This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 28.10-19a, Psalm 139.1-12, 23-24, Romans 8.12-25, Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Zoom meetings on the Peloton, dreaming dreams, timelessness, (un)holy spaces, God’s choices, birth pangs, losing control, doom-scrolling, parable preaching, and making the world a better place. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Knows Your Internet Search History
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parables of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 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!
Contrary to how we often talk about, or even display, Jesus – He was pretty feisty.
Sure, he sat with the crowds and multiplied the loaves and fishes – He calmed the storm while the disciples cowered in fear – He cured the sick, elevated the marginalized, and sought out the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
But that doesn’t negate how contentious he was.
The Gospels paint a picture of the Messiah man such that we can see how he was eventually done in by the hostility that surrounded him.
It’s all good and well that you fed the crowds Jesus, but why didn’t you rain down manna from heaven for the rest of us?
Thanks for calming the storm out on the sea Jesus, but what about all the other hurricanes and typhoons?
I’m all for making the last first Jesus, but if I’m in a position of power right now you’re not going to take it away from me, are you?
It’s amazing to take a step back from the strange new world of the Bible every once in a while to think about how enthusiastic the crowds were for Jesus. Free meals not withstanding. The parables, what we’ve been focusing on here for the last few weeks, they’re downright confounding, they’re anything but clear, and they don’t paint the prettiest picture of the Kingdom.
And, apparently, this wasn’t anything new, at least according to the Lord.
Matthew tells us here that Jesus spoke in parables, and without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables and I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
This is how the Lord works, in mysterious, confusing, and scratch-your-head kind of ways. With stories about a sower scattering seeds, a Father who throws a party for his wayward son, and a field with weeds and wheat.
All of the parables, whether they’re parables of grace or judgment, they all point to God’s strange proclamation that the kingdom is already here, existing under the banners of judgement and grace. It’s not something off in the distant future that we have to wait for or work for. Rather, it’s among us in this present moment, and has been with us, mysteriously, since the foundation of the world.
Of course, the mystery of the kingdom throughout history is the whole point. For, since those days back in the Garden with Adam and Eve, the kingdom has been hidden and only signs of it have broken through (the people Israel, Jesus, the Church, etc.). But it has only been hidden, not absent.
It is not, “yet to come.”
It is already here in strange and mysterious ways.
Which leads us, bewilderingly enough, back to the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat.
A brief refresher: A man plants good seeds in his field. But one night, while everyone’s dreaming of sugarplums, an enemy comes and plants weeds among the wheat. When the plants start to grow the servants of the man notice the weeds and ask if they should remove them. But the man says, “Nope, if you take out the weeds you’ll only ruin the wheat. Just wait for the harvest and we’ll get it all sorted out.”
That didn’t sit well enough with the disciples, and perhaps even with some of us today, so only after leaving the crowds and retiring to the house do the disciples pick up the previous, and unending, line of inquiry. “Lord,” they say, “You’ve got some explaining to do. Tell us what the parable of the Weeds really means…”
“Fine,” Jesus seems to say. “The story I told wasn’t good enough for you eh? Well how about I explain every little part so it loses its excitement and you all can rest easy. But I should warn you, the more you know, the more you know. And you might not like what you come to know.”
“Okay,” Jesus begins, “Check this out: I’m the guy sowing all the good seeds. The field is the whole cosmos, and the good seeds are the people of the kingdom. But the weeds, they are from the evil one, and the evil one is, well, evil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. I will send out the angels, and they will collect out of the kingdom all the stumbling blocks and all the indwellers with sin, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire! Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom. Did you get all of that? Are you happy with the explanation O disciples of mine?”
Are we happy with it?
Maybe we are. We’re pretty decent people after all. Heck, we’re watching a worship service online for God’s sake. We’re not terribly worried about being considered among the weeds. And, frankly, we know so disreputable types who might deserve the furnace.
Or maybe, this doesn’t sit too well with us. We know, in our heart of hearts, that we’re not as good as other people think we are and that, if we were to identify ourselves in the parable, we have more in common with the weeds than the wheat. Does that mean Jesus is going to send the angels to toss us into the fiery abyss?
It’s notable that, having listened to the Lord wax lyrical for an afternoon about sowers, wheat fields, mustard seeds, and yeast, the disciples gather in the house with Jesus and they demand to have the “parable of the weeds” explained to them.
Of all they heard, that’s what they wanted unpacked. And even the way they frame the inquiry, they have managed to turn the parable into something else. No mention of the divine farmer who delights in letting things grow together, no questions about where the farmer sows the wheat, they don’t even ask about the servants and their response to the growing field.
All they heard was a story about weeds.
Jesus delighted in giving those disciples a tale about the confounding relationship between good and evil from the vantage point of the Lord, but all they received was a pigeon-holed story about evil, and only evil.
Perhaps we should give the disciples some credit. Rather than slinking down in their seats pretending to know exactly what was going on, they had the gall to raise their hands with an, “Excuse me Jesus, I don’t get it.”
I like to imagine that when questioned about his parabolic utterances, Jesus responded first to the disciples by saying, “Yep, you really don’t get it.”
But that’s not in scripture.
What is in scripture, on the other hand, is Jesus’ apparent willingness to unpack all that he had laid before them, one detail after another.
Even today, we struggle like those disciples. We don’t understand the church’s relationship to the world, we don’t understand the complex dance between good and evil, we don’t understand what it means to be the wheat anymore than what it means to be the weeds. And if, and that’s a big if, we ever do start to see behind the curtain, if things start to fall into place, it’s a journey toward understanding and never an end in itself.
But it is a tremendous gift to be part of that journey. For, the parables of the kingdom make it rather clear that heaven is not “up there somewhere” but rather it is a kingdom that creates time and takes up space here and now. Jesus speaks through these strange and wild and wonderful stories so that we, those who receive them, might be for the world the reality of the kingdom.
Sometimes we forget that in Jesus we get to see and hear what countless people had longed to see and hear.
The Lord made flesh, dwelling among us, telling stories about what reality really looks like.
And yet, the reality of Jesus’ explanation still hangs before us, a dreaded fiery catastrophe for those whom the harvesters gather together.
“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire,” Jesus says, “so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all stumbling blocks and doers of iniquity.”
And that is what God will do. The New Jerusalem, the Supper of the Lamb, would be pretty weak if the Lord allowed such stumbling blocks to remain. Evil will be dealt with. It will be vanquished forever and ever.
The disciples, like us, can’t help but assume that’s their job right here and right now. “Forget letting the angels divide up the weeds in the wheat Jesus! We can start right now! Give us a list of all the unforgivable sins and we’ll sort everyone out for you!”
And, as I’ve said before, we’ve done that kind of work since since the beginning of time an we’re still doing it today. We are quick to find a sin, whatever sin we want, and hold it over one another as the sign of someone’s outside-ness to our inside-ness. We fight to have the Ten Commandments hung in court houses, we keep locking people up for every crime under the sun, we keep putting people on death row, and what have we got to show for it?
When are we finally going to make the world a better place?
Jesus says, in his explanation of the parable, this work doesn’t belong to us. It’s up to him. And for that we should be remarkably thankful. Because not a one of us would cut it as a wheat in the kingdom of heaven. “No one is righteous, no not one,” to steal an expression of Paul’s. There is only one who has lived a life without sin, and he became sin in order that we might be freed from it. He went ahead and nailed every last one of our sins to the cross, past, present, and future. He forgave us from the cross for the worst sin of them all, for trying to kill God.
We, whether we like to admit it or not, are in the weeds – we deserve the furnace.
I know that sounds a little too fire and brimstone for those of us who are Methodists. After all, we believe we have open hearts, minds, and doors even if everything about our lives scream the contrary.
But we can’t ignore Jesus’ explanation. I mean, we asked for it.
And the angels will throw them into the furnace of fire. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
The furnace of fire. That quite an image that Jesus chose. Interestingly, furnace is not a word that occurs in scripture all that much. In fact, it’s rather rare. Jesus uses it here, and he will use it again seven verses from now, and it also shows up, unsurprisingly, in the Book of Revelation.
But there’s one other, very notable, use of the word furnace in the Bible. It happens in Daniel chapter 3.
Let take a very abbreviated trip into the Old Testament for a moment – The people Israel are living in exile in Babylon having been taken from the Promised Land. King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians catches word that three men (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are refusing to worship the gods of Babylon and the king orders them to be thrown into the furnace of fire. Where, miracles of miracles, nothing happens to them.
Moreover, when Nebuchadnezzar looks inside he see another mysterious figure with the three men. The King orders them to be removed from the fiery furnace and he blesses the God of the men he had previous condemned to death.
They are delivered from the fiery furnace and they stand as the righteous in a land of iniquity. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture them glowing from their fiery ordeal standing as a testament to the power of the Lord for salvation.
Jesus says that the weeds will be tossed into the furnace of fire and then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of the Lord.
In the end, the Kingdom will be populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. That is, all of us. Hell, whatever it may be, exists only as a courtesy for those who don’t want any part of forgiveness. The fire of refining that comes at the end of the age will burn away all the stumbling blocks to the kingdom, it will burn away all iniquity, and the only thing left will be forgiven sinners. Nothing more, less, or else.
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.
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.
Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.
Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone.
And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”
The whole parable.
The disciples, rightly confused, confront the living Lord with a, “Um, JC, what’s going on?”
He then drops the hammer with, “Listen to me for a hot second you fools. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”
Which apparently wasn’t enough for the ragtag group of followers, so Jesus unpacks the parable of the Sower for his inner circle.
If anyone hears the Word, and doesn’t understand, the devil comes and snatches it up – this is what was sown on the path.
If anyone receives it with joy, but without roots, then it only lasts a little while and then they fall away.
If anyone hears it, but cares more about the world, then they will yield nothing.
If anyone hears it and trusts it, then they will produce a great yield of fruit.
Jesus’ explanation, as we often describe it, actually doesn’t reduce a complex story into something simple. Instead, it takes an already puzzling narrative and drives it in the direction of extremely difficult interpretations.
It’s one of those parables we preachers types might prefer if Jesus had just left it to dangle out there so we could put whatever spin we want on it.
But that’s not the way Jesus rolls.
More often that not, even though Jesus explains the parable we’re asked by people like me to imagine that Jesus is the divine sower, the seeds are his scriptures, and that we are those with the varying soils.
And maybe that’s true, Jesus’ own explanation trends in that direction, but it honestly doesn’t make much sense. After all, throughout the New Testament, the “Word of the Kingdom” doesn’t refer to a collection of texts that are often collecting dust on our respective bookshelves. The Word of the Kingdom is Jesus himself, the divine Word become incarnate in the world.
That might not seem like much, but it means that the Sower in Jesus’ story is God the Father. Jesus, then, since he is the Word, is the seed sown across creation. Which, in the end, means Jesus has already and literally been sown everywhere in the entirety of the cosmos without any cooperation or consent on the part of the soil.
Do we like that?
When we well-meaning Christians read from Jesus’ parables, we tend to read ourselves into the stories and believe their ultimately all about us.
But the parables aren’t about us, they’re about Jesus and the kingdom he came and comes to inaugurate.
And this kingdom is radically different from everything we think we know.
It’s a kingdom of grace – a kingdom of crucifixion, of scandal, of upside down understanding.
The central figure of the parables, if there is one at all, is the messianic madman who is the divine seed of forgiveness given away like its going out of style and who never stops going after the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.
Jesus points to and is himself the mysterious kingdom, who comes to tell scandalous stories, die a scandalous death, and be raised again to fill all with his scandalous grace.
But, back to the Sower.
The Sower goes and scatters seeds everywhere, always, and for all.
