Sermon preached by the Rev'd Fr. Donald L. Turner, Vicar, St. Peter's-at-the-Light Episcopal Church, Barnegat Light, New Jersey, July 23, 2017 (7 Pentecost - Proper 11, Year A).
St. Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
This story came to me from a person whose observations I trust explicitly. A man drove around a crowded parking lot at a shopping plaza looking for a convenient place to park. He finally came to a spot where a driver seemed to be leaving, so the man stopped and turned on this turn signal to indicate that he was intending to pull into the parking space when the other person vacated it. The other driver was taking his time backing out. It always seems that way, doesn’t it, when we’re waiting for a parking spot to be cleared?
Well, just as the other driver pulled away from the space, a car load of young boys, coming up the aisle faster than they should have been traveling, swung their small car into the spot where the man had been waiting to pull in. The boys were aware of what they had done, because they got out of their car laughing of the hapless driver, and hurried into one of the shops. The man drove on, looking for another space. When he finally found one, he got the spare tire iron from the trunk of his car, found the car belonging to one of the boys, and proceeded to smash the windshield of the automobile!
It goes without saying that was a vivid display of passive aggressive behavior! Interestingly, isn’t this the behavior we see today in our Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds? Someone has a real gripe against the wheat farmer. Or is this a person who is prejudiced against the farmer? Who knows? What is without question is that the "enemy" exhibits a pattern of hostile behavior that we can label. What is also intriguing to us is how the farmer reacts to this aggression. He does not say to the hired hands, "I know who did this! In a few hours, when we’re sure he’s asleep, we’ll go over to his farm and set fire to his wheat field!" He does not seek revenge. I think he is a devout man who knows his Bible! Perhaps he is very familiar with the Law of Moses, where it enjoins the people of Israel to remember that vengeance belongs to God and God alone (Lev. 19: 18; Deut. 32: 35; Psalm 94: 1). But, where does that leave us, for example, in the face of a monstrous egotism that is a threat to our security as individuals and collectively? For a prime example of this we think of the despot in the person of North Korea’s dictator. How do we deal with the egotism of such a person in a powerful position, whose actions threaten our well being, our security?
Enter, if you will, one Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was born in 1892 in Missouri to German parents. His father was pastor of a German Evangelical Church, and Reinhold was ordained into that church in 1915. I am very familiar with that church since I, too, was ordained in a German Evangelical church in 1965, which is now a part of the United Church of Christ. Niebuhr was studied by many seminarians in the 1960’s. Now there is renewed interest in Niebuhr today, in part due to his influence upon our former President.
In a sermon on The Wheat and the Weeds Niebuhr pondered an egotism which becomes corruptive. He recognized that we are violating a principle of this parable when we declare that blatant self-interest, which is an obvious characteristic of the egotist, has to be checked. Unchecked, the self-interest of the egotist in a position of significant authority will suppress justice at the expense of the vulnerable and weak. On the other hand, in the spirit of this parable Niebuhr was quick to recognize that we cannot make the kind of judgment that would see us pull up the weeds along with the wheat. Our commitment to justice cannot be so zealous that we fail to see that we can be wrong in our judgment. So this is why Jesus insists that the separation of the wheat from the weeds must remain until the Final Judgment, and that Judgment is God’s, not ours.
So, this places us "between a rock and a hard place." We chafe at the thought that our clamor for justice may incur greater injustice. On the other hand, to ignore the cries for justice - to insist that we can do nothing for fear of destroying the wheat along with the weeds - is to abandon Our Lord’s call to us to right the wrongs that beset our fractured humanity.
Herman Hendrickx, eminent Roman Catholic priest and theologian, suggests that our response will be based upon the way you and I look at the world, which he calls "that field where the good wheat and the (weeds) are intermingled." (Synthesis, July 23, 2017, p. 2.) Do we think of the world as the property of God, or do we think of ourselves as solely responsible for our history? Those who believe that God is Lord of history, in faith will trust that God will redeem that which has been corrupted by humanity. This moment of redemption is the "harvest" of which Jesus speaks in this parable. Those who believe that we are the "captains of our fate, the masters of our souls," are the powerful whose egos have been contaminated by self-interest.
We have all from time to time manifested behavior upon which the psychologist or psychiatrist could plant a label. We have all selfishly served our own interests. None of us is without these failures. Yet, that does not mean that we cannot call "a spade a spade," admitting at the same time our failures. When the cries of oppression emerge from the lips of those who have been victimized by human greed and power, we step forward to challenge the oppressor. And we do it with the boldness of the prophet: "Thus says the Lord!" We do this in all humility, knowing that when we point a finger at someone that same hand has a finger pointing back at us. That is why on the Lord’s Day we confess our sins as a people of God. Like Isaiah (chapter 6) we are "a people of unclean lips." But remember what happened to Isaiah when he confessed this: God cleansed his lips, and told him to go forth and "speak truth to Power."
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
(Copies of Father Turner's sermons are always available in print each Sunday morning. He advises that it is not especially helpful to get a copy before Mass in an effort to follow him as he preaches: the sermons are delivered from memory of the manuscript. Extemporaneous remarks are frequently interjected - especially if he thinks of a good joke! You may also note that the sermons are not lengthy. Preaching time is usually 10 to 12 minutes. A professor of homiletics once told the Vicar, "If you can't strike oil in ten minutes, quit boring!")