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The Power of Paradox

One of the great truths of Christianity is that it is steeped in paradox.  Every facet of the religion, from its theology, to its ethics, to its holy book, to Jesus’ own identity, invites us to occupy holy in-between places, places of hard but life-giving ambiguity.  I know: paradox doesn’t always feel life-giving.  Most of the time, we want simple, yes and no clarity in our lives, and we may try to wrangle Christianity into giving it to us.  But God won’t be wrangled.  Despite our preferences, God gives us rich and rigorous contradiction:

God is One, and God is Three.
Jesus is fully God and Jesus is fully human.
The Bible is God’s Word, and the Bible is authored by flawed humans.
Creation is good, and Creation is broken.
To give is to receive.
To die is to live.
To be weak is to be strong.
To serve is to reign.
The kingdom of God is coming, and the kingdom of God is here, within us.

This is not a complete list, but you can see that paradox is central to Christianity. At every point, Christianity calls us to hold together truths that seem counterintuitive and irreconcilable.  And yet these seeming contradictions are what give the religion weight, credibility, and truth. If we live in a world that’s full of contradiction, then we need a religion robust enough and complex enough to bear the weight of this messy world. We need a religion that empowers us to, in Richard’s Rohr’s beautiful words, “live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality.”  

In our Gospel reading this week, Jesus invites us to live into this paradox. In yet another agricultural parable, Jesus tells the crowds, “A householder plants seeds in his field.”  But while everyone is asleep, we are told an “enemy” sneaks onto the field, sows weeds among the wheat, and goes away.  When the plants come up, the householder’s servants are baffled.  “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?” they ask him.  “Where did these weeds come from?”  The weeds that are mentioned in this story are not just invasive. They are also poisonous, look just like the wheat, and join their roots to their neighbor plant. The servants want to go after the field with a machete to destroy every weed in sight. But the householder stops them. “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let them both grow together until the harvest.  At harvest time, I’ll instruct my reapers to collect, bundle, and burn the weeds, and then I’ll gather the wheat into my barn.” 

We are living in a time of paradox. This year 2020 has been marked by loss both ordinary and profound. In a country with some of the finest health care facilities in the world, we are number one in the number of deaths due to a virus that seems to have no endpoint in sight. The basic structure of our days and rituals that allow us to process the transitions of life have been upended. And what was once believed to be secure jobs, hopeful plans, and reasonable dreams have come to a crashing halt. This time does not in any way correspond to what we expected when we celebrated the turn of the clock on New Year’s Day. Weeds all around us.

And in the midst of all these weeds, we are discovering new ways to care for and love each other. We are learning that by inconveniencing ourselves by wearing a mask, being patient to keep a safe distance from each other, and washing our hands, we are capable together of somewhat mitigating the spread of this dangerous virus. Wheat is growing in the field.

This virus has made it dangerous to gather with family and friends. Unlike past traumas such as 9/11 we are not able to come together to grieve and comfort each other. We miss desperately the opportunity to visit others, to hug our loved ones, and enjoy simple social outings. Weeds.

And we are discovering new ways to be community. No, Zoom will never replace our time physically together. And it is a good gift. Unlike my great-grandparents who had to navigate the 1918 pandemic without phones or television or any way to connect safely with each other to learn what was happening to avoid getting sick, we have Zoom and FaceTime and Dr. Fauci. We are connecting safely with many people who could not consistently be a part of our worship, or learning, or third Sunday suppers. We are finding that this way of being church, allows many people to learn of God’s love and the opportunity to walk through life with a community connected through this love. We are discovering that online gathering can be life giving and meaningful. Wheat

The pandemic has caused the upheaval of many lives. Many people face food insecurity and are having to seek help, often for the first time, to feed themselves and their families. Paying rent or mortgages have become challenging to impossible. People face the great fear that in losing their jobs, they will also lose their homes. Weeds.

And volunteers are coming forward to offer their time and their energy to serve their neighbors in need. Our Gideon’s Garden, in addition to our deliveries to food pantries and agencies serving our hungry neighbors, is now partnering with Multicultural Bridge to provide fresh nourishment for 90 families. People are giving generously so that there is food to meet the rising demand. People are calling and writing letters to challenge their elected officials to offer support so that people are not evicted from their homes and owners receive fair compensation for their properties. People are coming together to provide housing for vulnerable community members. Wheat.

