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.

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