Delivered at Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco on the seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 11A • Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
A few months ago, Larisa and I were vested, getting ready for the 8:30 service, when it started to rain.
We both stood at the front doors of the church and just stared out at it, a little be stupefied.
Larisa turned to me and said that it’s easy to spot native Californians by their response to the rain.
As some of you know, I am going to be starting a PhD in England this Fall studying theology and the imagination, and the most frequent comment I get when I tell people where I’m moving is, “Ohh, but what about all the rain??” and the question is ususally accompanied by a worried expression, or a sad face, as though if I live there long enough I’m either going to be drowned by all the water or I’m going to become so depressed by the wet weather that I’ll give up and come home.
But what the people asking this question never realize is that having grown up in San Diego, where it is always dry and it only rains ten or fifteen days out of the year if we’re lucky, I always experience rain as a kind of stupefying miracle. “Wait?? This water is just falling out of the sky??”
When I was a boy growing up in the countryside north of San Diego, I remember standing outside behind our house late in the summer, looking out across the valley and seeing towers of smoke rising from the other side of the hills. On the underside of the clouds, I could see a red glare from the flames of the brushfire that was burning away all of the grass that had grown during the spring rains. Occasionally, even though the fire had not yet reached the top of the hills, I could see a red tongue of flame reach up above the crest of ridge, the flames were so tall.
This is the fire that I see in my imagination whenever I hear Jesus speak about fire, and when I hear him speak of wailing, I hear the sirens of the fire engines.
I don’t remember being afraid that the fire would reach our house, but I do remember being impressed by the power of the flames and how hot they burn.
I think a lot of us get uncomfortable when we hear Jesus talking about fire.
Jesus parables of Judgment have been used for too long to draw lines between “us” and “them”, between those who are saved and those who aren’t, and I don’t doubt that many of us here this morning have run up against one of those lines at some point in our lives, and as many of us have, at one point or another, drawn a line, or tried to find one, so that we could know where was the right place to be, and where was the wrong place.
Another of my earliest memories, even before the fire on the hills, is of my mom and myself in the kitchen, listening to the radio report about fighting somewhere in the world. Hardly understanding what I was hearing, I was able to gather enough to know that at least two sides were fighting, and I remember asking my mom who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. I think I was in kindergarten at this point.
Wise woman that she is, I remember my mom telling me that there aren’t really such things as good guys and bad guys. And then she then did her best to explain civil war in Nicaragua at the 5-year-old level.
And she is right, of course, even though it is usually hard to admit it.
It’s just so comforting getting to know who is a stalk of wheat *points at self confidently* and who is a weed… It’s so comforting to know that the people I despise and who despise me are eventually going to receive the punishment they so dearly deserve.
What else is going to church for, right?
Only we don’t actually get it that easy. Not that it’s really easy. Because however these parables of Judgment, that end with wailing agrinding of teeth and being cast into the ourter darkenss, however these parables have been used over the centuries, they have been co-opted into our perennial desire to be right and to be pure, and we have forgotten or refused to remember the much harder teachings: that the one who is speaking spent his days with sinners and tax collectors, and he ate with them.
Jesus, our teacher, our brother, our God, went out into the field and found us each both wheat and weeds.
When we hear Jesus speak of fire and we see in our imaginations the angels of the Lord throwing with weeds to be burned, generations of interpretation have taught us to hear Jesus speaking of punishment and retribution from God.
And for years I was uncomfortable about these stories for just that reason: this is not the God I had come to know.
Until a friend pointed out to me that fire means one thing to our imaginations, and something quite else to people raised in the imagination of the Torah and the Prophets. Because throughout the Hebrew Bible, fire is almost never associated with punishment: it is almost always a sign of God’s presence and when fire is painful, it is not the pain of annihilation but the pain of purification: the pain of letting go of that which is not needed: the pain of becoming fully ourselves, free from the lies sown in our hearts and in our bodies by the enemy.
The fire of God is the fire of love. It is the fire of love telling us the truth about ourselves and saying you are beloved: now be all of yourself.
It’s hard to think about fires and Judgment without thinking about Dante. So much of our imagination has been filled with half-remembered or rumored images of all kinds of creative suffering in the Inferno.
But I don’t think that Dante is shown amopng the dancing saints because he had such vivid things to say about how he imagined the afterlife or what he believed happens to us when we die.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is mostly about what happens to us when we are alive. It begins midway through Dante’s life and it traces the route that he must take as he seeks after a life unburdened by the lies that he has come to believe about himself and about the world and about God and about love.
As Dante understood, before we can get to the freedom and celebration of Paradise, we have to go through the hard work and painful burning away of what we thought must be true about oursleves: Dante himself is transformed by his journey through the Inferno as he gives up his need to see vengeance on his enemies and as he lets go of his ambition and pride and need to be right, and as he comes more and more to see the world clearly through the eyes of God’s love.
However much we would like it to be, the parable of the wheat and the weeds just doesn’t let us divide the world into the good ones and the bad.
Because what Jesus leaves unspoken, what he seems desperately to hope that we have gathered or will one day come to understand, is that when he speaks of the righteous and the unrighteous, he always speaking of each of us. And when he points us to judgment it is not toward vengeance or punishment but toward how drawing ever closer to God always means having burned away what we don’t need, so that we are left free to love and to create beauty and to serve the world as his hands and his feet and eyes and his voice raised in song.
The fire burns away the brush and the dry grass. And then the rains come, and something new and beautiful and long-desired is made able to grow.
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