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Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Weeds and the Wheat

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 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!

It’s always dangerous for me to talk about farming in a sermon, since my farming expertise is best illustrated by something I did at about seven years old on my grandparents' farm. I was staying with them, and went with my grandmother to the store in Seaford, where I fell in love with a model of a Palomino horse, just like Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger. I asked my grandmother if she would buy me the horse, and she answered that I should ask my grandfather. When we got back to the farm, I asked him, and he asked me what I was going to do to earn the money. I had no idea, so he suggested I go hoe the soybeans in the field.

The next morning I got out of bed early, got a hoe out of the barn, and started down a row of soybeans behind the garage. I had no idea how or what to hoe, so, after experimenting with several weeding techniques, I decided the most effective way to do the job was to swing the hoe like a golf club, taking out weeds and a few soybeans in the process. A few minutes later my grandfather came out to watch my progress. When he saw what I was doing, he cried out, “For heaven’s sake, STOP! I’ll pay you the money if you’ll just STOP!”

In the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat, Jesus recognizes that sometimes it’s hard to tell the weeds from the wheat. Although this story follows hard on the very similar parable of the sower and the seed, the stories have two very different destinations. The sower and the seed addresses the question of why God’s outpouring of grace in the world receives such very different responses, from nothing to abundance. The parable of the weeds among the wheat is a story about life within the community of faith – the church. This is not the hard path or the rocky soil. We thought this ground was well plowed and cultivated. There was abundant growth in this field, but now it seems as though not everything here is godly. In the midst of the church there are – God forbid – sinners. And not just struggling-with-the-usual-stuff sinners, but people who seem to be genuinely destructive to the work of ministry. People who keep ministry from coming together; people who unravel the fabric of community and ministry, people who are bad influences upon other people’s lives and faith. Did God sow bad seed along with the good? Should we go through and clear out the bad seed, to protect the good?

Like my seven year old self, trying to separate the weeds and the wheat can be dangerous for everyone. That’s why Jesus says, clearly, that it’s not the job of the wheat – you and I – to separate the two. The time will come for that, Jesus says. Just as at the end of the soybean season when my grandfather pulled his Allis-Chalmers combine through the crop, cutting everything off at ground level and separating the beans from the weeds and the rest of the bean plant, so, Jesus said, the angels would come at the end of the world and separate the good from the bad. It’s not the wheat’s job to judge – that is God’s job, and God’s alone.

There are at least two reasons why the wheat doesn’t make the judgment. The first reason is because not everything that doesn’t look or act or think like us is a weed. Jimmy Talley says that a weed is just something growing where you don’t want it to grow. I can remember orphan corn stalks growing in the soybean field the year after that field had been planted in corn, and going out to those random stalks when the corn was ripe and bringing the ears back for supper. Farmers who used to plow to the edges of their fields are relearning the Biblical principle of leaving hedgerows for erosion and pest control, and for pollination. I have been impressed, watching the beautiful French countryside during the Tour de France the last two weeks, of the incredible diversity of French agriculture. France is not Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa, with thousands of acres of corn or wheat as far as the eye can see – there is a field of corn next to a field of sunflowers next to a field of beans next to a vineyard.

Jesus knew all too well the Pharisees who believed that anyone who didn’t look or act or think or believe as they did were wrong, needed to be corrected or even excluded. Jesus had been the victim of that theological monoculture, harassed by the Pharisees when he befriended sinners and tax collectors and Roman collaborators and Gentiles and children and women. The Pharisees were purists, trying to restore Israel to a glory they imagined but which history never revealed. Israel had always lived in the tension between what was and what might be, and her greatest days came, in fact, from unlikely combinations of people and circumstances: Joshua’s triumph was aided by Rahab the Canaanite prostitute; King David was the great-grandchild of a Moabite named Ruth; God used Assyria and Babylon to punish his people and a Persian to redeem them; Jesus was born out of wedlock in a barn. Sometimes what we think doesn’t belong is in fact a gift from God.

