Earlier this week in some of the good gardening weather we enjoyed, I was making an effort to get our garden back into shape after several years of, shall we say, minimum maintenance. In particular we’ve had the far end of it covered with black polythene for about four years so it was high time to rip it up and see what lay beneath. And what lay beneath was an extensive network of bindweed roots which had spread out from their base in the hedge to form a lovely lattice of glowing white cords across the surface of the soil, which was itself flat and shiny after lying so long under the plastic. It was quite striking actually, but I knew what lay ahead in terms of removing it.
If you have bindweed in your garden you’ll know the kind of love hate relationship that develops. You have to admire its tenacity, the ability of its roots to travel countless yards underground with no light or evident sustenance and for the growth to keep appearing no matter how much you knock it back, weed-kill it, dig it out or even smother it with plastic. You know how it’s going to be - you’re going to have to live with it, you’ll never get rid of it.
So there I was, pulling up yards of fleshy white root and consigning it to the bonfire heap, because you can’t compost it of course and recalling that I had a sermon to prepare thinking that there must be a spiritual metaphor here somewhere. It doesn’t feature in the bible though, so I can only imagine that they don’t have bindweed in the holy land.
But I wonder, if Jesus had been a gardener instead of a carpenter, would he have tolerated bindweed? Because the thing that strikes me about the gospel reading we’ve just heard is how uncompromising it appears. The phrase “get thee behind me Satan” has become a bit of a throwaway line hasn’t it? I mean if you were to suggest we retire to the pub for a pint after this service I might say “get thee behind me Satan” in a tone of affected and affronted righteousness. And then head for the pub. But my initial reaction is that it wasn’t meant in that sort of way by Jesus. Oh no. Worldly concerns are to be put aside ruthlessly, you’ve got to be one hundred per-cent self denying. Following God is all or nothing.
But then again - there are vast amounts of time and distance between us and this encounter, not to mention umpteen translations by people who presumably took these things very seriously. How can we possibly know the tone in which this conversation was conducted? I think I can visualise Jesus’ remarks as a relatively gentle bit of joshing with a good friend, reminding him that there’s a divine view as well as a worldly one and encouraging him to remember that a bit more before the next time he tells God what God’s plans ought to be, as it were.
Maybe, maybe not - so let’s turn to the next bit of serious stuff we heard earlier. The epistle was early verses from Paul’s exhortations to the Romans. There are nearly four chapters of these and even in the verses we heard the bar is set at a level which seems designed to make us give up before we start. But the main thrust was I think to encourage a spirit of forgiveness. Leave revenge to God. If Paul had been a gardener instead of a tent maker he might have likened the unforgiving spirit to bindweed in the hedge. Unchecked it will take over and prevent what’s meant to be there from showing through. So if we want what’s meant to be there in our lives to shine through we have to keep a check on that spirit of unforgiveness. And at risk of getting carried away with this analogy, you can put more or less effort into keeping the bindweed in check - even give up on it in some less visible areas. I caught myself doing something like that the other day when some idiot had cut me up on the road and I came out with a few very unforgiving comments - there’s something about being in a car isn’t there? You think you can get away with remarks you wouldn’t dream of making face to face. So I’m afraid that confession may show the limits of my personal spirit of forgiveness and I probably do need to work harder at keeping the unforgiving me in check. Like bindweed it can crop up anywhere and take the edge off all the nice things you’ve said and done.
And so finally to probably the most serious of the three men we met in our readings. It might help if I paraphrase what I think this passage was about. Jeremiah believed he had gained some insight from God and he had been delighted with it. Then, sensibly, rather than blurt it out immediately, he had reflected on it - he’d let his world view crystallize, if you like. But when he came to share this considered and rounded message from God it had gone down like a lead balloon and Jeremiah had taken some serious flak. And in this passage he’s in the process of complaining to God about all this. Credit to him there by the way - he’s admitting to natural human hurt and anger and asking what’s happened to the joy he once knew. He gets the answer that he can please himself whether he speaks worthless words or precious ones. But God will only stand by him if he speaks the precious ones.
Maybe not the answer he wanted but a word for our time from three thousand years ago, wouldn’t you agree? If Jeremiah had been a gardener rather than a prophet, he’d have known his bindweed from his begonia. And as we are all in some small way, prophets of God, all we have to do is speak precious words rather than worthless ones. It’s that easy if we can tell them apart. Oh that it were that easy.
The thought that interests me here is this. Jeremiah had a clear and straightforward world view. It’s still perfectly possible to have such a view today whether it be religious, political, scientific or whatever. The thing about such a one-size-fits all view is that it will sooner or later encounter other views to which it is irrelevant or threatening or just plain wrong. In this somewhat irreverent and diverse world we inhabit that makes it hard to know what precious words can possibly be. The fact that we’re here at all this morning probably indicates that in general we believe there is a divine dimension to be worked out in our lives. What’s difficult is taking the precious from here into the whole of our lives so that it flourishes and grows.
In conclusion, I’m a bit concerned that I’ve given bindweed too bad a billing - it is part of the natural order after all and I do find it faintly fascinating and I can live with having to keep it in check. I’m not about to let a few weeds spoil the pleasure of the garden. And I guess that kind of matches what I’ve been trying to say about these readings - our religion should inform our dealings in the world and make it more joyful not separate us from it and make us miserable. I can even find a verse to reflect that sentiment:
A merry heart doeth good, like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones.
A small prize for the first who can give me chapter and verse for that!...