Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Alchemy of Grace

A sermon based on Matthew 13:24-30;36-43, for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost

My heart has been broken watching the news these days. Jews and Muslims break their fast together in the contested areas of the Gaza strip as bombs explode destroying more homes and lives bare miles away. In Syria, a hundred thousand refugees cower from a tyrannical government, and right here in the US, thousands of children huddle together in fear while Americans argue about what should be done with them. Should they be sent back to death, or brought into a country increasingly hostile toward them? In Ukraine, the war fueled by Russia and its sponsored separatists has resulted in the deaths of almost three hundred innocent people in the Malaysia Air Flight 17 crash—Dutch, Malaysians, Americans, men, women, children. I was talking about all this to a woman where I have been volunteering and she looked at me seriously and said, “we need Jesus.” Our hearts break with our need for Jesus in our hurting world.

It's easy to let that heartbreak turn to anger. I have had many a heated debate as of late. What is wrong with Russia and the separatists and their continuing violence? What is wrong with Hamas and the Israeli government that they can't come to terms? What is wrong with politicians and people protesting against Guatemalan and Honduran children—children who are literally fleeing here for their lives as refugees? What is wrong with humanity?

So often that heartbreak turns into blame; into pointing fingers at one another and saying 'this is your fault!' The other day I happened across an article that said that people who protest the migrant children in Texas cannot be Christians. Can people who wrongfully believe propaganda be Christians? Can people who financially support repressive regimes or slave labor through their purchases and investments be Christians? Our heartbreak leads us to declare ourselves somehow able to discern the heart of another person based on what we see, but how presumptuous that is, to imagine that we can see our fellow human beings, broken and flawed as we all are, as God does! But our righteous and often justified indignation sometimes leads us to our own sin of arrogance, of hatred. This is the condition of our world, and it only feeds more evil. And yet in the midst of this wasteland of despair, we have to ask what can a Christian do to stem this tide of evil?

Jesus discusses this problem in the parable of the sower. He explains that one day the master of a household went out and started sowing good seed in the ground, but that in the night the enemy came and also planted weeds. When the seeds began to grow, the slaves of the man discovered the copious amounts of weeds springing up and reported this to their master. The master explained that an enemy had come to plant the seed, and slaves then asked if they should pull up the weeds. This is often what we're compelled to do, isn't it? It can be done in the best intentions, but we get so angry at people we see as “bad seeds” that we want to prematurely damn them in thought and sometimes in action, shunning them, pushing them out of our lives, and poisoning our own hearts with hate.

Contrary to the gut reaction of the servants, the master tells them that they should leave the plants alone, seeds and weeds, and when the harvest comes he will sort out the wheat from the weeds by sending his reapers, the angels. In other words, only God knows the hearts of the world, and our job as people of faith is not to separate sheep and goats or wheat and weeds. The story doesn't say what the servants did after that, but I imagine them going, albeit with some reluctance, back to the fields and, maybe grudgingly, tending all the plants there, watering and getting rid of bugs on the whole field, not knowing which plants the master would ultimately keep or throw away. I imagine it this way because Jesus makes it pretty clear elsewhere in scripture what is required of a servant of his: love God, and love your neighbor. That's it. If you love God with your whole heart, that relationship will transform you so you can't help but care about your neighbor. This is a little easier said than done sometimes, though, when our hearts are crushed by the suffering in the world.

That's not to say we ignore evil in our midst. As Christians, we are also called to defend the weak in love, but I believe this parable tells us that we should reserve our judgments to the evil actions of others and not presume to know what God can do for their hearts. After all, if Jesus can bring the dead to life and turn water to wine, surely he can turn a weed into wheat. It is the alchemy of the Holy Spirit that turns hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, and this often happens through the love shared by Christ's followers. It is in this way that our own hearts that are broken by the suffering of others can also be mended—not through hate and judgment, but through the transformative power of God's love, the only thing in the universe stronger than evil, pouring through us. That's why Palestinians and Israeli's dining together is so radical. That's why praying for our enemies is such a powerful act of rebellion against our human tendencies. Because only love can be so transformative in light of so much violence and evil.

Micah 6:8 gives us a beautiful job description for a person of faith, saying “What does the Lord require of you? Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” Our pursuit of justice must be tempered by mercy and a heart that follows the example of the one who defended the weak, healed the sick, fed the poor, and comforted the grieving. And we must always do this humbly, knowing that we too have "fallen short of the glory of God." (Romans 3) This is possible because of the faith which tells us that we are to be freed from the bondage of sin and death and hatefulness and war and violence and religious disputes and slavery and all the other evil in the world (Romans 8). 

Judgment hardens human hearts, but love breaks those hearts open so that they can be recreated full of hope for the future of peace that God has promised us. My prayer for we servants of the master is that our grief for the pain of the world lead us not to despair, but to a deeper appreciation for the dawn breaking upon our darkness, revealing the peace which surpasses all our understanding. We pray this in the name of Jesus our Lord, who promises a bountiful harvest on the last day. Amen.