In the heat of the summer, especially during a week like we’ve just had, all you want to do is stay inside in the air conditioning. More and more, at least if you’re like me, that means streaming television. And if we’re really getting honest, that means binge-watching television. You know you have a problem when it’s midnight and you’ve watched four consecutive episodes of This Old House and you’re gearing up for another.
But this is the world we live in nowadays. Just this week there was an op-ed in the Times about how “streaming” has changed the way we think of stories. No longer are we watching shows that close the loop in a half-hour. Instead, every episode ends with a cliffhanger, which has created the phenomenon we now know as “binge-watching.” Elissa Bassist writes this:
It goes like this: “Just one more episode.” Cliffhanger. “My life depends on knowing what happens. Just another.” Cliffhanger. “Last one. I swear,” having sworn it before. Cliffhanger, and canceled plans…
She goes on to say that cliffhangers can be well-done, but more and more they’re just ploys to keep us stimulated enough to need more. It’s interesting: she says the reason cliffhangers are so successful is actually because we hate them.
Most of us can’t stand an open narrative loop, so we persevere and sprint back to our devices, again and again. Cliffhangers deny us resolution and closure so that we may never find peace, may not turn off the machine, may continually dissolve into some violent or exotic disaster involving a volcano.
Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds is all about the open narrative loop. It is all about living life among the unresolved. A landowner plants good seed, but while everyone is gone to bed, an “enemy” plants bad seed in with the good seed. As the seeds take root and grow, the landowner’s servants begin to notice that something’s not right. There are weeds in the crop, threatening to choke out all the good stuff.
So they tell the landowner, worried and perhaps a bit ticked off that he’s made their lives so hard. “I thought you planted good stuff?” they ask. I did, the landowner replies, someone else did this. Being the good stewards they are, and trying to take their lemons and make lemonade, they offer to help resolve the issue. “Well, good thing we’re here. Want us to go out and pull the weeds?” This way the good crop can grow strong and healthy, the way it’s supposed to. Problem solved.
But strangely the landowner says “No, don’t do that.” Despite the fact that his whole crop is endangered, that he has a labor force to get out and make it happen, he tells them to do nothing. “Let it go,” he says, and his reason is: “You don’t know what is good and bad. If you try to pull the weeds, you’ll get it wrong. You’ll pull up the wheat, too, and then we’ll have an even bigger problem. No, leave it alone and don’t try to intervene. When it all grows up, I will do the sorting. Leave it to me. When it is harvest time, I will separate the good and the bad.”
It’s obvious who the God character is in the story, but it is strange that he is so passive. And the servants are left to sit there, not able to do the job they think would actually help a hell of a lot. I’m thinking, if I am one of those servants, that I would hate waking up every morning, walking through those fields, covered in weeds, not as productive as they should be, not growing as tall as they could be growing, not even certain the wheat is going to make it in the end. I can imagine walking through those fields and wondering to myself, “What does this jerk know anyway? If he’s really here, if he really cares, why is he letting this go unresolved?”
But this, after all, really is the way the world seems much of the time. At least this is the world I am walking through most mornings: the world seems rife with problems and answers don’t seem readily available. Whether they’re the systemic, social justice problems like the ones we’re facing in Charlottesville now, or interpersonal, relationship problems we have with our parents or our children. Or there are the personal problems we have–the unresolved emotions we have and the meds we’re on to allay them.
There are all these problems in life, none of which seem to give simple answers, and it’s easy to walk through the world, asking, “God, are you really here? And if you are, why are you letting this go unresolved? Why is nothing changing?” As the Romans passage from today’s Lectionary says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait…” Our faith, Paul describes, does not take us from the cliff’s edge. We are still waiting to see what happens next.
The parable seems to give us no answers in this regard, only that it’s not our job to figure out what to do next. And this, to me, is the most offensive portion of the parable. God says to his servants, “Your logic is faulty when it comes to solutions.” You are unable to distinguish between what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and what’s wrong. You think you are helping, when you are actually hurting. And, on the flip side, the very thing that will bring restitution is the thing you just can’t look at, the thing that is so ugly, so bad, that you would never choose to go there.
The major reason that God tells his servants that a “resolution will not come from you” is because you are a sinner, which means that you, too, are a mixture of good seed and bad. You may think you have a good handle on what the world needs, what would fix a major problem in your son’s life, or your coworker’s or your own, but generally speaking, you are prone to miss the point. You have a code error inside you which makes you prone to make the wrong choices. One of my favorite writers, Francis Spufford, says it this way:
We are creatures who don’t get to decide what we are, whose natures are always partly hidden from our conscious understanding, who always pull several ways at once…Wherever the line is drawn between acceptable and unacceptable, between kind and cruel, between clean and dirty, we’re always going to be voting on both sides of it, despite ourselves.
In other words, when it comes down to separating wheat from weeds, you are not the man or woman for the job. You cannot solve the world’s problems, you cannot even solve your own problems, because you are a part of the problem. Any weed-pulling you do in your life out there is going to be prone to the same weediness that dwells in here.
So what on earth can you do?! We are left with a world (and a self) that is riddled with unresolved conflict, completely suffused with good and evil, neither of which we can ever truly distinguish. Jesus’ parable says wait. Do nothing. Leave it to me. Take it on faith that I am doing something.
Our hope lies in the good news that God will do something.
In the passage from Romans this morning, Paul describes a world living in the hope that Jesus Christ did do something. The cross, Paul says, was God signing our adoption papers. In the blood of Christ, we are all made sons and daughters. It is God’s promise to rectify everything, to make everything right, the clear the weeds in the world and in ourselves.
Except Paul doesn’t say that it looks much different right now. In fact, on the surface, things look basically the same: the world is still groaning, it is still rife with cliffhangers, and still grants us few solutions. But Paul doesn’t seem to think that clarity is something to be concerned with. Our hope, he argues, is invisible. “Who hopes in what they can see?” he says. We wait to be taken to our new home.
In trying to think about what this looks like, the image that kept coming to mind was my friend Donte. Donte was in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail two years ago when we started our jail ministry, and since he has been moved from prison to prison to finish his sentence. While he was in our local jail, though, we saw Donte once a week and a lot of the jail ministers here at Christ Church got really close to Donte. He has told us time and again that Christ Church is the family he never really had and that when he gets out Christ Church is going to be his home.
Donte is now in a prison over five hours away. He will be there for a while. He has not seen any of his Christ Church friends in about a year, and besides the occasional letter or book to read, he does not hear from the outside world much. He spends 21 hours a day in his cell, and as you might guess, he says the community in his current situation is not the kind you necessarily want to write home about. As for “resolving” anything, good luck with that. Donte has a hard time getting his eyes checked or his mail mailed.
He calls the church office all the time, Lyn knows his number by heart at this point. But the last time I had the chance to speak to Donte, I was so frustrated by his situation, his inability to change anything in his situation, that I asked him, “Doesn’t it ever get to you, aren’t you mad at God? It’s okay if you are!”
Donte corrected me quickly. “First of all, man, I got myself here. So, no, I’m not mad at God. And secondly, while I do get discouraged, it is so good to know where I am headed. God has given me a family! You just better tell everyone at Christ Church that their long lost brother is coming!”
SO there! I told you! But this is the promise given us in the midst of all our unresolved conflicts. We wait in hope for God’s resolution, not our own. It is a promise signed, sealed, and delivered in the cross of Christ, that we are adopted into his family as sons and daughters. And that all will be mended, more than we could ever imagine or believe.