Recently I had a conversation with a pastor from a different denomination about who is welcome in the church, which ultimately became a conversation about who is a child of God. He comes from a denomination which was founded in the sixteenth century specifically to purify what was believed to be a corrupt Christianity. This pastor recognizes that we are all sinners, but he also believes that certain behaviors disqualify people from church membership. We’re not talking about anything in the Ten Commandments, or in anything that Jesus taught, mind you. He doesn’t seem to mind people eating shrimp, or wearing blended fabrics, or associating with women at certain times of the month, or with people who store up treasure in ever-expanding barns while ignoring the needy at their gate, all of which are prohibited in the Bible. The conversation really came down to who is a child of God. He believes that only Christians – and, I would suggest, only his kind of Christians -- are God’s children. He believes everyone else is made in God’s image, but is not a child of God until they personally accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I agree that people should accept Christ as Lord and Savior, but I also believe that when the Letter to the Ephesians says there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all, that means everyone, not just those who recognize it. But then, this pastor doesn’t believe in one baptism, either. I believe that children who die in utero or in infancy, and the mentally challenged who can never make a profession of faith, and people who have never heard the gospel, are all children of the same Father, who loves them all just the same. God is not our Father and we are not God’s children because we say so – we accept it because it’s already true. And that’s why I believe this parable is telling us to be very careful about who we call wheat and who we call a weed.

The second reason why it’s not our job to separate the wheat and the weeds is because eternal judgment belongs to God and to God alone. We are expected to be discerning – not everyone in the church can be treasurer, or can work with children, or be a musician, or preach. But the first and most important act of faith is to say that Jesus Christ is Lord, which means we are not Lord. The judgment of the world is not our call. Who is saved and who is damned is not our call. Who is in and who is out is not our call. Yes, we live amongst the weeds. We need to put our energies into producing fruit with which God can feed a literally and spiritually starving world, not waste our efforts pointing out the weeds. The weeds will get taken care of, at the right time, more surely than we ever can manage. Stop playing God, deciding who is saved and who isn’t. Make room for all God’s children, and let God do the sorting. You might discover that that plant next to you, which you thought was a weed because it didn’t look like you, might be wheat and you’re the weed. Or you might just discover it’s a different strain, and the mixture makes the loaf all the more healthy and delicious.

Every ounce of energy we put into judgment is energy diverted from being fruitful for God. Yes, there are weeds among the wheat. That’s not our problem. Instead, grow and shine and be fruitful for your Heavenly Father, who alone is Lord of the Harvest.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

It’s All About the Soil

Pentecost 4A 2011

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

One of Vicki’s and my favorite TV shows before we unplugged our cable was Mythbusters, on the Discovery Channel. Every week former Hollywood special effects wizards Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage and their team examine TV and movie stunts and popular myths to see if things could really happen that way or not. They’ve tested whether eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda simultaneously will make your stomach explode, whether using a cell phone while pumping gas in your car will cause an explosion, whether having a tongue piercing makes you more likely to be hit by lightning, whether Jimmy Hoffa is buried at Giants Stadium, and John Linka’s favorite, can a fishing reel catch fire with a fast enough fish on the line? The episodes are often hilarious, especially when, after disproving the myth, the team adds enough explosive, or enough speed, or enough whatever to actually make the thing come true. It’s every man’s dream job – crashing, wrecking, and blowing things up for fun.

Mythbusters, for all its absurdity, is actually a fun way to learn good scientific method. The team figures out all the possible variables in the experiment, isolates them, keeps all but one factor constant, and then varies one factor to see if they can make the experiment work. It’s what a good cook does to improve a recipe; what an electrician or mechanic does to track down a problem; what a teacher does to help a student learn. And, in Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed, what a farmer does to increase his yield.

The farmer, the seed, the sun, and the rain are constants. The variable in the experiment is the condition of the soil receiving the seed. Obviously, this is a Middle School science project, because no farmer in his right mind would try to farm in the middle of the road, or on thin soil over rocks. Nor would he try to plant in the middle of weeds. But this farmer does, to see what happens. The seed on the road just lies there until it’s gobbled up by hungry birds. The seed on the thin, rocky, soil sprouts, but can’t put down deep roots and it dies. The seed among the weeds sprouts and does well at first, but the amazing thing about weeds is their genius for taking over any place where they grow, crowding out the intended crop. On the end, the only seed that produces is that planted in deep, rich, composted, weeded, de-rocked soil. Not only does it grow, but it reproduces by multiplication thirty, sixty, or a hundred times the original seed.

