Sojourn Sermon July 23 07/23/2017
Sojourn Sermon – July 23 – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
A few weeks ago Connie, Bob, Megan, Margot, and I attended the biennial Mennonite Church USA National Convention in Orlando. It was a pretty great time, and I had the opportunity to attend a number of workshops that I think will directly benefit us here at Sojourn. It was a great networking opportunity. The unfortunate news, however, is that the future of MCUSA isn’t exactly clear. While I feel pretty confident that the denomination will continue to exist in some form or another, we continue to wrestle with the question of what we will look like going forward. MCUSA continues to pull itself apart over what seems to be the most divisive issue of our day: Are LGBTQ relationships and identities compatible with a faithful Christian life?
Here at Sojourn we answer with a resounding yes. And I realize that as a cis-gendered straight man, that I am not really the one to be discussing this, but I think I speak for Sojourn when we say that we would encourage nothing more and nothing less than we would of heterosexual relationship. Committed, mutually beneficial, self-sacrificially loving relationships.
As you know, however, this has not been the answer that every church in our denomination has arrived at. Two years ago, at the previous biennial convention, the climate was quite hostile to this question and those who wanted to answer it the way we have. And while PinkMenno, an organization that seeks to make MCUSA more inclusive, pointed out that this year’s convention offered a lot more hope to the LGBTQ community, it is worth mentioning that since 2015, over 200 churches have left the denomination over this issue. Some entire conferences have left. In our own conference, a number of churches are either deciding whether or not to join a different conference or to stay in mountain states.
Proponents of heteronormative relationships were not particularly pleased with this more welcoming climate. I recently read an article in the Mennonite World Review that included a number of statements I would take issue with, but two in particular stood out to me. (1) That, those people this person calls progressives, do not adequately wrestle with the “strongest arguments from scripture,” and (2) that progressives reflect the culture more than Jesus.
Now aside from the fact that included in this person’s statement that progressive do not wrestle with the “strongest arguments from scripture” is a link to his own blog, this statement is plainly false. Any advocate for LGBTQ inclusion I know can name all the passages that are used to clobber others, can address them, and argue convincingly, in my opinion, that those passage do not prohibit LGBTQ relationships. Not to mention the fact that at most there are seven verses we need to wrestle with, and I would argue that there are really only two, out of some sixty thousand. That’s an anomaly. If I we were do a statistical analysis on the topics in scripture, this question wouldn’t even make the top twenty-five. It is just not an issue that scripture care to deal with at any length.
But what really burned me was this person’s second claim, that LGBTQ inclusion reflects culture more than the way of Jesus. I’ve heard this argument a lot, and I’m not really sure what to do with it. Because there is some truth to it – does LGBTQ inclusion have something to do with the culture we’re in? Yes, of course it does. There is a reason the church is discussing LGBTQ inclusion now and not in the 6th century. We exist is a different cultural landscape. Does that mean we look more like our culture than we do Jesus? I’m not convinced of that by a long shot. Personally, I’m not sure how being inclusive of the LGBTQ community make us more at the mercy of the culture than only affirming heteronormative relationships.
In an interview with Religion News last week, Eugene Peterson, one of the most prominent and beloved evangelical leaders, said that, he had changed his mind about LGBTQ issues and he would perform a same-sex wedding. But two days later, after Life Way Christian stores announced that they would stop selling his books and add him to their banned author list and after the evangelical blogosphere exploded, Peterson retracted his statement. A few years ago World Vision, a large evangelical mission organization, announced that employees would not risk termination if they were in same-sex relationships. A few days later, however, after thousands of dollars in support were withdrawn and prominent evangelical leaders denounced the organization, World Vision changed their policy back. If you ask me, that’s what it looks like to bend to culture committing to something and then going back on it when your culture turns against you.
