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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 23, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Genesis 28:10-19
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We had a red brick walkway that led to the front door of the house I grew up in.  It had been laid decades before I was born and had a few small dips and humps in it, but very little space between the bricks.  And yet, somehow, grass managed to grow between the bricks for about a third of the walk.  Getting sent out to weed the walk always seemed like punishment.  It was boring and there was no shade and the grass hung on tenaciously.  Half the time the stalk of the grass would break, rather than the root, and only on the rarest of occasions was it possible to actually pull out the full grass, root and all.  I suspect I got to weed the front walk because the one time my mother asked me to weed the garden I pulled up the daffodils that had been growing there for years.

The memory of pulling up the daffodils came flooding back as I studied today’s gospel lesson.  It is so easy for the untrained gardener to destroy what is wanted in an effort to extract what is not.  I like the definition of a weed that says, a weed is any plant that is growing where you don’t want it.  I also like the advice, “To distinguish flowers from weeds, simply pull up everything.  What grows back is weeds.”[1]  This approach to gardening works for me.  Maybe it’s obvious that the characters in the parable I most identify with are the slaves who ask if they should rip out the weeds.

In Matthew’s narrative, this parable comes right after another parable, one that is probably a little more familiar, that is also about seeds.  In that parable, a planter goes scattering seed and the seed falls in four different kinds of soil – on a path; on rocky, shallow soil; on weed-infested soil; and on good soil – and only the seed that fell on the good soil produced grain.  Then Matthew has Jesus explain the meaning of the parable to the disciples.  And right after explaining the parable of the four soils, Matthew has Jesus tell the parable we heard today.  And then a couple short parables, almost aphorisms.  And then Matthew has Jesus explaining today’s parable.

Most biblical scholars think that the explanations are from the early church, not Jesus.  I actually find it reassuring that Matthew includes his explanation (he includes one for the parable of the four soils, too).  I think these parables are pretty obtuse by themselves and the fact that Matthew’s early church community created these explanations is reassuring because it means the early church found them obtuse as well and needing an explanation.  But that’s not too surprising.

Parables are, as David Lose put it, “suggestive, evocative, sometimes disconcerting, offering glimpses into the kingdom of God, but not explanations or definitions.”[2]  Accepting only one explanation of a parable does it a disservice, in my opinion.  So, while they may have captured a meaning of the parable for them in their day, I want to set aside their explanation and see what we can harvest from the parable today.

The first thing that I notice is that farmer is not a sharecropper.  He is rich enough to own slaves, so he probably owns the land as well.  This might not make him part of the 1 percent, but he is part of the top 10 percent.  So, like me, the people listening to Jesus would have identified with the slaves – but for different reasons.  They would have identified with the slaves because 90 percent of the population was peasant class – farm laborers, sharecroppers, day laborers, fishers, miners, construction workers, servants, slaves, the disabled, and the untouchables.[3]

If they identify with the slaves, might they have been rooting (if you’ll pardon the expression) for the weeds?  Having more agricultural sense than I have, could their suggestion to rip up the weeds be subversive, knowing full well that doing so would ruin the crop as well?  So, I’m left wondering, what if the kin-dom of God is like the weeds or the one who sowed the weeds – subversive and undermining the domination system?

Laurel Dykstra says that the weeds sown in this parable are a specific species: darnel.  “Darnel looks very much like wheat when it is immature,” she writes; “its roots intertwine with those of the wheat and its toxic grains are loosely attached to the stem.  The problem of what to do with an infested field does not have a simple solution – pull up the shoots and you pull up the wheat; wait until the harvest and you poison the grain and contaminate next year’s crop with falling seeds.

“For the landless peasants who were Jesus’ audience, the economic loss represented by a contaminated field could mean the death of a child to malnutrition.  To the wealthy landowner in this story, it means loss of profit.  A rich man who imagines that simple bad luck must be the work of some enemy, and who stands to lose only income, might not have been a sympathetic character to peasants.  For him the kingdom of God is a noxious weed.

