I would wager that the two predominant reasons I've heard people give for not being active in a church are: (1) people in the church seem just as lousy as everybody else (here they will cite some sin of which they assume they are innocent, like racism or materialism, or hypocrisy, and ascribe that to people in the church); and (2) with so much evil and suffering in the world, belief in a good and loving God is silly (here they cite some evil that is ascribed to God's ineptitude). The implication of these charges is that if we could clean up our act, just think of all the wonderfully, morally sensitive people we could get in the churchif only God could clean up God's act.
And from time to time, we have certainly tried to clean up both our act and God's, but we've never been quite able to pull it off. Throughout church history, there have been times when we've tried to purify the church: "Let's get rid of the dead wood and pare this thing down to the really committed, really good people." Such attempts often end up creating a church full of people who look more like those who crucified Jesus than those who followed him. You know the old saw about the two Puritans talking to each other. "There is none so righteous as me and thee, and sometimes I worry about thee."
I greatly admire Mennonite churches. I admire their tight discipline, pacifism, and courage. I once said this in Kansas, and a Mennonite pastor came to me and said, "Look, we Mennonites look a lot better at a distance. We're pacifists except when it comes to fights with other Mennonites." In a way, that describes everybody's church: messy, untidy, only partly faithful.
Then we try to defend God against the charge of moral ineptitude, which comes from those who wonder why there is so much heartache, pain, and evil in the world if God is both all loving and all powerful. We've tried a variety of defenses, but they're inevitably unsatisfactory. Philosophers call it theodicy, justifying the ways of God to humanity. There's never been any theodicy that really worked because evil remains evil, and the very essence of evil is that it's a mess. Things are still in a mess.
The church is a mess, full of all sorts of people.
One day Jesus told a parable which, while it may not offer much help to people who question the messiness of the church and of life, may be of some help to those of us who live with a mess in the church, in life, and in ourselves.
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sorted good seed in his field, but while he slept, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. When the plants came up and bore grain, weeds appeared also. Servants of the householder came and said to him, "But sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How is it then that there are weeds?"
He said to them, "An enemy has done this."
The servants said, "Then do you want us to go and gather them?"
The householder said, "No, lest when gathering the weeds, you root up the wheat along with them. Let them both grow together until the harvest."
Now what kind of farmer is this? Is this any way to plant a garden?
This parable of the wheat and the weeds is preceded by another agricultural fiasco. A farmer goes out to sow seed, says Jesus. And this farmer cultivates the ground. Then he makes the rows all straightone after the other. He prepares his furrows. Next he puts in one little seed, and then six inches beyond he puts in another seed, then another, carefully covering them up.
No. Instead Jesus said a sower went out to sow, and he just started slinging seed everywhere. Of course, some of the seed lands on rocks. Most of the rest of the seed is gobbled up by birds. Amazingly enough (considering the sloppy method of sowing), some of the seed hits good soil, and it grows.
You would think a careful farmer would cultivate the earth and be a bit more careful in the sowing. Yet Jesus says this sower just comes out and starts slinging seed everywhere, and it falls on earth, both good and bad.
If that parable did not confuse you enough, Jesus follows it with another. I think it's a parable about the very same farmer. He sows seed in his field, but when the seed germinates and the wheat first appears, weeds also appear. (I'm told darnel looks like wheat at first, but as it matures, it bears nothing. It's just a weed.)
"Well, what happened?" asked the farmer's servants. "Sir, did you not sow good seed?"
The farmer says, "An enemy must have done this. He must have come in at night and sowed weeds in this perfectly good wheat."
Enemy my eye! You watched this farmer at work. In the last field he planted, there were a lot of weeds and birds and rocks. You get that kind of result when you start slinging seed in every direction. This farmer doesn't need enemies sneaking around at night to ruin his harvest. He's perfectly capable of ruining it himself.
Next the servants ask, "Master, do you want us to go out and try to pull weeds so the wheat can grow?"
The farmer replies, "No. Just let the weeds and the wheat grow together. I love to see stuff grow. It's too much trouble to go out there and weed that garden. You're going to slip up and pull some wheat with the weeds. Just leave it. We'll try to sort it all out in September."
Can you believe this kind of agriculture? Well, of course you can, because you watched this farmer work, slinging seeds all over rather than taking the time to do it right. As it turns out, he's not much better at hoeing than he is at sowing. He says, "Just let them all grow together. We'll worry about it later." Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is just like that.
It's a surprising story, and it's particularly surprising to hear a story like this from Matthew. Matthew is not a gospel of permissiveness; it's a gospel of judgment. There's never any permissive little pat on the head in Matthew. His gospel is full of stories about judgment, about the separation of good trees from those that don't produce fruit. He lists the perils of building a house on sand as opposed to building a house on rock. He talks about choosing God or mammon, entering the narrow gate, sorting out the goats from the sheep, and not throwing pearls before swine.
In Matthew we meet Jesus for the first time through the words of John the Baptist: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather wheat into the granary, but the chaff he is going to throw into unquenchable fire." Separate, purify, purge!
The maddening thing is that in Matthew's gospel we're also told about a marriage feast where servants are sent out to invite to the feast "as many as you find, both bad and good." It was Matthew who told the story about fishermen who have a great dragnet. When they pull it to shore, tied between two boats, they dragged in "fish of every kind."
"Master, you want us to make up an invitation list on the basis of the New York Social Register?"
"No, just send an invitation to everybody who is listed in the Manhattan telephone book."
"Master, you want us just to fish for tuna this time?"
