07/20/14 Sermon (July 20, 2014) “Growing Together”

posted Jul 23, 2014, 12:51 PM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (Liturgist)

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.

“And 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?’

“He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’

“The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’

But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let 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.’”

Then 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.”

He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Sermon: “Growing Together”

Well, it’s nice to be back in church again. I’m so grateful to Richard Morgan, Matthew Thompson, and Brendan Voss for offering their time and their insights in the pulpit while I was away. I am also grateful to the church for giving me the time I need to think and plan and rest away from the day to day administrative work of the office. Thank you all for letting me take some to to recharge and relax.

For the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be looking at some of the ways the Gospel of Matthew talks about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is a mysterious thing. It’s hard to describe, and maybe that’s why whenever Jesus talks about it, he tends to use metaphors, analogies and parables. The kingdom of heaven is hard to quantify, at least in precise terms. We don’t know how big it is. We don’t know exactly what it looks like. We don’t really even know when it is. It’s hard to say with any precision exactly what the kingdom of heaven is.

But the Bible does share some clues about the kingdom of heaven that we can hang on to. We know that the kingdom of heaven is big. And it’s even bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside. There’s lots of room in the kingdom of heaven.

There’s room for all the birds in the air, room for all the fish in the sea, room all the grain of the field, room for you, room for me, room for us, room for them. The Kingdom of heaven is surprisingly big, and even more surprisingly inclusive. Wheat and tares, good fish, bad fish, righteous, unrighteous, all are included in the kingdom of heaven. Lots of room, more than enough room for everyone.

We know that the kingdom of heaven involves the church, but it is also more than just the church. The church has been given the keys to heaven, but we are not the gate, nor are we the gate-keepers.

We know that the kingdom of heaven is not quite here yet, but it is also not far away, either. It is so close, in fact, sometimes we can see it, if we squint our eyes, and tilt our heads just so.

We see the kingdom of heaven in front of us sometimes, calling us to live into a promise of enough for everyone. We see it behind us  sometimes, when we can see the work of God’s hands during the hard times of our lives. We see it around us sometimes, in our relationships, when old grudges are forgiven, when strangers are welcomed as family, when irreconcilable differences are resolved, when love trumps hate, when trust conquers fear.

Some of our youth are going to see glimpses of the kingdom of heaven this coming week at Synod Youth Workshop in Tulsa. Young people from all over the South are going to meet for a weeklong immersion in learning how to welcome one another in love and trust. I’m looking forward to hearing about their sightings of the kingdom of heaven when they return. I know that they will have some memories to share. And I know that their lives will be changed because of it.

The kingdom of heaven is hard to describe. And maybe that’s why Jesus uses so many indirect ways of talking about it. In today’s scripture, Jesus uses a farming metaphor, and it’s one that we all can understand. In fact, here in West Texas, especially after these rainstorms, we understand the difference between weeds and wheat all too well.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who discovers that someone has planted weeds in his wheatfield. As though someone actually needs to go around planting weeds. Am I right? He is concerned that pulling up the weeds might damage the young wheat, and so he says to let them grow together. It will all get sorted out in the end, he says. Don’t worry about it.

And this is tough to swallow. After all, especially these days, we have ways of getting rid of weeds. We can run a spring harrow through there, we could spray some chemicals. But that’s not really the reason this is hard to hear. It’s hard because we know what Jesus is really saying. Jesus is talking about whether or not people of different understandings of faith and behavior should associate with each other.

He’s talking about whether communities of faith can tolerate those with whom they disagree in their midst. In modern terms, he talking about whether Christians can hang out with not-Christians. Should we allow people who think differently about things like sin, forgiveness, faith, God, should we allow these people in our church, in our homes, in our lives?

Or, should we uproot them from within our midst? Should we clear them out of our schools, our workplaces, our churches, our governments, our communities? Should we purge them from our fellowship? Lay down a broad-spectrum ecclesiastical herbicide, maybe spray some spiritual Roundup on our congregations? That would take care of the problem.

What is our Christian responsibility, when it comes to living with people with whom we fundamentally disagree when it comes to issues of faith? Do we close ourselves off to them? Do we fence ourselves in? Do we do whatever we need to do in order to get rid of them, to force them out of our lives?

These are tough questions. Jesus isn't fooling around when he talks about the kingdom of heaven. He puts his finger right on the wound of today’s Church. There’s more to this parable than just a farmer with some weeds in his wheat field wondering what to do about it.

