There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Inclusion is all the rage in the church these days (and just about everywhere else). We have such a desire to appear appealing to as many people as possible, that we put out signs on the church property promising our inclusiveness, we develop slogans for websites assuring visitors that they are already part of the church family, and we cultivate sermon series about how to be more tolerant of our neighbors.
But nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly.
It insists (demands) a Church exists where there is not a single distinction between us.
Because not a one of us is righteous (Romans 3).
We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.
Depending on the kind of church you grew up in, or saw embodied on television, talk of sin varies. In some traditions, sin is wagged at the congregation week after week in order to (hopefully?) scare people into faith. In other traditions, talk of sin is avoided at all costs unless it has to do with who should be allowed to get married or who should be allowed to become a pastor.
And yet, when Paul wrote his letter to the burgeoning church in the first century, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died.
That is, all of them.
Robert Farrar Capon, taking a cue from Paul, drops this into the laps of we religious types: “Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.”
Thats a tough truth to handle for those of us addicted to right-ness and wrong-ness. For, the Gospel (according to Paul) reminds us that since Christ has been raised from the dead we, who are in Christ by baptism, are not in our sins. But, at the same time, sinners we shall remain!
No matter how good we want to think we are, none of us is righteous. We all, at some point or another, do something we shouldn’t or we avoid doing something we should do.
At the very least, we can’t even get along on Facebook or Twitter! We’re constantly doom-scrolling through the posts and tweets that set us off and even if we have the power to not respond, in our heart of hearts we know what we wish we could say.
We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.
It doesn’t matter whether we’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter if we study the Bible every day or we’ve never even picked one up, it doesn’t matter with whom we share a bed or what we do in it – none of it changes the fact that we’ve been baptized (deadened) into Christ.
And that work, the work done to us, is not our own.
Our baptism, our being in Christ, is not our own pious achievement or the height of our own perfect morality. It is, what we call in the church, grace.
And here’s the bad news turned Good News – the Gospel according to Paul, no condemnation, means we’re forever stuck at the party called salvation, the Supper of the Lamb, with people who think that certain people shouldn’t be at the party!
Whether its a denomination in-fighting about who can get married or ordained, or a country going to fisticuffs over differing political ideologies, or communities wrestling with police brutality and racial injustice, or any other thing we can imagine – Christians are stuck with each other, whether we like it or not.
Jesus has bound us together forever in the waters of baptism that destroy whatever divisions we want to create between us. Jesus, like the Father with his arm around his eldest son peaking in on the prodigal cutting up the rug inside the party, desires for us to celebrate together with the people we can’t stand. Jesus, abandoned, beaten, and betrayed, looks out from the Cross into our sins even today and says, “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing.”
The Gospel according to Paul, the verse upon which the epistle to the Romans is set on fire, is that we are all the sinners for whom Christ died.
Look, I’m not a big fan of the church insisting on its existence being predicated on making the world a better place. I happen to believe that the church already is the better place that God has made in the world. But whenever I read this verse from Paul, and all my inclusivity buttons get pushed, I can’t help but wonder how much better things would be if we acted as if we believed it.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 6th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 25.19-34, Psalm 119.105-112, Romans 8.1-11, Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including self-care, ordinary people, church pro-tips, low hanging fruit, family problems, lamps in parenting, other gods, the Gospel in Romans, peaceful living, sowing stories, and fertilizing with the Word. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Works With Manure
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the bird of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
He put before them another parable.
Do you think the disciples ever got tired of Jesus’ stories?
“Enough with the Prodigal and the Samaritan and the Sower Jesus! Can’t you give us something clear and concrete? When are you going to tell us what to do?”
I’ve asked, albeit rhetorically, each week during this sermon series on Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom if we’re sure we want to follow this guy.
And it’s a worthy question for reflection.
After all, Jesus never seems to shut up about this stuff – the first being last and the last being first, forgiving forever, turning the other cheek, the kingdom being like a guy throwing seeds into a field like its going out of style.
But today the question is slightly different. It’s less about the King of the Kingdom, and more about the Kingdom itself.
Are we sure this is the kind of Kingdom we want to live in? Because this Kingdom Jesus inaugurates in and through himself, it’s not very impressive.
If the kingdom we up to us, we’d no doubt pick something large, something impressive, something effective.
Remember back in the days when we could actually have a parade for the 4th of July? The whole community coming out in matching colors, the firefighters and the ambulances, and the military veterans, and the marching bands, and the FIREWORKS!
