Monday, July 28, 2014

July 20 Sermon

To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” 36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

As I am a firm believer in proper sermon preparation, I naturally spent much of last week repotting my potted plants.  I know roughly as much about being a wheat farmer as I do about being a ballerina, so I felt like a crash-course in botany would put me in the proper parable mindset.
So last week, while it was cool and dry, I found my gardening gloves and my gardening shears and my dried-out bag of potting soil and I got to work.  I watered the begonias, brought in the caladiums, moved a gardenia that wasn’t taking so well, that sort of thing.  Nothing major—I’m more of a potted planter than a farmer—but it was nice and calming, and we could all use more nice and calming.
It’s true, you know, about the roots.  It’s not the leaves and the stalk you have to worry with.  They’ll come back; just give them a little water and some sun, and they’ll come back.  But when the roots grow together, well, you’re stuck. You can’t pull up one without pulling up the other, and it makes for a big mess, a big dirt-under-your-fingernails mess.  It means that some of the good plants will be sucked dry by the bad, and that means some of the good plants will die.
It’s a big enough mess in gardening, but imagine the implications for the church. Judgment is dangerous business.
There is an upside, though, and for all the nutrients sucked dry by the weeds, for all the time and energy we spend on those who just love to suck up the church’s time and energy like weeds in a field, the fact remains that judging is God’s job, and what a relief, because it takes a lot of pressure off of us . . . because even when we squint, we still can’t distinguish the weeds from the wheat 100% of the time.  And sure, the church is a mess, but it’s a holy mess, and we come to God with who we are and we accept everybody no matter what because we’re all just people, you know, just people who are all longing after God.
It is one reason I am so fond of this parable. I do not like judgment. It’s God’s job, not mine, and I’ve seen so much foolishness happen in the name of maintaining holiness, of judging others, that I just don’t have time for it. And this parable reminds us that it is God’s job to judge, not mine, and thank goodness, because that’s a lot of pressure.
            It seems simple enough, but somewhere down the line, the church missed this parable, got down on its hands and knees and started weeding.  And it stings, you know, it stings for some of us, some more than others, because we’ve been called weeds before; we’ve been told that because of who we are or what we’ve done, we don’t belong in church.
            You may have heard me tell the story of the church that was booming back in the late 60’s, full of young people, people who didn’t really fit anywhere else, but that was ok because it was the church’s vibe, that it was a place where people who didn’t fit could go and feel like it was ok not to fit.
And so those are the kind of people who went to that church, girls with short hair and boys on motorcycles, and it was great, great for everybody, until one Sunday, when it came to the pastor’s attention that one of the girls with short hair had returned after several months away, and she had brought her newborn child.  If she had been married, of course, the whole church would have cooed at the child, would’ve told mom just how much the baby looked like her, but since she wasn’t married, there was none of that.
Don’t you know that they marched her right up the center aisle during worship that Sunday, they stood her in the front of the church, and they had a vote right then and there as to whether someone who gave such a bad name to the church, whether that kind of person belonged there.
And who cares whether they voted to keep her or to reject her, because no matter how they voted the verdict was passed the moment they made her walk up the aisle.  Of course, they were just doing their job, she had upset the holiness of God’s church and something just had to be done about it!, but, you know, they broke right in two, the congregation and the town and that poor young woman broke right in two.
            You pull the weeds and the wheat comes up with it, and soon, there’s nothing left for the bread.
We recently passed the 50th anniviersaty of the Civil Rights Act, so this morning I am remembering the Little Rock Nine, those nine brave African-American high school students braved crowds, guns, and worse to enroll in and integrate Little Rock Central High School.  For days, the nine students stared down an angry white mob, over a thousand strong.  Brown vs. Board of Education had been decided three years prior, but the law means little when you’ve got a thousand angry faces growling at you.
            And if the mob weren’t enough, Governor Orval Faubus ordered the ten-thousand-strong Arkansas National Guard to block the students’ entrance to the school.  Each day, for three weeks, the students watched armed men block their entrance into the school.  Nine teenagers against ten thousand soldiers.  It sounds ludicrous now, and it should, but that’s how it was, nine against ten thousand!
            Those nine ended up being awfully successful, and I don’t know what happened to those ten thousand, but I do know about Orval Faubus, the governor, who ordered the National Guard to block the school.  Now, part of me wishes that he’d been despised for what he did; I wish he’d been seen as the sanctimonious opportunist that he was, but he got reelected four times after the Little Rock fiasco.  In fact, Gallup did a poll in 1958, and it turns out that Orval Faubus was one of the ten people in the entire world who Americans admired most.  In the world.
            And now, fifty years later, the tables have turned; we can celebrate those brave nine.  We know their names and their stories, know that they were and are nine strong stalks of wheat in the face of ten thousand who thought otherwise.
            Thank goodness for time, because it seems that in the heat of the moment, we jump right into judgmentalism, into closedmindedness.
