Updated: Aug 5
Last week I gave blood and during the course of my donation I chatted with my phlebotomist, who asked me what I do for a living. When I told her that I am a priest, she said, “Oh, how nice for you.” She said it politely, but it was clear that she was not a fan of religious folk. I was not put off. I love the opportunity to evangelize.
But she was a tough customer. Raised in a strict black Christian family, she described herself as “barely believing” in God. When I asked her what drove her away from the church, she said, “Hypocrisy” and mentioned, among other things, mega-churches with extremely rich pastors and priests who have committed sexual abuse. “What,” she demanded, “does your church do? Do you have a lot of fundraisers”? I told her that we support people both in and outside of our congregation in a variety of ways. “You know who does a lot to help people,” she asked, “the Mormons.” “Indeed they do,” I agreed, “but they also believe that it is important to convert everyone to their religion.”
This was interesting to her, as her biggest gripe with organized religion is that churches don’t practice what they preach. She wanted to know specifically what our church does to help others. I told her that we work to feed and house homeless people, and advocate for those in need. She seemed suspicious, so I also told her about a study I had just read that found that while, ”At least half of Americans realize that churches feed and clothe the poor… far fewer are aware of other social services that congregations provide.” According to the author, “Though the Bible speaks of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, a significant number of Americans haven’t heard of churches providing [these things].” I said I thought this was sad because many people seek opportunities to help others but the church seems to be the last place they go to find them. She said that might be because religious people seem to believe that they have the right and/or the ability to decide who is good and who is evil – who belongs and who doesn’t. I agreed with her and suggested that most religions, including Christianity, including this denomination, have been guilty of this very sin of exclusionism.
The “My God is better than your God,” game is an ancient one. We heard echoes of it in today’s Isaiah passage. In it, God seems to be on the defensive from non-believers. “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. You are my witnesses!” Wait – it’s up to us to stick up for God? But how can we, when we sometimes doubt God ourselves, when we like so many others have had prayers go seemingly unanswered? We can, if we remember what God has done for us- not the material trappings of success, all of which mean nothing in the eyes of God – but the times we have tested God and been saved, the periods we have walked in darkness and been forgiven, and the moments we have been alone and found community. “The true witness of one’s faith comes alive in the dark moments when it is difficult to see the blessings of God,” but when we truly remember, we can see that “Even in the midst of suffering and pain” God is present.
That doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to complain. Today’s psalm is an excellent example of what scholars formally call “lament.” The psalmist is afraid and anxious – perhaps even angry at having to deal with his enemies – but these feelings do not drive him away from God, but rather toward God. The psalmist is not ashamed to ask for help, as we so often are. He complains directly to God because he believes that God is present and God will help him. He has faith.
He also knows what to ask for. The psalmist doesn’t ask God to destroy his violent enemies – instead he requests strength to deal with his enemies, that “those who hate me may…be ashamed.” In other words, he doesn’t want his rivals to be terminated but rather transformed. And he understands that he needs to do his part for that to happen.
Paul also understood this. While Paul’s letters have often been interpreted to argue that if you are saved by Jesus Christ you don’t need to worry about anything anymore, what you believe is more important than what you do – I think that is exactly the opposite of what Paul repeatedly says. He does not tell his people they can wait passively for salvation, but rather that they must wait actively – patiently enduring suffering with hope. For Paul, all of our struggles, all of our pain, all of our worries are not a hardship but a gift – because they remind us of our intimate link to Jesus Christ.
This is not the most user-friendly message: “Join our group and you can suffer patiently for an unknown period of time for a reward we can’t prove you will get.” (Let’s put THAT on our Facebook page)! But explaining Christianity that way misses the point; the point is not that we suffer, but that our God understands our suffering and is willing to share in it –that our God is fully present to us – all the time. Our God is patient.
Which is a good thing, because human beings generally aren’t. Nonetheless, that is what the Parable of the Weeds tells us we are supposed to be whenever we are tempted to judge someone else. Written in the context of a growing and changing church in which members were dealing with issues of new cultural and racial diversity within their ranks, this parable acknowledges that there is evil in the world – and in the church, but we are not equipped to accurately identify it. This story isn’t about categorizing evil – it’s about dealing with it – the same way God deals with us, patiently. Despite the fact that the servants in the story, like us, push the master to help them separate the wheat from the weeds because they want to “settle forever the problem of who is in and who is out,” Jesus tells them to wait -wait until both the wheat and the weeds are fully grown, because then the reapers – not us – will separate the evil from the good. In other words, be patient – and trust in God. “The God who is glimpsed in this parable models for us an infinite patience that frees us to get on with the crucial business of loving, or at least living with, each other…a God who does not merely tolerate endlessly a world that is a mixture of good and evil…but who finally, in God’s own good time, acts both to judge and to redeem the world.” This is a God with an endless capacity to love – a God to whom everyone has the opportunity to belong. It is not our job to decide who is a sinner – who should be separated from God. That is not our calling. We have been called to wait with patience for God’s judgement, and, while we wait, to contribute to God’s good harvest by seeking to bring about God’s kingdom in this world, welcoming and loving our sisters and brothers, attempting to alleviate their suffering even as we endure our own, and inviting into community all those who are seeking the path that leads to God’s eternal and unfailing light. Let anyone with ears listen. AMEN.
Adelle M. Banks, (July 20, 2017), “Good works of churches often go unnoticed,” Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2017/07/20/good-works-of-churches-often-go-unnoticed/
John L. Thomas, Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 246.
Theodore J. Wardlaw, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 265.