The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

A young woman died and found herself just outside the gates to heaven. Looking through the gate, she saw many of her family members and other loved ones who had died before her, and they were happy to see her. They called out greetings: “Hello, how are you!” “It’s so good to see you!” “We’re so happy you’re here!”

The woman walked up to the gate and said to St. Peter, “This is such a wonderful place. How do I get in?”
“You have to spell a word,” said St. Peter
“What’s the word?”
The woman spelled the word and St. Peter welcomed her in.

About a year later, St. Peter came to the woman and asked her to watch the gate for the afternoon (while he went with God to a Ga. Tech football game). The woman had only been at the gate for a short time when her husband arrived.
“I’m surprised to see you,” she said. “How’ve you been?”
“Actually,” he said, “I’ve been doing quite well since you died. I married that cute nurse who cared for you when you were ill. Then I won the multi-state lottery. We sold the tiny house you and I lived in and bought a mansion on a huge estate. We were traveling around the world. I was waterskiing in Monaco today and, well, bummer: here I am. How do I get in.”
You have to spell a word, said the woman.
“What’s the word?”

Over the years, believers have found ways to deal with most of the larger mysteries of the faith, like the origin of the world and the nature of God and the purpose of human life on earth, even our tendency and desire to want judge others (including former spouses) in place of God and not extend that same forgiveness and grace to others that God has bestowed on us.

But the one mystery that has so far proved immune to human reasoning is the mystery of evil. “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jer. 12:1) Why do the good die young and the not so good get remarried and win the lottery?

Seriously, though, this is a question to ponder: If God is in charge of the world and if God is good, then why do bad things go on happening in the world? It is a question human beings have been asking as long as there have been human beings to ask it.

“Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from? Biblical historians tell us that the weed in question is “darnel,” in this case, a very cunning and deceptive weed in that when it first sprouts, it looks exactly like wheat. & so, by the time the wheat has headed up, and you can tell the imposter from the real thing, it’s too late. The roots of the darnel have grown in and around the roots of the wheat. If you yank up one, you’re likely to yank up both–the good wheat intertwined with the roots of the “bad” weed, & both become yesterday’s news.

Logically, there are only three possible explanations for the presence of evil in the world. The first is that God is all good but not all powerful. For reasons known only to himself, God has chosen to limit his power over his creation and let history run its course.

In the life of Jesus, for instance, God decided to suffer evil instead of wiping it off the face of the earth forever. Jesus’ power lay in his weakness, not his strength: a thoroughly good man who never promised to make everything alright for everyone, who could not – or did not – even make everything alright for himself. Under this explanation, God intervenes in our lives chiefly to comfort and support us, but not to clear our fields of weeds. That is not within God’s power, the way he’s set things up, so God allows us to suffer the same way Jesus did.

A second explanation for the presence of evil is that God is all powerful but not all good. “I form light and create darkness,” God says in the 45th chapter of Isaiah. “I make weal and create woe; I am the LORD, who does all these things.” This is a much scarier God but a possible One—the same God who ordered King Saul to kill the Amelekite women and children (1 Sam 15:3); who sent the Persians to conquer the chosen people of Israel (Isaiah 45:1); and who wills death on a cross for his only son.

The only way to live with an explanation like this one is to believe that “good” and “evil” are relative terms, and that what we call evil may in fact be good for us, if only we could see the “bigger picture”–that is, from God’s perspective, God’s point of view. The weeds may not be weeds at all. Only God knows for sure, and in the meantime we are to accept them as part of God’s will.

Finally, the third explanation for the presence of evil is an Evil One, who prowls through the world causing trouble for God and sowing weeds in God’s wheat field. This is the explanation offered by today’s parable–“An enemy has done this”–and while the idea of a prowling enemy is not less scary than the other alternatives, many of us seize upon it with some relief, because it lets God off the hook.

God is neither powerless nor cruel. God is the Good Guy, and the reason there is evil in the world is because God has an enemy–a Bad Guy–who messes things up.

Now this explanation has some problems, which you may already be on to, like who is the Bad Guy and where did he come from? And where did he get enough power to challenge God? And, if God is all good and all powerful, why does he let this enemy get away with it? Why doesn’t he just smash this Bad Guy under his thumb like a pesky mosquito?

But, you see, once you start asking questions about the presence of evil in the world, there’s really no place to stop. No one has ever figured it out and I don’t expect anyone ever will. It’s one of God’s most carefully guarded secrets, and yet the fact that we can’t figure it out doesn’t mean we’re supposed to ignore it.

