Garlicky Wheat: How Long, O Lord!

The Reverend Elijah B. White

MP 11-A: Psalm 74, Wisdom & Mt; 544, 137, 576 

Today’s Sunday School Picnic reminds me how often our thoughts about the Bible are influenced by our Sunday-School-level thinking.  As a child I used to wonder about Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares, the good seed and the bad; it didn’t make sense: why wouldn’t farmhands know one plant from another?  And who’d go around planting weeds anyway?

Well, we can learn a lot about farming from real farmers. When I was Rector in Casanova and Catlett forty years ago farmers had a problem with garlicky wheat. Soil in that part of Fauquier held an endemic pest that looked like wheat, but when they took their crop to market in Fredericksburg the buyers knew it, marked their wheat as “Number Two Garlic,” and subtracted a certain amount from regular market price.  I checked with Lisa Rogers at the mill the other day:  we don’t seem to have that particular problem up here in Loudoun, but we still have to deal with something like it here called ‘rye grass.’  It’s not true rye, not Secale cereale which is the good rye, but Lolium temulentum, which looks like rye, grows like rye, is often mixed in with rye, but it’s bad stuff.

So this is not a fanciful story Jesus tells.  In fact in those days it made great sense to his hearers because sabotaging your neighbor was so common by sowing bad seed in with his good seed at planting time.  Scholars have found specific laws, Roman, Hebrew, Persian, with specific punishments for anyone who sowed bad seed and mixed it in with the wheat.  Because they did grow up together; they entwined; they looked so alike at the beginning – it’s still done, I understand, in remote parts of India.

And Jesus’ hearers knew about field hands − they were rough and ready types, liable to just go in and pull out all the weeds they could and (as the master says in verse 29) they’d destroy a lot of good wheat along with the tares. The field hands wanted to judge before the time, but the master said no: wait until the harvest; then we’ll sort it out − which is probably a useful and humbling reminder to us today.

Jesus makes three important points here.  He teaches us that even in this fallen world there is a Godly power always sowing the good seed, sowing the Will and the Word of God (that’s next Sunday’s lesson), sowing the good news of His Kingdom, a sower of good seed − and also a hostile power, an evil power which actively works to corrupt, infect, destroy the good and godly growth − in this world the wheat and the tares, the good and the bad, are growing together intertwined. You and I know this for a fact, we can see it all around us − as G. K. Chesterton pointed out, “Original Sin is the one theological doctrine that can be empirically demonstrated. 

In this parable, Jesus makes it clear that so often it’s difficult for us to distinguish between those who are of the Kingdom and those who are not.  A good person can seem very bad at certain times. A vicious person can seem attractive and good.  The operative method of a con man − the word “con” is short for a “confidence” man − is to gain our con-fidence by being charming, presentable, nice, winning our trust − which makes him exceptionally dangerous. It’s easy for us to be misled, in either direction, because we tend to classify people or ideas by what seems to us to be good or bad appearances:  they look good; they sound good.

Jesus teaches us the only One with the full knowledge to judge another’s whole character is God.  You and I have to judge by actions.  We have to judge by what we can see in another.  It’s OK to serve on juries – it’s OK to be a judge – we have to – but our judgments have to be of actions, not of moral worth; there’s a vast difference between saying, “You were guilty of robbing that 7-11,” and “you are worthless scum who’s going to Hell.”  The first judgment we must make; the second is not ours to make.  Leave that to God.  As Hamlet’s father’s ghost says, “Leave that to Heaven.” 

Jesus is very clear on a fact many “modern” thinkers deny:  there is Evil in this world, Evil loose in this world and working, working always, hostile to the Good that is of God.  The Bible is not ‘philosophy’ (the Greek roots of which mean ‘love of this world’s wisdom’) – the Bible is not ‘theology’ (which means ‘man’s words about God’)  − the Bible is not human speculation, but direct Revelation of God to Man concerning the basic facts of this world and the next − one fact being that there is Evil in this world, as Jesus’ parable makes clear, verse 28:  “An enemy hath done this,” an enemy as implacable as the burning eye of Sauron in that believing Christian Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy − we field-hand humans cannot negotiate with that Evil, cannot placate it with compromises nor overcome it with our own best efforts. Only God can defeat Evil, and rescue us in the process.

There will be a sorting-out at harvest time.  There will be those set on the right hand and those set on the left – and there will be appropriate rewards. So if sinners seem to flourish around us like the green bay tree, don’t lose any sleep over it.  Do your best.  Read and believe your Bible.  Pray your prayers.  Do right and shame the Devil.  Keep straight.  Don’t envy the “successful” sinners.  God will sort them out, as Jesus makes clear.

What do we do?  Remembering the Judgment to come, we must judge our own moral worth very carefully.  There will be a judgment.  Our personal responsibility is to be able to answer the question that Quakers and Great-Awakening converts used to ask one another in the 1700’s, which is, “How is it with your soul?”  Not “Hi!”  Not “How are you?” but “How is it with your soul?”  That’s the question we should always be ready to answer – and to be ready to answer it rightly we have to have given it careful and critical thought, 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.

The Paralyzed Man

The Reverend Elijah B. White

February 2, 2000

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus signs His own death warrant. You know the story: 

Jesus’ “preaching the word to them” attracts such a crowd to a house that (Mark chapter 2, verse 2) “there was no longer room for them, even about the door.”  Four friends bring a paralyzed man on a litter, hoping for a healing, but they can’t even get near the place – so, persistent and resourceful, they climb up to the house’s flat roof, pull out a section of brushwood and clay packed between the roof beams, and lower their friend’s litter down through the hole to lie at Jesus’ feet:  you remember drawings of that dramatic scene from Sunday School.

Verse 5, “and when Jesus saw their faith” (the possessive pronoun “their” doubtless includes the sick man), their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  These words raise two related points: [1], the Hebrews’ connection of sickness to sin and [2], who has authority to forgive sin?

One major school of Jewish thought held that God causes everything that happens or doesn’t happen, good and bad, so therefore all misfortune or sickness or death must be God’s doing, punishment for sin.  This bad theology produces such thinking as that of Eliphaz the Temanite, who asks suffering Job (Job chapter 4, verse 7) “Who that was innocent ever perished?”  What a question!  What implications, confusing the physical frailties of our mortal bodies with the moral judgments of God – I’d love to ask Eliphaz, “Who has ever not perished?”

Now, there are psychosomatic illnesses including paralysis, so it could well be that Jesus diagnosed this man’s problem as such and went straight to the point. There are hints: it’s unusual that in this healing Jesus makes my physical contact, and I think this is the only healing during which He says, “your sins are forgiven.”

In any case, when Jesus uttered these words He signed His death warrant. You see, the top religious authorities quite properly kept a sharp eye out for false or heretical religious opinions. The Sanhedrin, their supreme council in Jerusalem, was especially on the lookout for “false messiahs” because so many zealots had recently used such claims to incite armed political revolution. Perhaps the authorities sent scouts to check out this “Jesus,” since Nazareth and Galilee were long-time hotbeds of revolt.

So, “some of the scribes” [scholars learned in the Law and Scriptures] “were sitting there” [doubtless in the front row seats of honor to which their position entitled them] “questioning in their hearts, “’This is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’”

Now be very clear about this − this is no grounds for anti-semitism. These Jewish scribes are legit, their question is on target, and their point is 100% accurate: only God, “God alone,” can forgive sins. You and I know that “Lige White” can’t forgive sins, that all any priest can do [wave he his arm ne’er so cunningly] is serve as a duly authorized agent reassuring and conveying that forgiveness which only God can give. We know this as Christians, and we learned it from the Jews who knew and taught it first. The problem here is not the scribes’ theology about God, but their failure to recognize the authority of God incarnate in Jesus who was and is the Jewish Messiah − as our Lenten class studied last year. The Hebrews’ long-longed-for Deliverer was at last standing in front of them, three feet away in that jam-packed little house in Capernaum, close enough to reach out and touch − but they failed to recognize Him, to know and acknowledge Jesus for who and what He is.

Therefore, because of the limitations of their perception, the scribes had to report to the Sanhedrin that this man Jesus was publicly claiming authority to do what God alone can do − which is “blasphemy,” they use the correct legal term, for which the Mosaic legal penalty is death − this Jesus was not only blaspheming God, but also making them look ridiculous by then healing the paralytic − leaving them in baffled rage, which would not stay “baffled” long:  rage will find a way, the proper authorities would find a way to stop this Jesus, soon.

So what can you and I learn from this?  That God in Christ can heal our bodies, which of course can be only a short-term help, and can heal our hearts and souls, which can be forever.  We can learn that this world, represented by the scribes and Sanhedrin and later by the Roman executioners, this world is no friend to God.

We can learn from the people involved here: which will we make our role models? 1) The scribes, prideful in their learning and sense of being “better” than most others, questioning in their hearts, failing to recognize the Son of God when He stood right in front of them  –2) The crowd, who pressed )nearer to hear Jesus’ every word, who without intellectual cavils marveled at His power  — 3) The stretcher-bearers, themselves hale and hearty, who with faith and hope labored with effort and imagination to help their friend by bringing him to Jesus — or 4), the sufferer himself, paralyzed by guilt or fear or illness or some combination thereof.  We’ll never know how much of his willingness in this daring rooftop enterprise sprang from faith, how much from desperation that will try anything to be able to move again − we can’t tell what he thought, but we do know what he did:  he believed what Jesus said; he accepted Jesus’ authority to forgive, a necessary precondition to accepting His forgiveness and, he did what Jesus told him to do: when Jesus said, “Rise, take up your pallet, and go home,” he did just that – he did not linger to celebrate his healing or dance for joy with his friends: no, verse 12, “he rose, immediately took up his pallet, and went out.”

You and I can learn from all the different people involved here, learn to marvel at God’s wondrous works, learn to help others come to Christ, learn to accept and obey and rejoice in His healing power, learn to confidently sing and pray, “Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us…. thus provided, pardoned, guided, nothing can our peace destroy!” 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

Christian Checkup

The Reverend Elijah B. White

October 12, 1980

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“How am I doing, as a Christian?”  Our forefathers knew how to answer that question; they knew how to assess their progress in the Christian vocation, how to inventory their spiritual condition and its tangible fruits in daily living. We

can profit from doing the same. This morning I’ll outline an 8-point spiritual inventory from our Second Lesson.  It’s not a complete fitness checkup, but it’s a start.

In his Writing to Timothy in the Second Lesson today (2 Timothy 2), St. Paul uses three different illustrations for the individual’s approach to life as a Christian (uses same 3 in I Cor. 9):

(1) “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him.

(2) An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. 

(3) It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything.”

Let’s do that, think over these three analogies!  They can shed useful light on the approach, the attitude, to enrich, strengthen, further our lives as Christians.

First, the soldier on active service. What are the characteristic attitudes of a good soldier, the qualities of character which make him a “good” soldier? These certainly include (1) concentration, (2) obedience, (3) sacrifice, and (4)

loyalty.

(1) Concentration. Am I concentrating on practicing my Christian faith?  Paul spells this out, noting that “no soldier on active service gets entangled in civilian pursuits.” Without question, we Christians are on active service; we are on the front line because the front in the conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, God and the Devil, fellowship with God versus loneliness locked into oneself − the active front line lies in each of our souls. We are the front line:  just as a front-line soldier must concentrate on his soldiering, so a Christian must concentrate on his Christianity. Certainly, we live in the everyday world, we make a living, we’re involved with many people − we are inevitably engaged in these pursuits − we’re not to be entangled in them; in every activity we are to live out and demonstrate our Christian faith.

(2) Obedience. Am I obeying the Christian rules of the road, and going beyond this minimum behavioral pattern into creative love? A soldier’s earliest training teaches him unquestioning obedience to authoritative command − because the time may come when prompt, instinctive obedience can save his

life and the lives of others. The soldier in the midst of battle can’t see the overall picture: the commander, (at least our commander), can. Christian duty is obedience to the word of God, and acceptance even of that we may not “understand” at the time.  Kipling has a sound warning: “If you question the reason for every command, And boast what your service is worth, Angels may

come for you, Willie, my lad, But you’ll never be wanted on earth!” Very sound − though whether angels will come for a Christian “barracks-room lawyer” is questionable.

(3) Sacrifice. Do I sacrifice my own pleasure, to better serve God and my fellows? It often happens that a soldier’s duty is not so much to attack the enemy, as to put his body as a living wall between the enemy and those whom he loves. His task is self-sacrifice for those he defends. A good soldier is willing to lay down his life for his friend, for his country, for (as Paul says) “the one who enlisted him.” You and I aren’t likely to be called to lay down our lives in the practice of our Faith − but we are called to live our lives for it, to sacrifice using

our time, talents, and treasure for our own pleasures, to sacrifice self-indulgence in order to help others. A good soldier cannot be self-serving.

(4) Loyalty. Am I loyal to Christ in all I do? Or am I only selectively Christian? When a Roman soldier joined the army, he took the sacramentum, (in Latin, “that which binds or obliges a person”) the oath of personal loyalty to the Emperor; in Holy Baptism we make our sacramentum (renewed in Confirmation and Reception), our vow “that hereafter we shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under His banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto our life’s end.” We have sworn our loyalty: are we living it?

Being a worthy soldier, then, is one illustration of the Christian life. St. Paul next notes that “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” What characteristics of a successful athlete can we add to our

Christian inventory check-list? Certainly (1) self-discipline, and (2) obeying the rules.

(1) Self-discipline. Am I doing things the right way, or the easy way? A good athlete keeps his training schedule, working out every day whether he “feels like it” or not, arranging every day’s activities around his work-outs: do we arrange our days around our spiritual exercises, prayers and Bible study? An

athlete in training not only does what builds up abilities, but avoids what debilitates in the way of foods, beverages, late hours, and the like, no matter what “fun” they are; do we avoid the many pleasurable temptations that can debilitate our spiritual fitness? I mentioned the soldier’s discipline to outside command;

we need also the athlete’s self-discipline, to be in constructive command of our selves.

(2) Fairness. Do we abide by the golden rule, to play fair with others as we would have them play fair with us? Paul knew that being in top shape is basic for an athlete, but isn’t enough: he has to play by the rules, or be disqualified. Our

individual spiritual fitness isn’t enough; we’re to use it in doing right by others. As St James puts it, “faith, without works, is dead.”

Finally, Paul writes that “it is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” He’s speaking of tenant farmers, reminding us that we are tenants in and stewards of God’s world. Our glory lies not in possessing but, as the old hymn says, in doing the job, “bringing in the sheaves” of our Master’s harvest. Like a good farmer, the Christian must be ready to work at any hour − when the time’s right, do it. Cows and mares have a way of giving birth at the most inconvenient hours − just as people need help, tragedies occur, accidents happen, death strikes, loneliness grips and we are given chances to help

at times that may not suit us. Like a good farmer, the Christian knows that the only time to do is right when the task needs doing − not, “when it suits.”

And lastly, like the farmer, having taken timely action, we must learn the patience to wait. More than most workers, the farmer knows there are few quick results: you plan, you plow, you seed, you fertilize, you spray, you pray − and you wait. The farmer waits a whole growing season, the breeder waits years − and Christians need this same patience.  How often we sow the good seed of the Word in the hearts and minds of others, with no immediate result. A teacher often has to teach, and see no difference in the pupil; a parent often has to seek to train, to

guide, and see no difference in the child. Another example: You may be friends with a pagan, and  it may be years before any result is seen − but how often it does happen, that when there comes some overmastering temptation, some terrible decision, some intolerable effort, then to his or her mind comes some word of God, some flash of remembered teaching or example, some phrase planted in heart or mind years and years ago – and the years of teaching, the guidance, the discipline, the friendship, bear fruit, bring honor, where without that early seed there would have been dishonor, bring salvation, where without it there would have been ruin.

Like the wise farmer, the Christian must learn to sow good seed in word and deed, and then wait − for God to give the increase.

Here, then, is a starting, incomplete but suggestive check-list for our spiritual inventories, based on Paul’s images of the good soldier, the successful athlete, the wise farmer. Ask, as a Christian, am I practicing:  Concentration; Obedience; Sacrifice; Loyalty; Self-discipline; Fairness; Timely Action; Patience?

If I’m not, I resolve to start − now.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

To Do One’s Little Bit

The Reverend Elijah B. White

Quinquagesima

March 1, 1987 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Driving along the partially-plowed streets and roads last week I found myself in an old habit:  when there was a pile of slush along the center-line, or toward the edge of the pavement, I’d aim my wheels on that side at it, rather than avoid it.

Of course, l wasn’t foolhardy − I picked smallish slush-piles, and left alone any that looked too solid, or too big.  But it’s a good feeling to hear the tires go “squoosh” and know that there’d be one less pile to freeze solid at night, one less piece for the next driver to have to cope with.  I can’t solve Loudoun County’s snow removal problems − but I can make just that one little bit of road just an infinitesimal tad clearer, safer, maybe even “better.”

I didn’t kid myself that I’d done much good − but, by Jove, as I flattened each pile I felt good because I knew I’d done some good, at least I’d sped up the melting process.

Thinking about this as I drove along reminded me that, when I’m walking down a sidewalk or toward a store, there’s often a bit of rubbish lying there.  If it is manageable, not too sticky, I pick it up for the next trash container or even stick it in my pocket − and as I do so I say to myself, “That’s one less.”  It’s a good feeling, and when we get good feelings from doing something, we’re each time more likely to do it again.

Here’s a suggestion:  Doing something good or useful is especially valuable if we’ll consciously label it as such in our minds − positive reinforcement strengthens any good habit.

(That’s a pragmatic way to tell sin from good, by the way: doing good feels progressively better each time; but sin gives less kick each time, to suck us in to more and bigger transgressions trying to get the same feeling.)

Then I got to thinking about these little, useful acts (breaking up a slush-pile or picking up a bit of litter), as paradigms of our situation as Christians in this cold, slushy, littered world. I mean, don’t you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of this world’s problems, matters whose scope seems beyond you or anyone doing anything about?  Well, so do I, at times − but then I remember, that Despair is always of the Devil − I remember squashing slush-piles, and picking up trash − and I suggest to you this morning that you and I can make a difference!

Granted, you or I can’t tip the universal balance from evil to good − but what we do or don’t do does affect the amount on both sides of the scale: and you know how a balance-scale works:  moving one feather from one side to other makes two feathers’ difference.  The decision we have to make is not whether to make a difference, but whether (by action or inaction) to make our little difference on the good or the evil side. Every single slush-pile I choose to avoid, every bit of litter I pass by on the other side, is one more for someone else to deal with – just as each single piece I take care of is (good feeling) “one less!”

Do I sound like a cock-eyed optimist?  I hope you know me better than that:  I’m no Pollyanna − but I try to be a realist, and I can count to one:  I know that if I give 25 cents and it feeds even one hungry child, one meal, then that’s one meal where there might have been none − and I think I remember from math, that one is infinitely larger than zero.  So I do what I can; I consciously say to myself “one less” hungry child (or, “one more” meal) − and it feels good.  God means it to feel good, for He made us to enjoy the good.

Remember away back in 1980, when we began our Mission Outreach giving, I admitted that the little bit we could give to help would be just a drop in the bucket of this world’s needs − but by Jove, it’s our drop − and it’s God’s bucket! We can’t solve the problems of this world − but we can help some specific problems of some real live human beings.  (That we can’t do it all, is no excuse for not doing what we can!  My picking up a candy-wrapper in front of 7-11 won’t Keep Loudoun Beautiful − but if my doing it moves others to do likewise: and they inspire others: and pretty soon a lot of us are picking up trash − then perhaps we’ll be noticed by those who throw trash, and some of them might stop making mess.  Who knows?

In the same way, you or I can’t “stop” wife or child abuse:  but we can help specific wives, individual children, through our Mission Outreach to the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter.  We can’t “end” poverty in Haiti: but we can ease the conclusion of life for a few aged indigent women through our nuns at the Foyer Notre Dame.  We can’t “eliminate” the cesspool of Times Square:  but we can help a few children escape it by aiding Covenant House there.

Besides, as one of my favorite hymns says, “If with honest-hearted / Love for God and man, / Day by day Thou find us / Doing what we can . . . .”  You see, God never calls us to be successful − He only calls us to be faithful. “Do your best, trust God for the rest” − for that stanza continues, “Thou who giv’st the seed time, /wilt give large increase, / Crown the head with blessings, / Fill the heart with peace.”

Who knows what seeds He may be sowing in this our “seedtime,” in the lives of those around us or through our Mission Outreach, of which God may give some glorious future increase about which we may never even know.  You remember the information about Saint Christopher’s Home in Fiji, where we few are helping one 12-year-old Indian girl, our Parish Godchild Anita.  Who knows what influence for good our caring and helping may have on her in years to come?  And through her life, how many lives might we influence for the better?  We’ll never know − but that’s all right.  God knows, and it’s Him we serve – and every little bit helps, every slush-pile dissipated, every candy-wrapper picked up, every child helped.  I am enormously proud of our Parish’s missionary spirit, not only for your generosity but also for your faithful perseverance, your refusal to be dismayed into passivity by the magnitude of the problems of this fallen world.  There’s an old saying something like, “I cannot do everything, but I do something. What I can do, I should do, and by the Grace of God I will do:  I can do no more.  I will do no less.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.