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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Myth Busters: Everything Happens for a Reason, I Corinthians13:8-13

When my son was in high school one of his friends was killed in a terrible car crash. Like most preachers’ kids Matt struggled with the expectations placed on him, especially in the small community where we lived. Unfortunately a well-intended preacher at his friend Shane’s funeral added to Matt’s frustration with the church by telling the folks at the funeral that “everything happen for a reason.”

Like all the myths we’re looking at in this sermon series this one contains some truth and is well-intended but not always helpful. There are several scriptures that can be used to support this myth: Ecclesiastes 3:1 “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Proverbs 16:4 says, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose,
even the wicked for the day of trouble.” Romans 8:28, where Paul says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” But as with all theological statement these verses need to be read in context and with the understanding that the biblical authors were all fallible human beings like us struggling to understand things that just don’t make sense.

At one level it is certainly true that everything happens for a reason. Actions have consequences and they are often unintended or unanticipated. Genetically engineering food and pumping animals full of antibiotics have increased our food supply which is good, but we are learning the hard way the unintended consequences are super bugs resistant to all known medications. Cancer is one of the most difficult plagues on humanity to understand, and we applaud the advances research has made. But we are still not doing enough to prevent various cancers by changing our lifestyles and especially the way we eat. Actions have consequences, and until we stop poisoning our food and air and water we will not find a magic bullet to cure cancer.

Health care in general is a hot topic, and again we can’t just blame God or fate for illnesses but must take proactive steps to live healthier lifestyles. Our aging population in particular is a big challenge. 30% of what is spent on our healthcare in a lifetime occurs in the last year of life, and that is often because our focus is too much on the quantity of life and not its quality. A friend told me recently about his mother. When she was 92 years old and in failing health some of her doctors wanted to amputate both of her legs to keep her alive a little longer. These kinds of costly and unnecessary procedures occur because we are afraid to face the reality that we are all dust and to dust we will return. We need to have important conversations about end of life issues based on values and not economics or fear of our inevitable death.

The good part of this myth that everything happens for a reason is that it is really about trust and faith. When our ability to make sense of things reaches its limits that’s when faith kicks in. The mysteries of life and death challenge us to accept our limitations and to make friends with ambiguity, but too easily accepting this myth short circuits that important process. It can be used to avoid taking a leap of faith into the unknowable mystery of God.

The beautiful words of I Corinthians 13 are most often heard at weddings couched in the romantic notion of love that bears all things and never ends, but that’s not what Paul was about when he wrote this beautiful passage. Remember Paul advised people not to get married if they could avoid it. The preceding Chapter 12 of I Corinthians sets the stage for chapter 13. In Chapter 12 Paul addresses jealousy and arguments the church in Corinth was having about which spiritual gifts were the best. Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to describe different spiritual gifts and challenges the church members to accept their own limits and value the gifts of others. And then at the end of that chapter about the body of Christ, Paul says I will show you a better way to achieve spiritual maturity, the way of love.

In chapter 13 Paul says all the spiritual gifts are temporary and partial. This earthly life, including all of our knowledge will pass away – but inquiring minds want to know now. We don’t to wait! We did the whole wait training thing in Advent and we’re tired of waiting. We want answers to life’s mysteries right now. The human search for knowledge and truth is good up to a point but it always gets us in trouble when we overreach our limits. Ever since Adam and Eve couldn’t resist the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil we’ve wanted to know more than our pay grade qualifies us to handle.

Look at what Paul says: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Now we see only in a mirror dimly, like when you get out of the shower and the mirror is so fogged up you can’t see a thing. But we don’t want to know in part, we want shiny clean mirrors. We want certainty not ambiguity especially when it comes to matters of eternal importance to us. The frustration is that it is those very questions about death and life after death that we cannot have certainty about.

Paul says that to be adults in our faith is to give up our need for certainty. Those who study human development know that at different stages of maturity we are capable of handling different levels of truth. Small children are helpless and need the certainty that concrete and solid answers to their questions provides. They need to know they are cared for and will not be abandoned by the important figures in their lives. They expect parents and other significant adults in their lives to know stuff they don’t understand. Who hasn’t experienced the inquisitive mind of a three year old who wants to know why the sky is blue, and why she needs to brush her teeth and how the dish washer works, and why grandpa is bald? There is no end to their questions. We have a gas fireplace at our house that has no chimney, and every Christmas our grandsons ask us again how Santa can get into our house if there’s no chimney.

A great deal of our education system is based on that same kind of concrete, factual pursuit of knowledge. In school the test questions usually have one correct answer. For instance, if I asked you which letter comes after the letter A in the alphabet, what would the correct answer be? If you said “B” that is correct, but it is only one of 25 correct answers. Young Albert Einstein was asked that question by one of his teachers early in his life, and the teacher was not pleased when he replied, “They all do.” Most of us are not encouraged to think outside the box of concrete certainty as children, but when we become adults we need to adopt grown up thinking which sometimes means admitting we don’t know and can’t know some things yet.