Evil is for real. It’s in the headlines. It’s in our communities. It’s in our own hearts. It claims lives and poisons our relationships and tears whole nations apart. Just because we don’t know why it exists doesn’t mean we’re excused from dealing with it. The question is, how do we do that? How do we deal with the weeds in the world?

“Do you want us to go and gather them?” That’s what the field hands ask their boss, and it’s a common sense solution to the problem. Just say the word and we’ll clean the place right up. We’ve got weed-eaters and Round Up and White Mule gloves. Just turn us loose and we’ll have this place straightened out in no time.

But the boss says, “No.” –No?! Why no? “Because, in gathering the weeds, you’ll root up the wheat along with them,” he says, which is partly true because of the wheat situation, and partly a nice way of saying he didn’t trust them. He knows them pretty well, after all.

He remembers when they got all fired up about helping him clear the field and started the tractor in reverse. He remembers the time he sent them out to harvest the potatoes and they pulled up the green beans instead. “No,” he says to them, “let both of them grow together until the harvest time, then I’ll tell the reapers what to do.”

What he knows is that sometimes well-intentioned good people can do as much harm as the enemy, once they convince themselves that they are right, that they are the only ones who know the difference between the wheat and the weeds and that it’s up to them to save the wheat by getting rid of the weeds–their way.

You know, the more I learn about human nature, the more I am convinced that very few people get up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll do something bad today.” Most of the bad things we do to each other – most of the bad things that happen in the world – happen because someone truly believes that they are really doing good things instead.

When the Ku Klux Klan got started after the Civil War, it was led by southern gentlemen who truly believed that their families were in danger, and that the only way to keep the weeds from running wild was to lynch them and burn crosses in their yards.

When Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, it wasn’t thugs who supported him, it was housewives and school teachers and ministers and fresh-faced teenagers who cheered him on, mesmerized by his vision of racial purity and a Christian nation, and ready to help him cleanse the fields.

You can name your own scenario, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Salem witch trials to the atrocities in Kosovo. Terrible things happen when human beings decide they can tell the wheat from weeds–and take it upon themselves to get rid of the weeds. That’s how the enemy gets us to do his work for him: by convincing us that we think we know who belongs in God’s field and who doesn’t. All the enemy has to do is sow a little darnel seed. We’ll uproot the wheat all by ourselves, once we get it into our heads that our judgment is perfect and God is on our side.

Did you know that, during the early battles of the first crusades, the Christians killed more Christians than Muslims (or “infidels,” as they called them)? Because the crusaders were fair-skinned Europeans, and when they got down around Palestine they just started killing everyone who was a different color than they were. They assumed all Arabs were Muslims, and it wasn’t until afterwards, when they were walking the battlefield, and they discovered crosses around the necks of their victims, that they knew what they had done.

Whenever one studies a passage of Scripture, one of the first questions we should always ask ourselves is, “What is the purpose of this passage? What is it saying to me (as oppossed to what is it saying about my neighbor)? And whenever I ask that question, I find that my answer, more times than not, (usually) has something to do with increasing my faith.

But this morning’s passage seems to work in the opposite direction. That is, I believe its purpose is to increase our doubt: to slow us down, to make us think twice, to challenge our confidence that we know the mind of God.

“You might be wrong.” That’s what the boss says. “You might pull up the good stuff along with the bad. Listen. I don’t need you to weed right now. In fact, I don’t need you to weed at all. I have reapers for that. What I need is for you to let things alone – to let both grow together – and let me worry about the harvest. Trust me. Everything will work out all right in the end.”

Whatever is going on in the field, the boss is apparently on top of it. He doesn’t seem too worried about what the enemy has done. He seems a whole lot more worried about what the hired help might do.

And I’ll tell you something. It’s a whole lot easier to weed than to wait. When you see the darnel growing up alongside the wheat and you know that if you don’t do something about it soon, there will be more weed seeds in the field next year than there are already? Well, it’s just a whole lot easier to take charge than to trust the boss.

But you know what? God is the boss. And it’s his farm, his field, his wheat, his weeds. Sometimes, he lets us know what he’s thinking and sometimes he doesn’t, but as a general rule, it’s best we don’t get our roles confused. He’s the boss; we’re the help, and all in all, we can thank God for that.

So let’s let the boss be the boss. And for our part, as servants, as God’s beloved field hands, and ourselves forgiven sinners, let us simply do as we’re told, and love one another as Christ loves us, and in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.