July 21, 2002
Immanuel Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Dianne O'Connell
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-40
Good morning. Certainly great to be home. Thank you for inviting me.
It's been an interesting week - what with the Stock Market's erratic behavior, the on-going suicide bombing in the Holy Land, and continuing unraveling of consumer confidence in our country's largest corporations. It's enough to keep everybody on edge, second-guessing all kinds of life-decisions - the sinful ones and the not-so-sinful ones.
Looking at Paul's letter to the Romans this morning, one would think it all so simple: just put aside our "sinful" natures and all will be well. Paul suggests that, if we can do this, we will be able to live a life where are minds are controlled by the Spirit, resulting a life of peace -- and Peace of Mind, I would assume. But it is not that easy. It is a constant struggle - at least for me, and those who share their thoughts with me.
For instances, what constitutes a sinful nature? At one point in my life, a woman who wanted children and family - but also a career - was looked upon, if not "sinful", at least "not very righteous." In today's world, such a woman is thought to be a little crazy, but still okay - if she can make it all work.
What is "sinful"? Maybe Greed. I think Greed is right up there. But is often isn't as easy as that. Where is the line between trying to provide comfort and security for oneself and one's family - and, well, Greed? I suppose we could ask Kenneth Lay of the Enron Corporation. How much is enough?
"Comfort and security for oneself and one's family" looks differently through the eyes of an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian suicide bomber. I'm not ready to say one is more sinful that the other, or more righteous than the other. But I'm not going to go there this morning - you'll have to invite me back for my Israeli-Palestinian sermon.
And then there are people like the southern California man just arrested for the murder of five-year-old Samantha. "Sinful" is much too weak a word here. "Sinful nature" doesn't even begin to describe the situation.. There must be a big difference between the concepts of "sinful" and "pure evil."
But maybe that's just my perspective.
When I read our Romans passage this week, I kept wondering what part of my "sinful nature" was Paul suggesting that I put aside in order to attain a life of peace - and how am I to decide just which parts of my "nature" are good and which parts of "bad"? For parts of me, I have no problem making the distinction, but for other parts, I'm not so sure.
But I think of myself as a woman doing the best that I can, for as many as I can, with whatever skill and energy and love that God has given me.
Evil, I am not. "Sinful," well, yes, I probably am. Sometimes, it is discouraging trying to figure out why.
When I prepare a sermon, I read the Lectionary passages and then try to determine why on earth that compilers of the Lectionary put these particular passages together for the same Sunday.
The Genesis passage from the Old Testament is kind of interesting. It's about Jacob, like many young men, setting out to find a bride. His father Isaac has told him that he must not marry a Canaanite woman and, instead, he is to go to the old homeland at Haran and find a wife there. If we read ahead, we know that he actually finds two, the sisters Leah and Rachel. Between them, and a couple of maidservants, they become the mothers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. But that is jumping ahead
Jacob is obviously thinking about brides as he travels from Beersheba to Haran. So it is no surprise that when he stops for the night to sleep he has a dream. In the dream God promises him the land on which he is sleeping and descendants spread like the dust of the earth, from east to west. Lots of kids. What a blessing. This is good news, for a guy who hasn't had any kids just yet.
Most commentators stress the Lord's promise of the Land. So do the Israelis and the Palestinians - they are still fighting over it. But they have the descendants part all locked up, or at least they think they do.
The Lord made both the promise of a home and the promise of descendants during the same dream. And, Jacob did, indeed, have many descendants. The question then becomes, of course, just what is the responsibility of the parent to the children and the responsibility of the children to the parent?
Jacob's kids didn't always get along very well, if you remember. The older brothers sold their younger brother Joseph into slavery, for instance. Jacob's daughter Dinah was the unfortunate cause of a major massacre of the neighbors. Her brothers, allegedly defending her honor, tricked and killed a whole bunch of Canaanites. Jacob was livid: screaming at his sons, he says, "You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites who live in this area. We are but a small number, and there are many of them. I and my household will be destroyed."
Jacob's family should be the basis of a movie. But again, I jump ahead. I just remind us of these stories to support my contention that having a lot of descendants isn't always that much of a blessing. Or sometimes, it doesn't seem so. Sons and daughters are wonderful creatures, but they can be vexing.
So for another moment or two, I would like to focus on kids. Chuck and I decided to go to the movies last week. We saw The Road to Perdition. It was about an Irish mobster and his two sons, one biological and one adopted. Has anybody here seen the movie yet?
Well, as Paul Newman said, "Sons are put on this earth to vex their fathers." And, he should know: his two sons were bent on killing each other.
Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, and a kid named Tyler Hoechlin. Watch that kid, he's good.
