Updated: Aug 5
The Rev. Dr. Deborah White
My mother often expresses herself through idioms, describing things as “blessings in disguise” and exclaiming “speak of the devil” when someone we were just talking about shows up at the door. Some of my mom’s phrases make perfect sense. After all, you really can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. But when I was a child I found some of her more figurative phrases harder to grasp- and it’s one of these sayings that I find myself using a lot more these days: “Don’t,” I think in my mother’s voice, “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Wikipedia tells us that this “is an idiomatic expression for an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad.” It derives from the German, which is even more direct: “You must empty out the bathing tub, but not the baby along with it. Fling out your dirty water with all zeal, and set it careening down the kennels; but try if you can to keep the little child!” You’ve got to love the German version. There is tremendous appeal in the abandon of that phrase. Oh to be able to fling away all of those I see as being or doing something bad! Oh to be able to simply wash out ignorance, racism, and fear-mongering! Oh to be left peacefully holding only a smiling cherub that portends that all is well on heaven and earth.
I feel this way because, I must admit, that I have been thinking some angry and unkind thoughts lately. I have been judging others in my mind, and it has been very hard for me not to put these thoughts into words – to lash out against what I see as the evil that seems to be running rampant on God’s earth right now. I know I am not the only one. Many people have told me that they cannot stand to watch the news very often because it angers, depresses and causes them anxiety. Social media is rife with arguing, name-calling and threats. My own email sometimes contains missives in which my morality, intelligence, and sincerity are questioned. So, yes, I dream of flinging out with zeal angry words, judgments, and notions of what is right, allowing them to careen down and join the baying clouds of noisome hatred in my world.
But that’s throwing out the baby with the bath water – or, as Jesus puts it in today’s gospel, uprooting the good seed in order to destroy the bad. In Matthew’s parable, Jesus describes a householder who sowed good seed – who thought he did everything he was supposed to do – and still when his plants came up there were weeds among them. To his servants, it didn’t seem fair, but the householder is unperturbed. When they offer to go and pull the weeds he tells them not to, arguing that by uprooting the bad plants they may also damage the good. It is better for them to grow together until they are fully mature and taken out of the ground.
This does not feel satisfying. We don’t want to share our field with noxious seeds. Our instinct is instead to separate ourselves from potential weeds and lock ourselves safely into the barn of our faith so that we won’t end up in the furnace with them. Except Jesus knew – and so should we – that it can be awfully hard to tell the difference between false and true wheat – and human beings aren’t very good at judging which is which. Certainly there are people who see some of us as bad seed, planted by “the enemy” and headed for imminent violent sorting. There is division among God’s people on the right and the left and everywhere in between – and it should not surprise us to know that Jesus saw it coming. This is, after all, not a story about a good field and a bad field; it’s a story about one shared field. It is a parable about separation among believers. Last week, I saw a bumper sticker that read, “God doesn’t kill people. People who worship God kill people.” It hurt my heart to see it -mostly because it is not wrong.
Many of us are hurting right now and we are at a loss as to how to deal with that pain. We are tempted to find satisfaction in removing ourselves from what we see as the source of that pain – from other people who turn a blind eye to systems which reward some individuals over others based only on the color of their skin; from those who seem to value their own freedom over the health and welfare of others; and from those identify themselves as champions of innocent life while supporting death for others. But this is not what God asks of us. God asks us, instead, to be citizens of the world, enduring slights and suffering because, as St. Paul says, suffering is necessary. Without suffering we are not motivated to evolve. Without suffering we have no reason to hope. “Suffering and hope are interwoven” – just as we who follow Jesus the Christ are entwined with all those who dwell in this earthly field with us. Nobody wants to suffer -and I don’t believe that God wants us to suffer- but we only have to look around to know that this world will not change if we do not change it, and that involves struggle. It involves labor – and hope is what gets us through our collective labor pains. Hope is what allows us to grapple with the seeds of the enemy with both patience and passion. Hope is what keeps us from becoming discouraged in the face of the sin that is so easily planted in the human psyche.
Often and lately this feels like too much to ask – but remember: we are not asked to do it alone. We are a community of Christ, and it is as a community that we will be judged. This means that we are not only responsible for our individual actions, but must also repent of and seek to remedy our collective sins, what scripture calls, “the sins of our fathers.” “We move toward God,” Theodore J. Wardlaw says, “individually, collectively, and as a cosmos. On such a journey as this, it is not our job to determine who is within and who is beyond… God’s attention. It is rather our job to imagine everyone as belonging to… God.”
And, just as each individual is not alone, our community is not alone either. God is with us. This is what a sinful Jacob learned when he saw a ladder that connected heaven and earth. Accessing God’s presence and learning God’s plan is as simple as allowing ourselves to dream. Jacob’s ladder –or “stairway” as it is better translated, is not something we can individually climb to reach the land of promise. It will not speed our salvation to elbow one another out of the way. You cannot, as Led Zeppelin has told us, buy it. We know that it is constantly connecting us to the Holy, because we already feel God’s presence, and no matter what our circumstances, we can acknowledge that we have already received God’s blessing. Salvation is not something that “can be.” It is something that is now – and it is something that can deliver and repair this hurting world. But we have to reach for it together. We have to walk together – good and bad seeds. We have to wait patiently to see what we might become if we grow together.
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry puts it this way: “Who knows, but that love may demand more of us. But fear not, just remember what the old slaves used to say, walk together, children, and don’t you get weary, because there is a great camp meeting in the Promised Land.” We will get there my sisters and brothers – growing together with patience and hope. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. Amen.