No one, at any time or any place, no matter how good they are or bad they are, no matter how wrong or right they are, is left out of the scope of this agriculturally theological revolution. The differing soils are just that, different. They cover all people and there is no one to whom they do not apply.
And that’s scandalous.
Immediately we think something must surely be wrong here. Because, Jesus can’t really be for all, despite what all of our well-meaning church signs might say.
What about bad people?
What about people who don’t believe?
What about the people who just get on our nerves all the time?
Are we sure that we want to follow this Jesus guy who is so willing to give away the kingdom for nothing?
Right here, in his waxing lyrical, Jesus doesn’t sound quite like the smart and serious teacher setting the guidelines for his followers that we often imagine him to be.
Instead, Jesus sounds like someone who knows he just said something offensive and is determined to drive the point home again and again and again.
Even so, the Sower is also very mysterious. I mean, who does he think he is going around tossing seeds everywhere? Don’t we go to church to learn about how to be good, how to have the right kind of soil for Jesus?
Consider a seed – a seed is disproportionately tiny in comparison with it ultimately produces. Jesus is like a seed? Wouldn’t it be better if Jesus were like a thunderclap or a bolt of lightning?
A seed is only good and it can only do anything worth anything when its buried in the ground hidden from view.
Like Jesus buried in the tomb.
It’s only after its covered with dirt, only after its abandoned to its own fate, that the seed bears fruit.
Remember: Jesus as the seeded Word, is despised, rejected, abandoned, betrayed, and left in the ground. And yet, his entire overturning of the cosmos takes place like a seed – it happens in the dark, like a mystery, something that no one gets to witness.
And maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all good and fine, but what does it have to do with me? What about my soil? What am I supposed to do?”
Well, sorry to be the bearer of the best news of all, we don’t have to do much of anything.
Regardless of whatever kind of soil we might have, or we think we have, God is going to get what God wants.
Think about the seeds sown on the road, the seeds eaten by the birds. That sounds pretty terrible right? Jesus even says that the birds are like the devil coming in and snatching up the divine Word.
But do you know what happens when seeds get eaten by birds?
They’re deposited somewhere else, only this time with fertilizer, if you get what I’m saying.
The Word, like a seed, still works on its own terms and not at all by what we think we can do to it.
Think about the seeds sown in the other locations like the rocky ground, the thorns, or even the good soil – the seed does it’s job – it springs up!
The seed works whether or not it lands on the good soil.
We, however, almost always lean toward another, though not in the text, meaning. “Sure,” we say, “The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world.” But then we immediately jump into conversations about all the things people need to do to activate Jesus in their lives.
You’ve got to accept him as your Lord and Savior!
You’ve got to lays your sins up at the altar!
You’ve got to invite Jesus into your heart!
If that’s how it all works, if the onus is completely on us, then it’s simply unmitigated Bad News.
If our salvation is up to us, then the seed might as well not really have been sown in the first place.
Because, in the end, we can’t do much of anything to our soil – whatever form it might be.
Every week I stand in this place and I talk about how God gathers us together, how God proclaims God’s Word to us, and then we respond to it. The truth behind all that is our response, if it ever amounts to anything, pales in comparison to what God did, what God does, and what God will do.
And that’s the best news of all.
It’s Good News, really Good News, because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves can take us away from the Lord that refuses to let us go.
We can, of course, squirm and kick and complain and make things all the more messy. But if God really is the God of Scripture, the great divine Sower, then there is no way we will ever find ourselves anywhere other than being reconciled and forgiven over and over and over again.
Think about it – even the good soil, the best soil with all the right nutrients, does nothing to the seed for it to bear fruit. The soil simply receives the Word called Jesus, trusts it, and then fruit comes from it. It’s not that the good soil has the responsibility to make the right choices or the proper proclamations or maintain moral purity, rather the only thing the good soil has to do is make sure it gets out of the way of the seed doing its seed thing.
Or, to put it another way, we do respond to the good work done for us and to us and in us, but our only real response is to not screw it up, to not make Jesus’ job harder than it already is.
The seed is sown regardless of the soil it lands on. Which means the seed is not sown in order to force us into making better choices, or to punish us for all our bad choices. The seed is sown simply and yet powerfully to bear fruit among us, within us, for us, and often in spite of us.
In the end, the seed that is Christ is sown to bring us home, back to the Sower’s house, to be part of the grain that becomes the bread of life at the Supper of the Lamb.
Jesus gets what Jesus wants.
The only problem occurs when we get in his way.
And we sure love to get in His way.
Take, for instance, all the social media posts I’ve seen over the last few weeks, lambasting Christians for posting about “Black Lives Matter.” I had more than a few people assure me that the only proper and faithful and Christian response to the present (and longstanding) crisis is to affirm “All Lives Matter.”
But that’s, literally, getting in the way of Jesus.
You know, the Good Shepherd who, in another parable, leaves behind ALL the other sheep in order to go off after the one in danger, the one in need.
Or, consider all the countless pictures of white Jesus that are put up in homes and in sanctuaries. Those images that make white people like me feel comfortable knowing that my Savior is just like me.
That’s getting in the way of Jesus.
Jesus was a first century carpenter turned rabbi who spent his entire earthly life living in the Middle East! He didn’t look like me in the least.
Or, finally, think about all the people lamenting the riots and the protests for not witnessing to the practice of Christian non-violence. The whole, “Why can’t we all just get along?” And “This isn’t what Jesus would’ve wanted.”
Well, do you remember what happened to Jesus? He was nailed to a tree for the things he said, for rioting inside the temple and flipping tables over, and showing up for the people we otherwise would ignore.
We are blessed because Jesus continues to be sown all over creation, bearing fruit we couldn’t on our own.
We are blessed because Jesus won’t give up on us even when everything seems like he should.
We are blessed because, no matter what our soil looks like, Jesus delights in making something of our nothing. Amen.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”
https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/835967350&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true Think and Let Think · Uncomfortable
Jesus wasn’t a very good storyteller.
