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.
FIRST LESSON Isaiah 55:10-13
SECOND LESSON Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
SERMON “The Sower”
“A sower went out to sow.” Perhaps a new story to some, but for many who have been coming to worship and Sunday school and Bible study for years, this is a familiar story. In biblical times they didn’t have the ginormous farm equipment American farmers have today. A farmer went out with a bag of seeds, probably on a strap over his shoulder, and he would reach into the bag, grab a handful of seeds and fling them out over the ground. As the story goes, some of the seeds fell on the hard path where they couldn’t even germinate before the birds came and ate them. Some fell onto rocky ground where they sprang up, but couldn’t get much root growing, and so those plants didn’t last long. Others fell onto some decent soil, but there were weeds that choked them out. But some of them fell on to good soil, grew and flourished and produced grain, a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. The disciples ask Jesus why he tells so many stories, and he tells them that not everybody is ready to hear, to understand, to receive the good news of the Kingdom of God. So he tells them stories to get them ready, to move them forward on the way to understanding. Think about it . . . Do you accept a different point of view about important issues in your life, just because someone tells you that you should. Or do you gradually embrace different ideas, startling insights gradually because you read or hear evidence that points you in a new direction? Since Jesus knows the disciples are already ready to be open to new ways of understanding, he interprets for them. We get it. The seeds represent the Word of God. The path stands for the people who are closed off, won’t hear it. The rocky soil symbolizes the people who hear the gospel and embrace it when it is new, but their understanding is only on the surface; they are quickly distracted. The third kind of soil stands for people who hear it, embrace it, even grow in it, but life events, circumstances, troubles of the day eventually make it fade away. And then we are all left knowing that we are supposed to be like the good soil, the fertile soil, where the seed of God’s kingdom grows and grows and spreads and produces a fabulous crop. Pretty straight-forward, right? Or is it? Wait a minute. We have a way of taking Jesus’ stories and making them about us. You know, the story about the prodigal son – we are admonished not to run away from God and be wasteful, not to be the jealous brother resentful of the party dad throws when his son finally returns. But that story is every bit as much about the father as it is about the runaway son, if not more so. That story teaches us that even when we mess up – big time, we can come back and God will not only welcome us, but celebrate. “Prodigal” means wasteful. And some have dubbed that story “The Prodigal Father,” understanding that “prodigal” also means extravagant, over-generous, extreme – as God is extravagantly, over-generously, extremely loving toward us. Could it be that this story isn’t just about the different kinds of soil, but about the Sower? What’s the first thing you notice about this Sower when you focus on him? Could you say he is careless? Wasteful? He just throws the seeds everywhere. Theology professor Donald Juel says, “He throws seed everywhere, apparently confident there will be a harvest in spite of the losses. He simply keeps sowing his seed, believing that growth will come.”1 Jesus is sort of like that. He is the Rabbi who hangs out with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes. He’s not particularly careful about where he invests his time and does his miracles. He just keeps throwing the seeds of the Word of God around, not sweating where it will land. Some of it will land on the religious authorities who will accuse him of blasphemy. He throws some of it on the disciples who are slow to understand. He flings it in the direction of family and friends who accuse him of being possessed by a demon, and you may recall he threw it in the direction of a rich young ruler who loved what he heard but was apparently too attached to his possessions to let the gospel grow to maturity in him. “The Parable of the Sower shows us that Jesus throws good seed everywhere, knowing that most of it is going to be destroyed,” says Juel, “And as followers of Jesus, we should be doing ministry and mission . . . with the same careless abandon, . . .speaking gracious words without carefully calculating the potential for success” This means welcoming others and Jesus has welcomed us and preaching the message of unconditional love