A sermon preached on 6th Sunday after Trinity, 23 July 2017, Proper 11 yr A, by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer.
A story of a wheat field deliberately laced with weeds. Agricultural sabotage, clearly the work of a cereal offender. Patience, says the farmer to his workers who want to pull the weeds out straightaway: live with the tangle for now, and sort it at harvest time; do it before then and you’ll damage the wheat as you pull up the weeds. A story about the mixed-up nature of life and our frustration with it.
You know that impatience to solve the problem. Many think there’s money to be made out of it: companies titillate that impatience by having the word ‘solutions’ in their name, with its lure of sorting something once and for all. A brief online trawl shows nineteen local businesses sporting the S-word in their name: a stone’s throw from here you’ll find people offering pest solutions, independent living solutions, removal solutions, solutions to your waste worries, your hypnotherapy needs, and your building bugbears. The ambitiously-named Salisbury Solutions promises to deal with everything. Don’t just manage your problems, solve them. Job done.
But these weeds defy the quick fix. They present a problem we often confront: how to deal with the bad when it’s tangled up with the good. Take those two perennial human occupations, killing and healing. Both devote vast resources to this issue, smart medicine seeking to attack malignant cells without harming the good ones, and smart weapons trying to do the same with people.
All this shows how these parables of Jesus have a way of coming up fresh in each generation, but there is a more troubling topicality to this one: it is not just about how complicated life is, it’s about wrongdoing, evil. ‘An enemy has done this,’ says the farmer.
In the heightened atmosphere after the September 11th attacks, Tony Blair spoke expansively of striving until we had ‘rooted out evil’ from the earth. In May this year - sixteen years on - it was reported that MI5 was looking at 3,000 potential terrorist suspects; an unprecedented number, but still not a huge one, equal to a decent crowd at a county cricket match. So why not just sort it, and pull them all in? Because our system - rightly - requires evidence; because each of these people may be a cell in a larger organism, and it can be better (though risky) to let their plans grow closer to fruition; because they are embedded in neighbourhoods where the vast majority are good people, and pulling the weeds will harm the wheat; because nothing is simple. Meanwhile, the root cause of ‘radicalisation’ (note the farming language) is beyond any solution of the Security Service.
Let the wheat and the weeds grow together, says the farmer, until the harvest. But when will that be? And how are we to live meanwhile?
This is not just about the headline extremes of life. You will know, in the places where you work or learn or live, how wheat and weeds grow side by side. The mixture is even in our own hearts - good crop bad crop, their roots bewilderingly intertwined. A patently good deed can come from a tangle of motives: genuine friendliness woven with a desire to influence; generosity twisted together with the hope that one good turn will deserve another; well-meant criticism bound up with jealousy, like bindweed round a rose.
Let the wheat and the weeds grow together, says the farmer, until the harvest. But when will that be? Why not now?
That seems to be the question on the lips of many who hear about Jesus. In a place where the vast majority live in acute poverty, where there is little medicine and that only for the rich, everyone is talking about a freelance rabbi and saying things that make it sound like God’s harvest, the moment of sorting it all out, is now: sick people are being healed, poor people are hearing good news for a change, and all this is happening wherever Jesus is. When I think of Jesus and that Galilean springtime, the line of the Belinda Carlisle song comes to mind: 'You make heaven a place on earth.’ What were his first public words? ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
The heightened atmosphere around Jesus suggested to some that the rooting out of evil was going to be there and then. But what God was doing in Jesus was something less straightforward than closing one messy chapter of history and opening a new one, pure and simple. Jesus healed some people - but not all; some had their lives transformed - others did not; his own disciples lived with him - looked glory in the face every day - and sometimes they still didn’t get it; one of them sat at his table, and then handed him over to his death.
So Jesus’ own field of operation was itself a tangled place, in which God’s future was invading the present - but not everywhere. Two millennia on, it is still like that. The eye of faith sees something that makes you say, ‘God is at work here.’ Good; but why here and not there? Why her and not him? In the reading, Jesus offers the disciples an explanation of the story and tells them that there will indeed be a sorting out of all this - but not yet. And meanwhile, we have to live.
The character of that living is what Paul describes this morning. He talks about us having the first fruits of the Spirit, foretastes of what is to come. These glimpses of God’s future can come in various ways. It may be a sense of completeness during prayer or worship, or the moment of resolution in a piece of music. It could be an hour with a friend that is just perfect; or a piece of work - from painting a picture to baking a cake - that comes out just right; or a difficult conversation that unexpectedly produces - yes - a solution. Glimpses of the glory to be revealed; but only glimpses. For the rest, says Paul, it’s a life of longing, groaning, waiting, hoping.
Here, though, we can do something with this longing. Today, as on every Sunday, we offer up bread and wine - the stuff of our lives - and receive them back in the Holy Communion. And today, as on every Sunday, any of us can go to the North Transept, offer our longings to God, and then receive the laying-on of hands or anointing with oil and prayer. God leaves none of us untouched in these encounters, but chooses us afresh in the tangle of our lives, chooses us as agents of his will. Sometimes we are invited to be signs of God’s future, and sometimes to be patient waiters in the present, which belongs to God as well.
What God calls us to embrace may be just what we want, or its opposite. And why it’s different for me and for you remains a real question. We try to make sense of it - and we must - but that only gets us so far. In the words of RS Thomas,
There are questions we are the solution
to, others whose echoes we must expand to contain. (‘Emerging’)
Paul’s image for this state of engaged waiting on God is that of prolonged labour. It’s not something he has directly experienced, but he knows that is how this all began, when (as he puts it elsewhere) ‘in the fullness of time God sent his Son, born of a woman.’ (Galatians 4.4) We think of that moment, that other announcement that a birth is on the way, and another person who, in a tangle of unanswered questions, embraces the purposes of God: ‘Here am I,’ says Mary, ‘let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1.38)