Embrace the Squiggle: “Chronic Explanitis” – Matthew 13:24-30

Diana and I took a short vacation last week to Lexington, Kentucky. When we got into some hills on back country roads we saw several road signs that reminded me of this sermon series on embracing the squiggle. They
Diana and I took a short vacation last week to Lexington, Kentucky. When we got into some hills on back country roads we saw several road signs that reminded me of this sermon series on embracing the squiggle. They were those curvy arrows that look like a snake warning drivers to slow down for some switch backs where you almost meet yourself coming back. That kind of driving, like embracing life’s squiggles, requires patience. Complaining about how slow you have to drive won’t straighten out the curves and only spoils appreciation for beautiful scenery.

Any of you have kids or grandkids who like to watch Thomas the Train? We’ve had several grandchildren go through that stage. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an animated story about a cute little blue tank engine and his friends. The show intentionally teaches values while entertaining, which is not surprising since the original book about Thomas was written by an English clergyman, Reverend W.V. Awdry. Some of the values taught in the stories are a bit dated since the original story was published in 1946, but I remember one episode in particular that I hoped my squiggly pre-school grandchildren would take to heart. It used a catchy tune to teach that “patience is a virtue.”

“Don’t get too excited, just staying calm
Thinking for a minute can save you so much harm.
Everything around you is rushing here and there;
Life can be so simple if you make time to spare.
Patience is a virtue.”

One key to being at peace in the middle of life’s squiggles is to be patient, which happens to be one lesson our parable from Matthew offers today. But you have to work a bit to get to that lesson. I welcome a good challenge from a difficult biblical text, but my patience is tried with a text like this one that is hard for this preacher to accept at face value. You see Jesus’ disciples have trouble getting the point of this parable; so Jesus has to explain it to them. If we read a bit further in Matthew 13 we find Jesus’ explanation of the weeds in the wheat:

“And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Anna Carter Florence who teaches preaching at Columbia Seminary in Georgia asks a great question in one of her books. She says, “How do we interpret conflicting reports on the character of God that appear to counter each other, perhaps even by design? There are at least two quite tempting options,” she says. “The first is to ignore the text; the second is to defend it. Both are responses to the fear of not being able to explain it.”

My first response when I saw this parable on the menu for this week was to ignore it. Lots of other parables looked much tastier than Satan planting thistles in heaven’s 18th fairway. But then I remembered that chapter from Anna Carter Florence and, no matter how hard I tried, I could not ignore this darn parable – and I was not about to defend it. It would take Clarence Darrow and Perry Mason to defend a text that seems to contradict the very nature of the loving God we desperately want to believe in. You know, the one that is there ‘to hear our borning cry, and there when we are old.” The God who is love incarnate. The one who teaches us to love our enemies and even forgives the very devils who nail him to a cross.

O sure, there are plenty of images of an angry Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures. I just cringe at the one where the psalmist says God condones bashing the heads of the babies of the enemy on the rocks of Babylon – you can look it up; it’s in Psalm 137. But that image of God seems to have undergone anger management by the time we get to the New Testament. In the Gospels we meet a much kinder and gentler God who advocates turning the other cheek, and tells us that those who live by the sword will die that way. So how in tarnation can the same Jesus who teaches and lives pacifism, who says we are to love our enemies, how can that Jesus turn around and tell us the children of his enemy will be rounded up and thrown into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth? I don’t have ears to listen to the “vengeance is mine says the lord” stuff, do you? Maybe that’s because there are enough weeds in my garden that I’m not sure I’m going to make the cut when that big harvest comes. That vengeful God scares me.

So how do we explain these contradictory images of God? Isn’t that what preachers do – make sense, provide answers, simplify the squiggles that life dishes up on a regular basis? Just explain it to us preacher – that’s what we pay you the big bucks to do, right?

Anna Carter Florence in that same chapter I quoted earlier offers this analogy to preachers with chronic explanitis. She quotes poet laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, describing his students in an introduction to poetry class.

“I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to a light like a color slide,
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem and
watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the wall for a light switch.
I want them to water ski across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.”

Water skiing across the surface of a text sounds interesting!! But how do we water ski over a field of weed-infested wheat? I haven’t’ water skied for a long time, so hang on. Here we go.

When my daughter Joy was 3 or 4, she was out in the front yard with me one day when I was digging dandelions out of our lawn, and she asked me, “Why don’t you like the pretty yellow flowers daddy?” I tried to explain to her that they were weeds, but she wasn’t impressed with that argument. In her child-like naiveté she understood better than her over-educated father that ‘weed’ is a very arbitrary designation. Who decided dandelions are weeds and roses aren’t? Some company that makes poisons to save us from too much yellow? What harm do dandelions do to deserve the stigma and animosity we dump on their little yellow heads?
And those designations are subject to revision. I read recently that someone is working on a way to turn algae into a biofuel – that’ll change the way we talk about pond scum in a hurry! Who decides what a weed is and what isn’t?

