On Wheat and Weeds and Judgment

Below is my sermon from July 23, 2017, focusing on Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. Parables can be tricky, in part because we’ve been conditioned to read them allegorically. But they weren’t always intended that way–they are stories meant to make us question, think, and consider. There aren’t always easy answers. But the questioning can bring out a lot of good thoughts, anyway.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In seminary, one of the highlights of the year was always the flag football tournament, known as Luther Bowl. Eight seminaries would send teams, some from as far away as Chicago and South Carolina, to Gettysburg to play for the honor of winning the trophy—a replica of the Book of Concord. If you didn’t already know this: people at seminaries are major dorks.

But the highlight of Luther Bowl was always the traditional match that started it all over forty years ago: Philly versus Gettysburg. We had our own trophy just for that game, a rivalry that is right up there with Oklahoma versus Texas or Ohio State versus Michigan.

As a highly competitive person, I loved it. I probably got way too into the football, but it was a lot of fun. By my third year playing, we had already lost the Gettysburg game for two straight Luther Bowls, and we had to win this one to avoid just like total embarrassment. The only problem was, the Philly-Gettysburg game was last on the schedule and we were losing players throughout the day.

A couple were hurt, but a bunch just had to leave for other commitments: weddings, church services, you name it, but when the time came for the big game, our team had only 12 players left for an eight aside game.

What happened, though, was that we played better—better than we had in our first two games, better than we had when we’d been able to get rest and have subs. Because those of us who were left were the ones who actually cared—the ones who’d been at practices, who pushed ourselves, who wanted, not just to win, but to embarrass Gettysburg. And we did: 38-13.

Once we had weeded out, you could say, the hangers on, we were left with a small team, but a cohesive, dedicated team. It’s why teams have cuts, because they don’t want to be pulled down by those who can’t pull their own weight. It’s why I’ve wanted, in many a group project in school, to cast off those who were slowing the whole group down.

It’s a concept that works really well for teams, and even for group projects, if the professor will let you do it. Get rid of the dead weight, and those who are left are able to perform better. And for good or ill, it’s also a desire we sometimes have with church.

It’s one of the things the church has always struggled with—the fact that, as an institution, we are imperfect. Some seem to truly feel the zeal and faith in their hearts and others seem to just be hanging around. It’s what leads to desires to purge the membership rolls, get rid of those who don’t really fit the bill. It’s not new.

There’ve been different responses throughout history. The Apostle Paul was more of a purge the rolls kind of guy—advocating in First Corinthians to avoid all those who do not live morally upright lives and to not allow them into the assembly.

A few centuries later, during a time of great persecution, some in the church renounced their faith and made vows to the emperor. After the peril was over, they wanted back in the church and those who had suffered didn’t think they should be allowed in. In that case, St. Augustine argued, in part based on today’s parable, that the church is not a selective club for the most holy, but a place where all are together.

The question hasn’t gone away; such is our human nature, our penchant for judgment and condemnation. For declaring the future of those we deem somehow inadequate in faith and Christian life. For assuming malignance in another as if our own actions are above reproach.

This parable ought to stop us in our tracks. Good and bad seed sown together. When the plants came up and bore grain, then the weed appeared as well. And the servants came and wanted to know how this bad seed got into the field. And they were prepared to go out and tear it up. But the householder said no. For in gathering the weeds, they would uproot the wheat—they must both grow together until the harvest.

Who do we think that we are? God? Yet many do. We do. A lot. We decide that we know who is worthy and unworthy, we draw lines of who is in and who is out. As much as we rush to judgment, as we rush in to pull up the weeds lest they infest the whole field, Jesus counsels patience. We do not know what is wheat and what is weeds. We cannot know, mostly because it is not our job to decide.

But also, the fact of the matter is, this is a parable. It’s a story that is meant to make us rethink our assumptions about God, about each other, and about ourselves. There is no one-to-one comparison. We are all both wheat and weeds at different points in our lives. We all have the capability for producing good fruit, and yet we all often let that good fruit get entangled by other cares and issues.

Perhaps Jesus’ preaching patience frustrates us. I know it frustrates me at times. We want to tear out the weeds, we want to fix things and make them as close to perfect as we can. We want to get rid of whatever holds us back, but we can’t. The most honest part of this parable is that the field is imperfect. There is good and bad intermingled together, intermingled in the church, intermingled even within ourselves. And to try to separate it would mean the loss of some of the wheat.

