Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11A] - July 20, 2014 (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Romans 8:12-25)

Over the past few months, my wife has been slowly introducing our daughters to George Lucas’ masterpiece Star Wars series. To some degree, viewing these movies is a rite of passage in our culture. They’ve become a permanent part of modern folklore, and their special effects expand the child’s imagination to include galaxies that are far, far away. Many of us, I suspect, can remember the experience of seeing one of the movies in the theater.

For our daughters, the initiation is happening at home in front of the television screen. One by one, over the course of weeks and months, the movies have been shown—although first Melinda and I had to decide whether we should view them in the order in which they were released, beginning with Episode IV, or if we should show them in narrative order, beginning with Episode I.

Jar Jar Binks: Friend or Foe? I'll let the experts decide...
As it turns out, I don’t think it matters for our 6-year-old. She instinctively understands what is going on, and although she may not have the vocabulary to explain it, she grasps that there is a cosmic conflict between good and evil brewing. And she grasps that eventually it’s going to lead up to a big showdown. In fact, every time a new character appears on screen, she will lean over to Melinda and whisper, “Is that a good guy or bad guy?” She wants to know right up front which side everyone’s on, whether she can trust them or malign them. The fact is, of course, you can’t always tell which characters are evil, especially at first…and especially just by looking at them. After all, Jar-Jar Binks is a pretty freaky looking dude! Truth be told, many of the characters end up having a little bit of sinister in them at some point, and most of the sinister ones end up having a small streak of purity somewhere. Regardless, there is much clarity, which makes it appealing. That’s what the whole saga is based on, anyway: a battle for the heart of a kingdom that is good, the stand against the creeping forces of evil and destruction.

They didn’t have Star Wars—or anything like it, for that matter—but the disciples of Jesus were well-aware of the creeping forces of evil and destruction. They were aware of the fact that God’s good creation was afflicted with some dark corruption deep within, that God’s purposes of righteousness and love were constantly being thwarted by human selfishness and pride. Imagine how disappointing, then, it must have been when they hear Jesus explain through a parable that God’s own kingdom is going to be like a universe where, at least for the time-being, good and evil must coexist, where that dark corruption is somehow allowed to spread and intermingle amidst the growing goodness and joy!

After all, it was so easy—or so they thought—just to lean over to each other as it all played out and whisper about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. It was so uncomplicated to label who should be allowed to grow in the kingdom and then expel those who shouldn’t. However, Jesus’ foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. As much as the disciples would have liked to uproot the evil at once, as much as the disciples would have liked to go in with light sabers blazing, God has a purpose for letting it grow together for now, like weeds among the wheat.

"The Tares" Sir John Everett Millais (1864)
It occurs to me that this parable about the kingdom still plays out in so many ways today. Are we not like those slaves, running to the householder, who are first surprised by the presence of the weeds and then frustrated by the instruction not to pull them up? We look around at a world that has so much going for it, at a creation that is filled with beauty and goodness, and are perplexed by the ongoing existence of evildoing. Initially Jesus likely used this parable to address the disruptions of wickedness that often occur within the church communities. Sad to say, at any given time it’s usually pretty easy for people to look at their congregation and see so much potential if it weren’t for certain people, and especially if it weren’t for certain pastors!

Jesus’ parable of the weeds among the wheat teaches several important things to his disciples. First of all, it acknowledges that not everyone at every moment is working toward the righteousness of God’s kingdom, not everyone at every moment is producing the fruits of justice and peace. Just as the householder’s enemy goes about sowing bad seed in and among the good, so does the reality of sin take root in and among our actions and intentions. Jesus’ whole ministry can be seen in this light, after all. As he makes his way through the towns and villages of Judah and Galilee, conflict and opposition to him crop up just as much as faith and commitment from new followers do.

Second of all, it outlines some faithful ways to deal with this reality by correcting some of our common responses. One common response is to be so overwhelmed with the complexity of the problems around us that we effectively throw our hands up and say that there really is no such thing as evil, that everything is just ambiguous shades of neutral, depending on where you stand. In doing so, we rationalize the weeds as beautiful, too, and the truth is they’re not beautiful at all. The weed to which scholars think this particular parable is referring, darnel, was actually mildly poisonous. If it was ground together with the wheat at the end of harvest and used for baking, it would render the food inedible. While it would be helpful if all evildoing were as obviously repulsive as Darth Vader’s visage, the reality is that it’s not always so. That doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vigilant against it.

Another response we have is the desire to take matters into our own hands and immediately eradicate all evil at its root. In our rush to label the good guys and the bad guys, to create communities that are completely pure, we come up with solutions that are a little too cavalier, a little too drastic for the issue at hand. For example, we may look at the rise of immigrant children at the southwestern border and we surmise that immigrants are nothing but weeds, evildoers who have broken the law. Therefore we say, turn them away immediately, for their presence here disturbs our good wheat. Or, on the other hand, we view that same situation and conclude that borders and immigration laws are evil! Therefore, rip them out, for they are preventing the wheat from prospering! In the situation at our country’s border, as in just about every scene of conflict in the world and congregation, Jesus suggests that a faithful response is much more nuanced and measured. Good and evil often are intertwined in complicated ways. Indeed, they are truly intertwined within our own lives! When we’re confronted with the presence of evil, it is best to follow the instructions given to the slaves and continue to tend to the field in ways that are good for the wheat. That is, we sow seeds of righteousness and Christlike compassion to everyone and let the Spirit nurture the growth.

migrant minors in Texas
One last response we often have in this situation is to reach the conclusion that this is just how it’s always going to be, that we are destined to live in a universe which will always be haunted by the Imperial Forces, that eternity will stretch on and on with one Episode after another. For true Star Wars fans, that many be a dream scenario (more Episodes!), but for those struggling with life among real weeds, it leads to despair. Therefore Jesus emphatically says this view is false. The householder loves his field and wants it to produce good, and no amount of weediness will get in his way. At times, it may certainly seem that God is distant and uninvolved, that God has let the garden get so overgrown and filled with nastiness that God must not care, but that is not the case. For, as Jesus explains in the parable, there will be a final showdown, a telling of the truth and a setting things to rights.

Indeed, the idea that evil will always spoil the good is so false, so detrimental to our well-being, that Jesus decides show us so on the cross. There, in his death, Jesus demonstrated God’s full commitment to a final harvest of good wheat from all of us. There, one grain of wheat surrounded by nothing but wicked weeds, he offers up his life with the hope that God will still make it right in the end…for you, for me, and for all the folks we label good guys and those we label as bad guys. The cross is the place where the groaning world may plant its hope with the promise it may grow. That particular death, more than anything else, assures us of whose love will triumph in the end.
As we wait for that time, then, brothers and sisters, when the growth of that love finally reaches its full conclusion…as we wait for God’s own patience with evildoing to run out…patience and prayer are required of us. With the Holy Spirit bearing witness within us that we are children of God, we continue to sow seeds of righteousness and love. The sufferings of this present time—profound though they may be—are not worth comparing to the glory of that final harvest (Romans 8:18).

We read his Word and let the Lord nurture the wheat that does grow within and among us. We take the bread of forgiveness and drink the wine of compassion. Then from the border-towns of Mexico to the avenues of comfortable suburbia, from the wreckage in Ukrainian wheatfields to the service sites in Richmond where youth are using summer vacation to serve the homeless and hungry, we gather with our Lord and with each other.

And even as it all plays out in drama and suspense before us, we lean in to him with hearts that question “Where is this all going?” just to hear him whisper so assuredly to us, over and over: “My child, I am risen!


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.  

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