I think most of us grew up hearing this parable in the words of the old King James Version, something about wheat and tares. You know, I had never really thought too much about what tares were. Like so many strange words in the Bible, it just sort of went over my head. And maybe that’s why modern translations simply use the word ‘weeds’ instead.

But it turns out that tares are much more than just a weed. The more common name for tare is ‘Bearded Darnel’, and it’s sometimes called ‘False Wheat’ or ‘Cheat Wheat’, because when it’s growing, before the ears of grain appear, it looks just like wheat. Almost indistinguishable from wheat, even by experts.

But tares are bad things. They don’t just take up needed water and nutrients, they also tend to carry a fungus which makes the grains of real wheat sterile, something called choke disease. Not only that, this fungus makes the grains of Bearded Darnel poisonous, and they can cause hallucinations and death. It is a nasty, nasty weed that can cause an awful lot of damage.

Bearded Darnel and wheat are so similar, it’s only at the end of the harvest that one can tell the difference between them. They both have grains, but the ears of grain are a different color and shape, and once the wheat and the tares have matured, at the end of their lives, they can be sorted. But not before then. Before then, you just don’t know. You just can’t tell.

Jesus is under no illusions about the danger of cheat wheat. Both Jesus and his listeners are aware of the risks of letting the wheat and the tares grow together. But still, Jesus cautions his followers against being too quick to separate them. It’s hard to tell the difference, and the risk of destroying the wheat is too great. It’s better to wait, and let someone who really knows what they’re doing sort them out.

And you know, Jesus didn't just preach this message of inclusion to the crowds that followed him. He actually lived it. There was room even in his own inner circle for sinners, prostitutes, tax-collectors, and traitors. If there was ever a time when a religious leader probably should have been more selective about the people he allowed into his own community, one would have thought it was Jesus and his disciples. But he let all kinds of people in.

Jesus knew perfectly well who James and John were, the sons of thunder, always looking for a fight, always angling for a position of power and authority in the coming kingdom, and yet he chose them to be his disciples.

Jesus knew who Mary was, and he knew what people said about her behind her back, yet he chose her to be the first person to see him after his resurrection, chose her to be the apostle to the apostles.

Jesus knew who Peter was, that he would deny Jesus, that he would abandon Jesus, and yet Jesus chose him as the rock of his Church.

And finally, Jesus knew perfectly well who Judas was, what he was going to do, yet he loved him, and gave him every chance to the very end to change his mind, to step off the path he had chosen.

Jesus surrounded himself with faithless, argumentative, disloyal, treaturous followers, and trusted in the grace of God for the results. And when you stop to think about it, that plan worked out pretty well for the world.

Jesus lived out this parable of letting the wheat and the tares grow together. Jesus chose these broken, sinful people as disciples, as the first shimmering glimpse of what community actually looks like in the kingdom of heaven. And then Jesus trusted God to sort them out.

The problem is, it’s not in our nature to include in our communities those folks we think are spiritually ‘weedy’. And even worse, we are confident that we actually can know who belongs in and out of the kingdom. But we really don’t. The sin than infects all of us makes it impossible for us to know who is in and out of the kingdom of heaven. We simply can’t tell the difference between the wheat and the tares. Even those who consider themselves experts can’t tell the difference.

Each of us have tares of our own, false words and facades that hide our true nature. Some of us look worse than we really are, some of us look better. And all of us are works in progress. We know the weeds of our souls too well to believe that we are genuinely more righteous than anybody else. Our hearts remind us of the words of the psalmist, who asks “If the Lord marks our iniquities, who could stand?” All of us have fallen short of the glory of the Lord. The awful truth is that if it were up to our own righteousness, all of us would be destined for the fire.

But it’s not up to us. And the Good News is it never has been. Jesus makes it clear that there will be a sorting. But we aren't in charge of it. And at that sorting, the promise of the Gospel assures us that there is forgiveness and redemption. In the final accounting, we can only lean on the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Every one of us is capable of great good, and great evil, and the true measure of our lives can never be known, at least, not on this side of the final harvest. That decision is made much later, by a much better and much more forgiving farmer than any of us can aspire to be.

The kingdom of heaven is hard to describe. Jesus tells us that it is a house, a vineyard, a farm, a tree, a seed. It is big, it is small, it is yeasty, it is infinitely valuable, and it is dangerous. But there is one common feature in all of Jesus’ descriptions of the kingdom of heaven, and that is that we don’t get to decide who gets in. That decision was made by the one who gave himself utterly so that we need not fear the harvest.

Thanks be to God. Amen.