We live in this confusing time that Paul writes about in our Romans reading today. This time where we wait, with eager longing for what is to come. We have experienced the inbreaking of God’s kingdom or reign, the inauguration of a new era of hope and possibility in which we, Jesus’ followers, are to be a sign, witness, and foretaste of what is to come. At the same time, we live in the “not yet.” While God has broken into our lives and creation and bridged the gulf of estrangement between us, God’s reign is not fully here yet.

Having patience for that reign to be fully realized is not the same thing as having passivity until that moment comes. On the contrary. This parable teaches us that judgment is ultimately in God’s hands, not ours. It is not up to us to exclude anyone from God’s redemptive power. In the long run, it’s a freeing thing: Trusting that God will redeem the world frees us to take responsibility for the care of our corner of it. We aren’t in charge of defeating evil and death, that’s God’s job. But we can take care of our neighbors, speak out against injustice, and support those in need.

May the God of both the wheat and the weeds bless us with patience and compassion—for others and for ourselves, as we seek this work of growing and producing good fruit. Amen.


A Sower Went out to Sow

Below is my sermon from Sunday, July 16. It is mostly focused on the Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew. This past week, I had the great joy of being with some of St. Paul’s youth on a service trip entirely focused on food justice and urban gardens, so this text was perfect! I hope you enjoy reading some of the highlights from our trip, and look for more in the future as the youth will share their own stories.

A sower went out to sow. On Thursday, after having spent the past four days working at our service projects, one of our youth said to me: I hope I never have to see another garden again. I definitely agreed with her. And then on Friday, after we came home, I looked to see what the readings were for this Sunday. And I could only shake my head. A sower went out to sow.

This week, ten of our youth, Stu Krissinger, and myself were working with fifty other youth and adults from the synod at a service project site in Philadelphia. All of the kids are going to be in high school this year and our group was made up of mostly ninth and tenth graders.

Our week of service was focused entirely on food—food availability, food justice, food sustainability. Through talking with urban farmers, food bank managers, and our nearby neighbors, we learned about how access to nutritious, affordable food is limited in Philadelphia, large parts of which qualify as a food desert.

And we worked every day with those who are actively seeking to change this. We spent one whole day with East Park Revitalization Alliance at their three-hundred bed garden in Gray’s Ferry. Thanks to our kids, work that would have taken the staff a week was accomplished in about five hours.

Stu’s group of kids then spent most of their week at the Eliza Shirley house, a Salvation Army project that provides food and shelter to mothers and children in need. My group went to two more community gardens, both in the Mount Airy section of the city. One helped residents learn about growing their own healthy food and supported the local food bank. The other was attached to a women and children’s shelter, providing that place with fresh produce.

And, as a lot of you already know, gardening is hard work. We spent our time weeding, watering, and pruning. Cutting back trees and pulling vines, spreading mulch and ripping up roots. And were we ever tired by the end of it. (Not that that helped us fall asleep at a reasonable hour.)

And so, when I came home, and I read the familiar parable of the sower again, after rolling my eyes at a garden story, my first thought this week was—this sower is really crazy. Gardening, farming, growing things out of seeds is hard enough work without this kind of reckless behavior. Sowing seed on the path? In the thorns? In rocks? Who does that? He was being wasteful and extravagant—and only making more work for himself later. I know—we spent a lot of time pulling plants up from where they didn’t belong.

Except, as we learned firsthand this week, unlikely places, and unlikely people, can be surprising places of grace and beauty. In Grays Ferry, a rough neighborhood many of us hadn’t been to before, we saw an abundant harvest, of vegetables and fruits and flowers, all lovingly cared for by a recovering drug addict. We saw a community that had come together to make a change for the better. We saw hope and redemption at a homeless shelter. We stayed at a church run school on North Broad street, doing everything it could to be a positive influence in the community.

A sower went out to sow, and scattered seed everywhere. Even in the places that didn’t seem like a good investment. Even in the places that common sense would have told you to avoid. Did it all take root? No. Will our seeds of love and service always take root? No, they won’t, not always. Will the seed of God’s love always land in receptive places in our own lives? Probably not.

If you want to look at it from a simple cost-benefit angle, it is wasteful to do what God does. To simply throw seed everywhere. But God doesn’t look at things from that angle. The seed itself is good, and God never tires of scattering it abundantly, extravagantly, and yes, even wastefully.

It might not all take root, but some of it will. And sometimes, it will take root in the places that didn’t seem like a good bet, in the places where it seemed wasteful to give it a chance to grow. And beauty will bloom out of the broken cracks that were there before.