That’s impressive. It’s a sign of power and even solidarity.
But for as much as we might want to believe that’s what Jesus kingdom is like, it’s decidedly not.
Indeed, as the disciples and everyone else around Jesus found out, the Kingdom does not come in a way we would expect or create on our own.
It’s notable that, when asked how to pray, Jesus told the disciples to first pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. What’s implied in that statement, though not necessarily talked about very often, is the fact that God’s kingdom is not naturally inside any of us.
Which is just another way of saying, we can’t make the Kingdom come on our own.
Instead, it’s like a seed buried into the ground, or yeast mixed into flour, it must be done to us by the Spirit from the outside.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – teeny tiny, and yet when buried in the ground it grows to be one of the greatest of all shrubs. It’s remarkable, when deciding how to describe the kingdom, Jesus purposefully uses the smallest known seed at the time.
And that doesn’t square well, at times, for the followers of Jesus. We want something big and impressive and effective. Instead we’re stuck with a tiny seed.
Even those of us who feel like we’ve got our theology all figured out, myself included, this can rub us the wrong way.
We pray for things like greatness and we get humbled by the Lord who works in small and mysterious ways.
We ask for a sign from the Lord and we’re treated not with an earthquake but instead a still small voice.
We want God to rule by just putting the right political leaders in office so that can pass laws that will make everything perfect, but it doesn’t happen (and it never will).
We have this constant temptation to believe that we can make things right if we just work hard enough. We wrestle with a desire to bring the kingdom into being from the top down rather than from the bottom up. We think we’re responsible for, and in charge of, the kingdom.
But we’re not.
And we can’t even really see it all the time.
Notice, a mustard seed doesn’t do anyone any good until its buried deep into the soil. Not unlike a first century carpenter turned rabbi who, after being buried in the tomb was raised three days later, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The mustard seed’s work happens in hiddenness, in mystery. It gets tucked away under the good soil and it becomes that which it was created to be completely on it’s own. It grows and it grows until its branches are enough to provide nests for all the birds of the air.
And the thing about mustard seeds, a thing that many of us don’t know because we’re not sowing mustard seeds in any of our gardens, is that there’s a reason we don’t plant mustard seeds. In fact, it was a punishable offense during the time of Jesus to plant a mustard seed in someone’s field because when it grows it chokes out every single plant, it resists just about every single attempt at its destruction, and it really won’t stop doing it’s mustard seed thing once it’s planted in the ground.
Like the mustard seed, the kingdom grows and accomplishes its designed purpose in spite of everything that stands against it. It cannot be destroyed and it cannot be taken away. And it will grow in spite of our knowledge for or against it.
Prior to this parable Jesus has been going on with talk about the great divine Sower and the field with wheat and weeds and it’s like he says, “Look, I’ll give it to you one more time. The kingdom is not what you think it is. It’s not military might, it’s not parades of power, it’s not the domination of democracy. It’s just the sun shining in the sky, birds flying in and out of the shade. It’s a seed that grows from nothing into something. The best thing you can do is enjoy it.”
And then, as if to drive home the same point from one further angle, he launches into a parable about baking.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flower until all of it was leavened.
Now, the parable of the leaven is barely even one full verse in the gospel and yet it contains multitudes. To begin with, we should sit on the fact for a moment that the surrogate for God in this particular parables is a woman – a female baker. All of the patriarchal patterns of the church really don’t have much to stand on. In other places Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, and quite notably, women are the only ones who don’t abandon Jesus in the end.
Moreover, without women preachers, none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection in the first place!
And the work of this baker isn’t just a nice little loaf for Sunday brunch. Jesus says she mixed three measures (SATA) of flour, which is a bushel. That’s 128 cups! And when you get done putting in the 42 cups of necessary water to make the bread, you’re left with 101 pounds of dough!
But Jesus doesn’t stop there – 101 pounds of dough are thoroughly mixed until all of it, ALL OF IT, was leavened.
Unlike the mustard seed, you can’t take the yeast out of the dough once it’s mixed in. Sure, it would be pretty hard to find a mustard seed in the ground after its buried, but you could theoretically do it. But yeast? No way. The minute the yeast start to do its thing it completely transforms the flour and it cannot be reversed.
The yeast, in a wonderfully theological sense is completely and totally hidden within the dough. Which, in a way, means that the kingdom of heaven, like leavened bread, has been with us here from the beginning and will always be here. It is among us. And no amount of badness, or even goodness, can do much of anything to it.
