Sunday, July 23, 2017

Seventh after Pentecost

Proper 11 A-2  Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

If you were in church a little over a year ago,   on Sunday, June 26, 2016, you will certainly remember with crystal clarity the gospel reading and of course the rector’s  inspirational sermon that morning on the text from the ninth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel.  To refresh our memory:  after their experience on the Mount of the Transfiguration Jesus and his disciples began their great journey toward Jerusalem to observe the Passover.  In Luke’s story a long and increasingly dramatic procession to Holy Week.  The road from the Galilee to the Holy City passed first through the region of Samaria, the home of people of a mixed Jewish and non-Jewish ethnicity whose religious beliefs were different from those of orthodox Judaism.   Between Jews and Samaritans a kind of deep and persistent hostility over generations and centuries, and Jewish religious pilgrims would be to say the least unwelcome in Samaritan neighborhoods.  And  so as we heard on June 26th, 2016,  Luke chapter 9 verses 52-56: “And he [that is, Jesus]  sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him; but the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.  [all the local hotels and motels and Air bnb proprietors see them coming and hang “no vacancy “ signs in the windows]  And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them.  And they went on to another village.”

The disciples must have wondered why Jesus was hesitant to act more decisively in response to this disrespectful opposition.  But in the depth of the mind and heart of Jesus there was a different knowledge.  And as you will recall from my sermon just a little over a year ago this episode in Samaria to what we will later hear in the eighth chapter of Acts, after the arrest and stoning of St. Stephen, when the little Church of Jerusalem is attacked and dispersed.  Beginning at Acts Chapter 8, verse 4: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.  Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. Then the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, and saw the signs which he did.  For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.  So there was much joy in that city.”

For James and John in Luke 9, all they could see was what was right in front of them in the present, and they were ready to pull the trigger--but Jesus knew that among these Samaritans were those he came to save. We might say: the first rich foreign mission field.  These Samaritans who would soon, very soon, hear the gospel from Philip and respond with joy, when the time was right.  Just wait, James and John.  There is more going on than you can see or know in this moment.  Be patient.  Which is what I am thinking about as we approach the gospel reading this morning.  God’s patience.

I remember my friend our retired dean George Werner used to say that the challenge for Moses and Joshua was that they were to lead the whole people into the Promised Land, not just the Commandos.  The weak and the wayward, the very old, the very young.  Everybody.  Not just the strong.  And that takes time, and it’s a messy process.  The Good Shepherd is not going to allow even one of his sheep to be lost.  Not even the last and the least.  It may take a long while sometimes for the fruit to ripen on the vine, to shift this evolving metaphor.  The point is, not to be so quick to judge, to leap to conclusions.  Not to be in such a hurry.  Wait and see, give space for the full work of the Spirit to be made known in God’s way, in God’s own time.  My ways are not your ways, says the Lord.  Jesus already knew his own among these Samaritans.  He knew them long before they knew him.  He knew them already and loved them.   People of his pasture, sheep of his hand.   And in the generosity of his heart he was going to give them all the time they needed.
Anyhow, as I said, that was a year ago, Luke9.  But it came to mind for me as we would turn this morning to this gospel reading taken from Matthew 13, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.    The same concern and emphasis, on the patience of God.  His thoughts not our thoughts, nor his ways our ways.   Which we would hear this morning as good news, and something we can be and should be very thankful for.  For his patience with us.

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.”   Once again as in the Parable of the Sower and the Five Kinds of Soil that we read last Sunday:  the sowing of  the good seed, which Jesus tells his disciples has to do with the proclamation of the kingdom, the preaching of the Good News.  In the first parable the issue was that the seed fell on all different kinds of soil.  Dry, or hard, places where the birds can get at it, or ground already covered with thistles.  Here in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares the seed is all sown in the one field, in good soil.  But even so, there are complications.  An enemy  comes in secretly, while the farmer and his servants are sleeping, and scatters another kind of seed in the same field.  Not the good seed of the kingdom, not the gospel, but something  that doesn’t belong.   When time passes the farmer and his servants see that as the good growth is taking place in the field, so also the weeds are growing.  The servants are upset and agitated and want to do something right away, to get in there and clean things up.  Don’t just stand there, do something!  Like James and John in the Samaritan village.  But the farmer  tells them to be patient.  When the growth is young it’s just not always possible to tell which sprout is of the good seed, and which is a weed.  They are just simply to be patient-- to let all grow together, the good plants and the bad.  Until the harvest, when the truth will be known.

