Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Have a Little Faith

Sermon for July 20, 2014                        “Have a Little Faith”
Parable of the weeds  Matthew 13:24-30
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. 25 While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The servants of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?’
28 “‘An enemy has done this,’ he answered.
“The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’
29 “But the landowner said, ‘No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow side by side until the harvest. And at harvesttime I’ll say to the harvesters, “First gather the weeds and tie them together in bundles to be burned. But bring the wheat into my barn.” ’”
God bless the reading of his word. 

Maybe you have known someone you thought to be a saint, maybe you think you are a saint, but then something happens that reveals another side. 
A woman was sitting in her car at a traffic light.  A man in a truck was in front of her, waiting for the red light to turn green.  When the light changed, he was distracted and didn’t move.  The woman gave a friendly honk, he didn’t move.  She honked again, and he still didn’t move.  By now she is pounding her fist on the steering wheel, making hand gestures, yelling out the window and finally resorting to laying on the horn non-stop.  The guy in the truck wakes up, just as the light is turning yellow, and he drives through.  The woman is about to drive forward, when she gets a rap on her window.  She looks up and sees the face of a police officer, who tells her she is under arrest.  He tells her to get out, put her hands on the car, and he takes her to the police station where she is fingerprinted, photographed and put in a holding cell.  Hours pass and finally the police officer returns and unlocks the cell door.  The officer then tells her, “sorry for  this mistake Lady, but I pulled up behind you as you were blowing your horn, cursing and ranting at the driver in front of you.  I noticed the stickers on your car – one said “Follow me to Sunday School” and the other said “What would Jesus Do?” – so naturally, I assumed you had stolen that car. 

Sometimes life is ambiguous.
In this parable we have wheat planted by a farmer, and we have weeds planted by an enemy.  The problem is, to most of us the weeds look just like the wheat at first, until they sprouted.  When the wheat rises out of the ground, the weeds rise right along with it.  And now we have 2 things that are not supposed to go together.  The servants go to the farmer and ask where the weeds came from.  The farmer says the enemy planted them.  Well, do you want us to pull them up?  No, because if you pull up the weeds, you’ll uproot the good wheat.   Let it all grow together until harvest time.  Then the weeds and the wheat will come out of the ground together and then they will be separated. 
In spite of growing up in the Farm Machinery capital of the world, I know very little about farming.  So I took to the internet in hopes of understanding the basics of wheat and weeds.  Turns out, the word we have as “weeds” in the more modern translations of the Bible, was originally translated as "tares" in the King James Version.  “Tares” is from the Greek: zizania, plural of zizanion. This word is thought to mean darnel (Lolium temulentum),[2][3] a ryegrass which looks much like wheat in its early stages of growth.[4]
Ancient farmers sometimes feuded and Roman law even had to forbid the practice of sowing poisonous plants in a neighbor’s field.  The most basic staple of the palastinian diet was bread, thus wheat was critical. But a poisonous weed, a kind of ryegrass known as darnel,  looked like wheat in the early stages and could only be distinguished from when the ear appeared.  The fields were normally weeded in the spring, but if the weeds were discovered too late, as is the case here, one would risk uprooting the wheat with them.  The master does not want to risk his wheat.  Once they were fully grown, however, harvesters could cut the wheat just below the head, leaving the shorter tares to be cut separately.  Once dried, the darnel proved useful for something – it could be used as fuel for burning. 
The first week I moved to Girdwood I was in a bit of a culture shock.  I was walking in the neighborhood and I started thinking about all the things that don’t go together.  Like I was wearing flip-flops, but l could see snow.  On my right was a house that was one step up from a shack, with weeds and woods for a lawn,  and on my left, a multi-story, multi-dimensional house  with landscaping and flowers;  and then there was light, light that lasted and lasted, when it should be night time. 
All these things co-existing, things that don’t go together, like wheat and weeds… 

