As I continue to gather together the sermons I’ve delivered over the past few years, I present today one that I delivered at Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ on Sunday, July 17, 2005.
My sermon’s references to Jesus’ “alternative, subversive wisdom” were drawn from New Testament scholar Marcus Borg’s insightful book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. Two months earlier I had included these same references in a commentary about the election of Pope Benedict XVI, published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Matthew 13: 24-30
Jesus spun out another parable for them:
The Reign of God is like someone who sowed good seeds in his field. And while everyone was asleep, his enemy came and scattered weed seed around in his wheat and stole away.
And when the crop sprouted and produced heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came and asked him, “Master, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then why are there weeds everywhere?
He replied to them, “Some enemy has done this.”
The servants said to him, “Do you want us then to go and pull the weeds?”
He replied, “No, otherwise you’ll root out the wheat at the same time as you pull the weeds. Let them grow up together until the harvest, and at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to burn, but gather the wheat into my granary.’”
By Michael Bayly
The parable we heard in today’s gospel reading is referred to by some as “the sabotage of weeds.” It’s a fascinating parable – primarily because like so much of what Jesus said, it can be read on a number of levels.
Because it’s found in both Matthew’s gospel and the Gnostic gospel of Thomas, it’s a parable that’s believed to have been circulated orally in the period before any of the gospel accounts were written.
New Testament scholars suggest that the parable of the sabotage of weeds reflects the concerns not so much of the historical Jesus, but of a fledging Christian community alive with the Spirit of the Risen Christ; a community trying to define itself over and against a world of life-denying attitudes and actions – a world of greed, intolerance, and violence; a world not unlike our own.
I must admit that at first I was reluctant to take on this particular gospel reading. At first glance, it seems unduly negative – obsessed with final judgment and damnation. That’s because it reflects the apocalyptic, end-time focused perspective of the early church – one that experienced frequent persecution and anticipated the return of Jesus at any day.
Yet Jesus in his lifetime operated from and expressed a different perspective. Rather than the Reign of God being something in the far-off future, something to look forward to after a period of persecution, Jesus lived and taught that the Reign of God is here and now.
“Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me” (Thomas 77:2-3), says Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas. Elsewhere in this gospel, Jesus tells us that, “The Reign of God is inside you and outside you” (Thomas 3:3).
Elements of the Gospel of St. Thomas – along with elements of the other more well-known and accepted gospels – reflect and focus upon gnosis. By gnosis, we mean knowledge that is intuitive and divinely-inspired. Such knowledge includes self-knowledge, yet this “self” is not to be confused with the human ego – that part of ourselves that needs to be in total control and fears change and transformation. No, the self that Jesus speaks about is the true Self – that part of us hidden deep within and which is already one with God; that part of us that yearns to grow and become fully conscious to our intellect and fully embodied in our actions and relationships.
The sayings of Jesus found in the Gospel of St. Thomas and elsewhere that reflect an understanding and respect for gnosis, also distinguish between two types of wisdom – conventional wisdom and an alternative, subversive wisdom.
Conventional wisdom emphasizes rewards and punishments. It is fixated on hierarchy, literalism, and absolute answers for everything. Conventional wisdom fears ambiguity and is highly suspicious of those who are attuned to the presence of God within.
These characteristics of conventionality can all too easily be propped up as idols, which is why Jesus, when condemning the Pharisees of his day as “whitened sepulchers,” identified the way of conventional wisdom as the broad path to spiritual death.
Jesus, through his life and teaching, invites us to embrace and embody an alternative, life-giving wisdom – one grounded in an experience of God as abundant, surprising, gracious, and compassionate; an experience that cannot be separated from the self-knowledge of gnosis. Such qualities of alternative wisdom lead to understanding religion not as unquestioning obedience, but as trustful openness to God who is very much present here and now throughout the vast arena of human life and relationships.
Awareness of the role that gnosis and counter-conventional wisdom play in the earliest known sayings of Jesus have led some to suggest that these particular sayings relate, first and foremost, to the inner life of all spiritual seekers. They serve as universal wisdom sayings aimed at freeing us from the falsehoods of conventionality and helping us to become our true selves and to embody authentic wisdom.
Even though the parable of the sabotage of weeds reflects in many ways the apocalyptic, end-time focused perspective of the early Church, it nevertheless contains elements that allow it to be interpreted in light of both gnosis and counter-conventional wisdom. And it is this interpretation – one that has implications for our life here at Spirit of the Lakes – that I’d like to share with you now.
It’s an interpretation, or understanding, that recognizes that “the field” is the human heart, the interior life of each one of us. “The wheat” and “the weeds” represent the conflicting attitudes and thoughts we have within us. Harvest time occurs whenever we choose between the life-affirming and life-giving thoughts represented by “the wheat,” and the life-denying, unproductive thoughts symbolized by “the weeds.” This harvesting, of course, is embodied and expressed through our words and actions.
I find it interesting that the weeds, the negative thoughts and attitudes, are sown when we’re “asleep” – a poetic way of saying when we’re unconscious; when we’re unaware or unmindful of our true selves and our intrinsic connection to the sacred.
I also find it interesting that it’s when our pro-active and positive attitudes and thoughts begin to grow, begin to assert themselves, that we become aware of our ability to choke them, to undermine them with negative thoughts and attitudes.
It’s as if a part of us doesn’t believe that we’re capable of growth and of bearing good fruit. A part of us is fearful of the sacrifices and changes we’ll experience, and of the places to which we may need to go in order for our “good seeds” to flourish and bloom. Such thoughts stem from the fearful, controlling, self-sabotaging ego. This ego and the true Self are constantly engaged in a strange dance within our souls – a dance that ensures an entanglement not dissimilar to wheat and weeds growing in the same field.
The challenge isn’t to madly try and eradicate all our negative thoughts and attitudes. As the archetypal and wise owner of the field within says: No, wait! We will acknowledge and discern between such conflicting thoughts and attitudes; they are part of the human condition. But when it is time to harvest, when it is time to speak and take action, let it be the life-affirming and life-giving thoughts and attitudes we express.
My friends, here at Spirit of the Lakes we’ve been blessed with experiences that have enabled us to discern and choose between positive, pro-active, and productive thoughts and ideas and those that would have us believe that the game’s up, that we’re too messed-up and burdened by past missteps and mistakes to be of use to anyone.
The work that our community has been participating in over the last six months has in many ways been our harvest time – our time of choosing between the wheat and the weeds, between the conflicting positive and negative thoughts we have about ourselves and our journey.
The life-giving, community-affirming goals that we have brought forth in both word and action as a result of this harvest, this time of choosing, serve to proclaim to each one of us, and to the world, that we choose life for this community we call Spirit of the Lakes.
Yet the harvest is ongoing – both within each of our individual hearts and the collective heart of this community. My prayer is that we will be willing harvesters of the heart, that we will work together to embody all that is good and life-giving within us. I also pray that we will courageously acknowledge that which is negative and unproductive within our individual and communal life, yet ultimately discard such thoughts and attitudes with the gentle strength and wisdom of our brother Jesus.
This is my prayer for Spirit of the Lakes. If it resonates within your heart, then I invite you to join others and myself in the harvest. Amen.
Michael J. Bayly
Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ
July 17, 2005
Image 1: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
Image 2: World Prout Assembly
Previously posted sermons:
Something We Dare Call Hope
On the Road with Punk Rockers and Homeless Mothers
Praying for George W. Bush
Somewhere In Between
A Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany