July 23, 2017

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

How many of you have a favorite movie you’ve seen at least several times? Would someone be willing to tell us the name of one of your favorite movies? How many times do you think you have you seen it?

As you may know, tonight the youth are going to host a screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the green. We’ll get started at 8:30. And we’ll have Popsicles and ice cream and an assortment of toppings. So bring a lawn chair or a blanket, and bring your friends. Everyone is welcome.

A year and a half ago, when The Force Awakens was released, I saw it twice in the theatre. First in the 70 mm format, and then in 3D. And I pre-ordered the DVD so I could get my hands on it as soon as possible. I’m not sure how many times I have watched it in the comfort of my own living room. Some critics have complained that The Force Awakens is nothing more than a remake of the original Star Wars picture. And all I can say in response is . . . and your point is?

Why do you suppose we watch the same movie more than once? The obvious answer is that if we really enjoy a movie, it‘s worth experiencing again. But I can think of at least one more reason. How many times have you noticed something the second or third time you watched a movie that you didn’t pick up on before?

I think the parables of Jesus are like that too.

Jesus used stories to convey important truths for several reasons. First: stories are easy to listen to. Second: they are easy to remember. Third: they engage listeners in discovering for themselves what Jesus is trying to say. Which leads us to a fourth reason: listeners are likely to pick up on something new each time they hear a story told.

In the parable of the wheat and the tares that Amelia just read to us, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to someone planting good seed in a field. While the farmer and his field hands were asleep, someone planted weeds—tares—among the wheat and slipped away.

Eventually, the farm hands discovered the weeds and went to the owner and said, “Didn’t you plant good seed in the field? What happened?” And the owner explained, “An enemy has done this.”

Now I grew up in the industrial Midwest and don’t know anything about farming. But apparently tares—the weeds that the enemy planted in the field—look a lot like wheat until they are fully mature. That’s why no one noticed a problem before they were well established.

Even so, this story might seem a little farfetched unless you understand that it was a violation of Roman law to sow tares in an enemy’s field. So this was actually a thing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The farm hands asked the owner if they should pull up the tares, but he said, “No, if you pull up the tares, you’ll destroy the wheat crop. Let them grow side by side, and at harvest time, we’ll gather the tares to be burned and bring the wheat into the barn.”

I’ve heard this story all my life, but reading it again this past week something jumped out at me that I hadn’t noticed before—this is a remake. A remake of the story of the fall of humanity.

The parable is set in a wheat field. The story of the fall is set in a garden. And in both stories, all is well until an adversary introduces an element of deception. In the story of the wheat and the tares, the enemy sows weeds among the wheat. In the story in Genesis, the adversary sows distrust between the man and woman and God. And in both stories, deception has consequences. The weeds are gathered in bundles to be burned. The man and woman are cast out from the garden.

The disciples asked Jesus to explain his parable. And I have a confession to make. I kind of wish they hadn’t. Because here’s what he said:

“The one who plants the good seed is the Human One”—that is, Jesus himself. “The field is the world. And the good seeds are the followers of the kingdom.” So far, so good.

“But the weeds are the followers of the evil one. The enemy who planted them is the devil.” Fair enough. There are plenty of ways to think about the devil. Perhaps

as a supernatural being, or perhaps more figuratively as temptation, injustice, and sin.

Jesus continues to unpack his parable until we reach these words: “Just as people gather weeds and burn them in the fire . . . the Human One will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom [the] things that cause people to fall away and [the] people who sin. He will throw them into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.”

And that’s why I wish the disciples had never asked. What are we to make of this? The idea of Jesus throwing people who sin into a burning furnace where they will be weeping and grinding their teeth?

So you may be wondering why I chose to preach on this text in the first place. It wasn’t exactly my idea. Not entirely, anyway. Some of you may be familiar with the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a three-year cycle of Scripture readings used in Protestant worship. Each Sunday there are readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels. And truth to tell, I actually love the lectionary because it forces me to wrestle with passages I would rather overlook.

In order to try to make some sense of this morning’s Gospel reading, I’d like to turn to the Psalm for this Sunday.

A few moments ago, Hannah read the story Runaway Bunny to the children. I wouldn’t be surprised if the author, Margaret Wise Brown, was inspired by today’s Psalm.

LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. . . .Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed among the dead, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

God’s spirit, God’s presence is everywhere we turn. Even if we ascend to heaven or make our beds among the dead or settle at the farthest limits of the sea.

In Genesis, we read that we were created to reflect God’s love. And the Psalmist tells us that God’s love is always present. But we have a choice. Even though God is always present, we can abuse our freedom to reflect God’s love. We can turn away from God’s love. And when we abuse our freedom, terrible things can happen.

Then there are experiences in life that can shake our faith. All of us have experienced suffering in one form or another—anxiety, fear, heartache, illness, grief, injustice. And when we turn on our TVs, the images in the news remind of how much suffering there is in the world around us. And in times of suffering, we may feel cut off from God’s love. We may think God has turned away from us.

Rob Bell suggests that we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, serious word to describe the very real consequences—consequences, not punishment— the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. I might add that we need a word to describe our despair when we feel cut off from God’s love.

We need a word that describes the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts. That describes the massive, social collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world in God’s way.

And for that, he concludes, the word “hell” works quite well.

Even so, I have to admit that I don’t quite know what to make of Jesus speaking of people who sin being thrown into a burning furnace. But I don’t believe—I can’t believe—not even for a moment—that he was talking about eternal damnation, eternal suffering.

Because there is a so much in Scripture that tells us otherwise.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” [15:22]

And the author of the letter to the Colossians writes “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ, and through Christ to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven . . .” [1:19-20]

The Christ hymn in Philippians—perhaps the earliest hymn of the church—concludes:

Therefore God . . . highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord . . . [2:9-11]

And my favorite passage in all of scripture—from Paul’s letter to the Romans—assures us that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [8:38-39]

Our theme for worship this summer is “Be . . . Go . . . Do . . . ” So, having considered the parable of the wheat and the tares, how are we supposed to respond? What does it mean to “Be . . . Go . . .Do . . . ”?

In a broken world, a world in which weeds grow up among the wheat, a world in which many feel cut off from God’s love, it falls to us, as disciples of Christ, to share God’s love with the world.

It falls to us to share the Good News that God is present. That if we ascend to the heavens, God is there. That if we make our beds among the dead, God is there. That even in times of weeping and grinding of teeth, absolutely nothing—nothing in all creation—can separate us from the love of God.

Every day, someone crosses our path who needs to hear this news. So reach out. . . . Speak up . . . Lend a hand . . . Be . . . Go . . . Do . . . And may the force be with you.