Sunday, July 17, 2011

It's "Horticulturist," not "Horticulturalist."

Not that the title has anything to do with the sermon.

I have a friend who, because of an accumulation of things, including open abuse by Christians, has left the faith. And while, yes, people are responsible for their own decisions, the fact that other Christians drove this person away from faith in Christ is galling, embarrassing, tragic, and inexcusable.

Genesis 28:10-19a
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place — and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19aHe called that place Bethel;

Romans 8:12-25
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor 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. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I wouldn’t even begin to call myself an expert horticulturist, but I’ve done a little gardening in my time. Well, more precisely, I’ve helped out with gardening on occasion. One of the very few things I know about gardening is that, occasionally, there is weeding that has to be done. So I have to confess a bit of confusion over the panic that the household slaves get in over the weeds in this week’s Gospel reading. I mean, it’s just weeds. What’s the big deal about a few weeds? You have to get in there, look for anything that isn’t wheat, pull it up, and get on with life, right?

Not so much, as it turns out. The weeds Jesus refers to are called “darnel,” and they are both poisonous and indistinguishable from wheat until they reach maturity. It was a crime in the Roman empire to do to this householder what his enemy did – sow darnel among the wheat. It is so pervasive that its roots intertwine with the wheat’s roots, making it impossible to get rid of the bad without destroying the good! No wonder the householder was content just to let everything grow together – there would be ample time for the experts to take care of the problem at harvest time.

And can I tell you this morning, that I think many of us in the Church Universal have forgotten that important key point – that it’s the experts at the harvest time who will do the work of deciding what is, and what is not, fit to eat?

I think it’s a natural reaction for us humans that, whenever we read about separating the wheat from the weeds, we automatically think of people – either groups or individuals – who we think of as weeds, “children of the evil one,” as Jesus puts it. Perhaps, deep down, we feel a twinge of fear that we, ourselves, are weeds, and instead of shining like the sun, we’re destined to go up in smoke.

So we get busy making lists, tabulating what is right and what is wrong, and more than that, who is right and who is wrong, when it comes to Christian faith and practice. We want to make sure we are the “right” ones, the wheat, so we codify in minute detail exactly what it means to be fit for the Kingdom, and we specify the kinds of people who are fit only for the furnace. Churches write constitutions, statements of faith, doctrinal statements… some even require members to sign a contract before they join!

Denominations are created in much the same way as amoeba reproduce, this one splitting off from that one over issues of Scriptural interpretation, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, who can and cannot preach or serve in leadership, which translation of the Bible is the “correct” one, and on and on. Arguments and even outright violence break out and get publicized, lawsuits get filed, and it’s been going on this way for centuries!

The result is that the Body of Christ appears fractured – thirty-five thousand separate Protestant denominations, Catholicism in Roman form, as well as Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and all of this to say nothing about Coptic churches, unaffiliated churches, churches in coffee shops and living rooms and bars, Emergent cohorts… all saying different things about the same God. All deciding, in one way or another, who is a weed and who is wheat.

As a direct result of all of the infighting and all the outcasting, more and more people every day are deciding that Christianity isn’t for them. And this is not simply people who have never been to church, looking on from the outside, and saying “no, thank you.” According to Barna Research, in the United States, some fifty-three thousand people – people who are in church, who perhaps grew up there, who have heard the preaching and sung the songs and prayed the prayers – leave church every week… and never come back.

We are, in effect – no, that’s not right, it isn’t “in effect,” it’s exactly that we are ripping out the wheat along with the weeds, and doing it with wild and joyful abandon! In our passion to construct the perfect vehicle with which to express our freedom in Christ, we’ve fenced ourselves in – thirty-five thousand separate plots of theological ground. In our dedication to perfecting our walk, purifying our prayer, sanctifying our thought, we have shut out anything and everyone who does not conform to our precise expectations.

We have forgotten that doctrine does not save. And while our theology defines what we believe about God, it also divides, because not everyone speaks of God with the same words, or from the same perspective. We have forgotten that what unites us – the only thing which can truly make us one in Christ – isn’t our orthodoxy (right thinking) or orthopraxy (right practice)… it’s love.

The lesson of the wheat and the weeds isn’t that there are “children of the evil one” among us. We know this already, it’s not news. The lesson is that we can’t tell. And, further, that it isn’t our job to tell who is a weed and who is wheat. We mess it up when we try to do it.

We are not God’s instruments of judgment. We are instruments of God’s love. We are not designed by our Creator, infused with God’s Holy Spirit, in order to be exclusive, but to reach out, in love, to all of creation – to be inclusive.

We are meant to pray, with Saint Francis of Assisi…

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred,
Let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, Joy.

O Divine Master grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
To be understood,as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


  1. Love it John! Ive always thought it was funny when people describe Christianity as a "Mighty Army" when in reality its just thousands of disorganized militias... also you reminded me to stop trying to week, not at all my job! Great message John!

  2. Truth be told some days I like to weed out the fundie-loons but then I read a sermon like this which reminds me that they are part of the family too. Thanks John!

  3. It also reminds me of the old adage: you can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think. (Feel free to trash this comment if deemed inappropriate)