Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Guest Preacher

With the Rector on his annual shore leave, the good people of St. Andrew's have heard from our Priest Associate, the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, on Sundays July 17 and 24. His two sermons are shared here. With the Rector's deepest appreciation.

The Parable of the Weeds
Matt 13:24–30, 36–43

In the gospel readings last week and this week and next week, Jesus is telling parables. If you look closely at the gospel reading for this week, you’ll have noticed that we skip some verses, vv 34–43. In those verses Matthew tells us how important parables are: Jesus hardly ever taught without using a parable, Matthew says, and much of His teaching has only been preserved in parable form.

In Matthew 13, the disciples ask Jesus why He teaches in parables. You can sum up Jesus’s answer like this: parables make a point that can be easily rejected or ignored if you don’t like it. Parables are easy to brush off. ‘I don’t know what he’s talking about, first the kingdom of heaven is like mustard, then it’s like a pearl, then it’s like yeast, now it’s like a field—I can’t make sense of it, I’m not going to bother with it.’

Parables make their point in a way that is easy for us to miss, and if we’re not really determined to learn from Jesus, we will misunderstand them. The first step in understanding any parable is the belief that Jesus has something to teach us which only He can teach us, and which we want to learn. When you approach the parables in that spirit, you find that they always have something new to teach you.

So in that spirit, let’s look at the parable of the weeds, that Jesus tells in today’s gospel. It’s a good place to start if you’re not familiar with parables as a teaching tool, because it’s one of only two parables that Jesus explains. Usually, He doesn’t do that; He simply tells the parable and says no more, or says something along the lines of ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ With this parable, Jesus also takes the time to teach us how parables work, how He uses them to teach. But even in His explanation, He doesn’t cover everything, but leaves us with something to discover for ourselves, as we’ll see.

The parable is in vv 24–30. A farmer sows good wheat seed in his field, but when it grows, weeds turn out to be growing right there with the wheat. The weeds have grown from seed that has also been deliberately sowed, but by the farmer’s enemy, v 28 says. The farm workers say ‘don’t worry Mr Farmer, we’ll pull them up’, but the farmer says no, don’t do that, in case you pull up the wheat too. We’ll sort them out when we harvest them.’ That’s the parable.

Then in vv 38 and 39, Jesus explains the parable: the field is the world, and the good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Then he adds some wonderful fire and brimstone stuff about the ultimate fate of the weeds, but I don’t need to dwell on that with all of you, because I’m sure all of you are already eager to be sons and daughters of the kingdom, not of the evil one. If you’re not, you can think about those verses while I stress a couple of other points instead.

The sower is God, of course, but who are the servants of the sower? Jesus’s explanation doesn’t mention them. This is one of those areas where Jesus has left us something to discover for ourselves. If the sower is God, these are the servants of God; they could be angels, who are certainly servants of God, but Jesus says that in this parable the angels are the harvesters, the reapers. So I think in this parable the servants must be God’s human servants, not God’s angelic servants. In other words, you and me, members of the church, all those who are trying to do God’s work in the world. And if that’s true, there are a couple of important reminders for us in this parable that I’d like you to think about.

First, notice that these servants don’t really understand how God is working, do they? First they appear to think that God sowed the weeds as well the wheat, and when God explains that it is Satan who sowed the weeds, they think the proper thing to do is to pull up the weeds, and God has to say ‘No, no, don’t do that, you’ll pull up the wheat as well.’ They don’t have a very good understanding of what God is up to, or what to do when God’s work isn’t going the way they think it should. The parable suggests to me that God’s human servants assume that the first idea that comes into their head about God’s work is the right one, and then act on it. And while it’s not in the parable, my experience of God’s human servants suggests that the next thing they do is condemn those who disagree with them about God’s work, and either drive them out of the church, or walk away from them to found their own church. We have very recent experience of this that comes to all our minds, I’m sure, but it’s nothing new or exciting. My experience over the years I’ve been a Christian is that this reaction is not confined to one strand of churchmanship, or one theological approach. No matter where any of us stand on the various issues that divide Christians, we may be wrong, and we need to remember that possibility. We may be jumping to conclusions.

