The awkward one

Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43

I’m sure I’m not alone in having had that experience when someone on another table in the pub or restaurant, or on the train (most often in the quiet coach!) holds forth very loudly and at great length, so that the whole room can hear what he or she is saying. Or the person in a meeting, where everyone knows that whatever the subject, this particular person will invariably disagree. Or the one member of a family, who for some unknown reason is always incredibly difficult.

And of course many films have been made about the one person on a jury who refuses to go along with the otherwise unanimous verdict and insists on keeping the jury for hours or maybe days or weeks because he or she won’t budge.

We’ll always encounter such people in our families, our community, our church, our school, or wherever. People who refuse to conform, who refuse to fit in with everyone else, and sometimes they make life difficult and uncomfortable for the rest of us.

Some communities deal with such people by removing them. The Roman Catholic Church deals with its dissident theologians by excommunicating them, or withdrawing their licence to teach. Schools suspend or expel their most difficult pupils. Trade union members who refuse to strike with their colleagues are often ostracised. Political parties have been known to expel members for not toeing the party line. Some countries deal with their criminals by sending them to an offshore island or a prison ship. And some churches refuse to admit those who won’t submit to stringent rules and regulations.

The United Reformed Church is sometimes criticised for being too wishy-washy. The implication being that there should be certain rules to which members ought to subscribe, and that those who refuse to subscribe to such rules should be excluded or disciplined in some way, but we’ve never been like that.

It’s usually more comfortable when a community of like-minded people are all pulling in the same direction, than a community which contains all kinds of different views. The like-minded can get on with things without being constantly interrupted by arguments and dissension. Discussion flows smoothly, and members of the community feel warm and safe and comfortable.

But when groups contain people not afraid to say what they think, they become far less comfortable places to be. Argument and dissension is often rife, it takes much longer to get things done, and people sometimes feel anxious and unsure of themselves.

Yet, at the end of the day, it sometimes turns out to be the people willing to ask awkward questions and make things uncomfortable who have been the most valuable members of society. They’re the ones who force everyone to stop and think before taking action, like the inevitable protesters who slow us down and make us think every time a new road is scheduled to be built.

They’re the ones who often drag our thinking forward, like Gallileo who insisted that the sun, rather than the earth, was the centre of the solar system, despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary and despite torture and excommunication for his views. Gallileo turned out to be the father of modern science.

They’re the ones who make leaps of faith and bring us new insights, like Hans Kung, the German Roman Catholic theologian who has written wonderful books making Christianity real and accessible, but who was removed from his teaching post by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, because when Christianity becomes really accessible, its subversive, dangerous message of love and freedom becomes very clear.

They’re the ones in local communities who refuse to allow us to sit back in complacent comfort, but force us to argue and discuss and think through what we’re about. So that in the end we stagger onto the right path for the right reasons, instead of just letting things happen because we’re too lazy to bother to change or to challenge.

But far too often we don’t like it when people challenge our thinking or our comfort, and too easily we can fall into judging them as a pain or unholy or evil or whatever by the rest of us. But, Jesus warned against judging other people, as we know. And he followed this up with the humorous story of the man who tried to remove the speck of dust from his friend’s eye, while all the time he had a plank in his own eye.

Nelson Mandela was jailed for saying the system wasn’t right. Martin Luther King was shot for stirring things up. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated for challenging the status quo. Martin Luther was excommunicated for not going along with the official line. Vaclav Havel rather upset the Communist establishment in Czechoslovakia, but ended up becoming president after the end of communism. Lech Wałęsa was not the shipyard authority’s favourite person, but became the President of a free Poland. The people who make us feel uncomfortable might not be famous, but perhaps they might have something just as important to challenge us.

Today’s story of the weeds found growing amongst the wheat is another example of Jesus wanting to include everyone. When darnel begins to grow it’s indistinguishable from wheat. It’s only at the end of its life, at the time of harvest, that the darnel can really be seen for the weed that it is. And then only by the harvester. The message is clear. None of us know what’s in someone else’s heart, nor where they’ve come from. Only God, who understands all and who is therefore incredibly and unbelievably forgiving, is in a position to judge.

And so our churches must be places which have ever-open doors and ever-permeable walls, where everybody is always welcome no matter how awkward they are, and where we learn from each other. And perhaps those who are especially welcome are those who challenge our thinking and our comfort, because they’re the ones who dare to rock the boat and ruffle the surface, and who so often bring honesty into our church community. A church which allows dissension and argument may not always be comfortable, and may not appear to those outside to be very loving or very nice, but it’s usually a church which is alive and growing. And it’s only by learning to love and accept people who think differently from us that we can really begin to know what loving is all about.

So, in fear and trepidation, let’s try to welcome people who think differently from us, because they force us to grow, and in the end they just might turn out to be right.

So, as we move towards a moment of silence for reflection, there may be someone you know who unsettles you, whose relationship with you is not quite right. Remember that Jesus said, “No. I do not want you to pull up the weeds. I know how messy that can get. I want you to leave it to me.” Can we accept the challenge of leaving concerns to God?

So, we pause to listen for God to guide us, for God’s spirit to help us, to seek ways to trust in God.

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