Peter Elliott’s Sermon – July 17, 2011

Published on 18 Jul 2011

Peter Elliott’s Sermon – July 17, 2011


Christ Church Cathedral Vancouver Peter Elliott Sermon

God’s Heart Beating in your Body
Sermon by Peter Elliott
Preached at Christ Church Cathedral
Fifth Sunday After Pentecost – July 17, 2011

Click here to listen to an audio mP3 version of this sermon.

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Gospel Reading:  Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field;  but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.  And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’  He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’  But he said, ‘No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”  He answered, “He who sows the good seed is the Son of man;  the field is the world, and the good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one,  and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels.  Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age.  The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,  and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

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The Very Reverend Peter Elliott, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral Vancouver

The Very Reverend Peter Elliott, Dean and Rector

If the question is this: “Of what use is religion in a violent world?” then today’s readings lead us in an interesting direction. Or if the question is, as Walter Wink puts it, “How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?” (1) then the parable of the wheat and the weeds offers a counter cultural suggestion. So let’s get right to the text.

The gospel reading from Matthew 13 (MATTHEW 13:24-30, 36-43) has two sections: a parable and an interpretation. It’s most likely that the words of the parable are authentically Jesus’ voice while the interpretation is an addition by later editors. So to focus on the parable itself, we find a very simple story that would have been recognizable to a largely agrarian audience: it begins like last week’s parable of the sower: seed is sown with the intention of producing a crop; but at night an enemy comes into the field to sow bad seed. As the crop grew, the slaves of the householder notice that weeds are coming up amongst the wheat and they ask what they should do. Their proposal is to dig up the weeds; but the landowner says no: let them both grow together and when harvest comes the weeds will be gathered and destroyed while the wheat will go into the barns. 
 Jesus parables are always about something deeper than the subject. This is clearly not a story about how to farm; he’s teasing his listeners into active thought, inviting them to think about the world in a different way. Because if the question is of what use is religion in a violent world or how can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves, this parable takes on a different meaning. It moves us away from the world of agriculture to the reality of the lives of his hearers then and now. For we understand the instincts of the slaves of the field—if there’s evil present, if there’s something that’s gone wrong, then the right thing to do, they propose, is to root it out quickly. It’s a human instinct as old as the hills and as deep as the ocean. Get rid of it, be done with it, annihilate it, and kill it: this is the stuff of superhero movies, of revenge stories, and of the daily news. But in this parable, the master of the field suggests another way. Let them grow together, wheat and weeds, and at the end we’ll know which is which: the weeds will be fire for the wheat which will become bread. Resist, in other words, the instinct to destroy and let wheat and weeds grow together.

Now there’s a Greek word that the Master uses to describe this approach and that word is aphete which means to let, to permit, to allow: let them both to grow together until the harvest (2). Jesus uses it a number of times in the New Testament, like when the disciples ask him to get rid of the children that surround him, Jesus replies ‘aphete’ the little children come to me for of such is the kingdom of God. To allow the malice, the evil, the badness that is manifest in the real world goes against everything the world teaches. It seems counterintuitive to not attack or abolish bad things; but the teaching of this parable is that evil it is to be dealt with only by a ‘letting be’ that is a forgiveness. For those who like judgment, it comes in the final verse where the weeds are finally gathered at the harvest and thrown into the fire. But the rest of the parable is entirely about the aphesis of evil, not about the avenging of it.

So why is this important or in any way relevant? Because we live in a violent world—that’s the nature of life on this planet—and every instinct within us is to destroy and root out all evil. It’s the plot line of every superhero movie, it’s the story that’s told in every crime drama we see on TV or mystery we read, it’s the headlines of the papers, it’s the subject of our conversations over dinners, it’s the state of the world. Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of one of the first crusades, when knights from Western Europe blew through an Arab town on their way to the Holy Land and killed everyone in sight. It was not until later, when they turned the bodies over that they found crosses around most of their victims’ necks. It never occurred to them that Christians came in brown as well as white. (3)(4) Jesus point is that you can’t tell one from another for the longest time, you can’t tell the wheat from the weeds and so he offers a letting be for a time to see and invites his followers into a period of allowing rather than destroying.

The instinct towards violence lies deep in us and the teaching and imitation of Jesus invites us into a countercultural attitude toward the world. Rather than to jump in impulsively and destroy what we may perceive as evil the gospel of Jesus invites us to step back, to let be, and to resist our own instincts for violence. It’s not the way of the world. It wasn’t, for example, what happened almost 10 years ago now after the attacks of September 11th. Within a short space there were wars declared on Iraq, on Afghanistan and thousands of people lost their lives in a quest for revenge. Or closer to home, after post hockey season riots on June 15th of this year, there were calls—really there were—to take the looters and the rioters and put them in the stocks and return evil for evil. And as I recite just two incidents of human response to evil of course I must confess that I’m not immune either. While thinking about these themes all week and meditating on the countercultural wisdom of the landowner to let weeds and wheat coexist, we had a break in at our home. On Friday night, 9 cars including ours and our houseguest’s car were vandalized in the parking garage: windows broken, contents ransacked: and let me tell you, my first instinct on hearing this was to get even, to get the so and sos who broke in. Jesus parable speaks to the deep reality of our lives, and what the parable teaches is not easily achieved. But not only in his teaching but also through his life Jesus showed forth this letting be, this aphete: Imagine Jesus saying from the cross, “Father, damn them to Hell forever because of what they are doing to me”? That would a major case of tearing out both weeds and wheat. He leaves the weeds and says, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”(5)

