16th Sunday, 7-23-17
Wis 12:13, 16-19; Ps: 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-44
It couldn’t wait any longer. My hair had grown out, and was on the verge of going completely wild. It was time to go see my favorite stylist. She’s in her thirties, rather conservative in her dress and behavior. We don’t discuss religion or politics. Somehow though, she slipped single sentence into our carefully benign conversation about her brother who was a heroin addict, and now in prison. “We won’t go into that”, she said softly.
But suddenly, with great need to tell the story, she was sharing with me the details of her brother’s descent into darkness. Nice guy with the usual amount of youthful immortality and desire for a social group. He was a highly trained and skillful pastry chef. Tried drugs along with most the other people he worked with. Arrest. Rehab. Overdose…. 2nd Arrest…retraining to be away from the drug infestation in the food industry. One semester away from a Master’s Degree. Slipped. Needed money, sold drugs, used drugs, arrested and convicted for his third felony drug charge. Now he must attend classes every day for 18 months in prison. Then be in impatient rehab for 3 years. Then half-way house for 2 more years and find employment. Then parole, never allowed a single bad drug test or one missed appointment. Failure means a 25 year prison sentence – losing most of his adult life.
If Jesus was here today, he might tell this sad story instead of using an agricultural example of wheat and weeds. Weeds, Jesus said, were planted by the evil one. Illegal drugs are, no pun intended, one of the weeds of our time. When evil entered our world, the problem was not just with one woman and one man and one tree with apples on it. The problem was that people began to disobey, to choose badly, to do what was wrong while still knowing and wanting what was right. Drugs, those fiercely invasive and destructive weeds, make the apple incident look like forgetting to pay the electric bill on time and facing a small late charge.
Oddly enough, self monitoring has never worked well. We ignore or excuse our own bad behavior and loudly proclaim and condemn the wrong others do. We spend billions on weapons and guns and rockets and ammunition to kill and destroy, and yet manage to find reasons, which I don’t quite get, why God should bless us for this. Politicians and press of all stripes work to convince us who is an enemy and who is our friend. Most of us, in return, say we have too little time to verify their statements and moan about our “helplessness” in changing things.
Maybe you have had the same experiences as I have. I watch the evening news or read a newspaper or an on-line news article and wonder. I wish I could stop this insanity. I wish I could stop Christianity from being an excuse or even a silent bystander to this evil. I wish I could make my own little life clean and pure or even brave enough to make changes in my own little garden of weeds growing in my heart. I would get right in there with a hoe, I would yank those weeds out so fast, that garden would be clean and I would plant good seed to feed the needy! But that is not reality. That is a fantasy that leads right back to where we started, for evil is still here, with weeds and drugs and lots of other bad things that look pretty desirable sometimes.
What does this parable suggest we do? Well, Jesus, like the wise man who sowed the wheat, seems amazingly patient with us weedy-garden-hearted people. Don’t tear out the weeds, for if you do, you will damage the crop that you rely on for food. Be gentle as possible with those who are struggling with evil. Start with yourself and forgive yourself for the times a little meanness comes out of your mouth, or a little greed seizes your check book. Then move onto the addicts. It takes money, it takes –dare I say it- health insurance to get help with addictions, it takes lots of dedicated practitioners, of which we have far too few. It takes employers with zero tolerance for drugs in the work place but willingness to employ those who are rebuilding their lives. It takes treatment facilities, maybe in our own neighborhoods. In short it takes a commitment to focus on re-building a gentler world, and we need to love and forgive our selves and our churches and our society for pretending the causes of addiction can be fixed by just saying “no”.
Where to start? By proclaiming the love and faithfulness of God, the forgiveness of God? There is enormous power in the Gospel and the Christian story. By the courage to realize our own wheat crops aren’t in very good shape, either? By acknowledging that there is no us (holy) and them (evil)? By admitting that judgmental assumptions are bad behavior? If I read this Gospel correctly, the harvesters are God’s angels, and they will sort the good and the bad correctly. Good news: we can take judging people off our to-do list! Yes!
