Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 18 November 2018
2 before Advent
The parable of the weeds among the wheat
Some of you noticed Bishop Lindsay Urwin visiting us more or less incognito at the first Evensong of this year’s Festival; he and I arranged to have coffee a couple of days later, when I caught up on his life and that of the Australian Church. He told me something I didn’t know about my home diocese of Sydney, where there is a new, extreme and influential movement, rather like Momentum in the Labour Party here: it is called The Geneva Push. Amusingly, in old Sydney Town (and still in Sydney slang usage) a ‘Push’ was a gang of criminals trying to mark out territory to control local rackets of drink, drugs and prostitution. Leaving that terminological infelicity aside, the creepiest thing about this group of clergy, laity and in some cases whole parishes, is that one of their primary stated aims is ‘identifying the elect’. They clearly haven’t read or heard the parable we heard in the second lesson. It is a reminder that we can’t live in a controlled and vacuum-sealed environment (you can’t breathe for very long in a vacuum, for one thing). More than that, this parable suggests that the church should not seek to disengage with or exclude anyone, however troublesome that may be to those of us who are sure we’re right.
There have always been two views of the church, one exclusive, and the other inclusive. The exclusive view holds that the Church is for good people, for the fully committed. In the inclusive view, the Church must be open to all, the hot, the cold and the lukewarm, saints and sinners. Who are we to judge, as Pope Francis reminds us.
For some, the presence of sinners in the church is a cause of scandal. If they had their way, only saints would be admitted. The problem is that those same people usually decide who is a sinner, and whom to exclude. The issue of sinners in the church was a big one for the early church. Some were for weeding sinners out (arguably the Old Testament approach); others saw that the example of Jesus gave a different steer.
First, they had Jesus’ practice to guide them. Not only did he not exclude people who were considered sinners, he actively welcomed them. He said that he had not come to call the just, that his mission was to sinners. Then, they had his teaching. The parable we heard in the second lesson, about the field in which wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest, was a response to this very question about the purity of the church.
Mr Trump’s populist tweets about ‘bad people’ reveal a world seen in simplistic black and white. But all of us, even The Donald, are a mixture of good and bad. That type of classification is code for ‘people who agree with me and people who don’t’.
The best thing we can do is always to take a good look into our own field, ourselves. This is Jesus’ constant refrain: look to yourselves, don’t judge others. If we find some weeds there, as no doubt we will, we can try to rid ourselves of them. And as we try, we will discover what a painful process this is, and look at others’ struggles with fresh eyes. As far as others are concerned, we should try to act towards them as Jesus acted. He didn’t weed out Peter – or Judas. The key is regular self-examination, something which any spiritual director will urge us to proritise in constructing a personal rule of life, which we all might try to do.
The Church cannot do better than imitate its Lord. It has to be big enough and loving enough to hold sinners in the fold. If it did not do so it would not be the church of Christ. Current arguments in Anglicanism, between what are sometimes called the churches of the global south and the older tradition which we represent, are about attempts, yet again, to purify the church. It can’t be done without excluding people whom God loves. The church exists not for those who feel good, but for those who know they are not good.
This parable is a reminder of how important the gospels are to undertsanding our faith. The Geneva Push (and similarly hardline Catholic movements, of which there are plenty) always default to rules and dogma. But Jesus didn’t talk like that and the gospels are not constructed like that. Fr Greg Seach, whom some of you remember, once said to me that such hardline views result from a distrust of narrative. The gospels, unlike the rest of the New Testament, are narrative. And life is narrative and the faith is not a legal code (‘for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life’).
God is more tolerant than we are. Even when we believe ourselves to be able clearly to distinguish between good and evil, we are called to be as forbearing and mild in judgement as God is. The time for judgement is not yet; the prerogative is not ours. The church belongs to God. The kingdom of God is still in the growing stage. Now is the time for conversion, our conversion. We can change, not suddenly and completely, but over time in the living of the Christian faith, in prayer and study and building good relationships, personal and communal. That is our true narrative, our true story, as individual Christians and as the Church of God.