Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 19, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Genesis 28:10-19a+Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23

Romans 8:12-25+Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I am not a farmer. I’m not very much of a gardener, either. I consider it a minor miracle when something I have planted actually breaks through the ground and becomes a plant or a flower. The crowd to whom Jesus tells the story of the weeds and the wheat probably knew a bit more about agriculture than most of us do. Their very lives may have depended on their ability to grow their own food. And the very thought that someone would intentionally plant weeds in their newly sown field would not only have angered them, it was considered a criminal offense under Roman law.

We have grown so accustomed to reading this parable and the allegorical interpretation that Matthew offers us that we easily fall into the us-vs-them dichotomy that so rules our common life. We identify ourselves as the righteous wheat and all of those others – white, black, conservative, liberal, Jew, Muslim, Democrat, Republican – that we fail to see that the struggle between good and evil resides within each one of us, too.

We have been making our way through the book of Genesis these past several weeks, and we have seen that the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Hebrew scriptures were not always the fine, upstanding icons we set them up to be. As you know, Abraham passed his wife Sarah off as his sister not once but twice in order to save his own skin. Sarah gave the enslaved woman, Hagar, to Abraham to bear a child and then hated her for giving birth to Ishmael and so banished them to almost-certain death in the wilderness. Jacob cheated his older brother out of his birthright and deceived his dying father to receive his irrevocable blessing. Much as Esau and Jacob struggled in their mother’s womb (Genesis 25:22), good and evil are at war with each other not just out there in the world, but right here within each of us.

St. Paul acknowledges this in the 7th chapter of Romans when he writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19). We are bound by sin and cannot will ourselves to do good, to act less out of self-interest than for the common good. Ask anyone in recovery from addiction, and they will tell you that the first and second steps are always to acknowledge our inability to manage the addiction and then to believe that only God (or our higher power) can restore us. Our addiction is to sin and to evil, and only God can make it right.

Jacob may have manipulated himself into receiving what was rightfully his brother’s, but the message that came to him in a dream was not something he devised or deserved or earned. God’s promise to Jacob echoes the same promise made to Abraham and to Isaac: “your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth” (28:14) and “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (28:15). He called that place Beth-el, which means House of God, for it was surely Holy Ground.

Weeds and wheat both grew within Jacob. They grew within King David and Solomon and so many of those whose stories make up our story. They have to be left to grow together until we recognize that our life has become unmanageable. Until we have hurt enough people, alienated enough friends and family, gained enough enemies, caused enough conflict, to turn our lives over to God. Not once, but daily. Sometimes hourly. Repentance is not a one-off event. Thank God we share a tradition in which confession is central to our worship.

Several years ago, I spent a few weeks in Cape Town for the first training of an international group of people at the Institute for Healing of Memories. Father Michael Lapsley understands well the capacity within each of us to cause harm, to perpetrate evil. And yet, Fr. Michael’s life’s work has been about pointing to resurrection even in the midst of this struggle between good and evil, weeds and wheat. He writes:

We are called to recognize and acknowledge the terrible things that we have done to one another, but then we are called to stop being crucifiers. We are called not to be Good Friday people but to be an Easter people. The idea of the wounded healer is thus deep within Christian theology. The victim triumphs not by becoming a victimizer of others by rather by becoming fully himself or herself. It was St. Irenaeus of Lyons who asserted that the glory of God is a human being fully alive.[1]

Friends, the Good News is that it is by God’s grace that we become fully who we are created to be. We cannot earn it, nor can we lose it. The ground on which the weeds and the wheat grows is holy ground. It is hallowed because it belongs to God, just as we belong to God. Surely the Lord is in this place, in each one of us.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Michael Lapsley, Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012), 168.

ASEPSermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 19, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas