Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Six Kingdom Parables, Not Five

Yesterday, I wrote about the five parables about the kingdom that Jesus offers in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52). At staff meeting yesterday, Seth reminded me that there are six. Jesus compares the kingdom with 1) a mustard seed, 2) yeast, 3) a hidden treasure, 4) a merchant searching for fine pearls, and 5) a net thrown into the sea. Then, he asks his disciples if they have understood all of this. When they say, "Yes," Jesus offers a sixth parable: "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

This time he's talking about the kingdom indirectly. It's the scribes who are trained for the kingdom that get the comparison, but the point is the same. A scribe was someone who had studied the scriptures and traditions of their people. They were like religious lawyers--people who could interpret a circumstance using the rules of the religion. They had gone to school and had learned vast amounts. Like judges, their opinions were based on precedent. If a respected rabbi had written about a particular issue and it seemed to apply, they would have looked to it for guidance. But Jesus has a slightly different approach to scribes.

Scribes who have properly been trained for the kingdom of God, which Jesus describes in such strange ways, are like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and old. What does that mean? I think Jesus has in mind someone who makes use of the old silver and the new china, the bath towels he got at his wedding and the sheets she bought last week, the recipe she inherited from her great-grandmother and the idea he saw on Pintrest yesterday. That may not sound all that special. It's the kind of living most of us do all of the time, but think about how threatening that can be to a religious institution like the one to which Jesus is speaking--both in the first century and in the twenty-first.

"We have always done it that way." How powerful are those words? How important are they for the way a congregation does its work? How central are they to a denomination's leadership? How deeply woven are they into the fabric of a religion? Why do we do it like that? Because we always have. Why does it have to be that way? Because we've never done it any differently. Why can't we change things? Because if it isn't broken, don't try to fix it. Well, it is broken. All six of Jesus' parables suggest that our instinctive approach to the kingdom of God isn't adequate. We need to break the mold, shatter the glass ceiling, burst through barriers, and tear down walls. An expert on God's kingdom maintains old and new, tradition and innovation, familiar and unfamiliar.

If we are going to see the kingdom of God, we must ask God to give us eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart and mind and soul to perceive that which no one on earth can find without help. This is the kingdom of God. It is built on the traditions of our ancestors, and it is formed by the stories of tomorrow. If you think you understand it, you don't. If you think it can be encapsulated in a parable from the past, it can't. It's always bigger, always different, always changing. This Sunday, don't miss the interpretive lens of the sixth parable in the passage. It reminds us that the other five aren't static. All of them imply innovation. Even 2000 years later, if we aren't approaching the kingdom expecting to see something new, we'll miss the whole thing.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Nonsense Parables

Sometimes parables make plain sense, and sometimes parables only make sense because we've spent 2000 years convincing ourselves that we know what we're talking about. On Sunday, Jesus will offer five different images for the kingdom of God (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52), and, after he's finished, he will ask, "Have you understood all of this?" And the disciples (or maybe the crowd, it's hard to tell) will reply, "Yes." But I'm not so sure.

When you describe heaven to a five-year-old, how do you describe it? Often, I use paradisiacal images, emphasizing the grandeur, the beauty, the peace, the joy, the perfection, the completeness. It's a banquet where all the good food never runs out. It's an experience in which every minute of every day is spent doing the thing that makes you truly happy. It's a place where everyone loves each other completely. But does that sound anything like Jesus' image?

People who supposedly die and have a vision of heaven never come back and tell us that heaven was like a mustard seed or a measure of yeast. It may be a treasure, but it's not hidden in a field. Surely in heaven all the fish are keepers and nothing needs to be thrown back. Yet that's how Jesus tells us to imagine the kingdom.

We understand that the kingdom starts small and then grows bigger than we could imagine--like a mustard seed or a measure of yeast. But mustard plants weren't really that desirable, and yeast often represents everything God doesn't want to happen. Is Jesus mixing his metaphors here? A treasure gets closer to our expectations, but why is it hidden in a field? Why does someone find it and somewhat surreptitiously sell all of his property in order to buy the field so that he can have the treasure for himself? Or that pearl of great value that causes the merchant, whose job it is to be a dealer of pearls, to give up his trade so that he can hoard his precious possession? Do we like hearing that the kingdom of heaven causes us to give up all that we have--even our identity--so that we might possess it? How is the kingdom like a net full of all kinds of fish--some that can be eaten and some that must be thrown back? Like the parable of the weeds of the field, must we really wait until the end of the age before God sorts everything out?

