(I gave this sermon yesterday, Sunday, July 19, 2020. You can see the entire worship service and sermon at www.ststephenlc.org.)
Gottfried Leibniz, a German philosopher and mathematician, and probably someone you have never heard of before, is credited with coining the term theodicy in 1710. What is theodicy? It quite literally means vindication of God. It is the answer to the question of why a good God allows evil to exist.
It’s a problem that humanity has been struggling with for a really long time. How can an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God be consistent with the existence of evil or suffering in the world? That’s the question.
It’s the question that was asked following the Holocaust. How do you make sense of the purposeful killing of six million Jews along with many more other people? How do you make sense of it? How does such a thing happen if God is good?
We could ask many other questions today. If God is good, then why does racism persist? If God is good, then why hasn’t humanity figured out a way to co-exist without trying to kill one another through wars? If God is good, then why does it seem like the “bad” people get away with so much and are rewarded for it too – exploiting people and natural resources for their own purposes, oppressing people, corruption, unchecked greed, abuse of spouse or children, abuse of power, and more. If God is good, then why do unjust systems exist at all?
There are no nice simple answers for these questions. I wish there were. And that’s just a few of the possible questions that could be asked. I’m sure you could come up with plenty more.
So what do we do with the problem of evil?
In the Gospel today, we hear yet another parable. The parable of the sowing of wheat and weeds. It’s an unsatisfying parable. The farmer sows his seeds and in the middle of the night, an enemy sows weeds. When things start to grow, both wheat and weeds grow together. And then the really unsatisfying part comes – there’s no weeding. Nope. The farmer says let them grow together.
Why does evil exist instead of just being plucked up and thrown away? That’s the question we want to ask – that’s the question the laborers ask the farmer. It seems more righteous or justice oriented.
But Jesus gives us this unsatisfactory answer. We want to pull the weeds out because they don’t deserve to be there in our judgement. But Jesus isn’t telling us that the weeds are going to be pulled out when we want them pulled out. Nope. Let them stay for now. They will be taken care of in their own time. That’s Jesus’ answer. It’s not the answer we want – we’d rather hear Jesus telling us that people get what they deserve. We’d rather have a hard hammer of justice come down and smite evil doers wouldn’t we? It seems so much more satisfying doesn’t it? It makes life so much easier – there are good guys, and we’re with them. And there are bad guys, which we aren’t a part of amazingly ever.
Oh how we would rather believe in karma rather than grace. Karma is getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve. Mercy is not getting what you do deserve. In our parable, the more satisfying answer comes from the slaves – weed and throw them away. Karma. But Jesus as the farmer rejects the idea of karma. He doesn’t give the weeds what they deserve. He gives them grace. He lets them stay for now.
Grace is a really hard idea for us to accept. It’s not logical. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not how the world operates. And if were honest, we have a really hard time with it. If we are honest, we don’t want grace and mercy offered to “bad” people. That should only be for us right? Nope, we’d rather they suffer and were punished. We’d rather they paid the price for their wrongdoing. We’d rather pass judgement on them. But careful, those who live by the law of karma soon have it applied to themselves. Or as Jesus said to Peter – “Put down your sword. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”
But Karma isn’t not how Jesus works. That’s good news – maybe the best news ever, even if it is unsatisfying on the surface. Because if karma were the way that Jesus operated – we’d all be screwed. Is anyone here sinless? I didn’t think so. Me neither.
Let’s be honest. I don’t want to love my enemy – I’d rather tar and feather them and watch them suffer. They are an enemy after all. But thank God that Jesus doesn’t operate on our belief in redemptive violence.
Walter Wink, a professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary wrote about the myth of redemptive violence.
It’s the idea that violence is the only way to bring about order and peace. He called it the original religion of the status quo. It’s the idea that the strong survive and that might makes right. It’s the idea that the gods favor the mighty conqueror. It’s the idea that life is a constant combat and peace comes through war, and security comes through strength. And these ideas have been at the core foundation of every society that humans have ever built.
No wonder empires and nations and civilizations come and go. Redemptive violence is never satisfied and is essentially about living in a constant state of fear. There’s always more weeds that need to be pulled. Too bad about the collateral damage done in the name of weeding. They just keep popping up and the work is never done.
Pulling the weeds while the wheat still grows seems to fit this description doesn’t it? We supposedly bring goodness through means of violence and judgement – the very means of evil. But how does one end up good if they are using the methods of evil? I don’t know.
And amazingly it all aligns with our own beliefs and desires and we get to judge who’s worthy and who isn’t. It’s almost like we’re buying into the serpent’s temptation in the garden at the beginning – to be like God. But we aren’t God. We are broken. We aren’t called to move up towards God and move beyond our human-ness. Rather, Jesus empties himself and comes to us where we are. He humanizes us. He takes away the need for us to become God. We can be fully human and let God be God. He takes away the need for us to judge who is worthy and who isn’t. He takes away the need for us to do more than what we are called to be and to do.
So what are we to do?
First off, it’s not our work. We aren’t called to save the world – we aren’t the saviors. No human is. We aren’t called to fix it either. We aren’t called to convince or cajole. We aren’t called to force people to change. Nope. We are called to proclaim. That’s what being a disciple is all about – proclaiming. And don’t get me wrong – proclamation will come with conflict. Proclaiming God’s message often has because it conflicts with the values of the world.
