Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sermon for Proper 11 (V Pentecost)

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Psalm 86:11-17

St Mary's, Robinson
St John’s, Albion                                                                                                      
St John the Baptist, Mount Carmel

One of my favorite movies is a rather obscure film from the 1990s called Breaking the Waves. The main character is a young woman names Bess McNeil, who lives in a small village on the east coast of Scotland. Now Bess, along with the rest of the village, is a devout Presbyterian.  Bess makes the mistake of falling in love with a Scandinavian oil rig worker, and as a result of that relationship she ends up engaging in some pretty bizarre behavior which was, by any standard, unwise, and by most religious standards, quite sinful. Toward the end of the movie, Bess dies. I’ll never forget the scene at her funeral, with the Presbyterian pastor, along with the elders of the village, gathered around her grave. As Bess’s coffin lay in the bottom of the grave, the pastor solemnly declared, “Bess McNeil, you are a sinner, and for your sins you are condemned to Hell!” And that was that.
Well, I know a few Presbyterians, so I know not to make generalizations about Presbyterians based on that scene. But the stern brand of Puritanism that produced such an attitude is certainly part of our collective unconscious as Americans; it’s part of our cultural DNA. And it’s an image of God in our heads that is not very appealing—a God who is harsh, who is out to trip us up if he can, a God from whom there is always a trick question, and who takes delight in condemning and inflicting misery.
Most of us are probably not tempted to buy into this way of thinking explicitly. But I’m pretty sure a lot of us often accept softer, less dramatic versions of it. We think that God’s disposition towards us is one of constant disappointment and that’s He’s just itching for an excuse to make something bad happen to us.
This God of perpetual anger is represented by some of the characters in the parable that Jesus tells about a farmer, a grain grower, whose field hands come to him and say, “Look, boss, we’ve got a problem. You’d better talk to your seed supplier, because those seeds that we planted a couple of weeks ago are starting to come up, and they’re not all what you thought they were. There are some weeds in there.” And the farmer says, “Do tell. So what do you want to do about it?” And the field hands say, “Let’s go out there and yank out those weeds right now. Let’s pull them all out by the roots, before they get any bigger.” Haven’t you known people who seem just a little too eager to pull weeds, a little too eager to name the names of those who are certainly on their way to Hell? Haven’t you known people who think that God is being most God-like when He’s condemning somebody?
But, of course, not everybody thinks that way. There are those who believe not so much in God the Father as God the Grandfather. This is a “kinder and gentler” God—a God who is never judgmental and who would never really punish anybody. We might get a friendly tug on the shirtsleeve when we’ve been really naughty, but actual punishment? Actual consequences for wrong-doing? No way. And Hell? Certainly a God who is Himself the very essence of love would never really send anyone there, nor would a God who is Himself the very essence of love resort to fear-mongering as a means of getting us to toe the line. Rather, God appeals to our higher instincts, to the good that resides in every person’s heart.

This “kinder and gentler” God is particularly appealing to us these days. Within my own lifetime in our society, the notion of objective morality—the idea that some things are right and other things are wrong, just in and of themselves—the notion of objective morality has withered and practically died. Among the majority of the current generation of young adults, and among a great many middle-aged and older adults, it’s considered a laughable concept. Morality, for them, is flexible. If some particular moral map seems to lead an individual or a group in the direction they want to be going, good for them. But it’s good only because it works, not because it’s just good.
In terms of today’s parable, we have to invent a place in the story for the advocates of this viewpoint, because, in the story as Matthew tells it, they don’t exist. So, using our imagination, we might conjecture that some of the farm hands come to the grower and say, “Look, we’ve got a minority report here. Some of our co-workers, we realize, are telling you that there are weeds coming up among the grain. But we’re not so sure. We think it’s just a different sort of grain, but no better and no worse than what you thought you were planting. We don’t see a problem. We should just treat them both equally and let them grow.”
So, one group says, “Pull the weeds out now, before it’s too late!” Another group says, “Weeds? We don’t see any weeds.” The first group says, “Our God is a God of judgment and righteous wrath. He will strike down those who do not walk in His ways.” The second group says, “God is love, and gives life and joy and freedom to all His creatures. We should just live and let live.” Well, as they used to say on the old TV show To Tell the Truth—will the real God please stand up?

So, what do the scriptures and the Christian tradition tells us about God that might help straighten out this mess?  First, they tell us that God is indeed loving and patient and forbearing. The Psalmist prays, “…You, O Lord, are gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger, and full of kindness and truth.” And in the Book of Wisdom we read, “Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us.” God’s first word to us is “I love you” and God’s last word to us is “I love you.” But as the verse from Wisdom hints, there is a context for that love—not limits; God’s love is infinite, without limits—but a context, an environment in which God’s patience and forbearance lives, and that environment, that context, is judgment. God’s judgment is real. In today’s parable, what does the landowner ultimately elect to do in response to the problem of weeds growing right alongside his good grain? Does he rush to judgment and have them immediately pulled up? No. He’s patient and forbearing. He doesn’t want to put even one stalk of good grain at risk of accidentally falling victim to the zeal of the weed pullers. He says, “Let them all grow up together. Then, when they’re mature, it will be easy to distinguish between the weeds and the wheat. Then we can sort everything out and throw the weeds into the fire.”
What this parable is telling us is that, yes, God is patient and forbearing and loving, but there are weeds in the garden. Sin is real. It is possible to fall short of God’s expectations. It is possible to displease God. It is possible to disobey and rebel against God. And God will not infinitely tolerate sin. He’s provided the means for dealing with it; that we know. But those means need to be applied.
This presents us, of course, with yet another paradoxical tension that we need to maintain—the tension between God’s judgment and God’s love. Both are real. We can’t decide with the dour Presbyterians at poor Bess McNeil’s grave that God is only judgment. But neither can we decide with the majority in our culture that God is only love. God is both judgment and love. God’s judgment is the package in which God’s love is wrapped, and God’s love is the package in which God’s judgment is wrapped. God’s love is for all people, even the weeds among the wheat. God’s judgment is for all people, even the wheat among the weeds. Jesus, in this parable, invites us to endorse and agree with God’s own attitude. And if our first impulse is to think of ourselves as wheat and some of our neighbors as weeds, then we’ve got some work to do. We are all some of both. The good news today is that a loving God doesn’t grind us into mulch, even with all the weeds in our garden. He lets the weeds and the wheat grow together. In the end, he’ll pull out the weeds Himself, finishing His new creation, making us pure and spotless, enjoying His presence forever. Amen.

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