Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sunday Sermon - 5 Pentecost, Proper 11A (07/17/11)

July 17, 2011 – 5 Pentecost, Proper 11A
Isaiah 44:6-8; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

A quick drive past our house on the way home from church will reveal that I’m not much of a gardener. It may surprise you, therefore, to learn that I love working outside in the yard. I’m just not very good at it. Even though our family hasn’t been a family for very long, there are already plenty of stories about things I’ve messed up around the house. And one of my least favorite of them is the legend of the herb garden that never was.

My father isn’t much of a gardener either, so I probably should have realized that his constant encouragement that I should start an herb garden was more of a trap built on his wishful thinking than a real possibility. Nevertheless, I decided than an herb garden would be the perfect outdoor project. So I did the research. I picked out the right spot. I separated the plot into four squares, each of which was designated for herbs that were likely to grow there. I prepared the soil, planted, watered, and waited.

At first, everything seemed to being going very well. Having had only minimal success with caladiums, hydrangea, and a few common annuals, I rejoiced that I had brought up from the ground what were clearly tiny sprouts of herbs. Days passed, then weeks. And then I noticed something. The grass, which I had painstakingly removed from this part of the garden, had begun to sprout amidst all my herbs, and I didn’t really know what to do. When my father came and saw the intruding plants, he asked, “What are you going to do with those?” “Well,” I said, “Jesus said to let the weeds grow up with the wheat lest the roots of both be pulled out, so I’m going to let it go.”

Apparently, I’m more of a preacher than a gardener. As most of you know, that’s not good horticultural advice. By the end of the season, my herbs were barely recognizable—completely choked out by the weeds. Looking at the mess, I realized that trying to harvest both and separate the two, as Jesus instructed, would obviously have been a futile effort. I managed to salvage a few leaves of basil and a little thyme, but the whole endeavor was essentially a total loss. Well, almost. I did learn one thing: Jesus’ parables are sometimes designed to tell you exactly what you wouldn’t expect them to say.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds: “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.” The point of this parable is that letting the wheat and the weeds grow together is a bad idea. As a farmer or a gardener, that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it. And, everyone who heard Jesus’ story who had even the slightest bit of agricultural knowledge would have known that.

The parable, as Jesus tells it, depends upon our understanding that it doesn’t make sense. It grabs our attention because that’s not the way we expect things to work. In other words, Jesus is trying to show us that kingdom of God isn’t like the world we live in. In God’s kingdom, the wheat and the weeds are allowed to grow up together no matter how strange that might seem.

How many aspects of our lives do we approach with the same “early-weeding-out” philosophy that Jesus challenges in his parable? You don’t have to be an accomplished gardener to understand how deeply rooted that mindset is in our society.

Recently, as I’ve heard more and more stories from people who are dealing with cancer, I have begun to appreciate how important a fastidious approach to clear margins really is. When a surgeon removes a malignancy, the focus is on making sure that every single rogue cell has been taken out of the body as even one can grow back into another tumor. After the margins are tested and found to be clear, oncologists may recommend radiation or chemotherapy as an additional attempt to be certain that all traces of a cancer have been weeded out.

In the mid-90s, our nation seemed particularly interested in making sure that habitual offenders remained behind bars, separated from those they threatened. Between 1993 and 1996, twenty-three different states adopted so-called “three strikes” laws, which handed out long mandatory prison sentences for third felonies if the previous two had been deemed violent. Although these laws have had their critics, it seemed wiser to separate the truly persistent criminals from the rest of society before any more harm could be done.

In June 1992, in response to the public disclosure of long-standing patterns of clergy abuse, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a “zero tolerance policy” for responding to allegations of sexual abuse. The policy required that any allegation be taken seriously, that it be reported to the civil authorities, and that the accused priests be permanently removed from ministry. It’s hard to imagine a part of our life in which we would more strenuously seek to remove any and all traces of potential harm than our efforts to make sure predatory pedophiles are kept apart from our children.

So how is it that Jesus is portraying God’s kingdom as the one place in which the wheat and the weeds are allowed to grow up together?

You might remember the 1956 film The Bad Seed, which stars Patty McCormack as Rhoda Penmark, an eight-year-old with a penchant for murdering those who stand in her way. The storyline is cast in terms of the famous “nature vs. nurture” debate, and the audience watches as Rhoda’s mother struggles to accept that her daughter may actually be a bad seed—a child who was evil from her birth. What I remember most about the film is its unusual conclusion. Rhoda’s mother, unwilling to face the truth about her daughter or herself, attempts a murder-suicide, which is doubly unsuccessful. As her mother lies in a hospital bed recovering, Rhoda walks along a wharf, searching for something that one of her previous victims had dropped. As she spots it, lighting strikes and knocks her into the water.

But the film isn’t over yet. The narrator asks the audience to wait a moment. Then, during the credits, after all the cast members have introduced themselves, Rhoda’s mother, who appears last, steps forward and takes her daughter over her knee and begins to spank her. Finally, right before the screen goes black, the narrator says, “You have just seen a motion picture whose theme dares to be startlingly different. May we ask that you do not divulge the unusual climax of the story? Thank you.”

Actually, I’m not sure just how “startlingly different” the film really is. In fact, I think the ending is precisely what the audience wants to see—a child who, even though she might have escaped the punishment of her mother, can’t escape a divinely appointed lightning bolt. And, just in case that wasn’t enough to satisfy our need for justice, the director gives us another chance to see the deviant child spanked by her mother.

As much as The Bad Seed may reflect our desire to punish the wicked in order to preserve the integrity of the good, that’s not Christianity. God doesn’t separate the good from the bad before anyone is allowed into his kingdom. In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus defines the kingdom of God as the place in which both are allowed to grow up together. But that doesn’t make sense, and it’s not supposed to.

We think that criminals should be punished and that pedophiles should be segregated and that bad seeds should be plucked out of society as soon as possible. But, as Jesus shows us, that’s not how the kingdom works. If it were, who would ever be welcomed in? The truth is that each of us is a bad seed. And the truth about the kingdom is that it’s the place where bad seeds like you and me are enabled by God to grow into good plants that bear fruit.

If you’ve been approaching your relationship with God as if you need to be good enough in order for God to love you, then you’re trying to fit the logic of this world into the illogical generosity of God’s kingdom. God doesn’t work that way. No matter who we are, we are invited into the kingdom where, with God’s help, we can grow. Our response, therefore, isn’t to worry about whether we’re in or not. We’re already there—all of us are. Our only concern is about what sort of fruit we will bear now that we are a part of God’s kingdom. Amen.

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