Pentecost VI/ Proper 11 The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 July 20th, 2014
Sing: “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder…” Such a lovely passage, I was looking forward to learning about it and preaching on it… until I read the Gospel.
…an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat…
…the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil…
…Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age…
…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. Let anyone with ears listen! …
Sometimes preaching feels a bit like triage. It is all well and good to preach on a lovely passage and hopefully open up some new depth in it or find new ways we might connect with it, but when a troublesome passage is dropped in our laps… littered with explosive words and images such as “the enemy” and burning up “evil doers” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth”… it seems to me that that passage demands first priority. Maybe we’ll go back and talk about Jacob and his ladder next week…
So what exactly is Jesus saying in this disturbing parable?
This parable only appears in Matthew’s gospel. In it Matthew addresses a community of Jesus’ followers sometime after the destruction of the temple in 70CE or BCE, 40 years or so after Jesus’ death. It’s important to notice that it follows the parable of the sower that we heard last week. The parable of the sower addresses why the young Christian Church sees such a variety of responses to the preaching of the gospel. It compares the spread of the good news to the spread of seed that falls on different types of soil—rocky soil, the hard packed soil of a pathway, soil surrounded by weeds, and good soil.
With today’s parable, the attention shifts from an external focus on the sharing of the good news to an internal focus. Matthew chooses this parable of Jesus’ to address a growing concern in the Christian community about their internal strife, disagreement, imperfection, and, I would say, brokenness.
We know that even the very first followers of Jesus, the disciples, were much less than perfect in their following of Jesus. Not only did the disciples often fail to understand and trust Jesus, not only did they flee in the time of his persecution, but there was even one among them who handed them over to death. Such imperfection, such brokenness has been present among Jesus’ followers from day one.
And most of us know darn well that that imperfection continues to this very day in the communities of Jesus’ followers—in the church.
Being a priest means that people have a compulsion to tell you why they do not attend church. (This is why I never wear a collar on a plane… it’s a long time for a conversation you can’t really walk away from.) But, truthfully, I find this opening of someone’s life to me quite sacred. And often I deeply understand and resonate with their reasons for leaving the church. My hope is that somehow in their being heard by me, a representative of the church, maybe they’ll rethink and reconsider and give us another shot.
But one of the most common reasons I hear for leaving the church is just how human we are. That we’re supposed to be Christians, supposed to be loving like Jesus, but someone in the church said X, or did Y, or believes Z. And I don’t mean to downplay these things. Sometimes, as you know, they are down right unacceptable things that can cause deep deep, difficult to heal wounding. And no matter the depth of the wound, for true community to continue confrontation and apology and forgiveness and reconciliation are necessary.
But when someone tells me about how a person in a church messed up, or was mean, or did something unchristian, if I am able to do so gently and compassionately, I try to remind them that the church is composed of humans. Flawed humans. Broken messed up humans. Just like those outside the church.
I am currently reading the memoir of a Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Webber. She writes about her quarterly gathering of new comers at her parish where she asks what drew them to the church. They speak of the community and the music and their ability to be themselves and the laughter and the truth. She says she loves hearing all of that and that she loves being in a community where she is accepted for who she is but that she’s learned by belonging to other communities that this community will disappoint them. She writes,
“It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss. Welcome to [St. Stephen’s]. We will disappointment you.” (55)
We are called as a community to imitate Jesus, to follow Jesus, to present Jesus’ face to the word, to act in his name according to his command to love. And sometimes we fail. We are never purely that community we are called to be. We are never pure. We are not solely holy—neither as individuals nor as a community. We are a mixture.
Again, I don’t mean to downplay this. It is important that we strive to love as Jesus does. And I believe this community of St. Stephen’s does a very good job at this. I believe this is what new folks sense in our life and worship together—our love for each other and our genuine desire to follow Jesus. And I know of churches where this is not the case, where the level of gossip, or judgment, or clickiness, or “my way or the highway” is such that it is a serious struggle to sense God’s love at work in that community.
This is what Jesus refers to in this parable. The brokenness of his followers—the weeds growing amongst the wheat—the children of the evil one growing together with the children of the kingdom. Professor of theology Gary Peluso-Verdend argues that it was common in the ancient world to assume that people were one type or another—good OR evil, in this case. Sheep OR goats. He argues that those who live in a post-Freudian world tend not to divide persons so neatly.
He describes this idea of a community containing individuals who are either evil or good as corpus permixtum—a mixed body. But then argues that these days we tend to think of corpus permixtum as applying to each of us as individuals. We are each a mixed body. Each contain good and evil, each a mixture of holy and unholy, each have the potential to be fruitful or potentially destructive.
This passage reminds and instructs that the church is not the fulfillment of God’s promised reign. We strive to be a foretaste of God’s kingdom, but we’re not there yet, we’re still mixed. Peluso-Verdend recommends that we reflect on potential doctrines, metaphors and depictions that express the mixed nature of the church:
-A hospital for the sick
-Noah’s ark (one can stand the stench on the inside only because of the storm on the outside)
-The community of saints, militant and triumphant
-The being-saved community (in process, not done)
-A corpus permixtum
-Sign and instrument, sacrament and foretaste of the empire of the heavens
-In need of discipline and compassion
-One, holy, catholic & apostolic
-Reformed and reforming
-Conveyer of the means of grace, both to its members and to the world
The toughest part of this parable is imagining God casting people into a fiery furnace. It’s important to remember this is a parable. It does not describe exactly what will happen, but compares what will happen to this and says it will be like that.
If we understand ourselves as each containing good and evil, holiness and unholiness, then this part of the parable speaks of purification. At the end, whenever and whatever that looks like, God will purify us. God will heal our broken parts and bring light to our shadows.
I don’t believe it will be by throwing us into a furnace. After all, earlier in Matthew, Jesus encourages us not to worry because God cares even for the sparrows (“Are you not of more value than they?”) and beautifully clothes the lilies of the field, “but if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (6)” This seems to point to God NOT literally treating us like worthless weeds and burning us up, but instead to purifying us by removing that which in harmful and broken and prevents us from bearing fruit and living as the individuals God created each of us to be.
So if we can move past the horror over the furnace, we might be able to notice that it is God who does this purifying. This spoke an important word both to the early church and to us now. This is God’s role—not ours. We are not to attempt to weed the church of those we consider weeds. Each of us is mixed and in trying to do the weeding ourselves we’d uproot the good with the bad.
And unfortunately, I think this does happen in churches. We as humans choose what is most important in being a Christian, make that the ruler to hold up, and then judge those who don’t fit. And in so doing, many times lose them from our midst, weed them out. That’s not our place. It’s God’s. No sooner could the grass in my lawn remove the weeds from its midst. Trust me, it hasn’t. It’s full of weeds.
I do think we can each work with God and open ourselves to God in prayer asking that God help purify and weed those parts of ourselves that we know need God’s hand. But again, that’s God doing that work.
I don’t believe that Jesus spoke this parable as the fiery threat we often hear it to be. But instead, he spoke it as a word of comfort and guidance to the church. “I know that you are not perfect. But leave that to me.” In the meantime, we are to get on with the crucial business of loving, or at least, living with each other. Because that is our witness to the world, not feigned perfection, but living with each other and attempting to love each other despite our differences and our imperfection.