When I was growing up I had a cousin I was very close to. His father and my father were brothers - very close - and our two families spent a lot of time together. We got together at one point or another it seemed nearly every weekend. We occasionally vacationed together. I was the oldest in my family and my cousin the oldest in his. And even though he was three years my senior we hung around and did things together. I looked up to him because he was older and more worldly. And he always had a willing and dedicated cohort in me.
When he was in junior high I remember him inviting me to his bedroom one day. He was acting very secretive as we went in he quietly closed the door. He opened his dresser, pulled out a box and opened it to show me he had cigarettes. I was crushed. My father was a chain-smoker and I absolutely hated it. I was so disappointed that my cousin was now smoking. And while I'm sure at the time it was one of those experimentation things that most adolescents go through, I was certain it was the beginning of his journey on the road to ruin. As it turned out I wasn't very far from being wrong.
From that time on my cousin and I drifted apart, and over the next few years he did travel down that road. He stole. He fought. What started out as harmless pranks turned into serious property damage. He began drinking. And he fought some more.
We had never been in the same school until I reached high school. By that time we rarely saw one another, and the closeness we had had as young boys was gone. He was physically gone from the school when I got there, but his presence was gigantic. Every teacher that called my name in roll or met me for the first time asked me if we were brothers, or were related. It was immediately clear to me I was being judged by the horrible reputation he had for abuse and fighting there at the school. I remember I got so tired of people asking me if we were related my stock answer became "Yes, unfortunately." It was the only way I could think of to distance my name and myself from his bad reputation.
I think of my cousin when I read the passage from Luke's Gospel that states "For every tree is known by its own fruit." I was known - if just for a short while - by the tree that also produced my cousin. And as much as we may try to use old sayings in describing people like my cousin as the "bad apple" or the "black sheep of the family" it didn't lessen the impact on our family name, a name that for many people already conjured up images of alcoholism or hooliganism or abuse. And fighting against those misconceptions took a very long time.
We are known by our own fruit. Whether it's the fruit of our labors or the company we keep or the way we operate in the world. It's how we're known. And it goes well beyond saying the right things at the appropriate times. We have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I can't help young people develop their prayer lives if I'm not spending time in prayer myself. I can't help people understand the importance of slowing down, taking a break, being at peace if I don't see to my own needs for rest and rejuvenation. I can't journey with people in their relationship with God if I'm not actively working on that relationship myself. I can't help others understand the importance of participation in the sacraments if I'm not coming to the Eucharist in awe and adoration myself.
In that passage from Luke Christ also talks of the importance of building a strong foundation. And for us that foundation is built on prayer and the sacraments. Each one of us has to build a strong foundation upon which rests our faith. And then like a tree our faith can grow and flourish and bear good fruit. And it is by that fruit we will be known.
I pray for my cousin. I pray for all those that stray from the path. I pray for those that need help finding their way back to God. But most of all I pray for myself. I pray that God gives me the strength and understanding to continue to grow and thrive in my own faith. I pray that in times of darkness God lights my path so that in some small way I may help light the path of others. I pray that what I do may be pleasing to God, and for forgiveness when it is not. I pray that we all can always be people that listen to Christ and act upon His words. And in doing so, we will all be known by our fruit as faithful children of God.