The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 20, 2014
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church – Wilmette, Illinois
I don’t know what weeds look like in Chicago. And I don’t know what grows back.
My grandfather was a master gardener in Oregon. He taught me something about planting and picking, about sowing and thinning. And sure, some things are recognizable – a dandelion here looks like a dandelion there. But things grow in Oregon that don’t grow here, or don’t grow as easily – rhododendrons tend not to reach people’s rooftops in Chicago; I haven’t seen blackberries growing at all here. In Oregon, people regard them as an invasive species, a noxious weed; one of my otherwise conscientious and tender-hearted neighbors told me I’d have to resort to a supertoxic combination of Roundup and motor oil to address the blackberries in our yard.
The two years we’ve been here in Wilmette have really been John’s and my first chance to get our hands back into soil we can return to, since leaving our home in Oregon for seminary in 2006. I’m learning, again and still, with this new season. We have planted asparagus and rhubarb, harvested our first tomatoes and zucchini, discovered the rabbits are undaunted by the height of our raised beds – raised not nearly high enough to stop them eating our strawberries and green beans. I have learned that sweet alyssum re-seed themselves…that cosmos, sadly, do not.
And I have learned that, at first flinch, I can’t always tell which is weed and which is flower.
“Let both of them grow together until the harvest,” the sower says in Jesus’ telling of the parable. Let both of them grow together.
The sower doesn’t spend a whole lot of time puzzling over who the enemy is, gone scattering weed among the grain. He doesn’t grow ponderous over the nature of evil in that place, the how and the why. He doesn’t tell the servants to go tear out everything not planted by himself, which might purify the harvest if it didn’t destroy all the growth in the process.
“Wait,” he says. “Let them both grow together until the harvest.”
I find myself holding that thought with Jacob’s words from today’s first reading. After sleeping with his head on a rock, after dreaming a vision of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending, he wakes up, and says, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.”
“Surely, God is in this place.”
“Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”
It’s interesting, holding up Jacob as an icon of this passage…Jacob, who is himself (as we all are) quite a mixture of grain and weed. He’s cunning, tricking his brother out of his birthright, conspiring with his mother in a scheme to steal the blessing intended for Esau. And he is also faithful, as we hear in his words from today’s lesson – “Surely God is in this place.” Jacob’s God is our God – the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob…and Leah and Rachel. He himself is a testimony to the need for those things that are good and life-giving to grow up among those things that are not-so-good, even potentially destructive, until the harvest. Because they’re all entwined together, in Jacob…in us.
Our own patron saint, Augustine, spent a great deal of time and energy addressing this matter. As a Manichean himself, he lived with the dichotomy between good and evil. As a theologian, he contended with the Pelagians, who thought that if they just tried hard enough, they could overcome evil all by themselves. As a priest and bishop, Augustine argued against the Donatists, who taught that a priest ordained by a bishop, who was himself judged insufficiently loyal to the church during persecution, had not really been ordained a priest…which meant that communion celebrated by a priest judged to be not really a priest, had not really been communion.
In the end, Augustine taught consistently with the lesson of this parable. (He was, after all, converted in the midst of a garden – perhaps he knew something of the nature of weed and grain and growth.) Augustine gives us the classic definition of the Church as a mixed body: corpus permixtum. “It is impossible to maintain absolute holiness in the church,” he writes. “Unholy action by a member does not disable the possibility of future holiness.”
“Let both of them grow together until the harvest,” the sower says.
“Surely, God is in this place,” Jacob says.
We cannot always tell which is weed and which is grain. And I think there’s something both seductive and unhelpful about spending lots of time and energy pondering who might have done this, and attributing motive accordingly. There’s something both seductive and unhelpful about asking questions of whom God will accept, and why – about whom God will not accept, and why not. Because it seems that as soon as we pose those sorts of questions, we have put ourselves in the role of arbiter, determining “the wideness of the church’s welcome.”
Instead, I wonder if this parable might be calling us to live into a kind of ambiguity that is at the same time both purposeful and wise.
Because here’s the thing – the sower sowed with good seed. And now weeds have been sown alongside. But tearing out the wicked means threatening the growth – so the sower’s job is to wait, living among both grain and weed, until the time comes for harvest. And…and. God is in this place. God is here, whether we know it or not.
Augustine was right on this count, I believe: we are the corpus permixtum, the mixed body. Each one of us is a combination of both weed and grain; “holy and unholy; potentially fruitful, potentially destructive.”
And our lives are filled with choices where there is no clear answer. Some we’ll get right, and some we won’t, and some – well, we just won’t know for a long, long time…if ever.
All we have to do is turn on the news of this past week, read only the first lines of the newspaper, to find the holy and the unholy all mixed together. All we have to do is read about children crossing our borders, our officials confounded as to what they should do…about four boys shot in Palestine while swimming in the ocean…about people falling from the sky when their airplane traveled over warring country…about a girl making s’mores at a sleepover last night in Garfield park, caught and killed by a stray bullet. How can we not cry out that God would be in this place?
I hope that’s part of the reason we’re here on a Sunday morning. Because in the space of this sacred ambiguity, Jesus promises a day when there will be a harvest, when God will sort things out. I hope we’re here today to stand together with one another in the midst of a life that is both really, really amazing and sometimes really, really difficult. I hope we are here to remember again that God is in this place, promises to be in this place, right here with us. I hope we are here together today to listen again for words of forgiveness and reconciliation and absolution and grace and hope and commissioning, before going back out into a world that is at the same time both broken and beautiful.
I don’t know what all of the weeds look like in Chicago. And I don’t know about everything that grows back. But I’m glad and grateful to be tending this garden here, with you. Surely, surely God is in this place.
 “Baptism, Against the Donatists”
 Theodore Wardlaw. “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 263.
 Ibid, 263.
 Gary Peluso-Verdend. “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 264.