The baker has done her job and now the yeast will make something of nothing. So intimate and immediate is the yeast with the dough and water that nothing can stop it. So intimate and immediate is the Kingdom in the world that there is no way on earth of stopping it from doing exactly what its supposed to do.
But, again, we, like those early disciples, are left scratching our heads about what in the world in means for us. Because if we don’t gather as the church for our marching orders then what are we really doing? If we can’t make the world a better place with three easy steps, if we can’t make the Kingdom come on our own, then what kind of Kingdom is it anyway?
How are we supposed to respond to this paradoxical set of parables?
Well, perhaps we respond like we do to baking – with patience.
Ask any baker, one of the worst things we can do is throw the dough into the oven before it’s ready. And, really, good bread is made when the yeast does what it’s supposed to do without our interfering with it.
And, please forgive this final declension into baking – how does yeast actually make the dough into the stuff of perfection. It dies and fills the dough with thousands of little pockets of carbon dioxide. And when those pockets of air are heated, the bread rises.
It’s a miracle.
Make some bread some time, throw it in the oven, and sit and watch.
And here’s the real kicker with the parable: warm carbon dioxide, the stuff that makes bread bread, is the same thing we make every time we breathe out.
The whole of the Kingdom, operates similarly by warm breath.
Jesus is the breathed Word of God, begotten not made from the beginning of creation. God breathes the Spirit into Adam in the garden. That same spirit, Ruah, Breath, Wind, flows in and around all that we do giving life to the lifeless and possibility to countless impossibilities.
Jesus breathes out the Spirit after the resurrection onto his rag tag group of fearful followers hiding in the Upper Room.
That same Spirit is breathed out on the day of Pentecost filling the church with a mighty wind to go and share the Good News with the world.
Even what I’m doing right now is only possible because of the warm breath that comes from my mouth as I speak. And, the best news of all, is that God is able to make something of my nothing every week that I stand to speak.
In the end, God’s warm breath is what’s it all about. Whether its in the bread baking in the oven, or the Spirit poured out on all flesh, or what you’re doing right now to simply live.
Notice too, about your own breath, you don’t have to will yourself to do it, you don’t have to think about it at all for it to happen. You simply breathe. Over and over again.
Just like the leavened bread – its happens automatically. And when that leavened bread, the Bread of life, the one we call Jesus is mixed definitely into our lives, it unfailingly lightens every single one of us.
The job, mysteriously enough, is already done. Finished and furnished before the foundation of the world. Completed by the One who breathed out his life for us from the cross, forgave us with his final breaths before his death, and forever prays on our behalf even when we can’t.
Which is all to say, we are as good and baked into existence right here and right now. We have been mixed into the flour and water and yeast that becomes something we never could on our own.
The only thing we have to do is trust that Jesus will do his yeasty work. And that, in the end, when we detect the smell of fresh bread wafting from the oven of the Kingdom, we will truly be home. Forever. Amen.
That was the tweet I sent out into the twitterverse, not thinking too much about what I had done. I have, for a long time, felt the dissonance between the American Flag and the Cross of Christ hanging as if equals in places of worship. I have written about it at length and preached about it on a number of occasions. That I feel so strongly is a result of the Gospel’s insistence that Christians’ truest citizenship can be found in heaven and that our truest freedom comes from Jesus and not from a nation.
But, writing one sentence about the subject for Twitter doesn’t amount to much.
Or, at least, I didn’t think it did…
As of the moment of writing this, the tweet has been seen over 550,000 times and over 70,000 people have interacted with it.
In a matter of two days, my one sentence about the flag in church has become more “popular” than anything I have ever done.
And, the responses have been fairly predictable.
On one side people have been deeply offended by the thought of the flag being removed from a sanctuary. They have implored me to realize that the flag symbolizes sacrifice, the nation it represents was founded on religious freedom, and that to take it away is unpatriotic (if not treasonous).
On the other side, Christians have expressed their concern with the proximity of the flag to the worship of God. They have remarked that we cannot serve two masters (America and God), that God doesn’t belong to a particular nation-state, and a great number of Christians from other parts of the globe have remarked that they’ve never seen their own nation’s flag in church (demonstrating how this is a uniquely American phenomenon).
I’ve received more private messages than I can count both thanking me for the tweet and damning me for it. I’ve been labeled a prophet and a traitor. I’ve searched through so many of the responses that it started to feel like “doom-scrolling” where it left me feeling hollow.
