Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
“You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum.
You can strike up the march
There is no drum.
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee.
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
– from “Anthem,” by Leonard Cohen
I have laid waste my life in pursuit of a better past, grieving twenty-year old mistakes while ignoring my all too present sins. I am also – and by no means coincidentally – overly attentive to the sins of others, at least those sins I know from the inside, through personal experience. As the Twelve-steppers say about calling out failings in others, “If you name it, you claim it.”
The plain sense of Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds suggests a world in which the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one are distinct and readily identified, if not easily separated in this life. I trust that is sometimes – perhaps more frequently than I care to admit – the case. I hope those who can reliably tell wheat from chaff or sheep from goats benefit from this parable, reassured that God will identify and deal with each justly and in due time. We may all be grateful in knowing that’s not our job.
For now, however, we must accept that the weeds aren’t going anywhere soon. We can all pray to receive the necessary grace to love our enemies, despite the current climate of partisan rancor and public denunciation. We can all pray to resist the weight and pull of worldly ways.
Yet my own experience of good and evil reminds me of an insight from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (The Gulag Archipelago, Part I)
Perhaps it’s possible to read today’s gospel in the same way some read the imprecatory psalms (see, for example, Psalm 69, 109, or 137): recognizing the plain sense of asking God to deal justly with real external enemies, while acknowledging the equally real interior struggle in our hearts. We do this in other scripture passages as well. We rightly caution against reading Matthew 5:29-30:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
too literally, lest we spur zealous Christians to acts of self mutilation. In reading today’s gospel, we should beware of directing all our attention to motes in the eyes of others and miss the beam in our own. When we read the word with the mind and heart of the church, “…the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
If your heart, like mine, is a scrambled mosaic of desires and motives, then you, too, may have felt that blade’s’ sharpness more than once. If you, like me, have prayed for deliverance from the entangling weeds in your heart, then you, too, may share Paul’s shame over the unnamed thorn in his flesh. If so, you may also have welcomed God’s response to Paul regarding that “thorn”: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Please understand me. I’m not suggesting we blandly accept our sins as trivial quirks of character. The wages of sin remain death, even after Christ’s triumph over death. Though we remain in the world, we called to another standard. It is right and just to mourn our sinfulness, reject the ways of sin, and work against the wayward desires of our hearts. As Paul says in today’s second reading, we – and all creation – groan inwardly for redemption.
What I take from todays’ readings, however, is that we will not rid our hearts of deeply-rooted weeds in this life. If we read the verses in Romans just after this week’s portion, Paul reminds us that we don’t even know how or what to pray for, much less how to purify ourselves.
That’s the work of the Spirit, to which our contribution is consent, not self-improvement. Our battered hearts flee to God reluctantly, like refugees from a disastrous war, possessing nothing, in need of everything. Trying to weed our hearts through our own effort and on our own schedule will only fail. And, to borrow from the twelve-steppers again, we’re never “fully recovered” this side of the grave. We are always “in recovery.” The desire or addiction remains, yet we persevere with God’s help and the witness of those who know themselves to be flawed, broken, and in need of grace. Like the alcoholic who truly works the steps, some of us may come to see the suffering we bring on ourselves as the path to a gift we had no other way of receiving.
Great suffering and steadfast, self-giving love (which almost always entails suffering) remain the surest ways to awaken our desperate need for Christ. Both teach us how little control we have over anything. Both invite us to realistic self-assessment, an awareness of our own limits, flaws, and failures. A wise friend of mine who lives in a small monastic community told me recently “Don’t go looking for suffering, but when it comes to you, don’t waste it.”
The astonishing thing is that God uses our weaknesses and failures to turn our desires in the proper direction: toward God. They’re the crack in everything that lets the light in, the contradictions and flaws of character that draw us to the narrow gate. The only part of this we control is our response. I’ll tell you an even greater mystery: the same is true of everyone else, including the several whose visible offenses stir your passions. Knowing the wheat from the weeds may not only harder than we imagine. It may be harder than we possibly can imagine.
If this makes you a bit uneasy, you’re at least paying attention. This can be troubling news, especially if we expect our life in Christ to be easy, comforting, and brimming with certainties. The gospel passage in the Revised Common Lectionary leaves out verses 31-35, in which Jesus compares the inbreaking kingdom to a mustard seed sown in a field and yeast added to a great mound of flour. The mustard plant grows very quickly from a small seed, but had little use to the first century Palestinian Jewish farmer. It is, in effect, a weed. Yeast is what the observant Jew rids her house of in preparation of Passover. The New Testament typically uses leaven as a symbol of corruption. (See, for example, Matthew 16: 6,11-12, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, and Galatians 5:9) Yet these are what Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to.
Sin is painful. Sin is destructive. Sin spoils our feeble attempts at purity and righteousness. Sin is an immense waste of time and effort. And sin is with us at least until death. It will not be fully uprooted before then, lest we be uprooted as well. Yet the Spirit meets us in weed-ridden fields where we groan for redemption. That same Spirit, knowing the content of our refugee hearts, whispers “my grace is sufficient for you.” Pray that we’re ready to welcome these words when they come.