This Beautiful Mess

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Life is messy, and I am a person who likes order. I’ll never understand the people who do laundry and then leave the clothes in the dryer, as though there are elves who swoop in to fold the clothes overnight. Sometimes I’ll even set a timer on my phone so that I can stop what I’m doing to pull the clothes out while they’re still warm and fold them. Yes, I’m that kind of person. Something inside of me gets anxious when there are piles lying around or things not put away. It is physically painful for me to encounter the mess.  Folding laundry is a simple way to keep the mess to a dull roar, but there are plenty of other messes that aren’t dealt with as easily. We make messes of our relationships. Relational messes are so difficult. We make messes of our society. Do I even need to say more about the anxiety and trauma that is going on all around us? It’s like we’re swimming in angst. We want things fixed, and we want them fixed now! It’s a deep yearning within all of us, and because that yearning is not easily met, we find ourselves angry, frustrated, and sometimes despairing. Patience. It’s not just a virtue. Patience is a way we learn the forbearance of God, the one for whom time is relative and righteousness is paramount. Martin Luther King Jr. once observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” What does that mean? In the fullness of time, God is making all things right, but as we live in this point in history, we see so much that is wrong with the world. In this point in time we experience tragedy, injustice, and hurt. Knowing that God is going to clean up this mess at some point is helpful, but it doesn’t deny the reality of the suffering, hurt, or pain in this moment. We do what we can now, knowing that God will ultimately put things right.  On the heels of the parable of the sower, Jesus gives us another agricultural parable, although this one has an entirely different bent to it. This is a parable about the messiness of now. What is the kingdom of heaven like? It’s something we’d like to know more about, after all, we do pray for its coming into our midst each time we utter the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus tells us that it’s like this: A sower went out and sowed good wheat seed in his field. At night, when all were asleep, an enemy came along and sowed weeds among the wheat. No one is the wiser that both seeds are present in the same field until they begin sprouting. The people tending the field are confused. “I thought we planted good seed! What happened?” The sower tells them to have patience. Let the weeds and the wheat grow up together. Have patience. At the right time the weeds and the wheat can be separated.  So, what’s at root here? Well, the enemy sowed seeds known as “darnel.” These weeds resemble wheat as they grow. It would be harmful to the wheat harvest to pull the darnel out too early because there’s a risk that they’d pull the good stuff too. Also, the root systems of the wheat and the weeds are intertwined, so the pulling could kill the wheat before the harvest is ready. But, of course, there’s a danger in harvesting the darnel with the wheat because the wheat will be of no use, loaded up with darnel in it. This field is a mess with the wheat and the weeds, but the timing has to be right to deal with the weeds. Try things too early and the whole crop is destroyed. Do nothing about it and the product isn’t any good. Take care of the problem at the right time and the harvest is good and nurturing. The Lord knows the art of patience and timing.  Now, like the parable of the sower, this is another parable where Jesus offers a direct interpretation, which we find in verses 37 and following. In this interpretation, the sower is Jesus. The field is the world. The good seed are the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one. The enemy who sowed the weeds is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. With these details the meaning is the same – things are a mess right now but at the right time, God’s going to take care of the mess. Have patience, children of God. The time is not here but it will come at the right time. Live in the mess.  Through time there have been various interpretations of this parable. The ability to have a meaning that shifts with time and context is one of the beauties of Jesus’ parables. A few hundred years after Jesus, John Chrysostom theorized that the weeds were heretics – people who twist orthodox Christian belief – but since the master says not to uproot the weeds, Chrysostom asserted that Christians shouldn’t kill the heretics. How charitable of him! That’s probably not a reading we’d have today, is it?   Live in the mess. That still works today, but I’d like to take some time today to work on further interpretation since we are living 2000 years later in a totally different context. Patience for the early church feels different than it does for us today. They were expecting God to come do this harvest soon – perhaps within a generation or two – but here we are with so much time and history having passed since this teaching. Things are still a mess. What are we supposed to do with it?  