Sermon preached by Peter Thompson, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 20, 2014
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord to thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
For the past few weeks, I have had the privilege of joining with parishioners to explore some of the books that make up the collection we call the Bible. Together, we have seen how the Bible is comprised of many different books composed over a span of several hundred years by different kinds of people and for different purposes. We have noted how the interests of the various authors conflict with one another, and we have discovered that contradictions exist between the different books and sometimes within a book itself. The Bible, we have learned, is not one coherent document, but instead a conversation between a variety of voices with contrasting perspectives and conflicting opinions. And—I am glad to say—we have dared to enter into the conversation ourselves, contributing to and even sometimes arguing against what we encounter in the pages we read.
A week and a half ago, we talked about the Gospel of Matthew, and, among other things, discussed Matthew’s particular fascination with judgment and destruction. Matthew is unique among the four Gospel writers in terms of his tendency to sort people into categories of good and evil and to detail all the terrors thatthe evil will endure. The distinctive phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” that we heard in today’s Gospel lesson shows up only seven times in the whole Bible, but six of those mentions are in Matthew, and each showcases the enthusiasm with which Matthew depicts the punishment of evil. The parable we heard this morning about the field being sorted into the wheat and the weeds and the weeds being thrown “into the furnace of fire” fits right into the rest of Matthew’s project.
It also points to a prominent strand in Christian thought. Christians throughout time have pictured the righteous watching as the wicked suffering all sorts of horrendous torments. The author of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, made the suffering of the enemies of Christianity essential to his book, and a hymn we sing every Advent imagines those who crucified Jesus “deeply wailing” as they gaze upon a triumphant Jesus and his followers. Conveniently, those who have these fantasies determine themselves to be among the righteous while placing all of their least favorite people among the wicked. Dante famously depicted many of his political enemies enduring creatively horrible treatment, and Michelangelo punished those who challenged his artistic freedom by painting them embarrassingly into hell. But lest we assume this kind of thinking ended long ago, let me simply call to mind Pat Robertson and the Westboro Baptist Church. And surely we ourselves are not exempt either. I’m guessing all of us here—in one way or another—know who our enemies are, and look forward to the day on which we can peer down at them suffering in shame as we are vindicated and proven right.
But experience tells us it doesn’t work that way. For one thing, it’s not always clear who’s good and who’s evil—who’s a wheat and who’s a weed. Anyone who has seen Wicked knows that Wicked Witches are often not as bad as they at first seem, and Good Witches often have more complicated motives than we might initially assume. It’s also wise to keep in mind the colloquial expression “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” Sometimes we can cause even bigger problems by trying to completely eliminate the weeds that surround us. I’m sure any student of environmental science can tell you how much we have hurt the world around us by seeking to make our own lives more convenient and more comfortable, and I’m sure any student of political science can tell you how many new dictators have arisen in the process of eradicating old ones.
Matthew seems to realize all of this, which is why, I think, he has Jesus pause in the midst of all of this talk of judgment and punishment to have a conversation with himself. Jesus’ warning that the removal of weeds should wait until harvest-time tempers the very impulses to sort into categories and to declare destruction that drive the rest of the parable. Jesus’ fear that the weeds might be uprooted along with the wheat thus seems to be as much a reaction to the attitudes present within this parable as anything else. Even as Matthew divides the world into two distinct groups and details the suffering the problem group will face, he reminds himself that God is the ultimate Judge—not us—and that any judgment or punishment will take place in God’s time and on God’s terms—not ours.
For my part, I hold out hope that there are not as many weeds in earth’s field as Matthew seems to think and that in the end redemption is a far more common fate for human beings than condemnation. The God I believe in is quicker to love than to judge, to accept than to categorize, to forgive than to punish. The God I believe in is more likely to see possibility than the work of the devil. And other parts of the Bible testify to this God. In Psalm 139, God rejects the sharp distinctions we human beings often draw between things. For God, the psalm says, “darkness is not dark…the night is as bright as the day…darkness and light…are both alike.” And in today’s reading from Genesis, Jacob discovers that what he thought was a rather unremarkable place is “none other than the house of God” and “the gate of heaven.” Jacob is surprised by the fact that God shows up even where Jacob assumed God was entirely absent. In these supposedly more primitive, less loving passages of the Bible, God proves to be far less dismissive than in the parable of the wheat and the weeds, infusing what human beings consider to be unworthy with worth and promise.
If Matthew and I were to meet at some point, I would discuss these passages with him. I would speak to him of a God who consistently has hope in the rejected and dismissed, and a Jesus who eats with tax collectors and sinners and goes out of his way to find the lost coin and the lost sheep. I would remind him how God told Noah that the human race would never again be destroyed, how God assured Jacob of continual guidance and protection, and how Jesus urged his followers to love their enemies and to forgive even seventy times seven. How could a God who over and over again embodied generosity, encouraged forgiveness and demonstrated unconditional love also so easily condemn people to burn in the “furnace of fire”?
In short, Matthew and I would have a lot to talk about. I’m not saying Matthew is wrong, exactly. I’m just saying that I’d like to have a conversation.