Sermon, 7/20/14, The Rev. Lori M. Lowe

Pentecost  VI (Proper 11 A)                                                St. Paul’s McHenry

July 20, 2014                                                                            

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

For two Sundays in a row, we’ve heard versions of parables involving farmers planting their crops.  In the version we heard last week, the so-called Parable of the Sower, Jesus describes a farmer who sows his seed extravagantly, so that it lands on rocks, hard scrabble, and on good soil alike. And if you were here last week, you’ll remember that I talked about how Jesus used parables; how they had various possible meanings, and the way these little stories were meant to send people away scratching their heads and wondering what Jesus meant. And I also talked about how Matthew just couldn’t resist explaining it and turning it into an analogy, meaning no harm, of course.  He was just trying to help his young church understand.

Today – just a few verses later in the Gospel of Matthew – we have Jesus once again telling a story about a farmer sowing his fields.  In this version, known as the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, “an enemy” (that’s code for The Devil) comes behind the farmer and sows weeds.

“Master… do you want us to go and gather [the weeds]?” his workers asked.  But the farmer says, “No.  If you do that, you’ll uproot the wheat with the weeds.  Just let both of them grow together until the harvest.” Now, I’m not much of a gardener, but my mother was.  She grew everything from fabulous southern azaleas to roses and zinnias, and the lawn to show them off. One of the things I remember about her puttering in our yard was her constant vigilance for weeds.  A weed could hardly break the soil before she snatched it up.

I’m not a farmer either, so I did a little research to find out more about farming in 1st century Palestine; you know, just to get a feel for what Jesus’ listeners might have been thinking as he told this parable. It would seem that my mother wasn’t too far off.  Those farmers listening to Jesus would have really been scratching their heads and likely thinking, This carpenter doesn’t know much about farming, does he! Actually, there are several things in Jesus’ story that would have tipped off his listeners that this story wasn’t exactly on the up-and-up.  For instance, since weeds were common enough, why would “an enemy” need to sow them?

Furthermore, it was common practice to remove weeds two or three times during the growing season and to bundle them up to be used as much needed fuel. So you see, right from the beginning, they knew something unusual is coming.  ‘Let the wheat and the tares grow up together’ is probably not what a farmer – or modern day gardener, for that matter – would be expecting to hear. All that being said, now we have another sort of problem.  It’s about the interpretation of the parable – the part in which each element of the parable is assigned a meaning and explained, which was quite unlike Jesus when he told stories and parables.

We are challenged to discern how much of all this Jesus may have actually said… and how much of it may have been Matthew’s well-intentioned expansion for the sake of his fledgling community. We do this discernment with prayer, scholarship, and the God-given gift of intellect.  In the end, most scholars agree that Matthew added the allegory; the part that explains that the weeds represent evil and will be burned in what sounds an awful lot like hell.

Matthew’s church, like all churches, was undoubtedly caught in the tension between their sense of obligation to call people to lives of goodness and holiness… and their desire to offer all comers the gift of acceptance and forgiveness. We, too, experience that tension.  In addition, most of us are keenly aware of living in a time of terrible, general belligerence.  Everything, every disagreement, is a potential battleground. This contentiousness pervades the international scene, our national politics, our communities and parishes,  and sometimes right down to families.  I don’t even need to offer examples, because I’m pretty sure you’ve immediately thought of several. It’s a contentiousness borne of pseudo-righteousness and judgmentalism.

Actually, that’s a word I just made up.  I made it up because I wanted to emphasize the difference between judgment and the form of judgment that really must end in “–ism”; thus, judgmentalism. I mean this to highlight the difference between conviction and rigidity, between passion and fanaticism. We have allowed rigidity and fanaticism to infect the air we breathe.  Christian fanatics, Jewish fanatics, Muslim fanatics; political fanatics of all sorts.  And in truth, fanatics of all stripes are dangerous.

But if I understand Jesus at all, if I understand this parable at all, we are to focus on nurturing goodness, promoting reconciliation, and healing divisions. The world is full of hatefulness, greed, meanness, full of violence which will threaten the good seed, but we are to sow love and kindness and forgiveness. If Jesus is to be taken seriously, we are to trust that love will overcome the madness, greed, and hate; and that God will suffice.  We are, in fact, to trust that God in Christ has already won the victory.

Is this passive?  Is it pie-in-the-sky theology?  I don’t believe so, if only because I know from experience that sowing love and kindness and forgiveness is the hardest work there is.  But when those things take root in the human heart, when they form the foundation of all that we do, then the Reign of God shines through the darkness.

There are glimpses all around.  Take for instance:

  • Kids for Peace, which brings together children from conflicted groups.  It started with Catholic and Protestant kids from Northern Ireland with life-altering results, and has expanded to children from Jewish and Muslim communities in the Middle East.
  • Most of us can remember the commitment to non-violence in the American Civil Rights Movement; the courage and bravery of the men and women who stood peacefully for justice.
  • There was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa which almost certainly prevented a bloodbath when Apartheid ended.
  • And there are organizations and ministries all over the country and the world reaching out to help those most in need, such as Heifer International, Episcopal Relief and Development, our own Diaper Bank and Betts’ Place.

This is a list that could go on and on.  These glimpses are visible at every level of human society. I remember a story I heard some years ago that made a deep impression on me.  It was about a neighborhood, an ordinary suburban neighborhood, into which a single Jewish family moved. During the holidays, when all the Christian families had their Christmas trees on display, this one family had their menorah in their front window. One night, someone threw a rock through that window and shouted anti-Semitic slurs as they drove by.  The next day, every window in the neighborhood quietly displayed a menorah.

I love that story.  It reminds me that there are many ways to sow love and kindness and forgiveness.

  • It reminds me that we are all part of the same human family;
  • that we are in the same boat;
  • that we will all sink or swim together;
  • and that the final outcome is in God’s hands.

So let the wheat and the tares grow up together.  In the end, it may not be so much a matter of who among us is evil and who is righteous; of who will be cast out and who will be invited into the heavenly kingdom. Given the extravagant mercy of God, it’s more likely that it will be about the good and evil, the love and hatred that grows in each of us, and that when the Kingdom of God is fulfilled, God will sort out the weeds that clutter each of our hearts… so that we will all be invited into the Kingdom.

Meanwhile, we are to do the best we can to sow love and kindness and forgiveness; and to remember that in God’s mercy, God is allowing the wheat and tares in the world – and in us – to grow together until the harvest.

Lori Lowe +