Monday, July 18, 2005

The Rocky Soil of our Hearts (Proper 11, Year A)

Today’s gospel reading follows naturally from last week’s parable of the sower. Last week we were told that God spreads the good news of the kingdom as a farmer scatters seed. However, about three fourths of the seed perishes for one reason or another. Only about one fourth lands in good soil and flourishes. This week Jesus tells us that even where seed flourishes weeds will also flourish.

The meaning of this parable seems to be that it is not up to us to decide what is a weed and what is a wholesome plant. In other words, God alone is the judge of the heart. I cannot know your heart and you cannot know mine. But God does know the heart and there will be a day of reckoning. Now what I like to believe is that on the day when God separates the weeds from the wheat, the surprising thing may be not that there are so many weeds but that there is far more wheat than we ever knew. But then, I’m an optimist!

William Temple who was Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II once said, “If I get to heaven [note that he said if not when] my first two questions will be: What are you doing here? And where’s old so and so?”

I’d like to offer three applications of this parable: the political, the personal, and the ecclesiastical.

The bombing in London and the larger war on terrorism is still much on my mind. This week British PM Tony Blair spoke to the House of Commons about “uprooting evil.” Blair is a practicing Christian, and I wonder if today’s gospel reading occurred to him when he used those words.

The gospel tells us that in trying to “uproot evil” we may also uproot much that is good. In every war there is so-called “collateral damage.” That is the euphemistic phrase we apply to the killing of non-combatants: children, the elderly, and so on.

A straightforward and un-nuanced application of this parable would seem to warn us against doing anything at all about uprooting evil, but I think that would be a mistake.

When he was president Jimmy Carter often quoted a phrase by Reinhold Niebuhr: “It is the sad duty of a politician to administer justice in a sinful world.” It’s a good phrase. This week I would paraphrase it like this: “It is the sad duty of a politician to distinguish the weeds from the wheat and pluck up and burn the weeds before they choke and kill the wheat.” And from the beginning of time until now there has never been a public official who has completely succeeded in doing that. Virtually every application of force in the defense of the good will do at least some harm to the innocent as well as the guilty.

Think of World War II. I cannot think of any war that was more justifiable than the Second World War. And yet even in that conflict many innocent people lost their lives. That did not make the war unjust. It simply meant that the price of justice was costly.

Jesus’ parable teaches us that the price of justice IS costly. If we wade into the field with our machetes, plucking up the weeds and burning them, we will destroy at least some of the wheat, too. The parable’s prohibition against plucking up the weeds applies primarily to the church. But in the larger field, the field of the world, Jimmy Carter and Reinhold Niebuhr’s admonition applies. Politicians and elected leaders do, in fact, have the sad and difficult duty of trying to distinguish the weeds from the wheat, of nurturing and cultivating the latter and restraining or destroying the former.

My one caution to PM Blair and Pres. Bush and others is that they must always administer justice with humility and great care. If it is necessary to separate the weeds from the wheat, then we must do so fully aware of the cost that will be paid by the innocent.

The second application of this parable I offer is the personal. Last week I suggested that the four destinations of the seed may all be inside each of us. Similarly, I believe that weeds and wheat grow side by side in our hearts.

One of the early church fathers spoke of ploughing the rocky soil of the heart. How true that is! The soil of our hearts is rocky and (as Jesus reminded us last week) thorns are as likely to grow as wholesome plants. But sometimes we want to pluck up what we think are weeds but which turn out later to be lovely flowers.

Each of us is a combination of light and darkness. The psychologist Carl Jung spoke of the “shadow side” of the human personality. The great Jewish book of wisdom the Talmud says that great people have great impulses. These impulses can be harnessed in both positive and negative ways.

Pres. Clinton is a good example. I am told that he is a man of enormous charisma. A friend who met him told me that every eye turns to Clinton when he enters a room. Obviously, he is capable of using this charisma positively and is presently doing so in his capacity as a fundraiser for victims of the Asian tsunami. But just as obviously he can also abuse this great personal magnetism

Or consider the emotions and feelings that we all possess. Happiness, sadness, anger and the other human emotions are what make us human. As such, they are God’s gifts and are good. But each of them can also be abused. The capacity for happiness can turn into the obsessive quest for pleasure. Sadness can become depression. And anger can become hatred. But if we were to rid ourselves of all emotions and feelings we would become something less than fully human. In the field of our hearts, we need to be careful not to burn the wheat along with the weeds.

Finally, there is the ecclesiastical application of this parable.

Do you know the story of the man who was stranded on a desert island for many years? When he was finally rescued, they noticed that he had built 3 shacks on the island. “What are those shacks?” they asked him. “Well,” he replied, “this is my house and this is my church and the one over there is the church I used to go to.”

Someone once said that the church is like the ark: if it weren’t for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the stink inside! As churches go, the Episcopal Church and its fellow churches that make up the Anglican communion, may be more like the ark than most other churches.

I remember talking to a young Roman Catholic man several years ago. He asked me what Episcopalians believed about the eucharist, and I explained that some of us believed this and others believed that. Then he asked about the pope… and abortion.. and so on, and in each case, my answer was the same. Finally, he stopped asking questions and we both had a good laugh.

There are 2 fundamental mistakes we make about the church. The first is to believe that there are no tares or weeds, that one plant is as good as another. Plainly, this is not true. Not everything growing in the field is wheat. There are weeds that can choke the wheat. The other mistake is to believe that we can distinguish the wheat from the tares in the here and now. But not all cats are gray. There is right and wrong and what we believe matters.

Anglicanism is a huge umbrella which can tolerate a wide array of opinions or to change the metaphor, Anglicanism is like an enormous rubber band. It can stretch to include a sometimes bewildering array of people and ideas and causes but Anglicanism is not infinitely elastic. At some point the rubber band may break.

Some believe that the election of Gene Robinson to be bishop of New Hampshire was such a breaking point. That with his election the rubber band snapped. Others believe that Bishop Robinson’s election is a hopeful sign for people who have not been invited to the table.It is not for me to tell you what to think. Reasonable people can have diametrically opposed ideas about Bp Robinson and what he represents.

My personal opinion is that the kingdom is wider and different than any of us realize. But I also believe that there is a doctrinal center to the Christian faith and we must proclaim and hold fast to that center and that we relinquish it at our peril. But I also believe that there is more to it than doctrine.

Humorist Garrison Keillor grew up in a small fundamentalist sect in northern Minnesotat that he calls the Church of the Sanctified Brethren. The Brethren were always fighting over obscure doctrinal points. He says that no sooner would they form a quartet, than they would discover that one member of the quartet was unorthodox on some point of doctrine, and they would be back to a trio.

When Keillor first went to a Lutheran church he was amazed by the size of the choir. He was certain that there must be some members of the choir who were not absolutely orthodox in their theology and wondered why the choir tolerated heretics singing the praises of God.

I’m not prepared to say that everyone belongs in the choir, but I am prepared to welcome anyone who sincerely desires to sing God’s praises.

The parable of the wheat and the tares reminds us that we cannot tell the difference between the healthy, nourishing wheat and the noxious weeds. For now, they look pretty much the same to us. Some of the things we think are weeds may be wheat and vice versa.

Whether the field is the world, our hearts, or the church our task is to tend the field, to sing in the choir, and perhaps to appreciate the beauty of the field without deciding what is wheat and what is goldenrod. God doesn’t ask us to be perfect, just faithful.