“It’s the Real Thing”*

Matt 7:15-20
While I was in the hospital last week, fighting an infection, a jingle kept going through my mind. It was the Coca Cola ad from 1971-72. “I’d like to buy the world a coke.” “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. That’s the real thing.” The song took a life of its own and was recorded by numerous artists and groups. There was a hopeful innocence of youth in the lyrics, and it provided a comforting interlude in a turbulent world. Has the world not always been turbulent? Have we not always sought “the real thing?”

During the 1940’s my family and I lived in a small town in Illinois. There were a number of undeveloped lots around us in which we played. Next to the Haworth’s house, across the street, was a corner lot that my brother liked to play in. That came to an end when he came down with a case of Poison Oak. Most of us were familiar with Poison Ivy, but we really didn’t recognize Poison Oak or Poison Sumac. Part of growing up was learning how to recognize bad plants from good plants. That of course carried over in our relationships with our playmates. You learned whom to trust, who was your real friend and who was your false friend. You learned about betrayal, false starts, and who was all talk and no substance. We were, of course, testing reality, learning to discern appearance from reality, learning to look beyond the surface. We were learning to recognize “the real thing.”

Everyone had a victory garden during those war years. Some flourished, others had false starts and flared out. We learned about bitter grapes and false rhubarb. The lessons carried over to our Methodist church, where we learned about integrity, real leadership, and the disappointment of hypocrisy. There was a church treasurer who always made a big pledge, but never paid it. We experienced the very kind man who unfortunately abused his daughters. There was nothing sophisticated about it; these were just lessons from life.

Now think for a moment about what we know from the Old Testament about the life of Israel. You’ve got the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Abe, Ike and Jake). Moses stomps around the desert for 30 years. There are the kings: Saul, David and Solomon. Then there is the division of the kingdom into Judah and Israel. The Jews experienced captivity by foreign powers. There is the rise of the prophets: Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah and Elijah. Finally there were four hundred years during which Israel did not hear from a major prophet. The people yearned for a messiah. Israel was often compared to flock or to a garden (not small) and the agricultural metaphors are all over the Old Testament and the New Testament as well.

As in most cultures, there were teachers, rabbis, priests, healers, soothsayers and prophets. Various leaders rose up who were great disappointments. Judas Maccabeus was seen as a messianic military leader. He didn’t pan out. Into this context Jesus is born and at the age 30 begins His ministry. John the Baptist strides onto the stage of history, baptizes Jesus, and proclaims, “This is the real McCoy. This is the real thing. This is the one for whom we have been waiting.” We are told that others had intimations of this earlier on in Jesus’ life.

Now in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke (much of today’s reading in Matthew is also found in Luke), Jesus is establishing His authority. He is revealing who He is. He does this by His preaching, His healings, His miracles and by example. Jesus is setting Himself off against others: the shamans, the soothsayers, the magicians, the phony leaders, the corrupt teachers and priests – all those who have strayed from the teachings of the Law and the prophets. Jesus is setting Himself off from those who have abandoned the expectation of a messiah – those who condone inequality, exploitation of the poor, the outcast, the helpless, the powerless, the suffering and the distressed. Jesus sets Himself over against those who believe that wealth has its privileges, rather than its responsibilities, those who practice wealth and social management and use the temple and the priests to secure their wealth and power.

A constant theme in Jesus’ teaching is His call for authenticity, for integrity and commitment, and His condemnation of hypocrisy. Gradually Jesus is revealing Himself as the Son of God, the Messiah. He is saying, here is the real thing – God’s true love of mankind

Jesus becomes the embodiment of the Ten Commandments, evidenced by His taking upon himself the bodily form of man - His becoming one of us. He commends those who are pure in heart, who follow the commandments of God. Those who practice their piety and faith, following the Law and the prophets, will naturally be lead to recognize Jesus for whom He is: the embodiment of the Law and the prophets.

As He appeals to His listeners, Jesus uses agricultural and pastoral images. He cautions His followers to beware of false prophets, of wolves in sheep clothing: the exploiter, the duplicitous, the four flusher, the one who preys upon the weaknesses of others. But how does one recognize one who is authentic and not a hypocrite? Jesus switches metaphors and speaks about good vines and good fruit. You know someone by the fruit of his/her labors: is there pride, hatred, anger, greed or abuse? Or is there love, charity, integrity, humility and faithfulness?

We all know individuals who may be theologically sound, but lack the virtues of faith, hope and charity. We all know those who have the right answer but the wrong attitude. By their fruits we know them. Jesus challenges you and me to be aware of the fact that in following Him, in being His disciples, we are required to put ourselves aside and to love our neighbors, or as some say, “See the face of Christ in the person before us.”

Now I want to tell you a story. Many years ago I was working in a big church. We were getting ready to host a convention. I was given the dubious honor of having to organize the whole thing: food, clothing shelter, program, etc. Now those of you who know me, know that I am not a dynamic leader, charismatic, one-man show, great organizer. So I formed a committee to do the work. There were about eight of us and we met, delegated responsibility and planned things. At the end of the session, I said, “I just want to say something, and that is this: it mattereth not (note the King James English) it doesn’t matter if we have the best whiz bang super convention ever in the history of the church, if at the end of the day we all are at odds with one another, are fed up with and can’t stand each other. What is most important is how we treat each other.” I truly believed that then and I truly believe that now.

Well, the upshot of it was that one of the leaders went ballistic. By gosh we were going to have perfection and not be embarrassed by mediocrity in our work. I got called to that person’s house and was bawled out for a solid hour. Now I can grovel very well. So I apologized for offending the individual, but repeated, “What is most important is how we treat one another.” The individual barely spoke to me for five years.

Irony of ironies, last week I got a call and was told how much I was missed by that individual, how the tenor and flavor of things had changed, and how important I had been in the life of that individual and the parish. I smiled and said, “Thank you.”

Now I tell this story not to aggrandize myself, but rather to say, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Yes, it is important to have good liturgy. Yes it is important to have sound doctrine and the correct interpretation of creeds and scripture. But to be a follower of Christ, to be a witness to the embodiment of the Law and the prophets, and of God Himself in Jesus, what really counts is how you and I treat one another, here, at home, in society, particularly in our public policies and in our constant attitudes and values.

Jesus is “the real thing.” Follow Him. Beware of false prophets. Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Mark those of whom the fruit of their labors is charity, compassion, hope, humility and integrity. Pray brothers and sisters, that you and I will always choose “the real thing.” May God grant that we will also always greet one another in the name of Christ, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Amen – Fr. Gage –

* “It’s the real thing.” Slogan for Coca Cola in 1971. Lyrics by Bill Backer, Billy Davis, Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway.