Wheat and Weeds

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 44:6-8, Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25, and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

Did you know that we have Lagerstroemia in our church? Did you know that we have Hydrangea quercifolia and Magnolia grandiflora as well? If you were to walk through our church garden, you’d see these strange-sounding things and you’d recognize them as crepe myrtle, oak leaf hydrangea, and Southern magnolia.

But also in our garden, and in our church, we have “corpus permixtum,” growing. Right here. In and among us.

Corpus permixtum is the Latin phrase that St. Augustine used to describe God’s garden—not some special, exotic garden, but the garden of God’s green thumb known as the church.

Augustine said the church is a “corpus permixtum,” a great phrase that points to a mixed body, the good and the bad, the saved and the unsaved, the wicked and the holy.

In a commentary on a psalm, Augustine observed that in his day (and still, sometimes in our own), Christians have a good reputation. ‘They all love each other; each and every one of them does all they can for one another. They pray, fast, sing hymns; they do this around the whole world. God is praised in peace, in unanimity.’ A person may hear this, [Augustine writes] and nothing gets said about the wicked who are mixed in.” And so, this person hears about the church and visits. “He comes, drawn by this high praise. He then runs into these scoundrels mixed up with the others, ones he hadn’t been told about before he came. He gets offended by all these false Christians and flees true Christians.” Augustine points out that on one side there are those who are “hate-filled people, slanderers—they rush in to condemn: ‘What sort of people are Christians? Who are Christians? Money-grubbers, loan-sharks. Aren’t the very people who pack the theaters or the amphitheaters for the games or for the other big-time entertainments the same people who pack the churches on festival days? They’re drunks, gluttons, they’re jealous of each others, they tear each other down.’” But, as Augustine points out, not all Christians are like that. He notes that “The slanderer in his blindness says nothing about the good [Christians, but]; the praiser in his exaggeration says nothing of the bad. (Commentary on Psalm 99:12, Augustine in His Own Words, William Harmless, p. 90)

A mixed body then, and a mixed body now.

Jesus tells a parable and explains that the kingdom of God is like a man who sows seed in his garden. After a little while wheat begins to grow, but weeds also begin to grow, weeds sown by the devil. The servants are upset about the weeds. They want to know where the weeds came from and they’re ready to go out and gather them up. But the landowner says, “No.” If you try to get rid of the weeds now, you’ll also do damage to the wheat. Just wait until the harvest and then things can be sorted out.

The disciples who hear Jesus tell this story, ask him to explain. Jesus explains that this parable is really about the kingdom of God. God has sown good seed. The devil has also thrown in the seed that will become weeds. But both are allowed to grow, good people with bad people, until the day when God calls home his own children. “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.”

It’s a simple message from Jesus, really. It has implications for the sowing of seeds. It has implications for the mixed body that is the church, and it has implications for the mixed body that is within each one of us.

Whether it’s God who sows seeds, Jesus who sows, the church, or each one of us, acting as an everyday Christian, notice that the cultivation of the soil is not the first thing that happens. Contrary to those who do mission studies and look closely at demographics in order to target the Church’s mission, this parable suggests that the seeds of faith are best sown in every direction. God will take care of where they take root and where they grow.

We never know when the seed of faith may sprout. Sometimes a member of All Souls who has moved away will visit. Almost every time, the person will see someone else at church and remark to me, “I can’t believe so-and-so is back at church. I thought they drifted away years ago. It’s good to seem them back.” We do our part in encouraging faith, in building up the body that is this church family, but sometimes people’s lives get complicated. Their schedules become unmanageable. Their commute is too hard, their kids too busy. Or maybe they get mad—at the priest, the choir director, the volunteers in the kitchen… you name it. But one day, something shifts, and they feel ready to return. As people charged with taking care of the garden that is All Souls, we welcome them. No questions. No judgments. We’re just glad they’re here. We have no control over who will hear and respond to the Good News of Jesus Christ, nor what the timing of their response might be. “The righteous will shine like the sun,” in God’s own good time.

This parable speaks to the mixed body that is the congregation of the faithful who are in the church (whether we think of this globally or locally). Our Anglican cousins around the world would sometimes rather treat the Episcopal Church as a weed, a week to be trained, pruned, or perhaps even cut off altogether. I would simply point out today’s parable. Let’s grow together. Let’s do our best to produce faithful and holy results and let God do the sorting out in the end. It’s the same in this congregation. We are educated and less educated. We are gently and cranky. We are sweet-speaking, and we are sarcastic. Old and young, pious and worldly, sophisticated and rough around the edges—we are diverse. But God gives us holy patience with each other.

Though St. Augustine defended this idea of the church as a mixed body, he also knew that it was sometimes necessary to discipline church officials, leaders in the church, and other members of the community. Sometimes behavior crossed a boundary, and people were called to account for themselves and sometimes even excommunicated. In our community, there are some behaviors that are unacceptable, and we will call people on it. This is the gift of community. We don’t act alone in policing, but we come together in prayer, in discernment, guided by the Holy Spirit. We seek to speak the truth in love. But wherever and whenever possible, we pray for patience, tolerance, and forbearance.

Finally, the truth of this parable has implications for us as individuals. Augustine’s idea of a mixed body, or perhaps even a mixed-up body is evident in each one of us, as we wrestle with the fact that we are each part-wheat and part-weed. No one is all good or all bad. As faithful as we may be, as much as we may try to follow the way of Jesus Christ, as holy as some may become, this side of heaven, there will always be a few weeds. Some can be plucked out. Some can be contained. But others sometimes need to simply be ignored, not fertilized, not encouraged. Eventually, they’ll die, but to pay too much attention to them might be to neglect the good that’s trying to grow within us. And so the tending of our own soul takes care.

This is another reason why we are best off going slow before we judge others, because if we sit still with ourselves long enough, we are likely to find within ourselves that very trait or characteristic that is making us so angry at our neighbor.

This parable of the wheat and the weeds speaks of a day when judgment comes. The Church has often pictured God as an angry judge who decides which of us makes the cut and which doesn’t. But if we think about it, if we perhaps even look into the mirror, we’ll realize that most of the decision about God is ours. We decide whether to turn to God, whether to have the light and love God would give us. We decide whether to try to be loving toward others. We decide whether God’s vision for the world is worth our trouble. And so, at the end of our days, there are no surprises, because we will have lived our lives either deciding for God, or not.

Do I appoint myself God’s special weed-killer and try to create a spiritually perfect garden, or do I accept that there will always be a few weeds? Do I allow for the fact that sometimes maybe the weeds are not even weeds after all? Do I worry about clearing out the less-than-perfect around me, or do I try to encourage a little growth when I see it? And what about my own garden of a soul– Do I encourage the wheat within me, or do I let the weeds take over?

St. Paul says “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us….Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” We wait with hope. We wait with patience. We wait with love for God who loves us more than we can ask or imagine.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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