Forgive me Lord, but it’s true.
Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end.
Stories are supposed to easily teach us something about ourselves we didn’t know until the story told us who we are.
Stories are supposed to be approachable, repeatable, and memorable.
Jesus’ stories, we call them parables, are certainly memorable – but not for the right reasons. Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus said nothing except in parables.
And, the more we enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more we realize that Jesus himself was a parable – the storyteller become the story.
We often forget, in the ivory towers of our own design, that Jesus was killed for telling the kind of stories he told. Most of them are wildly unfair, they raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty, they give the whole kingdom away for nothing, and mostly, they make us uncomfortable.
If he were a better story teller, the stories would’ve made a little more sense, people would’ve walked away knowing exactly what he was trying to say, and certainly no one would’ve killed him for them.
But they did.
Most sermons, not stories, do their best to explain something. They take a particular text, wave it around for awhile, and then in the end declare, “Hear now the meaning of the scripture… this is how you can apply it to you daily life…”
But Jesus, you know the Lord, rarely explains anything.
Instead, he tells stories.
That Jesus speaks in parables is a reminder that he desired not to explain things to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings.
In other words, Jesus’ parables are designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of the listeners.
Up until this point in the gospel story, that is, up until he tells the watershed parable of the sower, Jesus has been pretty content with walking and talking and healing and doing whatever went against the grain of what people were expecting. They had their own ideas about what the Messiah would do, and Jesus didn’t give a flip about what they were hoping for.
And it was pretty low key until this parable, because from this point forward, Jesus cranks it up to eleven.
It’s as if, having done the whole ministry thing for awhile, he says to himself, “They haven’t understood much of this kingdom stuff, so I might as well capitalize on it. Maybe I should starting thinking up particular examples of how profoundly the true messianic kingdom differs from what the people are looking for.”
Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone. And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”
The whole parable.
Just about every sermon I’ve ever read or heard on the parable of the sower retells the story, as I just did, and then asks people to consider what kind of soil they think they have. Which implies the preacher believes he or she knows exactly what Jesus is up to with this one. Moreover, they make it out as if, had they been there, they would’ve known what it all really means.
The truth of the matter, however, is that if any of us had been part of the original Jesus crew, we would’ve walked away scratching our heads.
It’s no wonder, then, that the disciples’ reactions was one of, “Um.. JC, are you alright? You’re talking in parables again, and we can’t understand what you’re trying to say, and frankly, some of us are getting a little uncomfortable?”
“Hey,” Jesus says, “Listen to me for a hot second. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”
And we, if we were those disciples, want to say, “Jesus. That don’t make no sense.”
His response about the hiddenness of the kingdom, about certain things being weird and uncomfortable, it’s like Jesus is saying, “Okay, if you can get it through your thick skulls that my kingdom works in a mystery, you will have more understanding. But if you don’t get that, if you can’t handle the weirdness and the discomfort and not knowing every little thing, then none of it will ever make a bean’s worth of sense.”
There’s a way to take all of this as if Jesus is telling us we better get shaped up with our understanding of God or he’s going to zap us into oblivion. Or, to use the language of the parables, we better get our soil in order lest we run the risk of the seeds get stolen, scorched, or suffocated.
We, then, could hold a story like this one over the heads of Christians and non-Christians alike until they shape up how we want them to.
We could even employ this parable as the means by which we determine who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside.
But, that’s not what Jesus does.
Jesus sees the obtuseness all around him.
He witness the unlikelihood that anyone will ever get a glimmer of the mystery, let a lone a grip on it.
Hence he ends here by saying, “Seeing, they do not perceive, and listening they do not understand.”
Now, I know some of you have looked ahead of the scripture reading and noted that Jesus then goes straight into explaining the parable, but we’ll get there next week.
For now, I want us to rest in the discomfort of not having all the answers, of seeing without perceiving and listening without understanding.
There’s a summer camp outside of Boston in which, every summer, students are bussed in to confront the complications of race.
On the first night, the students are asked to separate into their respective races to discuss how they have experienced their own race with others of similar situations.
The Latinx kids go into one room, the Black kids in other, there’s a room for the Asian kids, and finally one last room for the White kids.
For many of the students, the sharing on that first night is radically life-changing. For many of them, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to share what its like to be viewed by others through a racial lens, what’s its like to have a prejudice dictate who they are, what it’s like to not be like everyone else.
The counselors then bring all the students back into one group, and each of the races are given a chance to stand in front of everyone else and share their truth. One by one they lift up how horribly they’ve been treated, or what they really want people to know about them, or how much it hurts to hear certain slurs.
Last summer, there was only one white student who attended the camp. With each passing year, the truths spoken to White about the white-ness has resulted in less and less white people attending. But there was one young white woman there, and when she stood in front of the entire camp she said, “I want to continuously challenge white supremacy in white spaces, and that will be uncomfortable for me. But I want to be uncomfortable; I am willing to give up my comfort.”
Later, the black students stood and proclaimed their truth.
“Stop touching my hair just because you don’t know what it feels like.”
“We deserve to be paid the same as white people.”
“Just because you say you have black friends doesn’t mean you’re not racist.”
But there was one black girl on stage who couldn’t stop thinking about what the young white girl had said. And so, when it was her turn to speak she said, “When white people talk about what they’re ‘willing to give up’ it implies that they are fine sharing a little bit of what they have but they’re going to be fine. It’s not about what you’re willing to give up, it’s what you have to give up. You have to really be uncomfortable. You have to give up what you think belongs to you simply because of the way you look.”
The young white girl immediately started crying and left the room.
A counselor went after her, consoled her, explained that it can’t easy being the only white person in the room, and the girl looked up and said, “Yeah, but this is how people of color feel every day. I guess you really do learn the most when you’re uncomfortable.”
So much of what Christianity, what the church, has become is focused on making people comfortable; how to tell people about Jesus without ever stepping on any toes.
