Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 19, 2020
“We Need Each Other”
Matthew 13: 24-30 – New Revised Standard Version
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. 25 While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The servants of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?’
28 “‘An enemy has done this,’ he answered.
“The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’
29 “But the landowner said, ‘No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow side by side until the harvest. And at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, “First gather the weeds and tie them together in bundles to be burned. But bring the wheat into my barn.”
Never read the comments, right? Never read a news story and then say, “I wonder what people are saying about this.” Not unless you’re prepared to be severely disappointed by the utter lack of impulse control and civility by our neighbors. On Thursday, I read an article about the Colorado governor mandating the wearing of face coverings in public, joined that day by the governor of Arkansas and the day before by the governor of Alabama. Twenty plus states and growing. Among the comments, the majority agreed. Combined with social distancing, wearing a mask in public is the best way to slow the spread of Covid 19.
There was a cartoon this week depicting God speaking to a human from the clouds. “I have something for you that will greatly prevent Covid 19.” The human looks up excitedly. “What is it? A vaccine? A miracle cure? A gift from heaven?” In the next panel, you can see God’s hand reaching through the clouds holding a mask.
So, again, most comments expressed appreciation for the governor’s order. There was a smattering of objections to personal liberty, which, I’ll be honest with you, I just don’t understand. And to be even more honest with you, I don’t want to understand. Just wear the damn mask.
But there was one comment that really stuck out. “Let the anti-maskers get Covid and die.” Wow. Someone actually wrote that in a public forum. That’s how far civil discourse has fallen, that someone would feel it acceptable to say such a thing in public. Someone who advocates the wearing of masks to save lives, someone on “my side,” just suggested letting people die so they can learn a lesson.
But I don’t think he or she is alone, not literally wishing death, but kind of like a parable. Which made the parable of the wheat and the weeds a little more relevant for today.
Jesus told a parable to the crowds who gathered around:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who planted good seed in their field.” Last week he told a parable about a farmer who just threw seed everywhere, carelessly letting some fall on the road, some on rocky ground, some that got choked out by weeds, and some on good soil. Today’s parable sounds more reasonable, like someone who carefully prepared the ground and chose just the right seed to plant a beautiful crop. Except it had become spoiled by weeds.
The 13th chapter of Matthew’s gospel is full of stories about farming and fishing. Jesus takes parables right out of the personal experiences of the crowds. For example, everyone could visualize a beautiful field of wheat with a bunch of weeds mixed in. Or, in our own experience, we might think of weeds in a carefully kept garden, or weeds that spring up in the middle of a perfectly manicured lawn. What should you do? Perhaps you know from personal experience that if you pull out the weeds, you might also pull out the very thing you’re trying to grow. It’s a dilemma understood by many of us. What should you do?
Jesus said, let them all grow together. And then, when you go to harvest, collect the weeds into bundles to be burned and gather the wheat into the barn. The image of burning here is not necessarily judgment. People did in fact gather bundles of weeds to build fires to keep themselves warm at night.
But imagine the headline the next day. “Preacher advocates growing weeds.” And imagine the comments. Some might say, “He’s just one of those itinerant nut-balls.” Others might say, “That’s a prudent idea.” And one might add, “Let the preacher’s family starve to death while they try to eat weeds for dinner.”
What should we do? Jesus said, don’t pull out the weeds because you will pull out the wheat too. Be patient and let it be sorted out in the end. But lest we begin to analyze the literal wisdom of letting wheat and weeds grow together, we have to remember that this is a parable. And parables are supposed to make us think, not tell us what to do. And as soon as we are certain what a parable means, we’ve likely lost the meaning. But if we’re made uncomfortable by the challenge of the parable, we’re probably getting closer to the heart of its meanings.
There’s a detail I don’t like to mention in this parable. Jesus didn’t just describe a field of wheat mixed with weeds. He said, “an enemy deliberately planted the weeds.” So, clearly this isn’t just a literal story. And the parable just got uncomfortable. “An enemy did this to you.”
We’re not comfortable with talk of enemies in polite civil circles. Or people who do. But in the later explanation of the parable it gets worse. “The good seeds are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.” And with the end of the harvest comes “weeping and gnashing of teeth in the furnace of fire. While the righteous will shine like the sun.” Uncomfortable yet?
Notably, no other gospel includes this parable. And let me add that, like last week, scholars’ debate whether Jesus said that last part. It’s likely that this “explanation” was added later when Matthew was written, around 50 years after the death of Jesus. The early church was not quite as harmonious anymore. They were divided and struggling, feeling like some in their community were like weeds – we should get rid of them. With division often comes comparisons of us and them, pure and impure, good and evil. Note, this isn’t a conversation about the Roman Empire and Israel. This is about people sitting in the next pew.
