I Love to Tell the Story

Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43
July 17, 2011

Last Saturday I did baptismal preparation with two sets of parents. They are lapsed Catholics and lapsed Episcopalians. A couple of them are engineers by training. All four parents tend to see the world as hard data and to have a secular view on life. All four parents want what is best for their daughters. I struggled with communicating with them. I knew that they would nod and agree with what I said, but that the odds on their darkening the door of any church (for some time at least) were slim. Some within our denomination would say that I should not baptize an infant unless the parents were grounded in the faith and I had a fair amount of assurance that the child would be reared in the Christian faith.

Well, last week we talked about broadcasting seed and how some of the seed falls on barren ground and some of it flourishes. I tend to be a rotary spreader and let it fly. I also do not believe in withholding the sacraments from someone just because his/her parent happens to be a jerk.

I went through the baptismal service and then talked about it. I tried to help them to see that we live within narratives of our lives and life. Yes, there are facts and logic, but we make sense of our lives by telling stories. Man/woman is a story telling animal. More than anything else, more than walking upright or having a thumb, it is our ability to tell stories that separates us from all the other animals in God’s creation.

A story can be imaginary and totally made up. As a child you may have been warned not to “tell stories” – things that are just made up. Or a story can be an account of something that really happened. Often stories are a little bit of both. They employ imagination and they connect to the real world that we know in every day life.

It is natural for us to put together a narrative, which has characters, a problem, the solving of that problem and then some reflection upon what has happened. Some of our stories are small and we can even be a character in the story. But there are also big stories, or narratives, retold and put together over thousand and thousand of years. Those big stories are what we call the world religions. They help us understand what has happened in the world and what is happening to us. There are religions that are highly imaginary and mythical, like those of the Nordic gods. They have little connection with the real world and events. Other religions like Judaism and Christianity connect closely with the world, history, events and with our lives.

Twice I’ve had a woman come to me with her children and say that she was a nominal Episcopalian and her husband was a lapsed Roman Catholic or that she was a Christian and her husband a Jew. The women did not know in which faith to rear their children. I told each of them that I didn’t care what tradition she reared her children in, but it was important that they be reared in a tradition (Christianity, Judaism, Roman Catholic or Episcopalian) because they needed to have a set of stories, of hallmarks, in which to work out what they believed and what kind of faith they had. To leave a child without any religious upbringing and then expect that child as a young adult to make intelligent and reasonable (or even mature) decisions about religion and faith was cruel. That child/young adult would have no narrative, no context in which to work out a meaningful faith. I’ve seen that when I have talked with college students, who were the products of Christian-Jewish marriages, in which there was no religious training whatsoever. The result was a young adult who literally didn’t know what he/she was talking about.

You and I accept our religion, Christianity, partly because it connects, or coheres with life as we experience it. Our minds, our hearts, our experiences and the experiences of others cause us to say, “This is true. This makes sense to me. This draws me into it. I want to be a part of it.” Through baptism, through hearing the Gospel stories, through the liturgy we become part of the community of faith. We are introduced to and we introduce others into the narrative of the story of the Gospel and Christianity. The Gospel, the stories of Jesus, becomes part of our story and part of the story of the faith community as well. As we sang last week, “I love to tell the story…”

Now I am going to tell you a story. I think it will help us to understand the passage, which was read this morning from Matthew. When I was fourteen, my neighbor, Mr. Brown, had the lushest garden I have ever seen. His corn was “knee high by the Fourth of July”, and his tomatoes were “Big Boys.” There were Hubbard squash and dark green Zucchini. Often he sent over corn by way of his son, Doug. I liked Doug because his sister was a dancer at the Edgewater Beach in Chicago.

There were other boys in the neighborhood. Freddy Johnson lived down on Main Street with his cousin, Willie, and the Smith brothers lived on Oak Street. I didn’t like to play with Freddy because he argued and was always up to mischief. Still, when things got dull, on a summer day in 1949, Freddy was better than no one. In the hot evenings we would roam around looking for a game of sandlot baseball or apples, which we put on the ends of saplings and whipped over rooftops. One day Freddy asked me if I knew of any gardens, where he could go and look around. I told him my father had one, but the best one was Mr. Brown’s. I went off to scout camp for two weeks and forgot about Freddy.

