Monday, July 17, 2017
The Grace of Doing Nothing
The Grace of Doing Nothing
July 17, 2011
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
Two years ago, when we were moving Mickey into his first college dorm room, the R.A.s had put a cartoon on each door, one of which I simply couldn’t resist going home and finding online and copying to my own files. It was a stick figure cartoon, which depicted one person sitting at a desk working furiously on a computer and another person talking from outside of the picture. The first voice asks, “Are you coming to bed?” The person at the desk answers, “I can’t this is important.” First voice asks, “What?” And the person at the desk says, “Someone is wrong on the internet!”
I fell in love with that cartoon because it names my worst tendencies so vividly. I can be a real sucker for getting lured into online arguments, or real life arguments for that matter. I try not to, I try to let it go, I try to roll my eyes, I try to get perspective. But, too often I find myself feeling as if I cannot rest – indeed, the world cannot rest – until I straighten someone else out. Nothing seems more offensive to human nature and God’s very purpose of existence than for someone to throw an obviously wrong idea out there and call it truth.
As you can imagine, someone with the task of setting aright every wrong idea can stay pretty busy, because there is just no end to wrong ideas out there. And, it almost seems as though it is even one’s Christian duty to preserve the truth by standing firm against any idea that might be tainted with untruth. Isn’t it?
Last week, when we ordained Mark Crouch as a new ‘ruling elder,’ I asked him a number of questions, which every elder in this church has been asked upon our ordination. One of those questions is, “Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?” And, I can say, that to this date every elder whom we have ordained has willingly answered that question, “I do.” It is a good answer, but a deceptively simple one. The task of furthering the peace, unity, and purity of the church often seems like a three-fold task that is at odds with itself, rather than a singular one that can be answered with a single answer. Sometimes it only seems possible to further the peace and unity of the church by letting the ‘purity’ clause go. Likewise, sometimes it seems that the only way we can further the purity of the church is to risk the peace and unity of the church by rooting out that which seems to be ill-fitted and unworthy of our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. So, there often seems to be an internal conflict within that admirable intention of furthering peace, unity, and purity of the church.
That problem gets amplified whenever we think about the church’s role within society at large. The Scriptures often speak of this as the relationship between ‘the church’ and ‘the world.’ If we take, for example, the parable that the reign of God is like leaven that is mixed into the flour of the world until the whole lump of dough is leavened, then we have an image of the church as being called to transform the world around us, rather than simply living side-by-side with it. For many people of faith, that means that it is not just wrong-headed, false, and even harmful ideas within the church that need correcting, but also that we are called to speak up and to try to correct wrong-headed, false, or harmful ideas in the society of which we are a part.
The Presbyterian Church has always understood its role within the world in this kind of transformational way. We don’t have monasteries, where certain religious folk are called to go and to live in self-sustaining communities apart from the community at large. We have never advocated setting up ascetic communes in the wilderness or distinct communities living off of the grid, like many Amish communities. We do not necessarily criticize those expressions of the church. In fact, we often admire them and fully recognize that there are seasons in our lives when we all could benefit from periods of retreat, in order to be less distracted by the cares of the world and more attentive to meditation, prayer, or study. However, the normative mode of being the church in our tradition is not the church as a community that is physically and economically set apart from the rest of the world, but a church that is fully engaged in the world, however messy and ambiguous that might be. And therein lies the temptation for us to sit at our computers furiously setting every wrong-headed, false, or harmful idea straight. Or, to put it more positively, therein lies our calling to engage boldly in the world, to believe and live as though being a disciple of Jesus Christ really matters in how we engage one another. In that respect, we have every reason to have political involvements that are shaped by our faith, to practice economics in a way that is instructed by our faith, and to engage in civic participation in ways that we can live out our faith.
But, it’s messy. None of us wants to be part of that self-righteous community that only seems to engage the world in order to berate it and to trumpet one’s own understanding as the only right way. I know I don’t want to be aligned with those expressions of faith that act as if the church is opposed to scientific thinking, or that act as if their own interpretation of selective scriptures gives them the right to dictate how everyone else should live. It’s messy, and it is particularly messy when we remember that there have been times in history when ‘the world’ has been way out in front of ‘the church’ in being right about some things. In our own country’s history, many parts of the church had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting the fact that slavery is immoral. Many parts of the church still have yet to recognize that women have valid gifts and callings of leadership. It is possible to look at many parts of the church and to conclude that it is not transformation, but a hard-headed adhesion to the vanity of its own opinions that dictates how it engages in ‘the world.’
This morning we have the chance to look at one way that the early church approached this messy issue of how the church engages in the world. It comes to us in the form of a parable, which – typically – is a manner of speech that is fluid and opens up numerous possibilities. The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds is a stark example of a church trying to understand its role within the world. And, as you heard, it goes like this: A landowner sowed good wheat seed in his field, but while he was sleeping an enemy came and sowed weeds among them. When his field workers saw that there were weeds growing there, they asked the landowner, “Did we not sow good wheat? Where did these weeds come from?” The landowner perceives that an enemy sowed the weeds. Then, the field workers ask the crucial question: “Then do you want us to go and gather the weeds?” That question and the landowner’s response to that question are not given in the ‘explanation’ that Matthew offers later in this chapter. In fact, that’s the only part of the parable that is not addressed in the explanation. That seems significant, because the focus of the parable is on the end of the age and how God will ultimately judge evil. But, the question of now – the question of the church’s relationship to the weeds – is only found in this question and answer of the parable. And the landowner’s answer is this: “No. Do not go and try to gather the weeds, because in doing so you may uproot the wheat as well.”
In the end, this is a parable that assures the battered Christian community in Matthew’s day that evil will be judged. But, in the mean time, this is a parable that recognizes the church’s inability to uproot every weed without also unintentionally harming the wheat. In that respect, it is a very humbling parable about the church’s role that in our zeal to set the world straight, we might be those very persons who harm the innocent.
Back in 1933, when Japan invaded Manchuria, many people of faith were arguing that the United States should intervene in the Pacific and take action against Japan. In response, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote an article in the Christian Century entitled, “On the Grace of Doing Nothing.” I’ve always read Niebuhr’s article as a modern interpretation of our parable. He argued that too often, in our zeal to “do something!” the church has found itself actually causing more harm than good. So, he argued, there are times when it is an expression of grace to do ‘nothing.’ “Doing nothing,” for Niebuhr was different than “not doing anything.” He was not advocating that one ignore the problem, that one say nothing about the problem, that one act as though the problem did not exist. He was not advocating passivity or apathy as the Christian response to what he clearly saw as an unjust action. Rather, he was saying that just because we can clearly identify something as ‘weed’ among ‘wheat,’ does not mean that we also have the capacity to fix it. In the end, we may do more harm than good by banging furiously on our computers to set every wrong-headed idea on the internet straight. In the end, we may do more harm than good to the name of the Christian church by pretending that we alone understand the true nature of covenant relationships. In the end, our zeal to be right may be precisely what makes us wrong. There are times – and this is a matter of discernment in a messy world – when the best Christian alternative is not decisive action, but the prayerful and grace-filled act of doing “nothing.”
It must have been unsatisfying for those workers to hear that they were not to set about pulling weeds from the field. It is often unsatisfying for us to imagine that it is not our calling to set aright everything wrong. But, there are times that ‘doing nothing’ is the most faithful thing we can do. Thanks be to God. Amen.