“Infestation” Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52

 

Complete this sentence for me.  “You aren’t a real ________ until ________.”

Experience truly is the grand teacher, isn’t it?   You may think you understand something, or know what something is about, or have studied something enough that you believe you understand everything about it, and then BAM!   You have some experience and you get a whole new level of appreciation!

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells a series of parables about the Kingdom, and we kind of think of them as somehow all relating to one another.  We often approach Matthew 13 as if it is a cumulative teaching experience.  By that I mean by unpacking each and every one of these parables we somehow get a deeper, better understanding of the Kingdom of God.

This approach however also makes us scratch our head a bit.  Which is true, that the Kingdom is like a Pearl, or like a Mustard seed?   Is it valuable beyond measure, or a weed?   What are you trying to say to us Jesus?

A better way to approach Matthew 13 might be to see it as a collection of impressions or sayings that are meant to impact people who know that experience.

Parables that describe the Kingdom of God it in terms of agriculture are meant for those accustomed to working with the soil, and so they will be readily understood by farmers, but perhaps not so much by bakers or fishermen, and so Jesus tells a parable from their particular world.

Bakers know about leavening.

Fishermen know about nets and fish.

Shepherds know about “setting the table” – the nature of invasive plants like mustard that must be cleared out of fields.

Jesus is therefore telling a succession of parables that are all designed to hit a particular audience, much the same way your own sharing this morning may have “hit” some of with a similar experience that was familiar to you, and experience you have had, while others not so much.

And, above all of that, there is one particular experience that all of these parables speak to of which we are just now becoming aware.

They are spoken into an age of Empire.

We may not have been able to hear these parables correctly before, but it is becoming increasingly easier to understand them in the post 9/11 world, as we undeniably live into our own “age of empire.”

The United States is an Empire, make no mistake about that.

Previously we were able to deceive ourselves with the narrative of being a “scrappy young country,” or one powerful nation among many in the world.

But all of that faded away with the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11.

For good or for ill we are now perceived as an Empire by various parts of the world and being considered an Empire is always a mixed bag of experience.

On the one hand, Empire brings stability and a certain level of peace and prosperity.  Trade flows freely, conflict is minimized, and the one with the biggest military, holds sway over any lesser adversaries.

But Empire also brings with it the imposition of an outside will upon others, influence and the preference of a privileged culture over the indigenous culture.

Empire sets what will be the standards and norms by which others will be required to live, and that (no matter how benevolent) often ends up feeling oppressive and offensive.

So it was that the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day imposed its peace upon Judea. It was true, there were no conquering armies, no longer contested territories, or petty squabbles with the neighboring nations.

Rome kept the peace, and it kept order.

The only “cost” of that was subversion of the local culture.  Roman currency replaced the local coinage, weights and measures.  Roman ideas influenced daily life.   Roman laws demanded attention and took precedent over existing local customs, traditions of dealing with things, and courts.

All this was done as you watched your country being mined of its own natural and economic resources.  Wealth was extracted to support the Empire, and preserve the stature of leaders within the larger Empire.

If you are living in the Empire and enjoying its benefits, (among those to whom the wealth is flowing,) all you can see is how much of a benefit this is.  “Why are people ungrateful?   See what we provide for them?”

If, however you are a part of the Empire from which the wealth is being extracted and whose culture is being altered, all you can see is how oppressive and intolerable things are becoming for you.

You begin to look for ways to resist, and really there are only two options open to you.

You can resist Empire by force.

Indeed you find that in the scriptures.  There were many who ignited hopes, looking for a new king, or general, or a messiah like King David of old, arising from the Galilee, and from the fringes… zealots and insurrectionist and would-be messiahs who would be able to throw off the Roman oppression.

You see that in the Gospels, and Empire knows what do with such threats.   It crushes them by force.  Empire deals swiftly and harshly with insurrectionists.

It crucifies them.

But there is another way to subvert Empire, and this is what we see Jesus speak of in these parables, and what is revealed in Jesus’ ministry.

You can infest Empire with ideas that subvert it.

You can change Empire from within, undo it without raising a sword or firing a shot.

It’s important that as you hear these parables, you begin to hear them from the context of living under Empire, and what you can do in the midst of that reality.

“The Kingdom of God is like Mustard seed that someone sowed in his field….”

Mustard is an invasive plant, and no one “sows: it.   One usually spends one’s whole life trying to get rid of it.

