Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Parable of the Weeds & the Wheat

"Wheat Field with Cypresses" (1889) Vincent Van Gogh

The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 13:36-43....
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
This parable is part of a collection of three in Matthew's Gospel that are all about waiting. A farmer has to wait for harvest time when he can effectively separate weeds from wheat. Birds have to wait for a tiny mustard seed to grow into a large enough plant for them to be able to nest in its branches. A woman has to wait for yeast to work its expansive effect in dough before she can bake it. Jesus' main point seems to be that if we are part of his kingdom, then we are going to have to wait for some things.

There is a "now" but "not yet" to the kingdom of God. The kingdom can begin now in our lives as we receive Jesus to live in and through us. But the fulfillment of the kingdom, when it will truly be spread to every corner of the earth, when evil will be eradicated, when no one will ever have a stroke, or get sick, or die--that is "not yet". And so we must wait.

While we wait, we inevitably ask questions. These three parables wrestle with three distinct questions. One of them is: why does God allow evil to persist in the world?

The parable of the weeds and the wheat makes the clear point that evil does not come directly from God's hand. God, or in this case, the Son of Man as God's agent, sows good seed in the field of the world. Everything about God's original creation was good.

Then where did evil come from? According to the parable it comes from the devil, the one who sows weeds among the wheat. And how did the devil get to be the devil? He got to be the devil by free choice. God gave free choice to his angels and to human beings. We have the choice to serve God, or not. The teaching of the Bible is that all evil in the world stems from wrong human and angelic choices, either directly or indirectly. As someone once said, "God permits what he hates in order to accomplish what he loves." God permits evil to exist in the world, something he hates, in order to accomplish that which he loves--his creation freely choosing to love him in return.

Alright, so evil exists in the world because God gave us free choice. But why then doesn't God put a stop to evil here and now? The answer of the parable is that if God had the weeds pulled up right now, some of the wheat would be harmed in the process.

The particular weeds Jesus was talking about in this parable were, at a certain stage, indistinguishable from the wheat and often entangled with it. They could only safely be separated from one another at harvest time.

Why doesn't God harvest his wheat and burn up the weeds right now? Human beings, unlike weeds, have free choice. God is continuing to give us the opportunity to freely come to him. As it says in 2 Peter 3:9, "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."

Right now we all have a window of grace opened to us. There will come a time, however, when that window of grace will close. God is like a good teacher. He knows when giving a student another chance at an exam will do some good, and he knows when it won't. There will come a day when the Lord knows that giving us more chances to repent won't do any good. On that day the weeds will be pulled up and burned in the fire. And in that day the righteous will shine like the sun.

C. S. Lewis once said in a sermon,
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. (The Weight of Glory)

Which destination are we headed toward? And which one are we helping others toward as we wait for the consummation of the kingdom?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Crossing the Road for One Another

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

One of my favorite books is Henri Nouwen's Bread for the Journey. I read a devotional entry from that book almost every day. The entries for yesterday and today I found to be rather striking. They speak to me right now in my place in life. I also believe they speak to what we very much need in the Church and in our nation right now, as well as in our world as a whole. See what you think....
Crossing the Road for One Another
We become neighbors when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics. 
There is a lot of road crossing to do. We are all very busy in our own circles. We have our own people to go to and our own affairs to take care of. But if we could cross the road once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might indeed become neighbors. 
Bridging the Gap Between People
 To become neighbors is to bridge the gap between people. As long as there is distance between us and we cannot look into one another's eyes, all sorts of false ideas and images arise. We give them names, make jokes about them, cover them with our prejudices, and avoid direct contact. We think of them as enemies. We forget that they love as we love, care for their children as we care for ours, become sick and die as we do. We forget that they are our brothers and sisters and treat them as objects that can be destroyed at will. 
Only when we have the courage to cross the road and look in one another's eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.

It seems to me that this is a time, in the history of the Church, of our nation, and of the world, we need more bridge building and less wall building, more crossing of the road, and less keeping to ourselves. What do you think?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Parable of the Sower, Part 2

Matthew 13:10-17
Then the disciples came and asked him, 'Why do you speak to them in parables?' He answered, 'To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that "seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand." With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:"You will indeed listen, but never understand,and you will indeed look, but never perceive.For this people's heart has grown dull,and their ears are hard of hearing,and they have shut their eyes;so that they might not look with their eyes,and listen with their ears,and understand with their heart and turn-and I would heal them."But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
The story Jesus told on this day wasn't exactly what the people were expecting. Jesus didn't talk about God sowing Israel in its own land, restoring the fortunes and greatness the crowds hoped for. Jesus' story of the farmer was a story with some success, yes, but also a lot of failure in it. When Jesus said, "He who has ears let him hear," he was inviting the crowd to think through what he was saying. There was nothing obvious in his message.

Why did Jesus speak to the people using these obscure stories? That's what Jesus' disciples wanted to know. Jesus answered their question by assuring them that the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven would be given them. What the prophets and righteous people of the past longed to see, was taking place.

In addition to the lawn I planted in back of our first house (that I told you about yesterday) I also planted a tree by the side of the house. It would be nice to go back and see how that tree is getting along. But most people who plant trees don't get to see the end result.