But if you want to know what cultural trend is that I think is most important for the church to reject in our day it is this: the most important cultural trend for the church to reject is the tendency to divide. It is the tendency to accept schism and polarization not just as options but as imperatives. It is no secret that our culture has become so polarized in recent years that our government can barely function at all, much less healthily. And according to a recent Pew Survey, this tendency to divide and become polarized is much more of a problem for progressives than it is for conservatives. This survey suggested that nearly half of all the liberal democrats surveyed said that finding out a friend had voted for Trump would put a strain on the relationship. While only thirteen percent of conservative said that finding out a friend had voted for Clinton would put a strain on the relationship.
And this is where I think the parable we just read becomes extremely important. And just a quick note of disclaimer, I’m not talking to those 200 church that have left MCUSA and I’m not talking about those churches in our conference. I’m not talk about world vision or Eugene Peterson – they will all have to deal with their own consciences. I’m here to talk to us, Sojourn Mennonite. When it comes to Jesus’ parables, I tend to defer the wisdom of my wife who says, correctly, “Whenever you make Jesus’ parables about someone else, and not yourself you’ve already missed the point.”
The parable in our text for today, often referred to as the wheat and the weeds or tares, is one of the most difficult parable to understand. Part of the difficulty in this parable is that Jesus’ interprets the parable himself. The problem is that the focus of the parable itself and the focus of the interpretation seem different. The focus of the parable is patience. The master of the field wants his slaves to be patient and to wait to pull up the weeds until the harvest, lest the crop be spoiled. In the interpretation, however, focuses much more attention on the harvest, of sorting through the wheat and the tares. The master’s instructions aren’t even mentioned in the interpretation.
And this difference between the interpretation and the parable has led most scholars to believe that the interpretation given in Matthew 13 does not originate with Jesus, but rather that it originates with the early church. And I think this is probably right. And that doesn’t mean we discard this interpretation or that we don’t accept the interpretation as scripture. Instead, this interpretation that Matthew offers gives us the opportunity to see the parable in a few different lights. If we accept that this interpretation in vv. 36-43 originates with the early church, then we find that the issue of divine judgement is extremely important to them in how they seek to understand Jesus. And this makes sense when you look at the early church. The Church has been in the midst of an identity crisis since the very beginning. The church emerged in the midst of a religion in which people would much sooner die than accept a new God, which is often how they interpreted Jesus. And in the context of second temple Judaism, the question of whether you were in the right group or the wrong group was on everyone’s minds. If you read the Dead Sea Scrolls, these writings are constantly distinguishing between the right group and the wrong group, sons of light and sons of darkness.
And so here you have the Matthean community, a very Jewish community if the Gospel of Matthew tells us anything. And this community has probably very recently broken with the synagogue system or is growing increasingly disillusioned with the synagogue system, and they are asking themselves where do we fall in. And of course the answer we get from this interpretation is that so long as you are a follower of Jesus, sons and daughters of the kingdom, you’re in the right group. And we can resonate with that today, right? So long as we believe in love and self-sacrifice, as long as our worship of the creator God is expressed in care for the community, we are on the right track. But here’s the thing, it is really not up for us to decide. I’m not a guy to think too much about God’s end time Day of Judgement, being far more inclined toward some kind of universal salvation, I think that theology is somewhat lacking. But here’s the thing about God’s judgement: if God is the ultimate Judge, then we aren’t. If we are going to be God’s people in the world, we are going to have to be wheat among weeds. It really not our call to root them out and destroy them.
And here is where I think we have to hold the parable and its interpretation in tension. The interpretation calls us to let God be the judge, but the parable calls us to patience, to wait. How often does Christianity express itself as the religion whose primary goal is to root out the unrighteous and separate ourselves from them? How often are we guilty of this? I know I am. I have deleted more people from Facebook since the election than I have in years past. And as Christians, we are so good at splitting. There are like 30,000 protestant denomination that exist in the world. And we squabble and we fight and we make each other out to be the enemy. And we do this so often and vehemently that at the end of the day we say rip the weeds up out of the field of our church.