The fire of Pentecost, the one that sent the disciples tumbling into the streets can be found more in our national protests than in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.
Parables are supposed to make us uncomfortable. Whether our soil is rocky, thorny, or barren.
Hear the Good News: The Sower never stops sowing. The Sower doesn’t stop to take stock of the condition of our condition before offering the grace we so desperately need. The Sower just keeps throwing it all over the place until something comes of our nothing.
Remember: When Mary encountered Jesus at the empty tomb she mistook him for the gardener. And what do good gardeners do? They till the soil, they weed out the thorns, they remove the rocks, they do whatever it takes to make the best soil possible.
And that work is uncomfortable.
We, in spite of all our good works, have shut our eyes and closed our ears. We’ve settled for milk toast sermons and milk toast churches. We like hearing about the kingdom so long as it doesn’t require anything for us.
It’s like we’re wandering around deaf and blind.
Fortunately for us, Jesus likes nothing better than healing the blind and opening the ears of the deaf.
We disciples of Jesus may not be that brightest candles in the box, but at least we know a true story when we hear one.
In this story of a reckless Sower we are reminded, yet again, that God is not removed in some far off place content to leave us to our own devices. God’s kingdom is happening, it’s happening right now! Open your eyes! Open your ears!
And here’s the best news of all: Even if we refuse to see and hear, Jesus is gonna open our eyes and ears anyway.
And it’s probably going to be uncomfortable. Amen.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
That’s a long time.
Basically double my life.
It is a really remarkable thing that this church is celebrating its 60th anniversary. And yet, the entire Christian tradition is 2,000 years old. 60 out of 2,000 sounds a little less impressive.
However, to live, and survive, in a time such as this is truly worth celebrating. The last 60 years have been marked, much to our chagrin and disappointment, with the decline of the church in America.
But here we are!
And not only are we here, but we are celebrating our being here! We have much to celebrate – not just the anniversary of the church, but also the gospel being made manifest in a place like Woodbridge to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Seeing as its the church’s anniversary, we can’t really know who we are without knowing where we’ve been.
Cokesbury began in that strange and picturesque time we call the 50’s. In the 50’s everything felt right – we were on the other side of the greatest war ever waged on the earth, and we won. Hawaii and Alaska were added to the union. The Barbie Doll was first introduced.
A gallon of gas only cost 25 cents!
We are inherently a nostalgic people and it is very easy to look back and remember what we might call good. We can turn on an old movie, or remember a particular politician, or even a fashion trend from the past and think fondly of each of them.
However, the 50’s, for whatever good they might’ve introduced, there was an equal number, if not more, of what we could certainly call the bad.
In the late 50’s the first Americans were killed in Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement was spreading across the country and black churches were being regularly bombed on Sunday mornings. And the scapegoat of Communism was causing us to ostracize and at times imprison some of our own citizens.
I once heard someone describe the fifties as a time when everything was black and white and everyone knew right from wrong. And yet, if you just look at a list of major events that took place the year this church started it feels more like a time of gray, when everything was confused.
60 years ago a handful of people from our community started meeting and called themselves Cokesbury Church. To those individuals, the time was ripe for the gospel and the sharing of the Good News, so they did.
But then something changed. It’s not possible to pinpoint exactly what happened, but we all know that we live in a very different world than the world of 1959. In 1959 everyone assumed that you would grow up, get married, have 2.5 children, pay your taxes, and go to church. Business were closed on Sundays because everyone had a church to go to and it was a major moment of the week for all sorts of communities.
That world is long gone.
Which leads us to the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.
I know this seems a strange text to be read and preached upon as we celebrate 50 years as a church, and I will plainly admit that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea, but we might as well listen to what God has to say to us today, even as we celebrate.
The parable ends rather disconcertingly: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Which seems like I should stand in a place like this and tell people like you to be more humble. But this parable isn’t really about humility at all. If anything, it’s about our futility. It’s about the foolish notion that we can do anything to get ourselves right with God.
Listen: There’s a man who is good and faithful. He’s not a crook, or a womanizer, or an alcoholic. He loves his wife and plays on the floor with his kids when he gets home from work. He evens tithes when the offering plate comes around. He is exactly unlike the tax collector.
The tax collector is a legal crook who steals from his fellow people and bleeds all the money out of them that he possibly can. He’s like a mid-level mafia boss who skims from the top before sending the money up the chain. He’s got enough cars and boats that he can never drive all of them.
They both show up for worship. The good faithful man thanks God that he’s not like the tax-collector and the tax collector asks for God to have mercy on him, a sinner.
And Jesus presents these two men as the means by which God’s grace is communicated in a completely unfair way because it’s the tax collector who gives home justified.
Let’s think about it this way: Which of the two men would we like to have sitting next to us in the pews on Sunday morning? What would we do if the tax collector was here in our midst? How would we respond if he took a little money out of the offering plate and showed up with a new woman every Sunday?
It’s all wrong, right?
This parable is one of Jesus’ final declarations about the business of grace. Grace – the totally unmerited and undeserved gift from God. And here, with resounding convictions, Jesus tells the disciples for the thousandth time that the whole game is unfair.
Grace is completely unfair because what we think is good and right and true matters little to God. Ultimately, not one of us matches up to the goodness of God and instead of kicking us out of the party for being unworthy, God says, “I will make you worthy.”
Do you see what that means? It means that the good religious work of the Pharisee is not able to justify him any more than the crazy sins of the tax collector can kick him out. The whole point of this parable, of almost all the parables, is that these two are both dead in the eyes of God, their good deeds and their sins can’t earn them or prevent them from salvation – they have no hope in the world unless there is someone who can raise the dead.
And even here knowing the condition of their condition, which is also ours, even in the midst of celebrating 60 years as a worshipping community, perhaps we understand what Jesus’ is saying in our minds but our hearts are desperate to believe the opposite.
