I am posting (unusually) the version of the sermon I preached at 8 o’clock BCP Holy Communion. What I preached at the 9.45 All Age Eucharist bore little resemblence to what I’d written for it, and I haven’t written down what I said, so that one’s lost to posterity! But the basic jist was the same.
May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Of all the stories Jesus tells, this morning’s gospel reading is one of the ones I find hardest to understand even though, unusually, Jesus does provide some explanation. But stories, especially difficult, challenging, ambiguous stories, are important. Stories are key to the way we understand and communicate our faith. Bible stories, our own stories, stories of the saints, all part of God’s story. The church is a story-formed community. Our stories are part of who we are and who we say God is. They are part of how we live out our faith.
Jesus knew the power of stories. He used stories to teach, told parables, not to tell people information, but to encourage them to think and ask and wonder, to frame questions and look for answers. And that’s a process we’re still doing – asking questions together, not with an expectation of finding a “right” answer, but in the belief that this is how we learn more about who God is and who we are as God’s people.
This week I have been at a conference where I heard the eminent American theologian John Westerhoff speak about how we share and nurture faith. He had this to say about parables: “If you hear a parable and don’t feel uncomfortable, assume you don’t get it and go back and try it again.” Parables are intended to unsettle, to subvert, to make us ask questions which will lead us to new understandings of God.
And this parable, about the wheat and the weeds, the mingling and growing together of good and evil, certainly raises questions. What is evil? What is good? How do we tell the difference? Is anyone entirely good or entirely evil? How do we distinguish between good and evil in the world, in ourselves? These are big questions, important questions, questions to keep on wondering and thinking and talking about.
But what I want to focus on is this: the wheat and the weeds are intertwined; good and evil are mixed together, inseparable, hard to know which is which. And that’s true – it can be very hard to distinguish between good and evil in the world, even in our selves. It isn’t like separating out the goodies and baddies in a fairy story. This isn’t that kind of story.
Evil exists in the world. Suffering exists in the world. That much couldn’t be plainer, if you turned on the news at all this week. Does God cause evil to exist in the world? No. Does God allow evil to exist in the world? Yes. Can we fully understand that? Perhaps not.
But there is an intrinsic link between suffering and death on the one hand, and life and growth on the other. That’s one of the things this parable tells us. It’s also what the greater story of God and humanity tells us. Later in the service we will hear another part of that story re-told: at the altar Hugh will recall in the words of the Eucharistic prayer the story of Jesus’ last supper as he prepared for death on the cross, with all the suffering that entails. But those very words are life-giving, the ultimate suffering of Christ preparing us to receive new life in his body and blood every time we gather together.
Good and evil are intertwined. We can’t separate them out any more than the wheat and the weeds can be separated until God’s time is right. That’s part of the story, the question, the mystery we live with. All the stories we use, all the language we use, about God is metaphorical. It’s a tool to bring us closer to the mystery at the heart of God’s being, which is beyond language.
And that unknowable mystery is the good news we have, the gospel we proclaim. God is greater than we can know or understand. But God chooses to be in relationship with us, and so God gives us stories, to reveal something of what God is like. And those stories, even when they puzzle, confuse or unsettle us, are good news for us and good news to share.
Let us go on wondering and questioning and growing together as we live out God’s story in this place.