Let Those Thistles Alone

St. Augustine is often misquoted, it turns out.

Folks are fond of saying he’s the one who coined the phrase: “he who sings, prays twice.”

Could be that faulty interpretation sounds like good news to all of us who regularly attend our Saturday evening contemplative service, seeing as we forgo that particular spiritual practice in the liturgy.

Still, one American Catholic priest took it upon himself to set the record straight—having written his thesis on Augustine’s work—and offers us an edifying clarification.

“When we praise God,” he says, something happens to the song of the one singing. The object of the song becomes the subject.” Which is to say, something special happens: “the song itself becomes LOVE in its manifestation of the love of the one who is truly Love itself.”[i]

Whether you prefer to make a joyful noise on Sunday mornings, with this gathered community or to worship the Lord in the beauty of holy silence, Saturday nights, let me reassure you, there was plenty of love flowing through this sanctuary during our joyful praise gatherings, with which we started and concluded Vacation Bible School, Monday through Thursday night this past week.

One of the favorite songs of VBS, in fact, challenged all of us to channel that radical love that defined the lives of those earliest Christians.

Our youngsters encountered costumed characters like the Apostle Paul, chained and in prison, as well as Christian shopkeepers and polytheist citizens, in our Roman marketplace, where they saw that Christian love brought to life. And as we sang together, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know that we are Christians by our love,” we soaked up the message with our bodies, letting this foundational Christian call to love the world in Jesus’ name, sink in deep into our very cells.

I can just imagine Jesus, in that house, explaining this parable to his perplexed disciples, using a similarly visceral illustration. This story had been told in mixed company, amidst the masses, who had gathered on the hillside, to hear Jesus’ strange stories, as he floated out on that boat, just off the shore.

Varied and vivid, these stories are chock full of vibrant images and examples, from the lives of regular people like them, like you, and like me. Once indoors, after bidding the crowds goodbye, the disciples corner their teacher. Even though Jesus has told several other stories in the meantime, including the one about the mustard seed that grows into a massive garden where the birds of the air make their nests, and the one about the busy baker woman whose yeasty starter turns out enough friendship bread to feed several armies.

Nope, the disciples are still fixating on that thistle-filled wheat field. They could no more let that interpretation lie than they could follow the field owner’s instructions: let the plants alone, weed and wheat alike!

I can’t blame them, really.

It’s hard to let God be God.

But the truth is, the mystery of the kingdom in our midst isn’t our business, after all. It’s God’s.

Even if Wichita is the home of the ‘shockers, this story tells us harvesting is angels’ work.

Perhaps to the consternation of Jesus’ disciples, then as now, we aren’t the angels or the field hands, we are the growing things in the field. And our job is to wait, to grow, to live and let live. Whether we are wheat or thistles. Chances are we’re a bit of both, all at once. And the good news for us in this story is that it doesn’t really matter. Wheat or weeds, we were never gonna earn our salvation, in the first place. It is a free gift of the God of love, who is in the business of saving His whole world. Just like we told our youngsters during Vacation Bible School.

Truth is, we are not much better than the disciples, when it comes to letting our hearts, minds, or understanding be enlarged. It’s hard to let go of that persistent urge to help God out, Proactively weeding out those thistles in the kingdom of God.

But Paul’s epistle to the Romans, (which was the Bible book from which all the verses we memorized this week with our kids were drawn), that letter of encouragement to Christians throughout the ages, reminds us that the kingdom of God is no DIY project. We simply cannot do it ourselves. Our translation of Romans this morning, taken from Eugene Peterson’s The Message, gives us this fabulous image of creation as pregnant. (which has also inspired our bulletin art!) Creation, bursting with life, joyfully anticipating the glory that is to come. Like a pregnant mother, Paul says, “we are enlarged in the waiting.” Now I must confess, I’ve not been pregnant myself. But as the eldest of six children, I’ve seen some of the discomfort in the latter stages of that enlargement process. And the dog days of summer like these, I’ve witnessed how it can be flat out miserable.

Somehow, this brought to mind Rebekah, from last week’s Old Testament reading, where Jacob and Esau are warring in her womb. Fighting that would persist for much of their lives, kicking off right there, in utero, when they’d barely begun. This turns out to be the perfect story to help us grasp the greater truth in Jesus’ parable today. Jacob, as we heard tell of in our Old Testament reading from Genesis, just a few minutes ago, Jacob finds himself on the road—on the lamb, actually. He had to run for his life from Beersheba, after stealing his brother’s birthright. Esau’s murderous rage would feel a lot less ominous from the safe distance of his Uncle Laban’s house.