Today is the 4th of July – a day for Americans to celebrate the nation’s independence. And yet, for Christians (who happen to be American) it’s important to remember that our independence came long before George Washington and the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence.
Our truest freedom comes from and through Jesus.
Can we still fly American Flags on our homes? Sure – though we should remember and recognize that there is a slippery slope between patriotism and nationalism that often leads to xenophobia and violence.
Can we support our military? Of course – though we cannot forget or ignore how America is an imperial power that often uses violence indiscriminately and disproportionately throughout the world.
Can we celebrate and enjoy fireworks today? Definitely – though we cannot let them blind us to the injustices that our taking place within, and right on, our nation’s borders.
Which leads me back to the American Flag in church…
America is not synonymous with the Kingdom of God and when we put the American Flag in the sanctuary we equate the two together. Our obsession with patriotism, such that we fly a nation’s flag in places of worship, is a sign of what Jesus calls idolatry.
The 4th of July is not independence day for Christians. It certainly marks the beginning of a new kind of freedom for a nationstate and a particular people in a particular way – but our realest independence came through the cross and the empty tomb 2,000 years ago.
The 4th of July, therefore, doesn’t really belong to Christians. We can participate and enjoy the day as much as anyone else, but we do so knowing that our hopes and dreams have been formed by the Lord, not by a document declaring our freedom from monarchy.
The 4th of July is not our independence day. In fact, if it is anything it is our dependence day. It is our dependence day because it shows how much faith and hope we put in things made by human hands which come and go like the wind. We depend on the Lord to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Americans might bleed red, white, and blue, but Jesus bled for us so that we wouldn’t have to.
We can absolutely enjoy the 4th of July and rejoice in our celebrations, but if what we do today is more compelling and life-giving than the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ then we have a problem.
Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the end of all sacrifices.
Jesus Christ is the One in whom we live and move and have our being so much so that we can rejoice in the presence of others without hatred, fear, or bitterness.
Jesus Christ is the incarnate Lord whose resurrection from the dead has set us free from the truest tyrannies of all – sin and death.
On Christmas Eve 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to Eberhard and Renate Bethge (Renate was Bonhoffer’s niece and Eberhard was Bonhoeffer’s student at the underground seminary in Finkenwalde) about their imminent separation on account of the Second World War. That the letter was written while Bonhoeffer was incarcerated for “crimes against the state” and it was smuggled out by sympathetic guards makes it all the more poignant.
I’ve come back to the letter on a number of occasions throughout my ministry, but it is hitting quite hard right now during a time when so many of us are separated from one another because of the pandemic. I yearn for the time that I can gather with the church on Sunday mornings for corporate worship, for backyard barbecues with neighbors, and chance interactions with strangers at the grocery store. But until such a time, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on separation are a gift:
“First, nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.
Secondly, the dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves. We must take care not to wallow in our memories or hands ourselves over to them, just as we do not gaze all the time at a valuable present, but only at special times, and apart from these keep it simply as a hidden treasure that is ours for certain. In this way the past gives us lasting joy and strength.
Thirdly, times of separation are not a total loss or unprofitable for our companionship, or at any rate they need not be so. In spite of all the difficulties that they bring, they can be the means of strengthening fellowship quite remarkably.
Fourthly, I’ve learnt here (prison) especially that the facts can always be mastered, and that difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf: With sorrow and with grief… God will not be distracted.” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters & Papers From Prison [New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972], 176-177.)
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 24.34-38, 42-29, 58-67, Psalm 45.10-17, Romans 7.15-25a, Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the paradox of doing nothing, an arranged marriage, the scandal of particularity, allegory, Pauline honesty, the goodness of our badness, having fun with Jesus, and the strange burden of Christianity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Yokes Over Easy
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
What is the Bible really about?
That’s a worthy question. And, plenty of people have tried their best to summarize the Holy Scriptures nicely so that it can fit onto a bumper sticker or in a Tweet.
“God is Love.”
“God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt.”
That sort of stuff.
They’re all fine and they’re all true.
But compartmentalizing the Bible into a fragment is always and forever a fool’s errand. It is a fool’s errand because whenever we lift it up, we are beckoned and transported to the strange new world of the Bible.
We with Abraham in Haran. We hear a call that commands him to go.
We are with Moses in the wilderness. For forty years he has been living among the sheep, doing penance for his crime in Egypt. When suddenly there comes a call from a burning bush: “Moses! Moses!”
And we are there with the crowds, lifted on tiptoe struggling to hear what we can from this Messiah man, the one who has come to save the world. And what does he say?
