July 19, 2020
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Deacon Alexandra Benson
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I recently spent a week on my parent’s farm in South Dakota. After spending a lot of time in my head over the past few months, after getting caught in my own anxiety about the church and the world and my place in all of it, I was craving time outside, time working with my hands instead of on a computer screen, time to get away and simply be. And I have to say, a family farm is a great place for this. My mom has a beautiful and very large garden, and one morning I wandered out to see if could snag a couple of raspberries from the bushes and also, as a bit of an after thought, see if I could be of any help to her. I was soon put to work weeding among her pepper plants.
It was a daunting task. The weeds had really taken off…and she has a whole lot of pepper plants. But I set to work. And, even though I was soon a sweaty mess under the hot July sun, there was something incredibly rewarding about stepping back and seeing the work I had accomplished — the basket of weeds, the neat rows of peppers, the rich soil newly overturned from the weeding process. Perhaps it’s because I live in an apartment and don’t have my own garden right now, but I actually enjoyed that hour or so of weeding. I remember hating pulling weeds as a kid. But maybe part of the reason I enjoyed it the other week was simply because I didn’t have to do it. No one was making me. It wasn’t even my garden – I had no real investment in the outcome. But I wanted to help and quite frankly, I enjoyed the work.
I also believe it is a sacred and lifegiving act to dig in the dirt, to plant a garden, and to nurture it and protect it.
This is why today’s parable makes so little sense to me.
When I read this parable, I see a wheat field in peril. And I see someone tasked with tending this field, who simply declares that it is going to be fine in the end, so don’t worry about it. And then the end does come and the wheat really is fine but alongside it there is this disturbing image of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I’ve wrestled with this text this week, trying to see it from every angle and possibility, desperately searching for good news or at least something that makes sense. I’ve crafted several different sermons. And I don’t have a neat little explanation for you. The Bible is more complicated than I often want it to be. But so is our faith and so to are our lives. And we need the whole of Scripture together to help us make sense of the mysteries of God and God’s Kingdom.
But, I think this parable, as much as I don’t really like it, has some truths for us to unearth.
First of all, this parable names the reality of evil in our world. The church has been aware of the presence of evil since it came in to existence. Across generations and denominations, we have talked about evil in different ways– some might point to a literal devil or some type of evil spirit. Some primarily point to individual brokenness, sin, suffering, the bad choices that each of us make. Some emphasize systems of injustice, inequality, and greed, taking a bigger picture perspective. Martin Luther was keenly aware of the presence of evil, and wrote a lot about “sin, death, and the devil.” No matter what framework you use to understand the pain and hurt of our world, we can probably agree that things are not as they should be. The COVID-19 pandemic, protests responding to racism across our country, and increasingly hostile political divisions have made the pain and suffering of our world abundantly clear just in these past few months. Evil is real.
Second, this parable reminds us that ultimately the problem of evil in our word is God’s problem. And that God promises to make things right in the end. It is not ultimately up to us to save the world. It is not up to us to decide who’s in and who’s out. We are not called to distinguish the sinners from the saints – in fact, Martin Luther would argue that all of us are both saints and sinners all of the time. We are all complicated beings. Our motivations are complex and ever changing.
And as the church, we don’t really have a great track record in distinguishing good from evil. Too often, we have been on the side of exclusion and fear instead of welcome and compassion. We’ve gotten wrapped up in power and in comfort. We’ve confused tradition with God’s new creation. We’ve lived in fear when we should have spoken out boldly. And we’ve spoken out in times when we probably should have just listened instead. We’ve cast judgment in the wrong places and separated ourselves from the very ones Jesus spent his time with. I think we’ve gotten somethings right along the way too – at least I sincerely hope we have. But I think we’ve messed up enough to not put too much stock in our own ability to always do what is right. Put another way, we might not be very good at distinguishing the wheat from the weeds.
So, we know there is evil in our world. And we also know, that we’re always not so good at knowing what to do about it.
I feel this on a pretty deep level these days. There just seems to be so much to be anxious about. Over the past few months especially, I’ve noticed a couple different patterns in my own behavior. Maybe some of them sound familiar to you too. I have found that on some days when fear gets the better of me, I end up feeling stuck. I can’t think straight enough to act on anything. I know there are actions I can take to love my neighbors and myself more fully, and yet, some days, it takes all that is in me to simply pull myself out of bed. When fear is the governing power in my life, it can feel like the world is spiraling out of control and I can’t even move.
Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes when fear feels like it has taken over my world, I end up overcompensating. I overreact, or I over function. I take responsibility for issues that aren’t mine to claim responsibility for. I suddenly feel this need to be needed or to prove that I’m capable or good enough or strong enough. So, I work too hard. Or I bend over backwards making sure that I am presenting myself to the world in just the right ways. I long for approval and for reassurance and work harder and harder until I get it. In short, I start to make everything about me, which is rarely helpful when it comes to God’s Kingdom.
In times like these, I really need to be reminded that the work of saving the world is God’s work. Not my own.
And I want to be careful here. Because the larger story of Scripture makes clear that as people of faith we are not called to simply do nothing in the face of evil. We are not called to complacency or laziness or platitudes about how everything will work out in the end. We are called to serve those who are suffering, to advocate for justice and mercy, to love our neighbors, especially when it is difficult. And even though we will probably get it wrong, we are still called to do our best.
But, because we know the Kingdom of God is victorious in the end, we get to do the hard work of loving each other from a place of freedom instead of anxiety. Instead of becoming paralyzed by fear of the weeds that seem to spring up around us, we can live in joy and freedom, knowing that our future is secure in Christ. We get to be a part of God’s work in our world. We don’t have to do it – nothing we do or don’t do is going to make God love us any more or less. God’s Kingdom will persist whether or not we are on board. And yet, I think once the Spirit of God takes root in our lives, we can’t help but to see the face of Christ in our neighbors and to long to serve them with grace and mercy. With Christ is our guide, we remember that first and foremost, we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is like wheat that thrives even among the weeds. No weed can choke it out, and there is no threat to the harvest.
Not COVID-19, not white supremacy, not the deepest political division. Not war or corrupt rulers. Not poverty or addiction or depression or anxiety. Not uncertainty about our rapidly changing world or our plans that have been turned upside down. Not the worst thing we have ever done or the worst thing that has been done to us can stop God’s Kingdom from taking root on earth among us. And even our deepest fears cannot keep the Kingdom of God from flourishing at the end of the age.
No lies about our identity can keep God’s belovedness from having the final word.
No act of violence can ultimately keep out God’s reign of peace.
No unjust system can keep God’s promise of justice away from those who have been cast aside or forgotten.
I think this parable teaches us that goodness wins in the end. Love wins in the end. Mercy wins in the end. But it’s not our goodness, love, and mercy. Not our flimsy, inconsistent, flawed ideas about who is in and who is out, who is loved, who is worthy, what’s right… but God’s expansive, persistent grace.
Our psalm reminds us that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Even when the weeds seem to spring up in every direction, God’s love holds us fast. God will not abandon us, and because of this promise, the weight of the world is not on our shoulders.
God is the one who is making all things new. The Kingdom of heaven has already taken root in our world, and nothing can stop it from thriving.
Thanks be to God.