“The kingdom parables ‘put before us,’ in stark relief, the conditions of life under empire.  The rich risk their profit, the poor their lives and the lives of their children.  The few live in luxury sustained by enmity, scarcity, profit, and accumulation, and they are supported by the labor of those who struggle with poverty and constant vulnerability.”[4]

Another way to look at the parable is to ask, “When have I felt that way?”  I doubt the experience of the servants is foreign to you; it certainly isn’t for me.  I’ve been frustrated when things have gone the way I thought they would.  I’ve thought I’d prepared the soil and planted good seeds (metaphorically speaking) for some plan I have, and then something goes awry.  I want to correct it, like the slaves, to make it right – even if that means risking damage to something important.  It feels like life has ganged up on me, as if some enemy has done this.

I bet you’ve felt the same way at least at some point in your life.  “When the cancer returns, when the job goes away, when the relationship ends, when depression sets in, when addiction robs a loved one (or ourselves) of life, when a congregation is divided, when a loved one’s life is cut short, when war forces thousands to flee as refugees, when the world turns its back on people in need.  At these times, the sense that this world is not what God intended can be almost unbearable, and you don’t have to believe in a red-suited devil with a pointy tail and pitchfork to name the reality of sin, brokenness, and evil in the world.  … [T]he temptation to use this parable to explain evil probably won’t turn out that well.  But can we at least acknowledge [the reality of evil]?

“And, having acknowledged it, can we then also acknowledge that this is not God’s design or desire?

“I have witnessed time and again how difficult it is for many of us to avoid the temptation to explain evil – quite ironically! – by assigning it to some greater plan God supposedly has for us.  ‘Don’t worry, it’s part of God’s plan,’ someone says to another after tragedy.  Or, ‘Don’t worry, God never gives us more than we can handle’ [as if such hardship is something from God].  Or, ‘God’s purpose for this will reveal itself in time.’  All of these words of supposed comfort end up assigning God responsibility for tragedy and brokenness …

“I think one of the things this parable suggests is that God does not will evil for us, not in any way, shape, or form.  That our tragedies are not part of God’s plan.  That God never, ever wants us to suffer.  Rather, according to Paul, ‘God works for the good in all things” for those God loves.’”[5]

“Are there ways to find ‘healing’ amid devastation?  Yes.  Can one be ‘transformed’ by the hell life thrusts upon them?  Absolutely.  [In fact, I believe it is God’s desire that we find healing and transformation when tragedy happens.]  But it does not happen if one is not permitted to grieve.”[6]  So, rather than these platitudes that end up blaming God for tragedy, we can sit with our friends when the weeds are growing in their crops and simply be, giving them the space to grieve.

It’s important to remember that we don’t all grieve in the same way.  In fact, we don’t necessarily grieve in the same way as we respond to different tragedies.  Different weeds need different ways of dealing with them.  According to Todd Weir who learned cutting weeds at age 13 in Iowa, “A cockle burr had shallow but widespread roots and had to be pulled out to get all the roots.  If you hacked it off at the ground level with a hoe it would be back in a week.  A milkweed had a very long tap root that could not be pulled out.  If you did try to pull it up, three separate sprouts would be back in a week.  Milkweeds had to be hacked off with a hoe and would ‘bleed’ and die as the sap ran out.  If you didn’t handle the weeds right, hours of backbreaking work in the sun would be completely wasted.”[7]

On the other hand, sometimes you can’t tell the weed from the crop.  Or maybe you can tell the difference, but it’s impossible to eradicate the weeds without destroying the crop – as the parable suggests.  “Since good and evil commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings, the only result of a dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.”[8]

If this parable makes you ask, “Am I wheat or weed?” let me tell you the answer.  You’re both.  We all are.  And our church is both wheat and weeds.  We may think we know who’s who, as if one could simply put a sticker on each person’s nametag so we could accurately identify them.  Ooooo.  Weed sticker.  You need to sit in the back on the left.  Wheat?  Up front, on the right, please.[9]

Luckily, God is not only just.  God is also merciful.  So, while we are both wheat and weed, when the final sorting comes, we will be transformed into a bumper crop.

I was walking home from church one day last week when I noticed a blackberry.  I kept walking, maybe a couple steps, when I decided to go back and take a closer look at its beauty, hanging there right next to the sidewalk.  I thought about eating it, but decided instead to just enjoy its berriness.  And I took this picture.

There’s a poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that includes these lines:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.[10]

I didn’t take off my shoes, but I marveled at the berry’s majesty.  And that night, reflecting on the day, I wondered who would end up communing with God, feasting on the berry’s goodness.  Would some child skipping by pluck its juiciness and feast?  Would some lucky bird or squirrel dine?  Would the berry just revel in its own berriness and eventually go to seed?

On the west side of the mountains in Washington State, blackberries are typically considered a weed.  The climate is, it seems, perfect for them, and if you disturb the ground, they will grow.  And you will spend the rest of your days trying to get rid of them.

Still, they produce these berries…

As I reflect on the parable of the wheat and the weeds, I have one more thought:  In addition to everything else the parable might mean, might it not just be an invitation to notice both the wheat and the weeds, the farmer and the slaves, and see in them both an invitation to an awareness of the presence of God?

Like Jacob at Bethel, as I walked home from church that day, God was there and I didn’t know it – until I stopped and noticed the blackberry.

Amen.

[1] From a sermon illustration that was provided in an email dated 18 July 2017 from sermons.com.

[2] David J. Lose, “Pentecost 7 A: On the Question of Evil,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/07/pentecost-7-a-on-the-question-of-evil/ (posted and accessed 20 July 2017).

[3] See Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 83.

[4] Laurel A. Dykstra, “Seeds and Weeds,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/seeds-and-weeds (accessed 18 July 2017).

[5] Lose, op. cit.

[6] Tim Lawrence, “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,” The Adversity Within, http://www.timjlawrence.com/blog/2015/10/19/everything-doesnt-happen-for-a-reason (posted 20 October 2015; accessed 15 July 2017).

[7] Todd Weir, “Wheat and Tares,” from the emailed dated 18 July 2017 from sermons.com.

[8] Robert Farrar Capon, quoted by James C. Howell, “Weekly Preaching: July 23, 2017,” MinistryMatters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8303/weekly-preaching-july-23-2017 (posted 19 July 2017; accessed 22 July 2017).

[9] Howell, Ibid.

[10] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “86. From ‘Aurora Leigh’,” Bartleby.com, http://www.bartleby.com/236/86.html (accessed 22 July 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 29, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 4:1-20 and Mark 4:21-34
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Who is Jesus to you?

If I call myself a Christian, I am saying that I am a follower of the one who is called the Christ, namely Jesus.  So my answer to the question, “Who is Jesus to you?” will impact how I live my life as a Christian.  If you don’t mind me answering, at least to start, in the negative, I would say that I am becoming less and less convinced that Jesus saw himself as the Messiah.  After his death and resurrection, the early church clearly came to see him as the Messiah, but prior to that, I’m leaning toward Jesus not thinking of himself as the Messiah.  And if he didn’t think of himself as the Messiah, I suspect he wasn’t as eschatologically focused as the gospels make him out to be.  In other words, I don’t think Jesus was as concerned about death and the afterlife and the end of time and the final judgment as he is often portrayed as being.  Jesus was much more concerned about this world and this life.

Jesus showed that concern in several ways.  He was a spirit person, someone who was experientially aware of the reality and presence of God.  He showed his concern for this world in his mediation of the sacred to others.  He was a healer.  I talked about this last week, and all I’ll add today is that he showed his concern for this world by transforming the lives of people around him.  He was a social prophet, “similar to the classical prophets of ancient Israel.  As such, he criticized the elites (economic, political, and religious) of his time, was an advocate for an alternative social vision, and was often in conflict with authorities.”[1]  We will touch on this today and next week.  He “was a movement founder who brought into being a Jewish renewal or revitalization movement that challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day, a movement that eventually became the early Christian church.”[2]  This also will be explored, at least a bit, this week and next.  And he was a teacher – the primary subject of today’s sermon.