Because when that seed takes hold, and grows roots, in my life, or your life, in the community—when it hits the right soil at the right time, we will be amazed by the results. I know that I was amazed this week—amazed at the beauty and growth and potential in the communities we were working with, but also amazed at the ways our group, our youth, was stretched and challenged and grew right before my eyes by the experiences God had placed in our path.

A sower went out to sow—and that sower sowed abundantly, extravagantly, even recklessly. The sower sowed in unlikely places, and in unlikely people. And thank God for that. Amen.

On Christian Freedom

Below is my sermon from July 2, the fourth week after Pentecost. Our reading from Romans turned out to be quite timely, as Paul discusses the nature of true freedom:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This year marks my third “colonial service” here at St. Paul’s, and it’s a tradition I have come to appreciate for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it is important to always remember that our Christian faith and the gospel of Jesus Christ transcends nationalistic holidays; it transcends really, any division we seek to put upon ourselves as children of God: be it country, race, or gender.

But it also, we are reminded today, transcends time. In this service, we are invited to remember the generations and multitudes that have gone before us, not just at St. Paul’s, not just in America, but throughout the centuries of the faith. Every Sunday, we worship in communion with all the saints in heaven and on earth, but through this Sunday’s worship we have a more tangible reminder of it than usual.

And we have an especially appropriate reading for today from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where he talks about what it means to be free. I’d like to read just a few verses of it, in more modern English than we had the first go around: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

Having been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness. What does it mean to be free? We don’t often think of being set free in terms of becoming a slave to something. What is freedom? We usually think of freedom in terms of freedom from things. Freedom from the tyranny of a distant crown; freedom from government meddling in how we speak, associate, or worship; or even freedom from a meaningless job.

We measure freedom largely in terms of the degree to which we are free from constraints. Freedom is personal independence. It is the ability to think for ourselves, choose for ourselves, and do for ourselves, without being encumbered by outside influences, whether they are laws, the needs of others, or our own moral compass. That’s the kind of freedom we like to think and talk about around the fourth of July.

Except, that’s not at all the kind of freedom that Paul is talking about in this letter to the Romans. Paul is living in a different time and place that really has no concept of personal freedom. Individualism is not yet even a concept, let alone the dominant practice of the culture. And from that perspective, Paul is able to cut right through our modern myth of personal independence.

In Paul’s understanding, we are all enslaved. Not one of us is a truly independent being. Our allegiance, whether it is a conscious decision or not, belongs to something or someone. We’ve heard the expression, “He is a slave to fashion.” He lets the passing fads of the day dictate his choices—what he buys, what he wears.

What about, “She is a slave to fitness.” She arranges her life and relationships around trips to the gym and rigorous workouts. Some people have pledged their allegiance to personal wealth and are guided by the whims of Wall Street. If you want to know who your master is, pay attention to the thing that most often occupies your thoughts. Pay attention to how you spend your time and money.

We are so invested in this idea of personal independence, that it grates on us to think about being a slave to anything. But Paul’s point is that we are all serving someone, whether we’re thinking about it or not. Like the Bob Dylan song goes, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody, it may be the Devil or may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

The question is not whether we will follow someone or something, the question is not whether we will give our allegiance to someone, but the question is who? Who is going to have our allegiance? Because, like the golden age of baseball, there is no such thing as free agency. In order to play the game, you need to be owned by one team or another.

The teams of serving ourselves, of following our own best interests, as Paul says, obeying our passions, do not lead anywhere but death. Not literal death, but the death of compassion, the death of empathy. The teams of our business, or our family, or our whatever, above everything else leads to death. The death of community, the death of that which is bigger than ourselves.

But thanks be to God that we have been brought from death to life, that we have been bought from the powers of sin and self-interest buy the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. We who have once been slaves of sin have been set free from sin. Set free from that which seeks to control us, even within ourselves.

We have been set free, not in order that we might shake off all constraints, but we have been set free from sin in order that we might become slaves of righteousness. God’s love, God’s forgiveness and acceptance, set us free from that which binds us—even our own fears and limitations and shortcomings. But we are set free in order that we might be constrained by God’s righteousness. That we might be constrained by love of God and love of neighbor.

Martin Luther, in one of his more influential writings, titled, On the Freedom of a Christian, would have been able to give this whole sermon in his first two sentences: A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.

We cannot be free, truly free, unless we submit ourselves to God, the source of true freedom. We are not truly free unless, in God’s love, we are subject to one another. May the love of God, the grace of God which frees us all from the bonds of sin and self-centeredness, bless us in our love and service towards others. Amen.