Whether Jesus said it or not, we can relate. People just down the street, or the next town over. People with whom we have kids in the same school. We're living in a world of us/them. Public health vs. personal liberty. A partisan pandemic. We live in a world where the president labels people good and evil. And he won’t even pretend that he wants to bring people together. And therefore, a lot of “us” can’t wait for “them” to be out of power. And face some harsh consequences. And vice versa. There’s little love lost on either side – and I hate to even talk about being on sides. What is a community that’s supposed to be built on love supposed to do?
Well, Jesus said, “Let the wheat and weeds grow together.” That’s good news. That’s really good news because it is just as likely that I am a noxious, invasive weed as it is a beautiful blade of wheat. And we are all a mixture of weed and wheat. Of light and shadow. The truth is we are all weed and wheat. Good and evil coexist, though it’s almost always easier for us to recognize the evil in others than it is to see it in ourselves. Even Paul agonized, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do.” No one is all good and no one is all bad. Bryan Stevenson said of men and women on death row, “We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a beautiful recreation of this parable: “One afternoon in the middle of the growing season, a bunch of farmhands decided to surprise their boss and weed one of her fields. No sooner had they begun, however, than they began to argue about which of the wheat-looking things were weeds. And what real threat could Queen Anne’s lace pose to wheat. Can’t it stay as decoration? And the honeysuckle smelled so sweet, it would be a shame to pull it out. And the blackberries. They’ll be ripe in a few weeks. Can’t we let them stay? But in a field of wheat, they might as well be weeds.
Just then the owner showed up and ordered them out of the field. It looked like a mess, a discredit to them and their profession. She took away their machetes and told them to sit down and watch the sun’s light pass over the field. They marveled at the profusion of colors. The brown-eyed Susans mixed in with milkweed and Cherokee roses and tall goldenrod. All mixed in with the amber waves of grain.
At the end of the summer, the reapers came and carefully, expertly, gathered the wheat and turned the rest of the “harvest” into bricks to build an oven and kindling for fire to bake that wheat into bread. At the end of the harvest, the neighbors were all invited for a banquet. As the farmer broke bread with them, that gathering became the final distillation of that whole messy, gorgeous field of wheat and weeds. Everyone agreed, nothing had ever tasted so good before.” Isn’t that a great story!?
The kingdom of heaven is like a field of wheat and weeds. What should we do? Let them grow together because somehow God is able to miraculously take this mess we have made of things and bring forth from it both excellent flour and excellent fire to produce life-giving bread. Let them grow together because in Ephesians we are told, “God’s power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Let them be and let God sort it out.
I’ll admit, however, that today’s parable leaves me with lots of unanswered questions, like shouldn’t we be ripping out white supremacy from the root? Racism is a toxic weed that if not removed will choke the life of everything else out. Shouldn’t we be uprooting the fear of immigrants and instead be planting a garden of welcome and love? And Jesus, what do you mean about an enemy planting the weeds deliberately?
But, for today anyway, the parable makes me think that every time I’m tempted to say, “I hope they get what they deserve,” I should remember: we need each other, because to remove others is to remove ourselves.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew
 Image from Jan Van Pelt
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 12, 2020
“Park Hill 2.0: From Curious to Committed”
The passage is Matthew 13: 24-30, which is read at the end
Our passage today begins, Jesus left the house to go sit on a beach. Haven’t you ever been at a party or a family gathering, maybe on Thanksgiving, when you needed to get away from a talkative uncle or just get some fresh air? Jesus wanted, needed some space so he went to the beach. But no sooner had he sat down and felt a cooling breeze on his face than crowds pressed in on him. So many, in fact, that he might have been tempted to escape back into the house. But, as we might expect of Jesus, instead he met the crowd in their need.
He got into a boat and pushed offshore so he could speak to them. He pointed to a farmer planting seeds. “See that guy over there?” That’s often how he taught. He’d see something and point, see that woman over there. See those sheep? And tell a parable. To those of us who want answers, instead of giving definitions, Jesus gave parables. For example, see that shepherd over there. That’s what God is like.
Not quite a riddle nor a satisfactory explanation, parables give you enough wiggle room to never quite know if we’ve gotten it exactly right. C.H. Dodd said parables are stories that tease our mind into thinking without us ever knowing it. Clearly, God is not a literal shepherd, so what do you mean?
So, from a boat that day he told them this parable: There once was a farmer who just threw seeds everywhere. He didn’t carefully cultivate just the right patch of earth, prepare the ground, measure out the seeds to go into perfect rows. He just threw them. As the crowd listened, everyone would have laughed and thought that was ridiculous, but their curiosity would certainly have been piqued.
Jesus told them, the sower threw the seeds so carelessly that some fell on the road, where excited birds ate a wonderful snack. Can’t you just see happy pigeons gorging on cast off bread? Not such a great way to grow the wheat that makes that bread.
