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Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: “Good and Bad Seeds”

 

Genesis 28:10-19a

Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23

Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 

How do you see it? Are there good seeds and bad seeds in this world? Are we sown at birth to become righteous plants or sinful weeds? Children of the kingdom or children of the evil one?

 

For me, these are more than philosophical questions. I’ve just come back from an Alternatives to Violence Project workshop at Lovelock prison, where the inmates asked me, “What’s it like for you to be in a room with men with a very violent history?” In other words, in this field of human weeds?

 

And I returned home to the news of more catastrophic violence worldwide. A lethal bank robbery in Stockton. Hamas and Israeli fighters raging war. Unrest in the Ukraine. And innocent civilians killed in all three clashes—shot down.

 

How do we organize our thinking about those who have perpetrated evil acts? We may decide to keep the violence at arm’s length, protected by the notion that we are too far away from crime, too protected from attack, too righteous in our actions to be concerned with anything invading our peaceful garden. We can disown those we consider human weeds: we’re inside, they’re outside, our boundaries.

 

But what about the parts within us that we’re not so proud of? What today’s collect calls “our unworthiness”? Each one of us has our own flaws: anger, hardness of heart, selfishness, arrogance, blindness. What happens if we also disown those parts of our humanity?

 

It’s certainly tempting to deny those ugly aspects of ourselves. Because if we face those inner weeds honestly, we might uproot the all-good image of our lives. So we may try to keep them outside our consciousness.

 

Evil is someone else, something far away. Not us. We’re part of the kingdom of heaven. The good seeds.

 

What’s marvelous about this morning’s readings is that we can listen in on how other spiritual seekers across time organized their thinking about good and evil within self, within society, within our relationship with God. These compelling questions have engaged humans from the poet David in the 11th century BCE, to the author of Genesis in the 6th century BCE, and to Paul and the author of Matthew some 25 to 55 years after Jesus’s death.

 

Who are the good seeds and the bad seeds in our world? Jesus gave the most startling answers, especially in his parables. His mission was to shake up our thinking—then and now.

 

By the time the author of Matthew wrote his account of Jesus’s life and teachings, his young Christian community was “attempting to define itself over against an evil world,” as the parable I read this morning shows.[1] It had probably circulated orally before being written down, since it also shows up in the Gospel of Thomas.[2]

 

Scholars believe it’s only distantly related to the words of Jesus, if at all.[3] It doesn’t show the marks of his oral style: compressed language; uncomplicated plots; no extended allegories; shocking humor.[4] This parable of the planted weeds, like the story of the sheep and the goats in the Gospel of Matthew, reflects this Christian community’s legitimate concern about the impending Judgment Day, when the mix of good and evil around them would be separated.[5]

 

But Jesus was focusing on today.

 

Take a look at his parable of the mustard seed, which Matthew’s author includes right after this one. It sounds like Jesus: surprising and short. And strange: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet, when it is grown up, it is the largest of all garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and roost in its branches.”

 

He’s made a modest garden plant—which was considered, in his time, a lowly weed—the image of greatness![6] What happened in a few, short words? A small act—an average person planting that seed in good soil—transformed it from a nothing into a something, from dismissed to valuable. Jesus’s parable is about the power of transformation—not about fixed categories of good and evil, worthy or unworthy.

 

His authentic parables echo this provocative message. A woman placing a small amount of what was considered unholy leaven into flour can transform it into dough. A despised Samaritan acting compassionately can break down social barriers. A generous vineyard owner paying his workers equally can reverse categories of poor and rich.

 

Look at the power of one small act of Spirit to transform everything, Jesus says. Nothing in the kingdom of God is fixed. Nothing and no one is forever outside, or evil, or lowly. What society considers weeds today can become wheat tomorrow. What we reject as unworthy in ourselves can be reclaimed. Transformation can happen, he says, just through a small, significant shift.

 

How? We can start to transform our lives through a shift in awareness. Think about Jacob in our reading from Genesis, on the run from his family and homeland after having betrayed his brother in a deliberate crime of deception and greed. Yet in a dream, in a new state of consciousness, he realizes he is not damned, that he is still loved by God. He hears: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. I will not leave you.” And the future he has feared becomes blessed, and the random place he has stopped becomes awesome, when he takes in God’s love. Outcast to redeemed through a small shift in awareness.

 

We can start to transform our lives through a shift toward self-honesty. Think about David’s prayer in Psalm 139. Rather than denying or closing off the parts of himself that he considers wicked, he opens them up for healing. He is the new king of all Israel, the ultimate insider[7]; yet he admits both good and evil in his nature. And he asks God to be part of it all: “Search me out, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my restless thoughts. Look well whether there be any wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting.” Denial to healing grace through a small shift toward self-honesty.

 

And we can start to transform our lives through a shift in hope. Think about Paul’s words to the young Christian community in Rome. He says clearly: no one is forever a child of the evil one because of his or her past: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” When we seek forgiveness, show compassion toward ourselves and others, reach for hope on a new path, all is possible: “For in hope we are saved.” All creation longs for every one of us to become our whole and healthy selves, to live with the “freedom of the glory” of being fully human. To accept God’s love for us, just as we are.

 

So here’s what I told the men in Lovelock. How does it feel to be in this room with you? It feels great. I’m not here in this room with your crime or with whoever you were in the past when you committed it. I’m here in this room with you as you are today—reaching for a new Way, of nonviolence. You have the grace to accept me as I am without knowing my whole past. I do the same for you.

 

I said to them: this is exactly where I want to be in life. Not with people who are self-righteous, judgmental, or stuck. I want to be with people who are open to transformation, wherever and whoever they are. No one destined to be evil. Or beyond compassion. Not human weeds. But seekers, on the same path that I’m on.

 

All of us trying to make small, significant shifts toward awareness, self-honesty, and hope. Trying to accept―and to be―God’s love.

 

I leave you with the words one inmate wrote to me as I left, a man who’s been incarcerated for more than 25 years, who comes up for parole in 8 days.

 

This is the transforming power in his heart: “I truly hope that I am the ‘one’ that does change via this program. For I am finally believing that ‘I’ deserve to change.” Amen.

 

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

July 20, 2014

 



[1] Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, eds. and trans., The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 1993), p. 194.

[2] Thomas 57:1–4.

[3] Funk et al., Five Gospels, p. 194.

[4] Robert W. Funk, Bernard Brandon Scott, and James R. Butts, The Parables of Jesus: Red Letter Edition; The Jesus Seminar (Sonoma, Calif.: Polebridge Press, 1988), p. 17.

[5] Funk et al., Five Gospels, p. 505.

[6] Ibid., p. 194.

[7] https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/parallel/paral18.cfm.