The parable, of course, is about God’s work in the world, and about the conditions necessary for God’s Kingdom to grow in us and in the world. The sower – God – and the seed – the Good News of God’s justice and mercy in Jesus Christ – are the same. It’s the soil – you and I – that is the variable. So let’s see how we might move from being asphalt, unable to receive God’s work, to becoming deep, rich, productive soil.

First, though, let’s realize what Jesus is telling us about God and the Good News. God is an absurdly wasteful farmer, who sows seed on highways and rocks and among weeds. And the seed is certified – it is the same quality Good News scattered everywhere. God doesn’t plant lousy seed in unlikely places, lest the good stuff be wasted. Just as sin is sin is sin, so God’s grace is grace is grace, poured out on everyone exactly alike. If there’s a problem in the yield of righteousness, it’s not God’s fault. It’s not the quality of the seed. The problem is in the soil. That is, you. And me.

The first field to receive seed is the hard and packed path. Imagine Jimmy Talley driving his planter right down New Kent Highway. The only things that are going to happen are that Jimmy is going to have very dull coulters, and the birds are going to get fat. For God’s grace to grow, that road, or that path, are going to have to be split wide open.

I love to watch farmers plow a field. It really is agricultural surgery, violently splitting the earth open as with a scalpel. The moldboard digs deep, lifts the soil up and turns it over, exposing the underside to the sky. There, down deep, is where the rich soil lies, ready to receive and nourish new life.

That’s why sometimes it takes some terrible tragedy for hardened people to be able to receive the gospel – their lives are so compacted that nothing takes root in them until their hearts and minds and sometimes their bodies are split wide open and turned upside down. St. Paul was one of those people – the resurrected Jesus had to knock him off his horse and blind him before he could hear the Good News. You probably know people like that too – people who resist the love of God until something nearly kills them.

The second soil type in the story is thin soil, with rocks just beneath the surface. You probably know people who seem at first to be very open and loving and gracious people, but then, as soon as you scratch the surface, there’s something hard and impenetrable there. These are folks who just love Jesus when things are going well, but at the first sign of trouble, or when something happens at church they don’t like, or when they are challenged to move to a deeper level of commitment, they literally hit the stone wall.

The third type, Jesus says, are people who have some depth, but they’re spiritual multitaskers. The soil is rich and deep, the Kingdom takes root in their lives and grows, but there are thousand competing interests that soon crowd out faith, stealing the rain, the sun, and the nutrients from the soil. Some of those competing commitments may, like a morning glory, literally strangle the life out of the gospel, all the while producing beautiful flowers.

What does it take to be deep, rich, weed-free soil for God? Friends, this is what we’re trying to do here at Providence every day. Just as you can’t grow a decent garden by tending it once a week or twice a month or when you feel like it, so a life of discipleship is a full-time vocation. This is not a hobby – this is a way of life.

First, we have to be constantly turning our lives over, as a field is turned under a plow. The hard work of discipleship is being plowed open every day by surrender to God. Every day we come to God and confess our hardness and our sterility, asking God to break us wide open. When we worship, we gather to remember that God is great, and we’re not. We come to be fed by the Word of God, not by our own hands.

Some of us, perhaps many of us, need a deeper level of help in breaking through the hard crust of our lives. Several times in my life, when I have felt dry and sterile and dying, I have gone to professional counselors who have carefully and skillfully opened up my life for me to look at and for God to heal. Just as it was no shame for me to go to a surgeon to remove my cancer, or for another surgeon to repair my broken leg, or for another doctor to treat my high blood pressure, the shame is to not ask a professional to help treat mental, spiritual, or emotional illness.

Second, the hard rocks just beneath the polite surface of our lives need to be broken up. Jinks Kennon, an old farmer at Salem Church in Orange County, used to insist that rocks grew: every year he would pick all the rocks out of his garden, and the next year there would be new ones, brought up by the freezing and thawing over the winter. Rocks grow in our lives as well. We pick out the boulders of our fears and prejudices and hurts and sorrows, so grace can take root in us. But we soon discover there are more rocks there. And more. And more. We will always be picking obstacles to grace out of our fields. That’s what prayer is about. That’s what Bible study is about. That’s what holy and confessional friendships are about, where we can help each other lift the boulders in our fields to heavy for us to manage on our own. Clearing the boulders is a lifelong pursuit. But when we share the work with friends – and the more the merrier – then the work not only becomes manageable, but can even be a joy.

