Katie and I have lived in New York City for over seventy years between us. Doesn’t matter; I still get lost in the subway. There are so many places where multiple levels and possible connections overwhelm me. Help is usually available on big subway maps with a red arrow pointing to “You Are Here.” Seeing that sign, I can usually find my way. The trick is to look for the map showing me, “You Are Here.” This is hard for me to do. Being an adult male, it’s not easy to admit I am lost. In a car I just keep on driving and hope to see a sign. In the subway, like life, there is no straight ahead interstate. You have to make many left-right, up-down decisions. Finally humbled, I now look for the subway map when I’m lost.
Our scripture today is full of landmarks for the uncertain or lost. In Genesis, Jacob is on his way to his Uncle Laban’s spread to give his murderously angry brother Esau time to cool off, then to find a good-looking girl cousin to marry, and take on the responsibility of fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham. Jacob had plenty of trouble on his mind. One night on the road, he has a dream. Jacob sees a ladder to heaven. He sees Angels going up, then coming down. He sees an angel of the Lord standing beside him assuring Jacob of God’s promise. Jacob names the place, Beth-el, the House of God, and sets up a stone for a landmark marking the gateway to heaven. Jacob might have wondered, “Is God only here or is God everywhere?” But he put up a map marking the entrance: “You Are Here.” Jacob was only partly right. He wasn’t alone. The angels were already here. They went up the ladder before they came down. Jacob just hadn’t noticed God’s angels around him.
Psalm 139 helps us see God’s ubiquitous presence. The Psalmist sings; You know when I sit down or get up, you hem me in behind and before, you lay your hand on me. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
It seems clear, God is everywhere. Knowing that, we humans always ask, “if God is everywhere, how come there’s so much evil and trouble and war and suffering in the world. How can pandemics happen? God, if you are here, why don’t you just get rid of all this evil and pain? Isn’t that your job?”
Growing up, we had a dairy farm just north of Boston. It was pretty small, nothing like the huge farms of central New York. Samuel Weiss, my grandfather, immigrated from Russia in the late 1800’s; and he desperately wanted to get out of the sweatshops of Manhattan. Samuel heard of a healthy outdoor business, a milk route in Chelsea Mass., just across the river from Boston. But, along with the milk route came twenty-four cows to fill the bottles. Bingo! My family became dairy farmers. Good thing my grandmother Milcah knew how to milk cows and make farmer cheese. The farm grew and moved a little north to Stoneham, and by the time I was old enough to work in the fields we farmed a little over 100 acres of cattle corn and hay. But that was enough to develop an appreciation for field work. Jesus’s farm parables ring especially true to me.
In Matthew this morning Jesus tells a farm parable, then the disciples ask him to explain. The parable: The farmer planted corn in his field, weeds popped up, the workers asked if they should pull them out, the farmer says, no, you’ll uproot the corn. At harvest, we’ll get the weeds first and burn them, then gather the ripe corn. Jesus explains. The field is the world. Christ sows the good seed, the children of God, the weeds are the children of the evil one, sowed by the devil, the harvest is the end of time. The Lord will send his angels at harvest, the angels will then collect all causes of evil and evil doers and throw them into the furnace, then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Father’s kingdom. The field hands are told to wait until the harvest before dealing with the weeds, otherwise the crop will be ruined — pulled out along with the weeds. I remember only too well how weeds grew quickly, tough and strong soon after they appeared, while good grain and corn were fragile at first. Cultivating between the rows with a tractor cut back the weeds some, but there are always weeds. It takes time for the good crops to mature and grow strong and tall, easy to differentiate from the stubbier weeds.
Jesus’ parable of the field made sense to me. It still seems like a helpful way to understand the presence of evil, and illness, and troubles in the world. More, it helps us see our lives as part of a large ripening field, not isolated individuals.
