Weeds and Wheat, Is God an Irresponsible Farmer?

The recent years in the Anglican Communion have been filled with strife, and schism. We argue over liturgy, we argue over women’s ordination, we argue over gay marriage…Are you sensing a common theme here? We argue. And more than argue, we split, we schism, because we can’t have THOSE PEOPLE, whomever you define those people as, with us, infecting us and corrupting us. Yet the Bible has something important to say to this. I was moved to write this sermon as a challenge and a response to all of our bickering based on the parable of the weeds. It is my hope that this sermon will provide encouragement, and exhortation to greater love and charity with those we disagree with.

Proper 11 Year A, Gospel according to Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ 28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” 36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. 40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Mat 13:24-30,36-43 NIV)

Is God an Irresponsible Farmer?

How many of us in here are farmers? Hmm I would venture to say here in urban South Florida that few if any of us have ever farmed. Some of you may have some plants or a garden, however. Today’s gospel lesson from Matthew 13 comes from a series of parables in which Jesus describes what the ‘kingdom of heaven is like’…The particular parable we heard this morning is often called the parable of the weeds.

In it Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a man who sows good seed, but an enemy comes in the night and sows weeds among the wheat. In the ancient world that Jesus is living in there is no grocery stores, and there are no fast food restaurants. People’s lives depended upon their being able to successfully farm. There was some industry where you might trade in the marketplace for things you need, but by a large the people either raised crops or livestock to support their household. So Jesus here is using an analogy for the kingdom of heaven that everyone would have understood. Yet, we as urbanites in South Florida do not raise our crops, so in to understand what Jesus is saying here we need to know a little bit about farming.

Farming is all about maximizing your yield. You want to get the most crop as you can, in order to support your family and to have surplus to sell at market. So to get the most food possible you want a good seed. Farmers would carefully sort their seed so that they had as few rocks and weed seeds in them as possible. You wanted the purest seed possible. In modern farming we plant our seeds at the best possible depth to ensure the right amount of soil moisture and sunlight and we do this using heavy machinery, back then the farmer would sow, or scatter seed along the ground. Some might get eaten by birds, and some might not sprout, but the farmer trusted enough would take root and grow. Then the seeds sprout and the farmer would send workers into the field to pull weeds, why? Because weeds compete with the wheat for water, sun, and nutrients. So you want to pull them up as soon as possible before they have a chance to grow deep roots that will mix in with crop.

Here however Jesus tells a parable that flies in the face of every farming principle. Even though the enemy has come and sown weeds, the farmer tells his workers to not go and pull the weeds, why? “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.” (Mat 13:29 NIV) It seems here that God is being an irresponsible farmer…Why would he allow weeds to grow until the harvest?

Some of you may no longer be thinking about the gospel but are instead asking by now, how on Earth does Tracy know so much about farming? That’s not what we’re sending her to seminary for is it? Few of you know this, but I’m originally from Indiana, and my family lived on almost 2 acres up until I was 7 years old, and when I was still a small child we had ¾ of an acre for a garden. We had a peach tree, 2 apple trees, and every year we planted a few rows of corn, green beans, carrots, and tomatoes. We would plant in the spring and then we’d harvest and can enough in the fall to last us through the winter. It was a wonderful, except for one thing, the weeding. My Dad has really bad allergies to weeds, and so he would send my sister and I out into the garden to weed, and again you wanted to get the weeds out early before the took over and choked out your other crops. But imagine if you will a 5 and a 10 year old out in the hot sun weeding…We just wanted to get done, so sometimes in our haste we pulled the wrong thing. To a five year old dandelions are a lot prettier than pea plants, so I would leave dandelions and pick pea plants…I’ll tell you a secret. I also didn’t like peas. Now eventually my parents caught on and we were taught better on how to weed, and supervised, but I still remember a time as a small child when a dandelion was a pretty flower, and a pea was icky, and I wonder if this isn’t at the heart of why God allows the weeds.

