Monday, March 1, 2010

The King: The Rule of Patience

SERMON: Preached February 28, 2010

Scripture readings – Psalm 139:1-24; Matthew 13:24-30 and 13:36-43

There is a saying that the Bible teaches us to love our neighbors and to love our enemies because they are often the very same people. This is what the parable of Jesus is about. The story of the wheat and the weeds is told from the point of view of any farmer and of anyone else who eats food. From the point of view of the farmer and the intelligent eater wheat and weeds are neighbors and enemies.

The weed in question is called “tares” in the King James Version of the Bible. I looked it up, and my books tell me that it is better known as “darnel” or “cockle”. It is apparently a grass that looks just like wheat until it heads out. Then it is very different.

And this weed is actually poisonous. Eating it will give you a sick, drunken feeling and, after eating enough of it, you may die.

This weed is common in the Middle East, and it was the common wisdom of traditional farmers there to let it alone until harvest. They collected and bundled it first, carried it out of the fields, stacked it up and burned it. Then they would harvest the wheat.

There are at least two threats posed by this weed. The first threat is competition. The more weeds you have, the less wheat you get. The issue is productivity and fruitfulness. The other threat is contamination. If you didn’t separate the two grains, the wheat would be contaminated with noxious, poisonous grain. It would hurt. It would sicken those who ate it during the year. And it would make next year’s crop much worse. This was serious.

The story Jesus told of the weeds in the field is a very simple story telling the common farming wisdom of the day. But the story was difficult for the disciples because Jesus used the simple story to tell them something that confused them. They knew that Jesus was telling them something that went against the common wisdom of how to relate to the people who might be considered the noxious weeds of the human race, or the weeds among God’s own people.

Jesus had called Matthew to be a disciple, and Matthew had been one of the noxious weeds of the human race. He had been a traitor, working for the hated Romans and their flunkies. It was hard for the others disciples to accept Matthew. In the beginning it made them sick, just seeing him there by their side. And they were the kind of people that Matthew had taught himself to hate. They had been weeds to Matthew just as he had been a weed to them. They really wanted to uproot each other.

The Jewish faith used the lessons of purity, and cleanness, and separateness to understand what it meant to have integrity as faithful people of God. In fact the scriptures taught them to do this. (Leviticus 15:31; 19:2; 20:22-24; and others) The Old Testament book of Leviticus says, “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.” (19:19)

Jesus didn’t seem to take this separation seriously enough. Jesus deliberately touched a man with leprosy in order to heal him (Matthew 8:1-4) even though you were supposed to avoid touching a person with leprosy and would have to bathe if you did.

Well that was at least compassionate; except that if you knew someone who hadthe habit of touching contaminated and yucky people, you might not want to touch that person yourself. How could you know where Jesus had been? Jesus could have touched anyone or anything. He was just that way. By doing this he made himself contaminated to the righteous people around him.

And then Jesus had healed the servant of a centurion, a Roman army officer, and declared that this Roman had more faith than Jesus had seen among his own people. (Matthew 8:5-13) Jesus respected and praised a Roman dog for his faith. But Jesus’ people, and even the disciples, would have viewed the Romans as the noxious weeds of the human race.

The problem was much deeper than the disciples knew at the time, because (right under their noses) there was the problem of Judas Iscariot. Jesus had chosen Judas Iscariot to follow him as a disciple, just as he had chosen the rest of them. In the end, Judas was going to betray Jesus to the authorities, and make it easy for them to arrest Jesus, and crucify him.

And apparently Jesus chose Judas knowingly. Fairly early in their time together Jesus said a strange thing to them: “Have I not chosen twelve of you; and one a devil?” (John 6:70) Yet Jesus was gentle and polite to Judas to the every end. (Luke 22:48)

And yet again, if Jesus’ disciples had known this, to begin with, it would have shed a lot of light on this parable telling them that the wheat and the weeds must live together until the time of judgment comes.

All of this shows us the brilliance of the parables. They are very simple stories indeed; but there is nothing easy about them.

Let’s look at some of the lessons of the story of the weeds in the field.
There is the lesson of the enemy who comes by night with his poison seed. There are evil forces at work in the world we live in. There are people, and movements, and organizations, and nations that do dark things. But the very worst of the evil forces in this world is spiritual and invisible; and this power works under cover. This force is the enemy, the evil one, the devil.

It’s true. The Bible tells us that there is the Devil (who is also called Satan), and there are the minor devils, or demons, who serve him. (Revelation 12:9) In my own life I was directly attacked by one of them, one summer night when I was a teenager. Until that happened, I was not one of those people who gave the Devil much thought or took him very seriously. I wasn’t. I didn’t. But I was wrong and I was taken completely by surprise.

Mostly the devils work indirectly; through pride, and hate, and bitterness, and anger, and fear, and contempt, and greed, and jealousy, and laziness, and addiction, and lust, and the desire for control or glory. This indirect and invisible work is more than enough. These things cause war, and injustice, and tyranny, and deceit, and the corruption of innocence and decency, and the destruction of freedom. These things destroy marriages, and families, and churches, and communities, and nations, and civilizations, and perhaps a planet.

These forces even work in good and faithful people. These forces even work in godly people. The Pharisees themselves, who were so opposed to Jesus, loved God passionately.

In the Old Testament, Israel’s King David loved God passionately and, in the 139th Psalm, asked God: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me…” (139:23)

I think David’s anxiety and uncertainty came from the two voices that spoke from within him. There was the clear voice of faith. “You hem me in – behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” (139:5-6) And there was the clear voice of hatred. “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” (139:21-22) I think this confused David and made him wonder what was going on inside his own heart and mind.

Even in the Old Testament there is a difference between hating sin, and hating the person who sins. David himself did some horrible things, and needed the patient, faithful mercy of God, and of his own people. He needed God’s people to hate what he had done, but he also needed God’s people to not hate him. David’s actions were noxious, and weed-like, and he needed the good wheat of the children of God to grow around him and not uproot him.

This is part of the reason why Jesus’ story warns us against the rooting out of weeds before the harvest, or the rooting out of people before the judgment. Of the many voices that speak within us we do not know which voice will win. We do not know what we will become. This is just the truth. And this is also true of those whom we think of as our enemies, or as the enemies of God.

We are not ripe. We have not completely become our true selves. The people who seem to be different from us, who even seem to be opposite from us, have also not ripened. They have not arrived at their final destination in their hearts and minds. They are not yet completely wheat or weeds.

The servants in the story want to know what to do about the good and the not good being all mixed up together. Should they separate them now?
The master says to wait. Wait till harvest. The master and his harvesters will take charge of sorting out the wheat from the weeds. This teaches us to have faith in the form of patience.

Waiting is sometimes the necessary element of faith. We think our anxiety is faith. Our anxiety and fear sound like the voice of God telling us to do the work of separation and sorting out the wheat and the weeds before it’s time.

Barging in might look bold; but it may not be the ultimate form of faith. And sometimes our drivenness to “do something” is the tempting work of the devil. The need to do something bypasses faith and destroys precious wheat. The need to do something proves to be an action taken without love, and without God.

This applies to our life in the world, but it also applies to the church. During the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther saw it this way. He said “The church cannot be without evil people. Those who don’t want to tolerate any weeds end up with no wheat either.” (WA 38, 560, 33 [1538]) John Calvin said: “Pastors ought to labor strenuously to purify the Church; and all the godly, so far as their respective callings enable them, ought to lend assistance in this matter; but when all shall have devoted their united exertions to the general advantage, they will not succeed in such a manner as to purify the Church entirely from every defilement.” (“Harmony of the Gospels” Matthew 13:39)

There is another problem involved in judging between the wheat and the weeds. One of my favorite Christian authors is Thomas Merton (who was a Trappist monk), and he wrote this: “Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weaknesses of men.” (“New Seeds of Contemplation” p 177)

Jesus did not tell us to just let things go, but he warned us to have our faith disciplined by patience and humility. Ultimately it is not the wheat that judges the weeds. The Lord of the harvest judges both.

The one who tells us to be patient and not do the uprooting ourselves is the king who died on the cross for our forgiveness. It is no exaggeration to say that, without that power of God’s love on the cross, we would all be weeds.

It is the love of Christ that makes the difference in us. The love of Jesus makes all the difference in the world between bearing a harvest and simply going to seed.

When weeds have been changed by grace to wheat they are very careful about the other plants that look like weeds, but have not yet borne their harvest. In the patience of faith those who hope to be wheat may even love those weeds with such passion that they will change before their eyes, and they will all shine together like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

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