Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Proper 11 A

We all have wheat and weeds growing within us. What are we to do?

Proper 11 A
The Rev. Valerie A. Hart
July 18, 1999
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
The Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat

         The lectionary readings are now in the midst of a group of parables about the kingdom of heaven. Last week we read the parable of the sower who sowed grain on the path, the rocks, the weeds and the good land. This week we read the parable of the weeds strewn among the good seed. Next week there will be a series of short parables about the kingdom.
         One of the things that all the scholars agree on is that Jesus taught in parables. This was a common form of teaching among Rabbis of his time. Since they were teaching in an oral culture, that is a culture that was not based primarily on written word for only a select few were literate, the teachings had to be easy to remember and pass on to others. If we are writing down a teaching, it can be a complex theological statement, but if we are trying to remember something, it needs to be in an easily memorable form, such as a poem, a song, or a story. Think about what you remember from sermons you have heard. Almost everyone says that what they are most likely to remember are the stories. So, Jesus, speaking to an audience of everyday people spoke in stories, or parables. The word for parable can also can mean puzzle. So the parables are short, memorable stories that leave the person with a puzzle.
         Jesus was content to leave his teaching in this unpolished form and trust his followers to wrestle with these puzzles as they remembered them. As far as we know Jesus never recorded anything in writing. He trusted that the stories would be remembered and that in the process of wrestling with the parables, the puzzles, a transformation would occur.
         The parables then, are designed to get us thinking. They are like a Zen Koan that takes us out of our usual way of seeing things and leads us toward inner transformation. The one thing that all the parables have in common, is that they go against “common sense”.  What sower scatters seeds all over the place? Who lets the weeds grow up with the wheat? Who sells all he has to buy one pearl? Who pays workers who have worked for one hour the same amount as those who have worked all day? Parables make us rethink things, cause us to wrestle with the meaning, lead us to new understanding and transformation.
         Given this introduction, let us wrestle with the parable of the weeds among the wheat. Here we have a land owner, in fact evidently a rich land owner for he has servants, who goes out and does his own sowing of the wheat. There’s our first odd thing. Next, during the night an enemy comes along and sows weeds in the field. Now there is a dirty trick worthy of the twentieth century - going over to a competitor’s field and sowing weeds. When the wheat and weeds both sprout the servants come and ask the master whether he sowed good seeds. Wouldn’t you expect it to be the owner of the field who was concerned and would question the servants. If I owned a field that sprouted both grain and weeds I would be out there grilling the ones I hired to do the planting, but here it is turned around again. The servants are the ones who are concerned, the owner says to let them grow up together. The owner is not bent out of shape by this, he is not letting the enemy get him upset, he simple says to wait until the harvest and it will all get sorted out. You see, he will harvest the grain and bundle up the weeds to use as fuel for his fire (bundled weeds were one of the primary fuels at that time in that area). Neither will go to waste.
         What are we to do with this parable? How shall we wrestle with it. Now this is one of the parables that has an interpretation in the Bible. It is an allegorical interpretation, that is making a one to one correspondence between aspects of the story and their interpretation. Rabbi’s did not speak in allegories, but the Hellenistic, or Greek, teachers of the time used allegories extensively. Very rarely do Biblical scholars agree on anything, but they all agree that it is extremely unlikely that Jesus actually made the interpretation recorded in Matthew. So, let’s put that interpretation aside for a while and look at the parable alone and within the context of other parables.
         If you remember last week, we looked at the parable of the sower and in that interpretation the seeds were the word of God or the word of the kingdom. The sower than could be either God, Christ, or the followers of Christ who share the Word with the world. In that parable the weeds are the cares of the world and the lure of wealth that choke out the word. If we were to use that interpretation when looking at this current parable, what would we find? It would suggest that the word of God is sown in the field, but that the enemy comes and sows weeds or distractions. In our lives then, the word of God has been sown, but also all kinds of other things are sown into our minds.
