Saturday, 16 July 2011

Patronal Festival - 4th Sunday after Trinity: a many coloured church


Luke 8:1-3
Some Women Accompany Jesus
Soon afterwards Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat
Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!’

The parable of the wheat and the tares is another one of those stories which cause us to pause and ask ourselves, ‘Which side of the fence am I on?’ If you remember from last week we had the question of whether we set our minds on the things of the flesh or the things of the Spirit and the challenge to ask ourselves whether we were asking , ‘What do I want?’or, ‘Who am I?’

But here the reading seems to be making it clear that even within Christ’s pilgrim people there are those who are not the real thing, but have been placed in the church by the devil, and we might find ourselves looking around and wondering, ‘Is it him? Is it her?’ or even, ‘Is it me?’

Let me give you a couple of examples to make you think. A colleague moved away from the West Country where he was working in a small village parish. He only stayed there a short time because the local squire basically ran the parish and nobody dared defy him. Consequently it was impossible to move the church on.

Another colleague moved churches after just two or three years. She was in a group of parishes where the same kind of thing had happened. In three out of the five churches for which she was responsible there were a group of powerful men who had taken over, become the churchwardens, and made all of the decisions. They made her life steadily more difficult until, on the edge of a breakdown, her senior clergy moved her to where her talents could be more appreciated.

Is that a case of the wheat and the weeds? Well it might be. The trouble is that once we begin looking what we risk is a ‘witch hunt’. In the Church of England we don’t have formal steps for church discipline, although churchwardens have legal right to expel someone from a service if they are causing disruption, but other non-conformist churches do have disciplining structures and can expel people from their fellowship.

At another church at which I have worked, exactly that had happened in one of the local churches. The first we knew about it was when a middle aged man started attending who asked if he could talk to us. He had been told to leave his previous church because the elders there disagreed with how he lived his life.

Naturally we welcomed him in and became good friends and he became an important part of our church family. This, I believe, is precisely the point that Jesus is trying to make with this parable. Elsewhere Jesus tells us not to judge or we will be liable to judgement and I think the reason he makes that command is because of the ease with which we get it wrong when we do judge.

We simply don’t have the right yardstick. It’s as straightforward as that. If we start looking around the church and saying, ‘That person’s not right here, they should leave’, it’s quite possible that what we’re actually saying, without realising it, is ‘That person’s not like us.’ We rarely judge someone in a pure way because, not only will we not know the entire reason for their actions, but our own preferences and baggage will get in the way.

Let’s go back to the parable for a moment. The weeds or tares are actually a plant called darnel. The whole point of this parable is that darnel looks like wheat when it’s sown and when it’s growing. If you try and pluck it out you’re just as likely to pull up something that’s actually wheat. Or in other words someone who appears different from you in church may be a part of God’s harvest of wheat, and someone who seems outwardly to be like you may be darnel.

It’s only when the field is ripe for harvest that you can see the difference, which refers to the end of the age when the Lord returns in judgement. He knows the difference and his angels will be able to remove the darnel from the wheat, separating out the true believers from those who cause evil amongst us.

Now, on this our patronal festival, you may be wondering why we’ve had this parable. I think that if we look at Mary Magdalene we have a classic example of someone who might have been classified amongst the early disciples as someone who was a weed growing up among them.

Now we don’t know exactly what Luke means when he says that Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary, but there was clearly something deeply amiss with her when they first met. Something had gone very badly wrong in Mary’s life. We could speculate that maybe she had been an abuse victim, or maybe she had made bad choices and been involved with the occult, which is indeed a way for someone to become oppressed by demonic forces.

Whatever it was, on a deeply spiritual level Mary had been very disturbed and it had taken the direct intervention by the Son of God to set her free. But I find myself wondering what she might have been like in those early few months or even years. Perhaps she made a complete and instant recovery, or perhaps, like many who have been victimised, even though they’ve been set free it can take an awful lot of love and acceptance before they find their way back to wholeness. Maybe the disciples had, behind her back, thought of her as ‘Mad Mary’. We simply don’t know.

But I certainly suspect that she wouldn’t easily have fitted in, and I can imagine Jesus doing a great deal to help her feel accepted and that she had a place. I can picture her gradually beginning to grow and blossom as she experienced the freedom that he had brought her. But imagine if she had been treated as darnel and expelled. How wrong that would have been!

Jesus ultimately chose her to be the very first person to see him after his resurrection. She became known as the ‘Apostle to the Apostles’, because she was sent by Jesus to bring the good news of his resurrection to the remaining eleven and the others with them. Had she been judged by human standards they would have got it so very wrong.

So ultimately what this parable does is make us consider all the many different shapes and sizes of God’s people, all of whom have been accepted. This is a warning to us not to judge others simply because their outward appearance may not be in agreement with what we think is appropriate. God’s church, and this local church, is meant to be a many-coloured thing in which we celebrate the colour and the diversity rather than fear it. Amen

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