My sermon today at West Cummington Church
Elle and Jay and I spent the week at Suzuki Camp, lugging our violins, soccer ball and a gigantic cooler full of snacks into the air-conditioned sanctuary of Easthampton High School. Shinichi Suzuki’s breakthrough was the realization that music is a language, and like any language acquisition, can best be learned from a very early age. As we learn to talk before we learn to read, so young musicians can learn to make music well before they learn how to read music; hence the stereotype of Suzuki kids playing Bach before they enter kindergarten. But Suzuki’s most appealing legacy is his insistence that music creates a beautiful heart, and that “tone is the living soul.” We parents support the kids in their practice primarily by ensuring that they create a space for these qualities. And we teach the children—or more accurately, they teach us—that music is the most direct and clear language of feelings there is. Children from every country in the world can gather together and play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" or "O Come Little Children" and perfectly understand each other. We can play with joy, with sorrow, with anger, with humor, and (more often) with a mix that cannot be named by words.
It’s been my experience of reading the gospels that Jesus’s parables operate in a similar post-verbal way, that the language of the parables, as with Zen koans, is designed to override our logical brains and hit us in the same emotional solar plexus that music hits us in. As Steve said a few weeks ago, Jesus was a shock jock. The stories he tells are intended to jolt us out of our regular patterns and think in a new way, away from dualism good/bad, black/white, to seeing things in a third way, having to do with inner experience rather than a set of rules and regulations. Like all his “Kingdom of Heaven” passages, we need to start with the present moment. And that means we need to include the body.
But what happens when we’ve heard a passage so many times that it just seems like wallpaper? What if we think we know what it’s about? Love your neighbor as yourself. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just as with music, some great song might lose its appeal when played 24/7 on the radio station (or Pandora, or Spotify, or every single day in Suzuki practice.)
Last week, Steve read us Jesus’s parable of the sower who sowed his seed in four different places: rocky ground where it could not take, shallow soil where it started to grow but couldn’t make it through the periods of hot sun, among the weeds and brambles where it was choked, and finally in the good soil, where it grew and yielded a hundredfold. When the disciples ask why he speaks in parables, Jesus quotes Isaiah, saying
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
And then he emphasizes that if they can hear, see and understand, they can be healed.
So, when I first heard this passage, at age 14 years old, playing Judas Iscariot in a production of Godspell (Godspell is basically the gospel of Matthew, with a lot of 70s music and dance numbers,) I was filled with remorse. I was the seed on the rock! I was the seed in the shallow soil! I was the seed who got strangled by the weeds! It never occurred to me that I was also the seed that fell into good soil. And it never occurred to me that––as Steve said last week––Jesus would often respond as an observer rather than an authority figure. So that when Jesus says “Those who have ears hear. Those who have nothing will have less. Those with an abundance will have more,” he was not endorsing this; just articulating a truth.
I want to approach this weed and wheat parable through a similar lens. I think a lot of us come to these parables with the attitude of, “OK, I am going to figure this out. I am going to listen and get it right! I am going to be good soil, damn it! I am going to pull out all the weeds. I will be vigilant.” And so we meditate, we pray, we do good deeds, we cook meals for friends in the hospital, we practice our listening skills, we compost, we use organic fertilizers, we drive Priuses. And then our friend gets cancer. Our partner leaves us. We get bitten by a tick and our brains don’t work any more. We lose a child. We lose our faith. Our soil turns rocky, or scorched or weedy. Why? Is it our fault?
No way. We are powerless over all these things. I know this when I witness other people in their tragedies, but when the seed falls in the wrong places in me, I still think “It’s my fault. I should have had softer, deeper, weed-free soil." But I am the soil. God made this soil! I cannot weed myself! The conditions aren’t always up to me.
I know and work with a lot of addicts, in recovery as well as addicts who are out there, dying, making their loved ones miserable, and these parables remind me how hard we are on our addicts. We try to control them, rope them in, force them to listen. If only you would listen! If only you would be like that recovered person over there, who followed directions. Just Said No! We put chains on their feet, we do urine tests, we make the conditions of their freedom so narrow in the hopes that we can keep the weeds out. Because our hearts break every time they use, and we think the solution is ever more control. But this last parable, the wheat and the weeds, gives the lie to this. We’re not the ones who get to rip the weeds out. That’s God’s work, and much of the time, it doesn’t get to happen in this lifetime. Those parts of ourselves that are weedy are often so entwined with the parts of ourselves that are big, wonderful, heartful, hilarious, loving people that we would destroy ourselves if we were able to uproot our weeds. And sometimes those aspects of ourselves that we find weedy are really useful to other people. I have a friend who is extremely organized, and she always sees the way to get the task done. Alongside of that gift, she can be kind of bossy and controlling––a trait she sees in herself and hates. She wants so much to be serene and mellow. But when she’s serene and mellow, nothing gets done. We all like it much better when she’s bossy and controlling, even though it makes her unhappy.
It’s also dangerous to try to do the weeding for someone else. How do you really know that weed isn’t wheat in disguise? (The word in the Bible is “darnel” which is a kind of weed that closely resembles wheat, by the way.) In another case of “Everything Nerissa Knows She Learned from The Beatles,” I’d like to point out that John Lennon’s aunt Mimi hated John’s guitar so much that when he finally got rich and famous, he made her a plaque that read, “The guitar’s all right, John, but you’ll never make your living with it.” Now, what if she’d succeeded in weeding out his bad guitar habit?