Some of the seed fell onto rocky ground without enough dirt to develop roots. They began to grow but can’t you just imagine what happens to poor little shoots in heat of the Colorado sun in July. They tried but they were fried.
Some of the seed fell in a patch of weeds, and we all know what happens to seeds we want to live. Surrounded by weeds, they often can’t survive. And if they do, their root systems may get so intertwined, if you pull the weed out, you’ll likely kill the thing you’re trying to grow. In fact, Jesus tells a parable about exactly that next week.
And finally, finally after all that waste, some of the seed fell on good earth. And it produced a harvest beyond the farmer’s wildest dreams.
That’s it. He said, “If you have ears, listen.” And then he got out of the boat and walked away.
The story leaves us with lots of questions. Why was the farmer so wasteful? Who was that farmer? We might ask, who are we in the story? Are we called to be wasteful farmers? Or maybe the point of the story is that at various times we’re all different kinds of soil. Some days nothing seems to sink in through our hard heads or rough exterior. Or are we seeds? After all, some days I feel picked on like birds pecking at me. And some days I feel fried. Or I get tangled up in weeds. And, of course, I have some good, productive days too. What are we supposed to do with this parable? Jesus walked away for the crowd to wrestle with their own questions.
The disciples came to Jesus later and asked him to explain what he meant. Some commentators suggest that second part never happened. That Matthew or an editor felt the need to end it with a more satisfactory explanation. Either way, nothing more is said about going back to the crowd to offer them clarity.
But I believe the good news of Jesus Christ is actually found in our curiosity. The good news is found in statements like “I wonder…” “I wonder if…” More than answers and explanations, the blessing of the gospel is questions like “why” and “who, me!?” Parables are meant to raise lots of questions and especially to question lots of assumptions.
For example, questions we never thought to ask before the pandemic. We may get stuck asking questions like “When can we meet back in person again?” But the pandemic offers us the opportunity to ask bigger questions, like: What if. And who, me? What is church to you if your church that doesn’t meet in person? Or what if you’re attending a church where you’ve never met anyone? What does it mean to belong? Why do we do what we’ve always done? And once we come back, should we go back to what we’ve always done?
The vision we call Park Hill 2.0 grew out of our pandemic experience of separation. Brian McClaren says, change often only begins with pain. We quickly took everything online and some surprising things happened. Right away we noticed that people who don’t live in Denver joined us for worship – in fact, to this day, around 20% of our congregation every Sunday doesn’t live in Denver. Or they live in Metro Denver but have never set foot in our building. Clearly, even in Denver, our front door is not for people passing by on 26th and Leyden anymore but on the worldwide web.
In addition to worship, we moved all our existing groups online and started a new Touchbase Tuesday to ease some of our separation. It gave us a chance to see familiar faces and share stories and laugh. It felt so good. One Tuesday, Jack and Ellen joined us from Connecticut. And then Tammy from Texas. And John from his cabin near Salida. A nice side benefit of our separation was that we could see people we knew who moved away. And Chris and John and Larry and others could keep participating from their homes in the mountains.
But then there were others, like Patti and Ann in South Carolina, who had no prior connections to Park Hill. They were in worship every week and then joined us for our Maundy Thursday service. Many, many years ago I was their pastor in Cleveland. Living now in a very red state, the nearest progressive church is two hours away, so they said they’re grateful to have Park Hill, like a lifeline, accessible to them – whether in person or not.
Accessibility is a big thing for others too, although in a different way. Kathy and Mike live near Roxborough State Park and Tom and Laura live in Brighton. Those are really long commutes. They look forward to continued online access especially when the weather turns bad this winter. Lindsay and Shaun like this option since their toddler always seems to want to nap at 10 am. Online worship any time of the day and any day of the week is a welcome convenience for some people.
But for others, it’s much more than that. One couple lives in eastern New Mexico, “think west Texas,” she said. They belong to a church of very nice people, but, she said, their church is silent about important things in our world, in our country, in our government. And, she said, “your church seems unafraid to meet issues head on. So, during such turbulent times, your church is a safe refuge for us.” It’s not that we would want to take them away from their home church, but how wonderful that we can support and encourage their faith where they are. Just like for Chris in Louisiana, Bette in Texas, and Berneda in Iowa.
And that’s an important distinction. We don’t want to take people away from where they may belong but if we can partner together for a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate, what a blessing for us all. Yet for others, this can be a place to belong, especially LGBTQ people, with few places to belong.
Park Hill 2.0 started out as a desire not to leave anyone behind when we return to worship in person. We didn’t fully realize what it meant, what a sacred calling it is, to be a lifeline or a safe refuge for lonely progressive Christians. Bottom line: This means investing in good quality equipment for livestreaming in the sanctuary – video, sound… and people capable of running it.
