February 17, 2019
What Do You See When You See “Church”?
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night while everybody was sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, and slipped away. When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds came up, too.
“The servants of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Where did all the weeds come from?’
“‘An enemy did this!’ he answered.
“The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull out all the weeds?’
“’No,’ the farmer said. ‘Because if you pull up the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. And at harvest-time I’ll tell the harvesters to pull up the weeds first and bundle them up to be burned, then gather the wheat to put in the barn.’”
He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. It’s the smallest of all seeds, but when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all garden plants. It becomes a tree so big that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and kneaded into a whole bushel of flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough, and all of it was leavened.”
* * * * *
So before we get started, I want you to find your bulletin and look at the picture on the front. Got it? What do you see? How many of you see the vase? How many see two people facing each other? So which is it? A vase, or faces?
It’s both, right? It’s both.
But it’s almost impossible to see both at the same time, right? Our brains want to focus on one or the other. Just not both.
Jesus was telling a story about a man who sowed a field of wheat. The grain grew up, but there were weeds growing, too. Some enemy had sown the weeds in the very same field where the farmer was trying to grow wheat. It was so bad you could hardly tell whether it was a field of weeds or wheat. Which was it?
It was both. It was both.
When I read that passage I thought to myself, I wonder if he’s talking about church. Is he talking about us? Weeds and wheat, side by side. That’s what churches are made of, aren’t they? Weeds and wheat, good and bad. Churches are messy that way.
And what you see when you’re looking at us depends a whole lot on what it is you’re focused on. Weeds or wheat.
Some folks, they look at church and all they see is what’s wrong with it all. What’s gone bad with organized religion. Others, they see mostly what’s right. It all depends on where your focus is. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t see some good growing in this field. No sense hanging out among the weeds.
But God knows there are plenty of them.
There were more church scandals in the news this week. First the Southern Baptist Convention with reports of abuse going on for decades. Then the news that a Roman Catholic Cardinal was being defrocked by the Vatican. Not just demoted but defrocked, it was so bad. That had never happened before. That kind of evil has to be weeded out.
But you know, that’s the kind of thing that turns some people away from church for good, and you can see why. “Hypocrisy defined” is what one of my Facebook friends wrote. And she was right.
Some folks, when they look at the church, that’s all they see. Some look at church and all they can see is the ugliness. A bunch of self-righteous hypocrites who like to think they’re holier-than-thou. A bunch of self-appointed guardians who want to tell you what you can and cannot do. Others just see a useless field, nothing growing here they’d be interested in. Nothing that would feed them. To an awful lot of people, the church is useless at best, evil at worst.
And it pains me that people feel this way. Honestly, it’s painful. I’ve given my life to this field of work and it’s hard to hear the animosity, the distrust, the dismissal. It’s hard.
Especially because I know there’s good wheat growing here, too.
I look at church, and I see a place where love grows. Church is where people take care of each other. Church is where people pray for each other, and pray with each other. Church is where children grow up knowing they’re loved, learning how to love others. Church is where people practice their faith – loving God, loving their neighbor, loving themselves, loving the world.
I see a field of wheat, not weeds.
Of course ‘weeds’ are part of this field, too. I’ve been hanging around churches my whole life; I see that, too. But you know what it looks like when people try to wipe out all the weeds? It’s like using genetically modified crops and spraying everything with Round-up.. I’m thinking the Spanish Inquisition and Salem With Trials. Trying to wipe out the weeds has never gone well.
There’s a movie I heard about called “Saved” – maybe you’ve seen it. It’s a story about a High School student named Mary.
Mary is a good Christian girl who goes to a good Christian high school where she has good Christian friends… and a perfect Christian boyfriend, Dean. Her life seems perfect, until the day that she finds out that Dean may be gay.
Then Mary starts questioning things. She starts acting differently than the other kids who are toeing the line. One of her teachers gets worried. He asks one of her friends to help straighten her out and ‘win her back’ for Jesus. The ‘friend’ confronts Mary, and it gets ugly. Finally Mary tells her friend, “You don’t know anything about love.” And this “Christian” friend hurls a Bible at her, screaming, “I am filled with Christ’s love!”
The truth is, from the very beginning, the Christian church struggled with the reality that it was filled with imperfect people trying to follow a perfect Savior who modeled perfect love. Jesus’ love really was perfect – beautiful, life-giving, overflowing love. A love so big that it was almost inconceivable. A love so enormous that Jesus gave his life for the sake of that love. It was a love so powerful, it was greater even than death itself.
That love is what the church was commissioned to grow. And yet those early Christians were fallible, often argumentative, sometimes judgmental, totally human souls trying to figure out what it meant to be faithful. A field of wheat, full of weeds.
Weeds and wheat, growing side by side. That’s the church. It always has been. It always will. Until God is ready for the harvest.
At our Session retreat last weekend we spent some time talking about the how we reclaim the word ‘church’ for people who only see the weeds. In the business world, they’d call it a branding problem. How do we describe what we’ve found here? How do we invite people in, who don’t know what they’ll find? How do we talk about the goodness growing here, the love of Christ in our midst? Of course it’s imperfect; of course we are flawed. But still, love is growing. How do we talk about that?
Towards the end of the retreat, one of the Elders made the observation that church is a place where we can grow in our relationship with God, with our relationships with each other, and in our relationship to the world outside these walls. And then she said something like, “What other place in the world does this?”
You can find other places to deepen your spirituality. You can find places that create community. And you can find ways to serve the world. But what other place does all three? Where they’re deeply, deeply connected? The love of God, our love for each other, our love for the world…
How do we talk about that? How do we witness to that? How do we tell people about the wheat? The life-giving, nourishing bread?
I was telling a friend about this passage this week and where this sermon was going, and he told me a story from his younger days. He’d been hanging out with a group of alternative-punk kids from all sorts of walks of life. Nobody really knew each other’s background; that was part of what was so cool about it. One day, one of the hard-core kids – she had a bright-blue Mohawk, you know, she was out there – she said to him, “There’s something about you that’s different. You’re different than everybody else. You’re kind to everybody; it doesn’t matter who they are. You’re just kind.” And he said, “It’s my faith.”
It’s my faith.
Sometimes all people can see is the weeds. But sometimes, they look at us, and they can see wheat. Maybe we just need to help them see it…
The life-giving love of Jesus, growing inside us.
The love that connects us to each other, the love we’ve received, and given.
The love that grows out to the world…
A field of love, growing right here.
Because maybe that’s what they’re hungry for, too.
Maybe they just want to be fed.