When I returned there was Doug, dejected and forlorn, on my back stoop. He told me that one night some boys had trashed his father’s garden. They had trampled the turnips, smashed the squash and tossed the tomatoes. Did I have any idea who would do this? I didn’t, and I wondered what his father would do. His father, a veteran from WWI, was a patient man, and had decided to leave most of the stuff alone until harvest time and then clear out the waste. Doug said that his father had decided not to spend time trying to find out who the vandals were. He preferred to concentrate on harvesting the good vegetables.

Later I discovered that it was Freddy and his friends. I did not report this to Mr. Brown, for I figured there would be too many denials and evasions. So I simply stayed away from Freddy. Some said that Freddy had a bit of the Old Nick in him. Others said that he was a mischief-maker. I thought Freddy was just plain destructive. Shortly thereafter I moved to Connecticut and never heard any more about Freddy, Willie and the Smith brothers, I didn’t miss them, either.

Jesus told a similar story, the parable of the wheat and the tares (weeds). There was a field where good seed was sown. One night the enemy came and sowed weeds, intending to spoil the field. When this was discovered, the slaves offered to pull out the weeds, but their master told them to leave the weeds alone, lest in pulling them out they might damage the wheat. At harvest time the wheat and tares would be separated, the wheat put in a barn and the tares burned. The first half of the story focus on the patience of the landlord. The second half of the story is allegorized and focuses on judgment and punishment. The essential thrust of the parable is that you and I face an ultimate judgment in the kingdom of heaven.

So the first point is that all things are not relative. There ultimately is judgment and a separation. You and I are held to a standard and are accountable for our deeds. Secondly Jesus makes the point that evil exists. The field was not spoiled by ignorance or by chance. There are forces of sin, evil and destruction in the world. Those forces oppose that which is positive, creative and good. Those forces destroy the harvest of good things. (Consider the despotic forces of genocide in various parts of Africa and the world.) Thirdly, final judgment belongs to God. So there are three points: Although we often understand only partly, everything is not relative or a matter of perspective. You and I are judged; evil exists; and God is the ultimate judge (evil loses).

Now life is not an allegory. But I think our lives are very much like Mr. Brown’s garden. The parable of the wheat and tares gives us a perspective from which to view our lives. With the help of the Holy Spirit, you and I try to do the best we can with what we have. We try to be faithful, to do the good, and at the very least to do no harm. There are those in life who are mischief-makers, who are tempters, and who seek to do us and our children harm. They must be held accountable, as must we when we are sinful and tempted. Some evildoers and mischief-makers are obvious, such as drug pushers, child abusers and murders. Other mischief-makers are more subtle such as cynics, naysayers, vindictive individuals, abusive bosses or disgruntled employees or base politicians. You and I are often tempted into sin and mischief making. Although in the last analysis final judgment is with God, you and I have to resist evildoers vigorously, be it through law enforcement, the courts, reform, public opinion or other means. But even more so, we need to tend our gardens. We need to prop up that which has been trampled (such as the homeless and unemployed) to nourish that which is growing (our children), and to shelter that which is fragile be it through strengthening the family, counseling, social service or other means.

Five hundred times I have stood at a grave and realized that each of our lives has a final accounting. When all is said and done, what can we say we have done, and what can other honestly say about us as Christians? What kind of garden and harvest do we have? Is it cramped and unimaginative, parched and neglected? Or is it open, imaginative, fertile, faithful and well tended? To paraphrase Thoreau, “I do not want to find when I come to die that I have not lived.”

The occasion of a summer Sunday is an opportunity to think about what lies ahead of you. It is a time for new beginnings, reorientation and reaffirmation. Sometime today write down what you would really like to do with the time you have left. Perhaps it is to tell someone you are sorry, or someone that you love them, to make a memorial, to volunteer, to spend time in prayer. God gives us a bountiful harvest beginning here and now. The Kingdom of God begins with our faith and with our redemption in the present. You and I can with the energizing power of the Holy Spirit cultivate and nourish part of our garden now. We can enjoy some of the harvest.

Yes there are tempters, mischief-makers and evildoers in life. There are genocide, child soldiers, and heinous crimes. Rather than nit pick on so many things in Church and in politics, we need to take seriously the problem of evil. But for today it is sufficient to note that God promises you and me an abundant harvest. For those of us who live in the rhythms of the Church, that harvest is symbolized in the Eucharistic bread and wine, which satisfies and endures. Amen.