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Heroes Among the Wheat and Tares

Sunday, 17 July 2011
I heard the gospel preached this morning - I mean, with boldness and courage in the face of a risky situation - but I'm not sure you would know it without knowing the context out of which the sermon arouse.

The gospel, of course, is the parable of the Wheat and the Tares Matthew 13:24-30,36-43). You can find all the lessons for today here, on The Lectionary Page.

The preacher is a new colleague of mine, a retired Lutheran pastor who has, for the past six years, been the 'interim' rector at an Episcopal church in the area. I'll call him "Pastor Bob". That's not what the folks in his congregation call him, however. He's known as "Fr. Bob" - which, he told me, he hates.

"Even after all this time, I still flinch when someone calls me 'Father'," he said. "I hate it, but well, I just can't get them to change, so I quit banging my head against the wall and figure I got bigger fish to fry."

If you called 'Central Casting' and asked them to send you one retired Lutheran Pastor, you couldn't get a more accurate match "Pastor Bob". He's a bit frumpy in dress and gentle in spirit, reticent in speech but fully present and emotionally available. The deep sonorous tones to his voice and balding gray head only serve to accent his suitability for the role.

Quite frankly, I can't imagine him doing anything other than being a pastor, unless, perhaps, he were the owner of a country general store or a farmer bailing hay. Either way, you know he would be in the front row in church on Sunday. Every Sunday. Wife and kids by his side.

I met Bob at the local weekly gathering of area clergy. I happened to sit next to him that first week and I make it my business to sit next to him every week. That's because of Theo, who took to him immediately. Yes, I bring Theo just about everywhere I can - even to church when I can get away with it. He needs the socialization - especially with men.

You may recall that when Theo came to me, the folks at Poodle Rescue placed him on a "Restricted List". He could only be placed with women - a woman, preferably, since he seemed especially afraid of men. I was a perfect candidate.

Here's the thing: The first person in the room that Theo approached was Pastor Bob. They have become great friends. Indeed, last week, when walked into the room, Theo went straight to Pastor Bob. And, and, AND . . . his tail was wagging.

See what I mean?

The past three weeks, Pastor Bob has been doing battle with a certain segment of his congregation. A small segment, to be sure, but that's all it takes, isn't it?

Long story very short: A group of people in town, members of the United Church of Christ (UCC), have been meeting in various homes. They have outgrown their space and came to the Vestry to see if they could begin using the church on Sunday afternoons for their worship services.

In the course of conversation, it "came out" that the UCC Pastor was first ordained in the MCC church. The folks around the table had never heard of MCC and were curious. MCC, she explained, stands for Metropolitan Community Church, which was begun by Troy Perry as a place in the church of, by and for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People.

Almost to a person, the Vestry members took in the information, accepted it, and moved on. Until AFTER the meeting, in the parking lot - where everyone knows the real business of the church is carried out - and that one person began to bellow.

Outraged, he was. Furious, he was. "You gonna let THOSE people into OUR church?" he demanded, but everyone knew how he would answer his own question so there was no real reason to engage the young man, who was, at that point, frothing at the mouth.

"Tell me about this young man," I said to Pastor Bob.

He smiled and listed off the facts: The son of the matriarch and patriarch of the congregation. Early thirties. Unmarried. Still lives with his parents.

I smiled and said, "Thirty-something unmarried man, still living with his parents and has a problem with Queer people. Hmmmmmm . . ."

Pastor Bob smiled and said, "Well.... he does have a child.... out of wedlock...."

"Well, there it is, then," I said, "We know he's not gay. He's at least done it once 'for the gipper'".

The room broke out in raucous laughter.

Apparently, the young man and his parents are causing quite a ruckus in the congregation.

Threatening to walk out. "Buh-bye" said the priest and Vestry.

Threatening to take the congregation with them. "Okey-dokey," said the leadership.

"We'll picket the church the first Sunday those people set foot in our church," they said.

"Make sure you get a proper permit from the Town Hall," said Pastor Bob, kindly.

Still, it was hard not to miss the tension in Pastor Bob's face. "Well," I said to him, "If this is what retirement looks like, I can't wait to start."

