“Thus says the Lord, . . . I will pour My spirit on your seed and My blessing on your offspring. And they shall sprout among the grass like willows by the brooks of water.” . Those words from the prophet Isaiah read like a love story, written for you to lap up like something you’ve thirsted for in all your days. Those words fall like rain on the heat of the present day.
Recently, we entered what I call the seedtime readings. Last week, a sower went out to sow. Today other seeds take root and show up as wheat and weeds. And next Sunday comes a mustard seed. These seedtime readings take place in the thirteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Only a day before, he was travelling through grainfields on the Sabbath. Only a day before, the disciples grew hungry and began to pluck heads of grain to eat.
As parables go, the one about leaving the weeds alone, about trusting God will see to it they burn in hell at the harvest—this one is unique to Matthew. You won’t find it in Mark or Luke or John. And as you know, it isn’t really about weeds.
It’s about evil and the hope of getting even.
Matthew often talks about what is evil. Scholars believe he likely wrote his gospel at a time when his community had been thrown out of their local synagogue because they were Jesus followers. They were weeded out.
It was a time of deciding who gets to stay and who must leave, who’s in, who’s out, who’s wrong, who’s right. And it hurt. And you can hear that hurtful division in our parable today when Jesus looks to the End of Time and says, “the evildoers will be thrown into the furnace while the righteous will shine like the sun.”
Matthew doesn’t tell us who they are exactly but very likely his community knew them by name, knew them as the people who’d hurt them. And likely, too, they were “comforted” by the idea that justice would be done one day.
I sense something pastoral at work in this parable: as if St. Matthew were advising them to leave well enough alone for now—leave it to God—and get on with the business of being the Church. And what I learn from this parable about evil is that we have a hard time telling the difference between good and evil. That evil can look good, even feel good, nourishing even. Comforting, too. And what is good can be mistaken for evil.
But I also learn that this is primarily an End Time parable – a story that looks to the Last Judgement of God. It isn’t a parable about how to live now here on earth. Not really. Instead, it’s Apocalyptic Farming 101, when the Son of Man will come at last to pull up the weeds and start the fire.
And while that dreadful burning may come to pass, I confess the thought of it does not nourish me. I rely instead on God’s promise in the Hebrew Bible that he will pour his spirit out like water on the seeds of the good earth and bless what springs from it.
Today I look also to the late Congressman John Lewis, who had every reason to put his trust in a god of fire. But he didn’t. He grew up on a farm and spent his life daily cultivating not the hope of vengeance, but the hope of what he called “good trouble” – transformative change.
He was wounded — assaulted — on the Edmund Pettis Bridge at the age of 25, and fifty years later he walked across that same bridge holding hands with the daughter of George Wallace, the governor who’d tried to separate his people from the hope of equality.
He knew “hope that is seen isn’t really hope. But if we hope in what we do not see, we wait” — and work — “for it with patience.”
I think God calls us all to the good trouble of cultivating a better world, and wants us to care about the culture we live in.
I often think of the prayers said at this Altar when the bread and wine are placed there, right alongside the money, sweet evidence of generosity: Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life. And through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become for us our spiritual drink.
Those words name your offering and cultivation of all God has given you. They tell you bread and wine are the work of human hands: bakers and vintners. Ordinary hopeful people. They tell you the work of your life matters.
The cultivation of the good is holy work. It isn’t apocalyptic. Instead it’s deeply incarnational, as in “God’s will be done in earth as in heaven.”
What’s strange is how often Christians have been tempted to think of culture as something unholy or ungodly. It isn’t, though it surely can be. Culture is what we make of it, and God calls us to make something of it, something good and life-giving.
Author and musician Andy Crouch puts it this way, “Bread and wine are culture, not just nature. They are good for food and delight to the eyes. Jesus takes culture [the gifts of God that we have cultivated] blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his friends.”
That’s Holy Communion. Within it, Jesus looks not to the end time of burning the weeds, but to the now time of breaking the bread and pouring the wine, reconciling the world to himself one day at a time.
In Holy Communion, we mysteriously return to the first garden with a foretaste of Paradise. No wonder St. Mary Magdalene mistook the Risen Lord for a gardener. He was. And had been all along, the Son of God pouring his life out like water on the good earth.
Crouch has it the first gardener “is not Adam. It is God [who made the first garden]. . . . The Lord’s hands [he writes] have dug into the dirt. He has touched it. He has blessed it. And everything God does as a gardener will begin with what God did.”
That’s where the saints began. It’s where John Lewis began. (Jesus was his gardener, too.) And you begin with what God did as well. And what you mustn’t miss is the great gift of your days: the making and living of a Eucharistic Life, a given-away life of cultivating the gifts of God, broken in order to be shared. Exploiting no one.
Your hands take and bless and break and share. And the good trouble of following Jesus is this: the feast he calls you to is not your own. It’s the Lord’s feast. You cannot possess it. You cannot keep it to yourself. You can only be in it by offering your life and labor and love to God and to a world that needs you to care about what it’s made of and who it’s made for.
The Hebrew Bible, Volume 2, Prophets, a translation with commentary by Robert Alter (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2019), 797.
Andy Crouch, “The Gospel: How Is Art a Gift, a Calling, and an Obedience?”, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, ed. W. David O. Taylor, (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2010), 36.