Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sermon: Weeds, Wheat, and Butterflies

A Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Apologies to my blog readers for rehashing the facebook drama. It went too well with the text not to!

A couple of weeks ago, my facebook feed was full of jubilation and celebration. Marriage equality had just passed in New York, and it was Gay Pride weekend, and my friends were full of joy and hope. All but a few. The thing about facebook is that it lets you see that your friends have gotten engaged, and it lets you see what they’re wearing to the Pride march, but it also lets you see when someone has become a fundamentalist.

I have one old college friend who I used to sing in choir with, and our religious and political views were not so different once upon a time, but I’ve gone into ministry in the UCC, and he’s gone into fundamentalist Catholicism. By this point I don’t think you could find two people who call themselves Christian who disagree more than we do. That weekend, he posted exactly what he thought about Gay Pride and marriage equality, and I responded, and we really got into it about God and scripture and what the world should be like. Back and forth we went, back and forth, until he posted these words: “I am tired of dealing with your disgusting hypocrisy, your foolish self-confidence, and above all your repulsive blasphemy. Where do you get the nerve to insult your Creator and God the way you do? A rebellious creature, a creature that will not love its Creator, is a nightmare, a horror.”

“A nightmare, a horror.” … That’s me, I guess.

I am quite sure that God loves me and I love God, so I didn’t let it bother me all that much, but it was still on my mind when I started to study the text for this week, Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat. Jesus has just told the
parable of the sower sowing seeds on fertile soil and rocky ground alike. Now he tells another agricultural parable, but this one sounds much darker to me. A farmer has planted a field with seed. The field, this time, is all good soil – no rocks or brambles here! But in the night, an enemy comes and plants weeds along with the good seed. The farmer’s slaves are able to tell that something is wrong, and they go to the farmer, asking if they should pull up the weeds. No, the farmer replies, you might uproot the wheat along with the weeds. Let them grow up together, and at harvest time, first gather the weeds into bundles to be burned, and then harvest the wheat.

This parable, like all of Jesus’ parables, starts with ordinary things, things that would have been common in the lives of the people Jesus was talking to. But parables don’t end with ordinary things – parables take an odd turn, throwing a wrench into our casual assumptions and inviting us to imagine how the kingdom of God might be different from the world we know. Parables are like kaleidoscopes – we look at them, and a little bit of God glimmers through. Then we turn them and look again from a different angle, and everything has shifted and we see something still beautiful, but completely different from what we saw a moment ago.

So we start with ordinary things: a farmer sowing grain. It’s a little unlikely that someone comes in the night to plant weeds. But where things get really odd is when the farmer says to let the weeds grow. This would have been unthinkable in Jesus’ time – it is bad farming, plain and simple. For us New Yorkers, weeding is not really part of most of our lives. Even for people who grow gardens or tend front yards, weeding is an inconvenience which is mostly about getting a few good baskets of tomatoes, or maintaining a beautiful home. But before modern machinery made it possible for one farmer to produce food for a hundred people, when one farm well-managed could produce enough for a family and a bit extra to sell, weeding was quite literally a matter of life and death. Weeds left to grow could kill off the crops and leave the family with not enough to eat, let alone anything to sell. Imagine how Jesus’ parable would have sounded to people in that time: let the weeds grow? He must be crazy!

But we’re not talking about farming. Not really. We’re talking about the kingdom of God. And we’re not talking about weeds and wheat, we’re talking about people. The reading continues, skipping over some more parables, to Jesus interpreting the parable to his disciples inside a house. Scholars say that when the text tells us Jesus is interpreting his own teachings in secret, those interpretations are more likely to come from the early Christian community than from Jesus himself – when Jesus is said to be teaching inside the house, that helped to explain why an interpretation wasn’t widely known. So perhaps this interpretation is from Jesus, or perhaps it comes from the early church, but regardless, we read this interpretation: the field is the world, the sower is the Son of Man, the good seeds are children of the kingdom of God. The enemy is Satan, the bad seeds are children of evil, the harvesters are angels, and the harvest time is the end of the age. Well, that kind of messes up my kaleidoscope analogy. It makes it sound as if there’s only one meaning for the parable, only one correct interpretation, rather than the beautiful, perplexing, shifting mystery that parables can be.

But more disturbingly, it sounds an awful lot like Jesus is saying that there are good people created by God, and bad people created by Satan. It sounds like he is saying that some people are hopeless, unsalvageable. God never had anything to do with them in the first place, or gave up on them long ago, and they’re headed irrevocably for eternal damnation.

But I think it’s a little more subtle than that. Jesus was often hyperbolic in the ways he talked about evil, using exaggerated language to help him make his point: remember the commandment to
gouge out your own eye if it causes you to sin? He was also quite clear in other parables, like the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin about God’s abundant love, mercy, and grace for all people. And finally, when he says that “all causes of sin” will be thrown into the fire and burned, the word he uses is skandalon, which means trap or stumbling block, a word he uses a few chapters later when he yells at Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!” If Saint Peter himself is a skandalon, a stumbling block at least sometimes, one of the things that Jesus says are destined for hellfire, surely there’s some hope for the rest of us. Surely we should hold those words about condemnation lightly, like a kaleidoscope, turning them over and over, letting them condemn the evil which is, very truly, present in the world. And if we listen carefully, we will hear that this parable is about the very opposite of condemning people to hell. Because in this parable, perhaps sometimes we are the good seeds, and perhaps sometimes we are the field, but certainly sometimes we are the servants, the ones who want to separate weeds from wheat, worthy from unworthy, good from bad.

How often do we hear people who think they know whom and what God hates? How often do we hear people trying to make those divisions of weed from wheat? When the Westboro Baptist Church pickets a funeral with signs condemning gay and lesbian people to hell, they are trying to separate the weeds from the wheat. When a Christian minister is so sure of the mind of God that he speaks hate against Muslims and threatens to burn the Qur’an, he is trying to separate weeds from wheat. When a fundamentalist tells me on facebook that I hate God, that I am a horror and a nightmare in God’s eyes, he is trying to separate the weeds from the wheat. And when I stand in the pulpit, and I make a list of people I disagree with, I am coming pretty dangerously close to trying to separate the weeds from the wheat myself.

The good news, and the scary news, of this parable of Jesus, is that it is not our job to decide who is good and valuable and deserving of God’s love, and who is worthless and useless and bad. The good news, and the scary news, for me and for you and for that guy on facebook, is that the God who made us and loves us is bigger than any of us. And while this parable celebrates good and condemns evil, that is not its point. It is calling us to something different: it is calling us to let go of the illusion that we get to judge other people. It is calling us to
do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God rather than attacking people we think are wrong. It is calling us to see every person as a child of God, a person who is known and loved by God. Because there is evil in the world. There is. But God does not make bad people.

New York Times article a few days ago reported that there has been a major decline in the population of monarch butterflies, those lovely little orange ones that migrate every year to Mexico to escape the cold Northern winter. Scientists have been trying to explain why they have been dying off, and recently made a connection. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed, a plant that used to be abundant in the corn and soy fields of the Midwest. Milkweed was a major nuisance to the farmers, until the invention of genetically modified “Roundup-ready” corn and soy seeds. These seeds grow into plants that can be soaked in weed-killer and survive to bear fruit. Now, using these seeds, farmers can blast every field in the Midwest with herbicide. No more milkweed! And so no more places for monarchs to lay their eggs, no more plants for them to feed on, and perhaps, pretty soon, no more monarch butterflies at all. Perhaps the author Barbara Kingsolver was right when she said that a weed is just a plant that is growing where you don’t want it. Perhaps, just like God does not make bad people, God does not really make weeds at all.

So often we think we know what is important and what is irrelevant. We think we know who is worthwhile and who is not. We think we can separate weeds from wheat. But friends, all of God’s creation is good. All of it. And this parable’s call for us is to set down the work we assign ourselves of judging and assessing and categorizing people, as if we were in charge of making God’s naughty list. This parable’s call for us is to stop trying to pull up weeds, and start tending the fields of our own hearts and communities and world. And this parable’s promise to us is that, in the kingdom of God, everything within us that judges, everything that condemns people, everything that hates what God has created, is burned away by God’s holy love, love which is
like a refining fire, so that our righteousness can come shining through. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, July 11, 2011

God's "Free Market" Economy

A Sermon on Isaiah 55:1-13

The only riot I have ever been in was in a library. It was spring of 2006 and I was a junior in college. One evening, it was long after the dining hall closed, I was halfway through a paper, and I was so hungry. Out of ramen noodles and low on cash, I opened my email and saw something from the student council with the subject line “Free Felipe’s and Finale.” Those were like magic words to me. Felipe’s was the Mexican place on campus – not very authentic, but so greasy and salty and carbalicious. And Finale was the fancy-schmancy dessert place that made tiny, perfect desserts topped with gold flakes and architectural spirals of chocolate. These were the crème de la crème of campus food, and they were free for the taking if I just went to this party in the library celebrating the longer library hours which the student council had convinced the administration to agree to.

Well, it turns out that some other people also were interested in free Felipe’s and free Finale desserts. One thousand, five hundred people. Fifteen minutes before the reception was supposed to begin, the library lobby was as crowded as a mosh pit, and security guards were standing like bouncers at the library doors. Then the food arrived: about a hundred burritos, and two medium-sized catering trays of desserts. It was pandemonium. Hundreds of students lunged for the food. There was screaming and shoving and scratching. The student body president, fearing for his safety, started throwing burritos into the crowd as a diversionary tactic. I saw one girl stuffing four or five quesadillas into her pants. And I do not mean the pocket part of the pants. The food was gone within seconds. That’s when the police arrived. My feet made only the most fleeting contact with the ground as the crowd began to stampede toward the doors. I was terrified; the crowd was crushing me and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t move and finally I got swept out onto the quad panicked and shaken. All for some free burritos. What was wrong with us?

Nothing that hasn’t been wrong with people for as long as we can remember. It would have been understandable if we were starving. But no one in that library lobby was starving. (And I know that because you needed a valid student ID to get in, and every student was required to buy a full meal plan.) I think in the Great Lamont Riot of 2006, I saw a particularly dramatic expression of this dark part of human nature – a drive to conserve our resources and lay in supplies. An old and deep anxiety that someday in the future, there might not be enough and we had better get what we can while the getting’s good. A fear that we’ll miss out and someone will get what we ought to have for ourselves. It happens around a lot of things, but it happens especially around food. You see it on that television show Hoarders – have you ever watched that show? These people just cannot stop acquiring stuff, and their houses fill up and become unlivable and hazardous and unsanitary, and so often their fridges and cupboards and whole kitchens are full of more cans and boxes of food than they would need for the rest of their lives. You see it when you look at the sizes of drinks you can buy at Starbucks shops and convenience stores and movie theaters – we buy coffees and sodas in these bucket-sized cups, as if we were preparing for a month in the desert! And you see it when fifteen hundred college students stage a riot over burritos and chocolate cakes. We sometimes let stuff – and food – take over our lives. We are sometimes deeply afraid that there is not enough, and sometimes we let that fear drive our shopping and our consuming and how we treat one another.

There’s nothing wrong with a bargain. Nothing is wrong with planning ahead, and nothing is wrong with being prudent with the resources you have, and God knows nothing is wrong with not having much money to spend on food. But something is wrong – very, very wrong – with the way our society relates to food, and stuff, and money.

Arturo Rodriguez in his article, “Cheap Food” in the companion to the documentary Food, Inc., tells the story of a young farmworker named Maria Isabel Vasquez Jiminez. “Young grapevines thrive in the fierce summer sun of California’s Central Valley,” he writes “But the same early summer heat that helps bring life to the bountiful produce millions of Americans enjoy can also destroy. Unlike the young grapevines, assured of constant irrigation and hydration, farmworker Maria Jimenez had to do without water as she labored in the fields in direct sunlight on a 95-degree day in May 2008. After almost nine hours of work, Maria became dizzy and collapsed to the ground. Her boyfriend Florentino Bautista ran to her, held her in his arms, and begged for help. The foreman walked over to them and stood over the couple, reassuring Bautista and telling him that ‘this happens all the time.’ . . . By the time she arrived at the hospital, her body temperature was 108.4 degrees.” Maria died three days later. The grapes she was picking are part of the supply chain for Trader Joe’s line of “Two Buck Chuck,” the wine which costs two dollars per bottle – although this is New York, so of course it costs three.

So on the one hand, we have this society which wants cheap food, free food, at all costs; and even if we only pay two dollars for the bottle of wine, even if a hamburger can be purchased for a dollar, there are other costs. Costs to the environment, costs in the lives of farmworkers and food workers and their families, and costs to our own bodies. On the other hand, we have the imagery from today’s ancient testimony: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” This is a totally different image of free food – and it undercuts everything about the way our society deals with food. We live in one kind of “free market” – an economic system which crushes people in order to sell me a bottle of wine for two dollars; an economic system which sees very little value in human life or human dignity or wholeness or wellness or caring for this planet; an economic system which plays on our anxieties and insecurities and worst impulses so that you and I will buy more and more and more.

But the text today speaks of another kind of “free market”: a marketplace where everything is free because it flows out of God’s abundance. A marketplace that speaks not to our fears and anxieties, but to our needs and, yes, our delights! A marketplace that says, instead of “buy two, get one free,” “everything you need is here. There is enough. Enjoy it!” And the text connects this free marketplace directly with covenants – in this case, God’s covenant with Israel, since this book was written to Israelites in the Babylonian exile. But that idea of covenant – that idea is crucial; because part of the idea of covenant is that we are called to relate to one another as human beings, not to take advantage of one another in order to get ahead. In contrast to our “free market” with its cheap food, this is a “free market” of abundance in community.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Cheap grace is when churches try to water down religion, to make it all about feeling good and not at all about living well. Cheap grace says, “your sins are forgiven! Go back out into the world and don’t change anything. Go ahead and harm people, if you want. Don’t fuss with trying to change the world, it’ll be fine. We’ll see you next week.” But costly grace, he wrote, is free but not cheap. Costly grace is the love which calls us to transformation. Costly grace means taking a hard look at ourselves and our world, and knowing that we are good and beautiful and beloved and worthy, and so are all the other people around us, and trying to live that out even when it is really, really difficult. Costly grace means entering into the hard and scary task of standing up to a world that crushes people. Cheap grace is a two-dollar bottle of wine. Costly grace is trying to live as if food is from God, and the earth that produces it is from God, and the farmers who grow it are from God, and the workers who transport it and sell it are from God, and our bodies that need it for nourishment are from God. And trying to live that way is hard.

I think that costly grace is what God’s free market of abundance is all about. It is about a lot more than food. It is about treating people as if God made them and they matter. It is about naming and resisting the things in the world and our own minds that tell us that we should be afraid, and anxious, and fighting all the time. It is about seeing one another as human beings rather than objects.

But in a way, it is about food as well, because every spiritual teaching we have in Christianity plays out simultaneously in the tangible, material world of food and eating. Every single high-minded, abstract theological idea we have – grace, redemption, creation, justice – is connected somewhere in our scripture and tradition with what we put in our mouths. We embody what we believe through communions and coffee hours, feasting and fasting, saying grace and sipping wine. The Christian tradition is full of food stories and food teachings and food rituals because food is one of the places where what we believe meets how we live.

God’s ways are not our ways, the text says, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. It is really difficult to break away from a world which tries to teach us to fear scarcity and look out for only ourselves. So this is not about guilt and shame and feeling bad every time you buy something other than organic, fair trade quinoa. But it is about imagining what it would look like if the ways that we bought and sold and ate food honored what is sacred. I don’t know what it would look like for you. Maybe it looks like giving away some of the extra cans you keep “just in case.” Maybe it looks like a discernment process about what God wants for your grocery budget. Maybe it looks like pausing to give thanks before meals, and seeing how that changes things.

Or maybe it looks like this: There’s a wonderful movie from 1987 called Babette’s Feast. In that movie, two sisters live in a rural village in Denmark, leading a small Christian sect that their father founded, practicing total austerity and solemnity. One day, a French woman arrives at their door, a friend of a friend, fleeing political persecution, and asks them to take her in as their housekeeper because she has nowhere else to go. For ten years, she lives with them, making their terrible bleak soup and cleaning their cold and dreary house, until one day she gets word that she has won a large sum of money. She asks the two sisters whether she can prepare a feast for them and their friends as a gesture of gratitude for welcoming her in, and they agree. They start to regret their decision as her supplies begin to arrive – rare and expensive wines; live turtles in crates; exotic fruits that they have never seen before. What is this, they wonder? It must be sinful to eat so extravagantly; maybe even satanic. They meet in secret with their church, and they agree that everyone will eat the feast, but they will all do their best not to take the slightest pleasure in it. But as they gather and Babette expresses her love and gratitude through the medium of food, a transformation begins to take place. The austerity begins to break; there are smiles and laughter; old grudges are mended and old romances are rekindled. Joy breaks through the solemnity, and they begin to delight in God’s abundance and each other’s company. And finally we learn that Babette, the first great female chef in all of France, has joyfully spent her fortune to offer this one meal, this one experience of taking joy in God’s creation. It is costly grace, freely given.

And that is the vision that echoes through the text today; it calls us to delight not in two-dollar wine or free burritos, but in God’s gifts of creation and community. It invites us to care for one another, to share out of our own abundance when we can, rather than fearing scarcity. It declares that God’s vision for the world is a different kind of free market, a table where everyone is welcome, a feast where everyone is fed. And although God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, it challenges us to live our way into it. May we have the courage to try. Amen.