Later in the Gospel lesson, Jesus takes his disciples aside and they ask him to explain the parable of the weeds…What does it mean? And Jesus tells them…The sower, the farmer as we would call him is the Son of Man. Son of Man is a title Jesus uses to refer to himself. He is the new Adam, creation made new and restored. The seed is the people of the kingdom. The seed is the people of God, and the weeds are the people of the evil one, and the field is the world, and the weeds and wheat will grow together until the end of the age when the angels are instructed by Jesus to harvest. First the weeds will be pulled, bundled and thrown into the fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Verse 41 tells us that at the end of the age the angels will finally weed out everything that causes sin and all who do evil will be destroyed, and the righteous will shine like stars in the heaven (verse 43 now).

Again it seems God is not a very good farmer, why would he allow things and persons that cause sin and evil to persist mixed into the world, mixed into his kingdom, and mixed into HIS CHURCH until the age? We in the church occasionally attempt to do a little weeding ourselves? We are wary of THOSE PEOPLE, those other people, who sin. They’re doing crazy dangerous stuff and we don’t trust it, it’s not good it’s not Godly, and so what do we do? The initial impulse is to beat them with doctrine and Scripture, and tell them all how they are Wrong, Wrong, Wrong….and if such a gracious truth in love approach doesn’t convince them of the error of their ways we do one of two things: we kick them out, or we leave. Because we can’t be in fellowship, we can’t be in Communion with THOSE PEOPLE. They’re wrong, and they could corrupt us…Why would God allow this? Why would God seemingly encourage this mixing of wheat and chaff, wheat and weed to remain?

I think back to when I was a child and sent out into the garden to weed. Even in my sincere efforts I occasionally missed a weed, but also in my youth and immaturity I mistook things I didn’t like for weeds. I sought to get rid of peas which were good for me, and kept the dandelions because they were pretty, and I liked them. I think we in the church are equally in danger of this. Because we don’t see things through God’s eyes we sometimes mistake things we don’t like or understand for being sinful and weeds. In the Episcopal Church great verbal battles have been fought over whether you should use the 1928 prayer book or the 79 prayer book, whether rite I is better than rite II, whether we should only sing hymns, or allow that heathen sounding praise music in.

Far more serious battles have occurred recently over the ordination of Women to Bishops in the Church of England, and we continue to battle over the ordination of homosexuals, and same sex marriage. The progressive wing of the church is all for it, the conservative wing is adamantly opposed, and many have even left the church. Then the rest of us are left in the middle trying to make sense of it all. Regardless of the sin, be it homosexuality, pride, or anger sin seems to abound in the church and in the way we treat each other. We have ceased speaking with charity with the people who disagree with us, because we know we are right.

Yet God tells us, and allows sin and sinful people to remain, and instructs the workers NOT TO weed them out because the wheat might be damaged when you pull out the weeds. Why is that? The farming metaphor breaks down a bit here because we are not a stable crop. Wheat is wheat from the time it is a seed to the time it sprouts to the time it is harvested and ground to make flour is still wheat. A dandelion is a dandelion from seed to sprout to flower. Yet we in the church know the kingdom of God is not so rigid.

As the old song goes, Amazing grace how sweet the sound, I once was lost but now am found! Dear friends I stand before you as a solid Christian, God willing I will one day a priest, yet I tell you truly…I was once a weed in the kingdom of God. I was a sinner extraordinaire. For a time, I had an excuse. I wasn’t raised in the church and didn’t know any better. But then in college I started attending a church regularly. Yet I was still a weed. I was bitter and angry over hard life experiences in childhood. I swore, smoked, drank underage and had a tattooed, pierced and purple haired body that screamed out of my rebellion. Yet, I was graciously welcomed. I continued on as a weed among the wheat until slowly day by day I saw myself transformed. I saw myself conformed into what it means to be a Christian. I wish I could tell you that when I was baptized in college I heard the angels sing, and the old me transformed immediately. In reality, I was happy and I was wet. Yet, the old me didn’t die right away. Yet something happened in my baptism, and in my life in the Christian community because gradually, the old me died away and I became dedicated to following Christ. Eventually I ended up here, to be one day a priest…and I thank God for his incredible grace shown forth in that community.

