Sunday, July 27, 2008

Editorial: Let Them Grow Together

Let Them Grow Together

“In gathering the weeds, you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”- Matthew 13

The Quaker John Woolman had a message from God. He had to stop supporting slavery. And he did, wouldn’t even buy the products. But the mission grew. He had to stop slavery altogether. He had to change the way that other people lived, immediately, entirely, and forever.

Now he was not going to accomplish this alone. So he took it to his church. And it seemed hopeless. John Woolman’s integrity and character were beyond question; his message was authentic. But his community was the thriving Quaker merchants and tradesmen of colonial New Jersey, growing prosperous on the very trade Woolman decried as the brutest of evils.

They lacked the will to change. So did Woolman. And Quaker meetings then and now only reach decision by consensus. No authority was going to produce a decree. No backroom brokering was going to shuffle out a deal. The decision had to be the product of Spirit creating consensus among equals. And it wasn’t going to happen.

So his church, even while upholding slavery, said an astonishing thing. They said, “Because of your authenticity, John Woolman, we will entirely support you and your family as you go out and preach your message among us, for as long as it takes. We will hold this tension, and see what new revelation you can bring.”

After twenty long, hard years of John Woolman’s itinerant preaching, the Quaker meetings slowly began to see the light. And Quakers soon became most strident Abolitionists- not because of their collective moral clarity, but because of this oddball decision: to pay someone to subvert them.

They decided to grow together.

Today we have a lot of weeds. I don’t know how many enemies we have, I don’t know how much that language resonates in a country so historically secure. But I know we have weeds. You do too.

You know who they are. They are those people. They don’t understand us. They irrationally cling to their beliefs in spite of overwhelming evidence. They are petty and small- minded and bitter and vindictive and afraid. And they work to overcome and undermine us and the greater good. They make us want to pull out our hair. No matter what we say to or do with these people, they just will not see the light of day in spite of what is transparently just and fair and right.

You know them. They’re your neighbors. Not because they are right, but because they will not go away. We cannot get rid of them without in some way getting rid of us. So they will be there.

Now what are we going to do about it? In the parable, the premier itinerant preacher described the kingdom of God as a mess. It’s not going the way it’s supposed to. Some plants clearly shouldn’t be there. They’re the products of the enemy! The enemy! Even according to God!

Small wonder the field-hands wanted to go get them, yank them out and burn. But the Kingdom of God is not like that. The place we’re in is the place we’re in together. And what is Christ’s solution? Let them grow together. Wait till God can tell wheat from weed. Until then, everything must grow.

Did you catch that? Fields need tending. Harvests require water. Not only is Jesus telling the hands not to pull the weeds, but also to take care of them. They must irrigate the infidel! Not because everyone’s good at heart, and not because everything is helpful, but because we all share common ground, humus, the material of which human life is made.

Let them grow together.

The kingdom of God is not the domain of wheat. It is the power of God and the principality of love. So weeds get invited. Immigrating irritants sit at God’s table right along with us. So you might as well enjoy the feast, because everyone gets fed.

But what does this mean? People are not wheat or weeds. We have water and earth and sunlight, and we still don’t grow. We don’t live on these alone. We need more. We need to furrow our hearts. To see the kingdom of God we must irrigate our souls.

How? We’re Episcopalians! We know what to do. What we pray shapes what we believe, and the Kingdom of God is built upon belief. So over the next several months we’re going to be talking about prayer, having a conversation about contemplation. And we’re going to be doing it. No one else is, not here, not in this city, even though our culture needs, above all else, the stillness to hear a voice. It’s an exciting thing, and I don’t know where it’s going.

But I can tell you this. In the last five years, the best thing I’ve done, and that includes half a dozen careers and a full-length novel, the best thing I’ve done in five years is sit for half an hour in silence. And I’m terrible at it! I quit. I come back. I skip it on weekends. I skip it to see friends. I only do it half the time I should.

And that failure’s given me the Spirit in a new way, after sixteen years of Christian faith. I’m just tired of doing it alone. So we’re going to talk about prayer, we’re going to do it. And we’re going to invite others to join right in. New Monasticism, a movement that’s reviving ancient spiritual practices and putting them right in modern urban settings exactly like this, is chiefly populated by evangelicals.

Turns out they need silence, too. So we’re going to invite them. We’re going to invite everyone, quietly, because we’re plants in a field, or in a garden, if you prefer that language. And our objective is fertility: be fruitful. And we know that prayer in stillness is how that happens.

So let them grow together. We don’t know much about the Kingdom, but we do know two things: it is already here, and we already have everything we need. So we have a policy and we have a currency and we have some citizens. A few citizens. Okay, not that many citizens, but we’re looking for more. And we are, we are getting more.

Except that Jesus had some other things to say about wheat. The Gospel of John, Chapter 12: “Most assuredly, I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it.”

So we need to die. We need to pray, and then we need to die. Think I’m joking? Look at that window. Gethsemane. As a child, that was my favorite Scripture, which no one understood because it was so dark and scary. Maybe that’s why I liked it. But Gethsemane doesn’t feel that scary anymore. It’s a garden now. You grow your tomatoes and strawberries and take care of them and water them and it’s nice. You probably don’t think about death. I wouldn’t.

But we need to die. We need to die individually, and this church needs to die. We’ve died before, right? Before I came here. The doors were all but closed. Now we’re up and walking around again and wondering what to do. And that’s all right. We have other things like that. We have something that’s dead and reanimated by outside forces that gets up and stumbles around, walks kind of slow. But I don’t want to be a zombie church. I don’t think we are one. But I think we could be.

Yet that wasn’t the first time we died. In the middle of the Great Depression this church lost between two and four thousand dollars every year. That’s dying. That’s going the other way. But the fundraising committee, the fundraising committee, went around to every parishioner and asked, what can we do to help? And we opened up the church to let every misbegotten young man have a program here, entirely on our dime, just to get them off the streets. Not a survival strategy.

So you see there’s a way to die. You cannot die alone. What good is one stalk of wheat? No, you die for the field, for the harvest. Die unto yourself. Die for others. So where is the growth in Minneapolis? Surely there must be something. What are other churches doing for the kingdom of God? We need to find that out. What are they doing for children, for the poor? We need to find that out, and then we need to ask them, what do you need, and how can we help?

Let them grow together.

Now I understand we have enough money to keep this church going for two more years. That’s entirely too much. Gather no manna for tomorrow. So that’s another thing to ask the churches that get it right: will you take our money? Will you take our service, our people and talents? Even without our oversight? If they’re evangelicals, we need to help them evangelize. If they’re Pentecostal we need to help them sing. Because selves die for other selves. Churches die for other churches.

How can churches work together? To change the world we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to figure out how to steer. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet should not best Christ in partnerships.

See, it’s not that there are too few Episcopals. It’s that there are too few Christians. So how can there be more? How can we build church attendance generally? How can we make church better? Not by filling it up with us. I don’t know, maybe we can swap churches. Bring the Pentecostals or the African Methodists in once or twice a year. They come here, we go there. If a few people get confused in the shuffle, maybe all the better for the harvest. This is a beautiful building inside. It stops people. That’s why it cannot be for us. That’s why we need to pour it out, empty it of us.

Let them grow together. It’s a biological axiom that if you’re not growing, you are dead. The Christian rule might be that if you’re not dying, then you’re not alive. So we need to pray, and then we need to die. Not because I said so or even because the Gospel says so, but because in the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks,

“We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. And we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

No comments: