Sermon for the baptism of Edith, preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
We are due to move house again in about a month, and I’ve noticed I’ve started to go into preparation mode. We don’t have a moving date yet, but nonetheless bags and boxes are starting to appear of things that need to go to the charity shop or the tip. Cupboards are being sorted. Mental lists are being drawn up of things that need doing; furniture is being appraised to see where it might fit in the new place. It’s my way of trying to impose some order on the chaos that tends to ensue when a move takes place.
On Friday I started to tackle the garden, it being a law of some sort that you must leave a house cleaner and tidier when you move out than it has ever been while you actually live in it. And my same desire for order was immediately apparent in the way I approached the small patch of green outside our current house. Overgrown ivy was hacked back. Piles of brown leaves that had accumulated over many more autumns than we’ve been there were gathered up. Weeds growing between the bricks of the path were set upon without mercy. There was something very satisfying about it, this act of tidying, uprooting, imposing order.
All of which gave me quite a lot of sympathy with the slaves in today’s parable. ‘Shall we go and gather the weeds?’ they ask their master. They mean to be helpful: the field is supposed to be producing wheat, but weeds have got entangled with it. If they go and gather the weeds they will leave the field clear and tidy for the wheat to grow.
This is the tempting option, at least if you’re like me and you like things to be neat and tidy. It even looks like the helpful option. But it’s the wrong option. ‘Let both of them grow together’, says the master, ‘for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.’ The weeds in question are darnel, a plant related to rye grass which is indistinguishable from wheat when both plants are immature, but whose grains are poisonous. So the danger of leaving the weeds mixed in with the wheat is not just that they might encumber the wheat’s growth. If the darnel got left in with the wheat after the harvest the crop would be commercially useless as well as harmful. There is every reason for wanting to be rid of it as quickly as possible.
Lots of interpretations of this parable have focused on drawing lessons for the mixed nature of the church, to encourage Christians of differing opinions to live alongside one another rather than retreating into holy huddles and claiming to be the only true Christians. And Matthew certainly has things to say about how to live in a mixed Church at other points in his gospel. But in today’s parable, as Jesus explains it, the field in which the wheat and the weeds are growing is not the Church, but the world.
When Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come near, it’s likely that at least some of his disciples expected that this would inaugurate a new civic or political order, where ‘the children of the evil one’, to use Matthew’s terminology, would be revealed and uprooted, and where ‘the children of the kingdom’ would flourish. They had to try to make sense of believing that the kingdom has come in Christ, yet living in a world that failed to recognize it – and that often tried to do its own uprooting by persecuting Christians.
What Matthew is confronting is not the danger, real though it is, of Christians separating themselves off into holy huddles of the pure, and trying to police the boundaries of the Church too tightly. He’s confronting instead the temptation to hurry along the kingdom, to make it come to fullness more quickly by weeding out those who stand in its way. This is the danger not of quietist Puritans but of violent sectarians. Its results include crusades and pogroms. It’s also there in the dystopian future of The Handmaid’s Tale, whose current adaptation for TV should remind us that this is not a temptation we can assign wholly to the past.
In this parable, Matthew’s Jesus tells the Church to be patient. Yes, Christians live in a world that is often contemptuous of faith, where living with integrity as a disciple is not easy. In too many parts of the world still, confessing faith in Christ risks violence and persecution. But just as Christians are called to live in the world, not apart from it, so too we are called to faithfulness in the situations in which we are planted. That doesn’t have to mean a quiet resignation to the inevitability of compromise or a refusal to participate in civic or political life – in fact, in an adjacent parable, Jesus encourages Christians to be like yeast mixed in with flour to leaven the whole.
What it does mean is not rushing to arrogate to ourselves the judgement that belongs only to God. To do so endangers the whole field, ourselves included. I notice when I read this parable that I identify most with the slaves, the ones who want to rush in and be helpful by pulling up the weeds to make the field nice and tidy again. But, if it pleases God, my role is not to busy myself pre-empting God’s judgement, but to be wheat, growing where I’m planted.
To live faithfully in the world means living lives patterned after Christ’s. In a world of fake news we can be people of truthful speech. In a world quick to judge and polarize, we can take time to listen and engage. We can notice and encourage those whose growth is limited by poverty or marginalization or prejudice. We can witness to the importance of the very soil under our feet as necessary and precious for the flourishing of all.
We could read this parable as telling us that we are pre-destined to be either wheat or weeds, and that our true identities will be unknown until the final harvest. I think that would be to overload the parable: Jesus is telling a story, not outlining a systematic theology. If we were pre-destined to be wheat or weeds there would be no need for Jesus’ great commission to go and make disciples. Jesus would not have given baptism as a gift to the Church, and baptizing Edith today would be pointless.
But it is instead a cause for rejoicing. In baptism we claim God’s promises for Edith: his delight in her as one of his children; his desire for her to know life in all its fullness. Baptism may not look like very much: a dab of oil; a trickle of water – but what happens in the font today is the miracle of new birth. In the signing with the cross, Edith is marked out as belonging to Christ. In the water of baptism, she shares in his death and resurrection, and is planted as wheat in the soil of the world. And she is made a member of the community of the Church which exists to make known the love and life of God.
And our call and commitment today is to help Edith grow in that love, to model for her what it means to be faithful to Christ, and to help her as she grows up to find out the particular way God is calling her to bear Christ’s image. That’s how we help God with the harvest: not by jumping in with our scythes and secateurs, but by nurturing the seeds he’s planted, in us and in one another.
In the time between the coming of the kingdom and its consummation, the time in which we live, we are called to faithfulness and patience. And these gifts are made possible because in Jesus the kingdom of God has drawn near. We do not build but rather reveal his kingdom when we take time to visit the sick, rejoice with one another, pray and study the scriptures, protest when lives are diminished, build each other up, live lives of covenanted faithfulness as Neil and Richard celebrate today, and when we welcome little children like Edith in Christ’s name. This is our gift and our calling: to nurture the seeds God has planted. We can trust him for their growth.