July 23, 2017

The Seventh Sunday of Pentecost, Proper 11

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Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

The parable Jesus teaches today is a challenging one about the end of the world, something we don't tend to talk about much, at least at this church.  But that also seems true for most other Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, and Catholic Churches as well.
The crude and simple dichotomy of heaven or hell, or the world ending seems a bit off-putting, and frankly embarrassing for many with modern sensibilities.  History is littered with examples of people predicting the end of the world would come, only to be proven wrong when the sun rose the following morning.
            I admit that I am similar to many of my colleagues when I confess my ambivalence in talking about a last judgment, as Jesus does so this morning.  Today’s passage challenges my concept of Jesus as a never-ending reservoir of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.  That's the Jesus I am personally comfortable with, the one who speaks of love and mercy, not the one I hear today speaking about fire and eternal judgment.
            And maybe that's the problem.  My deafness to this particular Gospel passage might be a microcosm of a much larger deafness many mainline denominations also have toward this and other passages in the Bible dealing with final judgment and the end of the world.   As much of the church’s voice has silenced on this topic, other voices and interpretations have emerged culturally and elsewhere in the church.  A trip to a local movie theater or quick search on Netflix will generate any number of films with apocalyptic imagery of the world's end.  Disaster movies with cities falling before tidal waves, earthquakes leveling countries, alien invasions, all of those kinds of movies seem to roll out in a consistent and predicatable way.  Why?  The apocalypse is big business, generating millions of dollars in revenue annually!  Not just in film, mind you.  Remember fifteen years ago the “Left Behind” book series that was based literally on the book of Revelation, itself not a book written for literal interpretation?  Those book flew off the shelves, no matter how bland the writing was.  Why?  I think it is because we are curious about our own demise.
            I once enjoyed those movies.  There was once a time when all that computer generated destruction and mayhem was fresh to these eyes.  But now those movies bore me.  And yet one thing these movies all have in common is that there is always a remnant of humanity that survives.  No movie I have ever seen featured the total annhilation of humanity.  Someone always survives.  Why?  You need characters to continue a story, that’s the obvious reason.  But there’s a deeper, more important one, too.  I think it is because we need hope.  Someone will carry on, grim as things may be. 

            That word – hope – is the very lens through which I read and understand this gospel passage today.  I read and understand it not as a passage of eternal judgment, but of eternal hope. 
And so I offer to you this morning my understanding of this passage, which pushes me into an uncomfortable place, but I am will go there, and we can go there together.  Fasten your seat belts.
            Jesus is speaking about the end of the world and God's presence in it.  In the parable he distinguishes between wheat, or the good seed, which he calls the children of God.  In stark contrast to the wheat are the weeds, which Jesus identifies as children of the evil one.  Wheatand weeds.  Good and bad.  Clear absolutes.
            And I want to stop here because I don’t think it is that easy.  Weeds are subjective.  Technically a weed is anything you don’t want growing in your garden or yard.  But that doesn’t make weeds bad.  What might be a weed to you could be a beautiful plant to someone else.  Outside our front gate at our home is a plant that is ugly to me because its leaves are brown, it's stocky, and just not very attractive to look at.  It’s a weed to me.  I want to uproot it.  A few days ago I ordered something on Amazon Prime home delivery.  Two hours later a driver arrived with the item I ordered.  As he walked out beside our front gate, he looked at the plant I find so ugly it and he smiled. "We have these plants all over back home," he said.  "Where is home for you?" I asked.  "Nigeria," the man continued.  "This is the first time I have seen this plant in Houston," the man smiled as he spoke.  "It is a beautiful plant," the man concluded.  I had to keep myself from replying "really?"
            What is a plant to one, is a weed to another.  Who decides which is which?
            The parable suggests that God handles that at the end, whenever that is.  This action of God, where God separates the worthy from the unworthy, is an act commonly referred to as the last judgment - that moment in time when God separates the wheat from the weeds, the good from the bad.
            I remember twenty years ago sitting inside the Sistine Chapel and staring at Michelangelo's painting of the Last Judgment on the altar wall.  It is a grand painting.  Unique to this painting however is that it contains what many art historians believe to be a self portrait of Michelangelo himself.  In the painting, St. Barthalomew is holding flayed skin, it looks like a garment, the face depicted on which many believe is Michelangelo's.
            The idea is of a snake shedding its old skin for his hope for a new life following death.  And that is how I understand the parable: it's not about a permanent separation of just and the unjust.  It is not a parable about the future.  It is a parable about the present.  It says to us that what we do now, today, matters.
            How we think about time, we think of the end of the world coming sometime in the future.  But time is a human invention.  God doesn't seem to have much need for it, because in God's eye what might appear as weed to you, is a plant of unrelenting beauty. The future for us, is God’s past, present, and future all rolled into one. 
            What appears as a last judgment to us, might appear to God not an act of judgment that is in the future, but mercy that is in the present.  What appears to be the end of the world sometime in the future for us, is something that has already happened and is happening for God.  What appears to us as God's judgment, is in fact mercy.
            I believe in a final judgment, but I believe that it is not in the future but in the past.  It has already happened.  The separation of wheat and weeds has already occurred, and the verdict given on our behalf was an emphatic "yes" to eternal life, not because we deserve it.  God’s “yes” was given to us because before we were wheat or weeds, we belonged to God.  And that is more important to God than any judgment.  AMEN.