July 19, 2020 The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

 The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 19, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Gen. 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23; Romans 8:12-25; Mathew 13:24-30, 36-43

From Genesis, “Jacob awoke from his sleep 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.

   My paternal grandmother, Sadie McCaslin, was a phenomenal gardener. Throughout the Spring, Summer and Fall months, her gardens were always filled with beautiful and bountiful flowers. And it was rare to find a weed in her gardens. It seems Grandma could spot a weed from 20 paces and uproot it immediately. I, on the other, while I love gardens, cannot tell a weed from a flower – well, other than dandelions, of course.

   Perhaps, it is because of my lack of ability to discern a weed from a flower that I find today’s Gospel reading comforting. In his “Parable of the Weeds” Jesus speaks of how easy it is to confuse a weed for a healthy plant. The word Jesus uses for the weed planted by an enemy is a real plant called Zizania or, as we call it, “Darnel.” And here is the tricky thing about Darnel: throughout the growing season, it looks exactly like wheat. In fact, it is not until harvest time that it reveals itself for the nasty weed that it truly is. See, ears of wheat ready for harvest are so heavy with wholesome grain they droop or bow their heads while the ears of Darnel remain upright. 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. Jesus is clear that at harvest time, the day of judgment, and we must never forget that day of judgment is coming, God, and God alone, will determine which plants are good and which are evil … not us. Jesus says that God will send forth angels to separate the wheat from the weeds … not us. Weeding is not our mission. 

   Yet, throughout history many Christians have been known to be overly zealous weeders, especially when it comes to the actions, beliefs, or conduct of someone else. This particular passage from Matthew has been used to suggest a dualism of “us vs. them” – us, the real Christians, against the weeds of this world, that being, anyone who believes differently from us, or everyone who worships or prays differently.  Even within the Church, denominations have split apart over an interpretation of scripture, whether we should baptize by full immersion or by pouring water over the head, over mission focus, over matters of social justice, or who is welcome or unwelcome, and even upon which day of the week we should gather to worship in community. And each group is determined that they alone are the good wheat and right, and everyone else? Weeds going to hell.

   Throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it perfectly clear that we cannot be absolutely certain who is “in” or who is “out.” We - are - not - God. Jesus says, “weeding is not how everyone will know you are my disciples.” Whether our judgment is focused within the church or outside of it, we do serious damage to the redemptive and life-giving mission of the church when we take it upon ourselves to weed, to judge, to try and dictate whom God should bless and save, and whom God should condemn.  Jesus says that God’s judgment about these matters is none of our business and, in fact, will take many by surprise. It is quite possible that it will be us who will gnash our teeth[1] over who is in heaven, wondering “How did they get in here?” And for that reality, I say, “Thank God, it is not up to us and certainly not up to me!” because if we are truly honest about ourselves, we know 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 Church at Rome.  Paul realizes that our lifelong effort to be faithful to the ways and values of God is not so much a struggle with some evil enemy out there, but rather, within our own selves. In Romans 7:15-21 Paul says that he does not understand his own actions. He knows right from wrong and yet, he does the evil he does not want to do. 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, together with all creation, are groaning in labor pains. And yet there is

hope for, as Paul reminds us, God is always willing to, and can, transform not only my weediness

and your weediness, but our entire garden, our surroundings, our circumstances, and fill them with hope because that is what God does. Look at the experience of Jacob in our Old Testament reading.

     Now, I am not a fan of Jacob whatsoever. To me, he has been a schemer from day one. So, I’m not surprised that, in today’s reading from Genesis, Jacob is portrayed as a fugitive fleeing for his life, a vagabond caught between a conflict-ridden past and an uncertain future. He is in limbo, landless, rootless, with no hope. And he has been running for so long that now, he is exhausted. He lies down in an unnamed place of no real significance. He falls asleep and has a dream.

   A funny thing about dreams: Amid an often-bizarre cast of 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 has a dream with a flurry of activity between earth and heaven. Jacob sees a ladder or a ramp, as it would be understood in Hebrew culture, stretching to the heavens with angels ascending and descending upon it. In deference to the old Spiritual, there is no “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” in this story. The ladder does not give Jacob access to heaven, but rather, God comes down and speaks to Jacob right where he is in the middle of an unknown land. This unknown setting is important to this story because, in early Middle Eastern theology, gods were believed to be territorial and limited by the borders of their nation. So, Jacob supposes that having fled the country, he is beyond God’s reach. But Genesis tells us God is notsome disengaged and 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 we live, wherever we go, present to transform us and our surroundings, weeds and all, right where we are.

  In this grace-filled encounter, an ordinary place is transformed into something special. In fact, the change is so dramatic that Jacob names it, “Beth-el” which means, “the house of God,” an affirmation that God is wherever we are. And Jacob, the weed who spread strife and division thus far in his life is now transformed by that presence of God. So much so, very soon he will be reconciled to his father and to his brother; he will stop running; and he will become a source of God’s blessing to all the nations of the world.

   You know, if God can transform a fellow like Jacob into a patriarch of the Hebrew faith, if God can transform a tyrant and know-it-all like Paul into a patriarch of the Christian Church, imagine what God can do, and is doing, with us, weeds and all. We can imagine it if we remember Jacob’s experience: an experience that reached its climax when he proclaimed, “Surely the LORD is in this place … and I didn’t know it.”

   I find Jacob’s words indicative of not only human nature, but our own circumstances today. Of course, Jacob didn’t know the LORD was in that place. How can anyone be aware of the transforming presence of God if all we focus on are the weeds around us, the weeds and difficulties, we encounter in our everyday lives, the weeds within our own selves, and especially, the weeds in others? I am not suggesting that we not seek to live better lives, to pray and wrestle with matters of conscience, to strive to be more Christ-like in all things. If the Spirit of God is urging you to change, that is wonderful! Let it be so. Just don’t distract yourself by trying to weed everyone else.

     Jesus says don’t waste your time judging others. As every gardener knows all too well, weeds are stubborn and because their roots often entangle with the good plants around them, pulling them up risks destroying everything. No, Jesus says, leave the weeding 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, welcome, and forgiveness of God offered in Jesus Christ to the entire weedy world just as it is, and where it is.      

     Beloved, in these days when it is tempting to judge and dismiss anyone with whom we disagree, may God open our eyes, our minds, and especially our hearts to look past today’s weeds, and be not only aware of God’s presence in ourdaily lives, but, to be that presence of God, that “Beth-el”, that house of God to our neighbors and our communities. For then, it will be said, “Surely the LORD is in this place … and we know it because our lives – our wheat-filled and yet, still weedy lives – see it and live it every day.” Amen.

 

[1] Matthew 7:21-23; 8:11-12; 21:31-32; 25:31-46.