I love parable season. It's fun to read and study and preach and listen to sermons based on parables. But I don't love them because they're straightforward. I love them because I'm still wrestling with them. When Jesus asks, "Do you understand all of this?" We should say, "Not hardly, but we're working on it." This is the kind of work that takes more than a lifetime.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Being Wheat Amidst Weeds

July 23, 2017 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
When you look around and take stock of your life, what do you see? Are there more blessings than you can count? Are the challenges beginning to stack up? Does the road ahead seem clear and bright? Are you confident in the future that awaits you? Or are things a little less rosy? Do the uncertainties of tomorrow cause you more anxiety than hope? Are the people in your life on stable footing? Are you surrounded by people who share your perspective, who share your goals and outlook on life? Or does it seem like the many of the people in your life are undermining everything you’re working toward? Are you besieged by people who seem to want to work against you at every turn? Or, to use Jesus’ image, how does the field of your life look? Is it full of wheat? Full of weeds? Almost certainly it’s a mix of the two, but what sort of mix? Are the weeds merely an afterthought, or are they beginning to choke out everything else?

I never played a round of golf at the Decatur Country Club, so I can’t say what it felt like to walk the grounds, but I do know how beautiful the eastern edge of the course looked to the people who drove by on their way in or out of town. I loved looking out of my window at golfers walking down a picturesque fairway or standing on a green overlooking the water. Now that the club has closed, I am shocked to drive by and see chest-high weeds growing in the middle of the fairway, the carefully bordered greens and tee boxes disappearing into the wild grass around them, and even the drainage ditches overrun with crabgrass. In a matter of weeks, that carefully manicured place has given way to the weeds that were always hiding in plain sight. That’s the thing about mowing the grass: if you mow it every day, no one notices the weeds as they drive by at thirty-five miles an hour, but, as soon as you stop working to put on a good front, the weeds pop up as visible as a stalk of corn in the middle of a cotton field. If you put your guard down and allowed yourself to take a good, careful, close look at what is growing up in your life, what sort of weeds would you find?

I don’t know anyone who is living a life that doesn’t have at least its fair share of weeds. We all deal with loss. There are struggles and frustrations. Bad news always seems to outpace the good news. If the doctor hasn’t given us a difficult diagnosis, then it’s someone we love who is facing that challenge. Our son can’t keep a job long enough to get out of debt. Our daughter’s children are more than she can manage. On the surface, our marriage seems ok, but what’s the conversation like when no one else is listening? Age catches up with all of us, but some of us have to deal with the ravages of decline more quickly and powerfully than we expected. All of us have to deal with weeds.

What do those weeds mean? Where did they come from? Are they our own doing, or did they just happen? Do they mean that we haven’t tried hard enough, that we didn’t work hard enough when we had the chance, that we didn’t make the right choices when the moment came? What about the person who did everything right but still has to face unbelievable challenges? Is God spreading weeds in her life to teach her a lesson? To punish her for some secret sin? To test her faith and see if she’s strong enough? Or maybe it means that God has forgotten you altogether or perhaps that God isn’t even real. Do those thoughts ever come to your mind? Does it ever feel like the weeds are growing up faster than you can keep up with them? Does it ever feel like the weeds might win?

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared with a man who sowed good seed in his field, but, while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.” By the time the weeds were recognized as such, they had grown up along with the wheat, and, when the field hands saw it, they came to their master and offered to help. “Do you want us to go and gather the weeds?” they asked. But the master gave them a strange response: “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 to [separate them].” And, when Jesus said those words, the people who heard him looked at one another and said, “That sounds like the kind of farming advice you’d get from a carpenter’s son.”

That may seem like a good idea to us but only because we don’t know what we’re talking about. There was no reason to let the weeds grow with the wheat. Experts in first-century Palestinian farming (yes, they do exist) tell us that the roots don’t really entangle like that, and the weeds would have been poisonous if it any of them had been ground up with the flour. It’s so much easier to get rid of the weeds as soon as you see them. The farmhands know how to make this situation better. All you have to do is pull up the weeds. Why won’t the master let them? If he has the power to fix it, why won’t the master take care of the problem before it gets any worse? Why? Because this isn’t the kind of field that we’re used to seeing out our window when we drive through Lawrence County or on our way down I-565. The field that Jesus has in mind is the kingdom of God, and the only way that we’ll see it is if God gives us eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart and mind and spirit to understand what he’s talking about.