Icon of “Christ the Teacher”

I suppose that all of these descriptions of Jesus overlap or intersect.  One of the ways he showed he was a spirit person was by healing people.  I don’t think you can separate his social prophecy from his becoming a movement founder.  He taught through his healings.  “By healing blindness, for example, Jesus dramatized God’s desire to heal our distorted vision of life.  By healing paralysis, he showed how God’s reign empowers people who are weak or trapped.…  And by casting out unclean spirits, he conveyed God’s commitment to liberate people from occupying and oppressive forces – whether those forces were military, political, economic, social, or personal.”[3]

In synagogue gatherings and on hillsides, he gave talks about things theological.  At a dinner party when an uninvited guest showed up and in public places when his critiques tried to catch him with tricky questions, he found teachable moments.  His guerrilla-theater demonstrations (like on Palm Sunday) and his acts of civil disobedience (like chasing money changers from the Temple), provided learning opportunities for people who were paying attention.  “Once he demonstrated an alternative economy based on generosity rather than greed, inspired by a small boy’s fish-sandwich donation.”[4]

And then there were his parables.

Perhaps it is time for a quiz.  What is greater than God and more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it you’ll die?  (Answer:  Nothing.)  How about this one:  You threw away the outside and cooked the inside.  Then you ate the outside and threw away the inside.  What did you eat?  (Answer:  An ear of corn.)[5]

John Dominic Crossan points out that one of the primary ways to understand or interpret some of the parables attributed to Jesus in the gospels is to see them as riddles.  He says that when a parable is a riddle narrative, “not only the general story itself, but even its multiple parts each and all point elsewhere.  Such riddle parables are also called allegories.”[6]

That is certainly how Mark treats the parable of the sower.  We heard this in our first lesson from Mark.  Jesus tells the story about a farmer who goes to sow some seed and the seed falls in six different kinds of soil.  We usually only notice that there are four kinds of soil – the path, the rocky, the thorny, and the good – but the good really comes in three kinds – soil that produces a thirty-fold crop, soil that produces a sixty-fold crop, and soil that produces a one-hundred-fold crop.  Still, we see a silly farmer, casting seed where even the horticulturally-challenged know it won’t produce anything.

But, of course, the parable isn’t about horticulture and it isn’t about a sower.  The parable, as Mark understands it, is a riddle, an allegory.

Another way to understand and interpret some of the parables of Jesus is to see them as example parables.  Example parables are stories that invite us to go and do (or, in some cases, don’t do) likewise.  Aesop’s fables fall into this category.

You might remember the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel.  King David spies this sexy woman taking a bath and decides he wants her for himself.  To do this, he has to get rid of her husband, Uriah, one of his generals.  So David sends Uriah on a suicide mission and he is killed.  God is none too pleased with this and sends the prophet Nathan to David to set him straight.  Would you like that job?  Go and tell the king, who had one of his generals killed, that God is not pleased?  Nathan does this by telling an example parable.

“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought.  He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.  Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

Crossan says, “Although a ruler should always be apprehensive at the approach of a prophet, David walks right into Nathan’s parabolic trap:”[7]

Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man.  He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”  (2 Samuel 12:5-7a)

Yes, it’s sad that Nathan completely misses how the system promotes the objectification and possession of women, but his story is still a great example of an example parable.

Crossan has also identified a third way to understand and interpret Jesus’ parables.  He says that Jesus’ parables were challenge parables, at least originally, though they were changed into example parables and riddle parables by the gospel authors.  Challenge parables challenge “us to think, to discuss, to argue, and to decide about meaning.”[8]  They challenge us, the hearers, “to step back and reflect on the world and on God in new, counter-intuitive ways.  They invite [us] their hearers to ponder ‘whatever is taken totally for granted in our world’.”[9]

While I haven’t delved very deeply into Crossan’s work on parables (yet), I think he is on to something.  I imagine that maybe half of Jesus’ parables include the phrase “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” – and this kingdom totally challenges what is taken for granted in our world.  We heard this today in our second reading.  “The Kingdom, something great, is compared to something very tiny: it is like ‘a grain of mustard seed.’  Moreover, mustard was a weed, thus, the Kingdom is like a weed.  [In another parable,] The Kingdom is compared to something impure:  it is like a woman (associated with impurity) putting leaven (which was impure) into flour.”[10]  And on they go, overturning conventional wisdom.

