July 23, 2023

The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost - July 23, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23; Rom. 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

From Genesis, “Jacob awoke … and said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place - - and I did not know it.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     The late George Appleton, Bishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem, was a gifted writer whose works affirmed his deep sense of the presence and creative, redemptive power of God that resides within us all. Many of his works were prayers a favorite of which includes this petition: “O God … Give me freedom to grow so that I may become my true self – the fulfillment of the seed which you planted in me at my making.”

I thought of that prayer while reflecting on today’s scripture readings. While in last week’s gospel lesson Jesus offered his “Parable of the Sower” who sows seed – the Word of God – throughout the world, in today’s gospel lesson, he offers a reality check on what happens when we attempt to sow and be good seed in our communities. He offers the “Parable of the Weeds”.  And when pondered in light of our readings from Genesis and Romans, I find this parable timely for us as followers of Jesus Christ today.

     See, this parable suggests a dualism of good and evil dwelling side by side, and that it is often very difficult to distinguish between the two. I find this dualism timely because today, rather than seeking to demonstrate what it means to be good seed by showing forth the Fruit of the Spirit and mercy of God, more and more Christians are obsessed with weeding out and shouting down those whose actions, beliefs, or conduct differs from our own. We have adopted an “us vs. them” mentality where we/us, the “real” Christians believe we must do everything in our power to not just oppose those who might worship or pray differently, but uproot and cast them out of our communities and in the process strip them of their rights and dignity, and deny their God-given humanity.

It is no wonder why Christians today are more often described and known not for our love and commitment to the mercy and grace declared in the Sermon on the Mount, but rather, as zealous weeders in society quick to condemn the actions and religious practice of anyone but our own selves – even when our actions and practices fly in the face of what Jesus said and taught. And our zeal to weed out anyone who does things differently has not only divided society, but the church itself. How often have churches and entire denominations split apart over interpretations of scripture, matters of social justice, or who is welcome or unwelcome, and even upon which day of the week we should worship. And each group is determined that they, and they alone, are right and good seed faithful to God, and everyone else? Well, they are the weeds Jesus spoke about – weeds going to hell.

It is because of that reality that today’s parable offers a wakeup call. See, the word Jesus used for the weed planted by an enemy is a real plant found throughout the middle east. It is called Zizania or, as we call it, “Darnel.” And it is tricky because it looks exactly like wheat when it is growing. In fact, it is not until harvest time that it reveals itself for the weed that it is. Ears of wheat ready for harvest are heavy with wholesome grain and droop over while the ears of darnel stand up straight. Until that moment, it is nearly impossible to know which plant is good and which is evil and that is Jesus’ point in this story. He is clear that at harvest time, the day of judgment, and that day is coming, God, and God alone, will determine which plants are good and which are evil … not us. God will send forth angels to separate the wheat from the weeds … not send us. Weeding is not the mission of the Church. Jesus never said, “by weeding everyone will know you are my disciples.” We do serious damage to the church and her mission when we take it upon ourselves to weed, to judge, and insist on dictating whom God should bless and save, and whom God should condemn and punish. 

Throughout the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus is clear that no one can be absolutely certain who is “in” or who is “out.” We - are - not - God. Jesus says that God’s judgment on such matters is none of our business and, in fact, who will be in heaven will take many by surprise; How did they get in here?” And I say, “Thank God it is not up to us and certainly not up to me!” because if we look deep within our own hearts and minds we will admit that all of us are weeds in some aspect of our lives. There are no "weedless" people on this earth. We are all dependent upon the mercy and grace of God … and God alone.

      That is what St. Paul has been speaking about in the 7th and 8th chapters of his letter to the Romans. Paul says  the life-long struggle to uphold and live God’s ways and values is not so much a struggle with some evil enemy out there, but rather, within our own selves. Remember in chapter 7:15-21 Paul admitted that he often does the evil he doesn’t want to do. And so do I. And because of this mixture of good and evil within us, the Spirit and the flesh, the wheat and weeds that are a part of our human nature, Paul, in today’s reading, says we and all creation, groan in labor pains awaiting redemption.

Yet, there is hope. Paul says that God is willing to, and can, transform not only my weediness and yours’, but our entire garden, our surroundings, our circumstances, because that is what God always offers to do. Look at the experience of Jacob in today’s reading from Genesis. Now, I am not a fan of Jacob. To me, he has been a schemer from day one. Our reading portrays Jacob fleeing for his life; a refugee caught between a conflict-ridden past and an uncertain future. He is in limbo, landless and rootless, with no prospects for the future. And he has been running for so long, he is exhausted. So he lies down in an unnamed place of no real significance, falls asleep, and has a dream.

An amazing thing about dreams: In the midst of bizarre characters, events, and actions dreams often mirror what we are experiencing in real life. Amid all the flurry of this man on the run, Jacob’s dream offers a flurry of activity between earth and heaven. He sees a ladder stretching to the heavens with angels ascending and descending upon it. In deference to the old Spiritual, there is no “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” here.  The ladder does not give Jacob access to heaven, but rather, God appears and speaks to Jacob right where he is in the midst of this unknown land. That setting is important because, in early Middle Eastern theology, gods were believed to be territorial and confined to the borders of nations. So, having fled the country, Jacob probably thought he was beyond our God’s reach. But as Genesis affirms, God is not some disengaged, distant being. Our God is ever-present. In the midst of this ordinary, non-descript place God speaks, and God affirms that he has been, and always will be, with Jacob who awakens and realizes that God is present wherever he lives, wherever we live, wherever we go, present to transform us and our surroundings right where we are, weeds and all. That realization of God’s merciful presence transforms Jacob so deeply that Jacob, the bad seed, the weed who spread strife and division throughout his entire life will stop running, will be reconciled to his father and brother, and become a source of God’s blessing to all the nations of the world.

     Friends, if God can transform a fellow like Jacob into a patriarch of the Hebrew faith, if God can transform a tyrant like Paul into a patriarch of the Christian Church, imagine what God can do, and is doing, with us in whom as our earlier prayer affirmed, God has planted good seed – a seed that desires to be nurtured so that it reveals our true self, a seed awaiting fulfillment in and through us. Jacob confessed, “Surely the LORD is in this place … and I didn’t know it.” I find that indicative of where so many in the Christian Church are today. How can anyone be aware of the transforming presence of God if all we focus on are the weeds around us, the difficulties we encounter in our everyday lives, the weeds within our own selves, and especially, the weeds in others?

Jesus says leave judgment to God and get on with the mission of the Church - A mission to proclaim and demonstrate from the very core of our being the transforming mercy, grace, love and forgiveness of God offered in Jesus Christ to the entire weedy world just as it is and where it is.

To that end, may God open our eyes, our minds, and especially our hearts to look past the weeds, and be not only more aware of God’s presence in our daily lives, but also, be that presence of God to one another, our neighbors and our communities, and demonstrate that love, mercy, grace and forgiveness of God to everyone we meet. For then, this community will recognize that “Surely the LORD is in this place … and they will know it because our lives – our wheat-filled and yet, still weedy lives - prove it.” God, let it be so.  Amen.