Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

"Weeds, Seeds and Eugene Peterson" - Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Jesus 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!

I endured an existential kind of theological crisis just before my vacation a week or so ago, when I heard some news about Eugene Peterson, a former Presbyterian pastor and author of a book I love called, The Pastor. It’s a book about his calling to the ministry and a lovely description of what a pastoral vocation can look like. Much of his understanding of such a calling came by way of his work developing a new congregation back in the day, which resonated in surprising, encouraging ways with my own experience. Eugene Peterson is perhaps best known for his contemporary translation of the Bible in everyday language. It’s called The Message, which we’ve read from around here on occasion. I follow him on Twitter and have used several of his quotations as inspiration for the meditation e-mails I send out on Monday mornings. So suffice it to say, I’m a fan of Eugene Peterson’s.

So the news about him that first caught my attention a week or so ago, was that Peterson had come out openly in support of homosexuality as a faithful way of living and moving and being a Christian in the world as we know it – that he would preside at a gay wedding even. I didn’t give the news much thought, frankly, other than to think things like, “hmmm, that’s good to know,” or “is this really still newsworthy,” or “score one more for the good guys,” or “maybe people will listen in a new way now that someone like Eugene Peterson has said what so many have been trying to say for so long now.”

But the story became real news a day or so later, because Peterson reneged on his “coming out” story shortly after it had been made public. He claims to have mis-spoke. That he didn’t mean what he had told the reporter who interviewed him. That he believed only in the “Biblical understanding of marriage between a man and woman,” and that he hoped he would never be asked to perform or preside over a gay wedding.

There’s all sorts of speculation about why Peterson changed his tune. Some suggest it’s no coincidence that he revoked his statement after LifeWay Christian stores threatened to stop selling his books because of it. (To pull his books from their shelves like so many weeds, if you will.) Some chalked his confusing, conflicting statements up to his age – that, at 84 years old, he wasn’t clear about what he was being asked the first time around, so he had to correct himself, perhaps at the encouragement of a publicist or something.

So, the worst-case scenario as far as I could tell, was that Eugene Peterson bowed to the pressure of the public and is pretending to believe something he doesn’t in order to save his pride, his popularity, and his paycheck. The best-case scenario, again as far as I can see it, is that Eugene Peterson really does disagree with me on a fundamentally significant theological issue. 

Whatever the case, it got me thinking. Was I disappointed or was I mad? Was I surprised or not? Did I want to keep his books on my bookshelves? Does what he believes… what he pretends to believe… what he was convinced to say he believes – whatever – about this one particular thing invalidate whatever other wisdom and counsel he may have to offer? Was this kind of flip-flopping – and ultimately – was the place he chose to stick his landing – enough to undo my affection for the other things I’ve learned – and stand to keep learning – from him?

In other words…in the words of Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel…were the words and teachings of Eugene Peterson…was Peterson, himself… a weed or a seed, in my estimation? 

To be honest, my sinful, broken, score-keeping self is inclined toward the former. If I can’t trust someone’s take on something I find fundamental to understanding and expressing God’s grace in and for the world around us, I’m inclined to be suspicious about whatever else he/she might have to say about any number of things. And, to be honest, I’m less inclined to want to have them over for dinner.

And that’s why Jesus’ parable in this morning’s Gospel can be sort of hard to swallow.

See, his disciples want to know about how they should handle this metaphorical, cosmic sort of weeding project Jesus seems to be describing. We know – and the disciples finally figure out – that the weeds in Jesus’ story represent sin and evil in the world, and Jesus wants them – and us – to think about those weeds – and all they represent – differently than we’re inclined to most of the time.

Like is true for me, it seems our first intention, our first temptation, is to determine who is or what are to be considered weeds and who is or what are to be considered the good seed. When we talk about heaven and hell, about the end of time, about the coming of God’s kingdom – our first temptation is to want to be on the right side of that proverbial fence; to be on the winning team; to choose up sides, so that we aren’t one of the ones who gets “left behind.” 

But this just leads to even greater, scarier temptations: Temptations to point fingers and decide who’s right and who’s wrong. Temptations to make decisions about who’s worthy and who’s not. Temptations to judge – by our own standards – who’s good or bad, who’s saved or damned, who’s forgiven or not, who’s welcome or not, who’s loved or loveable or whatever or not.

And we can find examples of it all over the place. In Jesus’ time, it was the Pharisees who did a lot of the finger-pointing. They worried about who was eating what, or who was working on the Sabbath, or who wasn’t following the law to the letter. And based on their worries, they pretended to determine who should be in and who should be out.

And, whether it’s sexual or political or religious persuasions, we don’t have to look very hard to find instances in our world where people take it upon themselves to make decisions about who should be in and who should be out – again, decisions about pulling weeds from the good seed, as Jesus might put it. It’s happening at the hands of ISIS these days, and in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and judging by the billboards I saw dotting the landscape as I made my way home from North Carolina yesterday, it’s happening in churches all over our own country, too.

(For what it’s worth, I don’t mean to ascribe these sort of extremes to Eugene Peterson. But I do think some of what he said is fodder for this sort of theology.)

What’s so sad to me about all of it is, despite what we hear from Jesus in this parable, there are so many of God’s children choosing then not to grow alongside so many other children of God – whether they consider them to be weeds, good seeds, saints, sinners, Heaven- or Hell-bound, or whatever. 

But I believe Jesus is trying to free us – and to send a message of grace and freedom to the world around us – with this parable.  And I think that freedom comes only when we accept God’s call to let go of our desire to judge; to let go of our temptation to take sides; to let go of the ways we pretend to know what’s right or wrong, or who’s in or who’s out where God’s love is concerned.

Whether we do it out of fear or out of love… out of genuine concern or out of ignorance… with all the Biblical scholarship and well-reasoned theology or not, Jesus tells us that this sort of thing is not our job. Jesus tells us he is the one – “The Son of Man will send his angels” he says, and then “at the end of the age.” What that means to me is we’re to leave the weed pulling, the weeping and the gnashing of teeth for another time.

Jesus teaches with this parable that now is the time for something all-together different where grace and mercy and peace are concerned. Now is a time for planting good seeds of promise, of hope, of faith and of love. Now is a time for growing together. Now is a time for growing alongside. Now is a time for being the good seed that grows and bears fruit in spite of whatever weeds might threaten or challenge or scare us along the way.

That is hard, holy work for sure. But it’s something a lot more like the Gospel and it is God’s call to the Church for the sake of the world, because it is much more Christ-like than the weeping and gnashing of teeth that surrounds us too much of the time in so many other places in the world as we know it.


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