Peace in our Time?

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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Peace in our Time?

The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 23, 2023

The servants of the householder said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How, then, has it weeds?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” (Matthew 13:27-28a)

Here we are, deep in the heart of what ought to be the lazy, hazy days of summer, yet the news and today’s Gospel reading both are filled with the invasions of an enemy into neighboring wheat fields. In the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the war criminal and President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, continues to press his territorial claims, and prosecute his illegal war. Now in the Baltic Sea he has imposed a naval blockade to prevent Ukrainian grain from reaching hungry populations. Thus, Putin adds to his resume world hunger, atop hundreds of thousands of needless deaths, atop the destruction of entire Ukrainian cities. Truly, to see his image on screen is to look into the face of evil. It is to gaze into the eyes of a dead soul.

History tells us of a world leader from not so long ago whose soul was similarly dead. In the spring of 1938, the German Chancellor, Adolph Hitler, eyed the nations of Europe with the stated goal of reuniting all the German speaking people under one rule. Of course, his true intentions were to capture the world, but no one knew it at the time. Or perhaps, no one wanted to know. Hitler gambled correctly that the people of France and Britain had no stomach whatsoever for another war. So he moved his troops into the Rhineland, he moved his troops into Austria, and nobody lifted a finger to stop him. Finally, in May of 1938, Hitler ordered his generals to have the troops ready by October to take the Sudetenland, the mountainous region protecting Czechoslovakia from Germany.

Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of England, wanted to stop Hitler, but he also loathed the idea of sending Britain into another world war. Chamberlain declared himself to be a man of peace to the depth of his soul, so in pursuit of peace he arranged three face-to-face meetings with Hitler. Hitler assured Chamberlain of Germany’s good will toward England and France. They would all live in peace if they could simply settle the Sudeten question. “This is the last territorial claim I have to make in Europe,” said Hitler. Chamberlain believed him, as did the French, and thus they signed the infamous Munich Agreement, ceding the Sudetenland to Germany. The Prime Minister returned to England and waved the Munich Agreement to cheering crowds, declaring it “peace with honor. I believe it is peace in our time.” Sadly, the Munich Agreement was neither honor nor peace, and the carnage of World War II ensued. The truth is, had any nation stood up to Hitler over the Sudeten question, not only would he have backed down, but his own German generals would have arrested him for the reckless course he was pursuing. How ironic that Chamberlain, the man of peace, actually made things worse in his pursuit of peace.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer, his wheat field, his loyal servants, and his enemy. The farmer intends nothing but the best for the field. He and his servants sow the good seed into it, and wait for nature to take her course. But something goes wrong – something that is not a random occurrence, or an act of nature, or a matter of bad luck. No, what goes wrong is deliberate and calculated. While the farmer and his servants are sleeping, an enemy with territorial ambitions of his own comes and sows weeds among the wheat. What is more, the weeds that the enemy sows aren’t just any old weeds. They are copycat weeds that look so much like wheat only late in the growing season can anyone tell the difference.

When the servants begin to suspect the incursion, they approach the farmer with the only plan that would seem to make sense: Let’s get the weeds out of the wheat before it’s too late. Let’s take action while we still can take action. Let’s not just stand here, let’s do something. Strangely, the farmer says no: No, let’s not just do something, let’s stand here. Not only do the weeds and wheat look identical, but their roots are hopelessly tangled together. Thus, if you pull up the weeds, you will also pull up the wheat, says the farmer. You’ll make things worse. We’ll lose the whole crop, and possibly the field itself, which is just what the enemy wants.

The field full of weeds isn’t just the farmer’s problem. The farmer’s field, states the parable, is the world. The field is your life and mine. The field is creation. The creation is full of goodness and potential. Yet the creation is also full of evil and death. St. Paul, in today’s reading from Romans (8:12-25), describes how the whole creation is in bondage to decay. God did not intend sickness, suffering, and death to be part of the field he planted. But something has gone terribly wrong, and now the creation waits with eager longing for deliverance.

What are we to do? The farmer’s inaction puzzles us. We are people of good will who don’t want to stand idly by while someone else of ill and arrogant intent rises up against the meek of the earth. The legacy of Neville Chamberlain is troubling. It wasn’t that he stood idly by. He was hardly inactive. No, he vigorously pursued peace. Yet the case could be made that the man of peace failed to distinguish the wheat from the weeds. As late as September of 1938 he said this after a meeting with Hitler: “In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” So Chamberlain pressed on in pursuit of peace, but his good intentions actually made the situation worse.

