Sunday, July 20, 2014

Spoiler Alert: sermon from July 20, 2014

sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Deacon

I'm going to begin this sermon with a spoiler alert. If you have never seen the movie Return of the Jedi … well, you've had 31 years to do that. So, tough luck: I'm going to give away the ending.

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At the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker and his father, the evil Darth Vader, are locked in a vicious lightsaber battle while Emperor Palpatine watches with glee. Young Luke's friends are trapped in military ambushes elsewhere, so all other hope appears lost. The Emperor knows that if he can get Luke to strike out in anger and murder his father, Luke will be consumed by the Dark Side of the Force. It would seem that Luke has no choice but to resort to violence and destruction, to kill Vader and the Emperor and try to turn the tide of the war. Yet instead of giving in, Luke gives up. He tosses his weapon aside and announces that the Emperor has lost!

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The Emperor's face contorts with rage, and he begins to shoot blue lightning bolts out of his hands. Luke writhes on the floor in agony, and inside Darth Vader, a struggle is raging. It's so pronounced, you can see it right through that horrid black helmet. Vader looks from his son to his master and back again, and then he makes a decision. He picks up the Emperor and throws him over a balcony to his death. In doing so, he sustains injuries that will shortly take his life. But that doesn't matter. Darth Vader has saved his son. The spark of good has risen to the surface, and Darth Vader—no, Anakin Skywalker—dies a redeemed man.

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In our time, are there many fictional characters as universally synonymous with evil as Darth Vader? Yet that evil is ultimately redeemed. And it happens not through the evil one's destruction, but through his self-sacrifice. We might even call this a story of wheat and weeds.

In Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds, the farmer's servants alert their master about a spoiler: the farmer's enemy, who sneaks into the field in the middle of the night and plants a bunch of weeds. Now, this is ridiculous. Why didn't the enemy just ravage the field, uprooting all the wheat and destroying it? Presumably, the enemy doesn't have that kind of power. He cannot destroy, but he can spoil.

Darnel, from
Now, what will the farmer do in response to this mischievous and evil act? Like last week's farmer who sowed seeds in every conceivable place, whether the seeds could be expected to grow there or not, this farmer also makes a questionable farming decision. He decides to let the weeds grow. This particular weed is called darnel, and it looks so much like wheat that in some cultures they call it "false wheat."

But to let the weeds grow? Wouldn't it make more sense at least to try to tell the difference—to uproot as much darnel as possible, even if some of the wheat is accidentally lost as well? Otherwise, both the wheat and the weeds will go to seed, and you'll never get rid of the weeds! I know this much just from pulling dandelions in my yard. So it's perfectly logical to take a loss on the wheat in an attempt to get the weeds under control.

Logical, yes, but that's not how Jesus works. Why? Because the wheat is simply too precious. In the field of the world in which God has planted all the wheat of creation, every stalk counts. Rocks and rivers and animals are wheat. And within ourselves, we find that our kindness, love, and generosity are also stalks of wheat. So we're not just individual stalks; God is carefully, lovingly growing wheat within each one of us, and God wants every single stalk to go to seed. To lose even one is an unacceptable loss.

But now, thanks to the farmer's enemy, weeds can be found in us as well. Our meanness, self-centeredness, fear, greed, and apathy ... our preference for comfort over self-giving love ... our insistence that all good things are scarce and must be hoarded ... even our lack of concern about the presence of weeds is a kind of weed.

And so often the weeds do, indeed, look like wheat! I may be dedicated to another person in a way that looks very much like love. But if that dedication becomes codependency or possessiveness, it's actually a weed. My love for my family could become a chronic fear of losing them. My interest in financial security for my child could so easily become failure to trust that God will provide.

This week in the news, it's seems we can find almost nothing but weeds. Isis has taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria. A Malaysian jet was shot down over Ukraine by ... somebody. The Nigerian girls are still missing—how many months has it been now? Israel began a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza, and politicians and civilians alike are calling for the blood even of the innocent. Thousands of malnourished, frightened children have crossed the border from Mexico, and as the government tries to figure out what to do with them, mobs of U.S. protesters are blocking the buses, doing all in their power to prevent any compassion for foreign children. In times like these, what are we to do about all these weeds?

When we turn to Jesus for help, we get a very strange answer: do nothing. Let the wheat and the weeds grow together. You don't have the ability to judge which is which.

But wait a minute, Jesus. Are you kidding? I know this dictator is a weed, and that corporation, and this politician, and that chemical, to say nothing of this terrorist and that molester! Are you saying we can't pull these weeds? No, he says, because the problem is too complex for that. Remember that we're not just saying people are either wheat or weeds, but even our very traits and tendencies. Remember how many people longed for the death of Darth Vader, notorious mass murderer … yet all the while his son Luke longed for his salvation. Remember that Moses was a murderer, and King David was an adulterer, and St. Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus.

Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way: "Since good and evil in this world commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings—since, that is, there are no unqualified good guys any more than there are any unqualified bad guys—the only result of a truly dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody."[1] Capon goes on to point out that this doesn't mean Christians can never resist evil, but we should understand that violence cannot lead to salvation, and it will never ultimately destroy evil.

It strikes me, then, that the best we can do in the meantime is to be wheat and to do what wheat does: grow, and produce seeds. Maybe we can be so fruitful that we'll even keep some weeds from growing.

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In his explanation of the parable, Jesus tells us what will happen at harvest time: "The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers." So that will mean inspecting every one of us. Ancient church father Gregory of Nyssa envisioned this process to be like pulling a thick, dirty rope through a small metal ring very quickly, stripping off all the filth and impurities that have collected on it. Or I like to imagine the gentler image of a school nurse inspecting children's heads for lice: a tedious yet loving task.

So God's kingdom, then, begins the way it is now, with everything and everybody in it. Nobody will be left out who wasn't first allowed in. It sounds as if the whole creation is being translated into a new state of being, and only then can the sifting begin. If I have hate in my heart, it will be rooted out. If I have greed in my soul, it will be burned. All these little sins that have become so much a part of me have no place anymore, no matter how much I might want to keep them. Like Darth Vader on the Death Star, I will be reduced only to my wheat. All that remains will be that which I am willing to give away for the sake of love. And that purest part of me—the part God created and adores—will exist and grow to maturity eternally. So will it be with every one of us.

Can it really be that the goodness in us cannot be destroyed by the bad? Can it be that no matter what evil things befall us, God will ensure that we are, in the end, whole and redeemed? Can it be that even our most horrific sins will accompany us beyond the grave, and that God's gift will be a great unburdening? Can it be that the wheat field of this polluted, weed-infested world will bear a bumper crop anyway? Jesus seems to say so. He tells us that God cares for every grain of our wheat.

Like the psalmist, we may sometimes want to run from God and hide in the darkness in order to preserve our most familiar, most comfortable, most addictive sins. But once we find that God cannot be escaped, and once we understand that God has no interest in destroying us, that omnipresence turns to the comfort of a mother rocking us gently. We can turn to her and plead, "Search me out … and know my heart … look well whether there be any wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting." Let us pray.

O God, you have searched us out and know us. You trace our journeys and our resting places. You know our wheat and our weeds. Never let the weeds overtake us and choke us. Bring us, we pray you, safely to your threshing-floor. Root out any evil you find in us, as painful as that may be, and make us fit for eternal life and eternal joy. Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 101-102.

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