and unlimited grace. Jesus has done it again – as he calls us to be faithful to him and to the Kingdom of God, not to be successful in a worldly sense. When the emphasis is on the soil, we hear that we should all be good soil – people who hear the gospel and understand it and produce great harvests. Don’t be the hard path. Don’t be the rocky ground, and don’t be the soil infested with thorns. Have you ever known soil to decide what kind of soil it will be? I’ve had large portions of my property dug up, turner over, grass is gone… I could stand out there and yell at the dirt, which has finally at least been smoothed out and leveled since it stopped raining for a short while. I could yell at it, command it to be good soil; be fruitful and grow grass! As people we can choose to be like the good soil, fertile, receptive, fruitful. But the soil itself cannot choose to be good or to be bad. It is what it is and if you saw a farmer out in the fields ordering the soil to be good, you’d think he was nuts. As disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, what are we supposed to do? We could be like the farmer standing on his porch when a stranger stopped for a drink of water and asked, “How is your cotton coming along?” Farmer: “Ain’t got any.” Stranger: “Did you plant any?” Farmer: “Nope, afraid of boll weevils.” Stranger: “Well, how is your corn?” Farmer: “Didn’t plant any, afraid there would be no rain.” Stranger: “Well, how are your potatoes?” Farmer: “Ain’t got any, scared of the potato bugs.” Stranger: “Really, what did you plant?” Farmer: “Nothing, I just played it safe.” So you got to ask: “How safe is it to not have any crops at all?” As disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, what are we supposed to do? Are we not meant to recognize that Jesus is incredibly generous in the way that he shares the news of the Kingdom, extravagantly with everyone with whom he comes into contact. It’s not the soil that’s fruitful – We don’t get more soil. . . God’s Word is incredibly fruitful; that’s what grows and spreads and feeds people. Jesus spreads the Word of the Kingdom. It all depends on what God is doing. Our job is to trust God and to share his message extravagantly and generously.
1Juel, Donald H. "Encountering the Sower." Interpretation, July 2002. 277, 282.
FIRST LESSON Psalm 145:8-14
SECOND LESSON Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
SERMON: “Been There, Done That, . . .”
“Been there, done that . . . (finish it -----‘got the T-shirt’)” I don’t hear that phrase as often as I used to. For a while you couldn’t go a day without hearing it several times. Funny thing is the phrase can mean two different things. On the one hand it can be rather dismissive as in “I’ve already done it; don’t need to do it again, don’t need to hear about it.”
But it can also mean “I know where you’re coming from because I’ve been through it. It can connect us with people who are going through something we have gone through. I connect almost instantly with other cancer survivors, with other adoptive parents, with people who think their grandchild is the cutest, most adorable child on the planet. “Been there, done that” serves as an affirmation of having had a common experience.
Similarly, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden” was an idiomatic expression in biblical times. Jesus was not the first sage/ teacher/preacher to offer that comforting invitation. In a time when human beings were beasts of burden as often as animals, this image had real power. Keep in mind, the people of that time had no concept of a 40 hour work-week or ‘weekends off.’ The mandates of traditional Jewish Sabbath laws of “rest” were strongly appealing. To many, his words sounded familiar and for those who anticipated the coming of the Messiah, the Kingdom of God, his promise of “rest” was especially attractive.
What does this invitation from Jesus offer to people of our time and culture? When it comes to physical labor, we have it so much easier than the people Jesus was speaking to then. We have cars and trucks to carry our stuff around. Water comes into our homes and can be accessed from the kitchen sink, the shower and the washing machine. That washing machine cleans my clothes and a dryer saves me the work of hanging wet stuff out on the line. I don’t have to carry wood or build a fire to cook or to heat my home.
But we know that Jesus isn’t offering to take over our chores or our work. Jesus is offering to lift a greater burden. He offers peace for the soul. Jesus is offering the answer to the questions of what do I have to do to be good enough? How can I be acceptable to God? How do I make up for my sins? What do I have to do to shake off guilt and be good with God?
