This summer, we are making our way, week-by-week, through Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, which he wrote around the year 58 or so of the 1st century. It’s the longest and most studied of all Saint Paul’s letters. My first extended personal encounter with it, however, occurred some 40 years ago not from study but in a Peanuts cartoon. As I recall, Charlie Brown was moaning and groaning in his characteristic way, until finally someone said to him, “Stop sighing,” to which he responded, “It’s scriptural,” and then proceeded to cite Saint Paul’s words from the short passage we just heard today – in the more elegant, more traditional translation, for the Spirit helps us in our weakness, with sighs too deep for words.
Well, of course, there really is a lot to sigh about. Just tune into to CNN, even in more ordinary weeks when commercial planes haven't been shot out of the air by terrorists. Indeed, the background for the 2 verses we just heard could be called “the problem of the present,” that is, the tension between, on the one hand, the obvious reality of the present time, the sense of overwhelming futility that seems to characterize the world, and, on the other, our hope as children of God and joint heirs with Christ. We have, Saint Paul insists, been offered an alternative, already in the present - the revelation of the children of God, empowering us to receive the word of the kingdom and so bear fruit (what Saint Paul calls the first fruits of the Spirit) by responding to its stirring call to a total reorientation of our lives.
Even so, we remain burdened by what we have made of ourselves and our world. Left on our own, we would stay stuck there. Prayer, Paul seems to be suggesting, is our entrée to a different future – a future better and brighter than the present but already accessible to us now, thanks only to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit acting upon us, filling us, surrounding us, transforming us.
Similarly, the parables Jesus proposes in today’s Gospel all illustrate the slow – but inexorable – progress of God’s kingdom, transforming our pathetic present into God’s glorious future. God sows his good seed in the field of the world and patiently waits until the harvest before separating the wheat from the weeds. The weeds are very real and must be recognized and dealt with eventually. But God’s judgment is patient with the world – for our sake. Because, of course, God is not at all like us! As we just heard in the book of Wisdom, God’s mastery over all things makes him lenient to all. He governs us with much lenience, thus giving us good ground for hope that he would permit our repentance.
God is not at all like us! In our frustratingly futile present, we lack patience – with God, with ourselves, with one another, with our world. But, again, God is not like us! Like the yeast which, when mixed with flour, leavens the whole batch, God is patiently filling, surrounding, and transforming our world with the presence and power of his Holy Spirit.
As the first fruits of the Spirit, we – the Church, Christ’s witnesses in the world – reflect the Holy Spirit’s leavening presence and power at work. We are not quite there yet, of course, as the parable of the field so dramatically demonstrates. Wheat and weeds coexist in the Church – as they do in each one of us individually.
With the presence and power of the Holy Spirit acting upon us and within us, we are being aided to trust God’s process and make good use of the opportunity his patience provides us.
Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, St. Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, July 20, 2014.