A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on 2023.0723.A.Pr11 Genesis 28:10-19a; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
My wife, Bev, has a real passion for wildflowers; and she knows a good deal about them. Walking in the woods, she keeps a keen eye out for examples; and I have learned a new appreciation for wildflowers through her. I can even identify a few types: the milkweed that attracts the caterpillar that transforms into Monarch butterflies; golden rod; early spring skunk cabbage; bleeding hearts. One year, for her birthday, with the assistance of a former parishioner who loved wildflowers and was a professional photographer, I gave Bev a beautiful photo of a “jack-in-the-pulpit” and signed it “Your jack-in-the-pulpit”. But that is about as far as my wildflower passion goes. From watching Bev on the hunt and listening to her expound on wildflowers, it seems that what gets Bev’s deep wildflower attention are the trilliums, most particularly the red trillium. I admit, these delicate bursts of color in the woods are stunning, but the reality is that over the years I have regarded many examples of wildflowers – mistakenly -- as weeds and have hoed them out of my carefully curated flower gardens. On occasion, this has created a bone of contention between us. For example, with the recent deluges of rain, our gardens and lawn have exploded in growth, and I have been on a bit of a tear to remove the maddening abundance of intrusive weeds. Crabgrass and creeping vines beg me to pull them up, and the saturated soil easily releases their roots to my pull. So, it was that Bev and I were surveying the “side 40”: I with my trusty “scuffle hoe” ready to undermine any nefarious weed, when with a twinge of sternness Bev pointed to a growth that I did not plant with the firm warning: “That’s bladder campion!” Sheepishly, I moved on to the clarity and safety of the crabgrass. You may have noticed that the gospel lessons for most of the month of July come from chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew. The 13th chapter also contains what can seem to be a barrage of parables. The “Parable of the Sower” was last week’s edition, and today we have a follow-up, the “Parable of the Wheat and Tears” (tears another descriptor for “weeds”). Yet, there are also five more “mini-parables” in this one chapter that follow today’s lesson, which we will fortunately not have to read. I say “fortunately” because Jesus’ parables never are the simple morality tales that many make of them. Rather and in fact, Jesus’ parables are demanding and at times quite vexing. And in mid-July, who among us wants to work this hard? To the disciples’ question about why he uses the parables to convey life on God’s terms, Jesus responds this way [in the paraphrasing of The Message version of scripture. “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom…Not everyone has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state [folks] can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they are blue in the face and not get it.”1 So, with fair warning, what do you think is the message of “The Parable of the Wheat and Tears”, the “Wheat and the Weeds”? One important place to start our own response to this question is to remember that in the hands of Jesus, the form of a parable is meant to cause us to stumble over its telling so that in catching our toe (as it were) on its raised threshold, we might see something surprising or even something we would rather ignore. Case in point, in preparing for this sermon with my weekly preaching group, one of my colleagues said: “I like the parable but not the explanation.” This is to say that it’s one thing that the householder wisely directed his workers not to pull the weeds lest they destroy the wheat in the process; but it is another thing entirely how at the harvest the weeds are burned. And in Jesus’ explanation, it is clear that the “wheat and the tears” are human beings who will be held accountable for their response (or their lack thereof) to God. And so, (to put the matter bluntly) is the parable’s point a matter of who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? Is the parable’s message that simple? To respond with equal bluntness, I say, “No!” Of course, an explanation of my response would demand more time and more give-and-take discussion than a sermon affords. And (as I have already said) it is mid-July, and our minds want to drift toward lighter fare. So, amidst the many threads of this parable’s fabric, I want to focus on two important strands. One thread is to look at what we know about the nature of God and life on God’s terms. The other is to ask: Rather than “Who” are the “weeds”? the demanding part of this parable’s message is to ask, “Where” are the “weeds”? First, what does this parable say about the nature of God and our life with God? More specifically, another way to get at this issue is to ask this: Is God a punishing tyrant or an indulgent grandparent? Or, a third, less binary perspective: Is the purpose of life with God about being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ, to the end that we might be more and more suitably prepared to be in God’s presence; and in this central regard, do we realized our choices about God and life have consequences? To this non-binary prospect, I say, “Yes!” I think that the serious existential, and faith question is this: Can mortals, children of God, deny the Holy One eternally? For me, this is a question and an issue best left for God; but the fact of the matter clearly is (to use the beautiful words of our Eucharistic Prayer): “In your infinite love, you made us for yourself…”. I for one am banking on the infinity of God’s love and life. But the truth also is that love and life delayed is love and life denied. In terms of the second thread I want to focus on in this parable, as I say we are tempted to make this parable into a clear-cut morality play: namely, those “weeds” out there, “them” – they need to be plucked up and gotten rid of. History is replete with such convenient projections and the annihilating holocausts such a supposedly “moral” perspective provide. Yet, rather than fall into the temptation of “Who” are the weeds, it is, I believe, more honest and more Godly to ask not “Who” are the “weeds” but “Where” are the “weeds”? And in this re-focusing of the issue, we must admit that the “weeds” are in each of us. St. Paul gives a powerful and personal confession to “where” the “weeds” in life are, when he cries out: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do.”2 In other words, speaking as a painfully honest follower of Jesus, Paul is saying that amidst the garden of our lives, we are both “wheat” and “weeds”; and this means that we live in what is often a maddening ambiguity. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”3 The issue of the presence of unwanted “weeds” in our lives is not simply a matter of pulling the weeds” out for purity’s sake. Not only does such an action risk pulling our “wheat” out with those “weeds”; the more profound issue is that in trying to eliminate the “weeds”, but we are also eliminating a real part of ourselves. In the spiritual tradition of the Bible and of Jesus, acknowledging the “weeds” in our soul’s garden is the first step in the renewal of our life in and with God-in-Christ. This renewal is a key part of the Holy One’s transformation – of us and of the world. Rather than run from what I “hate” about myself, rather than deny this part of me, rather than project what I hate on to the other, God calls us to engage in what is technically called “shadow work”.4 Our shadow is what we refuse to see about ourselves, and what we do not want others to see about us. To protect our public image, all the contrary and negative aspects of ourselves have to go underground and be hidden from others -- and most deadly, even from our own awareness. Our shadow self is not evil in itself: it just allows us to do evil and not know it. The ultimate destructiveness of an ignored "shadow self” allows us to call evil good. This is the reason that full human life demands some shadowboxing with the shadow side of every reality. This, I believe, is what St. Paul notes when he describes this aspect of his own spiritual discipline. He writes, “I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”5 As the contemporary spiritual thinker and director, Fr. Richard Rohr, observes, “We never get to the second half of life – that is the “ripe” part of life -- without major shadowboxing. The fact is, as Rohr points out in his “shadowboxing” writings, the closer you get to the Light, the more of your shadow you see.” I think the point of this “shadow work” is not only to let God be God when it comes to who’s “in” and who’s “out”; but more centrally the “shadow work” is also about our willingness to embrace and include that part of ourselves that we “hate”; and in that embrace and inclusion allow God to transform what is hidden and shadowy about our souls and lives. The purpose of this deep and honest work is so that we can be more and more present to the Holy One and, therefore, more and more present to who and what God calls us to be. As Bev has implicitly taught me, the thing about “weeds” is that they just might turn out to be wildflowers. So, be careful. Dealing with God will cause all of us – the seen and the unseen parts of us -- to grow. For which we can thank God. Amen.
1. The Message. Matthew 13:11-15
2. Romans 7:15
3. from the comic strip, “Pogo”
4. I take the ideas of “shadow work” from Fr. Richard Rohr’s writings.
5. 1 Corinthians 9:27