We might not like to admit it, but we all establish our identities by seeing how we look through other people’s eyes. We spend our days fixing our words and our looks in front of the mirror’s of other people’s opinions so that we will never have to think about the nightmare of being who we really are.
And that’s where this parables stings the hardest. This parable, more than most, is so resoundingly unfair that we can’t bring ourselves to admit the truth: We’re not good enough.
And we fear the tax collector’s acceptance not because it means we need to accept those derelicts around us, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. We fear his acceptance because it means that none of us will ever really be free until we stop trying to save ourselves and justify ourselves all the time. And that’s all we do all the time!
We do it in ways both big and small. We purchase things we shouldn’t all with the hope that those thing will bring us more approval in the eyes of the people we want approval from the most.
We posture bits of morality and ethics and even politics with some vague hope that it will put us in better standing with God.
And as long as we struggle, like the Pharisee, to do everything perfectly perfect all the time, we will resent the unfairness of God to all of our struggling.
God is unfair – It’s true.
But God’s unfairness is Good News. For if God were really fair, fair according to the terms set by the world, then God would’ve closed to the door to the party a long long time ago.
Which leads us back to what we are celebrating today. No matter who we identify with in the story – the good religious liar or the honest tax collector – there is a really strong temptation to thank God that we are not like other people. We pass someone on the street or we see the name on a particular bumper sticker on someone’s car or we read someone’s facebook status and we measure our lives against theirs and we come out on the other side grateful. It’s even present in an anniversary like this, because isn’t surviving in the current marketplace of ideas a subtle form of thanking God we’re not like everyone else?
Christians, at least in the last few decades, have tried to avoid being seen as different from other people. We have done so out of fear of seeming too strange, or too fundamentalist, or too evangelical. We’ve been content with letting our faith become privatized and something we do on Sundays. But because we have tried so hard to not seem different, it has been unclear why anyone would want to be like us, much less join a church that started in 1959.
Or, to make things worse, we’ve established a Christian identity such that only perfect people can be present in the pews.
It’s no wonder people don’t want to come to church.
The truth of the matter is that being Christian means being different. But unlike how we so often present this in worship or in the greater cultural ethos, it doesn’t mean being like the good religious man, it means admitting that we are all like the tax collector.
You see, following Jesus means admitting the condition of our condition – its falling to the floor Sunday after Sunday with the same confession on our lips, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And it’s knowing that before we can even bring those words to our lips God has forgiven every last one of our sins through the cross of his Son.
That’s what makes us different. Not being able to keep a religious roof over our heads for 60 years, but 60 years of rediscovering week after week how good the Good News really is. It’s why we come to this table over and over again to be made one with the one whose humility on the cross turned out to be a victory that defeated sin and death.
In the bread and the cup we see how unfair God is. Because, if grace were fair, then none of us would be worthy to come to the table, whether we’re a publican or a pharisee. But thanks be to God that grace is unfair, making room for each and every single one of us. Amen.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
The courtroom was eerily silent as everyone waited for the judge to enter.
The jury had been through the wringer answering particular questions that would determine whether or not they were fit to serve.
The lawyers sat at their respective tables with their clients looking over all their prepared statements and pieces of evidence.
The stenographer even sat in raptured silence with her fingers hovering over the keys.
When the bailiff ordered the room to rise they responded accordingly as the judge, dressed in black, made his way to the highly raised chair at the front of the courtroom.
“What’s on the docket today?” He mumbled as everyone sat down again.
The clerk promptly carried over a stack of cases through which the judge began to scan, until he lifted his eyes above the rim of his glasses and looked at down at the plaintiff. She was sitting there in her Sunday best trying desperately to keep her smile as sincere as possible.
And then the judge blurted out, “Weren’t you in here last week?”
She unfolded the hands in her lap and very calmly replied, “Indeed I was, and I’m still looking for justice.”
And with that the judge ordered her out of the room so that he could get on with the real work of justice.
The next day each of the common characters went through their repetitive routines until the judge ascended to his perch and was bewildered again to see the same woman, in the same spot as she was the day before.
“Ma’am, how many times will I have to kick you out of my courtroom before you learn your lesson.”
“As long as it takes to get my justice, your honor.”
For weeks they went through this new pattern every morning, and eventually it started to wear on the judge. At first he relished in his commands to the bailiff to remove the woman by any means necessary. But every day she came back, looking a little worse than the day before.
He had no pity for her, he was still familiar with her case and he knew there was nothing to be done. And yet every night he lay awake in bed troubled by her bringing her troubles into his courtroom. The black robe felt heavier and heavier each time he put it on and he discovered that he was starting to develop an ulcer which he attributed to the woman.
But then one night, the judge came to himself and realized that if he just gave her what she wanted, she would stop bothering him and he could be done with the whole thing. So he gave her the justice she was hoping for.
Jesus says that’s what God is like. Not like the widow who persistently goes looking for justice. Not like the bailiff dutifully following orders. No even like the stenographer observing and recording every minute detail.
God is like the unjust judge.
So, I guess, it’s good to be bad?
Jesus, here, breaks a lot of common conventions, particularly when it comes to story telling or, dare I say, preaching. Jesus, unlike your esteemed pastor this morning, did not have the benefit of attending a highly regarded seminary in which he would’ve learned about the importance of using good examples of good people to show the goodness of God.
Instead, Jesus hands us this story in which God, as the unjust judge, is supposed to sound good.
I don’t envy the judge in the story, particularly when considering the fact that the judge ultimately takes on two subjects the rest of us find diametrically opposed to one another. The business of grace and the business of judgment.
This is a tough dance for the church to do no matter what the circumstances are.
We want to be able to hold these things at the same time when they seem to be completely opposed to one another – we want to be gracious toward all people but we also don’t want people getting away with everything under the sun – we want to tell people that God loves them no matter what but we also want to make sure they know there are certain behaviors that God, in fact, does not love.
And we know how the story is supposed to go. After all, the judge is in the business of the law and therefore should be just in his sentence. But in the end of Jesus’ tale, the judge breaks all the rules of his vocation and actually seems to put himself out of the judging business altogether.