It would have been easy to see me as a bad influence, a weed, a person too wounded and too broken by the world, but my friends I tell you this…The good seed sown by Christ doesn’t just grow into fullness and get harvested, it also has the potential to infect and utterly transform the weeds. By the power of grace a weed can become wheat, a sinner can become a saint, and flesh can be conformed to the Spirit. In the church we are tempted to conform to the world’s ideals of farming, where the crop must be protected at all costs. We weed out the garden with regularity, and as a result have become a fractured and broken church. Let us instead trust in the graciousness of the Father who created the world with goodness. Satan has sown evil and sin into the world, yet the Father loved us enough to send his Son Jesus to sow good seed again and to restore creation by taking on flesh living and dying as one of us. Most of all let us not succumb to the temptation to judge and to weed ourselves, instead let us live in the tension of being side by side with weeds in the field. Let us pray for those we would weed out, that instead the Holy Spirit may come into their lives and transform them from weeds into wheat. So that at the last day we may all shine like the stars. Amen.

Awaiting Zechariah’s fulfillment

I am taking yet another preaching class…my motivations are less than ideal…I need to graduate, and to do that I need another credit in proclamation. I received feedback on my first sermon for this class that it was excellent, but likely to go above people’s heads. What do you think? I think its challenging, but I think it’s a message people need to hear. My sermon text is designed to be spoken not read, so it had some capitalization for emphasis and colloquial grammar…What do you think dear reader?

Sermon Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Year A, Track 2. Lectionary for July 6

Zechariah 9:9-12, Ps. 145:8-15, Romans 7:15-25, Mt, 11:16-19, 25-30

 

Today is a day of wonderful lessons, that all seem like wonderful things we need to here. In the Psalm we heard “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness…” Romans 7, talks about struggling with sin…who cannot relate to Paul’s lament “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do.” Many times in our lives we really need to hear about God’s compassion and how even the saints and apostles struggled with sin and temptation…So it may come as a surprise to many of you that I’ve chosen to preach on the Old Testament lesson today.

Why preach on 4 measly verses of the Old Testament? After all, many of us would be hard pressed to even FIND Zechariah in the Bible without turning to Table of Contents, and when we did we’d find him listed there along with several others under the heading “MINOR PROPHETS”….Minor or lessor means he is unimportant right? not quite…

Well to understand Zechariah’s importance, first we have to find him. The book of Zechariah is the second to last book in the Old Testament. He is one of 12 Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. Zechariah was a prophet and a priest. The book contains a series of visions that foretells not only the physical restoration and renewal of Jerusalem, but of the spiritual renewal of God’s covenant. Most significantly for us, Zechariah is one of the chorus of prophetic voices that foretold the coming of Jesus Christ. In Zechariah this morning we heard in about the coming of Zion’s king, chapter 9 verse 9, “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Some of you may be thinking, hmm gee that sounds familiar. Well it should. Just a few months ago during the Palm Sunday liturgy we heard from Matthew chapter 21, verses 1-5, the story of Jesus entry into Jerusalem.

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: 5 “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Mat 21:1-5 NIV)

Jesus fulfilled Zechariah’s words in verse 9, so again some of you may again be thinking we don’t need to pay much attention to Zechariah here, after all it’s already been fulfilled, right? Not quite…

This morning’s passage goes on to foretell the time when the LORD will establish peace in Jerusalem. Zechariah 9, verse 10 describes the time when God will take away the war chariots, the war horses, and will break the battle bows. All we have to do is turn on the news to realize that this has not yet happened. Israel and the Promised Land is still a war torn country. Today’s warfare features battles between Israelites and Palestinians, instead of Israelites and Canaanites. And the technology is bombs, mortars, machine guns and even nuclear weapons as opposed to chariots and bows…

Yet verse 10 also tells us that, he, Jesus will proclaim peace to the nations and his rule will extend from sea to sea, to the ends of the Earth. Jesus did come, not as the triumphal military king the Israelites were expecting. No he came lowly, riding on a colt. He did proclaim peace, and also salvation and the forgiveness of sins. The claims of peace in the middle East seem ludicrous, and fantastical.

