This is the text of a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures referenced are Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Romans 8:12-25.
My brothers and sisters, I have a problem. And that is that, despite being a bit of a language geek, I have sadly concluded that Icelandic is hard.
Why – you may well ask – would I even consider learning Icelandic? It all started innocently enough. I was talking with some people who are very distressed about some of the policies of our government; particularly with regard to the treatment of asylum seekers. And our conversation turned to the question of how bad things would have to be for some of us to consider actually leaving and living somewhere else. And – if it did get to that point – where would you go?
A quick google told me that if you want to go somewhere with an excellent record on human rights issues, you’re generally talking about somewhere far away, cold, and with a language that’s not intuitive for English speakers. It’s not exactly encouraging.
Of course, it’s not entirely a theoretical discussion for me, because I’ve done it before. Australia looked pretty good from the point of view of apartheid-era South Africa. But having done it once already, I’m not in a tearing hurry to do it again.
So it leaves me – and anyone else, who like me, isn’t anxious to move halfway around the world and master modern Viking – with a problem. What do you do when it seems like evil is winning?
This morning’s parable, from Matthew’s gospel, gives us much to think about in this regard. Remember how it goes; an enemy sowed weeds in among the good wheat in a field. And so when the plants came up, the wheat and the weeds grew together. And the slaves who worked the field were perplexed by this, and wondered whether they ought to uproot the weeds.
Note that – the slaves were confronted with the same question. Here is a field overrun with weeds, with evil. What do you do?
Well, comes the answer, you can’t fix it. You can’t get rid of the weeds without damaging the wheat. They have to grow together, lest the weeding diminish the harvest. It’s a kind of spiritual version of the medical principle to first, do no harm.
That’s the bad news, folks. We have to live in this world, with all of its mess, with planes being shot down and unsatisfactory governments and suicide bombers. We can run away from it, we can try not to notice it, we can even distract ourselves with Nordic fantasies, but we can’t fix it.
And the parable offers us the perspective to understand why we can’t fix it. Because we’re not the farmer; we’re not even the field hands. If anything, we identify ourselves with the wheat. We’re the harvest. It’s a frustratingly passive role, for people who are used to thinking of ourselves as having agency over ourselves and our environment.
Maybe we are sometimes a little too attached to our illusions of control?
But I want to examine the idea that we are the wheat a bit more closely.
Of course, we’re the good guys, aren’t we? Here we are, in church, pondering the Bible, about to come to communion – of course we’re the wheat. I mean, we couldn’t be the weeds. They’re children of the evil one. They’re out there; ignorant, perhaps; misguided, certainly; lost to eventual fire, apparently.
It’s a problematic prospect, isn’t it?
What if there were another way to think about this?
What if, instead of dividing people into two neat categories – on whatever criteria – of good and bad, of wheat and weeds; what if the situation were a bit more complex than that?
What if, within my own heart, there were a field of both wheat and weeds? Hmm.
I hate to admit it, but I can see some things in me, without which I might be a better person. I guess you could call those weeds. And I can see some things which – I hope it’s not too boastful to say – I think you could say are genuinely good; which I might call wheat.
And it’s not just me, is it? This is part of the human condition. Even the best of us struggles with awareness of our own weedy patches; and even the worst has at least the potential for good.
Here, perhaps, we might find it helpful to leave the gospel for a moment and ponder Paul’s image in our reading from Romans. He said that “we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
It’s a nicely balanced view, isn’t it? All of creation, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, are waiting for the fulfilment of God’s purpose. The image of groaning in labour is apt; an unstoppable process is underway, one with pain and difficulty and indignity and, well… truth be told I try not to think about it very much. But at the end, new life takes its first breath, and there is relief and joy and celebration.
The good news about all of this – whether we’re talking about our own interior life, or the world at large – is that the evil will end. Harvest time will come, the wheat will be gathered in, the weeds are collected and go to the fate they deserve. And the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.
So there are two aspects to the message for us, in a passage like this; hope and warning. Evil is here, and we can’t fix it. And yet, we’ve been given to know that evil will not win. This mixed moral economy will end. And even more than that, the fact that it has not ended yet tells us something very important, something worth celebrating: the wheat is still growing! So maybe, alongside the question of what we do in the face of evil, we also need to ask ourselves; are we ready for the harvest?