Lectionary Readings – 7th Sunday after Pentecost

Since I grew up in northern Alaska, I have never spent much time farming, nor have I seen much in the way of wheat when it’s young. But from what I’ve been told is that when wheat is young, it looks very much like grass. More to the point, when it is young and unripened it looks very much like the weeds that grow in the same fields. It is only when the wheat has ripened that the difference between the two plants can be determined.

In today’s Gospel, the workers in the field were able to distinguish between the two, and went and told the owner of the land that they had seen these weeds growing, and wanted to know if they should pull them up. But the owner of the land tells them that they should just leave the weeds in the field until the wheat has fully matured, because they might accidentally rip up some wheat while pulling up the weeds.

This little bit of dialogue tells us that the workers in the field were more than capable of distinguishing between good and bad. They were able to discern the difference between the wheat and the weeds, but the owner wanted to wait until the harvest to make the final distinction to avoid accidentally destroying the wheat.

Now, once Jesus explains the parable, we become aware that the field is the world, and that the wheat represents the children of God, and the weeds represent the children of the evil one. And since the workers in the field have already showed us that they can discern between good and bad, then we can too, right? Through this parable, it seems like we are being set up to judge the world through the lens of “Good” vs “Bad.”  

So if the field is the world, we might be tempted to jump right in and say, you know what? I know of several good countries, and I know of several bad countries, and we can extol the virtues of the good countries while demonizing the others.

If you don’t think this demonization of the other could happen, you may have managed to avoid watching the evening news or reading the newspapers during any military action this country has undertaken in the last century.

When I was still in high school, I participated in a trivia competition to see how much those who have read a book have retained. One of the books that year was called Farewell to Manzanar, which detailed the story of a family of Japanese Americans who had been ripped from their homes and livelihood by the US Government. They were taken just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and were brought into detention camps in the desert of California.

When I read this story, I was amazed. I was angry. This hadn’t been presented as part of the history of World War II that we were taught in our high school curriculum. That curriculum only told of America freeing the Jews from the Nazis or winning the war in the Pacific. 

But in this book I learned that the United States was simultaneously engaged in a war on the European continent to free those rounded up and put into detention centers by the Nazis, while simultaneously putting people of a particular ethnic descent into camps of their own. How could we, as a country allow that?

This was supposed to be America.
America, the beautiful.
America, home of the brave, and land of the free.
Well, free, as long as you weren’t of Japanese descent, or looked different than those in power.

Suddenly, I had to ask, this country that I love, is it good, or is it bad?

If we continue our analogy of the field being the world, we may consider the idea of the good religions and bad religions.  If you don’t think that’s possible, you might not have been paying attention to the cable news channels as they have demonized those other world religions – and one in particular – as the United States has engaged in wars in the middle east for the last 30 years. 

Those of us that are attending this service this morning consider Christianity to be one of the good religions, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. But if we dive into the history of the church we come across some very dark passages of history. In fact, I remember when I first came across those moments like the Spanish & Portuguese Inquisitions, or the various Crusades, and the deaths that occurred at the hands of those who followed the same Christ that we do. In several of these moments of history, people were given the choice to convert to Christianity — or face death. In Germany, during the second world war, some churches and pastors looked to the bible for ways to explain away the jailing, torture, and killing of Jews. Here in our very own country, the country that we love, some churches and pastors also used the Bible to explain how keeping other people as slaves was biblical.

And so the question once again appears: Is my religion good, or is my religion bad?

If we continue to look at this field of the world, we may come to realize that the weeds and the wheat, the children of the evil one, and the children of God in this world includes our local church. The field of the world in today’s parable includes you and it includes me. 

I might look at myself and say, “Thank God I don’t believe any of that nonsense about slavery or genocide being biblical, because I would never engage in any of that behavior,” and so, I pat myself on the back and tell myself that I have done well simply by refraining from evil. 

But sometimes, simply refraining from doing evil is not enough. Sometimes, I see atrocities or oppression, and I sit back and say that I am glad that I am not one of those people engaged in this behavior. Instead of saying anything to point out the wrongs those others are doing I remain silent. In other words, I am glad that I have not done this evil thing that others are doing, and I am basically pleased with myself for having done nothing. 
A very brave and marvelous nothing. 
A courageous nothing that equates silence with righteousness.

Elie Wiesel, who survived the Auschwitz concentration camps, had this to say about remaining quiet when faced with the evils of this world:

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

–The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, the Accident

In a similar vein, and perhaps a bit more well known to some of you is the phrase from Edmund Burke, which states that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

When I have commited wrong it is pretty easy to recognize my failures. In fact, in some cases, I don’t even need to engage in any self-reflection, as others will be more than generous to point out my transgressions deliberately and to my face.  

