Here’s the sermon I preached at High Mass yesterday.
Wisdom 12.13,16-19; Psalm 86.11-17; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30,36-43
+ May I speak in the name of God who creates us, redeems us and sanctifies us. Amen.
Judging by the news, this has not been one of humanity’s better weeks. We have had the tragic news of the Malaysia Airlines plane shot down over Ukraine. Violence between Israel and Gaza is escalating. The Nigerian girls who were kidnapped over three months ago are still missing. Tensions are rising in the United States over the thousands of immigrant children who have crossed the border in recent months.
This has been a week of tears, of anger, of disbelief. And as we speak about these things, in order to cope with the horror, in an effort to make sense of it, perhaps even in our desire to somehow turn it into manageable problem which can then be addressed, we so often seem to resort quickly to language of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
It is one of the most unattractive qualities of human nature that we have this need to define who is in and who is out, who is good and who is bad. Even those of us at a remove from these conflicts are not exempt. We place people into categories, remove their identity as individuals, and label them as ‘the rebels’, ‘the terrorists’, ‘the foreigners’, ‘the fundamentalists’, ‘the enemy’. It then becomes easier — in the name of land, of freedom, of religion — to call names, draw lines, build walls, and in the worst cases, launch missiles.
As Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian yesterday: ‘If we know whom to blame, then suddenly life is not so arbitrary…. If we can state with confidence that it’s their fault and their fault alone, then we do not face the tougher possibility: that life in this new, globally interconnected world is terribly fragile’.
Someone on Twitter a couple of days ago beautifully summed up both the simplicity and complexity of the truth: ‘As I entered home, Dad was watching the news. I asked him: Who did it? Russians? Ukraine? Dad answered: Humans. Humans killing humans.’
Our gospel writer Matthew, even more than the other gospel writers, understood this urge to polarise. His was a community living with threat, with violence, with occupation, with unease. As the good were being killed and the bad rewarded, the peace and justice of the Kingdom Jesus promised seemed a long way off to his audience. And so scattered throughout Matthew’s gospel are stories of the end times, of the ultimate judgement to come, the final separation of wheat and weeds, sheep and goats, wise and foolish virgins. The fiery furnace and weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Justice will be done, he assures his listeners. It may seem hopeless and horrific now, but at the end of the age, justice will be done.
As we live in the shadow of all the violence of our world, the parable of the wheat and weeds seems to urge a patience and forbearance which at times seems impossible.
Jesus explains that the children of the Kingdom are the wheat, and we hope that means us, don’t we? That we have been sown into the field of the world to bring beauty and nourishment and abundance. But there’s a frustrating powerlessness of the wheat. It’s at the mercy of the elements, the drowning rains, the scorching sun. It’s surrounded by the weeds of evil acts which we cannot comprehend and which threaten to choke to death all that is good in the world.
The thing is, we aren’t content with being wheat. We want to be the servants who decide what stays and what goes. We want to be the ones to destroy evil at its roots, to chop it back, to douse it with all the weedkiller we can get our hands on. We long for a uniform field of golden wheat.
But God isn’t interested in purity or in tidiness. God is interested in growth. (Three Sundays in a row, we will read parables of the bountiful, lush growth of the Kingdom — parables of the sower, of the wheat and weeds, of the mustard seed.) God knows that the wheat is precious, but God also knows that it is fragile, too fragile to withstand further violence done to the plants around it. God knows that underground, in the hidden darkness of the earth, there is a tangle of intertwining roots, wheat indistinguishable from weeds.
And so instead, God calls us to growth. To patience. To maturity.
Be wheat, Jesus says. Be beautiful. Be nourishing. Be abundant. In the midst of all that is difficult and all the horror and all the pain and all the suffering and all the inhumanity and all the injustice and all the anger and fear and hatred, grow strong. Wait for the harvest. Judgement will come.
But what will that harvest look like? What is judgement?
Months after he told the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the crowds that gathered that day, gather around Jesus once again. This time they can barely stand to look at him, his body broken and bloody on the cross, two common thieves hanging on either side of him.
And amidst the mocking and the shouting and the scorching heat, Jesus looks over the sea of faces, searching for his friends, his eyes resting now and again on a face which looks familiar from that day which now seems like a lifetime ago. He sees the dark hidden places of their hearts, sees the tangle of hope and hurt, of compassion and confusion, he sees the untidiness of love and bitterness and longing and weakness.
Feeling his gaze, they look down and shuffle their feet, and maybe one or two weep silently, their tears dropping into the dusty soil as they hear him draw a deep agonising breath. Those who had listened so intently to the parable, believing themselves to be the wheat, the children of the Kingdom, recall now with sadness their recent shouts of ‘Release Barabbas! Crucify Jesus!’. The disciples shudder with shame at their cowardice on the night he was arrested. And still the soldiers mock.
From out of nowhere, on that still hot day, a soft breeze carries the words from the cross: ‘Forgive them father, for they know not what they do’.
And one of the thieves, a man who in his life had caused all manner of disorder and hurt and fear, in a moment of recognition an instant before his death, stops the taunting of the other: ‘You and I deserve this. But this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom’.
And Jesus replies gently, ‘The harvest has come. And truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
Let anyone with ears listen.
Image by Naeemakram319 via Wikimedia Commons.