Proper 11A: Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24, Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
For a couple of weeks now, we’ve been hearing from this section in the Gospel of Matthew that has Jesus speaking parables about the kingdom of God. And in several of these parables, he talks about seeds. Last week we heard that seed has been sown on all kinds of ground – on paths, rocky on ground, on thorn filled ground, and in good soil too. So even if you missed last week, you can probably figure out in that whole scenario which seeds have the best odds of making it.
Now this week we hear that not only has good seed been sown but that “while they were sleeping the enemy came in and sowed weeds among the wheat.” Next week (spoiler alert) we’ll hear about the mighty mustard seed that contains within its tiny self the power to change the world. All have something to do with growth and taking hold, being rained on and receiving sunshine; they are about tending and nurturing and producing in ways that are a reflection of or even a manifestation of the kingdom of God.
And I could preach in that direction forever. In fact I really like to preach in that direction. And last week I did – I talked about making good soil and growing good seeds. I shared the music of John Denver and the wise humor of the Muppets and talked about how “inch by inch and row by row, we’re gonna make this garden grow!” We focused on gentle harmonies and fertile ground and the blessing of seeds. And we need time here and in our own lives to focus in on such things.
But there is another dimension to these parables too, and I don’t just want to skip over it as Episcopalians can be known to do. We’re hearing about growth in these passages, but we’re also hearing about judgement and I think we need to sit with those pieces too.
Matthew works a vision of “udgement day or at least a “judgement process” into many of these parables and when he does that, it’s in pretty dramatic ways – not wanting us to miss it apparently. Today we heard that the wheat and the weeds will be separated from each other, the weeds collected, and then the weeds will be thrown into “the furnace of fire.” “Let those who have ears listen,” Jesus said.
Now I was reminded as I studied up this week that Matthew is the only one who, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “waxes eloquent on the end of the world.” Granted, Mark can weave a bit of an apocalyptic in and out of his message, but Matthew is “the only one who mentions a furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. His is the only Gospel that contains the wise and foolish virgins, the division of the sheep from the goats, and today’s parable about the wheat and the weeds.” It is Matthew who, more than any of the other gospel writers, goes right at the very human tendency to want clarity. Even we who in very sophisticated form tend to lean away from the whole concept of strict and certain divisions want to know (or we at least wonder on rare occasion while driving in our cars by ourselves) about where and how lines get drawn between “between good and bad, faithful or wicked, blessed or cursed.” And we want that for good reason; we want to know, because bad hurts. We experience or witness unfairness or worse, violence or any other version of what one would consider “the bad” on an all too regular basis in this world. We see what seems like unnecessary pain and hurt, and we want it to end.
And so in some ways his message is a very kind and reassuring one meant to bring some relief to anyone who suffers and or witnesses suffering, and that’s all of us and some in much more extreme ways than any of is will ever know: “Don’t worry,” is what Matthew is essentially telling the followers of Jesus through the words of Jesus. In another passage he actually uses that very phrase. That which is bad in this world will not be a part of the kingdom of God when it comes into its fullness. The weeds will be gone. Evil will be defeated. That which chokes out wholeness or health or life or love will be eradicated once and for all this gospel tells us. And that is good news! For everyone.
God will ultimately usher in an entirely new day which is what these moments of “waxing on end times” tell us. God will usher in a kingdom in which “the righteous will shine like the sun,” Jesus said at the end of this parable. There will be a time a place in which the righteous can finally, completely, entirely shine like the sun and not be afraid, or inhibited, or limited in their blessedness. The righteous will one day be free, the gospel tells us.
And that is good news. There will be a day, there will be a time when as Julian of Norwich put it, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
The catch of course, the critical piece of this and the reason why it can remain good news is that all of these parables are also very clear about whose role it is to be judge and whose it’s not. This is absolutely key. It’s one of the differences between “gospel” and “not gospel.” Jesus is providing comfort in these parables, but he’s also communicating unequivocally that it’s not our job to do the sorting.
Notice that none of these parables say “now go back to your congregations, go out into your communities and decide who is a sheep and who is a goat. Put the sheep over there and the goats over there and don’t ever mingle.” These parables don’t say, “Go weed your gardens and the gardens of the church and those of the world now! Hack’m right up!” In fact, they say just the opposite: “Let the weeds grow,” Jesus says, “because one of the worst things you can do, is try to sort it all out yourselves.”
We know all too well where sorting gets us. It gets us to the Holocaust and genocides at our worst and most extreme. It gets us to denominational battles, to segregation, to apartheid. It gets us into who deserves care and who doesn’t, who should have rights and who shouldn’t, who is worthy of sacrament and who is not. Sorting leads to the question of who is most deserving rather than into the work of sharing abundant, grace-filled gifts. Separating into “righteous and unrighteous” leads us in small insidious ways and in larger, horrific ways into doing the identifying, gathering, and building of fires none none of which is ours do.
That work if it is to be done at all, (and according to Matthew it is, according to others not) that work if it is to be done at all is God’s. And so tucked inside of these lovely parables about gardens and growth, there’s a very important warning to us all. Stay away from the sorting, this Gospel tells us because we aren’t wise enough, and I would add, we aren’t merciful enough to pull it off in any semblance of what it means to “be well.”
So this week while we were praying through the Eucharist on Wednesday morning, I heard the confession and absolution with different meaning than I have before. I heard it as one version of a mini judgement day:
There we are before God, having fully lived our lives and with God in that moment, we’re sharing our joys, confessing our sins, perhaps being reminded of those joys and sins we’ve forgotten or buried. There we are on judgement day, (whatever that means) in all of our goatness and all of our sheepness, in all of our our wheatiness and all of our weediness – all of it fully exposed, and there is God. God with us. Us with God. There we are with the one whom the psalmist said so beautifully, “has searched me out and known me, you know my lying down and my rising up.” The one who is “acquainted with all of my ways.”
And it’s that moment we’ve been waiting for, right? Even if you’ve been raised a relatively even-keeled, no-fire-and-brimstone Episcopal type you’ve at least wondered about it, haven’t you. And so it’s that moment that maybe we’ve also been deep-down, secretly been dreading. Are we sheep or are we goat? Are we wheat or are we weed? Foolish or wise? And in that moment we are hoping against hope that at the very least percentages matter! Because when it comes right down to it, for heaven’s sake we at least lean good and it will weigh in our favor! And so in that moment maybe it’s a little hard to breath, if breathing is still necessary that is.
And into that quiet, at that moment when our greatest hopes meet our greatest fears, God looks at us and says, “Yes. You are all of it. And, you are blessed, and forgiven, and loved.”
Our sins are stripped away, gathered and tossed into a fire that consumes them once and for all. Whatever it is that has inhibited our own growth and whatever it is that has choked out the growth of others, is removed for eternity. Our “dones” and our “un-dones” released forever. They’re tossed into the fire that perhaps we gather around to share stories or have reunions. Or maybe as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, the fire provides the heat that bakes the bread that is part of the eternal feast shared.
In that moment, we are, in the words of our prayer of absolution, “strengthened in all goodness.” Through an amazing grace offered us and offered all, we are welcomed in to eternal life.
May it be so.
* Barbara Brown Taylor quotes are from The Seeds of Heaven, and her sermon “Learning to Live with Weeds,” Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.