Isn’t that part of what’s going on in this parable? The farmer’s slaves or servants immediately want to solve the infestation in their cash crop by rushing out with roundup to rid their wheat of illegal aliens in their midst. They want to build a gated community and fence out the riff raff. But the master says no, wait, if we try to eliminate the weeds too soon, we might accidentally harm the wheat in the process. The master knows some of those hired hands are like me – can’t tell wheat from ragweed. The master says, we’ll wait till the harvest when the wheat is mature and strong, then we can safely kill off the evil interlopers without harming the righteous.

It’s all about who is in charge. Who gets to say when and how? Remember when President Bush used to say he was “the decider?” This parable reminds us all, even presidents, that we aren’t ultimately the deciders– God is. Judgment isn’t in our job descriptions. And that’s good because it relieves us of an awful responsibility for irreversible life and death decisions. But it is also frustrating at times – because God is way too patient with the obvious weeds in life, and I want them to get their just desserts sooner rather than later. I want the drug dealers and human traffickers taken care of now.
I want cancer causing agents out of my food, air and water immediately, if not sooner. How about terrorists of all kinds or power hungry leaders who enable them? We’d be so much better off without racists, sexists and anyone who oppresses others. Come on Jesus, we’ve got plenty of very obvious weeds, when do we start chopping and burning?

I’m tired of missile-rattling politicians like Kim Jung Un and his suicidal brinkmanship! All those weeds need to be pulled now, not later. Why wait till they multiply and do even more damage!

But Thomas the train and Jesus teach us that “patience is a virtue.” God’s time is not our time. Yes, there is evil in the world, but ours is not to reason why; our job is to trust the creator to sort it all out in God’s good time. We don’t have to buy into the first-century theology of a literal Satan to know that evil is real – it just is a reality we have to deal with. The word “devil” is simply the word “evil” with a “d” in front of it.

It’s a whole different sermon that could be preached on this text, but I noticed something interesting in verse 25 of this text where it says, “While everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.” Wow! We can’t just blame Satan or anyone else for all the evil in the world. If we’re asleep at the switch instead of working for justice we have to take some of the blame. And that’s a tough one because most of us are living pretty well in an economic and social system that isn’t fair and just for those less fortunate.

One of the students in a preaching class I taught a few years ago helped me make some peace with this parable. Her insight was that maybe, just maybe, given enough time, our creator God can transform what we think is bad stuff, worthless junk and trash into something good or even beautiful. Who are we to deny that possibility? We know that “with God all things are possible,” right? We know it – do we really believe it?

Isn’t our problem really about trusting God’s judgment and control? Do we really want the CEOs of insurance company who are making obscene amounts of money to be redeemed? Do we want our political enemies saved? Do we want child abusers or rapists rehabilitated and living next door? Or would we rather see them weeping and gnashing their teeth? Be honest now.

But what if redemption for the worst of the worst is really possible and we are just too impatient to let it happen? Just think of the ways we transform garbage into recycled useful items. On just one web site on recycling I found furniture, pens, clipboards, recycling containers and dozens of other items, made out of stuff that just a few years ago went straight to the landfill of weeping and teeth gnashing. Or how about Alexander Fleming taking something as weed-like as mold and turning it into the life-saving miracle drug penicillin. If we mortals can work such miracles, imagine what God can do if given enough time.

So what are we to do in the meantime, before the harvest comes – just live with the weeds? Yes, and that gives us time to examine our own lives to see if we have misjudged or prejudged some “weeds” that may produce unexpected fruit or bloom with dazzling colors if they are not prematurely cut down.

We can use the extra time God gives us, before we rush to judgment, to look deeply into our own spiritual mirrors to see what kind of fruit our own seeds are producing—to truly invite our all-knowing God to “search us and know our hearts; to try us and know our thoughts; and see if there be any wicked weeds in us.”

We all need that honest spiritual inventory because when we are too quick to judge others we are often blind to our own weediness. And if we stay focused on looking for beauty and good in others and weeding out the evil in ourselves, we won’t have time to be firing up our weed whackers to go after the thistles and briars in our neighbor’s yard.

So why the inconsistent images of God? I don’t know. I can’t explain it – it’s just the nature of our finite attempts to explain an infinite God. Sometimes the answer to life’s mysteries is “I don’t know – but God does, and that’s all we need to know.” A parable points to one facet of the mystery of God, and the mystery is not there to be explained or neatly resolved in a 20 minute sermon, but for us to savor the mystery and ponder it as we water ski across it.