"No, sting rays and sand dollars taste good, too."
What kind of way is that to party? What kind of way is that to fish?
I believe these parables originally spoke to the messiness of the church, the messiness resulting from a Lord who says to the church (in Matthew 28), "Go make disciples of all nations," and (in Matthew 24), "Go preach this gospel throughout the whole world." You do that kind of thing and you'll be surprised at who shows up for baptism. The church cast its dragnet across the whole world, and look at the creatures we caught. The invitation to the party was issued, and look who showed up. It's a mess.
But I think the story says it's God's mess. Because when this God starts sowing, or inviting, or blessing, or calling, this God just doesn't know where to stop. And it is not for us to judge which seed will take root, which tree will bear fruit. It's not for us to distinguish between wheat and weeds. That's God's business.
The world is a mess, full of evil.
I expect this parable also spoke to a larger issue, the larger issue of the messiness not just in the church, but in the world. If you think it's a mess in the church, then look at the mess in the world. If this is God's world, then one should expect God to have done a better job of making it seem more like God's world. Here we have war, injustice, pain, suffering, sickness. You can make your own list. I think that's the concern caught up in the servant's query to the Master:
"Lord, did you not sow good seed in your field?"
"Lord, on that early morning of creation when you looked at your world and said, 'That's good, that's real good,' were you talking about this world?"
So why are there weeds? "Well, the enemy slipped in at midnight, and he probably sowed these weeds among the wheat."
That's possible, but you have to admit that's rather improbable. Nowhere in Near Eastern literature is there a story about someone getting back at someone else by sowing weeds amidst their wheat. There were quicker, cheaper, nastier ways to get even. But how like us to try to pin evilparticularly the evil we doon somebody else. "The devil made me do it." I think that's a rather lame explanation for this evil. I don't buy that bit about the nocturnal enemy.
I think this is a parable which struggles with the problem of evil. Maybe evil does come from some supernatural force set loose in the world, sneaking around at night and making mischief, some Satan roving about in the darkness, working mischief in this otherwise benign creationperhaps. But whether or not that is the source of suffering, evil, pain, and injustice, one thing we know is that evil is real: it's here. The world is a mess. There is bad seed growing right alongside the good. Weeds germinate just as well as wheat. And often you can't tell the weeds from the wheat until they are full grown and it's too late to do much about it.
Out of this mess came the ancient biblical cry in Psalm 94: "How long, O Lord, how long shall the wicked exalt?" We look at these weeds and this wheat, and that's our question. How long?
When Duke lost the national basketball championship to a school somewhere out in the desert, I wrote our coach and advised him to look up Jeremiah 12:1 in his Bible: "Lord, why do the wicked prosper? Why do the treacherous thrive?"
Of course, it is no joking matter when it's your life and evil sometimes flourishes and goodness withers. It's not funny when cancerous cells spread throughout the body and good cells starve, or when defenseless students stand before tanks in Beijing and are crushed, or when drugs despoil our youth and enrich those who sell them. At such times we have to ask, "Lord, did you not sow good seed in your field?"
It's a mystery, and even by the end of the parable it remains a mystery. By the end of the parable, there are still weeds just growing right alongside the wheat. You wonder what's going to happen. We don't know. We've got to wait. We've got to wait until the harvest, according to the story.
God has a right to take risks: it's his world.
Maybe the farmer is employing a good strategy. Yet everything dear to agriculture suggests this farmer is taking a big risk. He is headed for a tough harvest. He's putting a lot of good wheat at risk.
"Do you want us to gather up the weeds?" asked the servants. (We suspect that makes the most sense.)
"No, no; let's wait," says the farmer. "Let's just wait. I'll risk it."
Isn't that wasteful, especially for conscientious, ethically sensitive, religious people like us? Isn't that wasteful? What kind of way is that to run a farm?
"Well," says this farmer, "I don't only do sowing. I'm also into animal husbandry . I remember one time I had this one sheep that was lostjust one sheep. I took a risk, leaving the 99 sheep in the wilderness, and went out after that one sheep. I searched until I found him.
"And last year I gave this dinner party and told my servants to bring in everybody off the street, anybody they could lay their hands onboth good and bad. It was rough on the furniture, but did we have a party!
"Then, I had these grapes to harvest. I went out and saw I needed other people to harvest them. So I went downtown and I got people. Then I went downtown again to get more. By the end of the day, I was feeling so good I said, 'Heck, I'll pay everybody the same wage, even those who've only been here one hour.' But the workers grumbled. So I said, 'Hey, this is my farm, isn't it? And I'm going to run my farm the way I run my farm. Okay?' " (You can read about it in Matthew.)
It takes patience to work on such a farm. It takes patience to endure such a wait, such a risk
In my last church, at the end of a long day, I was tired. One thing that gets you as a preacher is it seems like there's so few resultsso little progress. At the end of some days, I'd be so tired I'd just sit down and pour a cup of coffee for me and the Lord.
I'd say, "Lord, let's go over this one more time. Why did you think it was a good idea to have a Methodist church here on Summit Drive in Greenville?" Then I'd listen but I'd never understand.
I'd say, "Okay, but why would you try to build a church with these people? If I were going out and calling people to be a part of the church, I could have done a better job than these people."
Then the Lord should say, "Hey, wait. This is my farm. right? And I'm going to run my farm the way I run my farm. It's my farm."
William H. Willimon is [dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University Chapel in Durham, North Carolina.]
Preaching Today Tape #91
William Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also is editor of Pulpit Resource and the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) and author of Undone by Easter (Abingdon).