But church is more than coming to worship on Sundays – whether in person or online. So we want people watching or observing to fully participate in faith development and community life. And so, Park Hill 2.0 envisions ongoing gatherings and studies online, each of us now in our homes, but eventually capable of including groups both in the church and anywhere people live. This further benefits people who don’t wish to go out for health or mobility reasons or driving across Denver in rush hour is so aggravating, it prevents participation in weekday activities. So for now, both Inez ten blocks away and Sally in Steamboat Streams can keep participating in our book group’s study of How to Be an Antiracist. And in the future, with some folks gathered in person at the church. Or leadership meetings, or Sunday School… Bottom line: This means investing in video conferencing equipment.
But what comes next? We have developed a strategy for Park Hill 2.0 that envisions a path for someone who is curious, who observes us online, to become a participant in some group or gathering, like Susan and Carole, have. They participants who have never been in the church. From observer to participant and then to become a supporter of ministry through prayer or giving and to become a fully committed partner in ministry, perhaps even serving in leadership. A path from curious to committed – the same for someone who worships with us in person, but previously more assumed than articulated. The pandemic has taught us to put more time and attention into each stage and offering meaningful experiences that help each of us grow in our faith and for our faith community to grow. And, as we began last fall, to nurture growing relationships, just as we learned in our relational campaign.
We’ve greatly increased our social media ministry to invite people to observe. Now to invite greater participation, I’m excited to announce some new programming we’ve developed for exactly that purpose. In addition to our ongoing groups, in two weeks, we’re going to add a weekly evening option – a course called “Gratitude During Difficult Times” for six weeks on Tuesdays at 6 pm Mountain which I will co-lead with Lori Fell who lives in Pittsburgh, for whom it will be 8 pm. And in the fall Terri will begin an evening group called “P-Squared: People and Prayer.” Again at 6 pm here so people across all the time zones can reasonably participate – one of the things we have to think about going forward.
The possibilities are endless. In fact, they may be overwhelming! On Thursday, people at Lunch and Lectionary, which has more than doubled during the pandemic, talked about healing our country’s urban/rural divide and perhaps partnering with a church somewhere for dialogue on Zoom. That prompted me to reach out to a pastor friend at a Black UCC in Virginia and we’re exploring a joint Bible study. We could invite an author, like we did with John Pavlovitz, over Zoom, saving the cost and carbon of a flight. In fact, so many things are possible, we have to remember to be strategic and call upon our mission – not to do everything but to ask, how does this help us build a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate?
Although, on the other hand, Jesus did tell that parable about throwing seed wherever it might fall. Surely we don’t want to limit God’s grace from leading us places we wouldn’t have expected. I’m not sure Jesus wants us to be wasteful, but perhaps not so cautious that we don’t try new things, which would be a terrible waste of this opportunity the pandemic handed to us.
In many ways, the vision of Park Hill 2.0 isn’t that exceptional or ground-breaking. It just embraces methods that increase our reach and widens our welcome. Sadly, however, it is exceptional in that others aren’t, or haven’t yet, embraced or articulated a vision like this. And that’s why one of our online worshipers in Arizona has donated $10,000 for our efforts. She heard our vision for Park Hill 2.0 during worship on Pentecost and said, “I want to invest!” She was excited and frustrated that her own church doesn’t have this kind of vision. She doesn’t want her own pastor to know about her gift, but she does want you to know and invites you to join her and make that kind of investment in Park Hill 2.0 as well.
There’s so much more I could say, but like Jesus, I’m going to step away leaving you with more questions than answers. At 11:30 we’re going to break into small groups, break out rooms on Zoom, so we can discuss what this means to you. While there is so much that remains unknown in our world right now, these things seem certain: we value relationships, we value growing in our faith, we value worship, and we seek a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. And if you value that too, be more than curious, commit to joining us.
And now for the parable from Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23, The Message
At about that same time Jesus left the house and sat on the beach. In no time at all a crowd gathered along the shoreline, forcing him to get into a boat. Using the boat as a pulpit, he addressed his congregation, telling stories.
3-8 “What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road, and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled by the weeds. Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.
9 “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”
“Study this story of the farmer planting seed. When anyone hears news of the kingdom and doesn’t take it in, it just remains on the surface, and so the Evil One comes along and plucks it right out of that person’s heart. This is the seed the farmer scatters on the road.
20-21 “The seed cast in the gravel—this is the person who hears and instantly responds with enthusiasm. But there is no soil of character, and so when the emotions wear off and some difficulty arrives, there is nothing to show for it.
22 “The seed cast in the weeds is the person who hears the kingdom news, but weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.
23 “The seed cast on good earth is the person who hears and takes in the News, and then produces a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.”
I love being the