This pandemic has unveiled what we once considered “normal” to be evil. Our eyes are being opened to the ongoing experience of our Black brothers and sisters who try daily to simply live in our racist society. We are seeing that those people we call “essential”  and celebrate as “heroes” are paid such low wages that they often do not have the option to stay at home if they get sick or need to care for their children or elderly parents. That often they do not receive the protective equipment they need to keep them safe or have access to medical care that might keep them alive. While this virus has caused much pain, we are seeing that for many of our brothers and sisters, this for too long has been their reality. Deep weeds.

And people continue to go into the streets to march to put an end to the belief that some lives do not matter. People continue to organize and gather to demand that dignity and justice be extended to all. Sports teams and corporations are being forced to face their racist environments. Churches are gathering to learn and have important conversations about our complicity in this injustice. We are all becoming aware that “normal” is a place we cannot return. Wheat.

Weeds and wheat growing together. Sometimes it seems that we are neck deep in weeds, and then as Fred Rogers’s mother told him, “Look for the helpers.” Notice that even in times of great despair, God is in this place through people who are willing to give of their lives to care for others.  

Two great leaders died this week. They were men who understood paradox because they lived it. 

The Rev. C. T. Vivian, an early civil rights organizer alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for nonviolence in the face of bloody confrontations. He led peaceful protestors through vicious white mobs. With discipline and endurance he absorbed many blows against his own body from segregationists and police officers across the South. The Rev. Vivian, a Baptist minister led sit-ins at lunch counters so all could eat their lunch in peace, rode on buses to register Black voters, faced imprisonment and a near fatal beating. Rev. Vivian was well aware of weeds. But he said, “Non-violence is the only honorable way of dealing with social change because if we are wrong, nobody gets hurt but us. And if we are right, more people will participate in determining their own destinies than ever before.”

And also on Friday, Representative John Lewis, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and a seventeen term member of Congress died. Congressman Lewis grew up with a great-grandfather who had been born into slavery. When he was a child, a man in his town who did not address a white man as “Mister” was lynched. Growing up poor in rural Alabama, Congressman Lewis had very few books in his home. He remembered in 1956 when he was 16 years old, going with some of his brothers and sisters and cousins down to the Public Library to get a library card. He was told that libraries were for whites only and not for “colored.” Rather than respond with retribution, Congressman Lewis studied theology and tactics of non-violent resistance. 

In his many years as an activist, Lewis was arrested 45 times and beaten repeatedly by police and white supremacists. He was a part of the six hundred people peacefully marching in Alabama for their right to vote as American citizens. Crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge, named for a Confederate Officer and the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, they were attacked by Alabama troopers using tear gas, clubs, and bullwhips. Lewis received serious head wounds. He later said, “I thought I was going to die.”

Neck deep in weeds, John Lewis could have been destroyed. He might have felt the temptation to give up. But while acknowledging with open eyes the darkest chapters in American history, he insisted that change was always possible. Recently he took part in a Zoom town meeting where he said that the protesters will “redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.” John Lewis knew weeds, but he did not let them crowd him out or destroy his spirit. He said, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Rather than give up and be choked out, in 2016, he won the National Book Award for his Young People’s book, March about his experience during the Civil Rights Movement.

This reading from Matthew can be read as condemnation for those weedy others and redemption of our wheat-ful selves. But I invite you to see that wheat and weeds are in all of us, our communities, our churches, our country. Wheat and weeds are part of life. They are bound together. God alone will separate and redeem. God alone will sort out the weeds from the wheat so the harvest is fruitful, so the harvest is bountiful. What we can do is refuse to let the weeds in ourselves and in this life choke us or destroy us. 

As Christians we must recognize that life is lived in the holy in-between places, places of paradox, places where both wheat and weeds can be found. And our good news is that God is in the midst of this ambiguity. God works within ambiguous persons like us, ambiguous situations like a time of pandemic, ambiguous institutions like the church, and ambiguous powers like our country to do God’s healing.  

I am aware that Grace Church is in a time of paradox. With my retirement there is grief that as in life there comes a time to say good-bye to something that is very good. And there is much gratitude for all that we have done together and for all that has begun and will continue.. We may feel neck deep in weeds right now, yet I am absolutely confident that God who brought me to you, that God who has helped us grow together, has a wonderful plan for an even greater harvest for you and for me.  

God is in our midst. God is in the mixture of wheat and weeds. God comes to us in our brokenness and in our wholeness. Wherever we are, God is present. Wherever we are, God’s hand will lead us and hold us fast. 

Thanks be to God, the master of the garden, that even in times of paradox, it is God’s plan that we live a life that is abundant.