It is hard to believe in a loving God who has the power to make everything better and yet allows terrible things to happen to the people that God supposedly loves. It is hard to believe that a God who sits by while one tragedy befalls another will ever step in and make things right. It is hard to hope in God’s promise of salvation when the only thing we can see around us is weeds. But that’s how the kingdom of God works. That’s how God’s reign—his rule, his will, his plan—unfolds. It isn’t all at once. It takes a lifetime; it takes generations to see how God is working his purposes out. We spend our whole lives living amidst blessings and challenges, opportunities and setbacks. The person of faith is one who sees and trusts and believes that even when the weeds are growing up all around us God is still there.

Faith is learning that we cannot fix things on our own. Faith is trusting that in time God will fulfill his promises and bring us into the fullness of his kingdom. We cannot make that kingdom happen all at once. Instead, like the wheat in God’s field, our job is to keep growing, keep watching, keep waiting, and keep trusting that in time all things will be made right. We must ask God to give us the gift of faith in order to see the kingdom growing up as the wheat amidst the weeds. We must ask God to give us the gift of hope in order to believe that there is always light on the other side of darkness. The journey of Christ from the darkness of the cross through death and into the light of Easter must become our journey as well. The weeds will not win. In God’s kingdom, they never win. Ask God to help you see what no eyes can see: that promised field of the righteous shining like the sun in the kingdom of God when at last God makes all things new.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Pesky Weeds

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), I love how the slaves who work in the field come to their master after noticing that weeds have sprung up and say, "Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?" There's a layer of quiet accusation in those words--like the way a parent might say to a child, "You did put your name on your homework before you turned it in, right?" When the field suddenly erupts with weeds, the people who are going to have to work to pull those weeds or separate them from the wheat at the harvest can't help but ask a question to which they already know the answer, "You did use the good seed, right?"

Growing up, "rolling someone's house" by putting toilet paper in their trees felt like a harmless way to prank someone. No crime is victimless, of course, and I am not advocating it. But those pranksters who wanted to cause greater damage would throw eggs or roll the trees with cassette tape instead of toilet paper. Although I never knew of anyone who did it, we also knew that salting someone's yard in order to kill their grass was a particularly terrible thing to do. After reading the parable of the wheat and weeds, I wonder why people don't buy sacks full of crabgrass seed and scatter it all through someone's lawn. Of course, I don't need anyone to do that. My stand of crabgrass propagates itself throughout the summer. But I know a few fastidious lawn keepers whose spouses and neighbors might ask after seeing crabgrass pop up everywhere, "You did use the right weed-and-feed, right?"

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the weeds come not from bad seed or poor farming techniques but from an enemy. To his slaves, the master replies, "An enemy has done this." That's silly. No one does that. At staff meeting, Seth Olson pointed out laughingly what it must have been like for the enemy to walk past the field every day with a smile on his face, waiting for the weeds to grow up. It's a comical context for this story, and maybe that's the point. When we call out to God in our moment of struggle and say, "Why did you do this to me? Why is this so hard?" God's reply is, "An enemy has done this."

Sometimes we get stuck focusing on the challenge in front of us, and sometimes we need to be reminded that we pray to the one who saves us not the one who has plagued us. The psalm appointed in morning prayer yesterday was Psalm 38. When I read it, it came as such a challenge. For 20 verses, the psalmist rehearses for God all the things that aren't going right--wounds that stink and fester, enemies that are waiting to take his life, iniquity that he can't seem to shake. Then, almost out of no where, in verse 21 the prayer shifts and takes on a new focus: "Do not forsake me, O Lord...make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation." The long confession ends with a prayer for help. As I read those words, it felt like the psalmist suddenly snapped out of his fog of trouble and saw that help was only as far away as a prayer.

Life is full of weeds. If this week's sermon prep has reminded me of anything it's that. And where do those weeds come from? Sometimes we create them with our own spiritual negligence. Often, however, they just spring up as if sown by the devil himself. There are struggles and hardships growing in the soil of our lives. God, why is that so? Because it just is. But our focus should be on God's solution. One day, all will be well. One day, we will be left to shine in the sun. One day, all the weeds will be gone. But until then we have to live with them and pray that God would give us strength to see the hope that waits at harvest time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What To Do With Weeds

Every week in staff meeting, we read the gospel lesson for the upcoming Sunday and discuss it. It is impossible for me to convey in a blog post or a sermon how important it is for me to have spent time in conversation with my colleagues about what God is saying to God's people through the words of holy scripture before preaching a sermon. Not only do I learn from their insights, but I also have the chance to rehearse mine aloud and then receive their reactions to them. Sometimes, when I think I have something clever or helpful to offer, I discover in their responses that I've vastly overestimated my cleverness, and the sermon preparation begins to take a new direction. Yesterday, we read and discussed the parable of the wheat and the weeds and its interpretation (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), and, again, I learned something important.