Tom Hanks played the adopted son, Michael Sullivan. Sullivan makes his living as an "enforcer". He works for John Rooney, the man who has virtually adopted him and who also happens to head the Organization. Sullivan loves Rooney -- is grateful to him. He has a good life, a wife, and two sons. He attends church regularly. Michael Sullivan kills people for a living.
The drama begins when Sullivan's oldest son, also named Michael Sullivan, hides away in the back of the car one night when his father "goes off to work." The father and the boy's uncle, Connor Rooney, are sent on a job. Connor jumps the gun, so to speak, and Sullivan is forced to mow down a room full of people that he hadn't planned to kill. The kid sees it all. He now knows what his father does for a living. He knows what the whole Family does for a living.
The kid is spotted. The uncle decides the kid must be killed to keep him quiet. The rest of the story is Tom Hanks driving across country trying to keep the mob from murdering his son. Father and son, the old and the young Michael Sullivan, are heading west - first to Chicago - then through several small Illinois towns robbing banks - and on to a small town in on the Pacific Coast of California, called Perdition. Perdition, of course, is another word for "Hell".
I won't tell you anymore of the story, other than to say that the question at the beginning is the same as the question at the end - Is there any good in Michael Sullivan, or no good, at all?"
It's a complicated question. I wonder if he was that much different than me: a man doing the best that he could, for the son that he loved, with whatever knowledge and skill that God and John Rooney gave him.
God, thank God, just gave us different skills. But I will comment that the nature God gave Sullivan helped him save the life of his son. See the movie.
For now, you and I need to move on to the Matthew passage, the Parable of the Weeds. We'll see if it helps clarify anything.
The Kingdom of Heaven, we are told, is like a person who goes out and sows good, pure Wheat Seed. But then later, someone sneaks in a throws around a bunch of Weed Seed, as well. When the wheat begins to grow, lo and behold the weeds appear as well.
The farmhands ask if they should go out and pull up the weeds. But the farmer says, No, because while you are pulling up the weeds, you might damage the wheat as well. We'll wait until the harvest - we'll separate the Weed from the Wheat then.
Jesus explains the parable, of course, as the Wheat representing the Righteous People and the Weeds as being those with what Paul might call, "sinful natures." The farmer is God - who wisely demands that the farmhands leave the wheat and the weeds alone. To pull out one, might damage the other. All will be made right at the end of the world.
I see the story in a slightly different way, as well. I see God sowing the wheat see, the "righteous" nature, in each life. And then along comes the infiltrating weed seeds, providing the "sinful" nature in each life, as well. When the seeds are small, not fully developed, I would imagine that they are pretty difficult to tell apart. I would also suggest that it takes a full life to really see what's there.
Thank God, the Lord lets the wheat and the weeds grow together - and that final answers to questions of good and evil aren't made by me, or thee. It takes a whole growing season - to see what we really have planted out there - or "in" there, as it may be.
The tag line for The Road to Perdition reads: "Pray for Michael Sullivan." Michael Sullivan needs a lot of prayers. He personally knows he'll never get to Heaven - but he has higher hopes for his son. To save his son, a lot of men must die.
Is Michael Sullivan Wheat or Weed? Like his son, I'm going to beg the question.
Experience has led me to believe that each person is a field unto themselves. As our spiritual qualities develop, so do our sinful ones. If we weed out the weeds, we may destroy the wheat, as well. Jesus himself warns us of this possibility.
It was a terrible day when Michael Sullivan found that he father was a hired killer. Or was it? It was the day that Michael BEGAN to learn who his father was. Who would Michael Sullivan the younger grown to become if he had not spent those six weeks on the road with his father?
And that terrible day when Michael Sullivan found that his father was a hired killer: was it such a bad day for Michael Sullivan the Elder? Lord, yes, he lost his wife, he lost his younger son - but … who did Michael Sullivan become as a result of spending those six weeks on the road with his son?
Yes, sons and daughters can be very vexing to their parents - but they can also be their salvation.
This world is full of bad people, bad things, bad decisions, bad circumstances. And the world is full of evil, as well. But I am not certain it would be such a good world if all the bad things weren't there.
It may be a simple message that I offer this morning: but what I have concluded, confounding as it is, is that God both knew and knows what He/She is doing.
God left both the wheat and the weeds in people; the wheat and the weeds in things; the wheat and the weeds in circumstances; left them there for the Purpose.
Our job is to do the best that we can, living with both the wheat and the weeds in our lives and in our natures -- and see what happens. As we get a little older, and look back over our fields, may our Wheat grow ten times taller than our Weeds. That's my version of an Irish Blessing.
And may God be with each of us in our efforts.
Amen. Click to Return to Index