The messy junk gardens of our lives.
I was in upstate New York this week, near Binghamton. Farm country, faded little towns. I was there with a friend to film a documentary about Howard Adams. Howard is almost 93 and he just lost his title as the national ping pong champion… in his age group. But there are so many other things that make him a fascinating film subject. He can play music on the violin, the organ and the piano, and he can build a piano and an organ and a violin—along with his house, his furniture, and all manner of practical machines. He had a very successful real estate business, selling houses and farms and their accompanying equipment. He was in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. He has stories and stories and stories about people and events in his life, and he loves to tell them. And he collects things—all kinds of old things: old keys and locks, old eyeglasses, old saws, old maps, old record players, old bells. His collections are really amazing, and it is clear that they are carefully cultivated. Each item matters very much to him, and each comes with a story. I was impressed by the deliberateness of his acquisitions, the organization, the painstaking discrimination that yielded dozens of the finest specimens. I imagined that it had taken him a great number of years to cull through a lot of stuff to create such a perfect collection, which in the future will undoubtedly be welcomed by a local museum.
Yesterday the heat broke in Connecticut and I got out my bike and decided to take a ride around the neighborhood. People were working in the yard, or working on the house. I heard kids whooping and hollering in backyard pools, and smelled the sweet fragrance of hamburgers and chicken cooking on open barbecues. And there were lots and lots of garage sales, all over the neighborhood. People sitting out in the driveway in their lawnchairs, presiding over tables of junk, while all these strangers were sorting through it.
I stopped at one that seemed particularly popular—there were cars lining the road up and down. A couple of kids were sitting at a card table at the entrance selling home-made lemonade for 50 cents a glass. The owners had arranged a huge number of things out there—major pieces of furniture, all kinds of mechanical devices, car parts, children’s tired-looking plastic wagons and kitchen sets and water toys, there were tables and tables with piles of all sorts of little things from every corner, drawer and closet of the house. The first thing I spotted was an old turntable—though much younger than Howard’s---which was actually playing a Frank Sinatra singing My Way. I looked around, poking through piles of stuff, inspecting cabinets and coffee tables, flipping through old videotapes and DVDs. Most of it, to my eyes, wasn’t much interesting.
But it would have been a bonanza to my father, who was the king of the yard sale. He used to go to one after the other on lazy Saturdays like yesterday, inevitably coming home with many random treasures he had acquired for a quarter or a dollar each. I used to be horrified at his seemingly indiscriminate junk-collecting, and embarrassed by the piles of it that lay around our house, in the basement, the garage and in the yard. My father was a product of the Depression, and the castaways he collected represented great promise and allowed him to dream of hidden riches. He kept collecting more and more of other people’s used things, and could never bear to part with anything he had, so the collection just grew and grew and grew. Yikes!
At one point my parents had a major fire in the house, and they moved temporarily to Vermont to live with my sister. Neither was well enough at that point to handle the job, so it was up to me to have the house rebuilt. It was my chance to get rid of it all---and I hired dumpster after dumpster to haul away the huge piles of my father’s precious junk. When he found out what I had done, he informed me, in not such gentle tones, that there were a lot of valuable things amidst his stuff, and that I had no right to get rid of it all.
I guess I didn’t, and in all probability, there were treasures within the haul. But unlike Howard, my father’s collections were not cultivated or in any way discriminate. Nothing that he had gathered in his wide net was eliminated. And I had neither the time, the energy or the interest to laboriously pick through it, inquire as to the value of things, or find buyers who would be searching for the items. And I had no intention of having a massive yard sale myself. So I just threw it all out, this mess and mass of stuff that was the sum total of my father’s harvesting over many years. The new house was definitely a lot nicer and so much better without all my father’s stuff, but truthfully when I saw him move back in there was something not quite right about it.
I felt a little overwhelmed by all the people and all the junk that was before me, and tired from my biking, so I asked the owner behind one of the tables if he minded that I sat for a little bit on the lawn behind him. It looked very green, lush and inviting. “Sure,” he said, “if you don’t mind all the weeds.” Of course as I sat down I was suddenly aware that the lush carpet beneath me was indeed a rich mixture of all kinds of green stuff, a lot of which was clearly not Scott’s Premium Kentucky Bluegrass. I was sitting on a bunch of weeds, but the truth is, they weren’t so bad. And I remembered battling with the weeds on my parent’s lawn when I was young, getting pulled into the almost ridiculous obsession of a perfect lawn of grass, pulling out the crabgrass, the dandelions, the creeping chickweed, the ever-spreading clover. One time my mom saw me spending hours pulling weeds and she came out and told me to quit, that it wasn’t worth it. “They don’t belong here,” I said. “Well,” she said with a smile, “everything belongs somewhere.”
As I sat there enjoying my seat on the lawn, I heard a voice call out my name. “Jim?” I looked over to where the sound came from, and saw a guy with a little girl in his arms. He looked about oh, 30 or so. I looked at him blankly, and he looked back at me and smiled. “Father Jim Mayzik, right?” he said, and I nodded, still looking at him without a clue. “I’m John Culkin,” he said, and somehow the brain cells started working and I began to remember him. “John Culkin,” I repeated, “John…..how are you?” And suddenly it hit me. The last time I saw him was probably 20 years ago when I first started teaching at Fairfield University. He was one of my students, and he was a total mess, and after months of deceptions and lies, drug abuse and theft, broken trusts, I had kind of written him off. It’s a long story, but as the years went by, I had consigned him to a forgotten closet in the corner of my mind and heart, and frankly hadn’t even thought of him in years and years. And now, confronted with him face to face, I was suddenly embarrassed. “And who is this?” I said to the little girl in his arms to deflect my embarrassment. “Well, this is Tina,” he said, “my little girl.” This little thing with white blonde hair and a button nose, and red candy stains around her mouth. She was really shy, and she hid her face in her daddy’s shoulder. John saw my embarrassment, I think, and he tried to reassure me. “I owe you an apology,” he said, “I was a jerk. But my whole life got turned around.”
We sat on the lawn of grass and weed, and he gave me a sketch of his life since the time I had written him off. And it was a remarkable turnaround, and a blessed one for both himself and his family, and now he had a wife he loved, and two children, and “God,” as he said, “has been very good to me.” I looked at him and watched little Tina inspecting one of the plastic children’s toys. All around us there were lots and lots of people sorting through all the junk. “You don’t always see the treasures, I guess”, I said to him, gesturing to the tables piled high. No, he nodded, ‘it’s not all junk’.
And even the junk belongs somewhere. And to be honest, the perfect lawn or the perfect life might be a worthy goal, but it’s not very real.
And that seems to be the point our brother Jesus makes to us today: amidst the weeds there is wheat, amidst the gold there is junk. It’s easy to judge, and easy to write off a lawn or a life, but only God really knows and sees the life and the gold that lies within. And Jesus tells us to be like God in that way, to have compassion, and understanding, and above all mercy and forgiveness. As it says in Wisdom, “those who are just must be kind”.
Sometimes it seems very easy to see the weeds that grow in the lives of our loved ones, often as not it's much easier to see it in them than it is in us. The imperfections we all have, the messy junk gardens of our lives—growing wildly beside the good things are all sorts of bad things. Sometimes, wisely, we choose to live with them, even as we work to purify them. The brother who drinks too much, the husband who yells too much, the mother who indulges too much, the son who sleeps too much, the sister who fusses too much. It is about us, who are part of the garden that God is tending, and the garden is weedy, around us and within us.
There is not a single person we know, not a single person we like or love, not a single person sitting in these pews, yourself and myself included, who is perfect in thoughts and deeds. Even as our brothers and sisters have need to be weeded of their selfishness and lack of love, so do we, each one of us. Thankfully, God gives us a chance to work on it ourselves, holding back the avenging angel until all is said and all is done, at the end of our times, of all times.
The same should be true of the Church. An institution that claims to be the body of Christ should be inclusive and kind and compassionate towards the whole garden in which we live, where everybody belongs somewhere.
So kindness is the word for today, the kindness that we receive from God who never gives up on any one of us. No doubt, each of us has the potential to be weed and junk, but for the love of God we are allowed to become what we are really meant to be: like our brother Jesus, only golden wheat.
The good news is that even the smallest good seed can grow strong and tall and wide, can overcome even the most annoying and nasty of weeds, can overcome with God's love, the evil that lives at times inside every one of us. A mustard seed is so tiny—about the size of one of those little annoying grains of beach sand that always get in your bed when you spend your summer at the shore. But oh, what a magnificent tree it can grow into, with our help, and with God's!