Drawing Lines

A Sermon preached by the Rector Rev Chris Williams

Sunday 23 July 2017

Matt 13 24-43 Wheat and Tares

I wonder what your reaction is to Dr Who becoming a woman? How about the fact that Chris Evans earns over 2 million pounds? Is it good that the BBC pay women less than men and minority ethnic groups less than white people? Should someone with a terminal illness be allowed to commit suicide? Is Jeremy Corbyn the answer to this country’s problems?  Should I be able to marry a gay couple in this church?

If I actually asked you to answer out loud, I suspect there would be some significant disagreement in this room on almost all of those subjects. There is something in human nature that makes us need to draw lines – political, theological, cultural, ethical: this is right/this is wrong and, of course, we are always on the right side of any line we draw. The problem is that the more we are inclined to draw lines the smaller the circle around us gets of who is in and who is out. And if you keep drawing lines you end up with a little circle within which lies only you!

This parable told by Jesus throws light on our preoccupation as humans to draw lines between who is in and who is out. Unfortunately, for much of its 2000 year history the church has been obsessed with drawing lines – the only thing that has changed over the years are the issues considered pertinent at any given time and the strength of feeling felt by the ‘sides’ involved – strength of feeling that is expressed in all manner of ways from words and actions to violence and even death. That’s because drawing lines is rarely an abstract activity but often influences how we treat people.

Why do we do this? Well, I believe it is, in part, a way of reinforcing our own identity: if we can find those who are not like us because of what they believe, what they look like, the colour of their skin, sexual orientation, way they speak, intellectual ability, political beliefs, gender or their class (and those are just categories I have personally observed in this church!), then it reinforces our sense of self – ‘I am are not like them’ or ‘we are not like them’. And if you can mix with like-minded people who help reinforce those views and help you build ever-higher barriers and defences against these ‘others’ (and division is always the outcome of such thinking), then we reinforce our identity even more– and identity is a powerful human need.

This is the easiest and bluntest way of creating identity. Taken to its logical conclusion it leads to war. The title of my masters dissertation was This means war! Which was a quote from a conservative evangelical group against their liberal brothers and sisters. (and before the liberals here feel too smug – the language of many, so-called, liberals can be just as polarising). History shows us that real wars are often preceded by a war of words which have often been reinforced over many years.

The opposite of war is peaceful coexistence – and identity is harder to create in peacetime. Identity in peace is found in loving and being loved rather than hating and being hated. As Christians, I believe we are called to live very much on one side of this particular fence.

Paul said, to the Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus, which sounds like a recipe for inclusion and peace if there ever was one! So if God’s kingdom is something like that, shouldn’t we be seeking to model it now?

I think this parable offers amazing insight into the life of the church in these time – like that field in which grows healthy wheat and destructive weeds, the church is a mixed bag of reality. The householder’s servants in the parable wanted to weed out the dangerous elements and we, too, are often very keen to pronounce on all sort of behaviour, theology or biblical alignment – and, as I said earlier, drawing lines is rarely an abstract activity but often influences how we treat people.

While some church groups seem more susceptible to this sort of behaviour, no groups or denominations completely avoid it: ‘who can we let in and who must remain out? Who is accepted by God and why? Who is not accepted by God, and why not?’ We clearly think it our job to draw up the specifications regarding the wideness of the church’s welcome: ‘How wide can it really be and still remain the church?’

Maybe it’s understandable that the servants in this parable want some clarity on the issue. They are certain they can bring in the harvest without further delay: ‘burn the weeds and decide once and for all the problem of who is in and who is out!’ However, as Matthew tells the story, the master in this parable has greater wisdom. ‘No’ he says, ‘for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them’. Let both grow together until the harvest, because one cannot always tell the difference between these plants. The way forward is to avoid a premature clarity on these matters and make room for a holy ambiguity. Not a vague and ungrounded ‘whatever’ sort of ambiguity, but a wise and intentional ambiguity: This is the space in which we are called to live – and often we don’t like it because we are unable to draw the lines in the sand that we so crave to reinforce our own identity.

When dealing with others we often want to bring matters to a head and determine whether others are in or out, right or wrong. But, we get here, a glimpse of a God of infinite patience who frees us to get on with the most crucial task: loving (or at least living with), each other. And God can work in the space created by this patience – he has time and space to work on others – and, even on us. It’s called grace. Unlike weeds and wheat, people can change, and I believe we should always be looking for those moments where we can bring God’s grace to bear – and that grace is often mediated through us.

This image of wheat and weeds growing together is not just an image of the church today but is, I suggest, a picture of the future judgement at the end of time as we know it. At this level, the text points us to a God who does not merely tolerate forever a world that is a mixture of good and evil, faith and faithlessness but who, finally, in his time, acts to judge and ultimately, to save and restore the world. There is ultimate truth, there is good and evil, right and wrong – but it is ultimately, God’s job to sort all that out in his own time. Christians believe that God’s perfect and holy world will one day be completed and revealed in all its fullness. We might call it the kingdom of God. We already get glimpses of this new world order – sometimes (miraculously), it is even being displayed through us. And, as v30 says ‘God is pleased to let it all grow together until the harvest’

This parable is one of a number of parables in Matthew Ch 13 which, among other things are pointing us towards a future judgement and the kingdom of God. One speaks of the kingdom being like a tiny seed that becomes an enormous tree, the other a tiny amount of yeast that works its way through the whole batch of dough. In both these images, time and patience are required – but the end is assured. That is the way that the kingdom is: growing from the very beginning into all that God has intended. From the foundations of the world, the very first moment of creation, it is the kingdom that has been in God’s mind, and God is infinitely patient as it grows.

It is towards this kingdom and this God that we are always moving – individually, collectively indeed, the whole cosmos. On this journey, it is not our job to determine who is in and who is out. It is, rather, our job to imagine everyone as belonging to this God and therefore, with all that we can muster, seek to embrace this godly ambiguity in which God’s love and grace is able to operate. On this journey, we need patience – something that is also a theme of the Romans passage this morning. On this journey we need to erase the lines we draw too often between people and allow God’s love and grace to flow over any barriers we may wish to create.

So a few questions:

Do you draw lines in the sand? If so, where and why? Should you? What do lines do to relationships? Are there any lines you should rub out? Should you have any lines?