Proper 11 A, 2017:The problems we’re born with are the ones we die with

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TEXTS for Preaching: Sunday, July 23, 2017

Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

There is no god besides you, whose care is for all people,
to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly;
for your strength is the source of righteousness,
and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.
For you show your strength when people doubt the completeness of your power,
and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it.
Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness,
and with great forbearance you govern us;
for you have power to act whenever you choose.

Through such works you have taught your people
that the righteous must be kind,
and you have filled your children with good hope,
because you give repentance for sins.

Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Jesus put before the crowdanother 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.’”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable 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!”


Your power over all, O God,
causes you to spare all and judge with mildness.

We’ll get back to that sweet little line from
the Book of Wisdom.

We have before us a parable
that has been so well chewed by the oral tradition –

by which I mean that river of years meandering
from the death of Jesus to when
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John edited his words
forty to eighty years later –
that whatever Jesus’ original intent or meaning was,
it is now lost to us forever.
The consequence is that Cam Miller at Trinity,
and Deb Lind at the Presby Church,
and Donald Golden at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church,
can all get up into their pulpits on the same day,
preaching on the same parable,
and say very different things.
But that is the interpretive nature of Scripture.
It does not stand on its own and speak for itself.
And that is the human experience as well,
each of us encountering one and the same thing
and walking away with sometimes wildly different perceptions.

I am about to do a little de-construction with this parable,
but as I do, I should admit up front
that I am not a big believer in the apocalyptic promise
of a Second Coming.
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,”
is only one of the many lines
of the Nicene Creed that I choke on.
The idea that Jesus will arrive at the end of history
to separate the good guys from the bad guys –
which, by the way, is also an orthodox Muslim belief –
just doesn’t compute for me.

I stand instead,
in the modernist tradition of scholarship
that does not see anything in the teaching of Jesus,
to suggest that Jesus thought he was coming back
when the clock stops ticking.
Some Gospel editors clearly believed Jesus would be back,
but they were doing some expansive interpretation
in order to get there.

I prefer the Book of Wisdom’s take on things:
Your power over all, O God,
causes you to spare all and judge with mildness.

Now we know, from modern Biblical scholarship,
that Jesus’ stories and parables
circulated by word of mouth for two or three generations
before they were written down.
And over the course of that span of years
the world changed quite dramatically.

In other words,
the world of the gospel-writers
was quite different from the world Jesus lived in.

Think of it this way.
I was born in 1953,
and my youngest child, James, was born in 1994.
That is roughly the same span of time
that passed between Jesus’ death
and when Mark’s gospel was written.
Think about how much the world changed
between 1953 and 1994.
Think how the presumptions of my world
are different from the presumptions of his world:
The Cold War.
The crumbling of Colonialism.
The expansion and then decline of Communism.
The receding of nationalized economies and the birth of globalism.
The globalization of American culture
and the evaporation of American dominance.
Space travel.
Earth travel.
Studebaker to Prius to self-driving cars.
Mainframe computers that filled a warehouse
reduced to a laptop computer,and then again to tablet size computing,
and now a phone with nearly as much speed and memory
as the old mainframe.
From industrialization, to the explosion of information,
to the crisis of climate change.

We could go on and on
naming how the world has changed,
and how many human assumptions have changed with it,
in that brief lapse of time between when I was born
and the year James was born.

But we should not make the mistake of modern hubris,
and say to ourselves that our world is changing
so much faster than the world of Jesus’ day,
and that of the New Testament writers
writing forty to eighty years after him.
While our rate of technological change
is light years more rapid,
history always races by
from the perspective of those living it.

You see, between Jesus and Matthew,
there opened up a chasm as wide as the one
between my world and James’.

A war of Jewish insurrection
against Roman domination,
led to the near elimination of what Jews had come to know
as Judaism – and their religion
was nearly extinguished altogether.
The social and political landscape
changed radically from Jesus to Matthew,
and if we do not know about those changes
then we cannot fully understand the Gospels.

Matthew and his Jewish contemporaries
believed they were living close to the apocalypse,
at the near end of history.
But the world Jesus lived in
was still open-ended and full of possibilities.

That difference alone
shows how Jesus’ parable evolved
into a metaphor about Christian community
even though Christians and Christianity did not exist
when Jesus walked the earth.

As told by Matthew,
Jesus’ parable deals with the question
of how something so good,
like church,
can have such yucky people in it.