It takes over.

It grows without cultivation.

It takes over fields so that birds begin nesting, finding shelter in the tangled mess where once crops were being harvested for Caesar.  The vulnerable find a place of safety hiding in it.

Look again at what Jesus does with his teaching.

You can infect an Empire that runs on profit and return with a message of not worrying about tomorrow.  “Consider the lilies…”

You can infect an Empire that depends upon fear and intimidation with messages of love and confidence.   “Do not be afraid… Do not worry… Do not be anxious…”

You can infect an Empire that is bent on meting out retributive justice by proclaiming a message of turning the other cheek, and letting God do the sorting of the righteous and the unrighteous in God’s time.

You can infest the thoughts of an Empire that is obsessed with station in life, position and privilege by proclaiming the concepts of all being welcome, and equal.  You can bring into question who is of value, and who is worthy of concern and attention by healing the outcast, and showing regard for the lame, the widow, the child.  You can tell stories about caring for the neighbor like the Good Samaritan.

Who is proving to be “neighbor?”   Go and do likewise!

You can infect a world that likes its order with ideas of the first being last, and the last being first, and those who lose their life gain it, and those who try desperately to cling to their own comfort and life ending up losing it.

This is what these parables of the Kingdom reveal to us.  They are about how the Kingdom works in the midst of an Empire that you cannot oppose outright but that you can transform from within, and it looks very much like an infestation that Empire can’t weed out.

Is that how it works still?   Yes!  And this is the good news in all of this.

I find a lot of people feeling pretty powerless these days.

We watch the machinations of the government, hear about executive orders signed, watch as our Senators and Congressional representatives debate things that seem to leave out concerns for the individual in favor of what would be good for the “bottom line,” – pass or attempt to pass legislation that seems to favor the people who pull the strings of Empire and forget about the citizen.

We write our legislators, send our words of displeasure, or encouragement, or calls for change, and it all quite frankly seems like a hopeless or worthless effort.

Who listens to me?

I cannot impose or demand of the rich or the powerful.

I cannot catch the ear of the president or the eye of the Governor.

What can I do?

I can do the work of the Kingdom.

I can cling to this promise Jesus makes that Empires can be undone by infestation, and people can be transformed from within, and that the Holy Spirit is moving amongst all those gathered in the big net of this world which will one day be sorted out.

You and I, we can sow seeds and hide yeast and lock away resources in ways that frustrate the rich and powerful, and call into question the very values that Empire assumes until the Kingdom of God slowly infiltrates and changes everything.

This is slow work, to be sure, but this is our calling.

This is the good news.

Empires fall.

Injustices do not last.

Rulers hold sway for but a brief time.

The Kingdom that God brings finds its way into everything, and will transform the places where it gets a foothold.

This is a word of hope to those who find themselves living in the shadow of Empire.

Advertisements

Judgment When? Matthew 13:24-30

Jesus tells the parable of the Wheat and the weeds as a way of describing how God is working in God’s creation to bring about the Kingdom.  It is a bit of a frustrating picture.

The “weeds” that Jesus describes in this parable is most likely Darnel, a plant that looks just like wheat when it is young and as it grows, but which only shows its ugly head – literally– when the wheat is already tall and begins to head out.   Then you in can see it for which stalks are wheat plants, and which are the offending weed.

But by now there is a problem.  Darnel has a gangly root system that intertwines with the surrounding plants.  If you try to take it out when you can finally recognize it, you will take out the good with the bad.

There is no doubt that the offending weed, (just like evil) must be dealt with.

The questions raised in the parable, and in life, are numerous.

Jesus therefore tries to answer a number of questions with this parable.  The first question that we don’t often even think about, is the question of where evil comes from.

“Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”  The servants ask.

That turns out to be a loaded question, one that find ourselves we bringing to God from time to time under our breath.

If God is good, and God creates everything, then where does this evil we see in the world come from?  Where do these “weeds” come from that pop up and that we can seemingly do nothing about?

Well evil, like weeds, is often just a good part of creation misplaced.

“An enemy has done this.”  The Master proclaims.  Someone has put something where it shouldn’t be!

A quick garden tour or walk outside will reveal the similar dilemma.