In today’s reading from Romans, Paul jumps in expanding on the idea of we humans as growing plants in a field of ripening corn. Paul starts by trivializing the sufferings of this life as simply not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. As so often happens with Paul’s letters, he writes in tangled Greek syntax. Let’s keep in mind who is speaking: This is Paul, a Hebrew-speaking Jewish male, writing in Greek, to Latin speaking Italians. And he uses the metaphor of a woman’s labor pains. Not exactly the clear writing guidance he’d get in school today. But let’s open our minds to Paul’s message anyway. He starts with information about the purpose and goal of our lives here on earth: For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Paul asks us to give God credit for maybe having something more in mind for us than our own personal individual comfort and salvation. Paul lays out a job description for humanity. Our task is immense; fulfill the hope of all of creation; all animals, plants, forests, mountains, rocks, rivers, seas, stars, planets, moons, galactic dust, all created waves and particles, photons and powers – and all humans, all people. Not the narrow “I” or “me” but ALL of creation straining together to be redeemed.
Wow! Where did Paul get this vision that he can barely describe? Why can’t he describe it better? Paul tells us the source of this vision In 2 Corinthians: And I know that [I] — whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.
But Paul tries to tell us anyway. Maybe that’s part of the reason he writes in such painful syntax. Romans 8 is a giant verbal road map showing the destination for humanity, with an arrow pointing to where we are. We Are Here. God is not yet finished with his creation. On the sixth day God made us, then on the seventh day, the Creator rested and handed us a tough assignment. God handed us the task of finishing the job. It’s a big job and a tough job. God may be resting, but he’s sent angels here among us to help.
Paul tells us the whole universe, including we humans are all in process of being born! We are like a field of ripening corn. And while this new birth is happening, as we grow, we see we’ve been planted in a field choked in weeds planted by the devil. God knows this. Where’s our job description?
Maybe it's just another one of those epic coincidences, but all this spring, during this assault by the new noxious weed in our field, the Covid-19 virus, our gospel messages have focused on the necessity of losing our life in order to save it. We’ve used phrases like, “transformation,” “re-birth,” “born again of the spirit,” “baptism into new life.” Our Gospel job description. Jesus gives us the simple clue to how it's done. The secret to denying our old self, is contained in the simple phrase Jesus taught: Love your neighbor as yourself. He doesn’t say, “Save yourself.” Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Loving our neighbor as ourselves is not as simple as saying it. Before we can really love our neighbor as ourselves, we’ve certainly got to have a sense of self, and be comfortable with it. We need to be released from our own fears, and shame, and bitterness, and anger, and sorrows, and forgotten rejections, and disappointments. But then we are free to love our self, and able to pass that accepting love on to our neighbor.
How do we know we love our neighbor as ourselves? How we act isn’t always a good measure. It’s easy to look at a neighbor, and as an act of pity and mercy, give things to those less fortunate than our blessed, religious selves. This is condescension in the bad way. Charity which extends alms — without the humility of faith, without empathy with neighbor, without caritas, is not love. It’s a way to feel good. A cheap, peak experience.
When we can love our self, and love our neighbor as our own self, we begin to experience what Jesus says clearly and Paul tries to explain. Our neighbor IS our self. There is no longer an I. It is US. We collectively are the body of Christ called on to do our part in helping God complete the birth of the entire Creation. We’re all in this job and we all have a role to play. This mystical body of Christ is made up of individual cells which do operate alone, but as part of the same body, each with its job to do. Each cell has as important a role as our own. Just as worthy, just as valid. When we truly see that - as Jesus did - we don’t just “help our neighbor,” we do whatever is needed to pull all of us closer to salvation. When we truly love neighbor as ourselves, we together are forming the body of Christ. That is our confident hope.
So here we are in a field filled with robust weeds as well as ripening crops. God has a reason for that even if we don’t crisply understand. And there’s a map that says WE ARE HERE. And there are angels here with us guiding us to the next connection in the right direction. The map has a destination and a landmark. The landmark: WE Are Here. Sure, our lives have been full of troubles, problems, weeds in the garden. Yet We Are Here. Not You are here, Not I am here, but US. WE ARE HERE. The great birth of Creation is happening. So as we wait in patient endurance, let’s cultivate love for each other and for all. Let’s move Creation along. The angels will take care of the weeds in God’s time.