Sometimes, The Work of God Means Doing Nothing

Here is my sermon for Sunday, 20 July. The Gospel reading, according to the revised common lectionary, was Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43:

(24) [Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, (25) but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. (26) So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. (27) And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ (28) He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ (29) But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. (30) Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

(36) Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” (37) He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. (38) The field is the world, and the good seed is the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, (39) and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. (40) Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. (41) The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, (42) and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (43) Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

* * *

There are days when, as a preacher, you find yourself looking at scripture and going — well, this one’s easy for me. Jesus does all of the hard work of interpretation here. There’s nothing to do. Really, there isn’t. I’m not exactly sure why you are all paying me for this. I’d dismiss you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, except that would make for a short worship service.

And there’s the matter of the Lord’s Supper, which we still have to share. So, sit tight. No one goes home early today. Sorry.

So, I have to come up with something. On the face of this, Jesus explains just about everything you might need explained in this parable, and does so in some amazing language. We have the field that is the whole, wide world, we have the seed — the seed which only a few verses earlier in this chapter was the Word preached to an eager world — which is now “the children of the kingdom,” sown widely in soil that will allow them to grow and bear much fruit! But in the midst of all this, as the good seed grows to bear good fruit, the evil one plants his own seed, scatters his own children, amidst the good seed. A harvest is coming, when the angels of the Lord will gather it all together, the wheat and weeds, the children on the kingdom and the children of the evil one, and the weeds will be set aside and cast into the fire!

In fact, all of the causes of sin, all those who break the law of God, will be gathered together and cast into the fire, into the furnace. Sin is done for! This is good news! He who has ears, let him hear!

It seems so easy, so clear, on the face of it, this parable. Truly. Jesus does such a good job of explaining the gospel passage I’m not sure what’s left.

Well, actually, there’s something. Maybe you noticed it.

My grandfather owned a large farm and ranch in Eastern Washington, about 3,500 acres, most of it scrubland pasture where he and his brother grazed beef cattle. Grampie had about 800 acres under cultivation, wheat and barley. And some alfalfa. Up until I graduated from high school, my family would visit the ranch every other year, and some years, I’d go and visit by myself. When I was teenager, I actually got to work. At harvest time. My first harvest season, my job was to grease the combine every morning. Grampie was incredibly patient and kind as he showed me every little point — every little zerk, to be technical about it — I had to hit with the grease gun each morning before Grampie, or Uncle Mike, or one of Mike’s sons would hop on the combine and cut a swath across the rolling hills that made up most of Grampie’s fields of grain.

The second summer, I got to actually drive a grain truck, a big blue International Harvester from 1952. Which was something I will never forget.

Grampie and Grammie, however, never let me work much. They were insistent that I never acquire a taste for farm work. I was always too good to be a farmer, Grammie was insistent about that. So, my work was just a taste, a sip, a bare touch. It wasn’t real work.

But they had hired hands, and they worked hard. In fact, the one summer I remember there being lots of hired hands, I only recall really seeing them at meal time. They were so busy, and always out in the fields. Working.

Have you caught it yet? There’s a man, the owner of a farm, who sows seeds. He has men who work for him, servants, slaves — and what do they do? They sleep when at least some of them should be watching. They tattle to their master, and are somewhat clueless when they do — “Didn’t you plant good seed? Don’t you know your field is full of weeds too? How come?” And as the master assures them this was done on purpose, while they slept, they offer to go rip the growing weeds out, only to be told, “no, let’s wait until the harvest.”

“Let’s wait … until the harvest.”

So, when it comes to that private moment when Jesus explains the parable to his disciples, he hits every point and person in the parable … except for the slaves. They aren’t there. The very people who do most of the talking in his parable, who sleep and wonder and demand to do some work aren’t actually there.

These servants, these slaves, they do not sow, they do not reap, they sleep when they should watch.

I know if Grampie had such hired men, he wouldn’t have kept them on long.

Note that the kingdom of heaven here is, like it is in most of Matthew’s parables, not a thing, but a process. It is not a noun, but it is a verb. Here, it is sowing, sleeping, questioning, wanting, waiting, and eventually, reaping, threshing, burning and storing. This whole process is the kingdom, which means the evil one coming on sowing the weeds isn’t somehow contrary to the kingdom of heaven, it is an intricate part of the kingdom. You don’t have the kingdom without it.

You don’t have the kingdom of heaven without the devil. Consider that!

This kingdom, where wheat and weed grow together, still waits for the harvest, to be set free, to see the glory of the sons of God.

And that means we don’t get to stand here in the midst of the field, as servants of the master, and demand to pull weeds. That’s not ours to do. Not our calling. Not our work. If we are the wheat, then our job is solely to grow and bear fruit, and toe wait for the harvest. Which is not a hard job, if you think about it, since a kernel of wheat or barley is programmed to grow. If the soil is good, if there’s enough rain and ample sunshine, that little seed cannot help but grow tall and bear fruit.

Bearing fruit is easy in this parable. Think about that for a minute. Watered at the baptismal font, tended at the Lord’s table, we almost have to work at not bearing fruit.

Now, if we consider ourselves the servants, well, our job is even easier. We do nothing. We sleep. We question. But it feels harder because like good slaves, we want to earn our keep. We want to work. We have hands that itch to dig and grasp and pull, souls that ache to do useful work and be satisfied with that work. That’s what we were created for! After all, God created the man and placed him in the Garden in order to tend and care for it.

So this job as servants requires we actually fight our natures — our desire to do something, to pull weeds, to do that work which has been reserved for someone else at a later date. And I know it offends us, seeing weeds among the wheat, when we know that good, straight rows of grain ripening in the warm sun are so much nicer looking. We so much ache to make this kingdom of heaven ours, something we have shaped and tended and played some part in bringing into being. To have it be a kingdom without the evil one.

Instead, we are to do nothing.

Because none of this work — none of the planting, none of the growing, none of the watching, none of the reaping, none of the threshing — none of it is ours. It is not our work to do. Our hands, which are many and which fidget at the very possibility of doing God’s work, are to remain clean, unstained with dirt and the green of weeds — and whatever wheat we may pull out as well.

Sometimes faithfulness to God means we do nothing. We just sit. And wait. It’s hard, isn’t it?

Remember God’s great saving acts in scripture. When God saves Israel from Slavery in Egypt, all God asks of Israel is to prepare, to get ready. And to wait. When Israel faced the deep blue sea in front of it and a charging Egyptian army coming fast behind it, an army bent on murder, God speak through Moses and tells Israel: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

It’s the same saving work God does for God’s people at Jericho, when the walls of the city fell to the blast of a trumpet, or when God delivered the Canaanites to Deborah and Barak, or whittled Gideon’s huge army of of more than 30,000 down to a mere 300 lest Israel boast that its own hands have saved them. It’s the same saving work God does for Judah during the time of King Jehoshaphat, when God tells the people, “Do not be afraid, and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s.”

Stand firm, God says, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf.

It’s exactly what happens on Good Friday, that terrible day in which Jesus was crucified, in which sin and death at put to flight, routed, defeated. At best, we are spectators, merely watching as Jesus is humiliated, tortured, compelled to carry the very cross he is nailed to, raised up and then run through with a spear. At worst, we have betrayed him, taken joy in his humiliation, mocked him upon that cross, even taken whip and hammer in hand to draw blood and pound nails. Or the following Sunday, when all we can do is gawk at an empty tomb and wonder what it means, even when we meet the risen Jesus face to face. Remember, Jesus came to redeem, to call as followers, we who betrayed him, who abandoned him, who murdered him.

Do not be afraid. Do not be dismayed. See the salvation of the Lord on your behalf.

We didn’t do that work. We cannot do that work. Because remember, if we cannot pull the weeds and consign them to the fire, we also are not commanded to harvest the good grain. That all belongs to the angels. We don’t do anything in this relationship. We are the slaves who sleep. Who notice. But we have no actual role. It happens without us.

But we know the work of salvation is done. Sisters and brothers, we know that it is done! Jesus does it! I cannot honestly tell you what that really means — because we still suffer, we still grow old, get sick, we die — but somehow I know that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all of the suffering we experience, all of it is worthless, and death, which looms so darkly as the final word which answers all questions and solves all problems, is overcome and has no power. I don’t know what it means, I cannot explain it, but I know it’s true, I have lived in it, and so I wait in patience, trusting in God.

That’s us, brothers and sisters, the people who wait patiently while others do the work. Knowing that the world is in the process of being remade, not by us, not by our hands, but by the Grace and mercy of God. The Grace and mercy of God.

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