“[F]or Jesus, the kingdom of heaven wasn’t a place we go up to someday; it was a reality we pray to come down here now.  It was at hand, or within reach, today.  To better understand this pregnant term, we have to realized that kingdoms were the dominant social, political, and economic reality of Jesus’ day.  Contemporary concepts like nation, state, government, society, economic system, and civilization all resonate in that one word:  kingdom.”[11]

Brian McLaren writes, “The kingdom, or empire, of Rome in which Jesus lived and died was a top-down power structure in which the few on top maintained order and control over the many at the bottom.  They did so with a mix of rewards and punishments.  The punishments included imprisonment, banishment, torture, and execution.  And the ultimate form of torture and execution, reserved for rebels who dared to challenge the authority of the regime, was crucifixion.  It was through his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman empire that Jesus did his most radical teaching of all.

“Yes, he taught great truths through signs and wonders, public lectures, impromptu teachings, special retreats and field trips, public demonstrations, and parables.  But when he mounted Rome’s most powerful weapon, he taught his most powerful lesson.

“By being crucified, Jesus exposed the heartless violence and illegitimacy of the whole top-down, fear-based dictatorship that nearly everyone assumed was humanity’s best and only option.  He demonstrated the revolutionary truth that God’s kingdom wins, not through shedding the blood of its enemies, but through gracious self-giving on behalf of its enemies.  He taught that God’s kingdom grows through apparent weakness rather than conquest.  It expands through reconciliation rather than humiliation and intimidation.  It triumphs through a willingness to suffer rather than a readiness to inflict suffering.  In short, on the cross Jesus demonstrated God’s nonviolent noncompliance with the world’s brutal powers-that-be.  He showed God to be a different kind of king, and God’s kingdom to be a different kind of kingdom.”[12]

Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the “Beloved Community,” I think he was talking about the kingdom of God.  The King Center explains it this way:  “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.  In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.  Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.  In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power.  Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”[13]

As lofty and utopian as this may sound, when King talked about the Beloved Community, he wasn’t talking about something found only in the great beyond.  He was talking about something attainable, something that is at hand.  “The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.”[14]

More than 1,000 people gather at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump’s order that restricts immigration to the U.S., Jan. 28, 2017

We have seen in the past few weeks how our nation has moved away from the Beloved Community.  Most recently, the ban on refugees and immigrants and visitors from a handful of nations that are Muslim-majority is an example.  People with valid visas and green-cards are being detained at the border.  This is empire action that is completely contrary to the values of the Beloved Community, contrary to the values of the kingdom of God.  And that is why people have taken to the sidewalks and airport terminals – to help our country move in the direction of the Beloved Community, not away.

We still need Jesus the teacher.  We need to pay attention to his actions and his words.  We need to follow him toward the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the way of living and being in community that challenges the most basic values of the powers that be.

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect …
… on anything from the scripture readings or sermon that caught your attention; or
… on the memory of one of the most important teachers in your life and what made him or her so significant; or
… how you might translate or reinterpret the term “kingdom of God;” or
… how the “kingdom of God” is coming in your life, your family, your community.

[1] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, (New York: HarperCollins, 1994). 30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 22, page 101. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[4] Ibid, 102.

[5] These two riddles are from Mike Page, “Classic Riddles 1-100,” Savage Legend, https://savagelegend.com/misc-resources/classic-riddles-1-100/ (accessed 28 January 2017).

[6] John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus, (New York:  HarperCollins, 2012), 18.

[7] Ibid, 35.

[8] Ibid, 47.

[9] Greg Carey, “Crossan on Parables and Gospels,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/dont-fear-this-book-cross_b_1417435.html (posted 16 April 2012; accessed 28 January 2017).

[10] Borg, op. cit., 80.

[11] McLaren, op. cit., page 103.

[12] Ibid, 103-104.

[13] “The King Philosophy,” The King Center, http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy#sub4 (accessed 28 January 2017).

[14] Ibid.

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