Pastor Bob sat up in his chair, eyes flashing with passion, and, voice trembling but heart and mind and soul convicted of the truth he was about to speak said, "There is never any retirement from justice."

Okay, so that's when I knew I was in love with Pastor Bob. Theo is such a good judge of character, isn't he?

This Sunday is the first Sunday that the UCCs hold their worship service in the Episcopal church. Four members of the church - the three family members and one other - have not been to church for two weeks. They have promised to show up this afternoon with pickets and chants - you know, just so the UCCs will really feel as welcome as a skunk to a garden party.

So, I went to that church this morning, to show my support for Pastor Bob. And, here's part of the sermon I heard.

Pastor Bob asked us if we had ever seen a wheat field.
"It's pretty hard to tell the wheat from some of the tares or weeds. If you pull them up, you risk pulling up some of the wheat along with it."

"In any event, one can understand the impulse to pull up the tares before the harvest. Makes the job of threshing the wheat a whole lot easier."

"But Jesus says, 'Leave it be.'. Let the wheat and the tares grow together and let me sort it out when you bring in the harvest."

"Some good Christians don't listen to Jesus. They think it's their job to pull up the tares and do God's job. That's not what Jesus says we are to do. He says, "`No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest . . ."

"The thing about the tares is that they are just plants that no one really wants. They have a purpose. They are part of God's creation, too. They have their own beauty, in their own way. 'Let them be'."

"It's not our job to pronounce what is wheat and what is tare. We're to let both grow together and let God do the threshing at the harvest. Because, this is God's garden - not ours. And all of it, the wheat and the tares, belong to God. When we get back to The Garden, we'll understand better, the mysterious ways of God."
Now, on the surface, that sounds like a pretty straightforward sermon. And, it was. Good use of the metaphor. You can't tell it from this reporting, but it was well delivered - and received. The preacher was fully present to the Gospel and the congregation. The sermon clearly came from a place of truth and conviction in him.

What you also don't know is that, as I looked around the church, heads were nodding. Or, some folk looked down at their shoes.

There was no denying the four folk who were planning to picket later that day. Yes, there were there. They would be the ones with steam blowing out of their ears. Actually, I don't think they figured out whether or not Pastor Bob was calling the UCCs as the 'tares' or them. And, it pissed them off.

Pastorally, it was a brilliant sermon. He struck all the right cords. Old timers and adversaries and new comers and visitors alike heard what they needed to hear.

Or, as this gospel pericope ends: "Let anyone with ears listen!"

You know, there are Heroes who walk among the Wheat and the Tares. Gentle giants of Justice who boldly and courageously take risks for the Gospel.

Or, as someone wrote to me yesterday on a completely different matter, "Progress is where you find it sometimes."

This is where the real battle is being waged and being won. In small, country churches, east of Nowhereville, who set the Gospel standard for themselves and the community and hold themselves and the People of God accountable to it.

It's won in conversations in church parking lots and in corners of Parish Halls and at Vestry Meetings as well as in pulpits where parables are explained without hitting anyone over the head or leaving blood on the Altar.

On my way out of church, I ran into the Senior Warden who had introduced himself to me when I first walked in the door. I smiled and said to him, "That sermon on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares was a parable all in itself, wasn't it?"

He looked at me, carefully, and realized that I knew the scoop. He smiled broadly and said, in that Lower, Slower Delaware style of reticence, "Yup."

"Listen," I said, "If you want, I can get a cup of coffee, do a few errands, and be back here by 12:45."

He thought for a minute and said, "Thank you, but I think we'll just let it be. You know," he smiled, "Just like Jesus said."

As I drove away, I passed the little Methodist church down the street. The sign in the front of the church had this message: "The standard by which you judge others will be the standard by which you are judged."

Looks like the town is onto something.

And that, boys and girls, is how the battle is won: One church, one pew, one sermon, one person at a time.

As I continued to drive the 35 minutes back to my home, I thought about the Jacob story which served as the Hebrew Lesson for the day. It's the one about Jacob's ladder (Genesis 28:10-19a)

I was struck by the fact that Jacob "woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place-- and I did not know it!"

There are Heroes and Giants of justice out there in the wheat fields.

You just can't always see them for the wheat and the tares.

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