Furnace of Angels

Proper 11Awood oven

Have any of you parents out there had the experience of your young children learning a classroom lesson on the environment and then becoming the household garbage police? I admit it, my children were the ones who insisted—leaving no room for negotiation—that I separate waste from recyclables.

I may not have been an early adopter, but of course after I was repeatedly chastised by my children and got into the habit, it became second nature. Now I would no more throw away a glass bottle than I would toss out my dirty dishes. I might let them sit in the sink for a while, but I’m not talking end-of-the-age kind of while. Maybe just until my husband notices and decides to wash them himself.

I’m especially careful about food scraps, because I know about the atmospheric impact of methane gas generated in landfills—again, thanks to my children—and so I found it quite unsettling to move to Portland and discover that my condominium does not have a municipal composting bin. Being unwilling to mix up my waste, I have been gathering up food scraps and storing them in the freezer and bringing them to Trinity. About twice a week you’ll see me walking over here with my green waste container. I feel really proud of that. I hope our sextons feel the same way…

There are plenty of good reasons to keep things separate. To better manage waste, to keep diseases from spreading, to grow food efficiently. So I can well imagine the shock of the disciples when Jesus compared the world that God so loved to a field with grain and weeds growing to maturity side by side.

They knew this was not good farming. At best, failing to weed the field would result in a diminished crop yield. And if you were here last week and heard the Parable of the Sower, you know that Jesus has a preference for a plentiful harvest. At the worst, allowing weeds to grow together with the grain might well contaminate the entire harvest. The weed that Jesus was referring to in this parable was likely bearded darnel. Also known as false wheat, its seeds are toxic and its roots will consume all available nutrients. So pulling weeds from the wheat field in a timely manner might be a matter of life and death.

At the same time, there are some very bad reasons to keep things separate. If Jesus were comparing the wheat and weeds of the parable to people—as it seems when he called them children of the kingdom and children of the evil one—we only need to look at our long human history of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia to know how cruel and dangerous segregating people can be. And Jesus was preaching in the midst of a community that observed any number of discriminatory categories: male and female, Jew, Gentile and Samaritan, clean and unclean people were legally, ritually, and geographically separated. So it seems likely that Jesus—who shamelessly consorted with women and gentiles—was telling this parable to warn us against premature judgement about who is good and who is bad. “Let them both grow together,” he insisted.

For together we are: none other than St. Augustine described the church itself is a “corpus mixtum,” a mixed lot ourselves. And if we’re honest, we probably know that good and evil are not only present among us, but within each of us. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them,” lamented Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Nevertheless, there are circumstances—as with wheat and the darnel, garbage and compost or even people with communicable diseases—wherein a certain degree of segregation keeps everyone safer. And stronger, too. Oppressed communities, for example, sometimes need to congregate with peers in order to claim power and maintain cultural identity.

We might think of the context into which Isaiah was preaching as a case in point. The prophet had witnessed the fall of a nation whose corrupted leaders had lost sight of their sacred traditions of law and justice. In captivity under Babylonian rule and subjected to the claims of competing deities, their very survival depended on sticking together and reclaiming their trust in the authority and sufficiency of Yahweh.

It’s when we feel like our survival is threatened that we are most tempted to discriminate and self-segregate. It’s human nature, and I think we’re seeing a good deal of it playing out in our common life these days. I certainly find myself tempted to judge who is a child of the kingdom or child or of the evil one, what is fruitful grain or noxious wheat based on—for example—who watches MSNBC or Fox News. Which is precisely when the three thousand year sweep of Scripture gives me needed perspective. We have been here before, we people of the Book. Our foremothers and forefathers knew what it was to live with division, segregation, and subjection to a by a hostile power. And yet, Paul could write with confidence: “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

And the prophet Isaiah offers us a strategy for dealing with the sufferings of his age that is useful in any age. “Besides me there is no God. Do not fear, or be afraid,” he said, speaking as God’s oracle. “Have I not told you from of old and declared it? There is no other rock.” In other words, get your priorities in order. Figure out who and what claims your ultimate loyalty, and stay faithful to your God. Or as Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.” And then leave the sorting to God. When we aren’t confused about the ultimate—when we keep our eyes on the prize—it is easier to tolerate diversity in the proximate.

And what do we know about the ultimate, the God that we worship in the Episcopal Church? We know this much because we just sang it: “you, O Lord, are gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and full of kindness and truth.” From Genesis to Revelation the message is consistent. God creates and calls it good. God goes to every conceivable length to save, and creation itself will be set free from bondage. Even that which looks to us like destruction is creativity for our God. Take fire, for example. It is the bush that conveys God’s voice, it is the refiner that purifies, it is the tongues that empower God’s people to proclaim good news. So while I’ll exercise restraint in predicting what the end of the age might look like, I do know that—in God’s ecosystem—nothing is wasted.

Let me tell you another parable. We’ve been hearing a lot of them in church lately, and one way to understand parables is that they are stories—allegories—which need not be literally true in order to be eternally true. So let anyone with ears listen—

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a planet which put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and trees of every kind. Some of which were good for building, some were good for giving shade, some were good for eating, some for feeding the fire which kept people warm. Some were simply beautiful, with no extrinsic usefulness. But all of these plants turned sunlight into energy, and the soil in which they grow was enriched by all that died and entered into it. Its fertility nurtured life out of fire and decay, for God made it to be that way, and it was good.

And at the at the end of the age, the Son of Man will send his angels, and they will set tables under the shade of trees and fill uncountable baskets with flowers. They will make wine from the grapes, and harvest the wheat, and stoke the ovens with bundles of weeds and bake loaves enough for 5000 women, besides children and men. And the people will be invited to feast at the banquet prepared from the foundation of the world, and the bread that they serve will taste like the body of Christ, given for you.