            But there’s good news in Jesus’s parable for those who just listen!  The celebrated preacher James Forbes calls this little parable “the best kept secret in the Bible;” he says, “let’s don’t do any prejudging and start the hellfire prematurely.  Let’s leave it up to the Lord!”
            Now, I quite like that.  That’s the kind of theology I want to hear in the church.  There’s no room for judges who play God, because when the roots are tangled, pulling weeds is Russian Roulette, and it’s only a matter of time before all the roots come up and what used to be fertile ground falls to pieces, just falls to pieces.
            And that’s what Jesus is up to here.  The disciples are worried about what to do with weeds in their midst, bad folks, maybe, or at least, people they don’t know quite what to do with.  The tendency, you know, is to just get rid of them, not worry with them.  The disciples figure—and it makes sense, you know—that if Jesus brings a new way, you know, it must be out with the old and in with the new.
            But then Jesus tells a story.  The kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who sows good wheat in the field, but in the night, an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat.  You’d think he’d notice, the farmer.  But it takes a while for things to grow.  You can’t just sow seed and wake up and it’s full-grown; you have to wait.  And the enemy has sown a particularly mischievous weed—it still grows in Jesus’s parts today, and they still call it “false wheat” in some places because you can’t tell that it’s not wheat until it’s almost full-grown.  And by that point, you’re stuck with the dirt-under-your-fingernails mess, because the roots have tangled, and the weed holds on to the wheat like a vice.  You can’t pull the weeds without pulling the wheat, so you’re stuck.  And the farmer tells his farmhands to leave the field be, and that come harvest time, he’ll call in the professionals because the farmhands just aren’t cut out for the job.
            Well, granted, it’s a complicated story, so the disciples ask Jesus just what it means.  Let me quote him because I don’t want to get this wrong.
            Jesus answers, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”
            Normally, you know, I run away from judgment stories, and I don’t really like talking about the devil.  But I’m willing to make an exception for this one, because it’s nobody’s job but God’s to handle the judgment.  And though Jesus is bringing something altogether new, the message is not so much out with the old and in with the new as it is “don’t kick out the old, but prepare for the new,” because you never know just who you’re kicking out.
            It wasn’t easy for the disciples to live into that story, and it’s not easy for us.  No matter how hard we try, and no matter how much we work for it, it seems like judgmental people are so tangled with us, it is hard to tell where the wheat ends and the weed begins.
Why, I heard once of a church who had to deal with a person who was homeless and lived in the woods outside the church. And because he didn’t have a place to shower, he came smelling like he lived in the woods, and folks were polite enough, but it got to be pretty significant, and some folks started to complain.
            Well, this man went to the pastor and announced his intention to join the church.  This is the place for me, he said.  I like the preaching, the choir sounds nice, the communion bread tastes good, I want to join. And she said—the pastor said—I’d like to let you in, really I would, but let me talk to the church, you know, because this is not quite as easy as just saying the vows.
            You know what?  The pastor called a big meeting.  The man who was homeless wasn’t there, of course, because that would have just been awkward, and we don’t do so well with awkward in the church.  But everybody else showed up and packed the sanctuary so full that someone brought cheese and crackers for everybody and put them in the next room.
            Oh, it was long and ugly.  Its just not church business unless it’s long and ugly; you know that.  The pastor got up to speak, and I wasn’t there but I imagine that she said something about it being a difficult situation, and how people were going to disagree, and how it was all right to have strong opinions, how they would make the proper concessions in light of the situation, but it was the right thing to do.  You’ve said this stuff before, maybe not in such circumstances, but you know what she said.  She might’ve read the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.  It applies pretty well, I think.
            And when the pastor was done, well, preaching, really, she sat down and people came up to the microphone, one by one, and you’ve never heard such hate come from people’s mouths.  I mean, never.  The people who wanted to accept the man were called reckless.  The people who didn’t want to accept the man were called judgmental.  And so it went, and worse, for hours.
            Well, after it all, after several hours of side-ways glances and under-the-breath comments, and with the cheese and crackers left untouched, they had a vote.  And you know what they voted, don’t you?
            Naturally, they voted to let the homeless man into the congregation, and they voted to kick all the judgmental folks straight to the curb, out of the church, where they didn’t really have much to be judgmental about.  And the church was happy, you see, because they were setting a model of a perfect, loving church for all to see.  And people came from miles around just to see the happy, progressive, open-minded church that let in the man who was homeless, that didn’t judge him one bit because all the judgmental folks were gone, because, everybody knows, there is no room in God’s church for judgmental folks.

            All right, maybe that’s not quite how it all ended, but do you feel as I do? They didn’t kick out all the judgmental folks, but is there a small part of you, deep down in your tangled roots, that wishes they had?

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