sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 11A [Track 2], The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017
On Friday morning I journeyed to Camp Huston to spend a day with the high schoolers of our diocese at their summer camp, which is called Six-Day. I presided and preached at Eucharist, spent some time with a couple of their small groups, and made myself generally available for pastoral chats. It was great to have a chance to reconnect with these folks, some of whom I knew when they were much younger.
One group of youth decided to play “stump the priest.” They peppered me with questions, especially about the Nicene Creed and about the problem of evil. On another occasion, a 17-year-old girl pulled me aside for 45 minutes, asking me earnestly how one can come to believe in God and nurture that belief. There was great longing there among our young Episcopalians. This came at the end of a week in which I spent a lot of time listening to people of all ages who are in pain, people who feel lost, people who are longing for something better than they are currently experiencing.
It seems obvious to us—and to the farmer’s slaves—that a good farmer would attempt to pull the weeds. But this farmer is determined not to give up on a single stalk of wheat. I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I treat my lawn. When I’m digging up dandelions, I inevitably dig up some of the good grass as well. Why am I OK with this? Because while I like the appearance of a lush green lawn, there is no particular blade of grass that is of any importance to me.
You, however, are a stalk of wheat growing with other stalks of wheat among the weeds. Another way to see it is that all the good work that God has begun in you is wheat, and all the sins and shortcomings and distractions you find within you are weeds. God is not content with this situation, but God is content to allow it to continue … for now. Not only will God not abandon this corrupted field, but God will not allow a single stalk of wheat to perish. It just will not happen.
That’s comforting, but we’re still left with a problem, as voiced by the householder’s slaves: “Where, then, did these weeds come from?” The corruption all around us stands in stark contrast to everything we think we know about God. Whence all this evil? Where did all this pain and suffering come from? This isn’t a world worthy of God, the good and loving creator.
The technical term for this problem is theodicy. Traditionally, Christians believe God to be all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful. If all three of these conditions are true, so the model goes, no evil can exist. So which of these is failing us—God’s love, God’s knowledge, or God’s power? Maybe evil happens because God doesn’t care about us as much as we thought. But where could love come from, if not from God? By definition, we cannot find ourselves able to love more effectively than God does. Maybe God is out of touch with our suffering. It can be easy to feel this way. Yet by definition, God is not merely a distant creator but also closer to us than we are to ourselves, so God must be well aware of all that we’re going through.
The third possibility is that God isn’t all-powerful. Maybe God would like to stop the enemy from planting weeds but is unable to. But that’s what Jesus came for, right? To save us from the power of sin. So why, after the Resurrection, does the enemy still have power over us? And so our response is to go ahead and pull weeds wherever we see them. We do it all the time. Every time we use force to accomplish a greater good, we’re trying to pull the weeds ourselves. And when we do, some of us see ourselves as acting on God’s behalf.
But when this work is flawed, our good intentions can’t redeem it. As predicted, we uproot wheat as well. For instance, any time we choose to view a given human being as nothing but a weed, we miss the wheat to be found somewhere in that person’s soul. “Don’t go weeding,” the farmer urges. “Let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest. Your souls are not in danger as long as I have anything to say about it—and I do,” says the farmer. “I do. Your understanding of power is different from mine. My kind of power is not the kind that pulls weeds.” So maybe the problem is in our assumptions about God’s power. What is the all-powerful God chooses to allow rather than to coerce?
Yet we do have stories of God acting by coercion or force, so we must ask ourselves what these stories are for. What about the Great Flood? What about Sodom and Gomorrah? Or God drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea? Or God striking down rebellious Hebrews in the wilderness? What about God smiting the sons of Eli the priest? And it’s not just in the Hebrew scriptures. What about the time in the Acts of the Apostles when two Christians withhold their property from the community by deceit, and God smites them dead? And what about all that vengeful end-times stuff in the Revelation to John?
Placed in context, though, we find that these smiting stories really are few and far between. We focus on them because they are so off-putting. But when we read the Bible through, we find it to be a story of God longing for the same thing we long for: a field with healthy wheat and no more weeds.
Whether or not we believe that God occasionally smites people in extreme situations, the overall arc of the story is of God’s grace working in surprising ways. God calls a people to show God’s love to the rest of the world. And then, time and time again, God uses people who don’t even recognize divine power to reveal God to the world. The fickle Pharaohs of Egypt, the dictators of Assyria and Babylon, the liberator King Cyrus of Persia, and the murderous King Herod all unwittingly play their parts. Whether well-intentioned or not, the rich and powerful turn out not to have any control over the situation at all.
In the meantime, God calls on the poor, the powerless, and the despised to act at decisive moments, not just for the sake of the chosen people, but for the sake of the world. An assortment of women and girls protect Moses throughout his childhood. Rahab the prostitute helps the Israelites take Jericho. Gideon wins a battle with a tiny army and without killing anyone. Ruth the foreigner becomes the grandmother of King David. Elisha saves a foreign widow from starvation and raises her child from the dead. Jonah saves the people of Nineveh without even trying very hard, and against his better judgment. Esther risks her own life to save her people from genocide. Teenage Mary consents to give birth to God.
Priest and author Robert Farrar Capon writes of God’s right-handed power and God’s left-handed power. The right-handed power is the kind we find most appealing because of its efficiency. Got a problem? Fix it. Smite them. Pull the weeds. Finish this nonsense now. But God’s left-handed power, the kind that works through surprising, graceful scenarios to lead to greater freedom for everyone—this is where it’s at, says Capon. This is the true nature of God. And it’s this knack for left-handed power, for surprising grace, that leads God, at least, to trust that this beautiful mess of a universe really will come out all right in the end.
Now, it may sound like I’m saying that it would be sinful to stand up to evil at all. Should we just spend our lives rolling over and coping? Of course not. But we do have in our toolkit this cautionary tale of the danger of pulling weeds. Violence may seem to give us rewarding results in the short term, but it’s not what God asks of us. God’s solution is the graceful one, the one that’s good not only for us and ours, but for everybody. We don’t always have the capacity to imagine such a solution, let alone to see it through. But if we can find the courage, Jesus shows us a constructive path marked by nonviolence, patience, and forbearance. And Jesus has sent us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth—into the graceful solutions that we might miss if we’re not looking out for them.
In the meantime, we find suffering to be at the heart of the human condition. As I look out at all of your faces, I know that there must be immense suffering represented here. Maybe you have entrusted some of that suffering to someone else in this room. This is good, because church is a place to be honest with our feelings. The more we share one another’s burdens, the more powerful is our witness to God’s love. God’s power abdicates power and trusts the process of the growth taking place in the wheat field. The power that comes from our love and care for each other is what will allow our wheat to grow strong and tall, even among all these weeds.
God is not content with this situation, but God is content to allow it to continue … for now. Not only will God not abandon this corrupted field, but God will not allow a single stalk of wheat to perish. It just will not happen. And so we wait, and we are filled with longing. We and God together long for a field free of weeds. We hope for what we do not see, and we do our best to wait for it with patience. If there are still weeds in the field, then the story’s not over yet. Amen.