Right in the middle of the sermon, I looked over to my right and I saw it. It was three Sundays ago in St. Giles Cathedral, the high kirk of the Church of Scotland, and I was staring at a stool. The sermon was a thoughtful exposition of a text from Matthew, but I couldn’t see the preacher very well, and it was easy in such a beautiful place to get distracted. Then I noticed her stool, and it was right there. Back on July 23, 1637, the worship leader for the day stood to begin worship with the Anglican Church’s new prayer book – not Reformed worship, mind you, but the Anglican prayer book. The first phase of the reformation in Scotland was about Catholic versus Protestant. But after they mostly firmly decided Protestant, they then had to decide Reformed or Anglican, the Church of England. The minister that day in Scotland using the prayer book of the English was experienced as betrayal. Legend holds that one Jenny Geddes was so enraged that she hurled a stool, striking the dean of the Cathedral in the head, starting a riot.1
It is not clear whether the one in St Giles is the actual stool hurled almost 400 years ago. But it stands, with a plaque in the floor beside it, as a perpetual monument to the strength of ordinary people who were passionate about the faith, who paved the way for us to be able to worship as we worship, believe as we believe. Those kinds of conflicts were all around us on the trip that 17 of us youth and adults took to Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Iona a couple of weeks ago. Our first few days everywhere you turned was a story, the site of some argument or agitation. It was a season in which people cared so much about the details of the faith, in ways that we too often just don’t care about it now. But they also got, perhaps, a bit too invested – the church does this sometimes – thinking that THEY knew what God’s will was, and it was their job to promote true religion, and if they didn’t, by God, no one else would.
Today’s text is about discernment, and history. At the beginning of this chapter the crowds had grown, so Jesus works his way out of the house down to the water. He sits on the edge of a boat and pushes out, the crowd lining the shore. And he uses this new form called a parable, a kind of a combination of a story and a proverb and an allegory, inviting all of us to think more deeply about the nature of the kingdom of God. Last week Jesus talked about a sower, sowing seed on a rocky path, in a group of thorns, and in good soil. We were invited to think about the nature of the seed we sow, as well as how we might be fertile soil ourselves.
Today’s parable, Tom Long writes, applies on at least three distinct levels: to the ministry of Jesus himself, to the life of the church, and the future judgment of the end of the world. In terms of Jesus’ ministry, Long argues, the parable assures the disciples that the rejection He receives in some quarters is because of forces working against him, not because there is anything wrong with the message.2 This is supposed to be hard, he says. It takes time. In the life of the church, the next level, Long argues that the weeds and wheat are mixed together. This is not just about people – it’s too easy to paint people or groups with a broad brush. It’s not like one side of you are the weeds or the wheat or you, of course wheat, might be sitting beside a weed yourself. It’s that we know that the weeds and the wheat within us are mixed together, the parts of us that work hard to be faithful, and the parts of us that succumb to temptation, that get caught up in ambition or appearance, which happens to all us most days.
But the third aspect, thinking about the final judgment, is more uncomfortable to talk about. Jesus’ own interpretation to the disciples leans this way. He names himself as the farmer who sows good seed, good children of the kingdom, in the same field of the world in which the enemy, whom, he names as the devil, sows evil children in the same field. The devil, diabolos, the evil one, a personal force in opposition to the work of God.
Here I want to step aside and talk about the devil just for a moment. For millennia most folks understood the world in an apocalyptic manner, with creation as the battlefield between the forces of good and the forces of evil. This parable, and most of the bible, fits into that worldview. In the post-enlightenment world the church has tended to step aside from this kind of language, thinking it primitive, naïve. The church has also used that language less because blaming the devil – "the devil made me do it" – is a way of escaping responsibility ourselves, the sin within us. Sometimes bad things happen that are our fault. But there are also other times when it feels like evil forces beyond us are at work. I don’t know if I would call it the devil, as in a guy with a pitchfork, but we know that evil is real. While suffering and war, terrorism, are often the results of the actions of people, it also feels like something larger than us is at work. It is okay to name things evil – addiction, for one. Cancer. Suffering bigger than we can understand, that we must call on God to help, because we can’t handle it alone.
Jesus explains this parable to the disciples as the good children laboring in the field beside the children of the evil one. There are threats around us that are real. But I think it is fascinating that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to point them out, name them in front of others, he doesn’t tell the church to round them up, to preach at them, to warn them of their impending residence in hell. He says that at the end of the age God will sort these things out. Those who are evil will be thrown in the furnace of fire, a place of torment. The righteous will shine like the sun.
While I still have some discomfort with the straight drawing of lines between us and them, I think the good news at the heart of this parable, especially as Jesus explains it to the disciples, is that GOD is the one making those determinations. I don’t know about you, but too often I get stuck quite literally, in the weeds. I try too hard. I try and fix problems that aren’t mine to fix. Maybe you have been there, too, looking to correct a neighbor or spouse or coworker, deep down knowing they probably won’t change but we certainly need to impart our wisdom upon them. I think our political and technological and media culture makes things feel so immediate, and makes those immediate things feel essential. A decision you MUST make now. A politician who is the WORST. EVER. A crisis that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Then, so quickly, hyperbole takes over. How was your day? Horrible. That project took soooo long. Every couple of weeks someone will mention something to me about the church, or about the world, that MUST change. Then. Right then.
At the heart of this parable, I believe, is Jesus encouraging his disciples to take the longer view, and to take their time, trusting in the greater providence of God. That is easy to say, I will concede, for those of us who are in a privileged position, for things generally go our way. For someone whose child is hungry, the need IS immediate. For someone we love in the hospital the pain does need to come under control right then, its excruciating. For someone in Israel or in Gaza, as rockets lob back and forth, the violence must stop. Now. It IS a matter of life and death, like for the thousands of children crowded around our southern border. There are things worth getting angry about. But a lot of the time, the things we get all worked up about might not be those kinds of things. We need a sense of perspective, sense of careful wisdom.
I think the faithful antidote to much of this is history, and trust. One of the gifts of our trip to Scotland was to breathe that old, old air, in places built and rebuilt many times over before the modern history of this country began. Jenny Geddes threw that stool a century and a half before our Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and she threw it one thousand years after Columba and his friends walked onto the shore of Iona.
There have been so many occasions in the history of our beloved Presbyterian church, and the faith more broadly, when we have dug in too deeply, been too quick to jump to blame. WE try and bend that moral arc of the universe towards justice ourselves. But, the kind of faith to which Jesus challenges His disciples in this passage is one that is both deeply focused on this world, on engaging it and working for the good of all. BUT it is also a faith that knows that all truly good work is beyond human capacity. That in this world the weeds and the wheat grow together. And most importantly, that God can be trusted to sort them out in due time. That regardless of how the story plays out, it ends with God.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The 1637 Scottish Book of Common Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer.
2. WBC: Matthew, Tom Long, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), pages 151-152.