“Listen: the kingdom is like a farmer who sowed only the best seeds in his field. And one night, the farmer’s enemy came and scattered weeds among all the good seeds. So much so that when the plants came up and bore grain, the weeds were all over the place. The servants of the farmer come and say to him, “Where the H-E-double hockey sticks did all these weeds come from?” And the farmer says, “They are from my enemy.” So the servants, dedicated as they are, they ask if they should go out into the fields to remove all the weeds. A no doubt practical response to the dilemma at hand. But the farmer says, “No; for in gathering up all the weeds you’ll destroy all my wheat. Let both of them grow until the harvest. And then we’ll figure it out.”
So, standing among the crowds, peaking over one another’s shoulders we think to ourselves, “Well dang o dang, that guy really is the Messiah! He speaks so clearly and elegantly about what his kingdom is all about. Let’s follow him.”
But before we have a chance to leave it all behind, someone nearby leans toward us and says, “Hey, I’d think twice before following that so-called Messiah. Did you really hear what he just said? ‘Let the weeds grow with the wheat’ thats the worst farming advice I’ve ever heard. What kind of king can this Jesus be if he doesn’t even know how to manage a garden?”
And, we realize, this stranger in the crowd has a point. The practice of not pulling out the weeds until the harvest is no way to run a farm. Such a lackadaisical approach to the agricultural conundrum only guarantees the choking out of all the good plants in addition to creating a bumper crop of unwanted weed seeds that will plague the field for generations.
Are we sure this is the Lord we want to worship?
Perhaps Jesus was just not as good of a farmer as he was a carpenter. After all, his advice about not building a house on sand is spot on. But his ideas about running a farm leave a lot to be desired.
In any case, this is one of the story he told to his disciples about what the kingdom of heaven is like.
The good seeds sown all across the property, the ones that will one day grow to bear grain, are those whose lives are the flowering of what has been sown but the Son of Man. Think of someone who embodies everything about what it means to be a good person, to be a good Christian. Someone who always goes out of their way to check on the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead. Someone who is logged in for online worship every week. Someone who gives 10% of their income back to God.
All that stuff.
They are the good seeds scattered everywhere.
And up until this point, all is well. But, like all good stories, well can turn to hell right quick.
The farmer’s enemy shows up in the middle of the night, while everyone is asleep, and sows weeds among the wheat.
Notice two things: First, everyone is in bed. They’ve already done their job as far as the crop is concerned. The work of the good seed is not threatened, but only inconvenienced, by the arrival of the enemy’s weeds.
Which leads to the second thing: If the enemy really wanted to mess things up for the farmer, why not do something a little more effective, a little more dramatic? The enemy could’ve lit the field on fire, or flooded it with water, or dug up all the good seeds to plant them in the enemy’s own field.
Instead, the enemy merely tosses in the seeds of weeds to make the job of the farmer a little harder.
Sadly, whenever we read this story or hear about it in church, we do so in such a way that it results in people like us making claims about how certain people need to be destroyed, removed, and obliterated, in order to shore up the kingdom.
Which is to say, we believe we have to use every tool at our disposal to stop the devil from showing up and dropping weeds into all the perfect things we have going on in our lives.
But, that’s not what Jesus does with this parable.
As I already noted, the weeds will not interfere with the growth of the wheat. The weeds are not a danger to the good seeds development but rather an inconvenience to the farmer and his servants.
And that’s what the parable is really all about.
The servants, those working for the farmer, the ones entrusted with the work in the field, the ones who wear things like this on Sunday mornings, are the ones who have the bright idea to take some immediate action against the undesirables in the field.
“Come on Jesus, I know you keep talking about the grand scope of your kingdom, but have you really thought about what might happen if you let all the riffraff in? Why don’t you let us go out in the world and get rid of all those weeds that keep ruining things for the rest of us?
The farmer, though, seems to have a radically different strategy: Let it be.
“That’s irresponsible!” We think to ourselves or have the gall to mention aloud. “Let it be? That’s a hippy Beatles driven response to the world! Surely Jesus would give us something better to do!”
And yet, throughout history, it’s precisely when we’ve taken those kind of actions into our hands, that the very worst of humanity has come to the surface.
Or, let me put it another way: The seeds sown here in the parable (ZIZANIA in Greek) is an annual grass weed that look an awful lot like wheat when it grows. Which is to say, it’s very difficult to tell them apart, let alone take one out without taking out the other.