What are the weeds that grow up? Well we each have slightly different versions, but mine include anger, resentment, hurt, and that rational mind that sometimes asserts itself with questions and doubts. Living in the end of the 20th century, I was taught to trust the rational mind. That the only things that are true are things that can be proved by the rational scientific method. That is one of those seeds that is deeply planted in me, and every so often asserts itself. And then there are the seeds of desire and consumerism that are regularly sowed into our minds by the media today. The idea that there is not enough to go around, or that we always need more. Those are weeds that sprout abundantly today. There are weeds of self doubt, weeds of fear, weeds of thinking that we aren’t good enough. All kinds of messages that we get from parents and movies, and advertisements. Messages that say we should look thin and young, messages that say we will know happiness if we live the lifestyle of greed and lust shown in the movies and TV. Messages that say we need to worry about the future, like the ads for life insurance that play on our fears that our families will be helpless without us.
Where is God in all these message? What about the message of the Word, which says that God is abundance, abundance of love? What of the seeds of caring and trust that have been sown in our hearts? These seeds grow up among the weeds. Sometimes it seems as if the weeds will choke out the grain, but this parable suggests that it is OK for the grain and the weeds to grow together, that we can trust that God will be able to sort it all out in the end. Perhaps if we try to rip out of ourselves these thoughts that I have indentified with weeds, we will only damage the tender shoot of grain that is God’s word.
I have seen this happen, that people get so upset by the thoughts and ideas that come into their minds that they attempt to rip them out and are therefore constantly in a state of inner struggle and pain. The joy and love of the word of God gets drowned out in the struggle to be perfect. On the other hand, if we accept that there will be weeds sown in us, and if we do not particularly nurture the weeds, but neither do we violently rip them out, we will find the grain growing stronger all the time. And who knows, maybe God will be able to use those weeds to build a fire with.
         This idea that one should not try to too quickly or too violently to change everything at once is expressed in an Indian story. There once was a prince who was being attached by someone who wanted to take over his thrown (a coup attempt.) The prince fled the palace for the forest, where he found people who were willing to fight with him to retrieve the thrown. The prince than took his men and attacked the capital city and were easily repelled. That night, dejected and hungry he put on the disguise of a beggar.
A woman brought him into her home, took a ladle full of rice that was cooking on the fire and put it in a bowl for him. He was so hungry that he took his spoon and scooped up a large mouthful from the center of the bowl and burned his mouth.
The woman said, “You are just like the prince.”
Worried that she had seen through his disguise he asked what she meant.
 She responded, “When you eat rice you need to start on the outside edges of the bowl where it has begun to cool off and then gradually work your way to the middle. By the time you get there, the center will also be cool.”
“How is the prince like that?” he asked.
“The prince has been trying to attack the center of the kingdom. If he starts at the edges where there are fewer defenses and works his way gradually closer to the capital, by the time he gets there the defense of the capital will have been weakened.”
Greatly inspired, the prince thanked the woman and changed his strategy, eventually regaining the kingdom.
         So, one way of understanding this parable, is that it is a call for us to be gentle with ourselves. Accept the fact that we are not perfect, that we indeed have many weeds growing in us, and trust that God will be able to sort it all out in the end.
         But what about the interpretation that is presented by Matthew. In that one the seed becomes the children of the kingdom and the weeds are the children of the evil one. If we are to take the children to be people we run into a problem, because it suggests that there are people who are not sown by God, that are not created by God. But our theology is that God is the creator of the whole world and all that is in it.
We do not follow a Gnostic belief system that there are some of us who come from the God of light and others who are not from God. So we need to see that the concept of children of the kingdom is more likely to mean the ideas, the concepts, the actions, the beliefs that are of the kingdom, and the children of the evil one represents that which is not of God.
It states that at the end of the age the Son of Man will send his angels and that they will collect all causes of sin and all evildoers. The causes of sin are the seeds, the ideas that have been planted that lead us toward sin, that lead us to miss the mark. Who are the evildoers? Are they the ones who planted the weeds in the first place? Are they the ones who have encouraged the growth of the weeds? It is not really clear. But these will be thrown in the furnace, burned for heat as the weeds are burned. Not as punishment, but just as a response to what they are useful for.
The final question is who will be weeping and gnashing teeth? It is in the passive voice, and it is not clear who is weeping and gnashing teeth. Who would weep over weeds being burned. Only the creator, the one who created the weeds along with the wheat, only the one who loves all of creation, only the son who calls all creation to God, only such a God of love would weep and gnash teeth that there were some weeds that needed to be burned.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Proper 10 A