What is more difficult to gauge and what requires more self-reflection, is my inaction

At the end of this, I come to the same question.

Through my actions, or even my inactions, am I a weed, or am I wheat?

Am I a child of God, or am I a child of the evil one?

Well… I can tell you I am wheat. I’m obviously not a weed. And here are the many reasons why: First…<pretend to start counting on your fingers>

Yeah. Obviously that’s not going to happen. I’m not going to bore you with all the reasons why I consider myself to be a good person.

The point though, is that I could sit down and attempt to list out all the reasons why I did those things I should not have done, and why I did not do the things I should have done.

Because anything I say would amount to no more than self-justification.

Abba John the Little, one of the desert fathers — the monks who lived in the Egyptian desert in the early third century — had this to say:

“We have abandoned a light burden, namely self-criticism, and taken up a heavy burden, namely self-justification.”

I’m going to read that again.

“We have abandoned a light burden, namely self-criticism, and taken up a heavy burden, namely self-justification.”

When left to my own devices I will always seek my own safety above that of others, I will seek the welfare of myself and my own before the welfare of others, I will seek to put my own will before the will of others, and even before the will of God.

Every human institution suffers from the very same malady: it is governed by people just like me. And the moment I attempt to justify my own actions or inactions, I can be found to justify the actions or inactions of my church, and the church can be found to justify the actions or inactions of my denomination, and the denomination can be found to justify the the actions or inactions of my religion, all the way up the chain to the point where my own justification of my actions or inactions could even be found to have allowed or perpetuated such a thing as genocide, as slavery, and the oppression of others. 

And that is a heavy burden.

Because now I need to continue my self-justification in order to repeatedly explain away all my actions or inactions in order to prove to everyone around me that I am not a weed, but am, in fact, one of the stalks of wheat in the field of the world. That my actions or inactions have not resulted in the oppression of others. That my actions or inactions have not allowed evil to triumph.

You may remember that earlier I said that it seems like we are being set up to view the world as good and bad, and some of you might have jumped out of your seats right away, shaking your fists, and saying, “That’s a false duality, Mike. You’re setting up a scarecrow argument. It’s not as simple as all that!” 

And you’d be right. 

But, this is the way of the world. The world wants us to see people in the context of good and bad. The world wants us to divide and sow dissension by putting us into camps of the righteous, and camps of the evil. The world wants us to look at things from the sum total of our good actions weighed against the sum total of our bad actions to decide who is good, and who is bad. 

Jesus tells us that the wheat are the Children of God. In the passage from his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that the children of God are those who believe and are led by the Spirit of God. If our spirit can bear witness and call God the father of all, then we are heirs of the kingdom of God, joint heirs of heaven with Christ. We have been freed from the bondage to death and decay, and freed from the bondage to sin, because of Christ’s death on the cross.

It is for this reason that when we pray in the confession that we would be forgiven for that which we have done, and that which we have left undone, we really do believe that we have been forgiven. We believe that we have been sanctified and justified, by Christ’s death on the cross, and not that we are justified by anything that we can do ourselves.

I will continue to do bad things, and I must ask forgiveness from God and from those whom I have wronged. 

I will continue to fail to do good things, and I must ask forgiveness from God and from those whom I have left to face oppression on their own.

I will continue to sin, and I will do this because it is in my nature.

The false duality of the world states that I must weigh out the good and the bad actions in my life and determine whether I am one of the good, or one of the evil. Whether my good actions outweigh my bad actions. 

But the duality of God states this:

We are totally sinful. And yet we are totally forgiven.
We are completely sinful at our core, and yet we are completely righteous.
We are full of evil tendencies, and yet we are also full of the grace of God.

There exists within us the presence of sin and the presence of righteousness at the same time, and it is only through God, and the justification of Christ’s death on the cross that we are made whole, that we are declared “Good.” 

We can do nothing to achieve this state of righteousness, even though we may try with our own self-justification for the wrong we have done. In fact, it is despite ourselves that we have been made children of God and justified and sanctified before him. 

We can, at times, look and act like weeds, but the only thing that separates us is the realization of our own sinful nature, coupled with the enduring love of God that sanctifies us.

When we have come to this realization of this dual and simultaneous nature of good and evil within ourselves, and have grasped the full beauty and completeness of our justification before God by Christ’s death on the cross then we can boldly enter into the world with hearts full of love and forgiveness.

[This sermon was delivered at Christ the King Episcopal Church in Tucson, AZ on July 19, 2020. Listen Here.]

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