Saturday, April 18th
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’
— Matthew 13:24-40
We are living through a most perplexing time, aren’t we? Where did this coronavirus come from, and how did it become so powerful that it stopped the whole world? Or, as in the story of Jesus, “Where did these weeds come from?”
Presbyterian pastor Patrick Willson, who inspired much in this meditation, tells a story from his childhood: When I was six years old I played on the most marvelous playground. As I remember it now, it was all mine, though certainly other children must have been around to play on it. I still see it through my six-year-old eyes and it stretches out forever behind our two-story house in Frankfurt, Germany, but I suppose, in truth it was only as big as several city blocks. I remember it as a place filled with wonderful things. I climbed up and over broken brick walls, and I was a cowboy standing on a mountain. I scaled enormous slabs of concrete that slanted out of the ground and found a dozen secret places that only I knew about. Raspberries grew on my playground, and gooseberries and red currants: I picked them right off the vine and ate them and stained my shirt with them. In a shoe box I collected little scraps of melted glass that littered the earth. You could find all kinds of things on my playground. One day I was digging in my playground and uncovered a little blue rubber motorcycle. I scraped the dirt away. The wheels still rolled. The little blue rubber motorcycle could have been mine. I knew it wasn’t. It belonged to someone else, to another little boy. It belonged to whoever had played on my playground before me. I wondered what had happened to that little boy, and as I wondered, a fact I had known, assumed and taken for granted slipped from the surface of my knowing into the very depths of my awareness. What I had dug up that day was not only a little blue motorcycle, but an awareness of the presence of evil in the world. My world. My playground, as you may have guessed, my six-year-old’s garden of earthly delights, was a bombed-out section of residential Frankfurt, not yet rebuilt in those years following the Second World War. The walls and slabs I ran on and jumped from were what were left of the houses families had lived in. Raspberries and currants and gooseberries grew there because years before hands had planted, pruned, and tended them. The globs of glass I collected were windows which melted in the fires, windows mothers had watched their children from and waved at them as they played. The little blue motorcycle I rolled across my palm had rolled in the hands of some little boy who had lived in one of these houses that were no more. What happened to the little boy, what happened to those families I did not know and could not know. What I came to know in that moment was that terrible things happened in this world, that evil also had played across my playground. In this garden there were weeds.
Patrick’s powerful story is a story that each of us could tell in our own way about that terrible moment when we lost our innocence about the world, when we realized that there were weeds in our garden. We discover that things are not as they should be, that something has gone terribly wrong. It may be in the private events of our lives that we make this discovery, through death or divorce or accident. Or it may be this current virus that has wreaked such havoc in our consciousness, forcing us to confront the dark reality of evil.
Jesus’ story for today deals with that, and the question of this parable, it seems to me, is not “Is there evil?” or “Where does it come from?”; the question is personal . . . “What do we do with the evil that is in our gardens?” As we discover the presence of evil in the world, we come to the shattering revelation that there is also evil in us. It’s not just “out there.” It’s not just that there are weeds in the garden; it’s that there are weeds in my garden, in me.
As we grow up, most of us make the terrifying discovery that we are a strange mixture of good and bad, selflessness and selfishness, fruit and weeds. Along the way we find that we can identify with Paul and say, “I don’t understand why I do what I do. Why, I do the things I most desperately don’t want to do!” We are complex creatures. Psychologists who follow the lead of Carl Jung speak of the shadow side of human existence, which is another way to say that if our lives have living rooms where we welcome other people, we also have unfinished basements others seldom see. In the living room everything is dusted and neatly ordered, but in the basement there are piles of matter and an aroma that smells of the past. This basement, this shadow side, these weeds in our garden, are part of who we are, and this unflattering part of us intrudes where we least want it.
But rather than dealing with this from a judgmental, despairing perspective, one almost certain to create waves of guilt that could overwhelm us, what if we looked at this as the challenge to be fully human as a follower of Jesus? What if our attention to the weeds is a means to the end and not the end itself? What if, in the ironic way of God, it is to help us realize that God hasn’t given up on us? What if one of the purposes of this parable was to encourage us to be patient with each other and ourselves, because God has not given up on us?
Biblical scholar James Sanders writes: It would seem that about 75% of the Bible celebrates the theologem: “errore hominum providentia divina” which means “God’s providence works in and through human error and sin.” And Sanders is right. Think of it a moment: Abraham, the liar and coward; Moses the murderer; David, the “peeping tom” turned adulterer; Solomon, with his taste for exotic women and their exotic gods; the Prophets’ crazed intensity; the Disciples and their grandiose hopes of being the greatest in the Kingdom of God. If God can harvest a crop of saints from such sinners, cannot we also trust God to harvest from us something that can nourish and sustain? If, with courage and honesty, we can look to our shadow side and declare the weeds in our gardens, perhaps we can also see that the Master Gardener can redeem that which is good and noble. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “God’s purpose is not wrathful judgment. God’s purpose is redemption, and the road to redemption is by way of reconciliation. Only in that way will the world finally be saved.”
I remember hearing a story about a woman on a business trip. In the taxi on the way to the airport the driver asked her where her home was. She replied, “Toronto.” He responded that he had grown up there. He asked her what she did, and she explained that she was a criminologist. “Oh,” he said, “then you would be very interested in my story.” He went on to tell her how he had grown up in the roughest of places in the city. It was a tale of one tragic happening after another. His mother had been murdered. He had been separated from his brothers and sisters. The story sounded unbelievable, and yet the woman could tell that it was true. Finally she said to him, “Well, how is it that you managed to break out of all that and do so well for yourself?” The cab driver answered almost reverently, “My grandmother took me to church. I attended Sunday School, and there was a teacher who really believed in me. She encouraged me, and she taught me that God believed in me. That’s how I made it to where I am today.”
Today, I need to be honest with myself, but also honest before God, who believes in me.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- In these days, Lisa has encouraged me to join her in cleaning out our closets. There are things we need to get rid of, and there are things we need to pay more attention to. It seems to me that this is also true in my personal life. Consider joining me as we do a spiritual spring cleaning, getting rid of those things that are not needed and holding on to those things that are.
- Pushing this self-examination a bit further, let us spend some time thinking of the weeds in our own gardens. What are those things that still cause us grief and guilt? Have we repented of those things? Have we personally tried to make amends for those things? Perhaps the time we now have might be an opportunity to make things right.
- Can you remember a moment when a person either asked for your forgiveness or offered you forgiveness? Can you lift that time up to God as a thanksgiving grace?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: May Sarton’s “Now I Become Myself”
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
‘Hurry, you will be dead before—’
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!