Community

You would uproot the Wheat along with the Weeds

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

“In gathering the weeds, you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

So the scene is the same as last week’s gospel. Jesus is still out on the boat, talking to the same people he as talking to on the beach about seeds. As the story continues, the field is planted, and inexplicably, there are all sorts of weeds growing among the grain. The word for “weed” refers to something similar to what we called, “cheat grass” where I grew up. It resembles grain, except it’s inedible for people and gives little sustenance to livestock. But you can’t easily see the difference between it and grain until it starts to blossom and grow its seed. By then it has developed a root system that is much more extensive and stronger than wheat.

The servants see the problem—weeds! Invasive weeds, taking up the soil and nutrients and water! Bad thing, we must do something! Just like everybody else, they see a problem, get anxious about it, and jump to a solution. The farmer, however, looks with the eye of experience. The weeds are going to reduce his yield, there is no doubt. But if these weeds are pulled up now, the grain will be removed at a greater rate than the weeds, and the yield will go down to zero. During this cycle, the number of weeds is the number of weeds, leaving them won’t result in more, so leave them. We will get the wheat that ripens—we will deal with the weeds when there is wheat to harvest. The fruit of the wheat field will nourish people, provide bread, be sold to supply for the needs of the farmer’s household. A superabundance of weeds is only one of the ordinary calamities that typically face farmers; that make a situation that promises easy abundance into difficulty and privation. The farmer waits and judges the ripeness of the wheat. At the right time the weeds are pulled out and separated from the nourishing crop. There is a big bonfire, getting rid of the nuisance and the waste. Then the remaining wheat is gathered—and there is food for all.

So why is this, as Jesus said, like the Kingdom of Heaven?  Note first of all that this is a real-world situation—we expect a beautiful, uniform field of wheat, growing perfectly, moving from green in the springtime, to golden at harvest—but what we get is disrupted by weeds and other occurrences, that are just not ideal. I’ve been reading a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Life Together.  It is about life in Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.

God’s grace—in other words, it is the gift of God that our community is filled with imperfect people, people definitely in need of God’s mercy and it is the gift of God that our overly perfect expectations are shattered, leaving the real community in its place. And the Kingdom of God happens in the real world, a world with difficulties and disappointments.  And indeed, some of those things that happen are evil, or are the result of evil.  So, we don’t just say that whatever happens is fine, or certainly not that it is the will of God. We stand up to evil for the sake of the good of others. But we don’t go around weeding out imperfections, as if every annoyance or imperfection was evil.

Those servants were very anxious about those weeds. That’s understandable—the weeds were going to reduce the yield and make them look like they weren’t doing their job properly. But acting on that anxiety could have been utter disaster, resulting in a long winter with little or no food available. In living with imperfection and disappointment the community grows and shares in God’s love. And when evil—that is to say those forces that hurt and destroy the children of God through selfishness, fear or hatred—when evil afflicts such a community, the love of that community gives it the courage and resilience to respond and repel the evil and to be a source of life for God’s children.

I’m not convinced that the ending of this lesson, with its apocalyptic allegory, fits with Jesus’ original story. It’s a bit annoying that the framers of the lectionary left out the two intervening parables so that the interpretation naively appears to be a part of the story. In the Gospel of Matthew, the story of the weeds is followed by the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast. Then the party breaks up and Jesus goes into the house with his disciples where they ask for more explanation.  That literary break is very important—we move from the public ministry of Jesus to the organized teaching of the disciples—that is to say, the church of Matthew’s day.  In the Matthew Gospel, the problematic weeds are evil people, reflecting the intense conflicts of the church in the last decades of the first century.  But still, note this: the ambiguity is the same. It is not up to the disciples or the children of the kingdom to decide and separate the weeds and the wheat—it is angels that do the reaping at the end of the age. Until then we grow together.  As for the consequences of evil being a furnace of fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth… if you claim the right to be truly and unrepentantly evil, hurting and destroying the children of God… well … we all take our chances, don’t we?

