Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sermon: 10 Pentecost (27 July 2008)

Proper 11 (10 Pentecost): 27 July 2008
(Gen 28:10-19a/Ps 139:1-12, 23-24/Rom 8:12-25/Mt 13:24-30. 36-43)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The parables of Jesus are like a carpet cut too large for a room. Nail it down around the edges and a wrinkle appears in the middle. Smooth out the wrinkle and it just moves elsewhere, or the nails pop loose at the wall and the carpet flaps up. The carpet is simply too large – or the room too small – and no matter how you try, one will not fit the other.

This is, of course, a meta-parable, a parable about parables. If Jesus were telling it, he might now ask his disciples, Do you understand? And, finding they did not, he might offer an explanation. The carpet is the word of truth contained in the parables. The room is human understanding. Is that clear? Let the ones with ears hear.

This parable is simple enough that the minimal explanation makes it clear. The truth of the parables is simply too large for the size of our human understanding. Just when we think we have everything all nailed down, a new wrinkle appears. When we smooth out that wrinkle we find it cropping up elsewhere or what we had nailed down pulls loose. The truth contained in the parables (and the Truth telling the parables) is simple too large – and our understanding too small – and no matter how we try, one will not fit the other.

Though, of course, we must try. And in trying we find out something at first surprising about both the carpet and the room. The carpet shrinks a bit to better fit the room and the room expands a bit to better accommodate the carpet. There will never be a perfect fit, but the situation does continue to improve. We’ll never get all the carpet into the room, but we can always get more.

The parable given to us this day is a carpet cut too large. At best we can nail it down in a place or two, but wrinkles will appear: We won’t be able to smooth them all out, but by smoothing even a little we will get a bit more of the carpet into the room.

In the parable of the weeds Jesus returns to familiar images – planting and harvesting – that we saw earlier in the parable of the sower. A landowner sows good seed in his field. So far, so good; but, now comes a twist. The landowner has an enemy. And this enemy stealthily, by night, sows bad seed – weeds – in that same field. Of course, this act of sabotage goes unnoticed until the good seed sprouts and bears grain and the weeds do not. The landowner’s servants are confused and probably defensive: Hadn’t they planted the good seed they were given? Why now were there also weeds? The solution is obvious to them: go immediately into the field and pull up the weeds. But no – the landowner tells them to be patient and to wait until the harvest. Pulling the weeds now might damage some of the grain as well. All will be separated at the right time: the weeds gathered and burned and the grain harvested and stored.

This is the parable of the weeds – the carpet we have to work with. Is there anything here we can nail down with some certainty? Well, let me suggest three fixed points, three major ideas: (1) Both good and evil coexist in the world; (2) We need to be patient and avoid the rush to root out the evil from among the good; and (3) God will, in his own, perfect time render his own, perfect judgment – for the good and against the evil. Now a bit of a warning: nailing these three down may cause some wrinkles, but at least it will give us a place to start.

The first point is obvious, isn’t it? Both good and evil coexist in the world. Is there any more to be said about that, really? Well, yes, quite a bit actually, starting with the question, If an all-good, all-powerful God created the world, why is there any evil present in it?

Now, there are at least three ways to answer that. A materialist – one who believes only in Nature (with a capital N) and does not allow for God or gods – might say that what we call evil is really nothing more than evolution and social conditioning. Certain behaviors are harmful to the human species and have been selected against by evolution and therefore discouraged by social conditioning; these we call evil. Others which benefit our species we promote and call good. Of course, there is an ounce or two of truth in this, but, I think, a pound or so of error. First, many of the things we call good aren’t those things that benefit the species’ survival at all. Please, now, I’m expressing the opinions of a thorough-going materialist, and not my own. Why should we devote large amounts of resources – time, money, energy, and the like – to the weakest among us? Why educate everyone? Why even ponder health care for all? Why provide foreign aid to countries with nothing to offer us in return? Why not instead divert those resources to the ones likeliest to contribute to society, particularly to our society? When a pregnancy proves inconvenient, why not abortion? When old folks become a burden, why not euthanasia? If good and evil are merely the products of evolution and social conditioning, then why not indeed? Second, if good and evil are merely the products of evolution, then what we call good should be increasing and what we call evil should be diminishing. Let me deal with that claim simply: the Holocaust, Apartheid, Rwanda, Darfur. Need I say more? No, the materialist position simply won’t do. When push comes to shove – just let someone push or shove a materialist and he’ll see – we really do act as if we believe in the existence of real good and real evil, not just our preferences or society’s choices, but something from outside us that intrudes upon us.

The remaining two answers to the question of evil in the world are religious ones. A dualist would say that there are equal and opposite forces at work in creation – yin and yang in constant flux, sometimes more of one and sometimes more of the other. It is the interplay between them that provides the dynamic power behind creation. One force we call good and the other evil, though these are simply our designations and may have no moral implications. These forces are locked in endless combat – or an endless dance, depending how you look at it – which neither can win. That’s one possible religious explanation; but, it’s not our story. No, not at all.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen (The Nicene Creed, BCP 358).

