Do You Prefer to Read?
Like we did last week
and for many weeks to come,
we have a parable that may have been spoken
but it has been delivered
between a 1st century rabbinical parable
and a later
Greek and Roman influenced allegory
are even more stark in today’s reading
than in last week’s.
But also, in Matthew today
we can see the faint outlines
of a religious movement
that came to be called Christianity
as well as the apocalyptic lens
worn by those earliest Christians.
I don’t want to do too much
analytical work with the text
because, along with
that Jane Hirshfield poem
and Psalm 139,
we have succulent fruit to bite into.
The question looms,
when are we ripe
and can we be ripe even in our rottenness?
And one voice responds to that question
that God is present with us
in both our ripeness and rottenness,
no matter if we sail on the morning breeze
to the outer most parts of the lake,
or lie down in the ground
for a long winter’s sleep.
But I an getting ahead of myself.
First Matthew and Jesus.
Matthew delivers to us
a parable about sabotage
that is aimed at the earliest Christian communities.
It deals with the question
of how something so presumably good,
like the church,
can have such yucky people in it.
How do we define ourselves
over and against the world,
we being the good guys
and the world being the bad guys?
And how can we account
for some of those bad guys
getting into our good club?
Does it mean the whole club
is now spoiled of its goodness?
The answer that Matthew comes up with
is that the Devil done it.
A mysterious enemy
snuck in by night
and planted the bad guys.
But even though Matthew delivers
the Jesus parable with that interpretive lens,
something of Jesus’ teaching
does shine through
even within the false dichotomy
at the core of Matthew’s theology.
You see, the workers are edgy
in this story, and anxious
when they go out in the field and discover weeds.
Immediately they start sifting through
for how the weeds got there:
Wasn’t it the farmer who gave them the seeds?
Was he not as good a farmer as they thought
or was he tricking them?
Will they be accused of planting bad seed
and pocketing the good stuff to sell for themselves?
Something has gone terrible wrong
and the consequences could be violently hazardous
for those field hands.
Should they purify the field now
and protect whatever good seeds are left?
The field hands are very vulnerable
and they are scared.
They are overcome with
hurried, anxious questioning
about what happened
and what to do
and even some doubt
about the good intentions farmer.
The presence of ugliness
always causes us
to be anxious
and to question the very goodness
we have always presumed.
In the midst of this anxiety
the farmer practices non-anxious presence.
And again, like last week,
practices questionable agricultural technique.
“Don’t purify the field,” the farmer warns,
you have no idea what is a weed
and what is potential fruit.
Leave it alone
and let the harvesters deal with it.”
Now that has the ring of Jesus.
in the face of concern about the future,
about what might happen,
and about all the “what if.”
In the face of a knee-jerk temptation
to separate the good guys
from the bad guys
Jesus stands in the midst of them
and sits down for supper.
When confronted with a demand for purity
Jesus refuses to be fearful.
So that was then and this is now.
What’s in it for us:
here on Castle Street
two thousand and some years later?
The obvious answer is that Christianity
need not be judged too harshly
because of the presence of yucky people in it.
And less dramatically,
we need not be anxious
in the presence of conflicting needs
nor do we need to smooth out any discomfort
that arises when we go through change.
But even more specifically,
and bringing it to ground zero:
You and I need to learn
to live less anxiously with our weediness.
You and I have character defects.
I hope that doesn’t come as big news to you,
it certainly doesn’t to me.
But we have significant problems
that keep re-emerging in our lives
like mildew that keeps coming back.
Surely I am not the only one
for whom this is true, right?
We have painful limitations
and stupid flaws
that curse us throughout our whole lives
and will not disappear
no matter how much we work on them.
It is kind of like aging
that sooner or later
simply overcomes all plastic surgery
and anti-aging creams
and every attempt to appear younger.
Jesus whispers to us from out of the Gospel:
“Don’t try to purge yourself.
What you think is a weed
may bear fruit.
Live with it.
Watch it grow.
Tend it, and let it be.
God will wipe away every tear
and then you will know peace.
For now, just let it be.”
All of this does not mean
we need to be complacent about evil
and all those things we know lead us into temptation
and wreak havoc
But we need to know
that most of what we struggle with
throughout our entire lives
was planted there in the beginning
and we will not be rid of it at the end.
Live with it.
Learn from it.
Grow with it.
Learn how to compensate for it.
Practice non-anxious presence alongside it.
Assume that God
will one day
and allow it to bear fruit.
Until then, make due with it.
Now that is a pretty wonderful parable if you ask me.
holds another gem
that kind of goes along
with Jesus telling us to live with our weediness.
I love this psalm, it is my favorite.
If any of you are around
when I lay dying, come to my bedside
and read me this psalm.
Katy might chase you away
but you just tell her I asked for it.
You see, most of our religious talk
and liturgical language
boils down to asking God
to fix what ails us
or hurts us
or some other kind of problem-solving.
But like I said a few weeks ago,
we have no idea
whether or not God does our bidding like that —
that’s why there are so many non-believers.
We live in a world in which proof
with mathematical equations
and elements of biology
and other stuff that you can hold
and point to
and smell even.
But Psalm 139
promises us that God is present
no matter what.
God is with us,
here and now
whenever and wherever
here and now is.
Whether we are in bliss or in pain,
full of ourselves
or ashamed of ourselves,
desperate for love
or overflowing with it —
God is present with us.
We do not have to be good
for God to be with us,
and we do not have to be right
for God to be with us.
Whether we are ripe
or going through a weedy patch
God is with us.
God is present to us
even in the midst of our worst,
life-long defect of character
and all the troubles it causes us.
That’s how that psalm
and Jesus’ parable are connected.
Most of us probably have a lot of weeds
within ourselves that we must live with,
and knowing that God is present
even in the midst of them
can help us live with ourselves.
It can help us learn how to compensate for them too,
and how to make amends with others
when they suffer
because of those awful things
we haven’t been able to fix about ourselves.
In fact, we will be a lot better human beings
if we spend more time focusing
on God’s presence with us and among us
and less time obsessing on our imperfections.
That’s the punch line I hear in those readings.
Matthew’s delivery isn’t all that good
but Jesus’ parable is pretty cool.
And that psalm is pretty cool also.
Please stay cool yourself, and
peace be with you.