Have you ever cared about someone who appeared to be unable to receive your love? If so, than you know how God must feel as that foolish farmer sows love on everyone.

Proper 10 A
Sermon given on
July 13, 1996
By Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
At St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

As I was contemplating the readings for this week I began thinking about my mother-In-Law. During the last few years of her life she was extremely depressed. She was deeply loved, yet seemed incapable of knowing it. Her husband, my father-in-law, was as devoted as any man could be. He cared for her, took her wherever she wanted to go. He made sure she went to the doctors and took her medicine, etc. He even took her to Hawaii, where years ago they had experienced so much love and joy, in the hopes that she would cheer up. But nothing seemed to matter, she continued to feel unloved, unlovable.
No matter how much love was showered upon her by her husband, she couldn’t feel it. No matter that her baby grandchild adored her, she felt unloved and useless. Nothing that any of us said or did mattered. No seed of love could take root in the hard soil of her heart. A heart that had kept hidden the hurts of childhood. A heart that had deeply loved her family. A heart that could not receive, yet still longed to give. In fact, in her suicide note she said that she felt we would be better off without her. How little she understood the deep love we felt for her and the aching we would all feel with her death. How hard it was to have loved someone so deeply and to know that they were unable to feel it.
Have you ever given your love to someone unable to receive or acknowledge it? Perhaps there was a time when your spouse was so busy with work or other concerns that he or she didn’t notice your love. Or your child may have gone through a period of time when their need to express and be in touch with their anger made it impossible for them to acknowledge your love. Or you may have found yourself caring for a parent whose illness is so severe that their pain keeps them from realizing the love behind your ministrations. Or maybe you are a teacher who has known a student who was so damaged by life that they could not respond to your sincere care. We have all had times when we have felt as if our love was being thrown into a black hole, where the one we loved just didn’t respond.
Or perhaps we have known times when we felt dead and dry inside, and unable to feel the love that we intellectually knew was there. Perhaps we have felt this way because of grief, or stress on the job, or hormonal changes, or chronic illness, or mental disturbances, or we just don’t know why. These are times when we cannot respond to the care expressed by others, when no matter what is said or done we feel unloved, unlovable. When even God’s love can’t get through.
What does this have to do with today’s readings? God is the abundant sower, perhaps even a foolish farmer, for God sows love on all. The seeds of God’s love are sown on the hard path where there is no hope of them taking root. They are sown on rocky ground that has no depth. They are sown among thorns where there is no chance of growth, as well as being sown on good ground. What kind of farmer is so wasteful? Doesn’t a farmer choose carefully where the seeds will be planted. Why would a farmer waste all that seed?
But the nature of God is abundance.
Isaiah speaks of people receiving water and food without money. He describes the word of God as being like rain and snow coming down and watering the land. The rain and snow do not discriminate as to where they will land. The rain falls on the land that has been prepared and absorbs it. It falls on the hard clay that just has it run off. It falls on the streets and towns and lakes and rivers. It is indiscriminate. So it is with God’s love. God’s love is sown upon all - worthy or unworthy, rich or poor, good or bad, happy or depressed, those ready to receive and those closed off. It doesn’t matter to God; the love is just sowed everywhere.
      I remember a time when I felt spiritually dead inside. When I saw my spiritual director I told her how I was unable to feel God’s love in the way I had before, and I grieved that loss. I said that I felt dry inside. Her response surprised me. She said that for many of the great mystics they trusted the dry, desert times more than the times they felt filled with love, because it was often through the dry times that God’s work of transformation was most powerful. Just as a field must lie fallow sometimes in order to continue to produce healthy crops, sometimes our hearts feel dry inside so that we can fully know our need for God.
Often after a period of dryness, the gift of experiencing the fullness of God’s love again is worth the pain of the dry periods. Coming out of that dry period, once again feeling filled with God’s love, I realized how central love is to all that we do.
It is really very simple. Our theology does not need to be complicated - it is that God loves us, and we are Christians because the way that we came to know how much God loves us is through the incredible love expressed by Christ. Our worship is an expression of love. We sing songs of love for God. We pray in thanksgiving of God’s love. Even our time of confession is an acknowledgement that we have not loved as we could. We express our love for each other at the Peace. And we conclude our worship with the Eucharist, the Holy Communion where we remember God’s expression of love through Christ, and we partake of the loving gift of his body and blood. That’s what our worship is all about - Love.
God still keeps sowing those seeds, whether we are receptive or not, in the confidence that at some point the soil will have been prepared, the thorns removed, the rocks cleared away, the hard ground plowed, so that the seed of love will take root and grow and bring forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. And what marvelous grain it is, for the fruit of God’s love is our ability to love. When we have so abundantly received we are called to equally abundantly, and selflessly give. We are called to give our love as God gives, abundantly, without concern of how it is received, with the assurance that sometimes seeds planted in the desert are just waiting for the next rain to sprout and grow.  
So we keep loving, as God keeps loving, and we keep plowing the ground, clearing out weeds, removing the stones, and trusting in the dry times that the abundant rain will return,
trusting in a love that is often not returned from others, trusting in the love from God that we are sometimes unable to feel, and trusting that God will continue to keep sowing love.
I don’t think that God ever gives up on us. I am sure that even though my mother-in-law was closed to God and human love in this lifetime, that God has not given up on her, but continues to sow the seeds of love into what I hope and believe is now more fertile soil. Such an extravagant farmer would never give up on an opportunity for love.
I trust that God continues to sow the seeds of love, and will continue to sow them. Just as we are called to continue to sow love in the hope and confidence that eventually it will fall on fertile ground.