Monday, July 21, 2014

Sowing & Gentleness

After six years in my house on Saratoga St. I now mark time by weeding seasons.  I don’t need a calendar to know what time of the year it is.  All I have to do is check out the crop of weeds that is coming up.  I have winter weeds that must be pulled by early spring, spring weeds that make their way up as soon as the winter weeds are gone, summer weeds that keep coming back every time it rains, and fall weeds that fill in the beds when everything else is shutting down.  During times of heavy growth I weed until the trash can is full and then hold off until the next Tuesday when garbage truck comes by to empty it.  As I work in the yard I am mindful of the old quip that goes weeds always win because they get to bat last.  It is summer now, which means crabgrass is everywhere.  The humorist Dave Barry observed that crabgrass can grow on a bowling ball in an airless room.  I don’t doubt that at all.

Weeds play a central role in today’s Gospel reading.  The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who sows good seed in a field, but at night the enemy comes and sows weeds.  When the wheat comes up so do the weeds.  What should be done about it?  Nothing.  In attempting to pull up the weeds the crop too will be damaged.  Best to wait until the harvest to sort it all out.

That there are “weeds” in this world there can be no doubt.  All you have to do is take a casual glance at the news to confirm it. 

Earlier this week Sally Duncan posted a link to a New York Times article on the refugee crisis coming out of Honduras.  Gang violence there has gotten so bad that some teachers have to pay a “war tax” in order to be allowed into the school were they work.   The article chronicles the experience of several Honduran children, including 14-year-old Carlos Baquedano S├ínchez.  His home is a shack made of corrugated tin in a neighborhood known as “Little Hell.”  When he was seven he went to work in a dump picking through garbage in order to find iron and copper to recycle.  He makes only a dollar or two a day, but older boys often beat him to steal his haul or his pay.  Typically, Carlos goes without food at least two days a week.

He is under constant pressure to join local gangs and sell drugs.  When Carlos was nine he barely escaped two gangs that tried to rape him while terrified neighbors looked on.  He has known eight people who were murdered and seen three people killed right in front of him.  He dreams of being an engineer or mechanic, but quit school after the sixth grade because he was too afraid to go there.  Carlos told the reporter that “a lot of kids know what can happen in school.  So they leave.”

The Episcopal Church is responding to the crisis of unaccompanied refugee children crossing our border by offering humanitarian aid through local churches.  Children are being fed, clothed, and sheltered while the legal and political processes play out.  I realize this is a sensitive issue that creates tremendous debate in our country, but even if you hold that these “illegal immigrants” should be rounded up and put on a bus back to where they came from, surely as a Christian you support our church’s efforts to make sure they go with clean clothes and a bag lunch.

Shift the field from our southern border to Gaza City.  Did you know that the Episcopal Church has a diocese in Jerusalem?  Did you know that the Diocese of Jerusalem maintains a hospital in Gaza City?  Even though the hospital has suffered structural damage from airstrikes, the staff has maintained a round the clock presence to care for the wounded.  Their food, fuel for generators, and medical supplies are running out.  Abigail Nelson, Senior Vice President for Programs at Episcopal Relief & Development (who I have met at the conferences I have attended), is quoted in a press release as saying,

“We are helping our partner in Jerusalem care for those most vulnerable, particularly the injured and women and children affected by the airstrikes in Gaza.  Our assistance will help the hospital provide life-saving treatment and compassionate aid, and our prayers are with them as they carry out their work in very difficult conditions.”

The Bishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem points out that this hospital provides care to the community regardless of faith or ability to pay, including counseling support for patients and families severely affected by the violence.  He writes, “Civilians exposed to heavy bombing have been killed, injured, traumatized, in some cases left homeless and without food.”  He also notes that some children have lost their entire families.

When I read about Malaysia Flight 17 or about the situations in Honduras and Gaza City the weeds in my own yard don’t seem to matter much.

Like other parables, the one we read this morning neatly divides people into one of two groups – children of the kingdom and children of the evil one.  I find that in life such distinctions are not always so clear.  While we can name certain actions as right or wrong, the person doing the acting is much more complex.  The “field” that is them contains a mixture of wheat and weeds.  And if we are born into this world basically being like an empty field, what grows in us is largely dependent on the seeds that are sown in us.  We are also influenced by the “fields” around us.  It is tough to bring in a clean harvest if you grow up in a field surrounded by weeds.  Those seeds have a way of spreading.

If you used today’s parable to construct an ethic for dealing with evil, you would conclude that the best solution is to do nothing; to let good and evil grow side by side until the final judgment where God will give to each his or her due.  And while it may be true to the teaching of this particular parable, that does not strike me as a very good ethic. 

It is better to see this parable as a part of an intricate tapestry created by all the stories and teachings in the bible.  It provides one unique element to a much broader, fuller, and complete response to evil.  I hear it saying that we must be gentle with sin.  Not soft, but gentle.  Some in the Christian tradition obsess about every little sin.  They see nothing good anywhere, but focus only on the bad.  They cannot see the shine through the tarnish.  Those people who approach others in this way, but not themselves, we call hypocrites.  Those people who see themselves only in this dark light we call tormented.  Those people who can live with their own imperfections and abide with the imperfections of others we call gentle.

I have noticed something about weeding in my beds over these last few years.  As the plants I put in take hold they begin to spread.  The Black-eyed Susans, for example, have more than doubled the land they cover.  As a result, there is less and less to weed each year.  As I said, being gentle with sin does not mean being soft on it.  The more you cultivate what is good in your life, the less opportunity what is bad will have to thrive. 

The good Lord continues to work on me, thankfully.  Last Tuesday I met some friends for dinner in downtown Hampton.  As I walked back to my car I passed a gentleman sitting in a folding chair outside a restaurant.  I said hello to him and he to me.  And then he asked if I could spare some money for a homeless person.  “Not tonight,” I said without breaking stride.  “God bless you,” he said as I walked away.  “God bless you,” I replied without looking back.

Several weeks ago we had a young man visit our church on Sunday morning looking for food and money.  He has been here before and, because his demeanor is somewhat angry and confrontational, he has not been warmly received – especially by me.  Well, on this particular Sunday he sat on the bench in the Parish Hall and I sat near him to make sure he behaved himself.  At one point Kitty Quillin sat down next to him, put her arm around him, and said, “You look like you are having a hard day.”  “I am,” he responded.  And although their conversation was brief, for me it was life-changing.  Through her act of kindness, compassion, and gentleness I realized that I had failed to see the humanity of this person.  He has been back a couple of times and I have also run in to him around town.  I am trying now to engage him as a child loved by God, not some problem I need to protect this church from.

Back to Hampton.  As I walked to my car, I thought about Kitty’s act and the man I had just passed.  I drove back to where he was sitting, got out of my car, and apologized for the dismissive way that I treated him.  I told him that he did not deserve that.  I asked how long he had been homeless and he told me a little bit of his story.  I told him a little bit of mine.  I asked if $5 would help and he gratefully received it.  “My name is Keith,” I told him.  “I’m Kevin,” he responded.  “Kevin,” I said, “It is good to meet you.  I will keep you in my prayers.”  “Keith,” he said, “I will pray for you.”  I’ll let all of you decide who needs prayers more.

I try to be gentle with myself and I hope this is a helpful witness for you to hear.  I am not at all satisfied with the weeds in the field that is me, but I can’t begin to describe how grateful I am to have my heart broken open so that a new crop of compassion and kindness can be sown.  None of us is perfect, but I suspect most of us are trying to be better people – trying to live into the vows we make through our baptismal covenant with God.  Today’s parable suggests that we should nurture what is good in us and be gentle with what is not.  It is a long time before the harvest and there is much that is good growing in each one of us.