We need to be like the servants in the parable, and be ready to be corrected by God’s word. They thought one thing, God said something different, and they revised their position in the light of God’s word. For us, that means Scripture. If we can’t find support in Scripture, or if those who differ from us can find as much support in Scripture as we can, we need to consider that we’re not hearing the Holy Spirit as clearly as we think. That is the classical Anglican approach: look on p 853 of the Prayer Book, in the catechism, top of the page: We recognise truths to be taught by the Holy Spirit when they are in accord with the Scriptures. The only way to be sure that we are doing what God wants is to follow Scripture.

If we look at ourselves from another point of view in the parable, we see the same lesson being taught us. Let’s think of ourselves not as God’s servants, but as the growing seed, hopefully the ones growing into sons and daughters of the kingdom. In v 30, the Farmer in the parable says ‘Don’t pull up the weeds, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest’. When the Farmer says ‘you might pull up the wheat with the weeds’, He is saying, ‘you can’t always tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds’. The sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one have a lot in common, we look very much alike at times. We think we know which we are, but we only see part of the picture. Only God sees the whole picture. That’s why it’s not our place to judge. Our business is to grow in love and knowledge of Him, His business is to judge.

The wheat is still growing; harvest-time is not until the wheat is fully grown and ripe. God’s people are not yet ready to be harvested, we’re not fully grown. We’re not ripe. Most of us don’t know this. It’s a characteristic of human beings that we all think we’re as good as we’re ever going to get, even as good as anyone could ever expect us to be. Jesus says that God still has some growing for us to do—even those of us who have been His followers for years and years. In our opinion we are ready for harvest now, but God can see we still have some growing to do.

Even when harvest time comes, it won’t be those who are so eager to see the weeds pulled up who are given the job. The angels will do that, Jesus says in v 41. So those who are wrong about God’s will, the weeds, the unfaithful, the disobedient, are not ultimately our concern at all. We can leave them to God, and concentrate on what is our concern, which is growing in faith and love until we have become all God plans for us to be.

This not to say that in the church we shouldn’t try to exercise discipline, of course. The Bible tells us to do that when we can. But we know that even on the human level we sometimes get it wrong, that there are miscarriages of justice; so when it comes to ultimate things, to the world of eternity, it really is best that God and His angels take care of that side of things.

Our business as far as eternity is concerned is ourselves. In this parable Jesus is reminding all of us here today that we’re not yet what God wants us to be. We can ignore His words, or pretend that we don’t know what He is talking about if we like, but how smart is that? And we know it’s true anyway. Jesus is calling us to listen less to our own ideas, and more carefully to God’s word, and to apply it more thoroughly to our lives.

The Kingdom of Heaven
Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

I mentioned last week that in our Sunday gospel readings we are in a season of parables, and in today’s gospel we get five of them—the parables of the mustard seed, the yeast, the buried treasure, the pearl of great price, and the net full of all kinds of fish. I thought about doing five three-minute sermons, but I have a friend who is a juggler and he seems to have a lot of fun, so I’m going to preach on all five at once and see what happens!

Actually, it’s easy to do because there’s a very important thing that links them all together; the phrase kingdom of heaven. Jesus begins each of these parables by saying The kingdom of heaven is like. And we should also note that last week’s parable, about the wheat and the weeds growing together, was introduced by the same phrase, and so is one more that comes later in Matthew’s gospel, the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. These seven parables, all of them in Matthew’s gospel, and only these seven, are introduced by this phrase. So let’s begin by thinking about what that phrase means.

Now it can’t simply be another way of saying ‘heaven’. We know that from last week’s parable, where the weeds and the wheat were growing together. The good and the bad grow together till the harvest, when the weeds are burned and the wheat brought into the barn. The barn could be heaven, but the parable is not about the harvested wheat, but about the wheat and weeds growing together. It’s about ‘before heaven’. Today’s parable about the net full of all kinds of fish makes the same point: in the net are good fish and bad fish, which will be sorted out later. Then the good fish will go to heaven, and the bad fish to the cat-food factory. But both parables are about life before heaven. Kingdom of heaven refers to something in this life, not the life to come, life before we go to heaven, not life in heaven.

