Redeemer, Cairo —Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, Romans 8:1-25,, Psalm 86
I grew up in Illinois—nearly as far away from Cairo as you can get and still be in the same state—in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Then I moved away fifty years ago to go to college and graduate school in California. Then I lived in Oregon for ten years, Wisconsin for three, Louisiana for five, back a different part of California for thirteen, and Indiana for three, before finally coming back to Illinois when I was elected Bishop of Springfield. There were a lot of nice things about returning to the state I grew up in, of course. But I was shocked and disappointed by one, at least, and that is how thoroughly corrupt Illinois politics and way too many Illinois politicians are. Corruption is hard-wired into the political culture of this state. It’s so much part of the environment that it goes largely unnoticed. But after being away for five decades, I noticed. It hit me like a brick wall. This gives a lot of us an uneasy feeling, but nobody seems to know quite what to do.
But it is not only political corruption that feed our uneasy feelings. The first spring that I spent back in Illinois, in 2011, this very community of Cairo was almost destroyed by flood waters. Only a decision by the Corps of Engineers to flood some farmland in Missouri instead saved Cairo. And now … now we’ve got not a localized flood but a worldwide pandemic of a virus that has killed 7,000 people in Illinois in less than five months. So we are keenly aware of evil in the natural order, and a voice deep in our hearts says, “This is wrong! It isn’t supposed to be this way! If God is God, why doesn’t he do something about it?”
But we don’t need to even think about the coronavirus or the possibility of a catastrophic flood in order to come face to face with our uncomfortable awareness that something is just not right. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, all we need to do us look into our own church communities, and we are confronted by that reality. We have all, at one time or another, looked for authenticity and found hypocrisy. We have all looked for depth and found shallowness. We have all looked for love and sincerity and found selfishness and manipulation. We are keenly aware of evil right within the fellowship of the church, and a voice deep in our hearts says, “This is wrong! It isn’t supposed to be this way! If God is God, why doesn’t he do something about it?” The garden of life is full of weeds—everywhere at every level. Why can’t God just make them go away? We’re like the author of Psalm 86, in whose words we prayed just a few minutes ago: “The arrogant rise up against me, O God, and a band of violent men seeks my life … Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate you may see it and be ashamed.”
And we’re like the farmhands in today’s gospel parable of the weeds among the wheat, who, as soon as they saw the unwelcome intruders sprouting along with the good grain, wanted their master to do something about it, to authorize them to rip the weeds out of the ground right away.
We can readily empathize with St Paul when he writes about the “whole creation … groaning in labor pains” while it “waits with eager longing” for the revelation of God’s finished work of redemption. We are annoyed and impatient with living in this interim time between the promise and the fulfillment, between the engagement and the wedding, between the down payment and closing of the deal. We’re impatient precisely because we’ve had a glimpse of the finished product.
Within the memory of the Christian community, handed on from generation to generation, is the knowledge of the crucified and risen Christ fixing breakfast for his friends on the beach. And within the present experience of that same community, the same risen Christ is sacramentally present, fixing breakfast for us at this table. Within the memory of the Christian community, handed on from generation to generation, is the knowledge of the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended with power on the assembled disciples and enabled them to proclaim the gospel with confidence and authority. And within the present experience of each of us who has been reborn in the sacrament of baptism, the same Holy Spirit is alive and empowering us to carry out the ministry to which we have been called.
We have these glimpses of the kingdom of heaven, of “the glory that will be revealed,” and on the basis of the little bit that we’ve seen, we want to see it all! We want God to do something, to rip off the veil and reveal the full glory of his kingdom right now! It is to such holy impatience that the parable of the weeds among the wheat is specifically addressed. The weeds in this case are probably something called darnel, which is a plant that looks very much like wheat during all the stages of growth, until near the end, when the actual head of grain appears. The field laborers are impatient and focused on the present. They want to attack the darnel as soon as they see it. But the farmer is patient, and takes a longer view. He knows that if he tries to get rid of the darnel right away, a lot of good grain will probably be lost in the process. He’s confident in his ability to sort the wheat from the weeds at the proper time, and he’s content to have an “ugly” field now in order to maximize his yield in the end.
The farmer reminds us of God’s patient disposition toward his work in our world. There are, indeed, weeds in the garden. God knows that. There are weeds in the natural order, weeds in the social and political order, and weeds even in the community of the church. But God also knows that to pull all the weeds right now would put the wheat—which includes us, presumably—at risk. God is patient—a patience, I might add, which may sometimes frustrate us, but which, more often than not, works to our benefit. God’s patient forbearance means that we have to live with political corruption and floods and racism and deadly diseases and everything else that falls short of the glory of his kingdom. But it also means that those of us who sometimes look and act more like darnel than wheat have the space in which to repent and produce the fruit that we know the farmer will be looking for at harvest time.
So let us give thanks that God takes a long view, and that he’s confident in his ability to sort the wheat from the weeds at the proper time. Those who make wine and beer and cheese will tell us that patience—the ability to resist the temptation to rush the process—is what distinguishes a mediocre result from and excellent one. The quality of what we have glimpsed but which is not yet fully revealed, the glory of things as they shall be, is founded on God’s patient forbearance with things as they are.
You and I can respond in one of two ways. We can remain steadfast in our impatience—”If it can’t be perfect now then I don’t want it at all.” If we make this choice, we plunge ourselves into a lifetime— indeed, an eternity—of bitterness and disillusionment. Or, we can share God’s own outlook. We can adopt his patient and forbearing attitude as our own. In doing so, we can rest in the knowledge that we are who we are, and God is who God is. We will, to be sure, continue to “groan” with the rest of the created order as we await the day of the Lord, the fulfillment of all that has been promised. But in the meantime, we live lives of hope and confidence and joy in the glory which we have glimpsed, the glory that will be revealed.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.