If I can confess, as I hear about churches leaving MCUSA and Mountain States conference, the part of me that hide away but probably represents how I actually feel, the part of me I’m embarrassed about says, “Good riddance. We are better off without you.” I want to say to them, “you’re just like Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman. You’re not ready for Jesus message of radical inclusivity.” Or I want to say, “Your way of reading the bible is outdated and theologically inferior. Get your weeds out of our good wheat.”
At a different part in the Church’s history, in the years following the persecution lead by Emperor Diocletian there was a major church controversy. During the persecution, many Christians denounced their faith in order to avoid torture and death. But after the persecution ended, when those who had renounced their faith wanted to return to the Church a group of people called the Donatists wanted to exclude them from the church. Augustine responded to the Donatists saying, “Your imagination that you are separating yourselves, before the time of the harvest, from the tares which are mixed with the wheat, proves that you are only tares. For if you were wheat, you would bear with the tares, and not separate yourself from that which is growing in Christ’s field.”
As I imagine myself to be morally and theologically superior to those who believe differently than me and as I look to separate myself from them in order to create a pure church, aren’t I just making myself a weed among wheat. When we decide that we are the wheat and that we need to separate ourselves from the weeds, we become the weeds. And I think this will be extremely important for us as we go through the years ahead.
Yes, there are those churches that are going to split from us – and that’s their thing. But losing them is a tragedy. Yes, their words and actions hurt our LGBTQ neighbors beyond what someone like me could imagine, but if, as we go forward and wrestle with this question, I think the scriptures tell us, I think this parable tells us that trying to sniff out anyone who disagrees with us and separate ourselves from them produces and existential threat to kingdom building. See the church has always tried to define itself as the institution that held together despite all odds, even though we have failed time and time again. But as N. T. Wright notes, “The unity of the Church is a sign to the world that there is a new way of being human. Unity,” he continues, “sends a message to the world be rulers of the world that Jesus is Lord and they are not.”
Now, there are some people who are uncomfortable with this interpretation of the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat because, as they see it, this promotes inaction or passivity. That not what I’m saying at all. There is a concept in non-violence training that says, “We put one hand up and one hand out.” One hand up to oppression and one hand out to the oppressor. Staying in community with someone doesn’t mean we accept their theological positions or make concessions on ours. It means we put our dukes. It means we fight and wrestle with each other. Being the church means we look like Jacob wrestling the angel – no matter what, we never let the other contender go.
Again, as I said before: I’m am a cis-gendered straight man. I get that. I really do. But I was really moved by a story I heard on the radio program 1A on KUNC. A few months ago their program focus on Evangelicals and their response to LGBTQ inclusion. One of the guests on the show was a woman named Shae Washington. She is a member of the LGBTQ community, married to a woman, and she attends National Community Church in D.C., a non-affirming church. Washington and her wife are members, but they excluded from leadership. She and her wife continue to attend because they love their community, they hope it will change its mind about LGBTQ inclusion its true. But they continue to attend despite the fact that they are excluded from leadership.
And I know, that as a cis-gendered straight man, I have no right to ask my LGBTQ friends to stay in community with the people who hurt them. I don’t. And so I don’t think of this so much as an individual mandate, as much as I think of it as a question for our church as a body. How do we move forward without destroying our message of peace and inclusivity? How do we show our love to those who disagree with us? How do we wait patiently and actively?
There are questions that require prayerful discernment. And they are questions that we will have to address over and over again, and we will be exhausted by it. But if our prerogative is to turn against those who disagree with us and begin to separate ourselves from those we view as unrighteous or in correct, it won’t be long before we find some fault among ourselves and turn on each other.
And so I’ll leave you with this from 1 John 2, “Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believers is in darkness, walks in darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness had brought on blindness.” John continues in Chapter 3, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in action and truth.”