Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
The following is available as a PDF file.
Admittedly, there are certain scripture passages preachers often wish to avoid, in particular, texts that speak of pruning, judgement, and damnation. Fearful the texts may make our congregations uneasy, we preachers are tempted to ignore those scriptures that are difficult and rather focus on the ones that comfort us. This is particularly true on hot summer days — such as today — when the heat oppresses us and we pray the pastor will be brief and quick to the point.
Today is one of those Sundays. While I’ll try my best to be brief, I’m not going to avoid the difficult text — our gospel lesson from Matthew — but rather meditate upon it. My hope is that this reflection may help us see God’s judgement not as a burden, but something that liberates us and enables us to experience God’s love more fully.
Among my favourite preachers living today is the Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge. A gifted preacher and writer, Rutledge is known for not skirting the difficult questions of Christian faith. While contemporary North American Christianity tends to make the gospel comfortable and easy to digest, Rutledge challenges us to go beyond a superficial faith and embrace the Gospel in its fullness, both the comforting and difficult passages. Her sermons help us to go beyond our immediate reactions to the baffling and demanding scripture passages and to see the life-giving and sustaining messages hidden in the text.
Rutledge is a preacher who is unafraid to talk about judgement. But not in the way we so popularly imagine. While we imagine sermons on judgement to be fierce hell-fire and brimstone messages, Rutledge speaks words of truth and hope. A couple of years ago I came across a text of hers in which she addresses the theme of judgement and offers this observation:
“The Christian hope is founded in the promise of God that all things will be made new according to his righteousness. All references to judgement in the Bible should be understood in the context of God’s righteousness — not just his being righteous (noun) but his ‘making right’ (verb) all that has been wrong. Clearly, human justice is a very limited enterprise compared to the ultimate making-right of God in the promised day of judgement.”
Rutledge’s reflection on judgment challenges our preconceived notions of a vengeful God, holding a book of all our sins and offences, ready to punish and damn us. Rather than judgement as a punitive act, God’s judgement is an act of love by which God purifies us and removes from within us all that weighs us down and burdens us. God’s judgement restores and elevates us to our original purpose and mission in life.
I want us to keep this in mind as we consider the gospel lesson before us, the parable of the weeds. Upon first reading the gospel lesson, we may be tempted to focus on Jesus’ final words about the evil ones being cast into the fire. While not to dismiss this theme, I think we have to reflect upon the words in the larger context of the parable and appreciate the imagery Jesus uses to convey his message. Indeed there will be a final reckoning, a judgement day, but perhaps not in the way popular media so often portrays that day.
So let’s step back and consider the weeds.
As some of you know, I’ve been giving our rectory garden some care these past couple of years. Uncertain of what was in the garden, I devoted little time to pruning and weeding during the first summer after my partner and I moved into the house. I wanted to see what flowers flourished in the garden and then decide what to remove. By July, however, I regretted my decision to delay weeding the garden. Although some flowers and plants blossomed in the garden, they were quickly taken over by hundreds of weeds. In a matter of a few short weeks the garden looked less like a garden and more like what you would find along the Humber River Heritage Trail here in Caledon. To make matters worse, the thick weed and bush that covered the garden served as a breeding ground for hundreds of mosquitos. By the end of July, we were afraid to sit on our deck, concerned the mosquitos would either eat us alive or pick us up from our chairs.
While I know some appreciate the wild look of the fields, I noticed something striking about the few perennials in the garden, such as the hostas: they were suffocated by the weeds. Hostas, as some of you know, can grow quite large. Ours, however, were confined by the weeds to such small spaces that the hostas were unable to flourish. Dismayed by the hundreds of weeds strangling the flowers and plants, I decided the following summer I would vigilantly remove all weeds.
As the following spring unfolded and the garden slowly came back to life, I eagerly went to work and ripped from the ground all that appeared to me to be a weed. I soon learned that in my haste to purify the garden of weeds, I inadvertently removed some very good perennials. Fortunately, I decided to delay my weeding work for a few more weeks until the plants in the garden had a chance to begin their growth. Once the time seemed right, I went back out into the garden and spent several days cleaning it and removing those weeds that I thought were harmful to the garden’s overall health. By June it was clear I made a prudent decision to delay my pruning and weeding work. Lilies flourished in many parts of the garden, hostas grew to such extraordinary width that I realised I would have to divide them at some point, and a half dozen other flowering plants came to life. The garden was gorgeous last July and the mosquitos were far fewer in number than the summer before.
My gardening adventures taught me something: one has to be prudent about the time to prune things, whether they be gardens or even our own spiritual life. I couldn’t help but recall that experience as I read our gospel lesson. Judgement and purification can be good for us and give us life, but only when done at the right time.