Do you have a Barberry bush like the ones in front of the church?  They are a beautiful ornamental plant, native to Japan and China brought here as an ornamental shrub, and you can still buy them for that purpose, but they are also fast becoming an invasive species.  Nothing here naturally uses them for food, and so they grow wild unchecked in woodland areas, choking out native species.   We also recently discovered that they are contributing to the tick population as mice nest beneath the thorns evading their predators, which contributes to the Lyme disease outbreaks, which….

The list goes on.    Is Barberry an “evil” plant?   You might think so if you have to trim it or get tangled up in its thorns, but it’s not evil in and of itself, just “misplaced” from where natural checks and balances would keep it from spreading.

Begin therefore to see God’s frustration, God’s dilemma if you will.  The whole of creation was made good.  Barberry has its place, but it’s not North American forests.

Darnel has its place.   But Darnel’s place is not in the middle of the wheat field.

So also there are things that we have or that we do that sometimes get

misplaced.

It is good to have care and concern for your neighbor, to “check-up on them” from time to time.  (especially in these hot summer days!)

But, too much checking up on the neighbor becomes snooping.

Sharing with others about a need you see that the neighbor needs help with is care for them.

Talking about what you saw or discovered can however go from sharing concern to simply gossiping.

Gossip begins to breed resentment and resentment distrust and then that activity of “checking up” on the neighbor ends up destroying the very community for which checking up on your neighbor was intended to care.

Is it bad, evil to care about your neighbor?  No, but such care can become misplaced!

In the same way, it can be evil not to care, to let your neighbor, your neighborhood, your community deteriorate because you don’t want to be seen as a nuisance, or a busybody.

Something happens in the house next to you, noise and shouts and sounds of violence.  Do you call the police?   Do you risk your family, your neighborhood, the label it might bring to you?

Which is worse, to be known as someone who does not care, or to be known as someone who is a nosy neighbor?

When does calling the authorities move from being an action that upbuilds the neighborhood to one that erodes trust between neighbors?

You see the problem?

How is God to deal with evil when it is not so easy to identify and when it is so often simply something good that is misplaced?

The answer, Jesus says, lies in this matter of the Kingdom.  God will wait until the time of harvest to distinguish, to judge, and then to separate.

Now at first that does not sound like much comfort at all.  It means that you are most likely going to have to contend with evil, with ambiguity in your life.

Know that God does not like the thought of that any better than you do!

God would just as soon not have to deal with the activity of “the enemy” at all, who is in the habit of putting things where they simply do not belong.

We also have to acknowledge that more often than not, such things are our activity!

We are the ones who often put things where they should not be!

We are the ones who do things that should never have been done.

We are the ones who have said things better left not voicing in that place.

We are the ones who have caused no end of messes in this world simply because we acted too rashly, or did not act in time, or did not act when we should have.

The world is a messy place, and most of the messes are ones for which we have sown the seeds in one way or another.

God has two choices in dealing with the messes of this world.

God could come in hacking, pulling, and uprooting without much regard for the circumstances of the individual or “collateral damage” to those nearby.   It is certainly with God’s right, power, and ability to do that.

Or God could choose the timing of judgment, and let things grow together for a time.

God chooses, it appears, (according to Jesus) to deal patiently with us, and with God’s creation.

Here is what God chooses to do.

God cares enough for you that God does not want to accidentally destroy you in any quest to rid the world of evil.

The judgment part of this parable, (which we normally recoil from) is actually a part of the good news, because it asserts that things will get sorted out.  Not by us, (which is too often our mistake!)

We start to think that WE are part of judgment, making decisions about who is wheat, who are weeds, —  who should stay, who should go.  It is our “judgment” action in this world that so often results in some of the very evil of which we would seek to rid the world.

The parable reminds us that sorting things out is God’s task, and one better left to the time of judgment.

You will live with evil in your midst, not because God desires it, but rather because God loves this creation so much.  Evil will intertwine itself around your very roots from time to time, not because God sows it in your midst, but rather because much of what turns out to be evil is just misplaced good.

But God has made you, and God trusts and believes that you are stronger than whatever threatens you.

God provides the sustaining power of the Gospel with a promise that a time of harvest and of sorting things out will be coming.

Until that time, God will continue to send the gentle rains, on the just and the unjust.

God will continue to give the life-giving warmth of his Son, to sustain those who find themselves surrounded and intertwined by evil.

What at first does not sound very comforting, is in reality the ultimate in care.

