071920 Pentecost 7
Gen. 28:10-19a; Rom. 8:12-25; Matt. 13:
Living among the poor in Latin America taught me that hope is more accessible to those who don’t already have a lot of what they hope for. I remember listening to Peruvian peasants singing hymns at midnight as I tried to sleep on the log floor of a jungle home. They had been displaced by Shining Path guerrillas and were being relocated in a new settlement in the jungle. I couldn’t understand how they could sing songs of hope when their future was so uncertain. People like that can’t settle for patience with what they already have because it’s not enough. Even if it’s enough for today, it’s not enough for tomorrow. They need hope to get out of bed in the morning to get what they need. Most people I knew until then rested in the knowledge that, while they may not have enough for a rainy day, they have enough for tomorrow. They didn’t need hope to get out of bed in the morning.
Well, that’s beginning to change. Even though some have had to patiently endure more suffering than others during the pandemic– losing jobs, health, loved ones, and homes – at this point patience is wearing thin for most of us after four months of the pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to go stir-crazy staying at home. But, if we believe the Apostle Paul, reaching the end of our rope may be just what the doctor ordered to discover hope. And not only Paul is saying that. Nicholas Kristoff wrote an editorial in the New York Times last week saying that America has more potential for hope than we’ve had in a long time. He entitled it, “We interrupt this gloom to offer…hope.”
He quotes Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, saying, on balance, I am very hopeful. We’re seeing a national convulsion over the recognition that racism in America is real and it’s not a figment of the imagination of Black people. Marian Wright Edelman said, I’m very optimistic. I think we have a chance of getting something done. And Helene Gayle, the chief executive of the Chicago Community Trust, said, there was something about seeing a man’s knee on another man’s neck that woke people up. People think I’m crazy, but I have a sense of possibility. Kristoff concludes, We may be so desperate, our failures so manifest, our grief so raw, that the United States can once more, as during the Great Depression, embrace long-needed changes that would have been impossible in cheerier times. He points to signs in unexpected corners: Kansas Republicans rebelled against tax cuts that had devastated schools. Texas helped lead the way in reversing mass incarceration. Red states like Idaho, Utah and Oklahoma expanded Medicaid.
If we need an icon of hope for today, we need look no further than John Lewis. Talk about letting the weeds grow with the wheat! John Lewis walked the long road of patience when it ridiculous to hope. He kept walking, and struggling and speaking truth to power, even when he became part of the power.
The Bible is a book of hope that calls people to act in faith when all the evidence goes against it. And there is plenty of evidence against hope these days. Politically motivated but life-endangering battles over wearing masks make it difficult to choose hope over despair. Concentrating all patient information about COVID-19 patients in one central database can feel apocalyptic. Failure of Congress to approve another stimulus package leaves millions of Americans with the prospect of poverty and homelessness as soon as next month.
Today’s Gospel presents an unlikely path that hope takes when we engage it with faith. Jesus’ peasant audience recognized that Jesus hadn’t given a lesson in agriculture. At the beginning they were surprised by the farmer’s decision to let the weeds grow with the wheat. But in the end, they recognized the value and wisdom of patience.
An enemy had sown weeds among the wheat. There are many reasons why families became enemies in the ancient world, but the consequences were always the same. A state of feuding developed and persisted over a long period of time. One always suspected that a feuding enemy was seeking to shame one’s family. In this story, the shame was planted soon after the wheat seeds were sown, but it didn’t become full-blown shame until the weeds had matured to the point where they were clearly distinguishable from the wheat.
What Jesus’ listeners understood, and we might miss, is that the whole village discovered the shame along with the landowner; and they laughed. The laughter grew louder when the landowner instructed his servants to allow the weeds to grow alongside the wheat until harvest. The peasants expected retaliation and revenge. Instead, the landowner appeared helpless and bested by his enemies. But appearances can be deceiving. The landowner was a shrewd as well as savvy farmer. He knew that wheat is strong enough to tolerate competition from the weeds for nutrition and irrigation. After the harvest, the landowner would not only have grain for his barns, but extra, unanticipated fuel for his needs. Instead of shaming this landowner, the weed strategy backfired and shamed the enemy. The landowner and his servants had the last laugh. The enemy bent on shaming others was shamed instead!
The landowner refused to retaliate, to get even with the enemy. By seeming to do nothing, and exposing himself to mockery by his neighbors, the landowner ended up getting the victory. In a society dedicated to revenge, the landowner’s victory by seeming to do nothing seems to be what Jesus wanted to teach about God, and how people behave in God’s reign. God is not impatient to bring judgment and doesn’t use revenge as a mechanism for justice. Revenge is a form of impatience that denies hope. Unfortunately, revenge is the daily bread of our current President, which makes hope even more countercultural. But it also reveals the contrast more clearly. It is not difficult to see the different maturity levels between Darren Walker, Marian Wright Edelman, and Helene Gayle on the one hand, and the president on the other.
We need to hold up the images of those who have chosen hope over gloom to help those facing despair to choose action over futility, healing over violence, patience over revenge. It’s the same image God showed Jacob as he fled the revenge of his brother for tricking him out of his birthright. Jacob saw a ladder between heaven and earth in his dream and made a memorial of the place and called it Bethel – house of God. It’s what Jacob needed. But the Psalmist saw more clearly: the ladder is every-where. God, where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. We must imagine every place as God’s house– where we are and where we are not – and acknowledge God’s presence there.
God gives hope to individuals and communities in their weakness and their moment of futility to accomplish their mission in a more human way. Hope is God’s gift to those who recognize their weakness, and the futility of succeeding on their own. People who live with hope evoke in us what is most truly human. They show us that power and influence are not the most human qualities, even though we often seek them. There is something powerfully attractive about hope when the circumstances evoke fear. We see that in those who see hope amid the gloom of these days.
Friends, let’s be people of hope, and standard-bearers of those who offer the most human path, because it is always the one closest to God.