July 23, 2107

July232017 Weeding








Proper 11 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by Berkeley D. Johnson, III


“We Are Not To Do The Weeding”
I’m remembering this morning the struggle I have each time these lessons of Paul’s on spirit and flesh come up in the lectionary.

It’s definitely part of what led me into ministry - this struggle – to understand these lessons on a deeper level; to liberate them from a flat reading, where their apparent meaning can cause us to see our bodies as the problem. And now I am able to sit with people who are hurting and offer pastoral support, confident that our flesh is not an obstacle to our spirit or our salvation.

The confusion for me lay in the Incarnation, of knowing that Christ has entered into human form and has redeemed, has made sacred, all of creation, all matter - our bodies included - contrasted with the idea of Paul’s constant seeming condemnation of the flesh. It seems to create this dualism, this divide, between flesh and spirit. Indeed, I asked myself, without our bodies, how can we even experience Spirit?

So, before I get to the Gospel, I want to talk about Paul’s Spirit/Flesh teaching and an insight I owe to our friend, John Dominic Crossan, who visited with us a few years ago. Because one of Dom’s insights, which I continue to treasure, is that if you start with Paul, you will misunderstand Jesus; but if you start with Jesus, you will understand Paul differently. And I think that is vital in terms of these Spirit/Flesh passages.

One of the problems is that when we hear the word flesh, we think of our bodies; but Paul had two different words: Sarx for flesh, and Soma, for body. So rather than being a “body-negating” theology, Paul’s references to “living according to the flesh/sarx” as one commentator puts it, “is to live for that which is transient, pursuing self-interests at the expense of others, and ignoring the presence of God.”[i] Thus, sarx/flesh has more to do with following after the power and allures of the world, and “not the flesh that adheres to one’s bones.” Paul uses the term sarx as a “metaphor for our human tendency to seek and to possess all that brings immediate and imminent satisfaction to one’s own self and without regard for the needs of others.”[ii] Soma, or body, on the other hand, refers more to generalized human weakness, the weakness of the flesh, common to us all.

So, that’s been a helpful distinction for me in my work as a chaplain, so much so that I now have a standard line when people at the end of life are expressing regret over things they have done and wondering about their worthiness and whether they will be acceptable to God: Yes, I say, “welcome to the human condition. This is the thing we all have in common; so if that’s the final answer, we’re all in trouble.”

And, of course, it’s not the final answer. But that’s enough about Paul for now, I do really want to talk about today’s Gospel passage.

I had the privilege, last month, of attending our annual young adult & campus ministry conference, called Cultivate, in Austin, TX. It is always great to gather with my colleagues for refreshment and renewal, and this year’s conference was exceptional.

Our presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, joined us, and there was one message he shared with us that is pertinent to today’s Gospel lesson and our modern-day culture.

Because we’re still struggling today, just as people did in the early days of Christianity, apparently, with who’s in, and who’s out, and we have silenced the voice of Jesus in the process.
Bishop Michael’s admonition? “Let the Brother speak!”

And what do we hear when we “let the Brother speak”? That, yes, there are weeds growing among the wheat; but that we are not to do the weeding.

Now, as I began meditating on today’s lesson that we are not to do the weeding, that we are to allow all of creation to grow together, and that God will take care of it, I was reminded of another parable from Matthew; one that goes to the heart of my theology, that I have used often in response to the question of our theological inclusivity in the Episcopal Church: that of the dragnet.

Do we remember the parable where Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like the net that is cast into the sea, that catches everything and brings it all to shore, and that it is the angels who do the sorting? We are not to do the sorting! Hmmm, a theme seems to be emerging here. And indeed, when I checked, it follows right after this parable, and is part of next week’s Gospel lesson.
So, these are weeks where we hear Jesus saying “the kingdom of heaven is like” over and over, and we need to listen; we need to let Jesus speak to us today. As Bishop Michael implored: We need to let the Brother speak!

Because there is today, as I am sure there was back then, too much weeding going on. And who do we uproot when we seek to do the weeding today?

When I think of our modern parallels, I look at how we have disproportionately weeded African-Americans out of society through a criminal-justice system that often reflects our racist heritage. As we heard just recently here in our church, during the Get On The Bus presentation, the result of this sort of weeding uproots the children, the families, and thus good wheat is lost.