However, this story is not about punishment or destruction. It is about the challenge of life in the real world. Life in Christ is life in hope—a community that shares life and finds life in the mercy that God has for each of us, for all of God’s children.

St. Paul is addressing this in this morning’s epistle:

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” It is that Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact we suffer with him that we may also be glorified with him.

 

That reference, to “Abba” may in fact be the earliest reference we have to the Lord’s Prayer—the prayer Jesus gave his disciples—we are disciples in being God’s children: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Paul did not address idyllic and perfect Christian communities, he wrote to churches who experienced conflict or suffering. And he continues:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

We are God’s people, gathered here. Our hope is in the divine reality of a community gathered in diversity and imperfection, discovering God’s mercy together.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of you Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A Spring of Water gushing up to Eternal Life

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Today’s Gospel is long, because it’s a great story and there really isn’t any way to break it up. There’s so much fascinating detail that we could look at and discuss for a very long time, but we are going to focus on the path of preparation for baptism as the ancient lectionary takes us through Lent.

The woman in this story was a Samaritan and it was a Samaritan village. The Samaritans were not Jews, though they shared the first five books of the Bible with them. To an outsider, they might look quite similar, but the bitterness between the two groups at that time would make the current feelings in our country look mild by comparison. Of course, we tend to hear that term as “Good Samaritan,” but when Jesus told that other story involving a Samaritan, the effect was similar in his context to what it would be in some quarters in this country if he had described the “Good Radical Islamic Terrorist.” The woman was a Samaritan, and each thing she said to Jesus was an essential part of the outline of Samaritan theology and belief. What I notice is that she uses her theological arguments to keep from engaging with Jesus, or facing the truth.

Just as in last week’s lesson, there is a comic misunderstanding.  One of my professors once remarked that the woman thought Jesus was a plumber.  The Greek phrase that we translate as “living water” means running water, like a stream, or a spring, or an aqueduct. “Give me this water, so I don’t have to pull jugs out of the well anymore!” But the Living Water that Jesus was talking about was refreshment from God that takes us out of all of our defensive arguments and crafty evasions.  Life in humble freedom, not in winning arguments. When Jesus shows that he sees through her evasions, she says, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” And then she again dives into the theological argument, advancing the Samaritan view of what the great prophet Moses, had taught them. Then Jesus says it directly: “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” We learn here that it is not subtle or forceful arguments that connect us to God, but living in truthfulness.  And it is not having the right prescribed formulas or activities, but living in the compassion of God.

The woman is still debating with Jesus about the nature of the messiah, when the disciples return. We should note that they misunderstood Jesus in just the same way that the woman had. She had misunderstood about the Living Water and when Jesus told them, “I have food that you do not know about,” they were looking around for a secret picnic basket.  Though they had been with him, they still did not understand; they were still confused. So he said it again, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Our food and drink are the love of God and flourishing in his Spirit.  As Jesus explains that “one sows and another reaps,” and that “others have labored and you have entered into their labor” the woman returns from the village with a bunch of other Samaritans. She has heard Jesus, she has understood, and she has shared his word with others. In this case, it happens that those others were exactly the last people in the world that Jesus’ disciples were expecting; least of all expecting to become one with themselves.

The woman was indeed the apostle to the Samaritans. What she shared with them was what she understood, “he told me everything I have ever done.”  In other words, Jesus knew her, and she knew and understood that she was known.  She was converted to truth.  She had been thinking of the hard work of drawing and lugging water and she had the fantasy of running water. But Jesus gave her the transformation of Living Water, the water of baptism, of dying and rising with Christ, of being sustained and refreshed by God’s spirit, of swimming in that water without fear of drowning or worry about going thirsty.  She told her fellow villagers the truth that she knew, but they learned the truth from Jesus—they asked him to stay for two days, to share with them the Living Water and the Food of Eternal life.

