This summer, we have been making our way, week-by-week, through Saint Paul’s famous letter to the Romans, which Saint Paul wrote around the year 58 or so of the 1st century. It’s the longest and most studied of all of Saint Paul’s letters. Apparently, even the comic cartoon character Charlie Brown was familiar with it. I remember one time, back in the early 1970s, when Charlie Brown, moaning and groaning as was his style, was told, “Stop sighing,” to which he responded, “It’s scriptural.” He 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 may be plenty to sigh about. Just tune into CNN and listen to the world and national news for a while. Indeed, the background for the 2 verses we just heard could be described as what I sometimes like to call “the problem of the present” - in other words, the tension between, on the one hand, the obvious reality of the present time, the sense of overwhelming futility (as Saint Paul puts it) that seems to characterize the world we inhabit, 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 suggests, takes us into 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 – establishment 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 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.
Which is one reason why we need to resist the persistent temptation to over-react to the present by imposing some supposedly spiritual meaning or religious interpretation on contemporary events. That has one of the perennial problems through so much of our Christian history. It sometimes takes the form of wanting to blame every bad thing that happens on the coming of the Antichrist or demonizing some present-day opponent as a modern-day Diocletian (the 4th-century pagan persecutor of the Church). Alternatively, when things seem temporarily to go better, it sometimes takes the form of thinking we’ve already made it to the 2nd Coming or at least imagining some temporary ally as another Constantine (the 4th-century pagan liberator of the Church).
In our frustratingly futile present, we lack patience – with God, with ourselves, with our world. But 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.
Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 23, 2017.