Every so often, the lectionary forces us as a congregation and as individuals to examine our attitudes in light of God’s revelation. This week was one of those weeks. As many of you know, we have had a difficult relationship with one of the AA groups that meet at the church a couple times each week. I know some of us shared with the bishop our thoughts and feelings about our ministry to them. It has been an ongoing concern with the Vestry for some months now. And, if you happen to drop into the office on the right time, you might hear Robin or Vern or me using some earthy words in reference to them. The group has cost us valuable resources, has cost some of us sleep, and they have cost a number of us some significant time. To be fair, some in that group do not want to be here. In some cases, family members or judges have forced them to come. Some of those who come do not yet want to admit they have a problem, let alone that they need to be freed from addiction. Some, as I shared a couple weeks ago, even try to control their alcohol addiction through the use of other substances such as narcotics. In those moments when I defend our ministry to them among us, I sometimes compare them to children. Part of the reason that some show no respect to us or to our facilities is that no one ever taught them appropriate behavior. So, I remind us and myself that we need to show some patience. The question, of course, is how much patience is enough?
This week, I stayed after Eucharist and Bible study to make sure no one was trashing the church and no one controlling their addiction through the use of other drugs. I also wanted to make sure someone was going to be responsible for the church. Somebody needed to be responsible for making sure the lights were off, the water was shut off, the coffee makers were turned off, the doors were locked, and all that kind of stuff. One of those parts of AA meetings that is fun for those on the outside is the celebration of sobriety. During each meeting, there is a call for anniversaries. I will say that my attitude towards the celebrations was probably jaundiced a bit by the Marquette Group. Marquette Group really only celebrates years. They make a big deal about it, but it is almost always years they are celebrating. This particular group considers weekly and monthly anniversaries to be tremendous accomplishments. Announce there that you have been sober a week, and you will hear a bigger cheer than the Marquette gives for twentieth or thirtieth anniversaries. Ask Sue or Bev or Bernice or Polly about those celebrations. It’s not that Marquette is not happy for those who reach significant milestones; this group simply realizes how heavy the monkey is on everyone’s back at the start. And when they escape that addiction even for a short time, they really appreciate the accomplishment.
Anyway, this past week they were celebrating anniversaries. Most everybody was expressing their successes in terms of days, week, and months. But as they went around the room, one of the members gave bit of a speech. I will spare you the personal nature of his struggles, but he was thankful to the group for their support, to AA for teaching people like him how to struggle, to his family for supporting him through everything he did to them, and even for this church for providing him and others like him the space to find and be found by God and be freed from their addiction. . . . . Hear that again, he was thanking us for giving him and others the space to find and be found by God and to be set free from their addiction.
Brothers and sisters, he had no idea I was standing in the kitchen eavesdropping. Even if he knew my face without a collar, neither we nor this place were not his focus. His tears of joy were over the distance he had traveled and the support of his family. He had done enough to warrant their abandonment in his own eyes, and he was certain when this voyage began he was beyond the help and attention of God. As I listened to his story, it dawned on me that he might be the very first one in that group to have made it through a year of sobriety since they started meeting here. So often that group is changing. Some come for a few months or a few weeks, but very few stay for very long. Compared to those fighting addictions long term, they are almost transient. Perhaps that it why, when he said he had finished his first year of sobriety, the room erupted. The room absolutely exploded with emotion. Lots of them cheered. Some covered their o-shaped mouths. A few stared in stunned belief. Not a few tried to get to him and pat him on the back or shake his hands, no doubt wanting a piece of his luck. It was a celebration to see. I know the guy in the kitchen could do nothing more than thank God for the privilege of hearing his testimony and witnessing the joy and amazement in the room. My eyes flittered over dozens of faces.
You see, Monday saw Robin giving me the readings for this week. Glancing at them, I knew the parable on the wheat and the tares would not be sermon fodder this week. What needs to be explained? How could it impact our lives other than by causing us to pray that we are the wheat and not the tares at the end of the age? And then I got my living illustration.
