A Sermon preached on July 20, the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, at St. Augustine’s Church, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, Psalm 86:11-17
One of the things we were taught in preaching classes at seminary is that it is the preacher’s job to find and proclaim the Good News in the lesson or lessons of the day. Sometimes this can prove to be more difficult than others! Where is the good news in the parable of the “Wheat and the Tares” as the weeds are called in more traditional translations? Unless you are really sure that you are the wheat and not the weed there does not seem to be much good news in this text about judgment, about people being thrown into “the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13:42), which is one of Matthew’s favorite phrases by the way. Just what sort of kingdom of heaven is that?
Well for one thing I think judgment can be good news. There is evil in the world and there are evildoers and I for one do hope and pray that God will put the world to rights and that he will judge. But remember this is a parable not an exact description of the last days, and we are neither wheat nor tares. We are human beings, made in the image of God. And thankfully God is the judge, or to be more exact the Son of Man, Jesus, God’s Son. As far as I remember Jesus was remarkably forgiving to all the “weeds” he encountered: tax collectors, beggars, lepers, prostitutes, foreigners …. And somewhat less forgiving with the pompous and self-righteous elite. The delayed judgment of the parable, the willingness to wait until the end of the age is a sign of God’s compassion and mercy. Unlike plants, which do not change their nature, humans do and can. We have free will, we can change, and we are not pre-destined to be good or bad. And it is God’s intention that we have that opportunity to change for the good, and not just once.
Anyway, I don’t believe that judgment as such is the main point of the parable. It is about delayed judgment: about patient waiting and about tolerance. The servants are impatient and intolerant. They want a squeaky clean field, without any untidy weeds and they are willing to be radical in cleansing the field to achieve this aim. The master on the other hand is patient. Don’t tear out the weeds he says, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until harvest.” (Mt. 13:29-30) Over the centuries there has been a constant debate about whether the Church is only for the pure, the holy or for all people – including those who sin, fail, and doubt. When Christians were first persecuted, and some renounced their faith to save their lives, there was huge discussion about whether they could be let back into the church again. So to use a famous quote, is the church “a hospital for sinners or a museum for saints?”
Well looking around the room I would hope it’s more the hospital! In fact the church is always a mixed body of saints and sinners, and those roles change over time. None of us are always saints, nor are we always sinners. Tares are not any old weed. They are very difficult to distinguish from wheat, at least until fully grown and mature. That’s why no one can usurp divine judgment, or judge prematurely. We don’t know what people really are, nor do we know their true potential, only God does. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul has a similar message: “So pass no premature judgment; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what darkness hides and disclose our inward motives.” (1 Cor 4:5)
Waiting patiently is difficult and tough. It’s not what our society teaches: buy now, pay later is the message. Buynow.com is even the name of a website! Don’t delay, don’t wait – there may not be another chance. This is not new. The Jews of Jesus’ day were also waiting impatiently for the coming of the Messiah who, so they believed, would overthrow the Romans and liberate Israel, who would make it clean and pure again. Jesus’ parable, the first of a series of parables about the kingdom of heaven, speaks against both this impatience and intolerance.
Looking at Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome it seems that the early Christians were impatient too. On the one hand they had much to look forward to, what Paul calls the “glory about to be revealed to us.” And on the other hand the present times were less than pleasant, full of suffering as Paul also mentions. In a wonderful image Paul tells them that not only are they waiting for redemption, but all of creation is too. “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Ro. 8:19) In Paul’s view humans had been put in charge of creation as good stewards once already, but messed it up. You’ll find the story in the first 2 chapters of the Book of Genesis. But as renewed and redeemed humans living according to the Spirit, and not the flesh, we will be able to fulfill the role as stewards that God has always planned for us. That is what creation is looking forward to so much.
We humans too groan inwardly in eager and impatient anticipation. Having received the first fruits of the Spirit, we just can’t wait for the rest of the harvest. But we must. We still have work to do. God’s gift of the Spirit is given to us not only for our own transformation, but also to work through us to bring about the transformation of the world. “Groaning and waiting, eager but patient,” is how the author Tom Wright describes the characteristic Christian stance.
Patience, along with love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control is listed as one of the Fruits of the Spirit in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (5:22-23). Patience is often also described as a virtue, but one that is supported and sustained by the three supreme Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.
We need faith to be patient. Faith is the knowledge of and the trust in the one who has promised us redemption and renewal, God. We have seen God act in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jesus revealed God’s nature in his own and through his teaching. God works in us through the Holy Spirit. Being able to trust in God allows us to be patient.
We hope for what we do not see, Paul writes. What does it mean to be glorified? (Rom. 8:25) How will the righteous shine like the sun in the Father’s kingdom? (Mt. 13:43) We don’t know exactly, but the images that both Paul and Jesus use, indicate that is something to look forward to. Perhaps we will shine like the sun because we finally realize our potential as God’s image and reflect that glory. One promise, one that we can work on now, is that as God’s adopted children and heirs, we will be able to share in the Christ’s saving rule. So hope is the expression of what we are patiently waiting for.
Patience is also about waiting for others and about forgiving other people’s failings, just as we hope that they will forgive ours. This is where the virtue of love comes into play. Love allows us to accept the other as he or she is. Love allows us to forgive. Love allows us wait patiently while the other person catches up.
Patience is of course a virtue we are being asked to practice a lot right now here at St. Augustine’s, as we both wait for, and work towards, a final decision about this church’s future. And by this church I mean both the people that make up the church and the building we use for our worship, ministry, and mission. “How much longer will we have to wait?” was one of the questions asked last week at the vestry forum after church. That was also one of the questions we could not answer. But that should not stop us using this time of patient waiting beneficially: working on our own growth and transformation, on helping those entrusted to our care and love, and on continuing to build up this community with the help of God’s Spirit that offers love and enables reconciliation. Then we will be better able to use the resources God gives us, and while we may not yet shine like the sun in the Father’s kingdom, we will still glow a little as we reflect God’s love and glory into a world that needs them so much.