What Paul is telling us is that when it comes to matters of theology a mature faith is one that can look into the ambiguity of a cloudy mirror and still be at peace with the uncertainty of faith. The statement that everything happen for a reason is meant to provide peace of mind by telling us that God is in charge and everything will be ok in the end. But we don’t live at the end of God’s drama when things make sense, we live in the confusion of the present and those words meant to comfort often backfire. Let’s look at some of the reasons that’s the case.

Number 1: If God’s in charge of everything, then we have to blame God for both the good and bad stuff too. This problem is a cousin to the myth that Mebane covered two weeks ago, namely that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Both myths imply that God makes bad things happen for some reason we can’t understand. When we are scared and feel out of control, we need assurance that God is, but the downside of that is we have to hold God accountable for all the bad stuff too and there goes any comfort we get from God. Even Wesley’s familiar Covenant service prayer we used here just 3 weeks ago to begin the new year falls into that trap when it says “I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt… Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”

Does God cause suffering? There are certainly places in the Bible that indicate that’s the case, for example the whole book of Job, or God’s punishment by death of Ananias and Sapphira for cheating on their church pledge in Acts 5. Some people are sure God is responsible for the election of Donald Trump, and others of us are wondering if this is God’s punishment for the sins of our nation. It obviously can’t be both. Did God give Clemson a victory in the Fiesta Bowl and cause the agony of defeat for OSU? Is God causing the unbelievable suffering in Syria or for the refugees trying to escape that mayhem?

Of course not. We worship a God of love, and the biblical accounts of God’s direct intervention in punishing people were the best answers the people in biblical times could give to some of the most mysterious and difficult questions in creation. We still struggle with those same questions today, and will until we see God “face to face.” Until then we can only know in part.

Number 2: The second problem with this myth is that if we surrender all control of everything that happens to God we absolve ourselves of all responsibility for human causes of suffering or injustice. Rev. Adam Hamilton who has written about these myths in his book “Half Truths” says a friend sent him this comment from a Facebook meme: “Yes, everything happens for a reason, but sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” Our actions have consequences. My son’s friend died not because an all-powerful God willed it so, but because of poor judgment and excess speed by a teen aged driver.

Blaming God or the devil or someone else for all our problems pushes us into the dangerous territory of going into victim mode. Woe is me, everybody hates me! The world is against me! We cannot control external events that happen to us, but with God’s help we can control how we react. Do we learn from our mistakes and those of others or waste a learning opportunity? To go victim robs us of chances to reflect and learn and to use adversity to strengthen instead of weaken our faith. It’s hard to increase our faith when we’re angry and blaming the very God who could be our greatest source of strength in time of trouble. That’s not to say we can’t be angry at God or our circumstances. Anger is one of the natural stages of grief. God can handle our anger and isn’t going to abandon us or punish us for being mad. It’s just when we stay angry too long that we multiply our suffering.

Blaming God for our suffering is also costly because it robs us of one of the greatest gifts God has given us, our free will. Sure, sometimes it feels like we’d be better off without free will if we could avoid suffering, but that’s not true. We cannot achieve our full humanity if God is just a puppeteer and we are robots or marionettes. God gives us freedom of choice so we can experience the joy of growth and doing good. Without freedom there is no ability to choose love, and as Paul teaches us, Love is the greatest gift of all that lasts when knowledge and prophesy are no more.

Number 3: And that brings us to the 3rd problem with the myth that everything happens for a reason. When we see knowledge and the ability to explain everything as our purpose in life we are treading on the thin ice of wanting to be like God. We want answers and we want them right now. Adam and Eve had everything they could ever need in the Garden of Eden, but their desire to be like God cost them everything. Worshipping absolute answers makes it impossible for us to live by faith and put our trust in the God who is beyond all human comprehension.

So what do we do instead of telling people in pain that “everything happens for a reason?” We recently attended a funeral for a 33 year old army vet who got hooked on pain meds because of a back injury he got in the service. On New Year’s Day Alex finally lost his battle with addiction. He left a young widow and a sweet four-year-old daughter named Hope. How do you tell his friends and family that all this happened for a reason and expect that to help? You don’t. It was the first Jewish funeral I’ve ever attended and I was impressed with what the Rabbi said instead. He quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner who published a book entitled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” 20 years ago. It’s still the best thing I’ve ever read on this subject.

The title of the book is not WHY bad things happen but WHEN because they happen to everyone sooner or later. And essentially what Kushner says is that “Why” is not really a question in these cases, it is a cry of pain. And we all know what to do when someone is in pain. They don’t need answers, they need comfort. They need someone to love them, to walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death. We don’t have to say anything; we just have to love.

If we had the answers to suffering we could use them, but we don’t. We are not God. We see in a mirror dimly, and that’s ok, because Paul assures in Romans 8, just us as Jesus did, that God is with us always and nothing in all creation can ever separate us from that love. So “faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

In his play “J.B.” based on the book of Job, Archibald McLeish puts it this way. J.B.’s wife is trying to help him struggle with the why question about his unbelievable suffering, and she says to him “The problem J.B. is that you are looking for justice and there is none. There is only love.” When we are hurting or those close to us, that love is all we need, and it lasts forever.

Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, January 22, 2017