One of postmodern culture’s fantasies that feeds our inherent weariness, our perpetually overburdened souls, is the notion that we must all be “self-made.” There is something quite important for us to understand as we celebrate Independence Day. There is a counter-cultural quality to understanding today’s scripture. It goes against our usual way of thinking. America is the home of Davey Crocket who conquered the “wild frontier” and Wyatt Earp who tamed the “wild west.” We honor and value independence, self-sufficiency, strength and the glory of a “self-made” man or woman. “Give me liberty or give me death.” “The land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Surrender is what we do not do. With brains and brawn we became a super power in the world. “Yankee Ingenuity” is the brilliance that made us great. Resisting the yoke others would put on us is the strength that made us free. We still think of ourselves as the best, the strongest, the most powerful, best educated country in the world.
Now Jesus comes along to say that wisdom and intelligence do not cut the mustard when it comes to knowing God. Not only is the yoke not to be resisted, we are to voluntarily take this yoke upon ourselves and surrender to one who is greater than us! How counter-cultural can you get? Click on yoke and look it up in your Thesaurus and you will get words like repression, oppression and bondage. To be resisted – for sure. But Jesus tells us we cannot fight, or think or power ourselves into the kingdom of God and the peace of Christ.
When Jesus offers to share our burdens by becoming our “yoke-mate,” the weight of all the trying to be good enough, the pressure to succeed, to be the brightest, the richest, the best – evaporates. When Jesus becomes our yoke mate we throw off the weight of guilt for sins committed and for good deeds left undone.
Jesus’ yoke though “easy” and the burden “light” gives us direction and purpose for our lives. We no longer need to create, better, and recreate ourselves because we are now being gently re-sculpted into Christ’s likeness.
There is freedom in being yoked to a single focus and direction through Christ. Ever notice how those who have genuinely yoked their lives to Jesus don’t seem to think they are “missing out” on anything? The perfect freedom and fulfillment that come from a life lived in Jesus’ allows disciples of Christ to look down all life’s other torturously twisting side roads, speed traps and dead-end routes and affirm with a shake of our heads “no thanks been there, done that.”
So now what do we do with the freedom that partnering with Christ offers?
First it helps us find and exercise compassion for others. Life can be very painful. Everyone has the burdens, and however much you can share those burdens makes life easier for everybody. It’s lonely otherwise. Every moment that you share someone else’s pain, feel what they feel, makes you more human. Actor Bill Murray wrote, “I went through a lot of pain in my divorce. It made me feel empathy for people I don’t even like, because they’re going through it. I grant them all the slack I can.”1
Secondly we can use our experiences to turn burdens into bridges.
There’s the story of an ant carrying a piece of straw much larger than he was.
A man watching said to himself: “How interesting that the little ant can carry something so much larger than himself.”
So he watched the ant in fascination. As he watched, the ant came to a crevice in the ground. The crevice was too big for him to go down into and it was too wide to cross.
The ant took the straw, laid it down over the crevice, walked across the straw and then picked it up and went on his way. People ask me what I’m going to do when I retire, and I have many answers, but the one I look forward to most is a plan to volunteer at St. Mary’s to help others who are going through cancer. Someone once said that the “best revenge is living well,” and it is my plan to take revenge on cancer by helping others live well and carry that burden..
The ant turned his burden into a bridge.
Finally, today as 2000 years ago, Jesus offers us the peace, love and acceptance that come from being partnered with Christ. Ronald Patterson wrote, “When I was a little boy, I remember a non-churchgoing neighbor’s saying once that the reason he didn’t go was that he could see no earthly reason to get dressed up and hang a frown on his face to be told how bad he was. My yoke is easy – my burden is light?
Jesus says no to the frown, and no to the getting dressed up and no to the guilt trip. – Jesus says that the very center of faith is the loving affirmation that we belong, and we are accepted and we are cared for not because of anything we do, but because of who Christ is and who we are when he is at the very center of our lives.2
So, here at North Kent Presbyterian Church in Rockford, let us also say no to the frown, no to the need to get dressed up, and no to guilt trips. Instead let’s say yes to Christ who shares our burdens.
1quoted by Dotson Rader, Life Is Easier If You Can Share the Burdens, Parade, February 21, 1999, 6.
2--Ronald M. Patterson,