Years ago I heard a story about an airplane pilot who would fly food aid into famished regions of Ethiopia. The missions were daring and harrowing. He would often come in under fire, and land on runways that had been mined. But the need was great, so it was all worth the risk. He felt that he was accomplishing enormous good. No, he wasn’t saving the world, but he was succeeding in making life better with every load he delivered. Or so he thought. Only later did he learn that every time he took off after leaving the food, local insurgents would raid the villagers, often kill them, steal the food, and then use it to bribe young boys to join their warring faction. The pilot was devastated to learn that his efforts to bring food to hungry people were only increasing the violence. Despite his good intentions and deeds, he was making things worse. Indeed, the hindsight of history will judge us all who try to do our best in the moment.

Will we ever know peace in our time? I want to warn you that the parable takes us to an uncomfortable place, and leaves us there with ambiguous, even dubious advice on how to run the farm. The farmer takes no overt action. He lifts not a finger in reaction to his enemy. Allow both to grow together, is what he says. Perhaps the farmer is on to something. Perhaps the farmer is offering us something unique. The farmer is offering a different strategy that is truly radical, counter-cultural, entirely Christian, and a much more narrow road to travel. In telling the parable as he did, Jesus revealed that God is apparently willing to live with an alarming degree of weeds in the field. No, I don’t think the parable is a call to pacifism, but we should always tilt towards peace instead of aggression. Neville Chamberlain’s successor as Prime Minister was none other than Winston Churchill. I don’t think anyone would call Churchill a pacifist, but he did write this remarkable paragraph that’s worth hearing alongside the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Let anyone with ears listen:

Those who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear-cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems, who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign Power, have not always been right. On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. On the contrary, in the majority of instances they may be right, not only morally but from a practical standpoint. How many wars have been averted by patience and persisting good will! Religion and virtue alike lend their sanctions to meekness and humility, not only between men but between nations. How many wars have been precipitated by firebrands! How many misunderstandings which led to wars could have been removed by temporizing!

Churchill’s words are sobering to a sabre rattling world. Was Jesus suggesting that pacifism is a blanket rule you can apply to every situation. I don’t believe he was. It would be reading too much into the parable to assume that the farmer took no precautions the next time he planted his crop. Would he stand by again and mount no defense? Not likely. But this time he would allow both to grow together. The strange way of the farmer and of Jesus is the way of the kingdom of God. Each of us – in prayer and in consultation with other Christians – needs to agonize over where and when and how it is appropriate to make it our way. When do we gather the weeds, and when do we suffer them? When should we be ready to fight, and when should we bow our heads? These are questions with no easy answers, and no one solution will fit the challenge of every moment. Yes, we need to stop those who are shooting missiles and weeds into neighboring wheat fields. We also need to hear the stories of those who have strived after a different way.

Some of you may remember Canon John Andrew, who was Priest in Charge of Grace Church from 1999-2001. I recall a story he told about a friend of his from England. Leonard Wilson was the Anglican bishop of Singapore during World War II. Because he was an Englishman, Bishop Wilson was arrested, held in a prisoner of war camp, and subjected to frequent and severe beatings. The man who was his principal torturer would mock him between lashes of a cane to the bottom his feet. The torturer once asked the Bishop if he still believed in God. The Bishop replied, “I do.” After inflicting him with more moments of agony, the torturer asked, “Then why doesn’t God save you?” And with strength that the Bishop recalls could only come from the Holy Spirit, he replied, “God does save me. He does not save me by freeing me from pain, but he saves me by giving me the Spirit to bear it.” Finally, the torturer asked the Bishop why he didn’t at least curse him for striking him and mocking him. And the Bishop replied, “Because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, who taught us that we are all brothers.”

The end of the story occurred several years after the war, when the Bishop had been released from the camp and returned to his work in Singapore. As he was making a Confirmation visit to a church in his diocese, he found that one of the candidates presenting himself was none other than the prison guard who had tortured him. Indeed, the wheat had overcome the weeds. The wheat had converted the weeds simply by bearing them, by practicing patience and persisting good will.

“Let both grow together,” said Jesus. Again, the parable offers no easy answers to the thorny questions of our day, or any day. But if this strange way of the farmer, this way of Jesus, this way of the kingdom of God can transform a man such as a sadistic prison guard, perhaps we can hold out hope for the world, and even the world’s most wayward children. Perhaps we can hold out hope that we will all know peace in our time, and not just in our own time, but for all time. A verse of the wonderful Welsh hymn (621 vs.5) we’ll sing today describes the Christian calling well:

Now with gladness, now with courage,
bear the burden on thee laid,
that hereafter these thy labors
may with endless gifts be paid,
and in everlasting glory,
thou with brightness be arrayed.

(The quotes by Churchill and the story of the Munich Agreement are found in The Gathering Storm, Winston S. Churchill, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948.)