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Growing in "The Wisdom to Know the Difference"

Rev. Kenneth Orth
Jul 17 2011


She could hardly believe her eyes when she saw it.  Having returned late the night before from a weeklong visit with her parents in the Berkshires, she had taken a bit longer that morning to get over to her precious little garden plot in the Fenway.  She remembered the long years she had spent on the waiting list, patiently believing one day she would be granted the tiny plot of land that she could bring to life in her own special way.  She remembered her incredible joy his past winter at being told she was finally granted the right to make this dream a reality this very summer.  She recalled the tiny seedling under the grow lights of her cramped apartment, the very special sign of life in the midst of the dreary, gray spring that is so typical here in Boston.  She recalled the careful cultivation of the little plot, particularly the painstaking care of transplanting this one very unique and special plant that was to be the crowning centerpiece of her garden. 

Her mind went back to the ways in which it grew in an almost fickle manner at first, teasing her with days of looking limp and sad, then firm and robust, even joyful.  And then that first bud had appeared, with the promise of color, and texture, and fragrance unequalled!  Her friend had told her he was tending the garden well during her absence.  Now in the late morning light, her lip quivered, tears began to form in the corner of her eyes, an unutterable sound was stuck in her throat. 

There it was.  Right next to her precious, beloved plant.  The horrible weed she had been worried about, dreading, spending hours to make sure this very thing would never happen.  And she knew from her grandmother’s dedication to her own garden so many years in the past, that this very weed was the one that couldn’t be extricated from the soil next to the precious plant with its delicate buds without damaging the plants roots so badly that it would destroy it completely. 

How could she live with this?  What about all the hopes, the dreams, the glorious victory she had envisioned for herself?  She had seen herself on that pedestal, receiving the grand prize for the most beautiful presentation of a garden in the Fenway. But now with the weed showing itself right beside the flower?  How could she ever recover from this humiliation, this grief in her having to let go of her vision of what she needed to escape the great loneliness of not being recognized as the best of the best yet again?

There is something in me that loves weeding.  How about you?  Isn’t it just great to pull out those awful pests that grow up right in the places you don’t want them?  Somehow I feel my power, my strength, my ability to be validated and worthy is heightened as I dig out that dandelion, as I rip out that ragweed.  Is it just me who feels so empowered by weeding?

Maybe it was my upbringing in rural South Dakota.  I remember the yearly task called “walking the beans”, when the family needed to rise to the occasion, take our sickles and weed cutters down from their carefully constructed places in the barn where they hung the rest of the year, and get out into those acres of soy bean fields since the beans were too big to cultivate now, and the weeds needed to be removed, or later the harvesting could not be successful.  Maybe it was just that the sweltering heat, oppressive humidity, annoying gnats, and relentless sun could be forgotten when I played how powerful and effective I was at cutting down that milkweed, that nettle, the thistle over there, the cockle burr hiding in the next row. 

It rivaled my next most satisfying task:  that of rock picking.  Hurling those rocks up on the wagon as the tractor slowly moved over the plowed soil.  Where did they come from, year after year?  Were we growing rocks along with the crops?  Oh, the release in heaving that enormous one up onto the flat bed moving along so slowly.  Yet I always could hear somewhere in the back of my mind that gospel admonition, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Throwing stones can be dangerous.  Wait!  I think I see a really great one over there, just perfect for throwing. 

Today’s lectionary parable in Matthew of the wheat and the weeds drew my attention on those Sundays in our little German Congregational Church we faithfully attended, and it still does.   Is it because it goes against my “joy of weeding” philosophy? 

The reign of God can be such a confusing thing, turning my assumptions and beliefs and realities upside down.  What can really be wrong with a good “weeding out”?  Yet in this new world God is asking us to usher into being, we are told not to tear out the weeds because to do so would also destroy the wheat.  Even at the end of the age, we are told the angels will come to do the separation.  We don’t even get the satisfaction of doing it then!

This parable has always stuck in my mind and disturbed my spirit.  Is it that while the parable itself gives great warning to those who would just love to weed out those other, bad people, it might seem to give a tacit permission to the smug and self-righteous to say, “See, YOU are going to burn.” But I do recall Jesus saying it is much easier to see the speck in another’s eye than to see the log in my own, to see the causes of evil in another that need to be burned away.   

As the incredibly creative musical “Wicked” points out:  “There are very few at ease/ with moral ambiguities/   ….so we pretend they don’t exist.”   We like things simple:  black and white, either/or, them and us, weeds and wheat.  God warns us of this when it comes to thinking that some of “those” people are expendable.  Widows and orphans, tax collectors and prostitutes, the least, the last, the lost. 

Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Riders” addresses this ethic:

        When the Pony Express needed
        riders, it advertised
        a preference for orphans—
        that way, no one was likely
        to ask questions when the carriers failed
        to arrive, or the frightened ponies
        stumbled in with their dead
        from the flanks of the prairies.
        This detail from our country’s past
        has no particular significance—it is only
        a footnote.  There were plenty
        of orphans and the point of course
        was to get the mail through, so the theory
        was sound.  And besides,
        think of those rough, lean boys—
        how light and hard they would ride
        fleeing the great loneliness.

Orphans and widows and outcasts and you and me?  All fleeing the great loneliness.  Where is the place we can belong? 

The French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil wrote:  “When we encounter God’s absence, our task is not to set out and replace what is missing but to wait and allow God to find us, and enfold us in God’s great mercy and grace and love.”

