Hey, if you’re new here, a heads-up: I’m a youth director at an Episcopal church, and sometimes they let me preach. Here’s a sermon I got to preach on July 23rd. You can find the lectionary texts for the week here (we used Track A).
When I first read this week’s collection of lectionary texts, it was a bit of a rollercoaster of emotion. On the one hand, I love Psalm 139 and Romans 8- they have comforted me in times of anxiety and grief, and in many ways are foundational to my theology. But on the other hand, the story of Jacob’s dream is a little boring and confusing, and Jesus’s parable of the wheat and the weeds is downright terrifying to me. These texts bring up questions about theodicy and eschatology and ethics, and as a 23-year-old with an English degree, I’m an expert in exactly none of these things. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say or what direction this sermon was going to take. When I’m overwhelmed like this, I usually start looking for the most basic connections between the Scriptures.
So let me start here: on a dark night, in a desert, with one man alone until suddenly he finds that he is on holy ground. Jacob, like his father and grandfather before him, is promised by God that he will have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. God says that They will never leave Jacob until this promise is fulfilled, and all of the families of the earth will be blessed by Jacob’s offspring. Now, in Romans, Paul says that Christians are the children of God, receiving the spirit of adoption that makes us Abraham’s children, and thus fulfilling God’s promise to Jacob. This is a Christian re-writing of a Hebraic story, of course, but Paul was writing to Gentiles who had until then been on the outside of the ancient rituals that marked them as children of God. To be claimed as children of the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph, was to be adopted into a story and family much larger than themselves. It was saying that what mattered wasn’t our pedigree, but our faith.
I find it easier to jump into the gospel reading this week if we start with Paul’s writing in our mind. As I said, my first reaction to Jesus’s parable was “WHOA, calm down there, edge-Lord.” It is one of the Bible stories I struggle with, because of how often this parable and others like it have been used as a bludgeon. It would be easy to use the story of the wheat and the weeds as a way to create in-groups and out-groups: we are the grain, and “those people” are the weeds. The problem is that for me, “those people” start to look like anyone who disagrees with me, anyone who doesn’t follow my exact version of faith.
The idea of orthodoxy has been heavy on my mind this week. If any of you are my friend on Facebook or read my blog, you may have noticed that I accidentally went viral. The contents of my blog aren’t important to this sermon, but the reactions are: my family and I were accused of not having a true faith in Jesus, not adhering to the correct set of beliefs that will get us into heaven, or as one commenter so eloquently put it, “off the road that leads to perdition.” In this scenario, I was one of the weeds to be tossed into the fire at the end of the age.
My immediate reaction to these comments, of course, was to call my mom and rant about why exactly I was a shaft of wheat and not a weed. I wanted to make sure that I was part of the in-group and that they were the out-group. I wanted Jesus to tell me that I was right in holding a grudge against homophobic strangers on the Internet. Needless to say, I felt convicted as I started writing this sermon.
In Jesus’s parable, the master does not tell the servants to uproot the weeds; in fact, to ensure as much wheat as possible is saved, the master nurtures both weed and wheat. In this metaphor, humans are the plants growing up towards the sun, our root systems all entangled. In this metaphor, we the plants do not know who is wheat and who is weed.
I think the pairing of this parable with the passage from Romans 8 is intentional. Romans 8 tells us that as children of God, we are co-heirs with Christ. If this is true (and I believe it is), then our identity as children of God is the core part of ourselves, the power from which everything else flows. If we are co-heirs with Christ, waiting in anticipation with the rest of creation for the adoption and redemption of our bodies, then the parable of the wheat and the weeds is a call to love our neighbors as radically as if we are siblings. We have no way of knowing who, in the end, will be the children of God, because all who are led by the Spirit of God are His children, and therefore our family.
Lest you think I’ve gone all New-Age-y on you, a disclaimer: I’m not sure what heaven looks like, or who will end up there. I was raised too evangelical for any definite answer to sit peacefully in my mind. As best I can picture it, heaven looks like the line from the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’: “when we’ve been there ten thousands years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” I am learning to sit in the tension that comes with hope in things that are not seen.
My study Bible notes that, “the inner testimony of the Spirit is experienced as intense yearning and hope.” This yearning and hope, this testimony to the Spirit of God, is manifested in as many different ways as there are different people in the world. And the power of the Spirit is that it transforms weeds into grain- poisonous, thorny leaves into nourishment. All of creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God– and if, by radically loving my neighbor, by being kind when I could have been sharp, by seeing everyone as a wheat instead of a weed, even one more person is adopted to the kingdom of God, then I think the Spirit has worked through me to ease the labor pains of creation.
This year, one of my roommates introduced me to a poem by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest. When I think of the slow, nurturing work of the Spirit in our lives, the effort to grow upwards towards the sun with our neighbors, this is the poem I think of:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
I am learning to sit in the anxiety of incomplete belief. Learning to strive upwards and extend my roots to grow with everyone around me. I don’t know what happens at the end of the age, but I am convinced that none of us are right. And I am equally assured that we are adopted: we are children of God, and our frail bodies of belief will be redeemed.