Good morning and it’s good to be back! I just returned from 10 days in the Holy Land with 22 pilgrims from St. James--this is the third pilgrimage our parish has taken, with different groups, over the past 10 years. And I’m sure it won’t be the last.
You would THINK that the first sermon preached on returning from the Holy Land would be really great, full of wisdom and insight. You would think that. :)
The Holy Land is the kind of place you return from more confused than when you left, and even though I’ve made that journey now five times, I always feel this way when I get back. The Holy Land of our Sunday school lessons and even Sunday sermons is far less complicated than the real place--both today, and back in Jesus’ time.
Our guide doesn’t try to avoid all this. Quite the contrary. He’s an Arab Palestinian Christian, and so from the moment you meet him, you get right into it: conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Muslims, all the Christian conflicts (with Christians there the fighting tends to be internal, Christians fighting among themselves for dominance and propriety over holy sites).
Now that I’ve co-led two of these pilgrimages I’m noticing some patterns. One is that Peak Confusion and weariness among the pilgrims sets in on Day 3. At that point, you’re dealing with some pretty bedraggled, disillusioned people. On the 4th day, however, all this begins to change. That’s the day we get in our bus, wind our way east out of Jerusalem and into the Jordan River Valley where, just like Jesus would have done, we turn and head north. A hot barren landscape slowly turns green. First you see huge fields of palm trees. Then banana trees. Then lower plants: mango, orange and lime trees, finally, cotton, which grows only in the richest soils.
The closer to Galilee you get, the greener the valleys become. Until you reach the Sea of Galilee, and the shores, so verdant and lovely, that Jesus once walked.
You can feel the tension lift with every passing mile. Even today, the relations between groups up in those parts are easier. There’s more mingling, more tolerance. As if the reassurance of rainfall and good soil in itself shapes a people, and human history. It does.
By the time we reached the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth, where we stayed for three nights, we were finally relaxed.
If you follow the chronology of Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, Jesus only goes to Jerusalem once. His entire life is shaped up north. Luke’s Gospel puts him there several times, but only once as an adult. John has Jesus shuttling back and forth in his adult ministry many times, Jerusalem to Galilee and back again. But all the Gospels agree It’s the North that inspired the stories and parables of our Lord.
The kingdom of heaven is as if a sower went out and sowed seed, some on rocky ground, some on shallow soil, some on rich, deep soil. Last week’s reading.
Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For my yoke is easy and my burden light. Our reading from two weeks ago, a reference to the yoke of field animals, like oxen and donkeys.
Then today: the kingdom of heaven is as if a farmer went out and planted seed. In the night, the devil came out and sowed weeds among the good seed. The hired hands asked the farmer whether they should pluck up the weeds, but he said Leave them. Let them grow up alongside the wheat and we’ll sort it all out at the harvest.
Scholars will tell you there’s a certain kind of grain grown in Jesus’ time that looked like a common weed. There was no way of telling the good grain from the weeds until the very end of its growth cycle when the shoot sprouted. Only then could you distinguish the good from the bad and safely sort them.
I don’t know if that’s the grain Jesus was talking about or it just helps those of us who preach make some sense of it. But I do like where that message leads. A human life is a field, filled with all sorts of things that grow up we never intended to get in there. We learn soon enough that the pristine life without weeds—bad events, bad people, bad thoughts within—isn’t possible. That’s a hard lesson. The myth of the perfect field or garden runs deep in the human psyche. Eden is the name we give that in our tradition.
Yet this parable reminds us that we’re actually not always so good at singling out the weeds from the wheat, the bad stuff from the good. Things that we think are messing up our field, our life may, when it’s all said and done and we have the wisdom of hindsight, turn out to be just the things that saved us. We should be careful before we just pull up the stuff we don’t like. Those might actually be the best stalks of grain in the field.
I think we usually interpret this story in terms of people. The stalks of wheat are good people, the weeds are the bad. That's not a bad lesson either; don’t stand in judgment of others because most of the time we just don’t know or see the whole of a person and their life. That’s why we leave the judging to God.
But as a metaphor contained within one person, it works well, too. Let those weeds be and don’t assume that’s what they in fact are until you’re really sure. Often, that takes a whole lifetime to sort out--and, for each of us, a lot of patience, humility, a readiness to be surprised, and above all, Faith.