Cherish the ambiguity

Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. W. W. (Tad) Meyer
Assisting Priest

July 23, 2017

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

In his book The Road to Daybreak, the theologian Henri Nouwen tells the story of a four-year-old girl who came to her father very upset because she had found a dead sparrow in the front yard of the house that had apparently flown into a large plate glass window. Deeply disturbed and yet at the same time strangely intrigued, she pestered her father with questions. Where is the bird now? she asked, to which her father replied that he really did not know. Why did it die? she continued, to which he hesitantly answered that all birds eventually return to the earth. Inspired by this last answer, the small child decided to orchestrate a funeral. A shoe box became a coffin, a paper napkin a shroud and, of course, two sticks were tied together to make a crude cross. A procession was then formed with sister and father in tow and the dead bird was reverently placed in its final resting place. At the graveside, the father asked if the little girl wished to say a prayer. She said yes she would, and she lifted her eyes to heaven and said Dear God, we have buried this little sparrow. Now be good to her – or I will kill you. Amen. As they walked back to the house, the father told his daughter that she really didn’t need to threaten God. She answered that she just wanted to make sure that God was paying attention. As he reflected on this story, Nouwen observed how clearly it revealed the ambivalent depths of the human heart: deeply compassionate by nature but ready to strike out and kill whenever it is afraid or unsure of itself.

In his letter to the church in Rome, St. Paul tells us that the whole of creation is in labor pains and that we ourselves our groaning inwardly as we wait for God’s redemption. For some reason, I couldn’t help thinking of that little girl as I read those majestic words, that small child whose heart groaned as she experienced the world in travail through the death of a sparrow. In that same passage, Paul also tells us that it is through hope that we are saved, faith in things not seen that we must await with patience. That perplexed child wanted desperately to have faith and she gave that desperate desire tangible form, transforming it into the solemn language of devotion and ceremony. Yet, behind that bright hope, there rested the dark shadow of her despair which broke through that thin veil of her faith and gave voice to a threat hurled at the very font of all love: Now be good to her, or I will kill you. In her naiveté, that child spoke with candor and honesty, revealing an emotional dichotomy that is painfully human. Hope and uncertainty, faith and despair, they dwell side by side within the folds of the human mind and heart, struggling with each other for control of our consciousness. They rest within the soil of our souls like wheat and weeds, inextricably intertwined, struggling for space and sunlight and those struggles create within us inward groans as we await the coming of God’s kingdom.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of a householder whose field was sabotaged by an enemy who sowed weeds among his seeds of good grain. Unfortunately, in the early stages of growth, the weeds look very much like the wheat, and so by the time the ruse was discovered, the roots of the weeds were already intertwined with those of the wheat, a dilemma that every gardener knows all too well. The householder well understood that fact, knowing that if he ordered the uprooting of the weeds, much of his grain crop would also be destroyed. And so he told his slaves to let the matter rest until the time of the harvest when the reapers could separate the wheat from the weeds as they were taken from the ground. Jesus told this parable as an illustration of the day of God’s judgment, when the righteous would be separated from the evil-doers as they were taken from soil of earthly existence. It strikes me, however, that there is also an important lesson to learn here about the life of faith and about the inward groans of our minds and souls.

The fields of our hearts are places that nourish a similar botanical mixture. Among the good seeds of hope and trust, there have been sowed the weeds of fear, doubt and despair. Like the householder’s field, it is often difficult to discern which is the wheat and which is the weed, just as it often is in our own gardens. I remember being told jokingly by my mother that the only sure way to tell a weed from a flower was to pull it out and if it grows back, then it is a weed. We hope for the best, but secretly we hedge our bets, preparing our defenses for the possibility of disappointment. We hope with half a heart, trying to protect ourselves from the despair of disappointment. The frail shoots of our faith become entwined with the strong tentacles of our fears, our desperate need for certainty and our deep desire for security. Soon, we come to realize that we cannot remove the one without destroying the other, that our strengths and weaknesses have become two sides of the same coin.

We would, of course, prefer to live within a simpler and less cluttered world. We would like ruthlessly reorder the world, making it conform to our imaginary sense of certainty, order and decency. We would like to live within a reality where weeds were weeds and wheat was wheat and the two were clearly segregated and weeds easily extracted, but when we look into the beatings of our own hearts, we do not see order and simplicity, but complexity, ambiguity and ambivalence. When we hope, we know that doubt and despair are lurking just beyond our field of vision. When we move ahead with faith and confidence, we know that fear and anxiety are just one step behind, waiting for any lapse in our determination. We live within an ambiguous and confusing realm of conflicting emotions, ambivalent thoughts and feelings growing within the rich soil of our minds and hearts, and as we live with those opposing forces, we groan inwardly, praying for some sort of redemption.

I honestly believe that such redemption will come, but not on this side of the grave. Until that moment when we are enfolded by the graceful arms of Love Herself, we must learn to live within such ambivalence, seeking to find ways to deal creatively with that relentless tension. Implicit within our Lord’s parable, however, is hidden a subtle but startling message of hope, a message that calls us to exercise our faith in a way that will bring us the gift of patience and spiritual growth.

The plot of the parable rests upon the promise that the Lord will ultimately sort things out. Clarity will eventually emerge, and until it does, we must be like the householder, patiently enduring the ambiguity of the situation. We must accept the fact that our hearts and minds are filled with wheat and weeds, and that we live the majority of our lives in a world that is filled with shades of gray, not black and white, a world with far more problems than solutions. We must learn to live with ambivalence, paying close attention to the language of our fears and despair as well as that of our joys and delights, trusting that both can be vehicles of God’s grace. That, my friends, is what it truly means to exercise faith. Many people believe that the opposite of faith is doubt and so they seek with every fiber of their being to banish any doubtful thought or emotion, ruthlessly pulling up any weed that seems to be related to a lack of solid, firm, well-defined beliefs. But as G.K Chesterton so wisely pointed out, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. To live a life of faith is to dwell within all the ambiguity, ambivalence and uncertainties of our convoluted minds and hearts, all the emotional clutter that grows in the gardens of our souls, trusting that God is there, working the soil with the tools of loving grace. Our lives will always be punctuated with both joy and despair, trust and fear, aspiration and desperation – wheat and weeds. We cannot expect to be freed from such a hodge-podge of emotions nor can we expect it of others, particularly the ones we love the most deeply. We must open ourselves to the essential ambivalence of reality making a place for both sides of the coin within the confines of our souls. We must learn to cherish that ambiguity, trusting in our hope that God will provide clarity when the time is ripe. Until that time, we must allow the wheat and the weeds to grow together recognizing that through their mysterious interaction, our souls are being made. Like that perplexed young girl, there will be times when our lives will not make sense, when we will be torn by conflicting emotions that will make us want to threaten the Almighty. Yet at such moments, we must follow the example of the patient householder, knowing that what we are experiencing is the groaning of the spirit, the birth pangs of new life. Such patience can only be grounded in real faith, faith in things that can neither be seen nor completely understood. It is a faithful hope that the love and grace of God in Christ enters into all the messiness of our lives, all the ambiguity and ambivalence, separating the wheat from the weeds and gradually and imperceptibly revealing souls fashioned and formed by the inestimable gift of Incarnate love.