At one level, then, we could look at the parable in terms of our individual selves, and we could say that we are weedy people. We can look out our lives, our character, our habits, and see that each one of us is sort of like a field full of a mixture of wheat and weeds.  Like the woman in the car, each one of us is a mixture of good qualities and bad qualities. But the fact is, for every single one of us, no matter how much good wheat we have growing, there are weeds among our wheat.
  • Weeds of pride.
  • Weeds of disappointment.
  • Weeds of resentment, anger, violence, guilt, and prejudice, oppression.
  • Weeds of despair.
  • Weeds of bitterness.
I think there is another lesson here though.  It’s what I might call the lesson of ambiguity. This story has ambiguity stamped on it in more than one way. 
First, we have wheat and weeds growing together, but until each stalk sprouts, we can’t tell which is the wheat and which is the weed. 
Second– the choice to rip out the weeds when we first discover them, risking uprooting the wheat with the weeds, or to leave it all in place and risk the weeds choking the growth out the wheat. 
We have 2 things that don’t go together, wheat and weeds, good and evil, co-existing.  The situation is ambiguous.
I think we face wheat and weed fields throughout our life.  Ambiguous situations that require difficult choices -  like things involving finances, or time comittments, or how to raise children, or difficult choices in healthcare. 
Throughout our lives we have situations with no clear-cut answers. The parable shows us a farmer who sorts out the ambiguity and sticks to a basic principle:   he knows he has planted good seed and he chooses to stay with it to let it bear fruit.  He does this with a faith that in the end, God will sort it out.  The farmer knows that any seed planted by God has the potential to bear good fruit, and that God has the ability to make something good come from the bad.   I think Jesus is telling us to choose faith in the midst of ambiguity.
When we know the options aren’t clear-cut, our first job isn’t to put into place a full blown plan to get rid of evil.  Contrary to what superhero cartoons show us, we can’t just blow up evil, or throw it over a cliff and have it gone forever.  It always comes back, so  our REAL first job is to be the good in the world. This is what I call living into the Kingdom. 
There’s a reason for this – we can’t always tell what is wheat and what is weed.   Our judgement of weeds may not be spot on. 
And when there’s ambiguity, the seeds of grace may be at work on the weeds.  We just don’t always know.  So our job is to be about goodness.  Be the light.  Don’t support evil with wickedness and despair, blame and hatred.  Be the light in the darkness.    Just like the farmer who chooses first to let the wheat grow – believing in the good seed that has been planted to bear fruit.  God will deal with the weeds, the evil, in the end. 
I have to confess that I really struggle with a point in this story.  And that point is the feeling that our response to evil is passive.  In light of the Malaysian airliner being shot down, and increased fighting in Gaza, I have to ask, “aren’t we supposed to do something more about this?”  I chased this in circles and I finally came upon some wisdom shared by Adam Hamilton:
Adam says:  In the modern era we’re used to propositional truths, core principles, and arguments supported by facts. We’re used to being able to wrap our minds around something, and we’re encouraged to be skeptical of ideas until we’re fully able to understand them. But Jesus wasn’t a twenty-first-century motivational speaker. Jesus was a first-century Jewish rabbi, and he spoke like one. He used stories (commonly called parables), analogies, and exaggerated language (hyperbole). He talked about things we can’t even begin to wrap our minds around, so he built bridges using ideas and situations we can understand (John 3:12).
The purpose of Jesus’ teaching was to help us understand the Kingdom of God. God’s reign in all of creation is a present reality, even though many parts of our world live in rebellion against it and do a good job of convincing us that other powers reign. This was also true during Jesus’ time, when the Roman emperor claimed all authority and brutally cracked down on anyone who suggested otherwise.
God’s reign is a possibility that exists for each person who chooses to follow in the way of Jesus. Disciples play by the rules of God’s reign even while the powers of the world follow a different set of rules. Being in harmony with God can lead us into conflict with the world. God’s reign is also a future reality that will be fully consummated at some point, when all earthly kingdoms are disabused of their notion that anyone but God reigns. When and how this will happen is not clear, and it’s not for us to know. We are simply called to live in light of God’s promise, to allow the Kingdom to reign in our own lives, and to let God take care of the rest.”

Some decisions we are going to get right, some we are going to get wrong.  We don’t have the promise that everything will always turn out all right – faith doesn’t prevent hardship.  But we still have a choice to make, and no matter what the outcome is, when we choose to live in faith, we know we always have God’s grace and love to hold us up. 
As members of this congregation we can join with others and acknowledge that life is hard, choices are not always easy, bad things happen.  But in the end, God will hold all our choices and our lives together in love.  Whatever choices we make, whatever happens, we can return to each other on Sunday morning and experience two things:
First, we will hear the words of absolution – you are loved and forgiven through the grace of God.  I believe with all my heart that Jesus’ story didn’t end with his death on the cross, but rather the world was changed because his resurrection was God’s sign to us that God’s love is stronger and triumphs over the evil forces of the world that put Jesus to death.  This was the ushering in of the Kingdom of God.  And we can choose to put our faith in this God who triumphs over evil, or we can put our faith in the world.  God knows we are humans and we have choices to make in the midst of a lot of ambiguity, and those choices might take us among the weeds.  But we have a promise through our faith in God that we will be pardoned and reconciled with God.  This is grace, and it’s what allows us to live into kingdom of Heaven.
And second, we dwell in our church as a place where we can confess and acknowledge the confusion and ambiguity in our lives and find comfort, peace, support and hope from one another, as we seek to be the people God called us to be.  We are the kingdom of heaven on earth for each other when we find joy and love in the midst of our tears and when we find a newfound ability to be tolerant and accepting. 
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The greatest glory lies not in never falling, but in rising everytime you fall”.  God didn’t tell us to get defeated by evil, but rather to leave evil to him so you can be the light of Christ.  Sometimes the weeds overtake us, sometimes they co-exist with us, and sometimes, the weeds even turn into wheat.  Some days I’m wheat, and some days I’m weed; would that I could tear the weeds out of myself and leave only wheat.  But we shouldn’t discount the miraculous: it is within God’s power to change the weeds into something useful. This parable challenges us to live in full faith and commitment that God will ultimately do the “sorting out” at the coming harvest. After all, who am I to say who is weed and who is wheat?
I want to close with a clip from the movie “Have a Little Faith”, based on a book written by Mitch Albom.  Mitch has been asked to write the memoirs of his rabbi, and over the years leading up to the rabbi’s death, he meets with the rabbi regularly.  During this time  he discovers his own faith.   In the midst of his own ambiguity and searching for truth, he is given an opportunity to put his faith into action, white Jewish man alongside a black Christian man - and it is a beautiful moment when the things that usually don’t go together come together for the glory of God.