Sermon: Collected and Gathered
July 23, 2017 Cove Presbyterian Church
Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43
Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield
Collected and Gathered
We get another parable this week, and more talk of seeds, but this time we get to deal with weeds, too. We know Jesus is teaching in this chapter, sometimes to the crowds, sometimes just to the disciples, no doubt in response t
o the rejection he’s already encountered. Our task it to try and figure out not just what Jesus was doing way back then, but what he wants to say to us right here and now. So, let’s start with a pretty basic question:
Who are we in this parable? According to Jesus, our only two options are wheat or weeds. Jesus is the sower, the Son of Man, the field is the world, good seed are the children of the kingdom and the weeds are children of the evil one. The enemy who sowed those evil children is the devil. We can only be the children of the kingdom or the children of the evil one. Sheep or goats. Light or darkness. Good fruit or bad fruit. Ones to be either collected and burned or gathered to shine like the sun.
We know, of course, which category we want to inhabit in God’s big sort, but one of the frustrating things about this parable is our lack of agency in it. We don’t plant, we don’t harvest, we don’t do the weeding, even. We just grow, together, intermingled good and evil until that time God sends the angels to pick cosmic teams.
Does any of this bother you?
It does me. I am not keen on this stark dualism between good and evil. I don’t know what to do with Jesus’ vengeful decree. I’ve no idea what it means that at the end of the age there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, although it certainly doesn’t sound like fun.
I don’t really find the thought of the evil ones getting their just desserts satisfying, not really, not most of the time, although lately the thought has been more pleasing to me than I’d like to admit.
But, if we don’t plant and we are not allowed to pluck out the evil and it isn’t up to us who gets collected and who gets gathered, eradicated or rewarded, what, exactly, is the point of this parable???
What is Jesus trying to teach the crowd? His disciples? Us?
I think it is exactly that God is the actor and we are those acted upon. That some duties just aren’t ours. I think it is exactly that our role is limited at best. I think it is exactly that our knowledge, power and perception are not even close to on par with God’s. I think Jesus isn’t trying to put us in our place in this weedy, seedy parable. And if last week was a call to keep throwing the sure to be resisted Gospel seeds, then this week Jesus is telling us loud and clear how we are to go about doing this kingdom work. Sowing, yes. Weeding? Not our job.
This is a needed word to those of us in this time and in this place who have done much righteous sorting, certain we know a nasty weed when we see one, causing almost irreparable damage to the entire harvest even as we thought we were doing the work of the Lord.
This parable should be read daily during this season of great schism, deep divides, bubbles, silos, and tribes. Whenever we are tempted to demonize those who differ from us, we should read and re-read this parable. Jacques Ellul, a layman and fine theologian writing in the 1960’s wrote this: “My greatest sorrow is to observe the fact that, for political Christians, the political adversary counts for nothing, in spite of hasty and evasive claims to the contrary. One completely forgets the command to love one’s enemy.” (False Presence of the Kingdom) We are so focused on grabbing up weeds that we forget that without love, we are nothing and we have nothing.
The more we parse out who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, who is on our side and who isn’t, the more we obscure the divine vision for humanity, impair our ability to be the wheat we’re planted to be, and destroy the harvest God wants to use to feed the world.
I am increasingly frustrated by our inability to grow in the field together. We have forgotten that not one of us is righteous, no not one. On any given day we bear good fruit and within moments bear things worthy only of the fiery furnace. Often, we don’t even know which is which, even in ourselves.
Remember, the evil in the field is insidious, planted in the middle of the night, look alike to wheat. It is camouflaged, growing in close proximity to that which is life giving, root structure intertwined so tightly that to pull up one is to kill the other, too. The devil doesn’t come dressed in a red suit, wielding a pitch fork. The evil one often looks just like us and sometimes is us.
Not one of us is righteous, no, not one. And the people in Matthew’s gospel Jesus judges the most harshly are the very ones who believe they are without spot or blemish, the Pharisees, which means, “the separated ones,” by the way. They get the woe to yous that will not quit. They are the ones called out by Jesus as hypocrites, blind guides, rotting from the inside out.
