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The Parable of Hope Admidst Despair

July 28, 2002

Ian Lawton

Ordinary Sunday 17     Romans 8:26-34     Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a


Brazilian liberation theologian Archbishop Helder Camara says, "When you give food to the poor, they call you a saint. When you ask why the poor have no food, they call you a communist."


Today's parable raises the issue of destruction and asks where it comes from. It suggests that getting to the root cause of the problem is the heart of finding solutions.


It is one of the parables which for a city boy like me is difficult to come to grips with. For someone like me who grew up in a suburb which makes Ponsonby look like a National Park, a parable about weeds and wheat is a little beyond my realm of experience. However I did see what looked like a luscious tree growing in our backyard this week, only to be told by Meg that it was a giant weed.


There are three things I know to be true about weeds, and I want to explore these with you this morning. The first is that it is hard to tell the difference between weed and plant, especially for me. The second is that the only way to eradicate weed is at the root. This I know from experience. The third I have no experience of, yet believe to be true; that weeds exist in some kind of tension with plants, and need to be disposed of carefully, lest the ecosystem becomes unbalanced.


It's a parable which has had its meaning hijacked by dualists who would have us believe that there are good and evil people, that life is simply black and white, that God is good and the devil evil and that if we give the devil an inch he will take a mile; or as one corny bumper sticker said - 'Give the devil an inch, and he will become your ruler'.


Leave all that behind for now, and let's explore a complex situation which is full of wheat and weed, hope and despair. It is that of El Salvador which has been the centre of international politics and natural disaster. El Salvador is a land of rich and fertile soil, yet such devastation.


More than 32,000 indigenous people were killed in a 1932 military campaign meant to exterminate El Salvador's native population, yet members of many native groups continue to live according to their traditional ways. A story of despair and hope mingled together.


After the decade of the 1980's and after America had spent more than four billion dollars funding a civil war that had lasted twelve years and left seventy-five thousand Salvadorans dead, local people attempted to resurrect life in that place. Hope and despair intermingling.


90 percent of Salvadorans living in conditions of extreme poverty, violence, many forced from their lands, death threats, human rights violations, the murder of so many activists and then last year a savage earthquake. The recent history of El Salvador seems like a tragic case of weeds having taken hold and choked the life out of the place. Yet not so. Hope remains.


El Salvador remains for the rest of the world a cold war parable of the weeds and wheat.


The villagers of El Mozote found themselves in the path of the Salvadoran Army's anti-Communist crusade and what was left was scattered ruins, battered structures -- roofless, doorless, windowless, half engulfed by underbrush - rapidly being reclaimed by the earth, their walls cracking and crumbling before an onslaught of weeds.


As you listen to this account of regeneration hear the echoes of today's parable.


"Into a quiet clearing arrived a convoy of four-wheel drives and pickup trucks. They took up machetes and began to hack at the weeds, being careful not to pull any, lest the movement of the roots disturb what lay beneath. Chopping and hacking in the morning sun, they uncovered, bit by bit, a mass of red-brown soil, and before long they had revealed an earthen mound protruding several feet from the ground, and barely contained at its base by a low stone wall.


They began to dig. At first, they loosened the earth with hoes. As they dug deeper, they exchanged these tools for smaller, more precise ones. Slowly, painstakingly, they dug and sifted, making their way through the several feet of earth remnants of a building's walls. Then, late on the afternoon of the third day, as they crouched low over the ground and stroked with tiny brushes to draw away bits of reddish dust, darkened forms began to emerge from the earth, taking shape in the soil like fossils embedded in stone; and soon they knew that they had begun to find, in the northeast corner of the ruined sacristy of the church of Santa Catarina of El Mozote, the skulls of those who had once worshipped there. By the next afternoon, the workers had uncovered twenty-five of them, and all but two were the skulls of children."


A tragic story, yet one which warns of recklessly pulling up weeds. The path to recovery needs great care. It requires a journey to the centre of the destruction.


Where is hope found in El Salvador? It is found partly in the peace accords of 1992, although the devastation continues to this day. It is found partly in the Truth Commission, which exposed many acts of violence, yet so many remain hidden to this day.


But the real hope for El Salvador's resurrection lies in the heart and spirit of the Salvadoran people, especially the children. A local woman who had lost her son to the violence was asked, "How have you experienced God's presence?" She described a vision of her son appearing at her bedside after his death, when she was undergoing serious surgery and her life was in danger. "The men who killed my son not even they nor death could separate us," she said. "It is only thanks to God that I'm still here. I'm still here, alive, and fighting for my people despite beatings, torture, the murder of my family, and illness. This is enough for me to know that God is true and real."


At El Mozote there is a simple, wooden memorial to those who were killed in 1981. Like the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., the El Mozote memorial contains the name of each martyr killed there 15 years ago. The memorial reads, "They did not die, they are with us, with you, and with all humanity."


Through the children of El Mozote, yesterday and today, we can know that God is not dead, but ever with all Salvadorans, with each one of us, and with all humanity. Today's parable is about maintaining hope in the face of overwhelming despair. It is about the tendency in each one of us for weedlike and wheatlike behaviour and attitudes. We have the ability for growth and stagnation. According to the parable they are not clearly distinguishable categories, like pure and impure thoughts, the holy and the profane. Rather the weeds and the wheat dwell alongside one another in some kind of tension.


It is a parable about personal journeys and international tension, as well as the unsettling of nature's patterns. It is about chiselling away at injustice and oppression and working persistently and courageously for new life.


It's a parable both about giving food to the poor and asking why the poor have no food. It's a parable about going to the heart of despair, feeling it, questioning it, and moving on in hope; the quest for life.

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