July 23, 2023, Proper 11: Genesis 28:10-19a; Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
The Rev. Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain
May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the actions of our lives be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer.
Good morning, St. Aidan’s.
I do a bit of work in urban gardens, as some of you may know, and so I resonate with the imagery in our Gospel text today, about the sowing of seeds, the appearance of weeds, and the dilemma about what to do with the reality of an imperfect garden. Last Sunday I preached at Holy Innocents on the well-known parable of the sower. Lucky me – a gardener who gets to preach two weeks in a row about horticultural themes – about soil and seeds and thorns and weeds. All things that I’m familiar with.
Today’s parable is a complicated one for me, however. It’s a parable in two parts. Part one is when Jesus is talking to the crowd, and part two is when he talks with a smaller group, the disciples.
In part one of Jesus’ story, we have a householder, probably a person of means because we learn he has slaves, who planted wheat seed in the field and noticed that weeds grew also. The householder, when pressed about why the weeds came to the field, did what is sometimes very tempting as a gardener (or a person) --- he blames the problem on somebody else. “An enemy has done this,” he says.
And then, instead of having the weeds pulled, he decides that they should grow together with the wheat and that they’ll be dealt with later. Ostensibly his reason is that pulling the weeds would uproot the wheat --- but what I really think is that he knows weeds are a fact of life in a field or a garden, and also that deep down he knows that an enemy didn’t really target his field. I think he knows that weeds just happen, no matter what you do.
So that’s part one.
In part two, with the disciples, Jesus gets more specific, explaining exactly what he meant to his followers. The first bit seems understandable to me – Jesus is the householder, the field is the world, the good seeds are believers, the weeds are non-believers, the enemy is evil or sin. It’s the end of the parable that bothers me – a lot. At the end everything bad is thrown into the furnace of fire, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and everything and everyone that is righteous somehow shines.
I don’t know about you, but this seems both oversimplified and harsh. Life just isn’t like this. The world I know is full of both good and evil, darkness and light, and grey areas in between. It’s far more complicated that this story. And what happened to the Jesus who says we are all beloved children of God? The Jesus who preaches about loving our enemies? Where did that Jesus go? So as I grappled with the text, I came to wonder if there was something else Jesus was trying to tell us here.
I came across a commentary in Sojourners magazine that helped me. The commentary wrote:
“It is easy to read this parable as addressing “evil ones” tossed into the flames at the end of the “harvest” time while the righteous endure. But I wonder if the field of the mixed plants is also the field of our hearts. Martin Luther argued that we are simultaneously justified and sinner – and I think if Luther was right…. Then this parable might be more a promise than a warning: a promise that God’s refining fire will burn away all our sin so that we can be in God’s presence at the last.”
Let’s unpack this a bit.
Let’s start with the idea that this parable might be urging us to reflect about the good and evil that is mixed in our hearts. Can we get on board with the idea we are, all of us, a complicated combination of thoughts and feelings? We experience fear and joy and anger and love – and many more emotions than these. To use Martin Luther’s words, we sometimes feel justified or secure in our faith – and at other times we sin or fall away from our grounding in God. Perhaps this parable is telling us that God understands us just as we are, however flawed and confused – and wherever we are on our journey of faith.
And then, what about the promise that God’s refining fire will burn away our sin so that we can be in God’s presence?
How do we get there?
Today’s readings, I think, help us with a bridge to this idea. We have the Genesis image of an actual ladder, Jacob’s ladder as it has come to be called, set up on earth and actually providing Jacob with a way to climb up to heaven with the help of angels all along the way. God is standing at the base of the ladder, right next to Jacob, saying “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.”
This is the image of a loving God who is right here and right now, for all of us. However mixed the good and evil is in us. However much we might doubt and question God’s presence. However much we might doubt ourselves. This is a God who will help us to make sense of our lives, and will bring us connection with the grounding of the holy spirit. None of this is easy – and maybe that’s where the fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth comes in. There are times when we will have to dig very deep to confront the evils in our world and in ourselves. There are times when we will have to struggle to stay close to God.
We also hear a lot about hope in our readings today. From the Wisdom of Solomon, we are reminded that God cares for all people and that God judges with mildness. And we are reassured about God that “You have filled your children with good hope, because you give repentance for sins.” In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are reminded that it is in hope that we are saved, and also that we are called to wait for hope with patience. This brings to mind for me Hebrews 11:1, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
I guess the “Spark notes” version of what I’m trying to say here might go like this. “Life is full of good and evil. It’s easy to cast blame and it’s hard to look inward. We are, all of us, imperfect. We all have struggles. God is with us anyway and always, loving us to the end. And this gives us the hope we need to live our lives.”
It’s the work of a lifetime to build and tend and nurture faith and hope – it’s a long game. It’s work that never stops and is actually never done. It’s also work that we do together, in community.
When I think about our community, the work of the End of Life Ministry (fondly known as ELM) is coming to mind for me, probably because we have had a lot of loss in our community lately. And also because the work of thinking about end of life is hard, fraught and difficult to talk about. Death is something that we fear and struggle to accept, and in our denial about death we can fall away from God, community and one another. We can go to a place of “why me?” or a place of blame or anger or worry – instead of focusing on hope and resurrection.
The work of ELM is such a great example, to me, of how community helps us to find our way. Our ELM leaders are a group of fearless people who courageously tell the truth and keep talking about a hard topic. Through educational programs, quiet conversations and behind the scenes consults, they help us to talk about and voice our fears. They help us to identify the moments when we are struggling to reach God. They help us to accept that the fields of our hearts may be full of emotions as mixed as the plants in our parable – and that’s ok. We can accept God’s love for us just as we are. In times of loss and confusion and doubt and fear. Even in times when we feel we might be harboring unkind or evil thoughts. In times when we doubt ourselves.
I’m going to circle back to gardening metaphor, as I continue to make sense of this Gospel text and in closing. I’m reminded of a proverb – I’m not sure to whom it is attributed, which states, “A good garden may have some weeds.”
And perhaps – if we boil it down to just one thing – perhaps this is the main point that Jesus is sharing with us in this parable. A good garden may have some weeds. The good gardens of our hearts may have some weeds and mixed feelings and good and bad days. If we can hold this idea lightly – this idea that weeds are going to grow around us – and that’s life - then perhaps we can be kind to ourselves about that reality, and remember that God is always with us - holding us up, and bringing us hope. That God is saying to us, just as to Jacob – “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” Amen.