Matthew is concerned about how Christians
will define themselves over and against the world:
making clear that Christians are the good guys
and the rest of the world, bad guys.
And if that is true, Matthew wonders,
then how do some of those bad guys
get into the good guys club?
If they get in,
does that spoil the goodness of the whole club?
The answer Matthew comes up with,
is the Devil done it.
A mysterious enemy snuck in by night
and planted the bad guys.

So that is how Matthew
interpreted a parable told by Jesus
fifty years earlier;
and how he then passed it on to us
with implications quite different from Jesus’ original.

Now if we were to strip away
the presumption of Matthew’s world –
and remember that for Jesus there was no Church
and there were no Christians,
nor even a dawning apocalypse –
we might hear a different punch line from Matthew’s.

In other words,
if we shift the context of the parable
away from Matthew’s post Jewish/Roman war –
when Judaism no longer existed in Judah and Galilee,
and was hanging by a thread everywhere else –
and we listen to it back to Jesus’ day,
what we notice right away
is that the workers are downright edgy and anxious
when they go out and find weeds in the field.

That is an important clue
as to what the parable was about for Jesus.

Remember, they are peasant-farmers
and so they are worried
about being blamed and punished.
They know they are innocent –
they know they didn’t plant the bad seeds.
So they start to calculate the possibilities
like a fugitive fox sniffing hounds in the wind.

They race through the questions:
Does the presence of weeds
mean the farmer mixed in the weeds with the seeds?
Will we be blamed?
Maybe people will think
we pocketed some of the good seed for our own plots,
and then filled in with weeds.
Should we purify the field now,
protect what good seeds are left so we don’t get blamed?

They anxiously question the integrity of the farmer,
raise doubts about their own credibility with others,
and worry about what to do now.
We know from our own experience
that the presence of ugliness and evil causes us to be anxious,
and to question any goodness we had presumed.

Now here is the counterpoint
I suspect Jesus wanted us to hear in the parable
before Matthew got ahold of it.

The farmer enters the scene.
The farmer owns the land.
The farmer owns the peasants.
The farmer owns the produce.
The farmer, who is sovereign,
practices non-anxious presence,
or as the Book of Wisdom declares: Mildness.
“No! Don’t purify the field,” the farmer calls out,
“you have no idea what is a weed
and what is potential fruit!
Leave it alone and let the harvesters deal with it.”

That is the Jesus we see in so much of the gospels –
the one who stands without anxiety
while everyone around him frets about, “What if?”
In the presence of a knee-jerk temptation
to separate the good guys from the bad guys,
Jesus, standing in the middle of them all,
sits down for supper.

When confronted with a demand for purity,

Jesus remembers the Book of Wisdom:
Your power over all, O God,
causes you to spare all
and judge with mildness.

That is not apocalyptic.
There is no fear of God as judge in that ancient wisdom.
The world, from that point of view,
does not end with judgement, if it ends at all.

Let’s think about that parable of Jesus’
on a very personal level.
We could use it on a macro level to think about
institutions like the church,
but let’s go micro today.

We have character defects,
you and I.
All of us, right?
We all have defects of character.
We all have significant problems
that keep re-emerging in our lives
like mildew keeps coming back.

We have painful limitations
and flaws,
ones that have followed and cursed us
all throughout our lives.
They are weeds that won’t disappear
no matter how much we work at it,
any more than plastic surgery will overcome aging.

So to this weediness of ours,
to those ugly and embarrassing parts of ourselves
that have become entangled with the fruit we bear,
Jesus whispers to us from out of this parable:
Do not try to purge yourself.
What you think is a weed may bear fruit.
Live with it.
Watch it grow.
Tend it.
Let it be.
One day, God will wipe away every tear,
and then you will know peace.
For now, let it be.

Here is what I take away from this parable.

Most of what we struggle with
was planted there in the beginning,
or deposited along the way by others,
and we will not get rid of it.
In other words,
the problems we are born with
are likely the same ones to keep us company
on our death bed.
Live with them.
Learn from them.

Grow with them.
Find ways to compensate for them.
Seek to live non-anxiously alongside them.
Assume that God, one day,
will heal us with unspeakable love
but until then,
make due with the presence of weeds in our garden.

“Your power over all
causes you to spare all
and judge with mildness.”
Let us go and do likewise.