Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SERMON: "Let God Be God!"

"Let God Be God!"
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a faithful parishioner who labored diligently to recruit upstanding new people for her church; but as the months went by, other parishioners brought in new members of rather diverse backgrounds. Some were businessmen of questionable reputation, others were alcoholics, two were thought to be homosexuals, several were known to have engaged in extramarital affairs, and any others showed no outward appearance of knowing the Lord.

“Upon discovering this, the faithful parishioner came to her clergyman and said, 'Pastor, just what kind of a church are we running? Why, I perceive there are notorious sinners in our midst! I even had to kneel at the communion rail this morning next to an adulterer. Just how did all of these people get in here?'

“And her pastor said to her, 'Your fellow parishioners have done this.' And she said to him, 'Would you like me to go and form a committee (sounds like a United Methodist church, doesn’t it?) – Would you like me to go and form a committee to investigate the matter and advise the board as to just who these sinners are?'

“But her pastor said, 'No; lest while you try to distinguish between the real saints and the real sinners you throw out some of God’s own. Do this: let both worship together until we are all called before God in eternity; and at the time of the judgment, God, I am sure, will single out the righteous from the unrighteous.'” (1)

So, Carl Carlozzi, in his little book Pocket Parables, rewrites our parable – the parable of the wheat and weeds. It is noted by many Biblical scholars to be one of the most practical parables Jesus ever told. It’s been a timely parable for sure down through the centuries of Christendom for the church – and I sense it contains an important word for us in the church today. For, it’s a parable that calls us to a life of tolerance and acceptance and community, rather than to a life of rejection, isolation, and exclusion. I invite you to keep in mind Carlozzi’s rewrite as we seek to understand the meaning of the parable as the listeners in Jesus’ day probably visualized the scene Jesus artfully recreated with this agricultural portrait.

“There was this farmer who had just sown some good seed in his field.”   Being very familiar with farming the people of that day had no problem creating in their mind an image of a man out in a field sowing good seed.  And they probably said to themselves, “Of course, he sowed good seed – no one in their right mind would sow bad seed in their own field.” And so right from the beginning of the parable they understood that the kingdom of heaven, which the parable is intended to illustrate, has someone caring for it who does good things on its behalf. The farmer only intends to plant good seed. What becomes obvious as the parable unfolds is that in the kingdom of heaven, what is God’s is the recipient of good from God. As the owner of the world, God is good and provides good things out of the graciousness of who God is. God is good – God is gracious.

But then, “While everyone was sleeping, the enemy of the farmer came and sowed weeds among his good seed, and departed.” Notice, it’s not God that was sleeping but some people who had something apparently to do with the field and the crop that would develop there. Note also, and more importantly perhaps, that there’s no condemnation of those who went to sleep. This is not a parable dealing with the necessity of being watchful – there’s no attempt to pass on the blame for the weeds to anyone but the enemy. The point of this parable is not to make us spiritually paranoid – nor to build up within us some sense of guilt for the weeds that develop around us. Evil happens. And if we understand the church as the kingdom of heaven on earth then there is at least the implication in the story that our role, as the church, is not one of trying to avoid evil – to keep weedy, seedy people out, but to care for whoever comes our way.  (2)

Leonard Sweet, former president of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, attempted to convey about the same idea when he wrote:  “…Sounding out bad news is for foghorns, not Christians. A foghorn warns nearby vessels to steer clear; there are dangerous rocks and reefs and perilous cliffs hiding in the mist. Foghorns know they are doing their job when everybody stays away.” “Christians are sometimes called to sound warnings and serve as foghorns. But our primary assignment is not warning, but welcoming. We are called to issue invitations for people to live the only life for which they were created.

“Christians should be known for carrying good news – the gospel itself – out into the world. Disciples of Jesus have so many positive things to say that there is little time for braying about the bad or droning on forever about the dangers.” (3)

A church that spends too much time issuing words of warning – which constantly holds out this self-righteous image as the only kind of person it wants inside its walls - will soon have the perfect society they want but no new audience to bring to the Lord. There can be no such thing as a safe church – it’s contrary to Christ’s intention for the church. As a wayside pulpit in front of another church once displayed:  “The church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”

But there’s another message in this second verse that I think is also vitally important and that is that “the enemy sowed the weeds.” Now again, this was something that the audience listening to Jesus could visualize. It was something that was actually done. People actually tried to ruin other people’s crops by spreading bad seed in it. Bad seed spreaders were enemies.

I’m amazed at the people – good Christians in fact – who for some reason want to believe that the evil in the world is somehow the creation of God’s. I like Jesus’ description of why the weeds existed in the field – which is sort of an answer to the question of “why evil is in the world?” – the enemy is the cause – is the sower – not God. Evil is not part of the creation of God.  It is not God’s intention for evil to happen – to be a part of the world. Remember the earlier observation – “there’s no way a farmer is going to intentionally sow weeds in his own field?” God is good – evil comes from another source – call it the devil – call it satan, if you need to personify it – but it’s enough to simply say, “There’s a power for evil in the world.”

Why I think this is important to note is that there are a lot of people struggling with painful things in their lives – with evil that has happened in their life with no source of hope. Because they understand God as the one who caused the bad to happen, they find themselves unable to turn to God for help. God brings good out of evil because God is the provider of good. But God does not cause evil to happen to test us, or so God can bring good out of it. Bad – evil – is the work of the enemy, not God – read the parable again. Therefore, God is as pained by the evil that happens to us as we are and thus God is able to be the source of hope and new life and resurrection and joy and peace when we are coping with and overcoming the bad that happens to us.