I have jokingly, or not so jokingly heard it remarked that the only way to bring peace to the middle East would be to level it into a parking lot. Indeed much of this country’s military efforts over the last decade have been consumed by operations like “Shock and Awe” and “Iraqi Freedom.” Bombing to bring peace…yet we see on the news that the region is still war torn and unstable.

This past week we celebrated Independence Day. The commemoration of this country’s signing of the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent war for Independence. My family has the tradition of watching the musical, 1776 every Independence Day. There is something quite humorous about hearing the future President John Adams singing about being obnoxious and disliked. The musical also relates the horrible compromise made with the South to remove language about slavery from the declaration of Independence, a wrong that wouldn’t be righted until the Civil War, almost 100 years later.

It seems our country has a history of fighting to right wrongs. Throughout history violence has been used to right wrongs and redeem honor. Yet the Bible has placed strict limits on violence. The law limited revenge to an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth. Then Jesus went even further by telling us to turn the other cheek and when someone takes our coat, to give them our cloak as well. Did Jesus really intend for us to let ourselves get pushed around? Taken advantage of…Don’t we have a responsibility to bring about peace and right wrongs?

In Zechariah 9 verse 10 we hear that the LORD is the bringer of peace. The Lord is the one who breaks the bows of warfare. Should we also trust in the Lord to break our modern “weapons of mass destruction.” It seems naïve to think such a thing. Yet a portion of Zechariah has already come to pass, why should we not trust in its promises?

God promises his people in verse 11 that he will free their prisoners from the waterless pit. God has a covenant relationship with his people. We hear in Romans chapter 11 verse 17, that we are  “ingrafted branches” onto Jesse’s tree and we now share in the same nourishing sap. We share in God’s promises of peace, salvation, and the setting of the captives free.

Unfortunately, we know that for many of those promises to come true we need to wait for Jesus’s coming again, when we are promised a new heaven and a new earth, a new life with Christ, and a New Jerusalem, fully restored. It is a difficult thing to wait upon the Lord. Yet in Zechariah 9, verse 12, God enjoins his people to “return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope, even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.”

What does it mean to be a “prisoner of hope”? In part it means to obey God, to wait and to trust in Him and His ultimate plan for salvation. It is all too easy for us to rely on ourselves, on our country, and on violence to protect us, to restore us. Yet God promises that the prisoners will be freed, and that Israel’s splendor will be restored double, not through violence, but through the coming King. We have already seen Jesus come once, he came just as promised, “righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Because of this we can trust in the rest of God’s message, that war will be ended, peace will be proclaimed and Christ’s rule will extend to the ends of the Earth. In the meantime we must remain prisoners, not of war, but of the hope we have in Christ that one day all things will be brought into subjection, and all peoples will worship him.

In the meantime we must live in the tension, waiting for Christ’s coming again. Our King came once lowly, riding on a donkey, to live and die as one of us, to preach peace, reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins. Peace is promised in Zechariah along with a kingdom that covers the whole Earth. Christ’s kingdom will not come through redemptive violence, where we can, let us be agents of peace. Working to turn the other cheek, both in our personal lives, and the life of the nation. As John 13:35 and the popular worship song says, “They will know we our Christians by our love.” Within this community, the greater church, and the nation let us lead lives of radical love that witness to Christ. Redemption and peace is not accomplished through fighting…Indeed the work of redemption and reconciliation has already been accomplished through Christ’s death and resurrection. While we await his coming again in glory, let us focus on Christ’s commission to us “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Trusting that Jesus is with us “always, to the very end of the age.”