I learned a hard lesson once, many years ago. I had a minor car accident, and was unable to get my car back on the road. I had been ill, and I was coming back from a doctor’s appointment. I was stuck and had no resources to help myself. Who helped me? A young immigrant man who spoke no English, who had no job, who I had seen loitering around a business of bad reputation- he helped me. I would not have spoken to him in other circumstances. For all I know, he was an angle, sent by God to open my eyes. It made me think of Jesus, close to death on the cross, offering eternal life to the men on either side of him, who admitted to “deserving” their terrible death. And I knew then that I too am capable of the bitingly sarcastic response of the one who jeered Jesus.
So, what’s the take-away? First, I am so very proud of everyone who has been part of the effort to supply food for the children at our local Elementary School. I get tingles down my spine when I think of the extra effort the fine people of Holy Trinity made to supply treats for the end-of-school-celebration there in June. I smile when I remember the gift cards you purchased to reward the children. Well Done. Those kids may live in weedy circumstances, and you offered them love without judgment.
Last, there are those who will never choose God, it would seem. I might be wrong about that. I suspect I’m pretty blind to my own weedy-ness at times. But I think that most people would like to live good lives. I’m sure the power of Love is always and drastically underrated. I am absolutely positive that God is always ready to forgive us for being weedy, either a little or a lot, and that Love, not Round-up herbicide, is the way of God.
The parable of the wheat and weeds like the parable of the sower last week has an allegorical interpretation added to it at the end. If we put aside the interpretation, we can most likely see the parable as Jesus spoke it. What then is the point of the farmer asking to let the weed and wheat grow together? It would seem that in the context of the gospel, the parable was probably a warning about judgment. A warning to church leaders to step back and let men live and grow together, letting God be the judge at some final time. It is not the role of any man to sit in judgment of others. Each of us is but one small part of creation with our own growth and potential. It is a reason for mentioning the mustard seed, the smallest of seeds producing the largest plant, or the yeast that makes flour rise for the baker. All things need time to grow and develop and jumping to conclusions or being too quick to settle our sights or judgments might in the end be contrary to our call and mission and doing a disservice to our fellow Christians. God is the one to judge. Remember, Jesus taught about relationships and love and forgiveness and mercy toward each other. His church was for him a community of women and men serving and loving each other. The disputes and turmoil and judgments of the early community led to some discussions and lessons about judging, most likely over the questions of the gentiles entering the church. Unfortunately, it seems to have become a lesson for the ages as in one way or another we all seem to be quick sometimes to judge.
15th Sunday Ord Time, 7-16-17 Isaiah 55: 10-11, Ps 65, 10-14, Romans8:18-23, Matt13: 1-23
I first read today’s scriptures sitting at my desk, which overlooks a beautiful green open space, with trees and wild flowers, and chirping birds. It felt like heaven was close by.
Our 1st reading is from the 55th chapter of Isaiah. I find these readings to have much more meaning if I read the whole chapter. You might label this chapter “an invitation to grace”. God starts by offering water to the thirsty. Then God offers food to the hungry, those with no money to buy food, those facing starvation. Plentiful, rich food is offered, food which satisfies. Next God says, “Come to me, that you may have life.” The symbolism has faded away and we have arrived at the heart of the message. Come to God for the food of mercy, for God is always ready to forgive. Isaiah says, “Like the heavens are far above the earth, so are God’s ways above our ways.”
We understand about rain freely coming down from the sky to water the earth; mercy rains on us in the same way. Anyone who has seen a drought understands the life-giving impact of rain, changing dried clumps of earth into a growing field and producing the crops that give food. In the creation story, God’s Word was the source of earth and sky and sea. Now God’s Word comes to us, comes to us like rain and gives us life. God’s wisdom grows in our hearts.
Our Psalm is a very similar message; it begins with praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy. We are overcome by our human failures; it is God who pardons them. It is God who set the mountains in place. God sends the rain, makes the crops grow; God fills the meadows with flowers. We can do none of those things.
Many of us now are so removed from agriculture and food production that we can easily forget about all this. In our Gospel, Jesus taught people who lived fully at the mercy of the rain and the fields and the flocks. But like us, somehow they managed to hear but not listen and look but not see. They too refused to change, to listen to God’s Word, or to be healed with God’s wisdom.
Jesus described some people as the dry, hard packed dirt of a busy road, where the seed of God’s Word fell. The seed could not break thru to put down roots and grow, and the birds came and ate the seeds.