Living the Christian life and preparing for baptism are not things that we do individually, by reading books or gazing at our computers. We learn Christian life in community, we prepare for participation in the death and resurrection of Christ by learning to be generous and courageous by living with others who are also learning courage and generosity. “Then they said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’”

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Lost Sheep

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

The Gospel today is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Not many of us have herded sheep, though I remember a couple of days of sheep shearing on my grandfather’s farm. Jesus could count on more of the people who listened to him understanding what was involved in being a shepherd. A hundred sheep was a pretty good-sized band for one person, and it would account for the bulk of that person’s assets and income.

sheep-on-hillsideA shepherd would take the sheep out into open country to graze—generally that land didn’t belong to the shepherd, it was just open country and he made his living by finding grass and water so that the sheep could grow and reproduce so that there would be wool, and meat, and new lambs to replenish the flock or sell. The sentimental side—of how sweet or cuddly the lambs might be and how much he loves them—didn’t make that much difference to most shepherds, but tending these living creatures so that they thrived and were kept safe was the whole job—if the flock dwindled or did not grow, the shepherd failed to have enough to maintain himself or his family and there would not even be any food.

The shepherd had to protect the sheep from predators and thieves, so you didn’t just leave the sheep alone. But when one turns out to be missing, the shepherd has to take the risk to leave the bulk of the flock there grazing and go find that sheep.

I was the director of a theological library. I was a librarian for over 25 years. We had about 175,000 volumes in our library, but when it came to my attention that someone wanted a book and it was missing, I became a bit of a terror until it was found. I would set aside other projects and look—where the book should be on the shelf, where it might be in transit, where it would be likely to be mis-shelved, where it could be mis-processed, where it was last seen alive… until I was sadly satisfied that the book couldn’t be found and apologize to the person who needed the book. I usually found the book. Some might question the management efficiency of having the most highly-paid administrator using all of this time to search after a single book. However, we want students and researchers to expect that the books and other resources that we say we have will be there when they need them. It is not acceptable to not care about that. The integrity of the system hangs on caring about the important details. So it is with the shepherd and this one sheep.

I’ve read commentaries, probably written by people who haven’t actually herded sheep, that say that it was irresponsible or not a good risk for the shepherd to leave the flock alone while looking for the one. Yet the integrity of the herd was broken by missing that one, and the shepherd’s job was to restore that. The image is that the shepherd searches: diligently, intelligently and quickly and he sees that sheep. He walks up to it and picks it up and puts it on his shoulders—‘you aren’t wandering off any more today’—and then hurries back to the rest of the flock, hoping that nothing has gone wrong.

The shepherd has to care, that’s his job. That’s what Jesus is getting at in telling this story: God cares, and Jesus cares, and as Christ’s body, we have to care—that’s our job. The religious leaders and the lawyers were criticizing Jesus because he was hanging around with the wrong kind of people—he shouldn’t be caring about THOSE people. But for Jesus, it was precisely the people that nobody cared about who he was there for: the children, the disabled, the homeless, the ones that we would rather just let somebody else welcome.

Today is September 11.  Fifteen years ago, Paula and I vacated our apartment on Canal Street in New York a couple of months before that date to move to Washington, D.C.. I remember frequently looking out the back windows that framed the two towers of the World Trade Center. I have a friend whose view was of a fire station in midtown Manhattan. On September 11, he watched fire companies leave for the World Trade Center. That evening he saw the fire engines return without their crews. A member of our new church in Washington commanded a unit that had moved out of the affected part of the Pentagon only six weeks before.  It was a tearing event, a time of great loss. With an injury like that, you can’t just recover a lost item, or rebuild a building. The body must be healed, the integrity of the whole must be restored. That takes time. But it also takes the building of trust between people, knitting together the different sorts of people who make up a country like ours, and the body of Christ. Turning inward into groups in fearfulness and anger disrupts the healing process—it is the opposite of going to find that lost sheep and restoring the integrity of the flock.

The church doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to Christ. And it is important to Christ that everyone can expect welcome in his name whenever they enter one of his churches. No person and no congregation is insignificant, the Good Shepherd seeks us out, every one of us. And every one of us is called to care for all of Christ’s flock.