God cares enough for you that God will not allow you to be forgotten, lost in the shuffle, forsaken or accidentally cut down in any vendetta to rid the world of evil.

You will be saved from whatever evil you are caught up in, or whatever misplaced endeavors you have found yourself entangled in when the time is right and safest for you.

That is God’s promise in this parable.

Beloved children of God, I want you to know this today.

No matter where you are.

No matter what chaos or evil seems to surround you right now.

No matter what you may have done to make yourself look like a weed.

God knows where you are, and what you, and you are in God’s care and keeping.

Our God is a loving God who cares for all of creation, and who can see when things are misplaced.

God can identify the enemy, and knows what to do about it, and more importantly, when to do it.

The harvest is coming, and in that time the things that are misplaced will be gathered up and put in their proper place again.

For the Moments Matthew 13

Someone probably should have told Matthew that parables are very much like jokes.  It never really works to “explain” one.

You either “get it” or you don’t.

So, Matthew’s account of the “parable of the sower” as told by Jesus is not my favorite.  The explanation that Matthew includes here tends to make us want to rush headlong into understanding the parable and parsing it all out.  We try to figure out who is what kind of soil, and immediately want to embark on some kind of a “soil improvement program” or perhaps “sower training” to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

After all, isn’t the point to get better results?  Isn’t that the goal in life, to take the guesswork out things and to get consistent results?

So, we hear the parable and rush into trying to figure out how to fertilize to guarantee a consistent harvest.

Where do we need to work in a little mulch to loosen up that rocky soil, and what would we use for that?  How would we go about it?

Maybe we’d be better off not scattering the seed quite so liberally.  Now that we know what it takes to be a disciple, can’t we be a bit more selective about where we focus our resources?

By introducing the explanation of the parable, Matthew shifts our focus away from what appears to be the main point all along, which is this:

Nobody knows exactly how this “Kingdom of God” thing is all going to play out in the end – not even Jesus.

We find that unsettling, maybe even unacceptable.

But just look at the situation into which this parable is told.  Jesus is gathering crowds, big ones!   He’s pushed by those crowds who want to hear him so much that today they’ve got him backed up to the water’s edge.

One more step back and he’s wading.

Surely this is a picture of the kind of “success” Jesus is having in his ministry.   He’s packing them in!

So, Jesus hops in a nearby boat, pushes off from shore so his words will carry over the water and begins to teach.

“He told them many things.”    Matthew records, but the topper, the memorable one seems to be this parable about a sower who scatters without regard to where the seeds end up, and who gets unpredictable results.  Even if the seeds fall on the “good soil,” we still don’t get a predictable result!  “Some a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

You just don’t know what you’re going to get, scatter it anyway, let it fall where it may.  That’s the Kingdom of God.

Drop everything else you think this parable might or ought to be about for a moment and just let that sink in.   What you are called to do, you do, with no preconceived notion of what the results will be.

Why would you do it?

Why be a sower if you can’t guarantee a harvest?   That’s folly, after all!   You wouldn’t last long in farming if you couldn’t feed yourself or grow a decent crop consistently.

I was having a conversation recently with someone who asked me how many weddings and funerals I had done over the 30+ odd years of being a Pastor.   I had to confess that I really didn’t know.   I received a register book when I graduated from Seminary for just such a purpose, to record all my official clergy actions through the years so that I would be able to look back upon them all someday.

But I had to keep records for the particular parish I served anyway, so it seemed to me like an unnecessary duplication of things.   Besides, when you’re young you think you’ll always remember important events.

“I’m NEVER going to forget THAT wedding!” or “THAT person.”

But 30 some years takes the edge off memory.  Experience changes what one counts as “memorable” over time.  I didn’t keep the register up.

I have no idea how many babies and adults I’ve baptized.

I can’t give you a precise number of funerals I’ve done.

I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve counseled or for whom I’ve done wedding ceremonies.

It all becomes kind of a blur after a while, it truly does.

I never really goaled toward numbers.

I didn’t become a pastor to pay that much attention to the “bottom line” of measured effectiveness.  I’ve always been more of a sower and scatter-er.

That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes get caught up in the numbers game as much as anyone else.  The world wears at us after all, with its economic insistence of “return on investment” and “sustainability” and “proof of effectiveness.”

That’s one of the primary reasons for the funk in the church right now I think.   We have our eyes focused upon the results column more than usual these days, tallying how many congregations are growing, how many are shrinking, how many are in decline, and how many are vibrant or viable.

