Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, July 23, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 8

Pentecost 8, 2023
Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

As promised, today we have another parable from Jesus.  One way to read this parable goes like this: Christians are the wheat, and non-Christians are the weeds.  But they must be allowed to grow together until our loving God comes back and burns the non-Christians for eternity.  It will surprise no one to hear that this is not how I read this parable.

But I’d like us to look at this parable through the lenses of everybody’s favorite dinner conversation topics:  religion, and politics.  Or, more specifically, the purity tests used in religion and politics.  Because, like the workers in the field, we are all just itching to distinguish wheat from weed, and start tearing things out and burning them up.

Since I had to take three semesters of Church History in seminary—and I don’t want that to go to waste—I’m going subject you to a quick Church history purity tour.  But I’ll skip the first two semesters.  In fact, we’ll even skip past the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (which were all about trying to purify the Church) and we’ll start in the 1600s.  The English Puritans (notice the name) decided they could not live within an Anglican Church that allowed Catholics and Reformists to worship in the same room.  For the extremist Pilgrims (who insisted on total separation), this meant sailing to America and setting up the Plymouth Colony.

Other Puritans, who were willing to remain in the Anglican Church, set up the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  As you may know, a big part of their faith understanding was that good deeds showed that you were part of God’s people.  Those who differed in belief or behavior were banished to such far-flung places as Rhode Island or Pennsylvania.  Bad behavior meant you were a non-believer, which meant you did not belong in the Shining City on a Hill, the New Jerusalem.  And, in the case of Salem, sometimes they’d just burn you, rather than banish you.  The colony must remain pure, free from weeds.

Around that same time, a pastor in Germany named Philip Spener began preaching that faithful followers of Jesus must be perfectly holy, and living active lives of faith.  People flocked to hear him, but that meant some unholy people were flocking to hear him as well.  He came up with the idea of a church within the church.  He started a group he called Collegia pietatis, which is where we get “pietism.”  The basic idea was that small groups of the truly faithful would meet during the week in homes for pious Bible reading and mutual holy living.  This way, everyone would be sort of welcome on Sunday morning, but the truly “saved” could meet separately from the rabble of sinners . . . those pesky weeds that kept coming back.

Along comes John Wesley, an Anglican priest who came to the same conclusions as Philip Spener.  The church seemed to contain a whole lot of unconverted sinners, which held back true religion.  But Wesley still wanted to stay within the Anglican Church.  He began meeting in people’s homes on Wednesday nights, for pious fellowship and Godly conversation.  Wesley called this church within the church, “Methodism,” and had no intention of separating from the Anglican Church.  Obviously it didn’t work out that way, since you may have seen a Methodist Church here or there.  For those who caught on to Wesley’s vision, there were just too many lukewarm Christians in the Anglican Church, and the wheat must be free to grow without being held back by the weeds.

In the late 1800’s, a newly unified German government also encouraged the unification of the different church bodies.  Suddenly, Lutherans were about to be merged with Calvinists, which to purists on both sides was absurd.  Most German Lutheran congregations in the United States trace their roots back to a great migration during this time, out of a desire to maintain pure doctrine and a unified confession.  And some branches of Lutheranism still spend a great deal of energy keeping out the weeds of syncretism and unionism . . . which are technical terms that mean, People Who Don’t Believe What We Believe.  The wheat often abandons the field entirely and replants itself to grow free from weeds.

And then let’s just skip the fractious history of the Church in the United States and bring ourselves to the present day.  Does the Church still judge and separate to try to remain pure?  Obviously, the answer is yes.  Some church bodies tolerate diversity of thought more successfully than others, but there will always be separation over so-called “purity”—a self-selecting group that tries to be something other than Christ’s One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

There is an old saying:  Baptists will tolerate any amount of schism to avoid heresy; and Episcopalians will tolerate and amount of heresy to avoid schism.  But that’s not as true as it once was.  For example, in 2008, the Anglican Church in North America was founded.  This denomination consists mostly of former Episcopalians who decided that the Episcopal Church was no longer right for them.  In their case, schism was preferable to heresy, and they formed a whole new church body rather than maintain a church within the church.  And these folks who left the Episcopal Church will tell you that it’s all about the authority of scripture.  But when it comes down to it, well it’s not that simple.  Because there’s a reason they’re clinging to the authority of scripture in this particular instance, and it is this:  
All are welcome . . . with exceptions.