The revenge instinct is deep within us because we’re really not all that far down from the trees. It’s told throughout Holy Scripture: today’s first reading begins with Jacob in flight from the conflict with his brother Esau. In the book Genesis, Esau the hairy man and Jacob the smooth man are not only rivals in life; they were rivals in the womb. And Jacob—clearly a weed in the story—tricks his brother out of his inheritance and then runs away, gets out of town, ends up in the desert and while sleeping with a stone for a pillow he has a dream. In the dream he sees a ladder reaching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it and God makes him a promise and Jacob, upon waking says “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it: how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” Jacob, the trickster, sees that the very space he’s in as a fugitive from his brother’s revenge is where God is. Jacob, who becomes Israel, understands that it’s here that God is met; it’s in life that we find the presence of God even in the midst of our mistakes and misapprehensions.

To introduce the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus begins in his usual way, when he says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared with…” Interesting when you notice that for Jesus the kingdom isn’t about perfection or about a world with no weeds: no! The kingdom of heaven, the place of God is where we live, just as Jacob’s dream taught him. The ladder that links the heavenly and the earthly is planted firmly in the ground of our human reality of revenge and retribution. It’s where we live here and now, wheat and weeds that the call of Jesus comes to us directly related to our experience of being alive.

You see spiritual growth or insight, growth in the kingdom of God isn’t so that you can feel better about your life although you may. It isn’t about withdrawing from the world so that you can be pure although from time to time you may need to. Spiritual growth, life in God’s kingdom from the perspective of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is so that you and I will not contribute to the violence of the world. To be baptized into Christ is to be part of a movement throughout time and history that seeks to bring goodness into the world rather than add to its evils. The use of religion in this way is not just important, it’s essential. How long will we wage wars, or build bigger and better jails to hold more and more criminals and by doing that create more and more criminals in society? How long will we turn blind eyes to suffering rationalizing that it was their fault and deserve to suffer? How long will we hold on to life long hurts and grudges inwardly damning our enemies to hell and living lives bound up in anger and fear? Will we forever put ourselves in God’s place and judge and condemn others? In the parable there is a final rooting out of the wheat and the weeds. This accounting is even more violent in the interpretation of the parable than in Jesus own words: it is as if the gospel writer needed to assuage the bloodthirsty instinct of the readers by insuring that, at the end of the day, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But the Judge is the Saviour and as Richard Rohr puts it: “How could Jesus ask us to bless, forgive and heal our enemies, which he clearly does (Matthew 5: 43-48) unless God is doing it first and always? Jesus told us to love our enemies because he saw his Father doing it all the time, and all spirituality is merely the “imitation of God.” (Ephesians 5: 1) (6)

Whether you’re like Jacob realizing that God’s presence is here or like the slaves holding back your desire to root out and destroy, the faith we share in Jesus invites us to see the world in a new way and to live differently because of that—not for our own sake but for the sake of the world. It makes the sentiment of the popular song ring true: ‘let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.’ It transforms spiritual growth from a personal achievement to a commitment for the good of the world. It lifts up this sacrament as a sign of hope: that we feed on the one who forgave sinners and returned in risen splendor without a word of revenge. That’s why this place is important, why this proclamation is urgent, why being part of the community of Jesus needs to have such priority in our lives. The invitation to live differently is held before us each time the bread is broken and the wine is blessed. The new life, in this moment, is already here. Whenever I see the bread and wine lifted I want to say, with Jacob, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” In the words of the poet J. Janda:

If you reverence and respect all life
if you can forgive and forget
if you wish peace to all—and to none harm
if you do not judge, criticize or condemn
you have God’s heart beating in your body (7)

As you receive the bread and wine of the Holy Communion this day may God’s heart beat in your body.

Preached by Dean Peter Elliott
Christ Church Anglican Cathedral, Vancouver BC
Pentecost 5, 2011.

Footnotes:

1 Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.

2 I am grateful to this word study, drawn from Robert Farrar Capon’s.  The Parables of the Kingdom  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985.

3 Barbara Brown Taylor, as quoted in Sermon Nuggets http://web.me.com/lindyblack/Sermon_Fodder/Lectionary/Entries/2011/7/17_Pentecost_5A.html

4 Barbara Brown Taylor, as quoted in Sermon Nuggets http://web.me.com/lindyblack/Sermon_Fodder/Lectionary/Entries/2011/7/17_Pentecost_5A.html

5 Father John Foley at http://liturgy.slu.edu/16OrdA071711/reflections_foley.html

6 Rohr, Richard.  Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011, p. 207.

7 James Janda S.J.  core samplings 44 from In Embrace  Life in Christ Bookstore http://www.lifeinchrist-newsletter.com/bookstore/bookstore.php# as quoted at http://liturgy.slu.edu/16OrdA071711/reflections_janda.html

 

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