Photo by Tony Pham on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.
It happened again. I only have to write this column periodically, while you have to prepare a sermon every week.
So why is it again “Saturday night” and I-don’t-know-what-I’m-going-to-say-this-weekend? This is especially difficult to navigate when you have to coordinate with musicians, liturgists and now, camera operators and permissions to get, etc.
If not before, the reality of the preparation task is now more evident. You, Working Preachers, know this. But your members are more aware of the task as our preparation work has expanded and been exposed.
Some folks still do not understand. Especially if 1) they cannot work from home or 2) they are comparing your services to churches who had production staffs before the rest of us moved online. You know they don’t understand, right? So you lean in with attempts to balance lowering their expectations to something realistic for your context with raising their participatory role of being the church in that context, especially since we can’t all go to church.
This is what is happening in the text this week. Jesus is explaining something folks think they understand by exposing them to what they can be doing. I’ve stopped teasing the disciples about not understanding the analogy. They fish. Jesus is talking about farming. I don’t do either, so it’s really great that this parable is explained by the storyteller himself. And what Jesus says it not what we usually focus on.
Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. Rarely, if ever, is it a something-after-you-die reality. Descriptions suggest activities we engage now that point to a more just, more life-giving, more peace-filled way of being. We can miss this if we tell the story the way it has always been told.
As you complete your preparations this week, let the interpretation press you into what your task is as preachers. First: point to Jesus. In this parable, we are not sowing the seed, Jesus is. Our task is to be like the writers of the gospel: point out the work Jesus is doing. I tell my students this is letting the text do the heavy lifting. Maybe this week, the congregation needs to hear that the work of setting the world right is the work of God Incarnate. So breathe. God is doing something. Look for it. You might just be surprised at what you see.
Why? Because this work is being done in the world. Not just our congregation, or community, or denomination, or nation. Can you see where God is at work in the world? Does this seem an inane question in the midst of our current reality? Why think that?
Remember the context of the first century. So much can be said by describing the Roman culture and its immoral classism and sexism. You can get into a lot of trouble exposing the complicity of the religious leaders and legal experts as they are portrayed as unrighteous in just this Matthean narrative alone. Not to mention all the records that exist about King Herod and his family and how his laws impacted the people he ruled. The social distancing from the diseased, the systemic inequity by status (language, religion, or gender), the sickness and sadness because of hunger, thirst, and displacement. This is the world of the first century. And Jesus is speaking into this context, saying that God is at work in him.
Remember that before 2020 we, people of God, spoke of Jesus at work in the world. If you are like me, you are surprised at the results 2000 years after the rumors of the resurrection. What exactly is God planting? I can tell you there are weeds in this garden. So little evidence of the fruit of the spirit. So much hatred, grief, discord, intolerance, cruelty, wickedness, harshness, self-indulgence.
But then again, I told you I do not farm. I am not even good at keeping a house plant alive. Maybe you should not trust what I call weeds. That seems to be what Jesus is warning against. There is so much extra work involved with weeding and, before that, determining what should be left alone because it is potentially promising.
Here the parable shifts to a perspective we in the Western world have difficulty with: the idea of evil personified.
- Maybe this year we can see there is really something evil in the world.
- Maybe before we destroy that which we disagree with, we have to see—really see—the destruction that results from living outside of the reign of God.
- Maybe we have to see the weeds in the wonderful garden to appreciate that one day there will be a reckoning.
- Maybe we need to see the evil before we can understand there needs to be a reckoning,
And maybe self-control and surrender is trusting the stories we told before 2020—stories of a God who is good; stories of a God who intrudes into our broken world to make it beautiful. The Creator-Covenanting God whose patience for us is such that we might stop acting on God’s behalf and watch for what God is truly doing to set this world right again.
This chaos, all this disruption, is beyond what our normal practices can fix. We want to weed the garden and the gardener is saying, “Wait. Watch.”
That wasn’t what I was listening for. But it is all that I can hear now.