A bit later in verses 36-40 Jesus explains the parable.  We see that the Sower is Christ himself, who is and who fulfills and who proclaims the Word.  The seed, Jesus says, stands for the “Sons of the Kingdom,” what grows from the Word, the harvest, the names inscribed in the Book of Life.  The enemy is the Evil One, God’s enemy, and the Weeds that grow alongside the good plants are his offspring.  The two live side by side in this world, they look very much alike, they occupy the same space, they grow together, flourish together.   They seem as near as anyone could tell by observation to share an equally bright future.  But this is simply on account of God’s patience.  In order to avoid even the slightest possibility of collateral damage, so that not one good plant is endangered, the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness are left to grow together for a season.  But on the Last Day, at the Harvest, the discernment is to be made with a thoroughgoing precision.  All the “causes of sin” and those whose lives are allied to evil are pulled out by the roots and cast into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  While the “righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

In part this parable directs us to recurring questions about why evil exists in the world and in our own lives and so often tragically in our own hearts and minds.  Why the eternal Son of the Father isn’t recognized by everyone right away, when he has come into the world.  Why bad things keep happening to good people, why even in us,  after we have put our faith in Christ alone, we feel resistance and temptation and disobedience both externally and internally, in the world, in our own hearts and minds—all the rest.  It doesn’t make any sense!  Why doesn’t God just act?   Let’s call down fire from heaven and destroy these Samaritans!  Pull up the weeds right now by the roots, to purify the field.  Let’s get the job done!

But then, catching a breath, perhaps we think of the story of our own lives.  How messy we all are.  Faithful and rebellious.  Brave and fearful.  So much of the time two steps forward and then one back.  Or even one step forward and then two back.  Seeking to hold onto Christ and trust in him alone, but so reluctant to let go of the gods and goddesses of this world.  So, gains and losses.  A lot of moments along the way when anybody looking at me would think, “now that’s a weed for sure.”   And maybe sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and see nothing but a weed myself.  We can be so swift to judge others and so swift to judge ourselves.  So again, a word about being thankful from the bottom of my heart that God is as patient as he is with me, as I do my best to sort things out.  And certainly as I seek to be one of his disciples and ministers, and we are here this morning all of us with those disciples, the ones Jesus sends on ahead of him to proclaim the news, to seek to find in my own mind and heart as well a space for patience. 

The Lord is patient.   That’s the key and the take-away.  And it is his will that those who would live in him would share that patience.   To say, “Those folks over at St. Andrew’s, my goodness: how patient they are with one another.  You don’t hear them praying God to send down “fire from heaven” whenever they find themselves in difficult situations.  They have their opinions, for sure, their personal preferences and inclination.  They have their goals and priorities, their hopes and dreams and programs and plans.  But they know also that it’s God’s timing that matters, that he rules over days and seasons and generations.  And so there is this sense of graciousness.  Forebearance.  Generosity.

To be clear, this doesn’t deny the reality of evil, and it doesn’t undermine the absolute righteousness of God’s justice.  In the words of the hymn, “God is working his purpose out.”  No question about that. The Scripture is clear that God hates sin, and that’s not too strong a word:  that he is unalterably opposed to every evil, and that his patience isn’t an everlasting patience.  But those are his judgments, and we can come to know what they are and what they will be as we read his Word and seek in our hearts and minds and lives to follow the direction of his word and the pattern of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  For this hour we are to take a deep breath, and remember that he’s in charge, and we aren’t.  Trusting him to care for the whole field of the kingdom, even the weediest looking sprout in the garden, treating even the weediest weed as though it might eventually in this growing season show itself to be not to have been a weed at all, but good growth--trusting that in God’s own good time every last precious plant grown from the seed of the Gospel will be seen and known and brought safe to his storehouse.

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