Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 23, 2017
“Less for the Least”
Matthew 13: 24-30 – The Message
He told another story. “God’s kingdom is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. That night, while his hired men were asleep, his enemy sowed thistles all through the wheat and slipped away before dawn. When the first green shoots appeared and the grain began to form, the thistles showed up, too.
27 “The farmhands came to the farmer and said, ‘Master, that was clean seed you planted, wasn’t it? Where did these thistles come from?’
28 “He answered, ‘Some enemy did this.’
“The farmhands asked, ‘Should we weed out the thistles?’
29-30 “He said, ‘No, if you weed the thistles, you’ll pull up the wheat, too. Let them grow together until harvest time. Then I’ll instruct the harvesters to pull up the thistles and tie them in bundles for the fire, then gather the wheat and put it in the barn.’”
Boy, Jesus got this one right. Later in chapter 13, Jesus explains today’s parable and said, “thistles are subjects of the Devil.” Yes, only the devil could come up with something as evil as thistles! From the time I was probably 8 or 9 years old, right around the time I started to drive (yes, life on a farm is different); from the age of 8 or 9 among my jobs was to walk the fields pulling thistles. Up the rows and down, hour after hour, screaming at the Devil for those blasted thistles. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes they were as tall as me. But fortunately, we could pull them out only in our fields of pinto beans or sunflowers. To pull them up in out of fields of wheat would pull up the wheat too. So Jesus got the farming aspect right. And he got the thistle part right too. They’re evil. Well, maybe not evil… But they do love to torment the church. Art and I pull hundreds upon hundreds of thistles around the church every summer.
But I do well to remember that back on the farm, it was thistles that were the problem, not my parents who sent me out to do the work – who didn’t care that I would rather spend all day watching the Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island. I’m sure I complained bitterly about my parents, but I’d like to think that I understood, thistles were the problem, not them. And it occurs to me, that’s important to remember today.
We’ve just come through another bruising health care battle. One of our UCC leaders, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, was among a group of faith leaders who were arrested outside the offices of the Senate Majority Leader on July 13. She said, “We are not here to stand for or against any political party. We are not here to play partisan games with any human life. We are here to stand against the wickedness of this legislation. [Because] any healthcare reform that denies access to coverage for an additional 22 million of the most vulnerable citizens among us is wickedness. Any health care coverage that provides less for the least than it does more for the most is wickedness.” Strong language. And, notably, carefully stated.
Unlike Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz who called the legislation “horrific, cruel, and unacceptable” but went on to call its proponents “evil people.” Along the lines of what someone on the other side said. “I won’t go so far as to say that I hate any of the Democrats involved in this mess. But I am willing to say I hate the Democratic Party because it’s evil.” As you know, this is the state of discourse to which we have fallen. This is the state of our country.
I was curious so I googled two phrases: 1) Are Republicans evil, and 2) Are Democrats evil? Plenty of people, like the two I cited, were willing to provide an answer. I googled “I hate Republicans” and got 21 million responses. I googled “I hate Democrats” and there were 20 million, 900,000. I would suggest that there are people on both sides who think things would be much better in our country if we simply eliminated the other – each one considering the other the thistle that contaminates an otherwise perfectly good crop of wheat.
Scripture does say:
“Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
preying on widows
and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10: 1–3)
But Jesus said in his explanation of today’s parable, “The harvest,” that time when the harvesters put the thistles in bundles for the fire and wheat into the barn, “The harvest,” Jesus said, “is at the end of the age, the curtain of history.” I take that to mean “So, what do we do in the meantime?” and leave the sorting out for God to do. And in that meantime, protect the widow and fatherless. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, invite in the stranger… Jesus said, “whatever you do for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do for me.” And he said, “whatever you don’t do for the least of these, you don’t do for me.”
The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t downplay the idea that there are enemies who do people harm. I might object to the word enemies, but it’s there. I would argue, however, the Gospel, at least in this parable, doesn’t identify who they might be but rather, in the meantime, how we respond.
In the same way, The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t downplay that there is evil in the world. Though I’m a good bleeding heart liberal who chafes at the very idea of evil, the point is still a good one. And that we share a temptation in every age to decide who is who.
But in the various translations, there’s even some conflict within the text about the exact identity of the enemy.
In the version we heard Melody read, the one who sowed thistles was “his” enemy – as in, it was the farmer’s enemy. This is how it’s also translated in the King James and New International Version. But in the New Revised, which is our pew Bible, and the Common English, which we often use, the text simply says “an” enemy, not the farmer’s enemy.
This could all just be a minor issue, but it seems significant to me. Because as I read and reflect on the parable, I might get caught up on who, therefore, my enemy is. You know, if the farmer had an enemy, who is mine? The desire to do so is a real problem in our divided, polarized and paralyzed world.
We’ve been here before. After Hurricane Katrina, Kira Schlesinger volunteered with those who were evacuated to Houston, handing out blankets and listening to the horrific stories of rescue and humiliation. In worship the Sunday after President Bush told the FEMA director, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” she heard her priest pray for the President by name. Having just heard the stories of so many evacuees, she sat in her pew fuming. I was spitting mad, she said. By the end of the service she conceded to God, “Fine. I’ll pray for the president, but I’m not going to like it.”
But week after week she did it. “I prayed for the president. I don’t know if it changed him, but it changed me.”
And isn’t that the point of prayer? Not for the other person to change their ways, come to their senses, realize what a sinful person they are, but to change us? Not to think about someone, You’re the thistle and I’m the wheat, but to realize, maybe this parable is trying to teach us: “We’re in this together and we better get along.”
We’re in an interesting moment in the healthcare debate. Stuck nowhere. And both parties are so mad at each other they can’t imagine conceding an inch. You wouldn’t cooperate with us so we’re not going to cooperate with you. Even worse, there is so much blood lust about our president that the very idea he could claim anything as a “win” eliminates all willingness to work together for some solution. Democrats and Republicans have simply got to get over it. Whether the “they” in this moment are evil thistles, enemies, or simply on opposite sides, the health and wellbeing of too many people is too important to refuse to work together. Come to the table, I beg all of you. Yes, it’s not fair. But worse than fairness, it’s a matter of literal life and death.
So I googled “how to deal with enemies” and found a treasure trove. One advised “Stay out of their way.” Another, “Keep it classy.” Some were questionable, such as “Work harder so the boss will notice you and diminish your enemy’s ability to cut you down.” But another said, just, “Hold your nose and lie about how great they are.”
Of course, Christian sites advised “Love your enemies,” which I appreciate, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of a strategy for actually changing the situation. Obviously Jesus also said “pray for your enemies and those who persecute you,” and though it may not change the situation, it does offer the opportunity to change ourselves.
I’ve told this story before, but it seems to fit so well:
Once there was a monastery so beautiful and peaceful that people drove out of their way just to wander around and sit on its lush green lawn under big cottonwood trees. The monastery had gained a reputation among people who always felt frenetic and perpetually stressed. Go there and you will find relief.
But the monastery fell on hard times and many of the monks left in dissatisfaction. Soon, there were only a handful and their leader, the abbot. They were constantly fighting among themselves, each blaming their hard times on the faults and failings of the other. Such an atmosphere could be felt on the grounds and, slowly, people stopped visiting.
One day a travelling rabbi stopped to rest for the night. He ate and prayed alongside the monks. The next day, as the rabbi prepared leave, the abbot drew him aside. He told the rabbi of his monastery’s problems and asked for his advice.
The rabbi didn’t say anything.
The abbot begged. “Please, didn’t you observe anything that can help us?”
“Well, I did discover that the Messiah lives here.”
“The what?! Where? Here!? There’s nobody here but us.”
“Well, I’m not sure who,” said the rabbi. “But be on the lookout. One day you’ll see.”
The abbot was frustrated that the rabbi had no real advice but thanked him and wished him well on his way. He then gathered the monks together to tell them what the rabbi said. As they looked at each other, they were genuinely skeptical. There’s no one else here but us. No one said it, but each of them thought, there’s no Messiah among this bunch of SOBs…sad ornery brothers.
Certainly not Brother Henry. He could find the downside of the sun rising in the morning.
Certainly not Brother Thomas. He was always getting into people’s private business. Or Brother Michael either. He’s too quiet. Except for his scowls, we never even know what he thinks. But, maybe…
And certainly not Brother Robert. He’s so gruff and disagreeable. He never, ever has a smile on his face. Or maybe they’re all disguises. Maybe it’s the abbot…
But each of them eventually realized – uh oh. What if it’s me? But as Brother Clarence thought, my attitude makes me the least likely of any of us. And yet, what if I’m the Messiah?
A few months later, one of the brothers asked: “Doesn’t it seem like there are more people wandering around, sitting under the cottonwood trees?” Brother Adam agreed, adding, “It seems like every week there are more cars here than there were the week before.”
The atmosphere had, in fact, changed as each of the monks began to see the potential that one of them might be the Messiah – or even themselves.
In time, some of those wandering the grounds asked about joining. In time, every room in the monastery housed a new monk. And in time, it was once again a thriving community.
It changed them – as individuals and as a community. Yet as much as we can pray ourselves through problem situations and love each another through anything, what about the people who are still left behind – whether it’s only 2 million, 12 million or 32? Should we just have better attitudes? Think more positively about meals on wheels and clean water? “Just change yourself” would have been an easy way to leave this parable.
Barbara Brown Taylor said, “Parables are not direct answers to questions. As soon as we ‘know’ what a parable means, we’ve probably missed the point. But if we’re made uncomfortable by the challenge of a parable, we’re probably getting a little closer to the heart of its meaning.”
Talk of evil and enemies and the Devil makes me uncomfortable. Just as uncomfortable as I should be about thinking that anyone with whom I see the world differently is my enemy. That their agenda is evil. That everything would be better if we could only be rid of them.
Setting that aside, believing God will indeed sort it out in the end, people of faith and conscience must still continue to demand that health care is simply a basic standard of human decency. To stop playing games with people’s lives. That any health care coverage that provides less for the least than it does more for the most is wrong.
The vision we hear Jesus teach over and over of the Kingdom of God is more for the least and less for the most. You know, the humble lifted high, the powerful toppled from their throne. The poor filled and the rich sent away empty-handed.
Yet, Jesus also teaches that God’s love is so abundant and so overwhelming, so plentiful and so profuse, so generous and so rich that we must abandon our obsession that there is not enough to go around for everyone. God is, so therefore, there is enough. And when we figure this out, we shall all live a life of abundant health and wellbeing. May it be so. Amen
 After the crowds leave, Jesus explains it’s meaning to his disciples in verses 36-43
 Matthew 25: 40 and 45
 “The Messiah Is Among Us,” unknown origin, found in the book Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, edited by Elisa Day Pearman, Pilgrim Press, 2007
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Live with Weeds,” The Seeds of Heaven, quoted by Kate Huey in Sermon Seeds