It is very good to be with you again – and to be here with you! It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since we gathered at St. Michael and All Angels. Your journey has been a long one, and in addition to grief and some despair at the beginning, it’s brought growth, maturation, and a deepened sense of interconnection with this community, this Church, and the world. Thank you for demonstrating what it is to be disciples and missionaries – that it means getting out there on the road as friends of Jesus, who, as Wisdom puts it, know that the righteous are kind and filled with hope.
Hope underlies Jesus’ story about weeds in the wheat field. No, he says, you can’t run out there and start pulling the weeds before harvest time, because you’re likely to pull up some of the wheat as well. The kind of weeds he’s talking about look a whole lot like wheat. So the farmer is stuck with the reality that if you want to harvest everything there is to harvest, you have to wait – it’s won’t increase your yield to try to weed the field before everything is ripe.
A friend and former staff member came to see me last week. Now he works with re-entry programs for parolees, particularly focused on young men under age 25. New York State releases something like 2500 prisoners every month, and nearly a quarter of them are youth and young adults between 16 and 25. The brains of kids that age aren’t fully developed yet, but in too many places we lock them up for minor crimes – and more serious ones. We also lock up a whole lot of mentally ill folks rather than provide effective treatment. That’s an awful lot of wheat being confused with weeds.
Religious institutions often react in the same way – and Christ Church certainly knows something about that. There is a strain in human behavior that wants to be absolutely clear about who’s in and who’s out, and we usually only want to let in people who agree with us. Too often we try to exclude people who make us uncomfortable or fearful – enemies, opponents, and those people, anyone who just doesn’t fit our idea of a proper human being. Jesus sits down to dinner with all sorts of others – public sinners, enemies of the state, and social reprobates. They’re all welcome at his table, because he sees wheat, not weed. He sees beloved child of God, someone who reflects divine creativity, and a potential friend. He has hope for continued growth. And that growth often comes in surprising ways – as some of you learned in exile.
What does it take to hope that a person might become more than we see at first encounter, or even before we meet somebody as an individual? What does it take to expect that God is still at work in another, that more is possible than we might believe? Do we expect that God is at work in us, expanding our vision and capacity for discernment? That hope and expectation is what prayer is most fundamentally about. Prayer starts in that yearning to recognize and experience the divine MORE – for ourselves, friends, family. Loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength can expand that prayer to include our enemies and the difficult people around us. Pray that God will do more than we can ask or imagine, in us and our neighbors. We need that kind of prayer in abundance – for the divisiveness in Congress, the stalemate in Israel and Gaza that is killing and terrifying so many, for the bitterness that remains in some who left this Church and some who remained, and for the strand in each of us that simply doesn’t want to engage someone who has hurt or threatened us.
God’s actually been working that kind of hope-filled newness around here for a long time. Christ Church was the site of the baptism of the first black person in Savannah – in 1750. Someone saw wheat in her, and the priest in this place concurred. There is still work to do, for not all the residents of Savannah are greeted and encouraged as joyously as we are meeting one another here this morning.
One of your ancestors, Juliet Gordon Low, saw wheat everywhere she looked, in rafts of little girls and not so little ones, at a time when girls and women were rarely accorded equal access to anything. There are signs of expansiveness on that score as well – even the Church of England is moving into a new place!
The ability to suspend judgment, and wait for the ultimate harvest, can be cultivated. It might even look like turning the soil in our own hearts, uncovering what is fertile and breaking up the manure so it can do its job, instead of plucking up still-growing plants. That kind of garden-tending certainly has something to do with keeping the field well watered, and life-giving showers of grace and roots that reach down deep into the fount of life.
There’s something about this parable that evokes very current ecological sensibilities. It’s really insisting that the health of one part of the system depends on all the others. If you pluck out the part you don’t like or want, the rest is going to suffer. The developed world is beginning to learn that our profligate use of antibiotics is making a lot of us sick and overweight, because we’re killing off good bacteria as well as dangerous ones. The good bugs keep us healthy, make vitamins for us, and help us digest our food. The weedy bacteria become more dangerous when they’re not balanced by others.
An emerging movement called One Health has begun to respond to diseases that have moved from their usual hosts in bats or pigs or primates into human beings – like HIV, Ebola, and influenza. Human beings have little resistance because we didn’t evolve with these microbes. They have in some sense been plucked out of their usual field and planted in new and unfamiliar human ones.
The realization that the health of the whole community depends on the health of each part, growing in its own way and context, isn’t just a scientific revelation; it’s an ancient teaching in our own faith tradition. Human flourishing depends on the other creatures – the plants and animals who provide our food, clothing, and shelter, recycle our waste and clean the water we drink. We are increasingly being challenged to understand that how we judge the other parts of our environment affects our own ability to live and to do so abundantly: is this weed or wheat? useful or waste? resource or dumping ground?
Loving God, and discovering the reign of God among us, has something to do with loving our neighbors, both human and non-human creatures, both those we recognize as human and those we have doubts about, both those we see as holy and those we’re sure are not. The very current tragedies around us – the Christians, Yazidis, and minority Muslims being pushed out of Iraq; the move to reject child refugees from Central America, the war between Abraham’s children in the Middle East – these are all attempts to weed the garden. It makes God weep, it makes God heartsick.
Creation is an intricate web of life, more complex, awesome, finely balanced, and exquisitely beautiful than any human being can possibly envision. So is the human community. The dream of God, the heaven on earth we pray for so earnestly needs all those parts, working together to build up the whole. Who are we to decide who’s fit for that dream and who isn’t? Let them and us grow some more – the harvest isn’t due yet. Give us hearts and eyes to discover God’s beauty in those we ignore or despise. Our salvation, our healing and wholeness, is bound up with theirs.
Tend the seeds of your own heart, water them with tears of lament and showers of grace. Cultivate an interest in a person or group who seems like a weed. This community of faith can teach the world about good gardening. We have tasted the bread of life – help the world hope for bread, and not weeds.