Sermon for 7th Sunday after Pentecost - July 23 2017

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
July 23, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler

Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Collect the weeds first, and bind them for the fire.

What on earth are we to make of this parable?  Children of heaven and children of the evil one?  Reaping angels?  Burning furnaces?

This is one of the tough passages, so we really can’t avoid talking about it, because we can’t just ignore the things in life that make us uncomfortable or unhappy or scared. 

Let us then venture forth, remembering always that God wills for us good, God loves us, and God is gracious and merciful.  These are important factors to remember as we go into this text; they give us hope that it’s not what we might at first think – that some are saved and others are damned.

The first thing to note is that this is a PARABLE.  The theologian C.H. Dodd defined a parable in this way “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[1]

So right off the bat, we know we aren’t to take it as literal truth.  We are to take it as a hint, a guide, a challenge, and a question.

Are we thinking actively now?

Dodd and other theologians have argued that the 17 parables found in the Gospel of Matthew are all dealing with an “already and not yet” eschatology – a moment in space-time in which the kingdom of heaven is breaking into the kingdom of the earth – as occurred and will occur when the Son of Man has come and will come, and is coming…

(If you’re confused by that, take comfort, no one isn’t confused by that.  Personally, I find that confusing as can be.)

According to Eugene Boring, parables speak in riddles because the ideas they would convey cannot be made in plain language.[2]  In other words, we are not expected to understand them.  They will convey different ideas to different people, in different times, and in different ways.

Matthew’s parables fall in the space after Jesus has come under attack, by the religious leaders and even his own family, and he has begun to speak of a new family, “a new community of those who do God’s will…”[3]  They lie between what has been let go and what is to come.

A while back, some of you participated in a study of different forms of prayer.  One of these is the Ignatian practice lectio divina, which involves placing ourselves in the text – as actor or as witness – and letting our imagination create the larger scene, that part of a story that may not even be spoken, and in so doing, perhaps hearing something unexpected.

Recently, I put myself in the story of the disciples walking with Jesus on the Sabbath, pulling heads of grain and eating them, until the Pharisees challenged them as to why they broke the Sabbath rules against work.  My meditation placed me in the person of one of those disciples, and I will tell you some of what I experienced – a wonderful sense of freedom from those rules, not because it meant that I could do whatever I wanted whatever the rules were, but because it meant that there are times … there are times when it is necessary and right to disregard the rules for a greater joy.  As Jesus told his critics, the friends of the bridegroom do not fast when he is with them.  The point is not about breaking rules at all, it is about celebrating the abundance of grace when it is offered.

So it is in this parable.  Those who receive the grace are the wheat; those who confine or deny the grace are the weeds.  And we cannot “weed out” the weeds because the wheat and the weeds are growing so closely together that to pull up the one is to pull up the other. 

The fact is, we all may accept grace and deny grace.  We do this because we are human, and, as such, we don’t always know which is which.

But please, don’t take my reading as the final word.  Parables are purposely surreptitious, sneaky. They exist to tear down our assumptions and expectations.  For the people of Jesus’ time, his parables upset the norms, such as the idea that the rites and rituals of worship and behavior as interpreted and applied by the Pharisees were some kind of guarantee that human beings could please God by their behavior. 

So when Jesus says there are both wheat and weed, and they can’t be distinguished until the end times, perhaps he is telling them they shouldn’t be so sure they have it right.  That might be the lesson they were to draw from this parable.

But another hearer might conclude that there are people who are destined for the kingdom, and others who are not – and we can actually tell who they are, because they are so obviously weeds – you know, not like us, bad people, loud, obnoxious, whatever.

But it is equally possible, don’t you think, that we are the field, and within us are both good and bad seeds – both wheat and weed, if you will.  And if we try to uproot only the bad, we may well uproot the good along with it.

Take Jacob, for instance.  He was sneaky, conniving, and deceitful – surely a weed.  He stole his older brother’s birthright – his larger share of the inheritance from their father, and he stole the blessing his brother should have received.  Esau was furious – he wanted to kill Jacob, and Jacob had no choice but to flee to Haran. 

He wound up alone, in the dark, exhausted and frightened, and laid down in a field to catch a few hours’ sleep, resting his head on a rock – no comfortable beds and wrappings and carpets in a safe tent with family and all the slaves and hangers-on, and a mother who would do anything for him – no.  Darkness, fear, and exhaustion, and a hard, hard bed.  He made it, we could say, now let him lie.

But God did not let him lie.  God sent a vision – a wondrous vision of angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth.  And God told him he would receive all this land and have more descendants than sand on the shore of the sea, and God would be with him.  With him.  This was a promise God did not make to Abraham or to Isaac.  “I will be with you.”

In his most vulnerable, horrified state, alone and bereft and pursued, God was with him.  The weedy brother.  The conniver, the finagler, the cheat.

So do not assume you can fathom the depth of the parable in today’s Gospel.  Remember that parables are meant to be disruptive, they are meant to mess with our comfort zones, they are meant to invite us to consider a different way of thinking and acting, to shake us up, to make us think.  Where is the grace?  Can we see it?  How do we know it’s present?

Grace brings bring joy, as surely God’s word to Jacob soothed his fears and gave him the strength to carry on.  

Grace brings freedom – the freedom to accept that we do not need to depend only on ourselves to survive.  We are freed to accept that we may be both weed and wheat, but that God is with us, and to rejoice in that acceptance.

 

[1] C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom of God (Prentice-Hall) 1935.  Cited in M. Eugene Boring, “Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible, Vol VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 299.

[2] Boring, op. cit.

[3] Ibid., 300.

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