After we read Jesus' vivid image of the farmer and his servants and the enemy who scattered weeds amidst the wheat and the promise of the separation and consumption of the weeds at the harvest, I asked our staff what images within the passage caught their attention or imagination. After everyone had taken time to share, I found it interesting and surprising that no one mentioned the furnace. Don't we care about the burning of the weeds? Aren't we worried about the weeping and gnashing of teeth? Doesn't Jesus' message of judgment leave us feeling uneasy? Their answer? Nope.

Although I expected at least one person to mention the furnace, I wasn't really worried about it either. As a preacher in a Bible-Belt context, I anticipated that the readers and hearers of this passage would fixate on the threat of judgment and miss the hope that Jesus is conveying with those words. Given the staff's lack of interest in the furnace, I suspect I'm over-thinking this aspect, but part of this lesson's teaching for me is a reminder that the fire of judgment is good news for those who have been growing up in a field full of weeds.

In twenty-first-century America, where we have learned the importance of tolerance and have witnessed the damage that propagators of hateful religion can have on those inside and outside the church, many mainline clergy and lay people are reluctant to talk about hell fire. In those circles of polite post-Christian society, to suggest that someone might spend eternity in a place of unimaginable torment is almost unspeakable. (Just ask Bernie Sanders or Russell Vought.) I think we cringe at the thought that we might represent a faith that believes that those who reject its tenets will go to hell. But that's not what Jesus has in mind when he speaks about the fiery furnace--at least not in this passage.

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the servants of the farmer ask whether they should try to pull up the weeds when they are first noticed, but the farmer says no. He's worried that uprooting the weeds will also uproot the wheat. Instead, they are left to grow together until the harvest, when they will be collected, separated, and dispensed with accordingly. When Jesus gives his disciples the interpretation, he expounds upon that last point, saying, "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." Is that bad news? Only if you're a weed. For the wheat, the promise is that they will shine like the sun in God's kingdom.

We live with weeds. They grow up in ourselves, in our lives, and all around us. What are we to do about it? In short, Jesus tells us to deal with it--to deal with it however we can until God finally makes all things right. Eventually, those who oppress God's children, those who disenfranchise God's children, those who take from them, abuse them, and kill them, will all be dealt with by God and God's justice. To those who were being tortured and killed for the faith, the hope for justice was found in the fires of hell, where the tormentors would be cast. In a moment of agony that seems to have no end, it can be helpful to imagine a future in which all those troubles are as completely eliminated as grass that is thrown into a fire. In other words, the focus of this parable isn't to threaten those who get in the way of God's children's fruitfulness but to encourage God's children that one day all will truly be right.

I'm encouraged that our staff wasn't too worried about the furnace. Maybe talking about it with them and writing this blog post will enable me to move on to the heart of Jesus' message in this parable: hope for the faithful. The furnace is just a piece of that hope. It may not be the way you or I would express that hope today, but the hope is still real. One day, God will make all things right. And that hope makes it possible to live with the weeds until then.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Replacing Faith with Love

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

This Saturday is the feast of Mary Magdalene, but at St. John's we are celebrating a little early because we do not have a service on Saturday and because this is a feast that we don't want to miss. There's something about the faith and witness of Mary Magdalene that, unlike that of almost every other hero of our faith, invites us to give a part of ourselves to Jesus that we rarely think to give.

Her story is obscured by conflicting accounts in the gospel--perhaps obscured because the writers did not quite know how to express her relationship with Jesus in words. Luke describes her as one from whom seven demons had gone out. Mark echoes this part of the story but only in the longer ending--the part that we're almost certain was added on long after Mark's original account was finished. Some blend different stories together and think of her as the repentant prostitute who anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair, but there's no evidence of that in the gospel except that the gospel makes it clear that she had deep devotion for her Lord. The only portrayal of Mary Magdalene that is consistent across the gospel accounts is that of a woman who stood by the cross and watched Jesus take his last breath and of the first witness to the empty tomb. No wonder the story got a little mixed up. No words, no story of demon-possession and exorcism, no tale of a prostitute's cleansing tears, could overstate a love like that.

