FIRST LESSON Isaiah 44:6-8
SECOND LESSON Matthew 13:24-43
SERMON “Our Irrevocable Gift”
A few weeks ago a Candidate for ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament preached a sermon from this pulpit. That preaching exercise is one of many so-called “hoops” we Presbyterians require those who wish to be ordained to jump through. Seminary education, Clinical Pastoral Education, Internships, psychological assessment, ordination exams, and the presentation of a statement of faith to the presbytery, whose members then may question the candidates on all things theological are some of the others. Examination by the presbytery is for some one of the more intimidating experiences, so seminary students tend to ask those who have been through it what it was like.
As long as I live I will remember sitting with classmates in Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago as we were preparing for graduation ceremonies. One young man had just gone through his examination on the floor of presbytery. One of the presbyters asked him if he believed that everyone would be saved. I was so impressed by the grace and theological appropriateness of his answer. He told us he had said, “I don’t know. It’s not my call. It’s up to God. I hope for a happy ending.”
We live in a culture in which some people judge the faith and religion of others with zeal. That’s nothing new. It was going on in biblical times. Who is saved? Who isn’t? How can God be good and loving and yet there is rampant evil in the world?
Is everyone saved? A few short years ago Rob Bell, founding pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville made a huge splash with his book, Love Wins. His text asserts that ultimately everyone will be able to go to heaven, that there will even be opportunities for repentance after death. Michael Wittmer, professor of systematic theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary counters Bell’s arguments in a well-written, highly readable book, Christ Alone, an evangelical response. I’ve read both books. Both are strongly compelling.
Do you believe everyone will be saved? Today’s parable of the wheat and the weeds would indicate not.
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a
man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 ”The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 ”‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 ”‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
As always we are instructed to take scripture in context. John 3:16-17 tells us that
God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. “To save the world sounds pretty universal. We quote verses 16 and 17 often, but rarely verse 3:18: 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us how the church began as Peter and the other disciples told people about Christ and what he did and how many thousands of people were being saved. It doesn’t say that everyone was saved. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, (Romans 10:9-13) “9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
To the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at the home of Simon the Pharisee, he said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Again, the Apostle Paul wrote to the (Ephesians, 2:8-9) 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is usually thought of as a judgment parable. But what if the story Jesus tells in verses 24-30 contains much more than scenes of final judgment? The parable stands in the middle of several parables Jesus uses to attempt to explain to his listeners what the Kingdom of God is all about. “The kingdom of God may be compared to ....”
But as Jesus lays out the details, notice that all the events and responses take place in the story’s present. The only future-oriented activity is mentioned at the very end of the parable, and then it is left to the future it inhabits. Jesus’ description is of a kingdom of God, it is a kingdom that is among us now. His focus is on the present age and what attitudes the kingdom of God evoke right now.
Consider this recasting of the parable thanks to courtesy of the wonderfully innovative work of Barbara Brown Taylor:
One afternoon in the middle of the growing season, a bunch of farm hands decided to surprise their boss and weed his favorite wheat field. No sooner had they begun to work, however, than they began to argue ... about which of the wheat-looking things were weeds. Did the Queen Anne’s lace, for example, pose a real threat to the wheat, or could it stay for decoration? And the blackberries? After all, they were weeds. But they would be ripe in a week or two. And the honeysuckle ... it seemed a shame to pull up anything that smelled so sweet.
About the time they had gotten around to debating the purple asters, the boss showed up and ordered them out of his field. Dejected, they did as they were told. Back at the barn, he took their machetes away from them, poured them some lemonade, and made them sit down where they could watch the way the light moved across the field. At first, all they could see were the weeds and what a messy field it was ... and what a discredit to their profession. But as the summer wore on, they marveled at the profusion of growth. Tall wheat surrounded by tall goldenrod, accented by a mixture of ragweed and brown-eyed Susans. Even the poison ivy flourished beside the Cherokee roses. It was a mess. But a glorious mess. And when it had all bloomed and ripened, the reapers came.
Carefully ... gently ... expertly ... they gathered the wheat and made the rest into bricks for the oven where the bread was baked. And the fire the weeds made was excellent. And the flour the wheat made was excellent. And when the owner called them together ... farm hands, reapers, along with all the neighbors ... and broke bread with them (bread that was the final
distillation of that messy, gorgeous, mixed up field), they all agreed that it was like no bread they had ever tasted before. And that it was very, very good.
Let those who have ears ... and half a brain ... hear and consider.
The farmer in this parable wisely decides that it is better to leave the
weeds growing among the wheat until harvest time, rather than disturb the tender roots of the growing wheat stalks by trying to rip the weeds out of the growing field. Separation of the weeds and wheat waits until harvest time. Only then are the two different crops harvested and the weeds safely destroyed.
We know weeds when we see them. Or do we? In nature, the distinction between what is a “weed” and what is a useful, valuable plant is less clear than you may think. A dandelion growing in your yard is a weed. But a dandelion growing in your garden is a delicate flavorful green. Ivy scaling your brick chimney threatens the stability of the mortar. But ivy carefully trained up a trellis adds beauty and value to your home. Fungus and lichens are just mushy, mossy undergrowth. But as the necessary soil for the rare and delicate calypso orchid, they are a rich growing medium.
In nature, you can never quite tell what might issue from a weed. The same is true in the garden of humanity as well.
I’m not sure what it is about human nature that wants to determine who is part of the wheat and who should be uprooted as weeds. I know that there are many who sincerely and with love care enough to want to get people to believe and trust in the Lord so that they will make it to heaven. For others it may be a desire to get up the hill by pulling others down. Perhaps it’s the same rebellious part of our nature that wants to decide whether we are entitled to play God or whether we are called to submit to God. There are so many things about salvation we don’t know that it’s a good thing it’s not our call.
Archibald Hunter comments in his book Parable Then and Now on today’s story with a limerick that I really like: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly becomes any of us, to talk about the rest of us.”
Jesus has a better idea: Instead of focusing on who is or isn’t saved, we can share the extravagant, generous and abundant love of God’s kingdom.