Lastly, although the Word of God is eternal, it is also fragile. It can be killed by competition. I grow more and more distressed at the attention deficit life we live in this culture. Thirteen year olds have cell phones so they can text each other. I sit in meetings competing with people constantly checking their phones. Parents run their children from school to band to church to soccer to cheerleading to Scouts to friends’ houses, while the parents scurry form work to home to church to gym to lodge to class to party to hell. The great preacher Gordon Cosby said, Overextension is the sign of undercommitment. Make few promises, but keep the ones you make. We live a mile wide and an inch deep: live your life deep and narrow instead. The weeds are killing us, folks. Jesus tells story after story – from the rich young ruler to the three would-be disciples to the rich fool and his barns – to warn that without relentless weeding, life in the Spirit will die. Just stop it. Stop. Say no, so you can say yes to God, and to each other.

And when our lives are broken open and turned over, today and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow; when we go beneath the surface and clear out the obstacles to faithfulness with the help of prayer and confession and holy friends; when we choose to live our lives narrowly and deeply by saying no so we can say yes, then we can be the deep, rich soil that will a great harvest for God. Good soil, after all, is really rock ground down to microscopic size; it is the compost of long-dead growth broken down into nourishing elements; it is the waste of living from which new life can grow.

The sower and the seed are constants: for the difference, it’s all about the soil.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Yoke’s On Us

How shall I describe this generation? They are like kids playing in the streets and shouting at each other, “We put on some rock and roll, but you wouldn’t dance; so we put on some funeral music, but you wouldn’t go into mourning.” For John offered a harsh, rugged life, and people say, “The guy is nuts.” I, the son of man, offered laughter and joy, and people say, “Look at that guy. He is a no-good bum who runs around with Communists and peaceniks!” So, if intelligence can be judged by its fruits, well -- !

About that time Jesus said, “I fully agree with you, Father, Ruler of things both spiritual and material, that you didn’t let the bright boys and the experts in on these matters, but made them clear to the ‘babies.’ Indeed, O Father, this is the way it seemed best to you.”

My Father has left everything up to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and whomever else the Son wishes to introduce to him.

Come to me, all of you who are frustrated and have had a bellyful, and I will give you zest. Get in the harness with me and let me teach you, for I am trained and have a cooperative spirit, and you will find zest for your lives. For my harness is practical, and my assignment is joyful.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 -- Cotton Patch Version, by Clarence Jordan

Among the hundreds of photographs my father took of me as I was growing up is one taken on a family trip to New England when I was about ten years old. I am standing outside a maple syrup mill, wearing a wooden yoke across my shoulders, and from each end of the yoke is hung a wooden bucket used for ferrying maple sap from the trees to a wagon. For many years, when I read the Revised Standard Version of this saying of Jesus -- Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light -- I thought of that maple sap yoke in New Hampshire. It made no sense: Jesus’ yoke is anything but easy and light. Jesus’ yoke is shaped like a cross. He carries the brokenness of the whole world on his shoulders. How is Jesus’ yoke going to give rest?

Clarence Jordan was a South Georgia Baptist preacher with a Ph.D. in New Testament. Jordon rewrote the New Testament as though Jesus had been born in Georgia in the twentieth century, and called it The Cotton Patch Version. Because he knew New Testament Greek so well, he caught many of the nuances of the language and the subtleties of Jesus’ meanings in ways other, more formal translations, could not. Often, Jordan’s paraphrase is in fact a more literal translation of the Greek than other, more official versions. So, when I read the Cotton Patch Version of this passage about Jesus’ yoke, the heavens opened up for me.

Instead of yoke, Jordan talked about a harness. There were still people who used horses and mules for farming in South Georgia, and they knew what it meant to hook an animal up to a wagon or a plow. So, Jordan translates, Jesus invites us to get into his harness. But listen to the difference: Get in the harness with me and let me teach you, for I am trained and have a cooperative spirit, and you will find zest for your lives. For my harness is practical, and my assignment is joyful. That one-person yoke I wore as a child in New Hampshire is not the yoke Jesus is offering us. Jesus is inviting us to share his yoke, not save the world on our own. Jesus’ yoke is not a solitary yoke – it is always shared.

