness, and the innocent integrity of children.
As a student in England, Dahl was a fan of Cadbury chocolates because the company often sent boxes of chocolates to his school to be tested by the pupils. He dreamed of perhaps one day inventing a new chocolate that would please Mr. Cadbury himself. Chances are good that this boyhood desire is part of the heart of Charlie’s dream come true in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The Cadburys brought a great amount of good fruits into this world as well. In the early 18th century, Quaker John Cadbury had a tasty idea for cocoa powder and began experimenting with concoctions for drinking cocoa and cocoa for cakes and powders. His sons George and Richard took over the family business mid-century and developed the cocoa into fine chocolates. They soon began offering those chocolates in ornate and beautiful boxes.
George Cadbury’s Quaker values continued to blossom through his life. As he turned Cadbury Chocolates into a thriving business, he had a dream of creating a factory in a beautiful garden that would be a healthy and happy place for company workers and their families. Eventually the brothers bought land and created a village for their employees, ensuring that there was good housing, education, and fun recreational activities for all. Later George also added sick pay and pensions for his employees. This didn’t happen because of a law—Cadbury was ahead of his time in that regard. His choices—and the blessings they brought to the families of his employees—were the blossoming of spirit, God’s love flowing outward through a listening heart.
By your fruits you shall know them. George’s views of that of God in everyone, the importance of family, his sense of integrity in paying a livable wage, and his hope and intention that those who worked for him would thrive and be happy, all arise as the fruit of a life lived in faith.
Looking around our world today, where can we say the same? Where do we see an honest, heart-led effort at making peoples’ lives better, comforting the broken-hearted, and advocating for those society considers “the least of these”? Let’s seek out and name and encourage the fruits of the testimonies that guide our actions wherever we find them: Simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship. Let’s take stock in our own lives and see where those testimonies are already blossoming and be open to where God wants to lead us next. As we continue working alongside God in this magnificent garden of creation, we allow ourselves to be filled with hope, knowing that even now and all along, God is doing a good work in us, making our lives blossom in a way that will bless the world.’
In closing I offer the lyrics to one of my favorite hymns by Natalie Sleeth. It speaks both to the sacred process of our growing and the comfort that all these fruits are loved by God:
In the bulb there is a flower;
in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons, a hidden promise:
butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter
there’s a spring that waits to be,
unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see.
There’s a song in every silence,
seeking word and melody;
there’s a dawn in every darkness
bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future;
what it holds, a mystery,
unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see.
In our end is our beginning;
in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing;
in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection;
at the last, a victory,
unrevealed until its season,
Something God alone can see.
- OT Proverbs 15: 1-7
- NT Matthew 7: 15-20
- Today’s worship, live streamed and recorded: https://youtu.be/jMRkEl82W3M