Or our attempts to ban Muslims, or people from predominantly-Muslim countries, from entering the U.S.; weeding that leads to absurd consequences, like long-standing professors and scientists being unable to return to their work here, or the girls’ robotics team that was nearly barred from entry, until there was an outcry and a reversal of that inane decision.

Or the stories we’ve seen of Latino families being ripped apart through unjust deportation.
Do we notice how our unjust weeding out focuses predominantly on people of color?
Or the exclusion, or ostracization, of lgbtq persons from our faith communities?

Perhaps this is what Jesus understood and was trying to teach us: that our attempts to pull out the weeds will inevitably result in us uprooting the wheat – will result in the very injustices from which Christ’s Gospel seeks to liberate us. The danger arises when we seek to do the weeding ourselves. We need to leave the weeding to God.

But what about WWII? Does this mean we should not have intervened, but simply have allowed that evil to go about its way? Or am I suggesting that we should not lock up dangerous criminals, or properly vet people trying to come into the country?

No, of course not. But it does reveal that these are difficult questions with which we have to wrestle. What is Jesus saying in these lessons?

I think the distinction between what Jesus is saying and the two examples I gave is that in the parable, the wheat and the weeds are growing together, it is hard to distinguish between them, and their roots are linked. Therefore, any attempt to eradicate the weeds results in the loss of good wheat as well. But in the other situations, where actual harm is being done, the weeds aren’t simply growing alongside the wheat, but are harming or killing the wheat, and we have a duty to act, to protect the most vulnerable in our society. So those examples, I believe, do create a distinction that justifies, indeed requires, action on our part.

It is also significant to note that these lessons are unique to Matthew. Why is that? What is unique or different about Matthew that caused these sayings to be included? Why is there an emphasis in Matthew on this issue?

Because not only do we have today’s parable of the wheat and the weeds and next week’s parable of the dragnet, but there is another place in Matthew where this theme is announced as well, and that’s in chapter 5, when Jesus tells them that the rain falls on the just and the unjust.

You may recall that Matthew is the most distinctly “Jewish” of the Gospels, because Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish. Remember, it is Matthew who uses the device, over and over, of “all this happened to fulfill what was written” by the prophet because scriptural fulfillment would have meaning for his community.

Similarly, Matthew changes “Kingdom of God” to “Kingdom of Heaven” because the Matthean community did not use the name of God. And finally, there was the idea of being set apart, and the ways that the Jewish people identified or differentiated themselves from other groups, that was an important characteristic of their community.

And now, along comes this prophet who subverts this distinctiveness, saying “no, the kingdom is everyone, and everything” and that we are not to make any distinction, nor do any sorting. Can we really hear how difficult, how foreign, this teaching must have sounded?

So, doesn’t it make sense then, that the Spirit of Christ that imbues Matthew’s Gospel would need to communicate, over and over to that community, not to be exclusive, not to engage in the unjust weeding out of those they felt didn’t belong.

You will recall that one of the questions I always try to ask is “what is it that was going on ‘on the ground’ – what is it that was going on in the early community – that would have caused this message to be repeated so often throughout Matthew?” And we do see a tension recorded elsewhere in Scripture, where early Christian communities were struggling with the question of who’s in and who’s out, as Christ’s message was being spread; so we know there were questions about who was to be included.

All these factors, I believe, resulted in a theme in Matthew that we are not to engage in the weeding out of the community, but are to allow it all to grow together, and let God take care of the sorting out. Don’t “do” anything; just let it all grow together.

And yes, it is also a means of addressing the mystery of God and the ultimate question of why evil exists in the world.

Well, that’s enough for today, don’t you think? So let me close by asking: where is the Good News in all this, and how does this relate to our celebration of the Eucharist?

The Good News is that it’s not up to us to judge who’s in and who’s out. We are to bring all of creation, groaning along, to the Harvest, and God will sort it out. The symbol of this unity, in our worship, is our celebration of the Eucharist, where we proclaim that this is God’s table, where we present our selves, our souls and bodies, where we encounter the body of Christ, and where we proclaim that we are members of that Body, and that all are welcome. By enacting this sort of justice, and in resisting the temptation to condemn, to judge, and to exclude, we do, truly, Let our Brother speak. Amen.
[i] Hultgren, Arland J. Commentary on Romans 8:12-17 from “Working Preacher” website

[ii] Ibid

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