Next, what about that the word kingdom, what does that mean here? It’s not quite what we usually mean by that word. We usually think of a Kingdom as a place. Earthly Kingdoms are places; they have geographical boundaries, which mark the area within which a King—or whoever is the sovereign—has authority. Queen Elizabeth has authority everywhere in the island of Great Britain, but no authority anywhere in the United States. When the Queen visits this country, she loses whatever authority she has in England. Not only does she have no authority, but she comes under the authority of someone else, in this case of Congress. She has to obey laws here that she doesn’t have to obey in her own Kingdom. And so does any congressman who goes to Great Britain. You are under the law of the place you are in, because you are in it, whether you approve of the place’s laws or not, whether you think they are good laws or not.

God’s Kingdom is not that sort of kingdom. His authority is not connected with place. You don’t come under His authority by being in a certain place—even a church. People sometimes talk about the church as though it were that earthly sort of Kingdom, as though when you come into the church, you’re in the place where God’s law operates, and you’d better obey it. People occasionally say things to me at the coffee hour, and then hurriedly add, ‘Oops, I’m not supposed to say things like that in church, sorry!’ But that’s not how God’s kingdom works. No one comes under God’s authority just by coming into a church. God’s Kingdom is not a place, but the human heart; when God is our king, we submit to His authority no matter where we are, and no matter who else claims authority over us. Christians live under His rule by their own free choice, and they live that way wherever they go. That’s why there are no officers with power in God’s Kingdom—Jesus’s disciples were always arguing about that: of course Jesus is in command, but who’s second in command? Who’s next most important, after Jesus? No one, Jesus says. His Kingdom is made up of people who have freely submitted to His authority, so no other officers will be necessary. The only way to be useful in this Kingdom is to be a servant. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. No hierarchy of power, just Jesus and His servants, some of whom serve other servants as well as Jesus. And all seven parables are about life when you’re the subject of one king while you’re living where another king has authority. They are about living as a Christian in a non-Christian world. When Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like Jesus is saying ‘life under my authority is like, the Christian life is like’.

These parables make important points about Christian living. Those who don’t obey our king aren’t our problem, we heard last week in the parable of the weeds, and the same point is made in the parable of the fish: the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous. Not our job—the angels will do the sorting.

Although there’s more to it than just a repeat of last week’s parable; the parable of the fish tells us something else too. It tells us that the Christian life is like a net, it’s designed to catch people. I will make you fishers of men, Jesus told the disciples when He first called them to be His followers. He sends His followers out to share the good news of salvation in Christ with others, so that those others will be part of the kingdom of heaven too. And we’re to share that news with everyone, to cast that net as wide as we can and fill it as full as we can.

And the other parables in this series also teach us important points about the Christian life. The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast tell us not to stress too much when it seems that our own efforts don’t amount to much. Living the Christian life can seem like a small thing; just trying to obey God’s word in our own lives and helping others in small ways, when the evil in the world seems so powerful and so well-established. Yet the parable of the yeast says that living the Christian life has an effect far beyond itself, an effect on the whole, and eventually spreads far and wide, and the parable of the mustard seed says it may be tiny, but in it is contained something much greater. Like the wheat and the weeds, we can’t see the whole picture; but God can, and He tells us here that there is more going on than we can see in our simple daily walk with Christ, and that we can trust that He is at work in what we do when we are faithful, little though it sometimes seems to us.

The parables of the buried treasure and the pearl remind us that in fact the Christian life is the most valuable thing there is—it’s worth sacrificing everything else in order to be able to have it. It’s certainly worth the criticism you get when you live by what the Bible teaches instead of what the world thinks is right—if that’s the most that you have to put up with because you’re a Christian, you’re getting a real bargain.

We don’t come under God’s authority by being in a certain place, even the church, in fact we don’t come under God’s authority even by being in heaven. Rather, the reverse is true: we enter heaven by being under God’s authority. Not by obeying His authority—only Jesus obeyed God in everything. The rest of us, even the most devoted Christian, disobey God again and again. But not because we reject His authority; we disobey Him because of our own failings, not because we reject His authority. We accept His authority, and when we do disobey Him, we ask His forgiveness and His help in doing better in the future. That’s faith in action—faith that when God says in His word that through Jesus Christ He forgives those who repent, He can be trusted. And it’s that faith that takes us to heaven, and even gives us a taste of heaven in this life. That’s why the Christian life is the Kingdom of Heaven already. It’s worth making sacrifices for. It’s wonderful now, and will be even more wonderful when Christ is all in all.

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