The judge is bothered not by any normal character under the law, but specifically a widow. To our contemporary ears we can still imagine the plight of the widow in this circumstance, but in the time of Jesus to be a widow was to have no hope in the world whatsoever. For a woman to lose her husband was to become a complete and total loser – no social standing, no economic prosperity, no property period. And yet, this widow refuses to accept her deadness in life – she shows up at the courthouse looking for justice and the hope of discovering some kind of wealth in the midst of her total poverty.
She really is dead, at least according to the values of the world and she knows it. The widow knows, deep in her bones, that she has no hope in the world and knows that the judge will not give her the justice she wants, but she also has no other choice but to ask.
And, for reasons that appear suspect and strange to us, the judge decides to change his mind regarding the plight of the widow. We would hope that the judge would be moved by pity, or hope, or even faith, but Jesus plainly declares those things have nothing to do with it.
The judge changes his mind simply because it will make things more convenient for the judge. The judge is willing to be unjust just so he can have some peace of mind.
Jesus then continues by telling those with ears to hear to listen to the unjust judge!
Jesus is saying to us here, in ways both strange and captivating, that God is willing to be seen as bad, to let God’s justice be blind, for no other reason that the fact that it will get all of us off of his back.
Jesus spins the tale and we are left with the bewildering knowledge that God is content to fix all of our mess even while we’re stuck in our futile pursuits of moral, spiritual, financial, and all other forms of purity.
In other words: While we were still yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.
There are few sentences in scripture as unnerving and beautiful as that one. It’s beautiful because its true and it includes all of us. But it’s unnerving precisely because it includes all of us!
We might like to imagine that God is waiting around hoping to dispense a little bit of perfection like manna from heaven if we just offer the right prayer or rack up the right amount of good works.
But Jesus’ story about the unjust judge screams the contrary. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Do you think it makes the least difference to God whether or not you are right, or if your case is just? Truly I tell you, God isn’t looking for the right, or the good, or the true, or the beautiful. God is looking for the lost, and you are all lost whether you think you are lost or not.”
This is Good News because, like the parable of the lost sheep, God’s never going to give up on us. The problem that we don’t like to encounter is admitting that we are, in fact, lost.
Jesus jumps from the story to some sort of moral with the declaration that God delights in being merciful, whether we deserve it or not. And more than that, God will be merciful on God’s people soon.
This story is told as Golgotha and the cross get clearer and clearer on the horizon. This is God’s mercy made most manifest. Just like the unjust judge, God hung up the ledger-keeping forever while Jesus was hung up on the cross. The cross is God, as the judge, declaring a totally ridiculous verdict of forgiveness over a whole bunch of unrepentant losers like the widow, like me, and like you.
It is the stuff of wonder and awe that God chose to drop dead to give all of us a break. Like the widow’s verdict, God was tired of the world turning to self-righteous competitions and judgments thinking it would lead to perfection. And while watching the world tear itself apart, God destroyed God’s self rather than letting us destroy ourselves.
The cross is a sign to all of us and to the world that there is no angry judge waiting to dispense a guilty verdict on all who come into the courtroom – there is therefore no condemnation because there is no condemner.
God hung up the black robe and the gavel the day his son hung on the cross. No one but an unjust judge could have ruled in our favor when we don’t deserve it. No one but a crazy God like ours could have been merciful to throw a party and invite the very people that we wouldn’t.
And yet, the parable is not over. It ends with a lingering question from the lips of Jesus: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?
The implied answer, much to our disappointment and embarrassment, is no. This story prohibits us from believing that any of us is just enough for the judge. We struggle with faith. Not because we don’t know whether to believe God exists or not, but because we can’t believe that God would do for us what God did for us. Our faith trembles in the recognition that the us in that sentence is us.
We worship a crucified God, a God who wins by losing, and that’s a hard thing for us to have faith in because we are part of a world that refuses to let go of our insatiable desire to win all the time.
And this really is the heart of Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge.
The confounding nature of God’s work has made this whole parable series difficult for me, as I imagine it has been difficult for many of you. The parables are challenging because Jesus’ stories run counter to just about everything we’ve been told over and over again.
We call the Good News good, but more often than not we preach it and receive it as bad news.
I can stand up here week after week and tell you that God is angry with our behavior. I can proclaim that God is so good that none of us will ever have a chance of getting close to God. I can spend all of my time convincing all of us to get our acts together in order to appease God.
I can even command you to fill the offering plates to the brim enough to get all of us into heaven.
But the one thing I can’t do, the thing we almost never do, is tell the truth that God cares not one bit for our guilt, or our good deeds, or even our tithes. We can’t rejoice in the ridiculous Good News that God has gotten rid of all the oppressive godly requirements we think are part of our ticket out of death. We can’t talk about those things because it sounds too good or too crazy.
And here’s the truth: God is indeed crazy, and so are we.
God stays on the cross instead of coming down and punishing us until we behave properly.
God has already given us more than we could ever possibly earn or deserve.
And those two things are really unjust when you think about it.
They are unjust because God, our God, chooses to be blind to who we are.
There’s no better news than that. Amen.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his say. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them – it will be like that on they that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, anyone of the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lost it, but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” Then they asked him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
Jesus was doing his Jesus thing when yet another group of Pharisees showed up and started badgering him with questions. They were mystified by all the mysteries, non-plussed with all the parables, and they just couldn’t take it anymore.
“Enough is enough Jesus. When is all of this actually going to happen? And, for once, could you just give us a straight answer?”
“You and your friends all want one thing: a sign. You want some big demonstration that what I’ve been talking about is getting set into motion. You flock to Twitter and assume that with every new major scandal or devastation that it’s a sign of something greater happening. Yeah, I see what you all do on the Internet, I know you inner monologues of conspiracy theories – I’ve even eavesdropped on some of those mid-afternoon gossip sessions you’ve been having.