I don't think it's an accident that the kind of devotion that held Mary Magdalene by the cross is the same devotion that enabled her to be the first one to see that Jesus had risen. On Easter Day, our focus is on the risen Lord, and the Magdalene's role in the story takes a back seat. On this occasion, however, we have the opportunity to see how a love like hers opened up the path to redemption that all of us enjoy.

See again the story of Easter through her gaze of love and devotion (John 20:1, 11-18). "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed." According to John, she was the only one who came. And why did she go? What did she expect to see? Not that he had been raised, for the angels and even Jesus himself caught her completely off guard. No, she made her pilgrimage to the tomb because she could not let him go. Even though he had been taken from her, she refused to give up her love for him. She wanted to be near him. She would rather bathe in the agony of her loss than try to move on. To that devotion, in response to that love, God made the miracle of Easter manifest to her.

I wonder whether anyone else could have seen it first. Had anyone else been strolling through that cemetery in those predawn hours, I wonder whether they could have seen what Mary saw. Somehow, I suspect that her unfailing, unbreakable love for Jesus unlocked the truth of the empty tomb in a way that could not have been true for anyone else. Only pure love could make a love like that come into the light of day.

How do you love Jesus? Do you love him when you come to church once or twice a week? Do you love him when you say your prayers each day? Do you love him enough to go on a mission trip or deliver flowers to shut-ins or write a big check to the church? Or do you love him in that way that holds you to the cross and brings you weeping to the tomb? Do you love him with such unshakable devotion that he has to speak to you and say, "Do not hold on to me because I have not yet ascended to my Father?"

If we want to see the risen Lord, if we want to discover the miracle of Easter, we must love Jesus as Mary Magdalene loved him--with that strange love that surpasses even the love we have for friend or parent or child or spouse. We must be recklessly devoted to our Lord. We must set aside axioms of intellectual assent, doctrines of the church, and quotations from the Bible, and simply and purely love the one who is our true first love. Only love like that can bring perfect love into the light of day. May we love Jesus as he has loved us.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Grow Together or Not?

My favorite thing about preaching on parables is that different commentators use completely opposite interpretations to reach the same conclusion. I haven't read any of the secondary literature on the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) yet, but I recall there being significant disagreement as to whether the wheat and the weeds would normally be allowed to grow together.

The parable presents a good farmer who sowed good feed in his field. While he slept, an enemy came and sowed weeds amidst the wheat. When they both grew up, the farmer told his laborers to let them grow together and then sort it out at the harvest. I presume that this is good advice for disciples, but is it good advice for farmers?

Some theologians (notably not farmers or biologists) argue that a particular species of weed, in the first few weeks of growing, is almost indistinguishable from a wheat plant, meaning that Jesus' kingdom advice is also good agricultural advice. But I'm not so sure. Note that the reason that the farmer gives isn't because the wheat and weeds are indistinguishable but because their roots are entangled. Also, note that the laborers can tell that weeds have been sown amidst the wheat--that they seem evident at this point. If Jesus' argument hinges on this being good agricultural advice, he's not making that clear.

I take the opposite approach. I think that anyone who has grown anything--from the largest commercial farmer to the smallest backyard plot--knows that it's not a good idea to let weeds grow up amidst your crop. In the past, I've preached on the herb garden I started in our backyard in Montgomery. As the herbs began to take root, some grass and other weeds began to invade the territory. Recalling this passage, I decided to let them grow up together and see what happens. Within two weeks, I had abandoned the entire operation. The herbs were almost unidentifiable. At that moment, I knew that Jesus' parables aren't intended as good advice for farmers but strange advice for disciples.

In almost every parable, there's a strange detail that catches our attention. It's the "wait a minute; that's not right" moment that is designed to teach us something. There's something strange about the kingdom of God, and the parables are designed to help us see what we otherwise would not notice with our earth-trained sight. In yesterday's Parable of the Sower, it was the indiscriminate sowing that didn't make sense. This week, it's the farmer who allows the weeds and wheat to grow up together. That doesn't make sense, but that's how the kingdom works.

This week, I'm working toward a sermon about living in the kingdom of God amidst all the weeds that seem to stand in the way. In fact, they don't stand in the way at all. They are a part of what it means to grow up under God's reign. God doesn't sort it all out on the front end. We have to wait for it. Jesus words are an encouragement and a challenge, and I suspect that there's a message in them that I need to hear this week.