We’re all this way; a glorious mixture of weeds and wheat. If I weren’t so spaced out and unfocused, I’d never write songs, let alone get up and sing and play guitar. If Bill Clinton weren’t such a womanizing swine, he probably never would have gotten elected. If my kids weren’t so opinionated and obstinate, they would not be the strong, healthy, passionate people they are growing to be. And if Suzuki practice weren’t hard, boring, repetitive, frought with discord, my kids wouldn’t be able to stand up with fifty other kids and play “O Come Little Children,” let alone the Bach Bourrée.
In the Tantric tradition, there is a story about a demon named Rakta bija, whose name means Blood Seed. He is really bad. But every time one of the gods tries to chop his head off, every drop of his blood creates a new Raktabija—kind of like a dandelion. Pretty soon, the world is overrun with Raktabiji—terrifying demons! Finally, the gods call Kali, who is the most fearsome goddess of all. She wears a necklace of skulls and has big vampire teeth, and she comes into town riding on the back of a lioness. She lifts her sword and chops Raktabija’s head off—and then she sticks out her enormously long tongue and drinks up all the blood drops before they can hit the ground.
It is in turning toward our demons, our weeds, our addictions, our most shameful places, taking them in to our core selves, that we begin to heal. Remember, Jesus was all about healing, getting us to see with our eyes, hear with our ears, understand with our hearts––oh, yeah! It’s a body thing!––so he might heal us. We can’t heal the body without the body. And we can’t just cut off the offending body part.
So what about the fiery furnace? Is this hell? Is this damnation? Again, in the yogic tradition that I study, fire—agni—is an internal feature (often having implications of digestion). When we take our weeds and wheat in at harvest time—when we get to that place where we can look back at our experience with our seeing eyes and hearing ears and understanding hearts, with honesty and compassion—and I’d add, when the conditions are right (bonfire season=wet, not when we’re in California in forest fire season) we really can burn up the weeds and feast on the wheat. When we look back on our lives this way, everything gets used. We make amends for the harms done. We learn from our mistakes. Yes, we all want to be light and bright, positive and happy all the time. It doesn’t work that way, at least it doesn’t for me. My work is not to reject myself when I’m less than light and bright, but to take those parts in, with love and compassion, learn from them, digest them, use them as compost, and then use what I’ve learned to heal others, if I have experienced some healing.
And boy, do I need healing. I have to say, this passage speaks directly to me as a Suzuki mom, where my role is to go with the kids to their lessons and group classes and play ins, and most significantly, be their practice coach every single day while they practice the long list of tasks their teacher gives them. This means I am sitting for an hour and half a day with my two kids, asking them to do what is occasionally boring, repetitive work, certainly as boring as weeding a garden. Play "Twinkle" again. Ok, now with your pinky like this. That was great! Now do it with a tall head. The practice goes well when I can be playful and creative. Pinky! Jay is working so hard! Help him out here! Sometimes they come to practice with joy and enthusiasm and we laugh and I dance the minuet like Martha Washington, or Elle just plays something so well the hairs on my arms raise up, or Jay suddenly gets that he can play “Long Long Ago" as if he’s Idina Menzel from the Frozen soundtrack. And sometimes all of us cry in frustration, someone throws their bow on the floor, Elle stomps out of the room, Jay falls into his wet noodle position, I storm out of the room and resolve to quit this idiotic practice that will certainly, definitely kill their love for music.
But I hear over and over an over again, from grown up musicians, “I am so glad my parents made me practice.” Or “I wish my parents had made me practice.” There are some musicians who are completely internally motivated, but just as many are not, or are not so at first. I have no real faith, most days, that what I am doing with and for my kids is the ultimate best. I don’t know if they’re going to go in to psychotherapy when they’re adults to deal with their PTSD from having to play Bach Minuets till their heads exploded. That will have to be dealt with at harvest time, whenever that is.
Whenever that is. It might come sooner, it might come later. I started the week resolved to quit because Jay was so impossible and said he hated violin. The week ended with Jay declaring Suzuki Camp an “infinity” on a scale of 1-10, and telling me he wanted to play every piece through Book 8 (he’s on Book One.) Elle said she wished Suzuki Camp went for four weeks instead of one. And I got to see that the biggest problems with our practice had to do with me and my insistence that we do things the “right” way. I think my job is to help them weed out their bad alignment and wrong notes, when it’s really just to create the space for them to explore what their teacher has given them.
And The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now. It’s not “when the kids get into Harvard on a music scholarship.” It’s certainly not “when the kids play the Bach Double.” As Jesus says at the beginning of our text, "This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: weeds mixed with wheat. We sort them out later.” It’s this moment: Elle concentrating so hard on her orchestra part. Learning how to deliver a punch line she learned from a joke told to her by two older kids. Jay running in his soccer cleats down the long corridors of Easthampton High School because he’s figured out his schedule and knows where to go to get to his next class. Elle handing out notes of appreciation to her friends, saying good job on your piece at the recital. Jay handing out flowers to his teachers, and kissing his fiddle goodnight. This, to me, is our weedy, wonderful Kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew 13:12 “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’[a]
Matt 13: 24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fiery furnace, so it will be at the end of the age.41
Mulla Nasrudin decided to start a flower garden. He prepared the soil and planted the seeds of many beautiful flowers. But when they came up, his garden was filled not just with his chosen flowers but was also overrun by dandelions.
He sought advice from gardeners all over and tried every method known to get rid of them but to no avail. Finally, he walked all the way to the capital to speak to the royal gardener at the sheik’s palace. The wise old man had counseled many gardeners before and suggested a variety of remedies to expel the dandelions but Mulla had tried them all.
They sat together in silence for some time and finally the gardener looked over at Nasrudin and said slowly, “Well, then I suggest you learn to love them… I suggest you learn to love them.”