I remember when I first arrived here a little less than a year and a half ago; it was the beginning of March. I was excited to get to know you, the people I would be serving. I wanted to know who you are and what you care about. I was thankful that many of you took the opportunity to have a meal or coffee with me so I could learn more about your lives.
And I remain always thankful for the opportunity to listen to what’s on your hearts because I’m here to be your pastor and to help this congregation of St John’s grow into what God is calling it to become. I’m here to help St John’s discern how to live out its mission of serving God by serving our neighbors.
So, when I arrived here in early March, the ground was still frozen and most of the plants in the yard were dormant in some way – either brown or underground. Some small plants had just begun to pop their heads out, however – crocuses, snowdrops, the beginnings of all the tulips that Janet Vincent planted over 20 years ago. It was a feast during those first couple of months. I went out and walked around nearly everyday taking pictures, posting them to Facebook and Instagram.
As I got to know you and as the spring breezes warmed the air and the soil, all manner of things started growing. Now, I love houseplants and I’m pretty good with things in containers. But outdoor gardens are new to me simply because I’d always lived in an apartment – even as a child.
So, I watched as green things grew and I slowly started to realize that not everything was meant to be a part of the garden: some things were weeds and some things were “supposed” to be there. However, by this point, everything in the garden was growing so fast and my attention was focused on you – still getting to know everyone, still getting my head around everything that happens in the life of St. John’s.
So, I let the weeds grow. As you might have noticed. It’s a lot of space and a lot of garden for one person to manage. But still, it was only once things came to maturity that I could tell exactly what was happening. Now, we could argue whether this is patience or procrastination on my part. But I think the lesson is important: when we only know a little bit about what’s happening, we really have to wait and see before we go uprooting things.
So, we watch and we listen. And we wait patiently to see what will happen.
One of my favorite scenes from the movie The Color Purple is when Celie, a person of infinite patience, cooks breakfast for her cantankerous houseguest, Shug. Another character named Albert tried to cook Shug’s breakfast and he did such a bad job that Shug threw the breakfast out the door of her bedroom so that the food ended up on the wall of the hallway.
So Celie cooks a scrumptious breakfast, slowly slides it into the bedroom and jumps back out of the way, saying “I just stand back and I wait to see what the wall goin look like. See what kinda color Shug’s goina put on there now.”
We watch and we listen and we wait… until we have more information, until we can see a clear path, until we truly know the difference between the weeds and the wheat.
The parable of the weeds and the wheat, as articulated by the Gospeler Matthew, is an allegory, where each thing in the parable correlates directly to something else. As you heard Sue say when she read the Gospel, what we know is: the wheat is good and the weeds are bad. However, rather than jumping in too soon, it’s best to wait.
In order to preserve the wheat and gain the best possible harvest, it’s best to wait until things mature to discern the good from the bad.
Unfortunately, this is usually applied to people in a wholesale way – that a person is either good or bad. We end up calling people “bad eggs” or we believe that there is no redemption for people who have done bad things. That is, quite frankly, blasphemy.
It’s true that it’s hard for people to change, but they do. It is possible for people to stop thinking in immature, selfish ways and realize the impact of their behaviors on others and to live in ways that uphold the two greatest commandments: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
But even besides all of that conjecture about people being able to change, God never gives up on anyone. No one is ever beyond the love of God. I’ve often said, whenever we draw a line in the sand, Jesus is always on the other side of it. Every single time.
So, when it comes to interpreting this allegory, I believe the more truthful understanding is that we have both good and bad tendencies within us. (Harry Potter fans will remember that Harry’s godfather Sirius said this exact thing to Harry… not that Harry Potter is the gospel…)
Or, to be more generous, we have both helpful and unhelpful tendencies within us. Some days we are the weeds and some days and we are the wheat.
Much like the parable of the sower from last week, we always have the potential for goodness because we are inherently good. The whole of Creation is inherently good. We always have, within us, the possibility for being good soil. Often it comes down to the choice we make. And to make a choice, we need to discern.
If we apply this understanding to this week’s parable that we have, within us, the ability to be both the wheat and the weeds, then it’s incumbent upon us to continue maturing in our spiritual life so that we can better discern which parts of us are the unhelpful, toxic weeds and which parts of us are the fruitful wheat, capable of feeding others as well as ourselves.
This means we continue our efforts to learn to see through the eyes of Christ, rather than solely through our perceptions and limited understandings because preferences and opinions are often full of weeds. We never have the whole picture. But when we wait and listen and watch with faith in Christ, we are often surprised at the result. Something happens that we would have never expected.
And I know we don’t like it, but yet, we are sometimes asked to move through uncomfortable situations or be in relationship with people we label as “irritating” or “stupid” and listen and watch and learn rather than react. The situation always opens up. The other person always offers something that we haven’t thought of.
This is discernment. What do we do when things are unclear or uncomfortable? What else do we need to see? Who else do we need to listen to?
Rather than react out of fear or anger, how do we move thoughtfully, respectfully, and lovingly… holding the tension of a difficult situation? How do we hold a generous space to see what else might arise in us and in the situation we are facing? This is fruitful discernment.
Because while we are called to act in the world, we are called to listen more than speak. We are asked to watch for acts of goodness and kindness in others and recognize that sometimes we are wrong in our assumptions because we don’t have the whole picture. Not one of us has the whole picture. Because not one of us is God alone.
Things happen that we don’t like. People act in ways that feel hurtful and are disruptive to our sensibilities. But how do we respond rather than react? How do we hear a voice other than our own when we are truly lost, which is to say, when we are cloaked in our certainty?
There is a prayer in our prayer book on page 833. It’s a prayer that is always attributed to St. Francis because, as he spoke to birds and listened to animals, St Francis was the very icon of listening and watching, and waiting and hoping.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
And, just to reiterate something that I said a few moments ago, because it’s deeply, deeply important: I will always be thankful for the opportunity to listen to what’s on your hearts. It’s a holy thing to listen to others.
This prayer that I just said… it’s not just words to me. It’s how I try to live my life. It’s how I strive to be with others because I believe that when we listen deeply, when we seek to understand, it offers something that we aren’t often given in our current context of tv news and political pundits and opinions and reactions and snarky comments on social media… and that is the invitation to go beyond the weeds, those places of opinions and preferences, to go deeper into our hearts so that our inmost concerns and fears and hopes might be spoken and held as sacred.
How often are we given the space to be truly heard?
Being the priest means that I’m given the pulpit, that I’m called to teach and guide and continue to point to Christ but it’s never a one-sided conversation. I am well-trained and have experience but offer what I have and who I am in profound humility because I don’t have all the answers and this is God’s Table, not mine.
Listening to you and what’s on your heart is, ultimately, the only way I can be of service to you. So, just as I did when I first arrived here, I continue to welcome and cherish each opportunity to listen. Because I’m here to be your pastor. And I’m here to help guide this congregation of St John’s as we grow into what God is calling us to become.
May we all seek to understand. May we all seek to console.
May we all strive to see through the eyes of Christ.