In much of what we do around here, we are very linear, very cause and effect. We feed people in His name and hope and pray for the opportunity to remind them that God loves them. We care and provide for battered women and the children and hope and pray for the opportunity to remind them that their Father in heaven is nothing like the jerk who beat them or their mother. We look for and seek to offer freedom to those we believe or who tell us they are enslaved. We raise money to buy water purificators for those who thirst, hoping we provide an illustration for other preachers about living water. We host events like Water Wars or picnics or potlucks or other gatherings hopeful that others will be drawn into His heavenly embrace either by our fun or our good food. Heck, we offer space to three different AA groups who meet here some fifteen or sixteen times hoping that they will be freed from their addiction and maybe, just maybe, find a church home in our parish.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on our individual perspectives, God does not always work in what you and I know to be a linear progression. God does not always have to follow the cause and effect that you and I perceive. Our reading from Matthew is a great reminder of that. The sower has sown the seed and an enemy has come along behind and sown weeds. The slaves are understandably frustrated. More weeds means less wheat yield. Should they start over? Should they seek out the enemy? Should they just pull the weeds? The sower says to leave it alone for now, lest the pulling of the weeds kill the wheat as well. When it is time for the harvest, the sower will send other workers to bind the weeds and burn them and then gather the wheat into the barn. It must be a difficult position for the sower. He has spent time and energy and money sowing the seeds.
We can relate, can’t we? We have an incredibly tight budget around here. We are always careful to make sure the lights are off, the water is off, and the doors are locked. Waste not, want not is almost a way of life around here. We are aware that left-on coffee makers can catch fire and burn down churches. We understand that we are supposed to clean up our messes because our mom’s do not live in the kitchen. We understand that drug paraphernalia can’t be flushed down the commodes without clogging them, and that unclogging the sewer lines costs money. We know that when we walk into a room and others are speaking, it is rude to interrupt. We know that when we spill, we clean up. We know that when we go into rooms and use them, we should take care not to break things; and, if we do break them, own up to it and apologize. We work and work, and we try to treat those who use the church as adults, and we feel like we are taken advantage of or mocked. Sounds like the sower in our story today, does it not? Just like that, after his hard work, someone has made much of his work a waste. Or has he?
The sower shows incredible patience and perspective despite the frustration he must feel. Could he plow the field under and start over? Yes. Could he risk pulling up the wheat and have the weeds pulled up? Assuredly. But he chooses to wait and see. He chooses to give the wheat the full opportunity to bear fruit. He understands that some of the wheat will grow and will produce that which he can use. And so the sower instructs his slaves to wait and watch.
It is a difficult thing to wait and watch. Patience is no longer a virtue in our lexicon. And yet we are called to emulate the Sower in all that we do. Yes, we may like our neat cause and effect, but we follow a Lord who pays attention to others causes and other effects. We may at times feel ill-used and taken advantage of. We may at times be mocked and scorned. Yet He showed us that path, that Cross, some 2000 years ago. When we deserved to be mocked, He took our place. When we deserved to be ridiculed, He stood in for us. When we deserved to be punished, He allowed Himself to suffer in our stead.
Are there many tares in those field where we serve? Absolutely. But every now and again, when we exhibit patience and look at those fields with His eyes, we can be privileged to see what He sees when one enslaved seeks freedom, when one who sins seeks repentance. I realized as I stood there Wednesday night, listening to the song of the redeemed, that I had been given an interesting perspective of the harvest He seeks. For all our feelings of ill-use, He used our faithfulness to His glory. An addict was set free; a group of addicts now has seen and heard the hope of freedom from one of their own. The results of his testimony, I think, will be some time in unfolding.
Am I less angry about their waste? Am I less upset at their childish behavior? Perhaps. But in other ways, I know I am not. You see, we have been given an incredible opportunity to serve those whom He seeks out all the time. Better still, we know the freedom He offers and still cannot understand at times why those enslaved choose slavery over freedom. I am certain that we still need to promote leadership in their leaders. I am certain that we must teach them that actions do have consequences. But maybe, maybe, as we are crafting those behavioral expectations we will remember: once we, too, were weeds, until His grace transformed our hearts and turned us into fruit bearing plants. Maybe, just maybe, as we gripe and grumble we will remember we follow a Lord who unapologetically and ungrumbling bore all our shame that we might live to His glory. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we continue in our faithful labors, He will continue to give us such glimpses of His harvest, and so inspire us in our faith!