We believe this God has no equal, no opposite number. But we do believe, as the parable of the weeds tells us, that this all-good, all-powerful, Creator God has an enemy – one who is evil, one who is the father of evil. We believe that this evil one was once a being of light, a joy to the Creator. We believe that he removed his focus from the glory of God and turned his gaze inward, and in his resulting pride and arrogance rebelled against God. And we believe that in his resolute determination to thwart God and despoil God’s good creation he now plants evil and grows destruction in the world of God’s creation. Yes, there is real good and real evil present in the world. All good is a reflection of the one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. All evil is a reflection of the enemy, the evil one, the one who sows discord, hatred, pride, envy, lust, greed, arrogance, bitterness – everything contrary to the God who made us. Yes, as the parable tells us, both good and evil coexist in the world. That much is easy to see.

What is harder to see is why our all-good, all-powerful God allows this situation to persist. We wouldn’t, would we? Given the choice and the power we would stomp right into the field and start pulling out anything that remotely resembles a weed.

Once Clare and I took a class through The University of Tennessee, a one-day workshop called Feasting Free On Wild Edibles, or some such name. We went to the Smokey Mountains with a field guide who showed us how to identify indigenous edible and medicinal plants: sassafras, spicebush, ginseng, and others. She pointed to one plant and said, “The dried roots of this one make a fine substitute for coffee.” (That might not mean much to you, but if I’m ever lost in the woods it’s an essential piece of information.) The she turned to a seemingly identical plant right beside it and said, “And this one, which mimics the other in appearance, is poison. Its roots produce a toxin that swells your throat and causes an excruciating burning sensation.” I learned something that day. In the safe, small world of the grocery store I can tell good foods from bad ones. Vegetables, good. Cookies and chips, not so good. Fruit juice and milk, good. Drain cleaner and bleach, bad. Easy enough. But put me in the wider and wilder world – in the forest or mountains – and the differences between nutritional and poisonous are not so clear. It would be easy for me to pluck the wrong plant, the harmful one – the toxic weed instead of the healthy grain.

This is something like the second point of the parable, though in reverse. The sower knows that we lack the skill to identify and remove the weeds without also plucking and destroying some valuable grain. So he tells us to be patient, to allow both to grow together until the harvest, until he sends his expert “field guides” into the field to separate the good from the evil. In this way no good will be lost and no evil will escape.

Well, such patience is not easy. Already in Peter’s day there were complaints about God’s delay of the harvest.

9The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,* not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.*
11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12waiting for and hastening
* the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home (2 Peter 3:9-13, NRSV).

What Peter writes smoothes out one part of the parable and gathers up a new wrinkle in another part. Why doesn’t God act immediately to weed out evil? Because, for the world’s sake, he’s patient – and so we must be, too – and because he wants everyone to be saved. Here’s the new wrinkle: unlike physical botany, in God’s spiritual botany some weeds – and we hope all weeds – may actually transform into good grain. We may know, at best, what a plant presently is, but we have no way of know what it may yet become. We dare not risk pulling up a weed that God is busy transforming into grain. Leave it alone, God says; or, better still, nurture it. Leave the final separation for God, in his time, when all transformation is complete.

As an aside to the parable – though it’s right at the center of our faith – when people question why God doesn’t do something about the evil in the world our answer must be, “He has in the cross, and he is in the proclamation of the Gospel.” In Christ – supremely in his death and resurrection – God once for all decisively defeated evil and death. In the ongoing proclamation of this good news (gospel) God is implementing Christ’s victory in the world precisely by transforming weeds into grain. Evil is still present, but only as a defeated, though still dangerous, enemy. God is even now in the long-term process of eradicating it completely.

Though the process is long-term, the parable assures us, in its third point, that a final judgment will come in which all evil is separated and destroyed and all good separated and preserved.

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 (Mt 13:40-43, NRSV).

God alone knows how and when to accomplish this judgment. What are we given to know about it? That it will certainly come. That it will perfectly blend mercy and justice. That the righteous will inherit the world for which they were made and for which they long: a world free from every source of evil and from everyone devoted to evil. And that the righteous, themselves, will finally be free from the evil that still besets them – free and shining like the sun, fully reflecting the glory of God.

And there is the parable of the weeds. Weeds and grain coexist in the world: children of the kingdom sown by God and children of evil sown by the enemy. We dare not rush to harvest, because God is even now transforming weeds into grain – not least in our own lives – and untimely separation means a smaller harvest, a great loss. The harvest will come, in God’s perfect time, and the field will be purified, overflowing with good grain, with not a weed to be found.

There is a Psalm that comes to mind when I read this parable, Psalm 126. It is one of the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) that Jews sang as they completed each yearly pilgrimage to the temple. It is a song of deliverance, a return from exile song, and describes the experience of the Jewish exiles returning from Babylon to rebuild Zion (Jerusalem). It is also a song of harvest. I can just imagine singing it on that great day when the angels gather from exile all the children of God, and all shines with God’s glory.

126 In convertendo

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.

2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The Lord has done great things for them.”

4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

5 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.

6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

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