23 Jul Sermon for 7th Sunday after Trinity, Year A (Proper 11)
Sunday 23th July, 2023
The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.
This morning at Office of Readings, we heard St. Augustine’s take on this morning’s Gospel reading; he exhorted us to examine ourselves in order to determine whether we are weed or wheat. Should we discover the former, we should do all that we can to become wheat, and once there, we should persevere so that we may continue to be found as such on the Last Day. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by his suggestion that change is possible, but nonetheless troubled by the division of people into either totally weed or totally wheat, mostly because this doesn’t tally up with reality as I imagine most of us have experienced it.
Anyone who’s lived even a little is probably aware that trying to divide the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, into ‘wheat’ and ‘weeds’, is nowhere near as simple as it can sound both in Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds, and in Augustine’s scheme. Even those who we might unequivocally put in the ‘righteous’ box, or barn, will have sinned at some point. And even the most dedicated of sinners will, we may hope, have shown some love and kindness somewhere in their lives. All of which is a long winded way of saying that the line between good and evil runs through each of us. We are all both sinner and saint, both wheat and weed. Perhaps it might be more accurate to imagine each of our lives as a field, rather than a single plant. Still a question remains, though: what are we to do with Jesus’ words today, which seem to imply an either/or judgement coming our way?
Judgement is not always a bad thing – far from it. Being able to identify and quickly react to our environment is a pretty important evolutionary skill. But if judgement has this ‘light’ side, then it also has a ‘shadow’: we’re often keen and very quick to offer our opinions and judgements on all sorts of people and their actions, sometimes with fairly minimal knowledge of them or their situation. What I see in this parable, though, is a call to suspend our desire to judge, to sort, to winnow.
As a gardener I can certainly support the speedy response of a slaves, offering to get out into that field and pull up every last weed, but the householder restrains them, reminding them that it’s not always that simple. In pulling up the weeds, there is a good chance that they may dislodge and lose some of the wheat. The householder wants to give the good wheat every chance to grow fully, to overcome the weeds that threaten to choke it. Another risk is that sometimes you just can’t tell what’s wheat and what’s weed, especially at first. No, says the householder. Be patient, tend the field, and anyway, doing this sorting is someone else’s job. In the parable, the householder says that he will instruct the reapers to sort out wheat from weed, and in his interpretation, Jesus gives this job to the angels.
Are we then expected to ignore blatant evil and leave it unchallenged? I don’t think so, and that’s not what the parable or Jesus are saying here. The reality of sin and evil in our world is clear. It’s because of the existence of sin and evil, what Francis Spufford memorably described as ‘the human propensity to [bleep] things us’ that God gave his people the law and the commandments to guide their interactions as a community. Every human society or community needs some kind of code of conduct, and consequences for those who fall outside of it, and justice in this world is just that: for this world, and for this present time. The final call is not ours to make, thanks be to God.
One of the ways of thinking about God’s judgement that has made sense to me was described by Malcolm Guite, in a commentary on his sonnet for the feast of the Holy Innocents. He points out that in the book of Revelation, we see the lamb at the centre of the throne. Our great shepherd, always presented in contrast to the flock he loves so much, has become one of the sheep, and has learnt at first hand what it is to be mistreated, to be made the victim of the wolf. Guite then goes on to say, “in that final light, there will be no evasion, no spin, no propaganda, no polite euphemisms, but only searing truth. But right at the heart of the truth will be the Lamb, who died as much for the Herods as for their victims; and even there ‘the need and chance to salvage everything’, the possibility in repentance, for the blood-thirsty themselves to be ‘washed…in the blood of the Lamb”.
The thing is, though, if Herod has to come before the throne of God, if we want them, all those bad people, to be exposed to that “searing truth”, then we have to be ready to come before it too. We cannot demand judgement for them, without being willing to undergo it ourselves. And now two things happen. The line between us, the goodies (of course), and them, the baddies, breaks down – or, rather, runs though each of us, such that there is only “us”. As uncomfortable as it may feel and sound and be, we’re all in this together. If I hope that when the time comes, I may be judged gently and fairly, and with love, then I must also hold this hope for all who will come before God. For all that facing the truth in this way is a searing experience, I also long for the day when all of my rubbish will finally be burned away. And here then comes the second thing, the even deeper reality: “right at the heart of the truth will be the lamb”. The lamb, the truth of whose sacrifice and love and power is bigger and greater and mightier and stronger than any of the powers of sin and evil and chaos that sometimes seem so dominant in our world and in our lives. The lamb who will take away – who is already taking away, if only we’ll let him – all that corrupts, all that leads us to hurt ourselves, one another and our planet. All of it will one day be gone, thank the Lord.
Because, as we lift our eyes beyond judgement, we see Jesus, dying on a cross, crying out to the Father and saying, “it is finished” Right to the very end, he has his eyes fixed on God, even when all seems lost. And here is where our focus must be: not on others and the specks of dust in their eyes, but on God. The God of whom Solomon says, “[your] care is for all people…although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us…you have filled your children with good hope, because you give repentance for sins.”
And Paul picks this up in the letter to the Romans when he says that we “have received a spirit of adoption”. Adoption, both in Roman times, and still in our day, creates a new reality, a new family, new parents and new children. Although we still await the complete fulfilment of this promise, it is true now. We are all already children of God, we are all already heirs with Christ, we are all already those whom God created and said, “it is very good”. We’re left once again with the very familiar now and not yet of the kingdom, the “eager longing” and the “groaning in labour pains” as old gives way to new. Living here is challenging, sometimes painful, dark, chaotic. And sometimes wonderful too. Wherever we may be today on our journey, simply our being here now in this place bears witness to the “heart of the truth” that is the lamb upon the throne, the one who we love, worship and follow, the one into whose sheepfold we will be gathered, and the one who has reconciled us to God.