The end of the parable, the farmer’s insistence that the servants cannot take out the weeds without damaging the wheat is a profound and challenging word for those of us convinced that we are responsible for fixing the world’s problems, that we can truly make the world a better place.
The desire for making the world a better place almost always makes the world worse.
For, all of our programs (and at time pogroms) designed to get rid of evil are doomed to do exactly what the farmer suggests will happen.
Because the servants, whoever they might be, are either too busy or confused or self righteous to recognize any real difference between good and evil and all they will ever accomplish is tearing out the wheat with the weeds.
What we good and well-meaning folk often forget, as good and as well-meaning as we think we are, is that there is no one who is categorically good just as there is no one who is categorically evil.
In a very real way we are all pretty messed up.
Or, to use Paul’s words, “For I know nothing good dwells within me, I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
I remember helping a church reinvent itself a number of years ago when I was in college. We wanted to create a list of beliefs and expectations for those who would join us. And, at first, it was simple stuff like, “We believe in the triune God” and “We confess Jesus as Lord.” But then it quickly turned to things like, “No hatred allowed” and “liars will be asked to leave” and “members must be present at least 3/4 of the Sundays in a year.”
Which, by the end, meant that no one was worthy of the church.
To connect it back to the parable, the only result of a truly dedicated campaign to rid the world of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.
Does that mean we should just kick back, and let the world fall to pieces? The parable doesn’t imply that resistance to evil is wrong, only that its not effective in terms of salvation. We can introduce all sorts of programs to solve all the problems on earth. We can advocate for just wars, and capital punishment, and bigger and fuller jails of dirty rotten scoundrels.
But, as Christians, we can’t assume that any of those thing will “make the world a better place.”
We can take up the sword all we want, but we cannot forget that those who live by the sword die by the sword.
Just as with the parable of the Sower, the kingdom comes along automatically, despite the presence of weeds among the wheat. The weeds may not be real wheat, but if the servants go to the trouble of removing the less desirables, a truly horrific scene can unfold.
It was a new nation of so-called good people that brutally tortured, enslaved, and murdered entire generations of people all in the name of manifest destiny.
It was a democratically elected leader of the most advanced nation in the world, at the time, who ultimately brought about the execution of 6 million Jews.
I could go on and on.
And yet, behind the servants’ question is the question we all wrestle with, “What are we supposed to do?”
Looking out at the tragedies of the world we can’t help but wonder what we could possibly ever do to change anything in a meaningful way.
We can help ourselves from wondering, in spite of all the evidence of the past, that maybe the world would be better if we got rid of all the weeds.
“No,” Jesus says through the farmer, “Pull up evil and you’ll pull up goodness right along with it.”
And then comes the most remarkable and bewildering word in the whole parable: APHETE them to grow together. In our English translations it says, “Let both of them grow” but in Greek the word is APHETE and its the same word for forgiveness. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer we say every week. APHES us our trespasses as we APHEMEN those who trespass against us.
It is here, in the light of the farmer’s strange and divine forgiveness that the parable truly hits home: the malice, the evil, the badness that is manifest in the real world and in the real lives of real people is not to be dealt with by abolishing the things or persons in whom it dwells.
It can only be dealt with, with forgiveness – a recognition that even the best of us aren’t as great as we think we are.
But what if people keep screwing things up?
What is the enemy comes back the next year and sows even more weeds among the wheat?
Well, at least according to the farmer in Jesus’ parable, the enemy is free to come back and drop his weeds. And, on the basis of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God has announced the exact same thing.
No enemy, not the devil, not you, not me, and not anybody else, is outside the realm of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
If that sounds unbelievably radical, it is!
But remember, Jesus on the cross, in the moments immediately prior to his death, he doesn’t threaten his enemies, he forgives them.
APHES one more time.
That might not sit well with those of us suffering under the weight of the world, or those of us troubled by what we see on TV every night, but according to the mystery that is God’s kingdom, it is already here, sown, sprouting, and bearing fruit. And all the weeds of this world can’t do a thing about it.
We are hooked, downright addicted, to assuming that its all up to us. Give us just a small taste of the power that comes with making decisions about what is good and right and true and we’ll never be able to kick the habit. We delight in believing that we are the ones who get to settle scores here and now and yet, in the end, none of us could possibly make it in Jesus’ kingdom unless forgiveness reigns supreme.