When I was first ordained to the priesthood, I spent three years serving a church in Brunswick, OH.  The Diocese had just released a series of slogans like, “All are welcome: regardless.”  I got a couple of these signs and put one out on the church lawn.  The one that said, “All are welcome: regardless.”  Before long, a parishioner came to me and asked, “What do we mean by ‘regardless’.”  And I said, “We mean, regardless.”  And he asked, “Well what if a registered sex offender showed up on Sunday morning?  Would they be welcome?”  I said, “Yes; they’d be welcome.  They would not be welcome to teach Sunday School or lead VBS, but they would be welcome, yes.”  The point being, if we really believe All Are Welcome, we can’t paint over the word “regardless,” or add some kind of asterisk.

The purity tests are not just found in religion, though.  They’re everywhere, especially in our politics right now.  On one side, we have people being accused of being RINO’s, or Republicans in Name Only.  And on the other side, we have people being accused of being insufficiently progressive.  You have to prove you are worthy of remaining in the parties, true to the cause.  And if you don’t rise to the level of necessary purity and commitment, someone will demand your removal (sometimes called a primary); someone will call you a weed; someone will try to paint over the word “regardless.”

But let’s put partisanship aside, as people always say before saying something partisan.  There’s a bigger, more frightening thing that runs through communities and nations, which is tied to all this.  When the people in power in any country start referring to some citizens as weeds, it never ends well.  We have the extreme examples like the Jews under the Nazis, or the Tutsis in Rwanda, but we see smaller versions of this all the time.

The ones we deem weeds get renamed Illegals, or Marxists, or Fascists, or Antifascists, and then we start to hear the calls:  If someone would just step in and remove this menace to society, all would be well.  If someone would just take away the people I’m afraid of.   If someone could just save me from the people they told me were ruining our country.  All these weeds . . .  And they asked him, “Do you want us to go and gather them?”  Do you want us to pull them out and destroy them?  Do you want us to paint over the word “regardless?”

This is where we end up if we make this parable about people, and claim the authority to judge them good or bad.  People are not weeds.  People are made in the image of God.  All people.  So, let me suggest a more helpful way of thinking about the weeds growing among the wheat.  What if the weeds aren’t people?  What if instead the weeds are just evil and sin and division?  Like within all of us there are weeds but there is also wheat.  What if weeds are the imperfections in all of us, which will be burned away to make us as we are meant to be?  It’s not that some individuals are thrown into the fire; it’s that the sinful nature in all of us is thrown into the fire.

The desire to demonize others.  The hatred in our hearts.  The things done and left undone.  Jesus says, let those things grow alongside the goodness God has created in each of us.  We are not as God intended us to be, but we will be.  We are not perfect, but we will be. Jesus says, let the wheat and the weeds grow together, and then let God purify us over time, and at the end of time.  

And then, the point of this parable is this: let them stay.  Let all of them stay.  All are welcome, regardless.  And that is good news for you and for me.  Because whether we are conservative or liberal, gay or straight, rich or poor, young or old, someone wants to paint over our “regardless,” to keep us out.  No matter how kind you are, someone thinks you’re a weed.  No matter how well you follow the rules, somebody will say you are not good enough.  No matter how much God loves you, some of God’s followers will kick you to the curb in a heartbeat.  But we are all wheat, and we are all weeds.  Thank God that Jesus does not weed this garden!  Let them grow together, and let God decide what’s what.  Because all are welcome, regardless.  Everyone is welcome, regardless.  All are beloved of God, regardless.


No comments:

Post a Comment