It’s difficult to appreciate the significance of Jesus’ parable of the weeds unless we are familiar with the particular weed to which Jesus is referring: the bearded darnel. The darnel is a weed that looks very much like wheat. However, you would not want to eat it as it is slightly poisonous to us, causing dizziness, sickness, and other narcotic effects. Darnel is further problematic to farmers as it cannot be removed in its early stages as its roots are so intertwined with wheat that were one to pluck it, one would remove the wheat as well. Therefore, farmers would leave the darnel to grow with the grain and separate it from the wheat after both were harvested.
Jesus’ comparison of the darnel weeds with sin and evil illustrates how difficult it can be for us to distinguish between the good and the bad, both within our personal lives and in our world. It also offers invaluable insight into the process of purification and judgement that we will all experience.
First I like to offer a few thoughts about good and evil. While I realise many of us are uncomfortable with the notion that something may be bad or evil, I believe if we are to have a healthy spiritual life, we need to be able to distinguish between what is good and what is bad. Let me be clear: we are created good and nothing can take away our dignity as human persons created in the image and likeness of God. There are, however, things that can prohibit us from living and experiencing goodness in its fullness. And sometimes, that which is not good for us can seemingly appear to be a good, much like the darnel weed. In order to discern the good from the bad, we need to consider everything carefully, lest we unintentionally allow ourselves to be slowly poisoned by those things that are not good for us. Again, this is all very much like the darnel weeds — they appear to be good, but they are poisonous to us. We have to carefully observe each plant and determine the one that is good for us.
As farmers have learned how to prevent darnel from mixing with wheat and to distinguish between the two, so too have people of faith learned how to determine what is, and isn’t, good for us and our spiritual life. Over the centuries Christian writers have taught practices to help us form a healthy spiritual life so as to recognise those things that are good for us. Among these customs are the many things I’ve referred to over the past couple of years: a consistent practice of daily prayer and Bible study, service to others, and regular participation in the communal and sacramental life of the Church. Anyone who has learned how to cultivate a healthy diet knows you have to spend considerable time breaking bad habits and learn what is good for you. The same is true for the spiritual life.
Now this leads us to the theme of judgement. Again, I want us to keep hold of Fleming Rutledge’s assertion that the Christian teaching on judgement comes from a place of hope — hope in God making right all that has gone wrong. Despite popular opinion that God’s judgment is a terrible and dreadful experience, God’s process of making right liberates us from all that holds us back from living fully. That is good news for us; God is working in and through us to restore all things to his original purpose. We ought to be careful, though, when it comes to judgement; it is God who judges, not us.
While I could go on at length and talk about Christian teaching on how God’s judgement unfolds in all things in the world, I want to return to the parable of the weeds and how judgement might apply to our spiritual life. Earlier I noted how we Christians must learn to identity what is good in our life and what we need to eliminate so we can live as sons and daughters of the God who loves us. While we can cultivate, with God’s grace, a spiritual life by which we can discern what is true, good, and beautiful, there are many times in our life when God begins that process of purification within us.
Before anyone begins to think I might be referring to health, emotional, relational, and financial crises, I want to be clear that I don’t believe God makes us suffer. Such an idea is theologically problematic. Instead, I believe God’s grace can transform the moments of suffering and lead us to new life.
Instead, what I mean by God’s process of purification is the transformation people of faith experience as they grow more deeply in the spiritual life. As we grow in our faith, as we enter more deeply in a life of prayer and reflection, we will be tested. The scriptures frequently compare God’s testing of us to that of the refining process of precious metals in fire. In Proverbs we read “In the same way that gold and silver are refined by fire, the Lord purifies your heart by the tests and trials of life.” Peter, writing to the early Christian community, says this process takes place “so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
Jesus’ parable of the weeds alludes to the purification process. While it’s true the text is clear that God will sift the good from the bad, I also think the parable speaks of God removing from within us all that prevents us from fully loving God and our neighbour. If we are honest with ourselves, we will recognise the feelings, thoughts, and memories that desperately need God’s healing and transformation. Once we open ourselves to God in prayer and seek to grow in the spiritual life, God will begin his work within us, much as a farmer separates the darnel from the wheat or the gardener the weeds from the flowers. For that to take place, there needs to be judgement. A farmer has to examine the plants carefully to determine what needs to be tossed out. The gardener has to get down on his or her knees and carefully decide which weeds must go in order for the perennials to flourish. Like the farmer and the gardener, God will test and try us to see what needs to be removed from us in order for us to flourish.
To be sure, God’s transformation of us will be painful at times. This is why the spiritual life can be so difficult for us. All too often we stubbornly cling to certain things, afraid to let them go, all the while not realising that what we clench onto may be the very thing we need to let go of in order to live. Yet God will gently prod us and invite us to trust in him and to allow him to do his work within us. If we willingly let go and trust God to do God’s good work within us, we will flourish just as perennials thrive when the weeds are removed.
My friends, God desires for you and I to live fully as his daughters and sons. Will you let God try and test you so that you may flourish as the plants of the field do? Or will you retreat in fear and not experience the freedom that comes from the grace of Christ? I pray you will allow God to work within you. As you do, know I will pray for you as you experience God’s healing grace. Amen.