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Monday, June 6, 2016

The Good Seed, a Sermon by Mike Powers

The Good Seed
By Mike Powers
Matthew 13:24-33 (NSRV)
24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 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?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.30 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.’”
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with[d] three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

At the time of Jesus’ ministry, it had been almost exactly a thousand years from the time of the death of King David.  King David had united all of the tribes of Israel and captured the city of Jerusalem making it the capital of his unified kingdom. David’s son Solomon succeeded him as king and went on to build the first temple in Jerusalem using the plans provided by David. 
The reigns of David and Solomon marked the peak of ancient Israel’s power during biblical times and soon after the death of Solomon, Israel became divided once again into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  Both were ultimately subjugated by a series of outside parties.
The Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and during a fifteen-year period culminating in 597 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia conquered the southern kingdom, destroyed the Temple and took the leading citizens of Judah into exile.
Following the conquest of Babylonia, King Cyrus of Persia did allow the Jewish leaders to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple, but they remained a people under foreign rule.  Israel did recover its own sovereignty for a period of time in 164 BC when the Jews led by the Maccabees revolted against their rulers and re-established their independence.  However, that independence proved to be relatively short-lived.  In 63 BC, the Romans took control of the area and the Promised Land was once again an occupied territory and remained that way throughout the period that Jesus lived there.
In the years of suffering following the death of King Solomon, many of the important prophets such as Isaiah published their writings.  Their message was that the Jewish people should continue to trust in the Lord despite the misery which they were then enduring because a Messiah would be sent to redeem the Kingdom.  Let’s recall verses 9 and 10 from Isaiah 52:
   9 “Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
    before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God.”
Isaiah 52: 9-10 (NSRV)
You can see how many people would interpret the coming of the Messiah as someone who would lead a great army and overturn Israel’s occupier/oppressors just as King David had done in establishing his reign.  Isaiah’s prophesy that the Lord was going to bare his holy arm could reasonably be interpreted to be an impending demonstration of physical might.
In fact, Jesus’ coming did serve to fulfill this prophesy of Isaiah.  However, it was nothing like what most of the people of the time were expecting.  Jesus brought comfort to the oppressed people of Jerusalem and the kingdom that he brought was indeed more powerful than any other.  The Kingdom of God.
In the gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus tells three relatively short parables that conveyed important messages.  Tucking big messages inside simple stories was a favorite way for Jesus to communicate to those who came to hear him speak and to us as well. 
In the first, a farmer sowed good wheat seed in his field but then at night, an enemy snuck in and sowed weeds in that same field.  As the plants started growing and came out of the ground, it was obvious what had happened and the servants asked the farmer if they should pull the weeds out.  The farmer instructs them not to do so as that may cause some of the wheat to be pulled up as well.  The farmer’s instructions are to wait until harvest at which time the weeds and the wheat can be harvested separately with the wheat gathered and taken to his barn and the weeds to be bundled and burned.
When asked by the Apostles, Jesus explained that the farmer is the Son of God, the field is the world, the good seed are the children of the kingdom and the bad seed the children of the evil one.  The harvest is the time when all are called to account and either are allowed to reside in the kingdom or face dire consequences.
Pretty straightforward right?  It is a simple story but you may be curious as to why the good seed was forced to grow alongside the bad seed?  If Jesus was telling this story today someone might ask why doesn’t the farmer just come in with a herbicide like Roundup, eliminate all of the weeds and leave the wheat seeds to grow undisturbed?  That would no doubt be within God’s limitless power.
If you were in the crowd listening to Jesus at the time and waiting for the Messiah to arrive to remove the Roman rulers and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel this story could be alarming.  In the telling of this parable Jesus was letting the people know that He was not there to overthrow their earthly oppressors.  His message was that tyrants and other elements of evil in the world are going to persist.  The weeds of life will be around until the time of the harvest.
We all too well know that evil continues to exist in the world today.  We could have the same questions as the people nearly 2000 years ago would have had.  “Why doesn’t God pull up the “weeds” and leave the “wheat” to thrive?  Why does an all-powerful God allow evil to exist?” 
I can’t say for sure but perhaps the answer has to do with God giving us the ability to exercise free-will.  Experience shows this can be both a blessing and a curse.  Right off the bat, Adam and Eve exercised their free will to disobey God’s command with disastrous results.  Their son Cain carried on the tradition by murdering his brother and sin has continued unabated ever since.  From the beginning of time, the freedom to make choices is inseparable from the ability to make bad ones. 