When we separate ourselves from those we deem less than, evil, unclean, unholy, and other, we fail to reflect the Kingdom of heaven. We fail to match our means with God’s end. We miss the whole reconciling, forgiving, saving point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Listen to Ellul again: “The whole object of ethics is not to attain an end, but to manifest the gift which has been given us, the gift of grace and peace, of love and of the Holy Spirit: that is, the very end pursued by God and miraculously present within us.” (Presence of the Kingdom)
Time and time again the call of the gospel is about gathering together with those long pushed to the margins: lepers, tax collectors, children, women, the poor, the blind. Who is a neighbor to the man? It isn’t those so obsessed with remaining ritually clean that they cross to the other side. No. The neighbor is the one who gathers the man from the side of the road. The neighbor is the one who makes manifest the gift given by God miraculously present in him when he shows compassion.
Who are we told to go gather in for the wedding banquet? Anyone and everyone you find on the streets. When the ones on the “A” list have more important things to do the slaves are told, “Invite everyone you can find.” And then we’re told, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both the good and bad; so, the wedding hall was filled with guests.” The good and the bad, all of them seated around the king’s table. When have we thrown a party that looked like that?
And remember, what is it that Jesus chides the disciples about? Sending the crowds away. “You have them sit down, gather them in small groups, give them something to eat.”
Jesus gets angry at the disciples for sending the children away. “Unless you become like them you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Over and over again, those who’ve been shunned, sorted, pushed aside, ignored or cast out: Jesus collects and gathers and brings back into community. Those plucked out and called out and left out, Jesus says are the first to enter the kingdom of heaven. The very ones we want to leave out, stamp out, keep out, Jesus calls, collects, gathers, blesses, feeds, heals, forgives, saves and loves.
Clearly, we need to read this parable again and again and again. We don’t know the wheat from the weeds. We can’t even recognize the difference in ourselves. Remember that bit about the speck in your neighbor’s eye and the log in your own?
There is much we need to pardon and release and permit and let be until that time God collects and gathers and judges and sorts, a time that will no doubt be filled with surprises.
Imagine, if you will, what our world would look like, if we stopped doing the sorting and instead sought out those on the margin, gathered together and practiced pardon, patience, and mutual forbearance.
What would our immigration policies look like in our “Christian” nation?
Health care? Judicial system? The national budget or our personal ones?
What about in our own churches, communities and households? What is God calling us to let be or let go or let grow for the sake of the whole?
Time and time again our righteous weeding has brought much suffering and destruction.
When we attempt to play God, and do the sorting we inevitably thwart the kingdom of heaven in which people are collected and gathered in ways that upend our most certain, hardened, righteous assumptions.
We aren’t the Lord’s bouncers, we’re his servants. Or, when we are truly wheat, we are his followers.
Eugene Peterson, and I am quoting him on purpose this week, in his book, The Jesus Way, writes about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. He says,
The servant serves God. That goes without saying. But the distinctive thing that comes into focus…is that the servant serves God by serving the sinner, by taking the sinner’s place, taking the consequences of sin, doing for the sinner what he or she is helpless to do for himself, herself.
This is the gospel way to deal with what is wrong with the world …whether the wrong is intentional or inadvertent, the servant neither avoids it in revulsion nor attacks it by force of words or arms. Instead, the servant embraces, accepts, suffers, in the sense of submitting to the conditions and accepting the consequences. … The servant says to his brothers and sisters, “Only God can save you. You don’t think you can go to him? I’ll go for you.” Or at least, “Let me go with you.”
The gospel way isn’t to eradicate, exterminate or separate. The Jesus way is to come along side, collect, gather, become intertwined. The Jesus way is to take the weed’s place in the furnace of fire or at least go willingly into it together.
That’s when we will shine like the Son and be the light around which the whole world will gather, the good and the bad, in other words, each and every one of us, none righteous, all saved by grace. Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.