There is a temptation to make the church a place of uniformity and purity. That temptation comes from a good place – if we believe we are right about something, then why would we give space to something we do not believe is right? In my ministry, I’ve seen these purity squabbles with frequency. They’ve particularly come over questions of sexuality and the place of inclusion within the church. They’ve happened before over women’s leadership as elders and pastors. They’ve happened over biblical inerrancy. Any quick survey of church history will show you the seemingly countless times that churches have divided over whatever the issue of the day is.  I think one reading of this parable for us today is this – the church is a mixed body. Just as Jesus is a perfect blending of divinity and humanity, so the church – the Body of Christ – is a mixture of saints and sinners. Every saint is a sinner. Every sinner just might be a saint. This is no perfect field of wheat. There are plenty of weeds in the field – even now – but the harvest isn’t ready. We’re not yet sure what is wheat and what is weed. What is more, in Jesus’ telling, the plants don’t perform any of the separating. That’s God’s job. And so, we grow side by side with each other in God’s field, doing our best to be what God wants us to be.  That’s what I love about Psalm 139. I find it to be one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible. It’s an intimate psalm about God’s knowledge of each individual. It’s one I come back to time and again because there are times when I feel misunderstood, but this psalm tells me that God understands me. There are times when I do things I regret, but this psalm tells me that God knows who I really am – and I hope it’s not the person capable of doing hurtful things! There are times when I am at peace, and this psalm reminds me that God loves me.  I believe God has this intimate knowledge of each one of us, whether we recognize that about ourselves or not. That means that God knows some of us act like wheat one day and weeds the next. God knows our hearts and plants us in churches together – as a mixed body – to turn into the kind of harvest God is looking for in the fullness of time.  That means I never want us to be known for our uniformity as a church. I don’t want us to be a conservative church or a progressive one. I don’t want us to be a church for people only of one social class. I don’t want us to be a church for the people who have put their lives together and not include those who are truly struggling. I want us to be a beautiful mess because that puts us in the position for God to turn us into what we really can be.  So, if we’re wheat and weeds growing up together and we don’t really know who is who, what should we do? As children of the kingdom, how should we behave while planted next to weedy folks? Remember, the weeds don’t threaten the wheat. The threat comes from how we react to those we think are weeds. If we try to uproot them, we uproot ourselves. If we try to burn them out of the field, the whole field burns. Rather, patient coexistence allows God’s harvest to become what it should become. So, we promote life and health for our neighbors, not labeling them as weedy or unworthy to be in our field.  We know that life is mixed too. “The world has places of wonder, but alleys of cruelty, too. Families cause deep pain as well as great joy. The church can be inspiringly courageous one moment and petty and faithless the next. Good mixes with the bad. ‘Where did these weeds come from?’ is a perennial human cry.” Perfection does not exist this side of eternity. Because that is true, we need to be constantly mindful about how we label others and ourselves. “That person is weedy and I am not” is a terrible mindset to go through life.  Yet we live in a divisive time of sides. Red states or blue states. Masks or no masks. Native or foreigner. Wolverines or Spartans. Yankees or Red Sox (baseball is back this week!). There are many things I wish we’d stop talking about, but I am finding that “sides” is among the most nefarious in our time. “Our side needs to fill the seats on the Supreme Court!” “Our side needs to hold up this bill, so that their side loses.” I’m sick of the sides.  We’re all in this field together. The field is at its healthiest when all the plants are sharing the nutrients and soil. The field thrives when the plants aren’t separating the wheat and the weeds (that’s God’s work!). The field thrives when we look at our neighbors and think, “How can I support and care for you?” not “How can I clear you out because I think you don’t belong?”  Life is messy. But it can be a beautiful mess. Church is messy, but it can be a beautiful mess. The church could be a model for how we live into our beautiful messiness, particularly in a world that so quickly wants to divide the wheat and the weeds. Even in this season we believe that God is caring for us.