Other people were described as thin soil on rocky ground, where the seed sprouted but had too little nourishment to flourish. Such people have nothing to ground their lives; they pay any attention only to the crisis of the day. Still other people are described as thorny ground; they are worried about things they cannot control, and put all their efforts into gaining wealth and power, crowding out the seeds of virtue and wisdom. But those who treasure God’s Word, they are like good soil, will grow a large crop of blessings and have a full harvest of eternal life. It’s a beautiful parable of possibility and choice.
St. Paul takes a different approach to the images of creation. His goal is to instill hope in us. He acknowledges that suffering is part of this life. He speaks to those who are disheartened and discouraged. He tells us that the worst suffering is a small price to pay for the glory of eternal life. He understands failure, and shares our frustration with our inability to be the strong and faithful people we want to be.
Creation was put under human control by God, and therefore it fell from glory along with Adam & Eve when evil entered the world. Paul uses expressions like “subjected to futility, and “slavery to decay” to describe creation now. But the entire creation, Paul wrote, has been groaning as if in the labor pains of “childbirth”. We have the Holy Spirit as a “down payment” on our redemption, so we, along with creation, also groan as we wait for our final adoption as children of God. The Spirit, too, Paul adds two verses later, “intercedes (for us) with inexpressible groanings.” Paul makes our universe sound like a giant Labor & Delivery Unit! Suffering, he says, is not a threat to our salvation, but a sign that “birth” is close at hand. Our second birth, our “delivery” as believers comes in the form of resurrection.
This is a reminder that we live in a time of “already”, since Christ has already come. At the same time, we live in the time of “not yet” as we still await the return of Christ. In 2nd Peter, we find this: “With the Lord 1 day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like 1 day. The Lord does not delay, but he is patient, not wishing that any should perish.”
So we found four lessons in creation; what do we do with them?
1. God rains down mercy and grace on us all. With these two gifts, God will create new and eternal lives for us. Since mercy is forgiveness, we must make amends then move on. Grace is generosity and love for all, creating new paths after failure. We accept grace and mercy; we offer grace and mercy to each other.
- God created a beautiful and fruitful world for us. God does what we can’t, and we should praise God for his goodness and the abundance he gives us. So, let’s take time to marvel in God’s power and the mysteries of nature. Take time to be thankful.
- We can be blind and deaf to God’s goodness. We must choose if we will receive that abundant goodness. The Word of God has immeasurable power in our lives, transforming power, available to all who nurture that Word which God sows freely. Bible study (reading God’s word), prayer (talking with God) and meditation (listening to God) change us.
- Hope and comfort is found in all that God created. Suffering and a sense of futility will pass. The Spirit is with us, and we will soon enough know the glorious freedom of being children of God. So, focus on what is right and good. Spend your time on things that are positive, generous and loving. Seek out God.
It occurred to me that if each day, we took time to focus on these 4 lessons, our lives would become more righteous. That isn’t just something that Saints do, but something that we all can do. It simply means that we develop a right and good relationship with God. We become more closely aligned with God and our lives look and feel like we reflect God’s ways. Let me challenge you with this: try for the next week to take a few moments at the beginning and end of each day to review these 4 lessons, and really act them out. See what happens.
I chose to have the short form of the gospel read today because most scholars agree that this was probably what was actually spoken by Jesus with the rest being added by the early church. The parable is one Jesus used to address for his followers the fact that he really at times had few followers and even some who would leave and go away. The picture he paints is a farmer who haphazardly spreads the seed in his field while planting and loses much of it in weeds and rocky ground and to birds and so forth. Yet Jesus says the farmer will get a return of sixty to a hundred fold on his seeds. To a farmer of his time, this would be almost a miraculous return as seven to ten fold would be considered a good return. Thus, Jesus is saying, the word of God is an active and enlightening and growing thing. Nothing can stop it and numbers of the early disciples and the early church should not discourage or depress his followers. Amazingly he was right as we reach our own time, the word has spread around the world but unfortunately, we must ask has it reached the hundred fold that Christ said it could? Certainly, there will always be unbelievers who hear the word and move on. But truly, has the word gone out to all the world, to the far ends? Have we reached out to the hungry and suffering people in the world? Do we welcome the stranger seeking to enter our country or places where we live. The Word is alive and active, yet we need to listen and make ourselves live it out as a true follower. How each of us responds is how the word will grow.