And what exactly are we proclaiming? We proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God. We proclaim grace and mercy to people – people who constantly hear the mantra and live in a world driven by the law of karma.
We proclaim forgiveness to people – people who are loaded with guilt and shame. Sometimes debilitating guilt and shame. Guilt and shame that become so heavy.
We proclaim peace to people – people we live in a world of constant violence as a solution to all problems – whether that violence is physical, verbal, mental, emotional, spiritual or any other way. Peace isn’t a destination that is achieved when we eliminate our enemies. We don’t have a nice wheat field if we pull out all the weeds – we end up with bear patches and and broken field. Peace is a way of being in which we can live with our enemies and we can see the image of God in them.
We proclaim love to people. We proclaim the image of God existing in all people – something that makes everyone sacred. The image of God is a part of who you are. It’s a part of who I am. It’s a part of the people we don’t like also. It’s a part of the people we consider our enemies and would like to see crushed. The image of God is unfair like that.
We proclaim all of this. Why? Because it’s a message that transforms us and the world. A message that transforms. Do you hear that? That’s what God has always been about. God isn’t about maintaining a status quo, but about transforming all of creation in the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ message isn’t about being a better person. It’s not a personal piety thing that we keep to ourselves and only relates to our own personal relationship with God. No, that’s awfully limiting. And that’s not transformative. That’s not God so loving the world that he gave his only son. That makes God really small, and honestly, awfully uncaring about the fullness of creation which includes the planet, the animals, and us. It includes how we live individually, but also communally. The systems and institutions that we use to order society. Yes, God cares about it all.
God cares about systemic racism because how are we able to see the image of God in others when there are systems in place that dehumanize, oppress, and destroy people?
God cares about exploitation of God’s creation – it’s not ours, we are supposed to be stewards of it, according to Scripture. How can there be Shalom wholeness in creation when portions of it stripped away for the purpose of profit or greed, not the building up of the Kingdom of God?
God cares about the poor and the homeless. Throughout Scripture we hear of God favoring the poor – those are the words in Scripture, not my words. How is that supposed to happen when we implement policies that punish the poor and keep people in a black hole of poverty and homelessness?
God cares about the stranger and the foreigner – don’t take my word for it, open Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy and so many other books of Scripture and see the numerous times that God directly says things like, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Or open Matthew 25 and read the words of Jesus who says that one of the things that the nations will be judged on is how they treat strangers. God cares about all of this and so much more.
So we proclaim a message that doesn’t make sense to the world – it actually conflicts with what the world cares about and values and it always has. We proclaim it with our words and our lives, in what we say and how we live. We proclaim it in how we use what God has given us – our resources, our time, our talents, our intelligence, our money. We proclaim it in how we advocate for the poor, those who are exploited and oppressed, the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and all who suffer at the hand of unjust systems designed to blind us from seeing the image of God in any of these people.
This is not easy work. Often it seems fruitless. It can feel as though it is pointless – especially when we see no results – when all see are weeds thriving. It can numb us. We can start to just expect that evil is the norm, it is what is to be expected. We can feel like we are walking in that field and all we see are the weeds and we cry out to God – why don’t pull the weeds Lord? Why?
And Jesus calls back to us – because if I pulled the weeds, some of the wheat would be uprooted as well. And I don’t believe in redemptive violence. Violence doesn’t save. Violence is evil – always. Violence is the way of the weeds. And when you adopt the ways of evil, you become a weed.
Jesus says, I have another way. The way that I offer is full of hope. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?”
So what are we hopeful for and hopeful about? The harvest. The harvest of the future for sure, but that’s not all. The harvest that is ongoing. Not in some distant mythical time though – this isn’t a call to just throw our hands up and give up and wait. The wheat doesn’t just sit and do nothing. It produces something lifegiving and nourishing. It feeds the hungry multitude. And there are so many that are hungry – hungry for life, for peace, for grace, for mercy, for forgiveness, for meaning and purpose. Hungry to be released from the bondage to poverty and injustice. Hungry to be free, to be seen, to see the image of God in all around.
What do we hope for – the very things we proclaim. We hope for the Kingdom. And that means it’s time to flex our imagination. Imagine what the Kingdom of God looks like in our midst? Right now. What will the harvest look like when it comes to ending poverty? What does it look like? How is Jesus harvesting right now?
Or what peace looks like? What does the harvest look like in regards to stewardship of the earth? What does the harvest look like in terms of peace and loving our enemies? What does the harvest look like when it comes to seeing the Image of God in all people? What does the harvest look like?
I know this much – it doesn’t look like separating the wheat from the weeds as much as I would like it to. It doesn’t look like deciding who’s worthy and who isn’t. It doesn’t look like giving up. It looks like living differently. It looks like not giving permission for the status quo to continue. It looks like implementing different policies that recognize the image of God in people and moves us toward Shalom wholeness. It looks like living as peacemakers. It looks like offering grace and mercy. It looks far different and far better than the world looks right now. And the Good News is that Jesus equips us to be wheat for the world – a world that is hungry for something so much better. Jesus has already given us what we need. Do we have the courage to respond? Yes, Jesus has given us that too. Thanks be to God.