Jesus was telling his disciples that they were like children standing beside full grown oak trees that had been planted hundreds of years before. Jesus was telling them, in a cryptic way, that it takes time for the kingdom of God to grow. It isn't easy to grow a lawn or to grow trees or to grow any kind of crop. A lot of seed is wasted and you hope against hope that at least 25% of the seed will produce what it's supposed to produce.

I'm sure Jesus' response to his disciples' question was frustrating for them to hear. They wanted a quick fix. They wanted Jesus to give the people all the answers and get on with building his kingdom right then and there. They were like children planting acorns and expecting full grown oak trees to sprout over night.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 6 to explain to his disciples what is going on. It is a troubling answer to a perplexed question. Isaiah 6 tells about the prophet's call. In the year that King Uzziah died Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord in his temple. Isaiah was one of the few prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures who actually asked the Lord to send him on a mission. But the mission God gave him was not a pleasant one. "Go and tell this people 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding.'"

If you read through the book of Isaiah you will find that his message did contain the promise of salvation, but that promise only came true on the other side of judgment. Forests would have to come down so that a new shoot could start to grow--the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 10:33-11:3).

Jesus is telling his disciples that God is doing a similar thing in their time to what he did in Isaiah's time. Just as Isaiah prophesied exile followed by restoration, so Jesus is promising salvation, but first God has to do some pruning of his beautiful olive tree, Israel. Yes, God's kingdom is appearing at last, but it is bringing with it judgment as well as mercy. Some in Israel, like the Pharisees, will listen over and over again to what Jesus has to say, and they just won't get it. The same thing happened in Isaiah's time, so it should come as no surprise, Jesus is saying. Judgment must fall on God's unfaithful people before mercy can spring up. But the good news within this warning is that Jesus himself will take the brunt of the judgment upon himself.

If you would like to listen to the rest of this message on the parable of the sower, click here: The Parable of the Sower

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Parable of the Sower, Part 1

The Sower with the Outskirts of Arles in the Background
by Vincent Van Gogh

Have you ever tried to start a lawn from scratch? I did once. We had just bought our first house. It was in a housing development in a nice suburb. Included in the price of the house was a small amount of sod which some men came and laid in our front yard shortly after we moved in. But the back yard was completely unfinished. Our lot had been in the midst of a forest which had been cleared for our house, and others, to go in. The lot was leveled as much as possible. In fact, the back yard, though it was just dirt, looked nice.

But then the rain came before I had a chance to plant grass seed in the back yard. The contours of the yard completely changed. One corner fell off precipitously. I figured I better get working fast. I bought some grass seed and went to work.

I was amazed, however, on closer inspection, to discover how many rocks were still there in our back yard. So I went to work with a metal rake and other tools purchased at Lowe's or Home Depot. I got rid of as many rocks as I could. I swear I had never seen so many rocks in one place in my life! There were still some left when I started planting grass seed. But I planted anyway. And I laid straw on top of the seed to protect it while it grew.

Then the rains came again. Most of the grass seed washed off that slanted corner of the yard. I had to start over.

I don't recall how many times I planted more grass seed on that one small piece of land. Eventually I got a scraggly looking lawn growing. It would be interesting to go back and see what that yard looks like today--and to ask the owners if they had to do more planting of grass seed to get that lawn looking right.

Jesus told a story once about a farmer sowing seed. Matthew tells us that he told this story on the same day that the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign of his identity, on the same day his family had come to collect him because they thought he was crazy. Jesus told a crowd by the Sea of Galilee a number of stories that day. But the first and most important story he told had to do with planting seeds....
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: 'Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!' (Matthew 13:1-9)

I will share more thoughts about this parable tomorrow....

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Bible & Same Sex Marriage

I am currently offering a teaching series at Stowe Community Church entitled The Bible & Same Sex Marriage. You can listen in by clicking here: http://willvaus.com/same_sex_marriage

Monday, July 18, 2016

Follow the Clues

The Gospel Lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 12:38-50.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

You can listen to a message based on this passage by clicking here: Follow the Clues

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Where to Find Rest

The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 11:28-30.
Jesus said, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
One thing we can learn from this passage is that Jesus invites the exhausted to come to him. Is your soul exhausted today? "What is soul exhaustion?" you may ask. It is the weariness that comes from running. Until we run to Christ we are running away from so many things. We run away from deep relationships because we are afraid of being hurt. We run from problems created by our wrong way of living. We run from quietness and solitude into busyness because we are afraid that if we pause for a moment we may be reminded of how empty our lives are. We run because we think it is we who sustain our own lives and not God.

Columnist Herb Caen once wrote this in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle; when the sun comes up, you'd better be running."

What or whom are we running from? What or whom are we running to? Jesus invites the exhausted in soul to run to him and find rest.

Jesus invites those who are exhausted in their search for truth to come to him. The Greeks said, "It is very difficult to find God, and when you have found him, it is impossible to tell others about him."

By contrast, Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

Jesus claims that the long and lonely search for God, for soul contentment, ends in himself.

St. Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee." Are our hearts restless? If so, Jesus invites us, to come to him for rest, no matter who we are or what we have done or not done in life.