Let’s consider what would happen if God did take away our ability to plot our own course.  If it were impossible for us to make a bad choice, what would distinguish humans from a potted plant or perhaps a machine?  We would proceed through life not varying from a pre-written script. 
You might think that would be a pretty good life.  We all make bad choices that can hurt others and presumably if God wired us in a certain way where we could not choose to take actions that could cause harm there would be less suffering in the world.     
But without choice there would be no struggle, no character-defining opportunity to resist the draw of temptation.  Without the gift/burden of free-will and the inevitable failures which accompany the ability to choose there would be no way to test our willingness to seek or grant forgiveness.  No opportunity to extend compassion to those who are victimized by their own or someone else’s errors.  No reason to seek redemption. 
Without choice we would not have the capacity to decide the individual nature of each of our respective relationships with God.  Freedom of choice forces struggle, requires us to discern right and wrong, mandates that we weigh the consequences of our actions.  Without choice, how would we distinguish ourselves?  The choices that we make, both good and bad, define the essence of our being. 
Prematurely wiping out all of the weeds in the parable, or the “bad” people of this world, would also eliminate the possibility that bad seed can mutate into something good. Plants which upon initial inspection can appear to be weeds may turn out to be something quite wonderful.   The same is true of people.
In our own lives, if we feel that we are going down a path that is straying from a route towards God, this parable tells us that God is willing to give us a chance.  He is not going to preemptively pull up plants that at first glance appear to be weeds but rather give us the opportunity to prove our worth.  The kicker is that we don’t know when the harvest is going to take place.  If we feel that we are not right in our relationship with God, we should think about changing course sooner rather than later. 
Along a similar vein, if we see someone making questionable decisions, don’t give up on them.  It is never too late for them to turn things around and we should lend them a hand if possible.
Requiring the wheat to overcome the hurdles of living side-by-side with the weeds can also make the wheat become stronger over time.  The more that we are tested, the better we become.  When faced with a challenge, hold on even tighter to your faith for at harvest time the wheat that survives is taken into the barn.   Allowing faith to support you during difficult times exercises a muscle which as a result becomes even more powerful.
It is not for us to judge those around us in life who we think appear to be weeds.  Our own preconceptions may lead us to wrong conclusions.  God is willing to give people the chance to prove themselves and we should do the same thing. Certainly we should not assume that someone is a “weed” because of the way they look, the language they speak or from where they come.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”.  I think that is good advice.
The second parable is that of the mustard seed which is one of the smallest seeds there are but ultimately can grow into a very large tree.  As we know, Jesus as Messiah did not come onto the scene as a commander of a huge army that sought to sweep aside the vast Roman Empire which at the time held dominion over the Promised Land.  Instead, Jesus came with a rag tag group of a dozen relatively uneducated fishermen.  Definitely a seeming “mustard seed” in comparison to what the people had envisioned for the coming Messiah.  
Just as a mustard seed grows into something much larger, the church started by Jesus and His small band of disciples has now lasted for nearly 2000 years and today has 2.2 billion adherents world-wide.  As impressive as that might be, the heavenly kingdom which Jesus represents is something much greater than what His earthly church has grown to be and much greater than the expectations of what a Messiah would bring to those hearing Jesus speak in the first century AD.  Jesus brings the heavenly kingdom which is infinite in magnitude in every possible dimension be it in terms of size, duration or simply pure joy. 
In the third parable, Jesus tells in one sentence how a woman causes a large amount of flour to rise as leavened dough by mixing in an almost invisible amount of yeast.  In this one sentence, Jesus reminds us how in fact a small almost unseen force such as yeast can cause a very significant and transformational change to something much larger. 
The story also is an elegant tie back to the first parable with flour being the end product of wheat.  Wheat is considered the “good seed” because it results in something that can help nourish us.  When yeast is added to that flour, then we really have something.
20 Once Jesus[g] was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among[h] you.” Luke 17:20-21(NSRV)
The Kingdom of God is among us in that Jesus is always with us.  We are tasked with showing that we can exercise our free-will to do the best we can to resist evil and when we fail, to ask for forgiveness and keep trying to do better.  To prove ourselves to be wheat and not weeds.
In one sense the expectation that the coming of the Messiah would accompany a fierce battle to overthrow the oppressors of the people and establish an all-powerful kingdom is correct.  The battle required to gain access to this kingdom is not fought against Roman soldiers but it is the struggle within each of us to do the right thing. 
We just can’t be content to prove that we are not weeds.  Just not being bad is not good enough.  God is asking us to be an agent for creating good in the world.  Just as flour can be transformed with the addition of the nearly unseen yeast, we need to allow the unseen power of God’s grace to work in our hearts—transforming us by calling us to grow, to serve, to forgive, to lift up others by dividing their burdens and multiplying their joys and to share the good news.
More simply said—we are called to love.  With that love and God’s grace, the greatest kingdom of all awaits.