Let’s walk through these two verses, and see what Jesus is telling us about what it means to follow him.

Get in the harness with me. The early Christian theologian, Justin, writing in the second century, says that when Jesus was a carpenter, he made wooden yokes for cattle, so farmers could work their fields and pull carts on the roads.[1] Imagine Jesus fitting the yoke to the cattle the farmers brought him, planing the wood so it would fit the neck of the animal, making the harness practical and useful. Jesus knows what yoke fits us – he knew, when I was determined to be an aerospace engineer, that yoke would never work on me. But he knew there was another yoke – of pastoral ministry, that would fit me better. Jesus knows us, and he has a yoke that fits your gifts and graces and passions.

But, it’s not a solitary yoke, like the one in that picture of me. Jesus invites us to be yoked with him. The healing of the world isn’t up to you, and you, and you, and me, to stumble through on our own. Why does Jesus say his yoke is easy and his burden light? Because he does the heavy lifting. So, if you feel weighed down by the cares and sorrows of the world, if you feel as though you’re being crushed under an impossible load, it’s probably because you’re wearing that yoke all by yourself. Get in the harness with Jesus, because he’s going to do the hard work.

Let me teach you, for I am trained and have a cooperative spirit. In a harness – for a dog sled or for a team of mules or horses – there is a lead animal who is trained to respond to the master’s commands. Horses, dogs – and people – are pack animals. Watch The Dog Whisperer on the Discovery Channel, as Cesar Milan teaches owners of neurotic dogs how they need to be the pack leader. Just like dogs and horses, if people don’t have a trained and cooperative pack leader, their lives become chaotic. That explains a lot of politics, a lot of churches, and a lot of families. The pack leader doesn’t have to be a tyrant – but he or she needs to be trained and cooperative. Clarence Jordan says the Greek word in the Sermon on the Mount that is translated blessed are the meek is a word that applied to horses and mules: a meek horse was one that had been trained to wear a bit and bridle, and to respond to the rider’s commands. Jesus knows his Father’s voice, he knows the path ahead, and if we will get in the harness with him and let him be the pack leader, then life will become so much clearer: you will find zest for your lives.

What drains our energy and our joy more than not knowing what we’re supposed to be doing, where we’re supposed to be going, and feeling as though the whole world depends on us? My brother Methodist monk Bill Davis, Senior Pastor of Bon Air United Methodist Church, is one of the freest spirits I know. Years ago, when another bishop gathered all the clergy and spouses and told us we were going to be assessed for the new Conference Capital Campaign, and our giving would be tracked, I went nuts, complaining to Bill. Bill listened quietly and, when I was finished, said, “I’m not worried about this. In forty or fifty years, hey, I’m going to be dead!” Bill knew the world would go on just fine whether he gave money to the campaign or not. He was in the yoke with Jesus, and he could laugh.

For my harness is practical, and my assignment joyful. Our Church Council is studying together a wonderful little book called Simple Church. Its thesis is that as organizations grow, they lose touch with their reason for existence, and take on all kinds of good things that sap their energy, and may have nothing to do with why they were founded in the first place. Organizations, including churches, need to go back to why they exist and align everything they do with that central purpose. Anything they’re doing that isn’t about that simple and central mission needs to be questioned and maybe eliminated.

Jesus’ mission statement is pretty simple: when he was asked to sum up 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible in twenty-five words or less, he said Love God with everything you have and your neighbor as yourself. A few months ago I told you radical preacher Will Campbell’s summary of the gospel: We’re all (jerks) but God loves us anyhow. The older I get, the more I am convinced that we have made the Gospel so complicated that it’s impossible to follow – which is exactly the point. What if it’s just that simple: love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself? Wouldn’t that be the essence of practicality, and wouldn’t doing those two things lead us to incredible joy?

Listen to Jesus. Anybody here frustrated with life, with church, with work, with all the craziness the world piles on us every day? Anybody here had a bellyful? Anybody here crushed by trying to carry the burden of your life and your family and your work and your church and the whole world? Well, you’re in the wrong yoke. Get in the yoke with Jesus. Let him lead, let him do the heavy lifting. And I promise, you will find zest for your lives.

If it doesn’t work, we’ll refund you 100% of your misery.

[1] Dialogue with Trypho