Forgiveness, APHES, it’s no way to run a farm, but it’s the only way to run the kingdom. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matthew Husband about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 22.1-14, Psalm 13, Romans 6.12-23, Matthew 10.40-42). Matthew is an occupational therapist in Westerville, Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including canonical preaching, the Bible on a bumper sticker, sacrifices, foolish prayers, obedience to grace, singing the faith, baptismal protests, and memorable zingers. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Church Isn’t Full Of Hypocrites (There’s Always Room For More)
He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Look, the Bible is a strange thing.
And God is even stranger.
For, if you ever decide to lift it up and take a stroll through the strange new world of the Bible, its quickly clear that God does so many ungodly things – like not remembering our mistakes and transgressions, erasing the ledger against us, become sin for us.
The only safe way to come to scripture is by first realizing that we really have no idea what we’re doing.
Which is just another way of saying, God is God and we are not.
And this is perhaps no where better seen than in Jesus’ parables.
They are, without a doubt, some of the most well known bits of the Bible, though just because we know the stories it doesn’t mean we actually know them.
After all, they are told in such a way to destroy every preconceived notion about what we think we know about God such that, after hearing a particular parables, the only thing we can be sure of is that we know less than when it started.
Jesus is far more concerned with telling stories than explaining them.
GK Chesterton, country to how we so desperately want all things explained all the time, once opined that if you tell someone a story and they claim not to understand, tell them again. And, if they say they still don’t understand, give it to them a third time. But from there on, if they still insist they do not understand, the only thing left is to praise them for the one truth they seem to have a grip on: “Yes,” you say, “You are quite correct – you do not understand.”
And leave it at that.
If Jesus wanted things simple, and easy, and therefore accessibly presentable, he would’ve told his tales that way.
But he didn’t.
And not only did he come to preaching paradoxical parables, the gospel writer tell us that he endeavor to speak nothing except in parables!
This Kingdom of Jesus’, whatever think it might look like, is always far more mysterious than any of us can imagine.
Listen: When you buy a new lamp for your living room, do you hide it under the rug or leave it in the closet? Or, do you put it on that nice table next to the couch so it really lights up the room? Hidden things are brought to the surface and secrets are exposed.
Listen: The Kingdom of God is as if someone threw seeds onto the ground and then went to bed. Overnight, the seed produces of itself, and the person has no idea how it happens.
What in the world is Jesus cooking up here?
The lamp, the light that shines in the darkness, the Good News in a world drowning in bad news, is the Word that comes with the kingdom, namely Jesus. But unless that lamp is set up in such a way to spread light near and far, the light will never be seen.
Or, to push the parable in its profound direction, if we keep sweeping Jesus under the rug, if we hide him in the closet when no one is looking, if we stand Him on anything other that the story of a world turned upside down, then we really will be stuck in the darkness.
For, the kingdom Jesus embodies, inaugurates, and incarnates, is already here among us. We don’t have to sit around and wait for it, we don’t even have to work for it.
The best thing we can do, really the only thing we can do, is not make Jesus’ job any harder than it already is.
But, for some strange reason (lets call it sin), we believe its our job to do Jesus’ job.
I am bringing you today’s sermon from the midwest where my in-laws live. In fact, I am preaching from my mother-in-law’s art studio.
It took us a long time to drive our here, particularly with a four year old who wouldn’t stop asking the one question you’re not allowed to ask on road trips. And throughout our westward journey, I was confounded by how many theologically infused highway billboards coasted by our windshield.
Some were straight forward with promises of “A Friendly Church Atmosphere” 7 miles ahead at Exit 86.
Others displayed stock photo images of families with children of every ethnic and racial background under a church name just so the observers will know that no matter what they might be like, they can find other people like them at said church. Even though, statistically speaking, churches are some of the most segregated spaces in the country.
But the overwhelming majority of billboards were, to put it mildly, terrifying.
“STOP AND ACCEPT JESUS NOW OR SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES”
“DO YOU WANT TO BURN FOREVER? CALL THIS NUMBER…”
“AVOID ETERNAL PUNISHMENT WITH THREE SIMPLE WORDS: JESUS IS LORD.” That one was followed by three smiley face emojis.
Almost every churchy sign, with the exception of those with empty promises about welcoming, loving, and tolerating congregations, were predicated on making an action now to insure the future.
That future is what we in the church often call Heaven. And, to our wondering and wandering imaginations, Heaven is often filled with fluffy clouds and pipe cleaner halos, and a whole lot of boredom.
But in Scripture, the thing those signs portend to represent, Heaven is actually a whole lot more like earth. In fact, it is those two things wedded together – the predominant image Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of Heaven is a wedding feast that never stops, a party with food and drink that never ever ends.