“But if you’ve been listening to anything I’ve been saying, the more you go looking for the kingdom somewhere else, the more you will miss it. Because the kingdom, my kingdom, as I’ve been trying to knock it into your brains, is already here. Seriously. It is among you, hell it’s even within you. Perhaps it’s best if I put it like this: It’s lost in you and only when you admit that you are lost as well will you actually start to see it.”
“C’mon Jesus, what in the world are you talking about? We don’t want some sort of mystical kingdom. We want you to overthrow the powerful and the wealthy. We thought you were going to take the throne and let us reign over the earth. How can your kingdom be among us when the world still feel like garbage – better yet, how can the kingdom be in me when I feel like garbage?”
“I know I know. You all can’t stand the stuff I’m bringing, but I’m bringing it anyway. I know all of you well enough to know that even my talking about it as clearly as I am right now won’t leave you feeling like its all settled.”
“You think you’re being clear right now? For God’s sake Jesus just tell us something true!”
“All of you will point to things as if I have some master trick up my sleeve, as if I’m working behind the curtains and pulling all of the strings. You will pick and choose the signs that match most with your own sensibilities, you’ll probably even lord them over other people and tell them that this was my work or that I have something to do with the craziness that’s going on in the world. And all of that squabbling and pontificating and gesturing will be for nothing because it will be a denial of everything I’ve already done for you.”
“I believe you Lord, I know you’re telling the truth.”
“Peter, such a good boy. Maybe you’re good with everything I’m saying, though when push comes to shove you’ll deny it, but I’m getting ahead of myself. No matter how all of you feel about this stuff, there will be others who point at the craziness. They’ll say that mass shootings are my way of getting you back to prayer. They’ll say that locking up immigrants is a sign of holy justice. They’ll point and point and point and say my name. For God’s sake, literally, don’t go running after all that nonsense and don’t you dare follow their examples. Those people haven’t a clue in the world.
“When I come in glory it won’t be in a particular place or through a particular people. When I show up in glory it’s going to be like lightning – all over the place and all at once showing the truth to everyone and everything.
“But before being blinded by my light, the Son of man will have to endure suffering and be rejected by those in power.”
“Of course you will Jesus, no one is going to buy anything you’re selling.”
“But don’t you see? I’m not selling anything – I’m giving it all away. It will be just like during the days of Noah. Remember him? He was in on the whole mystery of death and resurrection before just about anyone else, but even he didn’t really know it at the time. He was a sign that the whole world was going to hell in a hand-basket and that God had plans to use death to save the world. But everyone during the time of Noah ignored it, they wouldn’t think about anything except their precious little lives. They had dinner parties to go to, vacations to plan, tennis matches to watch. And they went right on doing all those things until the very end when Noah packed up his Ark while the rest of the world drowned.
“Are you starting to get it now? The message I’m giving you to share with the world is that even in death you will be fine because death is my cup of tea. The problem isn’t death – its with all the people who are so committed to their version of whatever they think living is that they can’t let go. When I come in glory its the people obsessed with holding onto their lives that aren’t going to be very happy.
“Imagine your neighbor being up on his roof replacing a wonky gutter and he sees me risen from the dead. What good would it do him to go into the house to grab his wallet and check his hair before joining me in glory?
“Picture someone mowing the lawn. Do you think they should go inside to finish filing their tax return before joining me in the blinding light?
“Do you remember the story of Lots’ wife? When everything was finally out in the open, God had done a strange and new thing, and it was time for her to go with God’s flow, she decided to have a nostalgia binge and look back to her old life in Sodom. And you know what happened to her? She turned into a pillar of salt!
“Plenty of you are going to try to save your lives like that, and you’re going to lose it all. You’re so obsessed with what you’ve done, and what you’ve earned, and what you’ve accomplished that you can’t see the truth even when its standing right in front of you. And, I can’t blame you, we’ve all been conditioned to hold onto our lives with every fiber of our being so losing that control will literally feel like losing our lives.
“I know this kingdom stuff isn’t easy to digest because everything and everyone else will try to sell you a different story. That’s called idolatry. Whenever you feel compelled to worship something else whether it’s a person or an institution or heaven forbid a political party, those things can’t give you life. In fact, they suck away the marrow of your life. They portend to tell you what to do, and what is important, and what is good and true and beautiful. And those things aren’t necessarily bad, they might even be significant, they make differences in the ways we live and move, but they aren’t the difference that makes the difference – that’s me.
“And believe you me, things are going to get worse before they get better. You will pit yourselves against each other over the dumbest things, you will reject one another because of a wayward comment or a foolish story, and at some point you’re going to look back at your life and wonder where everyone went.
“But when it comes to my kingdom, remember the one that’s already around you, it’s going to be even more confusing. Some people are going to accept it and others won’t. You’ll see two friends out in a boat fishing and one of them will say yes to my death and resurrection and the other will say no. You’ll see friends on a trip to the market and one will go for the deal and the other will say they need to think about it, forever.”
“Enough Jesus! Where is this going to happen? Just cut the small talk about about the mystery and give us something real.”
“Where the corpse is, that’s where the vultures will gather… Oh, you don’t like that? Are you feeling uncomfortable? It’s all about death! Haven’t you been listening to any of the stories I’ve been telling you? I know that death is the one thing you all choose to avoid more than anything else, not just your literal deaths but even talk about death, and yet death is the one thing you don’t need to worry about. Because you can put the dead anywhere and the vultures will find the bodies – that’s what they’re good at.
“Don’t you see it now? I’m in the death and resurrection business, that’s what I’m good at. I will come and find you wherever you may be. So forget all of your anxiety about the question of ‘where?’ And, while you’re at it, get rid of you ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ as well. The only thing that matters is you trust me to do what I say I’m going to do, and then get out there and tell other people to trust me too – because in the end that’s all you can really do – I’m going to take care of everything else.
“Stop worrying about where you are or who you’re with – I’m with you.” Amen