Our Tangled Mess of Sin & Joy
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
I’m thinking about a dad. A dad who adores his five year-old daughter and three year-old son. He makes sure to get home every night in time to have dinner with them and his wife, who he also loves deeply. After dinner, he helps them get washed up and into their pajamas then tucks them in and reads them their favorite bedtime story about the white dog with brown spots and all his adventures protecting his young human companion. He waits until they’re both asleep before he leaves their room, and even then he lingers in the doorway to look at their peaceful faces. When he goes to bed, he kisses his sleeping wife on the forehead before he slips under the covers to sleep.
In the morning, he wakes up and puts on the uniform his wife pressed the night before. His children are a little rambunctious at breakfast, knocking over a glass of milk, but it makes him smile. His wife tells him that he’s too easy on them. “They’re just kids,” he says as he gets up to head for the door. His wife meets him there with a thermos of coffee for his day. He gives her a long hug before he opens the door to leave.
Then he heads into the office where his job is to create train schedules, coordinating transfers of passengers that are quick and efficient. That week his task is to arrange the transfer of nearly 1,500 Jews from newly independent Slovakia to Auschwitz in Poland. The year is 1942.
The thing is, in the parable of the weeds and wheat, a lot of biblical scholars speculate that Jesus is talking about not just any weed—after all, what kind of farmer is like, “nah, leave the weeds to choke out the rest of the plants.” These scholars believe he’s talking about the darnel weed. The darnel weed is an evolutionary wonder/pain-in-the-butt that looks exactly like the wheat plant when it sprouts and grows. You can’t tell it apart until the plants are ready to harvest. The darnel weeds’ roots wrap around the roots of the wheat plant, stealing the water and nutrients, so it’s true that even if you can identify it, to pull it out would be to pull the wheat out, too. There’s really no choice but to let the two grow together, hoping that the wheat can find a way to get what it needs to grow and thrive, even with the darnel weed competing for its resources.
So often, we long for things to be cut and dry. We want a hero and a villain. Good versus evil. Wheat and weeds. But we don’t live in that world. As Paul wrote to the Romans in a reading we heard a few weeks back: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
It’s not that we want to do the things we hate, it’s that we live in a field of tangled wheat and weeds. We want to slow climate change by making thoughtful decisions for our lives, but we live in a country designed to require us to drive fossil fuel-guzzling cars to survive. We live in a country where it’s impossible to live without buying things that come in single-use plastic packaging that not only burns a ton of fossil fuel to produce, but ends up in landfills and oceans.
We want to care for the poor, and maybe we even give our resources to do just that, but we live, move, and have our being in an economic system that values profits over the wellbeing of people. Having mortgages, buying groceries, and paying cell phone bills keeps this system in place. We can’t help but participate.
It’s not just the world that’s tangled, it’s ourselves. Show of hands: Who here has never sinned? Who here has never been malicious at some point in their life? Who here has never stayed silent when they saw something mean or unjust happening? I’ll wait. And I certainly won’t be raising my hand.
There’s a reason that the confession is part of every Sunday worship—except in Eastertide, of course. We confess because who we are is also a tangled mess of wheat and weeds. As Paul wrote, again to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All. Every single one of us.
We have all hurt someone because it created more convenience for ourselves. We have all ignored someone else’s pain, even when we could have helped, because we weren’t willing to risk our comfort. We have all broken agreements or cut corners that cost someone else later. There are a million ways we have each sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All of us.
It can be really easy, though, to focus just on our sins. A lot of Christianity for a lot of our history has done just that: identified every little nit-picky sin and every sinner doomed to the eternal furnace of fire unless they repent. In fact, so many Christians center their faith on avoiding that very fate.
I blame evolution. Our brains are wired to find what is wrong, to find the threat, to see the weeds. It’s a survival mechanism, which we need of course, but I think an essential part of our Christian faith is seeing what is beautiful, what is good, what is hopeful. That death and all that is wrong in our world does not have the last word. To see the wheat thriving. I think that’s why we don’t say the confession at Eastertide—because we’re dedicating our attention in that season to the joy of resurrection, to the way Jesus defeats death and overcomes all sin—yours, mine, everyone’s. Jesus came and said, Nothing can hold you back from my love, not even sin, not even death.
So what do we make of Jesus’ words when he says:
The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I don’t know. Do I believe that Jesus, who loved us so much that he’d rather die for us than see us suffer in our sin, who just explained that the weeds are inextricably tangled with the wheat, would be like, into the fire you go forever?
Lainey Johnston said this really lovely thing a few weeks ago in Bible Study. It stuck with me. We weren’t even talking about this particular gospel that day, but that what I think she was talking about. She said something like, and I’m paraphrasing, “I hope in the end when I die Jesus burns away all my sins.” Not the sinners, which is all of us, she was saying, but our sins, which hold us back from joy and love.
That sounds more like the Jesus I know. The Jesus who calls us to how God created us, the Jesus who calls us to love.
It is the work of our faith to see that we are not just stuck in systems of sin and work to change those systems, to change ourselves, but also to recognize that we are always surrounded by such immense wonder and joy and love. That this is a resurrection world.
When you start looking for it, you’ll notice how people are constantly helping each other in the smallest of ways. You’ll notice that we’re all actually making loving space for one another all the time—that it’s actually the default that we’re generally respectful and mostly even kind to each other. That the wheat does thrive even as it’s tangled with the weeds.
Because ours is a resurrection faith, and in the end I believe the harvest will be one in which the weeds are burned away revealing the pure love, the pure joy of God.