Sunday, July 20, 2014

What About the Mouse in the Cookie Jar? Or the Weeds Amid the Wheat?

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
A few years ago, a woman approached me with a concern. She told me that her father, by then in his seventies, was suing a woman whose car had brushed his in a mall parking lot, where he had been waiting for his wife. Even though both he and his car were fine, he claimed to have suffered physically.

The daughter said to me, “This is the last straw for me! My dad has always gone to church, been on the church council, gone to Sunday School. But he’s also always tried to shaft other people in order to get some advantage. He even pushes people out of the way in order to be first in the grocery check-out line. But I hadn’t realized how horrible he was until he sued this poor young woman who nicked his car. How can he call himself a Christian?”

When she asked me that, I remembered an old saying: Just because the mouse lives in the cookie jar doesn’t mean it’s a cookie.

But I held my tongue. You see, it can be a very dangerous thing to judge where other people are spiritually, where they may be headed, and, in the end, it’s God’s job, not ours! And God is supremely patient with us all, only casting judgment on a life when it's complete and "in the books."

In a way, this is one of Jesus’ points in today’s Gospel lesson.

He’s had another run-in with the Pharisees, those holier-than-thou religionists who may have secretly doubted that God was good enough for them. As you know, the Pharisees didn’t like it that Jesus hung out with well-known sinners or that He said that prostitutes, thieves, extortionists, and even Gentiles, non-Jews, could have places in His kingdom when they turned from their sins and followed Him. The Pharisees would have preferred for Jesus to renounce sinners and left it at that.

Instead, Jesus tells a parable to explain His actions and to guide all those who follow Him who might, like the Pharisees or that woman who approached me after worship one day, feel tempted to look down their noses at others.

The weeds planted by the farmer’s enemy in Jesus’ story, called darnel, are poisonous plants that look like wheat. The Romans had outlawed planting this weed because it had become the practice of some to do so as an act of revenge or hatred toward neighbors.

In His explanation of the parable, Jesus designates what each character or element represents. He is the farmer, the Son of Man. The good seeds are those who follow Him. The enemy is the devil. The bad seeds are those who follow evil. The harvest is the end of this world when Jesus will pronounce final judgment on us all and the place where the bundles are burned is, we can surmise, hell.

In today’s post-modern world, we may feel squeamish in asserting that God will one day condemn some people. Jesus feels no such hesitation.

According to Jesus, the Savior Who died and rose to set sinners like you and me free to live with God eternally, those who repent and believe in Him will be with Him in His kingdom.

Those who spurn Him will live with the separation from God which they daily chose in this world when they chose to be their own gods.

But Jesus today reminds us that only He will judge people’s fitness for His kingdom, not you or me. There may be mice in the cookie jar of Christ’s Church. Those imprisoned by things like selfishness, sexual addictions, egotism, materialism, the idolatry of self, greed, failing to worship God or honor parents, or other sins that diverge from the clear will of God, revealed in the Ten Commandments, may look no different from those set free by the grace, goodness, and love of Jesus Christ. There may be many people given over to evil in our world.

But until the day of judgment, the God we know in Christ is intent on letting His enemies and His friends live side-by-side, affording each equal opportunities to know and follow the Savior Who died and rose for us.

A man once asked me if the real point of Jesus’ words for us today isn’t, “Live and let live.” But that isn't the way of life to which we're called as Christians!

For example, Jesus has given His followers the great commission. We're called to not just let our neighbors die in their sins, ignorant of the possibility of forgiveness and new, everlasting life that can belong to all who repent and believe in Christ.

And we in the Church are directed by Jesus in many ways not to live by the "ethic" of "live and let live." In Matthew 18, for example, Jesus gives explicit instructions on what you and I are to do if we feel that a fellow church member has sinned against us. Ultimately, if the whole church affirms that we have been sinned against and the one who has harmed us refuses to repent, the Church is obligated to bar such a person from the fellowship of the Church until they do repent.

Live and let live isn’t what Jesus commends or commands. As every Lutheran Catechism student knows, Jesus has given to the Church “the keys of the kingdom.” That means that the Church has the responsibility to declare Christ’s forgiveness to the repentant and Christ’s condemnation to the unrepentant. But we are to exercise care in our judgments about others, especially toward those who aren't part of the fellowship of the Church.

In this, it’s instructive to note that Jesus was hardest not on the people everyone else thought were bad, but on those who thought themselves to be good but sinned unrepentantly, people like the Pharisees. Christ didn’t call the Church into being to act as God’s vigilantes, pointing out everyone’s else’ faults. He called us to make disciples.

Pastor Leith Anderson tells of calling ChemLawn to take care of his suburban lawn, infested with weeds. The yard was so bad that ChemLawn refused to work for him. One member of his church said that, if Anderson wanted him to, he would completely remove his old sod and start a new lawn. It was an offer Anderson was ready to accept when a one-time farmer offered some advice: Don't worry so much about getting rid of the weeds. Just grow the grass, and the grass will take care of the weeds. He took the farmer’s advice. After a couple of years, the lawn looked just as good as anyone else's in the neighborhood.

As the Church, we Christians are called by Christ to grow in our own faith and help others to experience Christ’s forgiveness and love through our words, actions, and lives. We grow in our faith when we seek each day to intentionally express thanks to Jesus Christ for dying and rising for us by seeking to do God’s will for our lives and not our own and by loving and serving in His Name. We motivate others to want to follow Christ and to follow Christ at deeper levels when they see us doing our best to love and serve in His Name, all the while admitting our faults and our need for Christ.

A friend of mine once invited some neighbors to attend worship with him. He was excited when, after several invitations, these neighbors, who had never been part of a church, showed up one Sunday morning. He was even more excited when they kept attending.

He thought that his heart would pound out of his chest the day the neighbors made public affirmation of their faith, the kids were baptized, and they joined the congregation. Two of the children were members of my friend’s Sunday School class and he was amazed to see how they took hold of the faith.

The family were members of that church for several years and then, for no apparent reason, they left. They weren’t in worship or Sunday School. They stopped being involved in service projects. My friend never felt that he could discuss things with this family. He would see them in the neighborhood and they would pleasantly say, “Hello” and talk about what their kids were doing at school or in athletics. That was it.

But then, a few years later, a pastor ran into my friend and said, “The Smith kids have started coming to our church. They both mention what an impact you had on them.” My friend was glad to hear it. A few years after that, my friend received an email from the youngest Smith child. He affirmed what that pastor had told him and went on to say, “By the way, I’m starting seminary in the fall. Thank you for introducing my family to Jesus. He is everything to me!”

For years, whenever my friend considered his neighbors, he may have been tempted to see them as weeds. lost to God forever. He was impatient to see them connected to God. God though, was patient. Blessedly, my friend didn’t have to wait until the judgment day to have Jesus’ message for us today boldly underscored: All those people you’re inclined to see as weeds may turn out to be wheat that will be gathered into God’s kingdom for all eternity.

God doesn't give up on anybody. As long as any human being has breath, there is hope that they will turn to Jesus Christ and live. I know that many of you have relatives and friends you want desperately to see come to Christ or return to Christ. Trust God. Be patient. Pray for those people. Ask for and look for opportunities to be light in their darkened lives.

And judge not: Christ can still turn weeds into wheat and mice into cookies. Don't lose sight of that truth!

After all, if the God Who sent His Son to die and rise for sinners like you and me--especially, I know because I know me so well, a sinner like me--God can do it with anybody! Amen