Monday, July 25, 2011

"No Weeding" A Sermon on the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Tares)


Given by Ken Lyon at Grace Church on July 17, 2011

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

imageJesus put before the crowd 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: “No Weeding!”

Near the end of today’s Gospel, Matthew quotes Jesus saying words that probably startled many of us: To paraphrase:

In the end, all sinners will be tossed into a fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But the righteous will shine like the sun in God’s kingdom. Listen up!

There are difficult words for people who believe in an unconditionally loving God. Hearing that God will condemn some to eternal punishment just doesn’t compute. How do we reconcile the apparent meaning of today’s Gospel with what we think we know about God?

Our reading starts with a story about wheat farming that people 2000 years ago could easily relate to. Let me restate the story in terms that we may find easier to identify with.

Imagine a garden belonging to your mother or father or someone else you’re close to. In the spring, they prepare the soil and plant seeds with care and great expectation. In their absence, they may ask us to water their garden for them, and we might do that. As we visit that garden we begin to see plants emerging—all kinds of plants. Some look to us like flowers or vegetables--but some look like weeds.

So now what happens? “Somebody needs to get in there and take out those weeds!” we may think. We may have an urge to get in there and do some weeding ourselves. Even though it’s not our garden, we may actually do some weeding. Have you ever done that? And have you ever discovered that, in your weeding frenzy, you weeded out some of the good plants? Or have you ever discovered that you may have actually nurtured some weeds?

So what’s a person to do about the weeds in that garden, and about the weedy people in our lives? First of all, let’s recognize that the garden of my story not is our garden. Similarly, this world is not our world. That garden was planted by someone else and this world was created by someone else--God. It’s simply not our place to be weeders of that garden or of God’s world. It’s not only not our place, but--not being gardeners in the case of the garden, or God in the case of the world--we’re very likely to get it wrong.

That’s the moral of today’s story—resist the urge to weed!

We’ll look at the implications of “no weeding” in a moment, but first, what are we to make of the end of today’s story, the part where Matthew’s Jesus has God’s agents come and throw the evil people into the fire, with weeping and gnashing of teeth?

Let’s think about what might have caused Matthew to remember Jesus speaking this way. Matthew’s Gospel is the only place where we find the parable we read today. Most of what Matthew recorded is in the other gospels, but today’s parable and some other things are found only in Matthew, who was writing in a particular Christian community some two generations after Jesus lived. If we look at those unique passages, we can get a glimpse of the issues that Matthew’s community was dealing with, and that will help us understand where Matthew is coming from.

In the earliest days of the Jesus movement, all Jesus’ followers were Jews. They continued to worship in their Temple and in their synagogues. But, as time went on, the ideas and practices of the Jesus believers began to look strange—even offensive—to the members of their communities. For one, the Jesus believers came to believe that non-Jews should be allowed into the community without having to obey all the rules of Judaism. To include them, separate meetings were organized for Gentile Christians. At some point, even the Jewish Christians weren’t welcome in the synagogues any more. There was a split, and they got weeded out. As you might imagine, like any time when communities split up, hot words were exchanged and emotions ran high. Matthew’s community knew from intense personal experience what it was like to be weeded out.

Matthew’s “weeded-out” community went on to set up a new kind of body, and Mathew includes in his Gospel some rules for how this new body—now called the “church” should operate.

One example is today’s lesson explicitly emphasizing Jesus teaching about avoiding the urge to weed out members of the community.

Here’s another example, specifically using the word “church,” which didn’t exist in Jesus’ day but which did at the time Matthew was writing:

Peter came to Jesus and said, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times!”

Here’s another you may be familiar with:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, …. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Until recently, I had thought that this passage described a process for excommunicating someone. Just a couple of weeks ago, it was pointed out to me that “Gentiles and tax collectors” were exactly the people that Jesus ate with and included in his community, including one tax-collector that went by the name of Matthew.

So Matthew’s Jesus is especially adamant: “No weeding!”

So Matthew remembers Jesus calling for us to forgive without limit, to include all kinds of people in our communities, to eat with them as friends. Specifically, in a famous Matthew passage, we are to take care of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the ill-clothed, the sick, the prisoner as though they were Jesus himself. In the beatitudes, Matthew’s Jesus calls his followers to be merciful and to be peacemakers.

Matthew’s Gospel recognizes that weeding, and the anger and judgmental feelings that go with weeding, are a real burden—a burden that we need to shed. In Matthew, Jesus says,

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

I think this applies very well to the burden of being a weeder.

But how do we reconcile this anti-weeding stance with God’s weeding out some people and condemning them to the furnace with weeping and gnashing of teeth? Let’s start by realizing that many things in the Bible aren’t to be taken literally—Jesus often uses exaggeration to make a point.

Now, about teeth gnashing: when people are angry in the Bible, they gnash their teeth. They feel like biting someone. Perhaps the modern phrase “chewing someone out” is related to that idea. The phrase, “gnashing of teeth” is a favorite of Matthew. Most of the time, the people he says will be weeded out and damned to eternal teeth gnashing are the very people who weeded out Matthew’s community—the very people who gnashed their teeth at them in anger. So Matthew’s view of justice for those angry weeders is an eternity of being angry and weeded out. It’s a kind of poetic justice.

Personally, I believe that God will have other ways to deal with us sinners, but I can understand why Matthew would say what he did. It reminds me of what I say when I’m confronted with one of those unopenable shrink-wrapped packages: “The people who design these things should be condemned to an eternity of opening shrink-wrapped packaging!”

In any case, our Gospel is clear: if there’s weeding to be done, it is not to happen now, and we’re not the ones to do it.

Every Sunday, our worship is full of reminders to do less weeding and more reconciliation in our lives.

When we have Eucharist, we come to God’s table together to eat and drink with Jesus and to share the common cup. When we do that, we remember those many common meals that Jesus shared with so many unlikely, weeded-out, people. We see Communion as a foretaste of a heavenly banquet in which all those created in God’s image are gathered at the table. Our weekly Eucharist is the sign of our intent to be reconciled to God, to one another and with our neighbors in the world.

In today’s healing service--our “Celebration of Wholeness and Healing,”—let’s remember that wholeness and healing isn’t just about healing individual bodies and souls, it’s also about healing the broken relationships that may exist in our lives or in the life of our community. In our lives, there may be important people that we have weeded out--or that we’ve been weeded out by—with whom we could and should be reconciled. Today, let’s pray that those from whom we are separated may become close again.

Today’s worship ends with the passing of the peace. We pass God’s peace not only to those we are comfortable with, but also to those we may not really feel at peace with. Passing the peace isn’t an expression of our relationship as it exists at that moment. It’s a liturgical act—an expression of what God intends our relationships to be. By practicing this act of reconciliation, we open the way for our minds to make our beliefs and feelings catch up with our actions.

I suggest that, as we pass the peace today, we think about this as a step towards being reconciled with those in this community with whom you might be estranged. As we return home, let’s think about those weedy others in our lives—in our families and those others whose weediness is a burden to us—and let’s imagine, with God’s help, making a move toward reconciliation.

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