Sunday, July 20, 2014

Weeds or wheat?

Sermon by Robin Garr
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Louisville, Kentucky 
Sunday, July 20, 2014

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. 

Well!

We Episcopalians don’t go in much for hellfire and brimstone and eternal damnation. 

This is a good thing.

I wonder how many of us grew up in traditions that envisioned God as an angry old patriarch with a long, white beard, full of vengeance and wrath.

This was a big problem for me, a child of the Baby Boom. Like a lot of us with some gray in our hair, we grew up in an age when we were never quite sure if the Evil Empire was about to launch missiles over the North Pole to kill us all. In grade school, we were taught to stop, drop and roll under our desks if we saw a bright atomic flash. I was scared to death of such a fiery, radioactive hell on earth.  

Mix one cup of that with a couple of tablespoons of divine wrath, and you get a challenging environment for a shy kid. Would God “get you” if you let a cuss word slip out? Or what if you got a little too interested in those girls who suddenly seemed intriguingly different? God sure would get you for that!

Yeah, the fear of hellfire burned my teen-age soul - and eventually, drove me away from organized religion for much of my adult life. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who went down that path. It took a lot of growing up and some pricey therapy to get over it.  I’m just glad that I’m where I am now, and not where I was then.

Aren’t we glad that Episcopalians don’t go in for all that?  

We do hold Scripture in high respect, but we’re not expected to leave our brains outside the church. We listen to the scripture readings. We listen to the sermon (I hope!) And we come together in common prayer, not rigid dogma. 

As Episcopalians, we do believe that the bible contains “all things necessary for salvation.” But we approach scripture in community, seeking to understand its often confusing, sometimes contradictory verses through tradition and our own good reason. 

Rowan Williams, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it this way: “The Bible needs to be read, prayerfully and discerningly, in the company of as many other believers as possible, so that we can learn some wisdom from each other as to what exactly God does want to tell us. Hearing the truth in Scripture means expecting the Holy Spirit to be at work both in the text, and in the community that reads it.” [1]

But we still can’t just close our eyes and walk away from the scary parts. Matthew tells us that these words came right out of Jesus’ mouth: “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.

How can we work with that?

A wise seminary professor taught me to start by looking at the other things that the Gospels tell us Jesus said; then try to see how the odd passage  fits in.

Okay, let’s think about the current uproar over the thousands of children fleeing horror in Latin America. They face danger and risk death to get to our borders.

I imagine Jesus standing on the banks of the Rio Grande, looking at all the little children and weeping. 

Surely he would say, as we hear him say a few chapters later in Matthew: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

That caring love just doesn’t fit with the idea of throwing evildoers into the furnace of fire,  “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  I don’t see Jesus doing that, not even to “evildoers;” not even to the angry faces at the border, who shake their fists and curse at the busloads of crying children on their way to Immigration Jail.  

So, then,  why do we hear such seemingly contradictory things from Jesus in rhe Gospels?  Another seminary professor showed us the value of reading Scripture in the context of its own time and place. First, we should try to understand what its original listeners heard. This may help us understand it in words meaningful for our times.

So, is there a historical reason why Matthew might show us a Jesus who threatens to burn the bad guys?  

All four evangelists worked from oral tradition a generation or two after  Jesus, around and after the terrible times when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and tore down the Temple. 

Many people in those days thought the end of the world was near, and most Christians firmly believed that Jesus would come back soon. A lot of them hoped he would come back with a fiery sword and an army of angels. It was not unusual for the evangelists to envision a bloody, scary End Times with a judging Jesus on a royal throne, separating the sheep and the goats.

In that context, writes the bible scholar and Episcopal theologian Marcus Borg, “[this] parable reflects the concern of a young Christian community attempting to define itself against an evil world, a concern not characteristic of Jesus." Letting the wheat and weeds grow up together suggests the final judgment rather than agricultural practice.” [2]  The New Interpreter’s Study Bible adds in a footnote, “...  this Gospel regrettably uses imperial goals (destroying all adversaries) ... to picture God’s empire.” [3]

Sure enough, when we turn the page past “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” things get better. The very next verse assures us that the righteous will “shine like the sun” in God’s kingdom.  

Yes, the bible contains passages on harsh judgment, and war and destruction, and lofty kings with 1,000 wives. But it its core it celebrates righteousness

Throughout Scripture, from Lot seeking righteous persons in Sodom and Gomorrah, to the Psalms and the prophets, to Jesus himself, Scripture  places a high value on righteousness, which means justice: loving our neighbor. speaking truth to power, siding with the oppressed, the needy, and the stranger in our land.  The long arc of biblical wisdom turns toward justice. 

Let’s look back at today’s reading from Genesis, the story of Jacob’s dream.  Jacob was a trickster, sneaky and conniving; not an admirable person.  As we've heard in recent Gospels, he cheated his older twin, Esau, out of his birthright and out of his father’s dying blessing. Now Jacob was on the run, escaping the threats of an angry Esau who wants to kill him.  

Jacob doesn’t look righteous here, does he? He certainly doesn’t seem just. He looks a lot more like “weeds” than healthy, nourishing “wheat.”  And yet ... in his dream, God rewards him. God tells Jacob, as God had told his grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac, that he will inherit the promised land and become be the father of a great nation.  

Why does God do this?  Jacob is tricky and selfish. You could call him a jerk, an evildoer. Yet God does not throw him into a furnace of fire. God gives him a vast reward.

What's this about?

Throughout the bible, we see God working with broken, troubled people, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob … like us.  Aren't all of us broken and troubled in our own ways?  Yet God loves us, and God desires for us to be good.  

When Jacob woke up from his dream, he had seen God. He understood God’s love, and his heart lighted up. “Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it!” He built a monument, and he named the place Bethel - Beth El - “The House of God.” Jacob was a changed man.

That's the message we can take from today's readings. That's the message that I finally got in my own life. I replaced my image of a mean, angry God with a God who wishes only that we listen for God’s voice, be just, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  A loving, forgiving God. 

God loves us. 

Note well that in this parable Jesus does not ask us to be the sower of seeds. He doesn't ask us to rip the weeds out. We are asked only to stand tall like the wheat, soak up the sunshine and the rainfall, and grow strong.  

Will we be wheat, or will we be weeds? I imagine that most of us are some of both. Yet God calls us, just as God called Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, to participate in the kingdom by loving our neighbors and practicing justice in the world.

Let's try to do that.  

Amen.



_____________________

[1] Williams, Rowan. Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2014.,

[2] Borg, Marcus J., in Funk, Robert Walter, and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus : New Translation and Commentary. New York: Macmillan, 1993

[3] Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreter's Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.