The question is — are we able and willing to suspend our chronic explanitis and give God as much time as needed to transform ugliness into breath-taking beauty? Can we let God be the decider about things “that God alone can see?”

One thing I do remember about water skiing – you can’t ever get up out of the water unless you trust someone else to drive the boat. We need to trust God with what we can’t explain.

Do you remember Captain Sullenberger who safely landed that crippled US Air plane on the Hudson River a few years ago? When a flock of geese flew into the engines of that plane the co-pilot was at the controls. But as soon as he realized they were in trouble Captain Sully said just two words that made it clear who was in charge from that moment on. He simply said, “My airplane” and made all the critical decisions in the next few seconds that saved the lives of 155 people.

I haven’t seen any lately but there used to be a popular bumper sticker that said “God is my Co-Pilot.” If that’s your theology for dealing with life’s squiggles, you need to trade seats and let God say, “My Airplane.”

Preached July 23, 2017 at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio

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Prayer for Truth that Set Us Free

O Gracious God, you have taught us that if we know the truth it will set us free. But sometimes we can’t handle the truth. We don’t like what we see in the mirror sometimes if we’re really honest with ourselves and with you. Our history as a nation and as individuals is not perfect by any measure. We have not always loved you with all our hearts. We have not always acted in loving ways toward our neighbors. We don’t even love ourselves some times.

Like St. Paul the very things we know we ought to do are not the things we do, and so we need to humbly throw ourselves on your mercy and beg forgiveness.

It’s not easy to know what the truth is, Lord. It can be so subjective and so bent out of shape by personal biases—and we all have them. And that makes it hard to trust and communicate. It makes productive dialogue difficult when we argue to win or to defend ourselves instead of seeking truth together.

Even the Good News of Christ gets distorted when we are afraid there isn’t enough for everyone – when we try to keep your grace only for ourselves and those we think are worthy. Truth is we fear judgment from you and others; so we try to make ourselves look better than we are. We think we have to earn your Grace, Lord; and that pseudo-good news won’t set anyone free.

Help us never to forget, O God of all creation, that the Good News of Christ is meant to set us all free—no matter who we are or what we’ve done. You sent Christ to show us that you are a God who says that if we dare to confess our sins you are “faithful and just and will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” You teach us that even if our “sins are like scarlet they will be as white as snow.”

Help us now O God to accept the truth of salvation through repentance so we are set free from sin and guilt – set free to share the good news of your eternal love with the world. May it be so.

[Scripture references: John 8:32,I John 1:9, Isaiah 1:18]

Prayer for Independence Day

Last week I had the honor of joining the staff of Northwest United Methodist Church as a part-time Pastor of Congregational Care. In a bittersweet moment my good friend Tom Slack, who is retiring from the Northwest staff after 11 very good years of ministry, presented me with a shepherd’s staff that he received when he came to Northwest. We will all miss Tom and his wit and wisdom and caring ways. I am humbled to pick up some of the Slack (pun intended) created by Tom’s departure but know I cannot begin to fill his shoes.

Part of my responsibility will be to lead congregational prayer at Sunday worship; so I will be sharing those prayers from time to time here in my blog beginning with this one for Sunday, July 2. Please pray for Tom and me and our congregation during this time of transition.

O Giver of true freedom and joy, today we celebrate the brave founders of our country who 241 years ago pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” to declare the freedoms we continue to cherish and enjoy today. We give thanks for their courage and vision and for all those who have worked and sacrificed to preserve and perfect those freedoms ever since.

Our prayer today is that your spirit will come like a mighty wind to heal our divided nation and world. Give us hearts of compassion and ears willing to hear the opinions of others that differ from ours. Teach us to disagree without being disagreeable. Bless those who have taken upon themselves the heavy burden of governing in these difficult times.

We pray for peace and justice for all of your children. For those who suffer from addiction, depression, chronic pain, grief, oppression and war. Fill our hearts with the love of Christ and drive out the fear that makes us more concerned about our own freedom than the needs of our neighbors. Teach us again that freedom is not a zero sum game. In your eternal love, O God, remind us that there is a wideness in your mercy that provides healing and liberation for all of creation. When any of your children suffer, we all suffer together, and unless there is liberty and justice for all, no one is truly free.

The goal of spiritual freedom for all is a big dream and we are tempted to despair that we will ever achieve it. But then you remind us that with you all things are possible. Renew and refresh our faith and willingness to dream big dreams as we again celebrate Independence Day.

In the words of Sister Ruth Fox, we too pray that you “O God will bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, abuse, and exploitation of people, so that we will work for justice, equality, and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we will reach out our hands to comfort them and to change their pain to joy.

May God bless us with the foolishness to think we can make a difference in this world, so that we will do the things which others tell us cannot be done.

Hear our prayers O God, in the name of the young and fearless prophet Jesus Christ, Amen.