Sunday, July 23, 2017

Jesus' Summertime Parables & the Fate of the United Methodist Church

     During these long, sweltering summer days, when the pace of church life is a bit slower for me, I find my mind wandering from here to there, and I start to connect some dots I wouldn’t if I were busier. 

     Like the Gospel lectionary texts for the past two Sundays, and what will eventually happen to us United Methodists in the aftermath of years of wrangling over homosexuality.  On July 16, we were dazzled and confounded by Jesus’ story about the crazed sower who tossed his precious seed, not just on the fertile, plowed soil, but right on the road, over where it was rocky, and even in that thorn-infested place over there.  In my sermon, I actually threw handfuls of seed all over my sanctuary (shocking at my place, maybe the norm where you are) and asked not What kind of soil are you?  Go be fertile soil! – but instead, What kind of sower is this?  God wants God’s goodness, life, blessing to go all over the place, no matter how much gets wasted. 

     So then you have to ask, What kind of church will we be, this church that follows the crazed sower?  Will we be careful, getting bang for the buck, not taking chances?  Or do we fling it all over the place, willing and even eager to fail? 

     I hope for the latter – but then, since it’s summertime, I ventured to ask if this applies in any way to our church and what to do about LGBTQ people.  The seed should go here – but not over there?  Doesn’t Jesus’ story invite us to err on the side of flinging it any and everywhere – and let the seed do what it will, grow where it might, instead of limiting where God gets sown?  Maybe these are not connected, or maybe I misconstrue how they are connected.  But you never know.  Seems to me Jesus longs for risk-taking more than drawing firm lines.

     Then on July 23, Jesus took us back into a field where seed has actually sprung – but in the thick of the wheat there are weeds.  Robert Farrar Capon said Jesus was a way better carpenter than gardener, since all farmers and gardeners know you can't tolerate weeds.  But Jesus says Let them beClearly the story implies there’s evil growing right in the same field as the good – and it’s a story about how to be God’s people, how to be Church.  We want wheat in our church, not those dastardly weeds! – but then everybody defines what’s wheat and what’s weed in very different ways; wheat to me is a weed to the other guy.  Jesus seems to imply he’s not all that interested in whether we get that identification right or not.  He says Let them grow together.

     In my sermon, I recalled a passage in a novel I read years ago (Stephen Bransford's Riders of the Long Road) about a circuit rider who was trying to explain God and evil to a young man with hard questions – including Why won’t God finish evil off right now?  The preacher pointed to some grass where they were sitting.  See this good grass? But then, see there’s pennyroyal – like the weeds in Jesus’ story.  He grabbed a stem of the pennyroyal and yanked it out of the ground.  Dirt went flying – and so did the good grass.  You see, the roots of the grass and of the pennyroyal are all tangled under the ground.  Just like us.  We are a tangle of good and bad, all of us.  If God destroyed evil, if God uprooted all that is sinful, God would destroy all of us.

     Does Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds have anything to say to us?  In our church, at times there are those we just want to be rid of.  We want an 100% all-wheat church!  But I’m a tangle of wheat and weeds, and so are all the others.  Isn’t Jesus telling us, through this parable, that he wants us to let all that is growing in this field of Methodism just keep growing together, even though we are pretty sure others must have been sown by the enemy?  Progressives think they are wheat and conservatives are weeds; conservatives feel they're the wheat and the progressive are the tares.  Seems to me Jesus loves sticking together, we wheat and weeds.

     But maybe I’m just connecting random dots, and Jesus’ parables don’t have anything to say to the church during these stifling summer days.  Or maybe I misinterpret.  The perspiration gets in my eyes sometimes.

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{ I put out a weekly preaching blog, http://jameshowellsweeeklypreachingnotions.blogspot.com }

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   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.  

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