158 27.2.11 Wheat and Tares Morland 2nd before Lent
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You'll have spotted by now that those of us who have the job of filling the sermon slot have, in recent weeks, been focussing on the parables of Jesus. The thinking was that these are the basic 'stories of Jesus' which at one time we could assume that people knew. The problem, as we saw it, was that for some this is no longer a reasonable assumption - there's a generation, if not two generations, who might not have had the benefit of Sunday School as I knew it. And for those of us who did have that benefit, well, memories fade. Over the last 10 years, ever since I started Reader training, I've been surprised - perhaps 'horrified' is a better word - to discover how much I had forgotten.
So we've all been trying to work in as many parables as possible. I think
I've mentioned 6 in my last two sermons.
Today's parable which we heard in the Gospel reading is that of the wheat and the tares, or 'the wheat and the weeds', as the modern translations have it.
What is Jesus trying to tell us in this story?
The one who sowed the seed is God, the Creator. The devil, the Evil One, Satan - call him what you will - comes along and sows the weeds. What we have here is the age-old conflict between good and evil. Why does God allow disasters to happen? Why do good people suffer and bad people apparently get away with it? Why do we have to wait for the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth?
I think we all know that there are no rational answers to these questions,
but I think we also know that at some future time we will all be judged.
We really will be separated into the sheep and the goats.
If we believe in a merciful, forgiving God, it is perhaps important to say here what we do not believe in. We - or I - do not believe in a God who would consign to hellfire a large proportion of the creatures He has made in His own image. But we must accept that there are some who really do put themselves outside, people who hear and reject all of Christ's teaching. Nevertheless, in Ezekiel 18:32 we read: "For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the LORD. Repent and live!"
But those who reject these words really will not have eternal life, because the other sort of God I don't believe in is a benevolent grandad who can see no evil at all in his grandchildren, who welcomes everybody in regardless.
We are given every opportunity to turn to Christ (as it says in the Baptism
service), but if we choose not to, then that is our choice. We believe
One aspect of this that came up at Rydal last weekend was this idea of choice. At one point in the discussions, we picked up on the idea that Christ has chosen us. I prefer the word 'invite'. We are 'invited', we are offered God's grace, but we do have the freedom to reject it. God chooses us, and we choose Him.
One diversion that could occupy the rest of the day is Predestination, the idea that before we are even born God has chosen some for eternal life and others for damnation. This is a huge subject, with many varieties and subsets, but for me it makes no sense at all. If we are already to be saved, well then we can do what we like in this life, and however much we ignore the Gospels, we will be saved. And similarly if we are already damned, there's no point in trying to wriggle out of that future: no amount of good behaviour will make any difference. That really doesn't make any sense at all to me.
There are those who have tried to merge the ideas of predestination and freewill, but they seem to me to be two opposite poles. So whilst the wheat will indeed grow and then be harvested, there will be weeds. Temptation will indeed have come and will not have been resisted. And for some, Judgement will have an unhappy outcome.
Perhaps at this point, since we are on parables, we should remind ourselves of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. Those who had 'toiled all day' were annoyed that those who only joined in very late in the day received the same reward. But all of them received the agreed reward.
Oh well, in that case, there's no hurry: let's eat, drink and be merry (not to mention selfish, greedy, or all the other things banned by the 10 Commandments) and a bit later on we'll reform, repent and behave ourselves. We can still get in, however late we leave it. The Emperor Constantine believed that any sin committed after Baptism was unforgiveable, so he delayed his Baptism until he was on his deathbed. He might have been lucky and judged accurately, but if he was, that was sheer luck. We do not know when our moment will come.
Matthew 24: 36-44: "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."
This week's earthquake in New Zealand is a forceful reminder of all of
that. Some have survived and some have not.
Our parable of the wheat and the weeds is all about waiting. The early church expected the Second Coming at any moment. They imagined that it would be some sort of triumphant occasion, a bit like the arrival of the Messiah that the Jews expected.
This hasn't happened. Perhaps I would be straying too far into the 'liberal' camp if I were to suggest that it will never happen on earth, that it is all to do with our own personal journey of faith, and that the 'kingdom of heaven' is something that we can look forward to only after we leave this life.
Most of us would argue that the Kingdom of Heaven is inside all of us if we let it take root, if we accept God's grace.
I think we are entitled to look around us and see a world full of evil
and wonder whether and how it will ever be rooted out. I don't know. Every
one of us is born selfish and greedy and every one of us has to learn
that there are better ways of living with each other. Equally, we can
hardly condemn a new-born baby for being selfish and greedy. These are
concepts it has to learn.
The parable, then, tells us that we must wait, and we have no idea how long that waiting will be. It also tells us that there is no early or premature judgement, and it is certainly not for us to judge. How very easy it is for us to feel superior. Somehow, we have got it right and 'they' (whoever 'they' are) have got it wrong.
But that is covered by Matthew as well, in chapter 7: "Do not judge,
so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will
be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do
you see the speck in your neighbour's eye, but do not notice the log in
your own eye?
You'll have spotted that I find it almost impossible to focus on just one parable. One leads to another. One reminds you of another. I wonder how long it is since any of us sat down and read straight through any one of the Gospels.
One of the events planned for Holy Week this year is a reading of the
whole of Matthew's Gospel. (There will be suitable breaks, and indeed
a full-length dinner break at a suitable point.) I hope that we will all
be able to put the whole of Holy Week in our diaries if we haven't already,
but this in particular, on the Wednesday, will be a very special event.
So, finally, we might ask why Jesus taught in parables. He Himself offered explanations, but I'd suggest that the messages He was giving are so much more powerful when expressed this way. The stories force you to ask what He is trying to say, and that very process of teasing-out fixes the teaching in our minds.
I pray that we will all read on with renewed enthusiasm, and tease out and learn from Him. We can't do too much of it.