The Fields of the Lord (7/23/17)
Albin Egger-Lienz, Sower and the Devil
On Sunday, July 23rd, we examined the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. In my previous sermon, I used a word from the pulpit that I really shouldn't have used. In this sermon, I owned up to my mistake.
The Fields of the Lord (7/23/17)
Good morning. I have a confession to make. Last Sunday, I used one of those words that I probably shouldn’t use in the pulpit. I’m actually a little surprised none of you called me on it. Do you even remember what I said? I’ll give you a hint, I used a four-letter word in the pulpit. And I was wrong! Does anyone remember? I used the word, only. Last Sunday we heard the parable of the sower, and I foolishly stated that this is the only time that Jesus explains one of his parables. I really should have read this week’s Gospel lesson. Or I should have said that Jesus rarely explains his parables.
In fact, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers partial explanations of several parables. And in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus offers a more complete explanation of this parable, but again, he offers that explanation only to the disciples, not to the everyone who heard him speak.
In these parables, Jesus shows us what God’s kingdom looks like and how it differs from the present reality:
In this gospel, the kingdom of heaven delineates differences between the realm of God’s kingdom and the kingdom of the Roman emperor. As the people in the first century Mediterranean would have experienced it, the emperor’s kingdom is on earth. The kingdom of heaven is where God reigns. The act of Jesus coming into the earth represents the in breaking of the God’s kingdom on the earth.
This is the difference between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, as God would have it. Through Jesus the Christ, God sets into motion a plan to remake the created world.
Scripture offers a consistent witness to God’s work to remake the world, and the ways in which God has called upon humanity to do that work. In the Hebrew scriptures, God speaks directly to some of God’s chosen people, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Moses. In other places, God sends the Holy Spirit to the prophets, who call the leaders of Israel to account for their unfaithfulness to the covenants between God and humanity. But those interventions were not enough to remake the world as God would have it, so God sent Jesus into the world.
The Incarnation is a new strategy to address a persistent problem: the people were not keeping faith with God; they weren’t living into their end of the covenant. Instead of raising up another prophet to call Israel to repentance, God does something completely unprecedented; God enters the world in the person of Jesus and through the incarnation, God makes it possible to be in a direct, physical relationship with God. The power of this new strategy is so great that even after the human Jesus is crucified and resurrected, Jesus’ disciples can witness to Jesus’ presence in the world, and through their witness, others come to believe in Jesus.
But it took a while. It took close to three hundred years for this message to really transform the little corner of the world that was ruled by the Roman Empire. Yet even the human Jesus, the Word of God, made flesh; even Jesus couldn’t transform all of God’s chosen people in his lifetime. The Gospel of Matthew reflects the divisions among the chosen people.
Remember, when Matthew is writing this gospel, some 40-50 years after the crucifixion and resurrection, he is writing for a congregation of Christ-followers that exists within the larger Jewish community. In fact, these Christ-followers have not yet taken the name Christian—they still see themselves as faithful Jews. Christianity is just a movement within Judaism. At the same time, those who follow this movement face rejection from friends and family. Matthew presents this parable to remind these Christ-followers that they are still connected to the larger community of Jews—both the Jews and the Christ followers were rooted in the same soil. While there was strife between them, the parable is meant to remind the Christ followers that the power to judge belongs only to God.
As I said before, Jesus represents a new strategy for transforming the world, but it took a few centuries for this new strategy to catch on. This movement that we now call Christianity barely took root. The letters of the Apostle Paul and the Book of Acts testify to the tenuous position of the first generation of Christian congregations. But the strategy worked because it was grounded in God’s love for humanity, expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, and communicated through the power of the Holy Spirit. By the fourth century CE, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Over the next seventeen hundred years, Christianity would become the dominant force in Western society, and when European powers colonized North and South America, Christianity spread across the Atlantic Ocean.
By the twentieth century, all of the nations of Europe and North and South America were Christian; Australia and New Zealand, too. Great strides were being made in the mission field—that’s what it was called when churches sent missionaries to Africa, Asia, and the Pacific islands. Christian churches had a strong missional presence in China and India; it was difficult work, but there were always brave young souls who were willing to go to the ends of the Earth to spread the Word of the Lord.
It used to be very easy to support international missions. When our pews were full, all we needed to do was have an extra offering, or a chicken-and-biscuits dinner, and we could easily raise a few thousand dollars for some mission project. What’s more, every other church was full, too. Any money raised here at Rehoboth and sent to Redstone Presbytery would be met by donations from dozens of other churches. Collectively, we could raise tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars; it seemed so easy. That was how the Church functioned during Christendom. That was the Church that most of us grew up in, and we liked it! It made sense! But the world has changed. It doesn’t make as much sense.
More than two-thirds of Americans identify themselves as Christians. While that’s a big drop from twenty or thirty years ago, it’s still a large percentage of the population. But even among believers, weekly worship services are just one activity among many; church competes with youth sports and other activities, and many people work on Sundays. Yet the Church is having difficulty moving forward in this post-Christendom world; we are having trouble moving forward. We are stuck!
You know what? It’s not your fault! Let me say that again. It’s not your fault. You didn’t mess anything up. We’re not in this place because some people in this congregation are too lazy or too stingy, or anything like that. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault, nor was it Rev. Klein’s fault that the world changed. The truth is, he wasn’t taught to deal with this new reality. I was taught that this new reality existed, but mostly, seminary taught us how to be leaders in the structures of Christendom that already existed. In turn, we’ve taught the leaders of congregations—the elders and deacons, youth leaders, and other volunteers—how to be leaders in the old structures. We haven’t taught you how to be leaders in this new, post-Christendom reality.
That’s scary, but it may also be a blessing.
As Christians, we gather here to worship, but then we are sent back into the world. In the era of Christendom, the sending didn’t mean all that much. We could always raise enough money to send someone else. We could support a vast, global network of Christian missionaries. We could send money for famine relief and disaster relief. If there was a need in our own community, we could hire more staff, like a youth pastor.
Today, the mission field is right at our door. We don’t have to find remote villages in Africa or the Amazon basin to send missionaries. We are forced to confront problems in our own community that were harder to see, but in recent years, have become quite clear: drug addiction, homelessness, and hopelessness. This is scary, yet it is also a blessing. I’m not romanticizing addiction or homelessness. We are called to be a blessing in the midst of that darkness.
The mission field belongs to the Lord; likewise, the field where this church stands also belongs to the Lord. It is not our job to sow the seeds, the seeds of the faith, the seeds of God’s overwhelming love for humanity; Jesus already did that. Neither is it our job to reap the field. That will be done later—in God’s time—by the angels. What’s more, Jesus has told us it’s not our job to sort these plants or uproot the weeds, because, “in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” So, what are we to do? Where do we fit in this new, post-Christendom world? What we can do is water all the plants and tend to all the fields that we can. The truth is, we can’t always tell the wheat from the weeds, so we have to find new ways to tend to all the plants in the field. We don’t have to try harder, but we must be willing to try differently. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Go forth and tend the plants and the soil. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!