Do we do our part in helping others and ourselves have the courage and wisdom to wait in the great loneliness, the great solitude, which opens us to the great Love.  The great Love that reminds us we are made in the image of God.  The great Love that seeks us out and asks us to drink deeply from the well of kindness and mercy and justice and hope.  The great Love from which we learn what is essential in life.  “YOU are my beloved.”   Each a miracle in creation.
Krister Stendahl, former Dean of Harvard Divinity School, told us something almost thirty-five years ago that I have never forgotten.  Jesus came and showed us that the line of good and evil was not just external and out there between “them” and “us”, but Jesus taught us to see that line was also within us, woven into our very beings as created by God.  Shadow and light, body and spirit, form and substance.  As our first hymn expressed, “born of earth, yet full of yearning, mixture strange of good and ill, from your ways so often turning, yet your love does seek us still. 

When I look within, when I take time for silence, a silence in which I may begin to hear that which sound usually obscures, when I take time for prayer and  self-examination, I must learn to place myself before the One who loves me more than I can love myself.  To draw upon God’s compassion, mercy, and unconditional love.

It is in God’s presence that I gain the wisdom to see the difference.  In order to see our faults and also our strengths as part of this great complex being God has made takes a sharp spotlight and demands of us a compassion that we learn from God. 

Can we possibility learn to tolerate our own foolishness?  Do we need to have a pathological certainty of our being right and justified?  Are we able to tolerate the loving, and joyous, and nurturing acceptance of God in all that we are:  good and ill, sweet and sour, like velvet and like steel?  For if we can accept that baptismal promise God gives each one of us:  “You are my beloved, in whom I delight”, we may be released from the constant need for validation, the scurrying about for vindication, the dwelling upon our victimization. 

The ability to work for your own good despite all the less than admirable things you know about yourself is closely connected to the ability to work for your neighbor’s good despite all the less than admirable things you know about him or her. 

Can we learn to give up weeding long enough to practice “wheating”?   And what is “wheating”?  Yet another noun I just turned into a verb?  But somehow it sounds right. It is focusing on the wheat that God is giving me instead of just the weeds that are popping up in my day to day living.  Noticing the fruits of the spirit that grow when I take time to garden them: 
 It is the fruit of kindness that softens by hard-hearted judgment of others as well as myself. 
It is the fruit of forgiveness that opens me to be able to hear another’s story, to walk a mile in her shoes. 
It is the fruit of patience that releases me from the idea that all others and the world itself should be fitting into my timetable. 
It is the fruit of peace that allows me to develop the vision that sees that we belong to one another. 
It is the fruit of joy that opens me to the gratitude for life itself as a gift, and the unfolding of my very being as a wonder to be experienced moment by moment. 
It is the fruit of the fierce love that God offers to support others and myself in doing justice, loving mercy, and being willing to take the humble walk with God even when it leads through the valley of the shadow of death. 
It is not fearing evil, cultivating these fruits of the spirit when it seems the weeds are all around, ready to choke out any possibility of hope and joy, of gratitude and compassion.   

We all have heard the prayer at times attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

It seems Jesus also warns us of the tendency we have of changing those weedy people around us, or those weedy places within, so we won’t have to go to God for help to restore us when we find we haven’t been able to construct the perfectly controlled universe which our egos had convinced us we desperately needed.  Our souls know better.  Our souls grow in wisdom as we let God teach us the difference between “changing one another” and “loving one another.”  Gandhi once said that 80% of the world’s violence comes in the form of un-requested advice.

And what about the fire?  Not only does Jesus say the angels will come to separate the weeds and wheat—we don’t even get the satisfaction of doing that—but now there is this burning!  In the Bible, fire can be used in many ways.  It can be punishment, but more often it is the sign of the Holy One (think pillar of fire and burning bush for Moses, think tongues of flame for the Holy Spirit at Pentecost). 
And, of course, the refiner’s fire--the purifying force that melts away the dross and leaves the silver.  That purifies us as we present ourselves to God.  All that is not love shall cease to be.  

“They shall collect all causes of sin and evil, and those shall be burnt away. “
Is this judgment about punishment or about justice:  that which is not grounded in love will not remain. But it is not my job to do the judging, just to do the loving and trust God.  So there is justice:  I am released from worrying about it day and night, and to focus more on my wheating than my weeding.

Because God loves us so deeply, so fiercely, so fully, we can rest in that love when all else falls away.  And in that resting we find our resentments can be released, our inflations can be perceived and surrendered, the burden of our grasping and exploiting self can be laid down.  The crack in our perfectly controlled way to earthly power:  riches, pleasure, and fame exposes the emptiness at their center and their vain attempt to cover my fear of death or loss, loneliness or abandonment.  Here God offers us another way.

    Again, Mary Oliver:

          I worried a lot.  Will the garden grow, will the rivers
          flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
          as it was taught, and if not, how shall
          I correct it?

          Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better?

          Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
          Can do it and I am, well,   hopeless.
          Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
          Am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia?

          Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
          And gave it up.  And took my old body
          And went out into the morning,
          And sang.  

She could hardly believe her eyes when she saw it.  All together in one place, in one great congregation, shining bright as the sun.  The lost and the lonely, the broken and breaking, the wishing and wondering.  Skin of shining black and translucent white, glowing yellow and fiery red, golden brown and shimmering bronze.  Male and female and transgendered and queer and questioning.

She had ears that now heard.  She had eyes that now saw.  The poor were rich.  The weak were strong.  The foolish ones were wise.  Outcasts belonged; and those who perished had risen indeed.  Every burden had been laid down.  Every tear had been wiped away. 

And in the SHEER SILENCE she heard what she vaguely remembered from somewhere very, very long ago, the melody of the stars, the melody of peace.  She could hardly believe her eyes and ears and she was lost in wonder, love, and praise. 

In such a world of star and seed, of breath and beauty, of work and wonder, of justice and joy, just how can we keep from singing?