Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Weeds and the Wheat


Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Mat 13:24-30 & 36-43


My Dad has been in Hospital recently as many of you know. It was a very significant emergency procedure and he was very poorly for some time. We knew when he was on the mend, though, when he began to do his “Daily Mail Man” routine. It is a rant and it goes something like:
“It shouldn’t be allowed. They don’t know what they’re doing. Someone should do something about it. They’re all as bad as each other. If I was in charge….”, and so on. I am just waiting for him to turn into Victor Meldrew and actually slap his head and say “I don’t believe it.” (British T.V. reference.)

Now as to the identity of the “They” in these rants: it varies: the government, specific politicians, Barnsley Council, public services and the E.U. to name but a few. He gets very heated when he does this and my daughters look at me for reassurance. “Is Granddad going to explode?”
“Just let him get it off his chest and he’ll be fine.”
And so it usually is as Mr Hyde becomes Dr. Jekyll once more.

In one scenario or another that is probably a familiar domestic picture for all of us. But it isn’t just at home where we encounter the attitude which tells us that
a) Something is wrong and
b) Someone should do something about it.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us a parable that turns that notion on its head and it is a parable of our times, and certainly a parable for our church.

Some years ago I met someone who never went to the same church twice: he was trying to find the perfect church, or at least what for him would be the perfect church. I wasn’t assertive enough (or possibly inensitive enough) to say what I thought about this which was something along the lines of: “I pity that church, if you ever find it, because when you get there you’ll spoil it!”

How mean is that eh?

But this parable of Jesus confirms that notion. So, let’s have a look at this field of wheat and weeds Jesus tells us about. What is sown in other parables that deal with wheat is the “word of god”: not so here. The wheat and the weeds represent you and I here today in the worldwide church of God. There can be no perfect church because every church is made up of sinners. There are weeds amongst the wheat.

There was an early Christian heresy that said there could be moral or doctrinal purity in the church which had to be enforced, and enforcing it meant cleansing the impurities from it. There are those today who think in the same way.

“There was a golden age. If only we could return to it. We need to purify the church. We need to return to lost values.” Of course, inevitably, perhaps, such people usually see the will of God for the church as neatly being in line with their own. Actually, I think that little conceit lurks within us all: “If only people would do things my way.”

Of course we should be yearning for a church that reflects the will of God and brings Him glory, after all the Son of Man has sowed good seeds and we should look to see it bare fruit appropriately in our institutions. However, as we are here two thousand years down the line, the product of schism and part of a church history of bad tempered disunity, maybe we shouldn’t hold our breaths on that one.

I don’t know about you, but I regularly hear echoes of this parable in various conversations:
“Why is it that those in the church can’t get on with one another?”
“Christians can be just as nasty as those who don’t go to church. How hypocritical is that?”
“You’d think the church might be one place where you’d experience kindness and generosity of spirit. What happened to the unconditional love and encouragement that Jesus spoke of?”

I am particularly struck by something Ghandi once said: “"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

That should really make us stop and think.

Hold on, though. Surely the church should be a moral arbiter of what is right and wrong and if people don’t live up to our expectations of what is right and wrong, surely it is our duty to correct and discipline them? Indeed isn’t it our responsibility to weed them out and throw them on the fire, so to speak? If we can’t trust the church to hold the moral line, then where are we?

Isn’t that right?

Well up to a point yes, but there are structures and committees and synods that are rightly authorised to consider such matters: I think this parable is warning us as individuals and congregations against making such judgements the norm. So the first application this parable should have is surely in our own lives; otherwise it is just an interesting piece of religious philosophy.

I always imagine Jesus teaching a group when I read a parable. It is really like being in my own classroom. Look, this group listen and think “Yeah, interesting story. Dear me, is that the time? No connection to the teaching at all. This group are discussing it amongst themselves. “There’s some interesting stuff in what this man is saying. I don’t have the time right now, but I’ll mull it over later. Later never comes. The intention was good but again there was no engagement. This little group here struggle with it. “He’s telling us something we aren’t getting. I know there’s more to this.” and they go away deep in thought and worry at it until the penny drops. These are the ones who will take the moral of the parable and run with it, recognising that it has to make a difference to how they live and behave and relate to others.

But before we start looking around at each other and beyond into the wider church and start pointing the finger, there is another important truth: I come here with some negative memories and a fair amount of bitterness and cynicism from my past relationship with the church. So do each of you to some extent, I would guess. I come here with parts of me willing to respond to the call of Christ, and parts of me resisting at every turn, but trying to keep my resistance hidden. St. Paul spoke of the great distress he created for himself when he did the things he really did not want to do while not doing the things he very much wanted to do. Surely he spoke for all humankind, here. And so there are plenty of times when I fail to leave that baggage behind when I deal with other Christians and that’s probably true for all of us. But of course, being human, it is always easier to recognise what is unacceptable and offensive in other people rather than in myself!

Another thing we need to consider is that because the church is a place which offers refuge, compassion, forgiveness and trust, all of which promise healing and renewal, it will attract, amongst others, those who are the most damaged and hurt. While it is certainly true that the Christian church promises to be a place in which people can grow into the ways of love and mercy and justice, if the church is also fulfilling its mission of drawing in more of the unloved victims of our society, then it can expect also to be constantly finding within itself the passive or not-so-passive bitterness and rage that are going to be present in those who have been hurt and rejected – often by the institutional church itself.

Whenever unpleasantness happens and we witness acts of pettiness and hostility within the church, the temptation is to act decisively and seek to weed it out. We want to get rid of those people or things we regard as infecting the community with divisive attitudes and actions. We want to take action to purge the community, to make it holy, to make room for the good wheat of love, for mercy and justice to grow and flourish without being challenged and compromised. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when the master tells his servants not to clean up the field because of the danger of causing worse damage than the weeds were causing. Our first instinct might well be to weed the field but the parable teaches us that we can’t be given that responsibility because we shouldn’t be left to sort out the lives of others from the basis of our own prejudgements, prejudices, petty jealousies and unresolved baggage – after all, who is to say that on any given topic, however confident in the rightness of our stance, we may not actually be the weeds? It is sometimes hard to tell wheat and weeds apart, which is what Jesus was saying.

That is not to say that there will be no judgements: far from it, but the parable tells us that this is another’s task, at the end of the age. Jesus effectively tells us that we had better learn to live with the problem or we will end up becoming part of it. Violence – in whatever form - always begets violence, and so perpetuates itself. Our attempts to destroy evil in our midst become, in their turn, another evil.

We do generally live together in an uneasy truce with our various tensions just about held in check, but every once in a while discord breaks out, just as Jesus warned that it would: this is the point at which the wheat and the weeds appear indistinguishable.

Perhaps we are lucky just now that the Lutheran Church in Great Britain is only facing a financial crisis. That may seem an odd thing to say but if we look at the worldwide church, the wheat is falling out amongst itself in a most unedifying way. It is hard to tell the wheat from the weeds. If you have been following events in Anglicanism recently you will recognise just how relevant this parable of Jesus is, as powerful groups within the international Anglican community are lining up against one another with the culture of blame and recrimination in danger of becoming the norm. There are people on both sides who want to do some significant weeding. Each faction sees itself as the wheat and the other as the weeds but both sides are looking to realign Anglicanism and set it off towards a new future, designed, of course, to fit their current agendas and world-views: there is a real desire to purge and purify the church.

I can hear my Dad’s words again in this dialogue of the deaf:
“It shouldn’t be allowed. They don’t know what they’re doing. Someone should do something about it. They’re all as bad as each other. If I was in charge….” and so on.

Only this time the “they” are variously The Archbishop of Canterbury, gay priests, Bishop Akinola of Nigeria and Bishop Jensen of Sidney, and those who want women bishops, depending on where you stand.

So what has this to do with us? We are a happy little congregation where relationships are good and where we tolerate each other’s little foibles easily enough. While we are part of a significant Christian denomination we exist as a tiny minority in this country. Perhaps both have taught us the value of cherishing each other and not being too quick to judge.

But we can not pretend we are not part of what else is happening around us. We are part of the universal church and while we may have fought battles over women in the episcopate and issues of human sexuality, and resolved them to our corporate satisfaction, others haven’t, and they need our prayers and support and at least to be offered the benefit of the perspective of those who have already travelled the road they are currently on.

Perhaps the practical side of our holding them in our prayers lies not so much in taking sides (tempting as that me be) as in sharing our understanding of this parable: despite the desire of the disciples to know right now who the good are and who are the evildoers, Jesus says, “Just wait!” The Church will always contain more than its fair share of maliciousness, pettiness and nastiness, but the temptation to try to weed it out is a temptation to abandon the way of Christ and make things worse.

There is also something very special in this passage that we don’t notice in its English translation. There is a Greek word at the start of the farmer’s instruction: “Let the wheat and the weeds grow together.” It is that word “let” or “permit” or “allow”. The same Greek word also means “forgive”. This is not just a passive ignoring of the problem. It is an active naming and forgiving of it. We are not called to pretend that the wheat and the weeds are no different. We are not called to refrain from calling for repentance and change. We are called to refrain from attacking what we think might be weeds. And most importantly we are called to actively forgive and to suffer the ongoing presence of those whose attitudes or actions seem to threaten our comfort or wellbeing. We are being told that the means to purge the community of malice and pettiness and nastiness is not through the violence of weeding, but through the grace of courageous forgiving and accepting. This is how we should deal with one another and this is the message we should share with our Anglican friends.

There may be occasions in the future when we might very well appreciate them giving us that same advice.