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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=151

Proper 16 Year A (July 20, 2014)                                                                  St James', Peace River

As you heard from Rose last week, it’s gardening season in the pulpit just as much as in the yard. So many of Jesus’ parables deal with growing things – perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us, as the kingdom of God is definitely a “growing thing”! But it makes for some great connections to the world around us as we read these stories during the growing season in our garden plots and fields. I take my own gardening inspiration from this week’s parable, where we are quite clearly instructed not to pull up any weeds just in case the crop gets pulled up as well...

Of course, there’s a deeper meaning and a deeper question lying underneath the parable of the weeds and the wheat. It’s there in the Romans reading too, where St Paul talks about that mixed experience of life we all have: sometimes God seems close, other times absent; sometimes our own behaviour is admirable, other times awful; some moments of our lives are glorious, others terribly painful. Good and evil are planted so close together in our lives, and the question for faithful people is, Why?

That’s the starting point for Jesus’ parable. Creation is supposed to be good, isn’t it? God is supposed to be in charge? So why isn’t everything perfect? You may well have heard this stated as an argument against the existence of God. I’ve heard it often enough with the cheap-shot kind of attitude that says, I don’t really want to talk about this or think it through. But once in a while it’s expressed very seriously, by people who are really wrestling with what’s wrong in the world, and would love to find a principle of goodness (a God) they could believe in, but more importantly that they can rely on. Can you trust a God whom we say is all-powerful and all-loving, when you look around you at the world we live in?

It’s important to keep in mind that this question is not just about abstract ethics or even the facts of evil in the world we live in; it’s about trust. If you want to find something, someone in the universe you can rely on, you need an answer. Otherwise it’s a dog-eat-dog world after all, and that’s all there is to say about it. So it’s not enough to come back with logical or factual arguments. We can say, as the parable implies, that the problem really is human free will – the evil choices people make, which God has not taken away from us. That’s certainly the source of most of our trouble, but does it help? We’re still stuck in a world where what happens to us next is dependent on whether the next person we meet has good or evil intentions, and the goodness of God doesn’t come into the picture at all.

The other quick answer we can read off the parable is that it will all come right in the end. The wheat will be harvested, the weeds uprooted and burned. Reward and punishment will be handed out, good and evil will both get their due. Now, this answer has sustained a lot of people, and has been at the heart of Christian faith as people have lived it, for a long time. Generations of believers have worked their way through trials and heartbreaks with the conviction that, whatever they suffered in the present moment, they would shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom once God sorted it all out. And it’s every bit as much part of our life right now, when we’re asking that “Why” question and living with the hope, and the trust, that God has an answer that we will live to see.

There’s a problem, though. This isn’t an answer for people who are looking for a God they can trust; it only “works” if you know and trust God already. Without that, you’re left with what looks like an empty promise in the indefinite future, versus the reality of a mixed-up life that makes no sense which you’re living right now. So, I think we need to dig a little deeper to find the gospel answer to the question both Jesus and the world are asking.

God’s answer to the question, “Why is the world this way?” is hidden in the parable – that’s what parables do, they hide the answers so that we can actually discover them in our own way. In between last week’s parable and explanation, we skipped over a few verses, where Jesus says exactly that. His disciples asked him why he spoke in parables, and his response was a curious one: so people may see but not really see, and hear but not really hear. The answers are hidden, not in the sense that they can be decoded if you have the answer key, but rather that when our hearts are ready to find them, God is ready for us too.

And I think it’s St Paul who spells it out for us a little more clearly. He’s talking about the same thing – the frustration and uncertainty of living in the real world where things aren’t really clear; the “why” of suffering and evil; the mixture of right and wrong we can find even in our own identities, our own lives, which we can live both “according to the flesh” and “according to the spirit” - that is to say, with ourselves at the centre of our story, or with God. But when it comes down to the question of how we can rely on God in the midst of all of this, what Paul hears God saying is, “Well, I’m here, aren’t I?” God’s answer is himself. Not an ethical theory, not a solution to a moral conundrum, but himself.

Where the suffering and evil is in the world, God is there. Paul certainly believes in the glory to come, when God will sort it all out, but right now the mixed-up world we inhabit is exactly the one in which Jesus was crucified, so when we experience the sharp end of it, “we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him”. And even when we’re just baffled by the world in which good and evil coexist, and we don’t know what to say or think or pray about it – God is there too, the Spirit of God who refuses to stand aloof from it all, who mucks right in and groans and yearns and hopes along with us, because that is God’s answer: I am here.

Ultimately, there’s nothing else that could win our trust, or that would even deserve it. When what we’re looking for isn’t a smart answer, or a good feeling, but someone we can actually depend on, then that someone has to really be there. And so God’s response to our need and our questions is to be here. That’s not always obvious, but it is always true. And if we want to help other people see the truth of it, maybe what we need to do is reflect on how we’ve become convinced of that truth ourselves.

For me, one of those moments happened after I’d spent a couple of years doing some hospital visiting as a volunteer, long before I was ordained. Seeing people with serious illness, and all the ways it affected their lives and their relationships with people around them, was definitely a “wheat and weeds” experience. There was lots of good stuff – courage, humour, love – but also lots of negativity – the pain people were experiencing, the abilities they were losing, the joy that was going out of them. Often enough I would pray like one of the servants in the parable: “God, how does this make any sense? You made these people, why do they suffer like this? Take the bad stuff away and leave the good behind, isn’t that what you do?”

I asked a wise friend how to deal with this sense of frustration about what I was seeing. His response was, “Stop acting and praying as though God is outside the situations you encounter. God is there, going through everything right along with the people you meet in those hospital beds.” And sure enough, when I stopped asking God “Why aren’t you here?” and started to ask instead “How are you here?” - there was an answer. God was every bit as much part of the grieving, the fear, and the pain, as he was part of the courage and the laughter. In fact, a God who was only with us on good days wasn’t much of a God at all. And God wasn’t powerless or callous because he didn’t fix things up for us – quite the opposite, you could see that God was there, pained by our pain, but lending us his power to face it without losing the things that mattered in the end more than just continuing to breathe: things like faith, hope, and love.

That’s a relatively extreme example of what it means to live like God is here, but you can apply it to the more ordinary experiences of the wheat-and-the-weeds we have every day. God is not just with you in the holy times, or the good times, or even the crisis times. God is here when you’re feeling like things aren’t quite right, when you’re bored or indifferent, when you’re just not paying attention. Jesus is walking your path with you; the Spirit is looking at the world through your eyes. You can depend on it.

That’s a big package to drop in someone else’s lap, and when we meet someone who needs God but doesn’t know or trust God it may not be the time to explain it all! But in those moments, God has one other way to be there. One of those patients I met was a man who had lost everything, was deeply depressed, and had overdosed. He needed God for sure, but he hated and distrusted the idea of God who had let him down so profoundly. I knew God was there for him, and suffering along with him, but there was no use telling him that. There was only one thing worth saying at that point: I’m here for you, and with you. You can be God’s way to be present with another person, every time you look someone in the eyes, every time you serve your neighbour, every time you remember to pray for them. You won’t bring an end to war or disease or sheer human cussedness that way, but when you trust God is in the midst of all those things, and you act on that trust, the world will still be one step closer to the kingdom of heaven.