We are as much attracted to the explanations for that floating out there, (or the attempts at them,) as anyone else; as if by “figuring out” the right trend and formula we could reverse decline or multiply positive ministry gains.

But that’s not the image I get from Jesus as he tells this parable… minus the explanation.

Looking out over the biggest crowd he has gathered to date, Jesus tells a parable about how you don’t know how it’s all going to turn out.

You do it anyway.

“Let anyone with ears, listen.”

So then, why does Jesus do this teaching, this healing, this parable telling?   He does it just to push it out there and see what catches in the moment.

It’s about the moment more than anything else.

In fact, that is much of the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels.   It is a “ministry of moments,” one thing leading to another, leading to a reaction, which leads to an isolated result, a difference made for that person.

Taken all together, we get a broader picture of God’s work of bringing in the Kingdom, but to watch Jesus in action is just to snatch at moments as they unfold.

Which pushes us back then to try to figure out the point of this parable.  If it’s not about improving results, getting consistent returns, just what is it about?   What am I supposed to “hear?”

Results are unpredictable.  But moments of wonder, now that’s something that makes the effort worthwhile!   I wonder if we aren’t supposed to get that, instead of pondering over an explanation and figuring things out.

You let a seed fall where it may.   You let it sit, come back a while later, and then you marvel at what has happened in the wake of the scattering.  It grows virtually everywhere, will sprout and take a shot at life in the harshest of places and under the most extreme of conditions.  Just marvel at that for a moment, — that’s what the Kingdom of God is like.

The kingdom of this world is all about results.   How do we improve the bottom line?        But this sower, this “word of God” stuff is all about moments of wonder where you see the start of something, the end of which you can’t predict, and still you marvel at how it starts.

“Let anyone with ears, listen.”

The kingdom of this world, Empire if you will, is preoccupied with how things will turn out, and how outcomes can be controlled, manipulated, economized and systematized for results.

The kingdom of God appears to be preoccupied with where and how things get their start, and watching something start out is good enough.  It is good enough for Jesus.  Good enough for the sower.

Is that good enough for you?

I was reminded of this at Camp this past week.   I’d like to be able to say that we take kids to Bible Camp so they will become life-long Christians engaged in their local congregations forever, a perpetual sustaining machine to keep the church going.

I’d like to say that, but I can’t.

I’ve taken kids to camp that ended up on the streets, or falling away from faith, or moved on to other expressions.

I can tell you that going to camp might help establish a good foundation for faith, but I can’t guarantee results.   Some will be hundredfold, but some sixty, and some thirty, and a bunch choked out by the cares of this world as well.

I can’t guarantee results, any more than Jesus could with the crowd assembled before him at the lakeshore.

In the end, Jesus will be abandoned by this multitude and left to die on a cross alone.

But did he get to see the start something with his sowing of the Word?  You bet!

People sometimes ask me if the kids had a good week at camp.   I usually say “yes,” but that’s not really true.  Weeks at camp have ups and downs, just like the rest of life.

You get the exhilaration of doing something, and the tears of homesickness.  You get bit by bugs and suffer though a not-so-favorite meal along with laughing harder than you ever have before, singing, making new friends and catching a glimpse of God’s splendor in creation.

In other words, you get these “moments.”

You glimpse beginnings, where something sprouts, or something takes root, or something falls just right that the potential is there for a beginning.

That’s camp.  That’s also the Kingdom of God.

So as unnerving as it may be to think of Jesus looking out over the biggest crowd of his career to that point and telling a parable about how you don’t know how it’s all going to turn out… that ends up being really good news.

You proclaim the Kingdom to watch the start of something and you let God worry about the harvest and return stuff.

You scatter the word, not to get a ledger book full of accomplishments, but a glimpse of a moment when something takes root.  You see some possibility spark in a person’s eye, or a witness a lump of emotion at the beauty of God’s love catch in their throat as they are overwhelmed by a sunset.  You glimpse a persistence to go out and do justice that takes root in someone’s life and actions.  You watch two people pledge lifelong love and faithfulness knowing that disappointment is just as possible.   You see a parent lift a child to God making promises, and for all the joy of that moment know there will be heartbreaks as well ahead.

This is what you do it for, this scattering of the Word of God, this “faith” thing.

You do it for the moments you get.  “Let anyone with ears, listen.