Now, back to the parable itself, “When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds appeared.” You’ve probably heard this part of the parable explained before so I’ll make it quick. There is a weed in the Middle East, called “Darnel,” which looks just like wheat as it’s growing. It’s only after the weed and wheat sprouts that they can be told apart. But by the time they both head, the roots of the two of them have intertwined to the point that to try and pull the weeds out is to run the risk of losing much of the wheat. (4) That’s why when the servant asks, “Do you want us to pull out the weeds?” the farmer answers, “No, let them grow. When the harvest comes both the wheat and the weeds will be cut down and then they will be separated.”

And now it is, I would suggest to you, that the full message of the parable is revealed – it’s a message about the difference between what we are called to do and what God is called to do. It’s about letting God be God – letting God be judge – letting God be harvester – letting God provide grace. It’s about a tolerant God who does not want the final judgment to be rushed – who wants to give everyone the opportunity to repent until the very end and to be now in a symbolic sense, wheat, and it’s about our cultivating, our nurturing, our caring for, our associating with, our preparing one another for the harvest day. Separating wheat from weed, valuable from worthless, harmful from harmless – all that is the responsibility of God and we need to let God be God.

The primary purpose of the parable is to give us – the church of every era – some advice about how we are to deal with the evil that is around us in this imperfect world God has placed us in. The directive is that we should be careful not to become overzealous in our desire to rid our world – our churches – of the evil we perceive because there is a danger that we might do more harm than good. Historians invite us to remember the times in history when people spent most of their time weeding out people and opinions that differed from theirs. Remember Hitler’s belief that the Aryan race was the pure field of wheat and the results of his weeding? How about Stalin’s weeding program or the “Red Purge” in China under Mao Tse Tung’s leadership? Or, how about the early American witch hunts – or, the ethnic cleansings we are witness to in our own day? Innocent people suffer when we try to cast out those we think aren’t good enough to be around us.

But the one that’s causing me the most pain in this day is the one taking place within the Christian religion itself. We are in the midst of a vicious and malicious “weed eradication program” that pits fundamentalists and liberals against one another. One writer describes the situation with these words: “Both fundamentalists and liberals have clear and simple visions of truth and error in doctrine and morality, and they divide the world into those who are going to heaven and those who are going to hell. They sort people into wheat and weeds, into good people and bad people, between twice-born and once-born. Jesus tried to stop such ethic cleansing and such invidious judgments, saying we aren’t capable of knowing wheat from weeds.” (5)

Friends, the world is imperfect – I’m a part of what makes it so – and so are you. And every time we try to make it perfect according to how we perceive it should be, we make things worse. There’s not an issue causing debate today in the Christian church that is as important as what we are doing to one another in the midst of the debate over the issues. Jesus himself begged off every attempt to follow the violent path of bringing His message of salvation to the world – He rejected all proposals to force the kingdom into existence. Violence hurts the innocent as well as the evil.

When Derek Bok was president of Harvard University he was asked about his expectations for students who would receive a Harvard education. He said, “Tolerance for ambiguity.” I think that’s the point of this parable of Jesus’. What Bok later explained was his belief that in the kind of world we live in, “…some problems are so complex that the most you can hope for is different opinions from people of integrity rather than a clear delineation of who is right and who is wrong.” (6)

Certainty is hard to come by – especially certainty about other people. We should let the weeds and wheat grow alongside one another because we don’t know enough to judge others. Jesus repeatedly cautioned us:  “Judge not that you be not judged.” “Take the log out of your own eye before you take the speck out of somebody else’s eye.” And remember when the crowd was ready to stone a woman taken in adultery and he said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  What happened? No one threw the first stone! What makes us think we have any more right to throw the stones in our day at those we regard guilty of sins different and perceived worse than ours?

There was an Indian poet, who told of an experience he had one day when his servant didn’t arrive at work on time. Like many others in his class, he was helpless when it came to menial tasks. After more than an hour, the poet described himself as getting angrier by the minute. He began to formulate punishments he might inflict upon this one indebted to him. After three hours had passed he knew he needn’t concern himself any longer with punishment because he needed to fire him on the spot.

The servant finally did arrive and immediately went to work. He didn’t say a word as he did his chores, picking up the poet’s clothes, preparing his meal, etc. The poet watched in an internal rage. Finally he said, “Drop everything and get out of here. You’re fired.” The man kept working, quietly, diligently. The poet repeated his command:  “Get out of here.” The man said, “My little girl died this morning.”  (7)

How presumptuous we are to think that we know the circumstances of another person’s life to the point that we can pass judgment on him or her.  We can never know the burdens others carry. More importantly, another reason God suggests that we should let the weeds and wheat grow together, is that God’s not through with us yet. That’s the really good news of the parable! We have no right to give up on others when God hasn’t yet.  Weeds exist – so learn to live with them. The world is God’s garden – we just live and work here. We are instructed to do our best but we are not in charge – God is and we need to let God be God.

While we’re waiting for the harvest perhaps the best advice we can follow is that which Paul offers to the Romans: “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord”…do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

If truth be told, it is far more likely that those who spend all their time and energy trying to “revoke” other people’ tickets to heaven will be the ones who will not be getting on that heavenly train themselves. The question we need to address to ourselves is: “Can we be an embracing, welcoming, nonjudgmental church? “ or, in a more personal way we probably should ask ourselves: “Will I be an embracing, welcoming, nonjudgmental Christian?”

I invite you to seriously consider your answer not just because of the difference it would make in developing a caring, supporting, loving community of faith, but also for the difference it would make in your relationship with Jesus Christ and within your own heart.

1. Carl Carlozzi, Pocket Parables  (Tyndale House Publishers, 1985).
2. William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible Series: Matthew, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 2001), ebook, 1538/6728.
3. Leonard Sweet,
4. Barclay, 1538/6728.
5. Unknown.
6. Derek Bok - I lost the source.
7. Unknown.

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