Sunday, July 23, 2017

Taking Chances

 Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

Most of you know, I grew up on a dairy farm just north of Plattsburgh.  I’ve always counted that upbringing as a great asset to my priesthood.  So many of the parables Jesus uses to teach us come from an agricultural background, and that early life experience has often helped me be more effective in preaching the gospel.

But this week, what I counted as a blessing suddenly seems rather bittersweet.

Some of you already know that, on Tuesday night, there was a major fire on my family’s farm.  The dairy barn burned to the ground, and about 60 head of cattle were killed. 

My dad bought his first few cows when he was only 19 years old, and has been milking in that same barn ever since.  That was exactly 50 years ago this past spring, and we were making plans to celebrate this big anniversary of the farm that had provided our family with a good way to make a living, and an even better way of life.  Dad had to watch the fire wipe out so much of his past—all that time and energy he’d invested over 50 years.  But my baby brother, Todd, took over the operation a few years ago, with plans that this barn would help to provide for another generation.  On Tuesday night, Todd had to watch so many of his hopes and dreams for the future go up in smoke.  These have been pretty tough days for our family.

It’s with all of that on my heart and mind that it now falls to me to preach on another farming parable of Jesus: that of the weeds growing among the wheat.

Jesus himself has given us a thorough explanation of the symbolism of this parable, so there’s no need for me to repeat it to you now.  But this reality of wheat and weeds, of good people and bad, living and growing side-by-side in the Kingdom, is certainly one my family has experienced in recent days. 

We’ve come across a few bad weeds, unfortunately, like the guy who insinuated that my brother might have started the fire, since farming is tough these days it would be a quick way to liquidate the business; or the opportunists who said they were there to "help" with the paperwork, but were only looking for a way to profit from our loss; or the anonymous woman who left a message on my parents’ answering machine, charging that that we’d been cruel to our cows. 

But—praise God!—there’s been a lot more wheat that we’ve seen: like the other farmers from across the area—some of whom arrived on the scene even before my father and brother did—to help get the livestock and the equipment out of the burning barn, and who have been helping in many ways every since; like the countless firefighters and other emergency personnel—nearly all of them volunteers—who came from as far away as northern Vermont, southern Québec, Chateauguay, and Burke, putting themselves at risk to knock down the flames; like the many friends and even some complete strangers who have been stopping by with food and drink, offers of assistance, or just to give us a hug.  North Country neighbors are amazing!  A whole lot of good wheat grows around here.

Yet I think we can take this parable of Jesus to a deeper level still.  Not only do we find a mix of wheat and weeds among the members of the human race; we also find it in each of our own lives.  Is not every life—your life and mine—a combination of experiences that warm your heart and those that break it?  Of causes for sorrow and causes for joy?  Within every person’s life we find both, all tangled up together.

It’s one thing, of course, to recognize these realities.  But how do we make some sense of them?

In the very first line of our first reading this Sunday, we hear King Solomon say to the Lord, “There is no god besides you who have the care of all…”  The notion that there’s one God who’s looking after everything and everybody doesn’t strike us modern Christians as anything all that remarkable.  We take it for granted. 

But at the time he said them, Solomon’s words wouldn’t have been so obvious to folks.  In fact, they would have been rather revolutionary.  You see, in the ancient world, every people and nation had its own gods.  The Egyptians had their gods, and so did the Canaanites, the Philistines, the Persians…  And these gods were believed to only look out for their own people—and even after only specific affairs, such as the weather, or crops, or war.

Say you needed some rain…maybe not the best example this summer…  Say you needed some sun, and you prayed fervently to the sun god, but the sun didn’t shine.  Say your nation prayed to its god in a time of distress, but your enemies triumphed while your own people languished.  Where did that leave people in their relationship with these so-called gods?

But the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, is different—very different.  He is the one, true God.  He chose a particular people, but only as a means to bless all the nations.   The Lord made and maintains the whole of creation, not just some corner of it.  He has the care of all—even those who do not know him, even those who refuse to put their faith in him.

And yet we sometimes still think and act as if he were our own personal god, don’t we?  Like when we see the wicked prosper?  Or when bad things happen to good people?  How am I supposed to believe in a God who doesn’t seem more concerned about what I do and what I want and what I need?

And yet the God of all takes the risk of allowing wheat and weeds to live and grow together. 

As Jesus says elsewhere in the gospel, our heavenly Father makes the same sun rise on both the bad and the good, and the same rain fall on both the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45).  There’s a chance that the children of the evil one will choke out or rub off on the children of the Kingdom—but God takes it, because it means there’s also always the chance that some destructive weeds will yet become fruitful wheat, that some sinners might yet become saints. 

We are called to have that hope.

As a kid, I can recall a coffee mug in my grandparent’s house with a scripture quote on it—one which puzzled me then, and which I’m admittedly still trying to understand.  It’s from the Book of Job—when Job, incidentally, has just lost all of his livestock and, more sadly, all of his children: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall go back again; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Jb 1:21).  Even in his distress, Job understood that it is never God’s will to see us hurting.  While God does not cause our anguish, he does allow it, but only because he can see what we cannot: the potential for some greater good to come of it.  Yes, there’s a chance that allowing us to experience not only happiness but also great hardship will cause some to turn away from him—but God willingly takes that risk, because it also means there’s the chance that our suffering will cause us to put even greater trust in him. 

We are called to have that faith.

And so, here we all are: wheat and weeds, the righteous and the wicked, in good times and bad, all mixed together in the field that is the Kingdom, awaiting the great day of harvest when we will be gathered into God’s everlasting barns.  May we always have the faith, have the hope, have the aid of the Spirit in our weakness to be able to pray, “Blessed be the one God and Father of all, the Lord who is so forgiving and so good, the Savior who is willing to take chance after chance on me!”

No comments: