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Eucharist – The Reverend Canon Dr Chris Collingwood

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Sunday 19th July 2020 – Eucharist

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

What have you been binging on in lockdown, I wonder? Think TV box sets rather than gastronomy! Early on, Sue and I decided we needed a little light relief, so we watched all 20 episodes of the Vicar of Dibley! Now we’re into slightly darker stuff, as we’re gradually working our way through all 12 series of the M15 spy thriller, Spooks. We’ve only just got to series four so far, though!

Between times, we watched the three seasons of Medici on Netflix. Set in 15th century Florence, the story’s based around the rise to power of the influential banking family. Beginning with the murder of Giovanni de Medici in 1429, it concludes at the end of the century with the decline in the Medici fortunes under Giovanni’s great-grandson, Piero, known as the Unfortunate. The broad sweep of the narrative, though, centres on Giovanni’s son, Cosimo, and, after Cosimo’s death, his son, Lorenzo. During this time, the Medici bank became the richest in Europe, its prestige enhanced by being entrusted with the papal finances.

The history of Florence in the 15th century’s heady stuff, in which religion and politics, family feuds and suing for peace, the grasping for power and concern for the poor, the desire to do all for the glory of God alongside the celebration of humanity, all converge and jockey with one another for supremacy. Amidst all this, they were great patrons of the arts. Cosimo put a great deal of effort and money into the completion of the dome of Florence’s cathedral; Lorenzo was instrumental in nurturing the talents of the artists Boticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

In 1482, a Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola, was sent to the convent San Marco in Florence as the lector or teacher, where, sometime after he arrived, he conceived seven reasons why the Church should be scourged and renewed. A charismatic preacher, Savonarola denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule – particularly, as he saw it, that of the Medici – and the exploitation of the poor. He called for the destruction of secular art and culture and for the establishment of Florence as the New Jerusalem, which he envisioned as becoming the world centre of Christianity, something that wasn’t looked upon kindly by the Papacy in Rome. In his zeal, he instituted a puritanical campaign by enlisting the active help of the Florentine youth. Such was the unrest he stirred up that the Pope banned him from preaching under threat of excommunication, something Savonarola ignored. Inevitably, perhaps, excommunication followed in 1497, and in 1498 he was hanged and burned in the main square of Florence on a charge of heresy.

In the light of today’s gospel reading, this seems to me to be a tale of wheat and weeds. The question is: which is which? The desire to purge of all that’s deemed to be impure exercises a strong hold on a particular type of religious consciousness. It’s as if everything that gets in the way of what’s considered to be purity, the weeds, has to uprooted and exorcised, so that the wheat might grow properly. We see this today in religious extremism, whether of the Islamic or Christian variety. We see it, too, in the vandalism and destruction of the art and architecture of churches in this country and elsewhere during the Reformation, to say nothing of monasteries and the monastic life. Attempts were made to justify this, of course, and there’s no doubt that some good things emerged as a result – the accessibility of the Bible in English, to cite just one – and yet how much was lost.

Nor is this desire for purging confined to the religious imagination alone. Think of the various 20th century revolutions, in Russia and China, for example. There can be little doubt that change was needed in both instances, but just look at the resulting cost of revolution in terms of the oppression, fear, brutality and death that followed.

Similarly, the motivation for the Iraq War in 2003 was to deprive that country of a brutal tyrant, believed to have manufactured weapons of mass destruction, but among the consequences of invasion – unintended and unforseen, of course – were the chaos that ensued, the rise of Islamic terrorism, and the heightening of tension between different cultures and worldviews.

‘Do you want us to go and gather the weeds?’ ask the master’s slaves in Jesus’ parable. ‘No,’ he replies, ‘for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.’ The desire to purge and purify always runs the risk of destroying not just the weeds but the wheat as well. And much of the time, it’s not entirely clear which is which anyway. We think we know, of course, but we’re so often proved wrong, which is why Jesus urges caution. Don’t let your zeal blind you to the ecology of the weeds, Jesus seems to say, even to their beauty, for your perspective’s limited.

This is something I’ve learned through the practice of Zen meditation. There’s a popular misconception that the purpose of meditation’s to realise blissful states and be untouched by the rest of life. There’s no doubt that meditation does lead to the experience of deep peace and equanimity. Often, what initiates the practice of meditation is the desire to be relieved of suffering, the sense that there’s more to life, a longing for the fullness of life. At some stage along the path of practice, though, we discover the paradox that the possibility of suffering being relieved is encountered as we begin to accept it, that the fullness of life involves not rejecting those aspects of life we judge to be unacceptable, but embracing them. The fullness of life mysteriously involves holding the wheat and the weeds together.

What I mean by weeds in this context will be familiar to all of us. Things like strong emotions, such as anger, grief and anxiety, unresolved traumatic experiences going back to childhood, disappointments and frustrations in the way life works out, conflicts at work and at home in our relationships with others and, goodness knows, sometimes these test and challenge us almost to the point of breaking. We know the way we deal with such things can be toxic and corrosive, so the temptation to purge them’s overwhelming. If we reject them without investigating what they might have to teach us, though, the possibility of these weeds contributing to the growth of the wheat is lost. For ultimately, the weeds have an important role to play, which is that they enable, if we let them, the growth of love, wisdom and compassion.

Zen meditation requires us to sit with all the gunk of our lives, the pain and discomfort, as well as the joys and delights, without making judgments about how things should be, trusting that everything’s held in a love and compassion that embraces everything. This love and compassion constitutes who we really are, and the practice of meditation is to enable these things to be manifested not only in meditation but in the whole of life. This can only happen, though, if we acknowledge and attend to the weeds as well.

This is why the weeds and wheat of Jesus’ parable is paralleled in the Buddhist symbol of the lotus, which can grow only in mud. As the contemporary Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, says:

‘The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud. In order to grow and gain wisdom, first you must have the mud — the obstacles of life and its suffering. … The mud speaks of the common ground that humans share, no matter what our station in life. … Whether we have it all or we have nothing, we are all faced with the same obstacles: sadness, loss, illness, dying and death. If we are to strive as human beings to gain more wisdom, more kindness and more compassion, we must have the intention to grow as a lotus and open each petal one by one.’

Isn’t this exactly what we see at the very heart of the Christian faith? On the cross, Jesus entered into and embraced the mud of suffering, violence and inhumanity, and allowed them to be the very means by which the reality of divinely-human love and compassion were revealed. We can speculate, of course, as to what might have been without the cross but, in the end, such speculation’s futile. The plain fact of the matter is that the cross did happen. Jesus flinched from it, as we all would. ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not what I want but what you want.’ At that point, Jesus accepted the cross and embraced all it would entail as the very means by which the love and compassion of God would be revealed. Without the cross – the weeds, if you like – we simply wouldn’t know the love of God – the wheat – in quite the way we do. The two are intricately bound up with one another.

What’s true of Jesus, though, is true of us, too. He’s blazed the trail we’re invited to follow, so that love and compassion might be realised and manifested in us. It can be hard, often painfully so, but it’s only by attending to the weeds, rather than pulling them up prematurely, that they can be transformed to blossom into wheat. And who knows, come the harvest, it might just all be wheat after all.

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