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Sermon – “Until the Harvest – July 20, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, July 20, 2014 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Until the Harvest

Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24; Genesis 28: 10-19a; Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

If you dig a garden bed, and break up and rake the soil, and put a sheet of clear plastic over it, fastening it down tightly at the edges, the sun’s rays will heat the soil and kill various pests and weed seeds. It takes a month or two of summer to work, so the bed won’t be useful–other than for an autumn crop– until the following year. You must remove the plastic carefully, and plant cautiously, because disturbing anything more than the first couple of inches of soil risks bringing surviving weed seeds and funguses from deeper in the ground, where it never got as hot.

So far I confess I’ve found it easier to go to the Farmers’ Market on Wednesday than to try to garden myself, but I’ve always liked the idea of this solar method of baking soil in order to kill weed seeds. A person also can bake soil in an oven to get the same result, and it’s much quicker, but who has time to sterilize enough soil for a garden that way?

The image in the parable of good planting being compromised by the surprising arrival of weeds is true to the experience of farming. Weeds will come up without any invitation or deliberate planting. They are there in the soil waiting. If you plow and harrow and plant– especially if you transplant, like with strawberries, it initially looks terrific: nothing but what you want, all ready to grow. Quickly, though, grasses come up, and chickweed, and bindweed, and before you know it, you’re either knocking yourself out weeding or poisoning the earth or both, in order to preserve the advantage your productive plants once had.

For the purposes of Jesus’ parable, he wants to say that an enemy has sown the bad seed. This is in order to parallel his assertion later that the devil is responsible for those people who are bad, who are so intermingled with the good that trying to eradicate them would uproot and damage good as well as bad. This lends itself to a description of Judgment Day, when all potential having been realized, the merit or crime of each can be assessed, and blessing or exclusion given.

There are a number of things to say about the parable. Its clearest message is that God has created us for good and it is to our benefit to realize that potential. It also suggests that there are those persons who are the equivalent of weeds–offering nothing valuable in themselves and hampering the goodness of the good. These people are mingled by the devil with the good people in order to thwart the progress of the good, and so inextricably entangled in the world that there is no way to eradicate them without damaging the good.

There is something true in this image, but first let’s admit it’s misleading. It makes it sound as if the good are always good, despite evil efforts to stifle them with bad¬†companions along life’s way. If that were true, how could persons go wrong, and have to change direction, and return to God once more? We know that happens. It makes it sound as though the bad were always bad, despite living among the good their entire lives. If that were true, how could someone who begins wrong discover his error, and change direction, and come to God? We know that happens. This black-and-white way of seeing things adds emphasis to the urgency of our following God, but it oversimplifies.

The world is not made up of what one hymn calls “wheat and tares together sown,” with some only and always the wheat–or the fruitful, useful, and good crop– and the rest only and always the tares–the weeds of the world. This parable and its explanation might lead some people to suppose that they are the righteous and those who trouble them are instruments of the devil. It might encourage any found in the wrong to despair of gaining forgiveness or changing course.

It is not in the world at large, but within each of us, that there is a mixture of right and wrong, humility and pride, love and selfishness, the urge to heal and the urge to hurt. As the apostle Paul notes in Ephesians, “we are not contending with flesh and blood.” In other words, it is not other people who tempt us to mischief or malice. We are, as the author of the letter of James says, chapter one, verse 14, tempted by our own desire, lured and enticed by ourselves.

See, it’s not so simple as joining the church and so being one of the saints, and regretting that the rest of the world hasn’t been favored with faith as we have been. No doubt it’s true that, humanly speaking, keeping good company, being with people who are admirable, makes it easier for us to be good. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from being choosy about the character of one’s friends. Social science confirms that we become like the people with whom we spend the most time–we even end up physically resembling, in terms of weight and conditioning, frequent companions. Still, worship, devotions, and prayer can keep us conscious always of having the companionship of God, no matter what or who else is around, and a love for God in our hearts will urge us to virtue, and make us shrink from what is shameful, whatever bad examples may be numbered among our neighbors. The main thing is to admit that there are people who sometimes seem only to make trouble, for themselves and others, and it may be good to limit the influence such persons have on us, and on those we would protect from bad choices and bad deeds. That does not mean that some people are merely pawns of the devil. It doesn’t mean that a person who has been selfish and self-destructive, irrational and unreasonable, can’t change direction and become a better person than we may be. It is equally false to believe that persons who seem always to be positive, and constructive, and kind can’t go wrong. One way to read the parable is to accept that the mixed nature of life is inextricably true within each of us, and among all of us, and anyone presuming to be able to get rid of the bad without having a negative effect on the good is wrong. The final word on the merit of persons must wait for God.

God gets the last word. Our efforts to sort out the world, to have things the way we think they should be–even our attempts to make the world the way we think God wants it– are limited. We will create unintended consequences–that’s another way to hear this story. Rather than thinking of it as a parable about the devil putting other people in our way as obstacles, we could think of it as a parable about our desire to root out bad people from our midst, and how that can cause mistakes.

We have to look past the immediate and trust that God is in charge. Is life weeds as well as fruitful plants? Do we find that it’s impossible to get rid of things we know we don’t want without damaging things we do want? Is the frustration inherent in farming going to be part of everything in life? What this parable says is that until Judgment Day things will be complicated and confounding. At the end God is in charge. What can we do except do the best we can?

Believing that patient expectation of the goodness of God will be answered is difficult. God is such a big concept for our minds–from the time we have a children’s Bible and bedtime prayers image of a wise old person looking down, through all the metaphors and notions we gain as our understanding expands and the mysteries of life accrue. The psalm today is a meditation on God’s being everywhere. It also is an expression of marvel at the idea that the God who is everywhere is always alert to us and we are always alive to that God no matter where we are found.

That’s reassuring. We don’t always end up in good places in our lives. It is possible to experience a sense of the absence of God. We can tell ourselves that God must be missing from certain surroundings, and excluded from particular situations. Whether we hope God isn’t watching when we’re not our best, or whether we’re desperate to rediscover God in a challenging circumstance, the message of the psalm is that God is there. You can’t get away from God. God always is there, though it may seem impossibly unlikely.

Part of the experience of God is that God, while everywhere, sometimes is especially somewhere. This is what happens in the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob reacts to his overnight vision of a walkway between earth and heaven and says “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!”

This story is reassuring in a different way. This reminds us that life with God is not only holding onto the knowledge that God always is with us, and God always with everyone in the world. Here the idea is that the God whose presence is inescapable also sometimes is experienced in a compelling way as particularly present. It’s not just a matter of our stretching our minds to imagine the scope of God’s power and reach. It’s also God’s stretching to get our attention. The gospel story of God’s condescension to our capacity to grasp the presence of holiness, in order to encourage and equip us to become our best selves, is in this story of a traveler far from home who makes a monument of the night’s sleep which reminds him that God not only always is there, but always is here.

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