Thanks to all who have been following this blog. You can find additional sermons and blogs, as well as information on my recent books at www.markwhittall.com. ReInvention: Stories from an Urban Church was published in 2016 and can be purchased from Wood Lake Publishing. ReImagine: Preaching from Real Life will be released in September 2017.
For Mark's most recent sermons and blog posts please go to www.markwhittall.com
Readings: Gen 28:10-19a; Ps 139:1-11, 22-23;Rom 8:12-25; Mt 13:24-30, 36-43
You’ve heard the question before. If God is a good God, and this same God is the creator of the universe, and more specifically of this earth and of humanity, then how is it that there is not only good in our world, but also a lot of bad mixed in?
It’s not a new question. It’s an old, old question. It’s a question that was on the minds of the crowds that followed Jesus, people who lived in an occupied state, oppressed by military rulers. It’s also a question that preoccupied Jesus disciples, as they became aware of the growing, threatening opposition that was building towards Jesus and themselves as his followers. Evil, and the presence of evildoers was no mere academic question.
And so Jesus tells them the parable of the wheat and the weeds, how someone had sowed good seed in his field, but while everyone was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and so when the plants came up the wheat and the weeds were all mixed up together. The slaves of the householder ask if they should remove the weeds, but they are told no; all will be looked after at the time of harvest, when the weeds will be gathered and burned and the wheat brought into the barn.
You’ve got to admit, it’s a neat little story, a parable which together with its allegorical interpretation first explains the existence and persistence of evil in our world, and then provides an ultimate resolution with the destruction of evil in the end.
So why does this little parable bug me so much?
Ok, there’s the bit about the devil, which I always have a hard time wrapping my 21st century head around. But, if I prefer to think in terms of free will, and the bad choices that humans make and how these bad choices have throughout history created systemic structures of sin and oppression that are passed down through the generations and generate evil in the world, and how we can personify all this and call it the devil if we like, well then I’m ok with that bit.
I don’t like to see justice delayed, but I can understand the lesson in the parable that it’s not our job to eliminate those who do evil, that we are in no position to do so and that our attempt to do so would cause harm.
The bit about gathering the weeds and throwing them into the furnace of fire also makes me a bit uneasy. Nothing wrong with that, I think it’s meant to make us feel a bit uneasy. I won’t try to deal with the notion of “hell” today, but I will on another occasion, and for those of you that are curious, I’ve posted my “hell” sermon on my blog and you can go there and take a look.
The dualism of the parable bugs me a bit too, the notion that there are “good” people and “bad” people. But, it doesn’t take too many readings to realize that the parable can also be symbolic of the entanglement that takes place within particular individuals, that is, within me are found both wheat and weeds, all tangled up.
No, it’s not anything that’s in it that bugs me about this parable. It’s what’s not in it. There seems to be something missing.
Fortunately, for me at least, the piece that seems to be missing from the parable of the wheat and the weeds in our gospel reading this morning shows up for us in our Old Testament lesson.
You see, Jacob is a weed. Maybe you remember his story. Jacob is the younger of the twin brothers born to Isaac and Rebekah and he is a swindling, lying, ambitious, greedy manipulator who by the time today’s story begins is in deep conflict with his father and brother. Jacob is a weed. He swindled his brother Esau out of his birthright by trading it for a bowl of stew, and he tricked his elderly and blind father into giving him the blessing which was due to the older brother Esau. Jacob is a weed, and Esau has vowed to take justice into his own hands and uproot the weed, to murder his brother Jacob.
Tipped off by his mother, Jacob runs for his life. He leaves home, for the first time, and heads off on a long, dangerous journey across the desert. He is a fugitive in exile, with nowhere to lay his head. And so when the sun goes down, Jacob simply stops for the night where he is, and lies on the ground, taking a stone for his pillow.
And as he sleeps he has a dream in which he sees a stairway resting on the earth with its top reaching to heaven, and angels ascending and descending. And Yahweh himself appears, and he speaks to Jacob. He repeats for Jacob the three great promises made to his forebears, Abraham and Isaac: the promise that he will give the land, the promise of a multitude of offspring, and the promise that all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through Jacob and his offspring. And then Yahweh makes two more promises that are specific to Jacob and his particular situation at that very moment. To the one who is alone and endangered, Yahweh says “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go”. And to the same one who is going into exile, Yahweh promises “I will bring you back to this land.”
You see, access to the divine is not something that is reserved for the wheat. God saw something in Jacob that Isaac and Esau could not see. Despite Jacob’s apparent weediness, God sees the person that he created him to be. In Jacob, in that lying, manipulating, swindler, God saw someone who could be a blessing to all the peoples of the world. The story of Jacob is a story of grace.
How do we respond to an experience of the divine? How do we respond when God sees through our weediness and calls us to be the person God created us to be? How do we respond to an encounter with grace? Jacob’s response is perhaps instructive for us.
The first thing that Jacob does when he awakes from his sleep is that he recognizes and names his experience. He doesn’t say “Wow I just had a weird dream.” No, he says “the Lord is in this place.”
The second thing that Jacob does is to feel and honour and express his sense of awe and wonder. “How awesome is this place,” he says. Wonder is perhaps the most sacred of emotions. It is the emotion that alerts us that we are in the presence of God. Allow yourself to experience and cherish and respond to those encounters that inspire you with awe and wonder.
The third thing that Jacob does is to mark the significance of his experience of God. This is a transformative moment in his life, and it is deserving of a marker. Jacob takes the stone, his ebenezer, and sets it up as a pillar and pours oil on top of it. It becomes a visible mark of an interior transformation.
And finally, Jacob makes a commitment. Jacob engages with his experience by vowing a vow, that Yahweh will be his God, and that Jacob will honour him.
All of us are on a journey. There are times when we, like Jacob, may feel vulnerable, or alone, or in exile. Perhaps we feel a bit more like a weed than wheat. But as in Jacob’s case, access to the divine is not reserved for the wheat, nor is it even reserved for those who are seeking God. God is near and like Jacob, we too need to be awakened to God’s surprising presence. And when we are, it is helpful to recognize and name our experience, to cherish the awe and wonder of it, to mark it and to engage with it. For if we can do these things, we too will be transformed by the encounter with grace.
Jacob’s story is story of grace.
Now, back to the parable of the wheat and the weeds.
That piece that seemed to be missing for me in the parable of the wheat and the weeds is grace. The amazing notion that our God is the God of wheat and weeds, and that in his love he can reach out to the weeds, and actually transform them into wheat.
Let me finish with a few words from the song ‘Grace’ by U2.
What once was hurt What once was friction What left a mark No longer stings... Because Grace makes beauty Out of ugly things