Sunday, July 23, 2017

God's Job, Not Ours: Sermon for Proper 11A 2017

Gospel reading for Proper 11A

One of the things I love the least is yard work. I’ve never been a big fan of mowing, edging, trimming, raking, pulling weeds, ripping out vines, or cutting back branches - particularly in the summer heat.

Maybe it goes back to my high school years when I was tasked with cutting the grass during summer breaks. Including an orchard and a field, our yard was huge. Even with a tractor mower it could take 3 hours to cut everything. Not fun!

There was, however, one outdoor job I liked. And that was spraying the poison ivy plants that seemed to pop up everywhere. Living on a cotton and soybean farm, I had access to chemicals that were like weaponized Round-Up. You could spray a poison ivy plant and within a few hours it would be burned to a crisp. It became my mission to seek out and destroy all of the poison ivy on our property. 

I did a pretty good job. But there was collateral damage. In my zeal to eradicate every single poison ivy plant, I occasionally took out a few flowers, destroyed a tomato plant in dad’s garden, and maybe even killed a small tree in the orchard. 

Sometimes the eagerness to get rid of things we perceive as bad can cause harm. 

We see that point in Jesus’ parable of the weeds in the wheat. A landowner sowed good seed in his field. But at night, when everybody was asleep, someone came and sowed weeds among the wheat. So when the wheat started growing, the weeds were right there with them. Seeing what had happened, the servants of the master asked him if they could pull out the weeds. They couldn’t stand the thought of letting the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad, co-exist. They were impatient to set things right. And they assumed the master would say, “Yes, by all means, purify my field of those evil weeds.” 

But instead, the master told them “no.” He noted that if the weeds were pulled, the wheat would be uprooted and damaged. They would destroy the crop. So instead of trying to set everything right, the master told the servants to wait. Be patient. Let everything grow until the harvest. And then the weeds can safely be sorted out from the wheat. 

Perhaps it comes as a surprise that the biggest enemy in the parable is not the weeds or even the person who sowed the weeds. It’s the impatient servants who assume they know their master’s wishes. 

The real enemy is acting as if we mere mortals are the ultimate judges who are so good and righteous that we can identify, sort, and wipe out the bad. 

If we apply this point of the parable to religious life, it’s not hard to find examples of well-intentioned persons acting on what they believe is God’s will in ways that cause more harm than good. Their desire to purify the church of sin or purge society of evil is sincere. They mean well. And the problems they pinpoint may be real. 

But how easy it can be to make a mess of things by acting on the desire to eradicate evil! And how far removed that desire can be from the will of a God who graciously “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45). 

In contrast to our human, all-too-human impatience, Jesus’ parable portrays a God who is infinitely patient, gracious, and merciful. God is kind and loving to everyone, regardless of whether they are good or bad persons. God gives everybody time and opportunities to grow and change. For God takes no pleasure in the deaths of the wicked, but rather desires that they should turn from their evil ways and live (cf. Ezekiel 18:23 & 32). 

It’s easy to imagine that we can neatly classify the world into two camps: the good and the bad. And that we are among the good and have the godlike power and mandate to set all things right. But things are not so simple. For as one writer notes, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” 

That’s a powerful insight. It serves as a reminder that instead of pointing a finger of judgment at anybody else, or blaming external circumstances, I need to take a hard look into the depths of my own heart. Rather than getting fixated on the sin and evil of the world around us, Jesus invites us to look with courageous honesty at ourselves. And he warns us that all too often we may see “a smudge on [our] neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on [our] own” (Mt 7:3, The Message). 

For the truth is: I am just as capable of sin and evil as any other person. And I can’t change anybody else. I can’t change the world. 

But, with God’s help, I can change the world in me. I can change the world in my heart, where the decisive battle between good and evil wages every single day. 

That change comes through repentance. It comes through naming, confessing, and forsaking the wrong desires and sinful actions that draw us from the love of God. 

It comes through the humility of accepting that we are not superheroes who can single-handedly purify the world of evil and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

That’s God’s job, not ours. 

Our job is to trust and obey. 

Our job is to trust that all things are in God’s hands, and that in the end, God will sort everything out and set all things right. And our job is to faithfully obey God’s commands summed up by Jesus as loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

Regardless of outward circumstances, we can live with confident hope. Not because of what we do. But because of what God has done, is doing, and will do. 

For in Jesus Christ, God has overcome death and the grave. A new creation has begun. The kingdom has come near. We have been reborn as sons and daughters of God. God’s saving love has been poured into our hearts as a gift that cannot be earned or deserved. And knowing that in the end God will right all wrongs, we can rest secure in that love for all eternity.