And that kingdom, the kingdom of celebration, is what Jesus says is sown on the earth, lit like a lamp, and never to be hidden under a basket, or a rug, or in the closet.
Which is just another way of saying, Christianity is less about what happens when you die and more about what’s happening with and in the life you’ve been given.
The kingdom is already done, it is here, it cannot be taken away. It is a lamp set up on a lampstand shining bright for all to see. It dwells in us, among us, and for us. The person of Jesus Christ, kingdom incarnate, has already done for us that which we could not do for ourselves. That is the light in which we live.
And rather than just leaving it right there, Jesus continues with his penchant for parables and proceeds to give yet another illustration of the very points he’s been cooking together.
Consider the seed that grows without work on the part of the one who threw it to the ground. The kingdom is at hand, planted right here, at work in this world right now. Jesus is sown into all of this and brings about a new reality that shakes the foundations of everything we hold dear.
By his death and resurrection, Jesus, as God in the flesh, reconciles everything, everywhere, to himself. And at the end, when he makes all things new, he makes not just a new Heaven but a new earth, combined and mixed and stuck together forever.
That is God’s work in Christ, and it happens for us and in spite of us!
Notice: once the person in the parable sows the seed, nothing else is done. The sower goes to bed, wakes up and goes to the grocery store, maybe hits the gym for a quick workout, comes home to make dinner, and goes to bed again. That’s what happens day after day and night after night — all the while, the seed that is the kingdom sprouts and grows in a way that the person simply knows nothing about.
Jesus says the seed bears fruit of itself automatically. The kingdom has been sown into the world among sinners and saints, the best and the worst, the greatest and the least, the perfect and the pitiful, and it will come up a perfect kingdom all by itself.
It grows without any help, and when it’s ready in all of its ripeness, that’s when the sickle comes.
The harvest is made.
And, that sounds nice, but what about all the bad people? Do they get taken up in the harvest as well? What about the person who burned that bridge with us so long ago? What about the people on the news every night that make us clench our fists? What about those we clearly believe are outside the realm of Jesus’ kingdom?
But Jesus doesn’t make distinctions here. The kingdom is ready for harvest and that’s that.
And that might be the most confounding part of this paradoxical set of parables.
It is confounding to us because every one of us is an eschatology junkie – we are consumed by the idea that, in the end, in the eschaton, wrongs must be set right, that those who are evil must be kicked out of the intertwined new heaven and earth, and that the only way the Kingdom can ever come is if we separate the good from the bad, and the deserving form the undeserving, and the saints from the sinners.
Notice, in the kingdoms of earth, our favorite solutions to problems are knocking people down a peg or two, locking them up behind bars, and – if all else fails, getting them out of the game forever with the death penalty.
We set up systems (powers and principalities) all in the name of law and order, but in the end they keep the poor poor and the rich rich. They lift the mighty even higher, and bring the low even lower. They, to put it simply, make the world a better place by making it better for certain people and far worse for everyone else.
Remember: it was law and order that nailed Jesus to the cross – church and state working together for the common good to keep suppressed that which they disagreed with.
Which, isn’t too far of a stretch from how we’re still living.
To bring it full circle – we think its all up to us. We believe we have been so elected by God to be the great arbiters of morality and justice and goodness all while the world continues to go down the drain. We come up with all these “great ideas” on how to fix everything when, even if we do take a step forward, it doesn’t take long before we fall tumbling back.
The kingdom grows, Jesus tells us, because the kingdom has already been sown into the ground. It grows of itself in its own time and, above all, we don’t know how! Any and all the bright ideas we might have of making the world a better place, about how to fix everything we think is broken, how to make people more holy and faithful and good and honest and true, will always and everywhere fall short of what God in Christ has already done and is forever doing.
This has been proven again and again throughout history because if the kingdom could have been made to grow perfectly in this world by our own bright ideas, it would have sprouted up all over the place and there would never be anything bad on the news at night.
But it never did and it never will.
Except, except, in a mysterious way that will always be outside of our moralizing and addiction to knowing how everything should be happening.
We might be obsessed with the end as we see it, but Jesus, in this parable, reminds us that the end is in his hands, and so too is the present. The kingdom is already here, it is made manifest among and within people like us – it is happening and we know not how.
For a people hell bent on having explanations for everything, that’s bad news.
But for those who live in Jesus’ kingdom, there’s nothing better. Amen.