So here Jacob is, a lying-no-good-fugitive-cheat who betrayed his own twin. Pretty much as dangerous a thistle as you could ask for! And God appears to him in a dream, claiming Jacob as an instrument of blessing, through the covenant God had forged with Jacob’s grandfather Abraham. Forget the spoils of Jacob’s venison stew swindle! (that you can read about in Genesis chapter 27). This is not about Jacob’s success as a trickster. This is God’s unmerited grace, lovingly claiming thistle-man Jacob, who simply cannot run fast or far enough, to get outside the reach of Love.

When I hear Jesus’ parable, as the wheat field owner tells his workers to let those thistles alone, growing alongside the wheat, until the harvest time, I have to own my own frustration. I want God to do the efficient thing, to rip out those weeds before they have a chance to monopolize resources we know the wheat needs to grow strong and to bear fruit.

The disciples weren’t lucky like we are, to have the aid of the lectionary, to help us puzzle out the import of such confounding patience. (God’s ways can seem quite crazy, can’t they?)

Mercifully, we have the wisdom of those who have gone before us generations of Christians whose questions and thoughts help us with this process of letting our spiritual imaginations be enlarged by the Good News that Jesus brings. I am especially grateful to Episcopal priest and theologian, Robert Farrar Capon, whose writing this week reminded me how much words matter. Jesus’ word, for example, when he depicts the field owner’s forbearance in this story, is aphete in the original Greek. This word in its New Testament use, expresses two ideas:

  1. To leave, leave alone, permit
  2. To send, to let go, to dismiss

Father Capon points out that this sense of letting go or dismissing makes its way (via Latin) into our English through the word: forgiveness. Aphete, he says, would have evoked that portion of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” for the early Christians, who would have recited the same prayer as we do, weekly, in liturgy. Now before you tune me out, as just another biblical language nut, hang in there with me for one more minute…because this idea of “forgiving” seems key to understanding the picture of God’s kingdom that Jesus was spinning out in his parable about “letting” the thistles alone.

Judging from the way he tells the story, Jesus is far more interested in the mystery of the season of waiting…. Growing, Coexisting, Letting God be God, Living and letting live in the kingdom, than he is in the “everyone gets what’s coming to them” ending his disciples crave so darn much.

In the Roman marketplace that descended upon our Guild Hall during Vacation Bible School last week, we watched a version of this story unfold in real time, as Claudia, our food shopkeeper, forgave the thief who stole one of her heavenly sweet breads. She didn’t just let him off the hook, (never mind, don’t worry about it) she went out of her way to protect him from the mandatory punishment his crime would have elicited from the Roman authorities. Claudia paid for the stolen food out of her very own purse. That’s the kind of love in action that makes no sense to human understanding. It’s a love that defies logic.

Which brings us back to the story of Jacob and Esau. For their narrative reveals, later on in Genesis chapter 33, Esau forgives Jacob of that earlier brotherly betrayal. Though the twins were estranged for a time, the brothers meet again, long after Jacob has married Leah and Rachel. Esau and Jacob have both grown into great tribes, with wives, children, flocks, and servants aplenty. And in that electrifying reunion, Esau approaches his brother with logic-defying forgiveness. Love has its way in Esau’s life, allowing him not only to let Jacob live but to embrace him fully, again, in spite of the unforgivable wrong Jacob inflicted on Esau.

The two grown men fall upon each other’s necks, weeping like babies. When I think about Jesus’ challenge to let the thistles be…When I think about Jesus’ commandment to be reconciled, with the ones who have wronged us, before approaching the altar to offer our gifts to God in worship…When I think of the love that inspired the earliest Christians, to lay down their lives for others…I will think of these two brothers, thistly wheat and wheaty thistle. And I will think of all that Jesus has forgiven me.

In just a few minutes, we celebrate the Eucharist together, praying together in the words our Savior taught us. I’ll be remembering how Esau forgave his brother Jacob. I’ll also be thinking of those with whom I struggle to share the love of God. Perhaps you will be too. For if we take Jesus’ call to embody the same selfless love that led him to lay down his life for us, on the cross, then we will embrace that very challenge.

To live and to let live, together, thistle and wheat alike. In one field. Knowing that our faithful Creator is redeeming the whole creation. In His perfect time. Our job, in the meanwhile, is to let his love enlarge our hearts, our minds, and our understanding. So that we may have courage and audacity to sing, with every ounce of our existence, like the littlest among us who praised and prayed quite faithfully this past week in VBS (next lines sung)

“They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love!” Amen.

[i] See Father John Zuhlsdorf’s blog post on Augustine:

http://wdtprs.com/blog/2006/02/st-augustine-he-who-sings-prays-twice/