A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 23rd July 2023.

Genesis 28:10-19, Psalm 139:1-11, 23-24, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

In what is one of the loveliest psalms, this morning’s Psalm 139, the psalmist writes:

O Lord, you have searched me out and known me.

You know when I sit down or when I stand;

   you comprehend my thoughts long before.

You discern my path and the places where I rest,

   you are acquainted with all my ways.

For there is not a word is on my tongue,

   But you, Lord, you know it altogether.

You have encompassed me behind and before,

   And have laid your hand upon me.

The psalm speaks of God searching us out, knowing us dearly and deeply,

accompanying us in all places, in the darkest times, in the times that are filled with light:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

   if I make my bed in the grave, you are there also.

If I spread out my wings towards the morning

   and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

   and your right hand shall hold me.

This accompanying God reveals Godself in many different ways and the scriptures are woven with the accounts of God’s encounters with frail humanity.

In the morning’s reading from Genesis 28 we read of an encounter in a dream. Jacob dreams that there is a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stands beside Jacob and says, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” And then God makes Jacob promises. We saw this a few weeks ago when God encountered Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre, this God who makes promises. God promised children then, a child to those who were very old. The promise to Jacob is the same – children and land. All that is needed for the present and the future thriving of the family.

God searches Jacob out and makes himself known and knows him all in a dream. And makes the promises that invite faith. So, God has done God’s part. God has done all that the psalm says, searching out Jacob’s path and Jacob’s lying down, knowing all his ways and his needs.

The question in the psalm and the question in this encounter of Jacob and God is how do we respond? We see God doing God’s part and yet there is a part for us to play too. How does Jacob respond?

Jacob wakes up from his sleep and ponders what has happened in the dream. The text doesn’t actually say that but the reflection must have taken place. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ Jacob says. He knows that God has been with him and he names for himself that God has been with him and then … as human beings usually are in the presence of God, Jacob is afraid. He says, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And he names the place Bethel, the house of God.

The encounter is initiated by God and we need to know that we can ignore such encounters, turn away from them, brush them away as ridiculous, distract ourselves in some way. It is very possible that Jacob might have awoken from his dream and discounted it. But he didn’t. He reflected upon it. He embraced it. He named it.

‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ He said.

Embracing such a truth is a brave thing and it is little wonder that fear follows. But the fear did not engulf Jacob. He named the place and allowed the truth of God searching him out and knowing him to be woven into his life.

Jesus’ encounters with frail humanity, Jesus searching us out and knowing us, take place in many different ways. Jesus calls people and eats with them, heals people and casts out the powers of evil from them, and Jesus teaches people. There are five passages of teaching, known as discourses, in the Gospel with which we are spending time this year, the Gospel of Matthew. The third discourse, the third passage in the gospel that portrays Jesus searching our people by teaching them, contains a series of Jesus’ parables, parables about the Kingdom of God.

For three weeks we are reading from the 13th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, a chapter where we hear Jesus telling parables, last Sunday, the Parable of the Sower, today, the Parables of the Weeds among the Wheat, and next Sunday, three parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. It is interesting that Matthew shows Jesus explaining two of these parables. It is often thought that the parables are there for us to puzzle about, to ponder, almost at times to be baffled by. So, we might sit gently with the explanations, allowing ourselves to sit puzzled by Jesus’ parables if that seems to be our natural response to them. Many scholars doubt that the explanations were from Jesus, more likely from the writer of the gospel, eager to apply the teaching to the situation at the time. If Jesus did explain the parable of the Sower and the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat, I think we might imagine him saying that this is one way we might ponder the parable but not the only way.

One New Testament scholar, M. Eugene Boring, for example, wrote of Jesus’ parables:

“In the preaching of Jesus, parables were not vivid decorations of a moralistic point but were disturbing stories that threatened the hearer’s secure mythological world – the world of assumptions by which we habitually live, the unnoticed framework of our thinking by which we interpret other data. … Parables surreptitiously attack this framework of our thought world itself. This is why they were so disturbing then and remain so now, and why we are so eager to understand them as illustrations of points we are comfortable with already, rather than letting them be the disruptive vehicles of a new vision of how things are, a vision that challenges our secure world.”[1]

Can we imagine allowing this Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat, for example, being a “disruptive vehicle of a new vision of how things are, a vision that challenges our secure world”?

Today’s parable, today’s encounter with Jesus, if we might think about it in that way, gives a vivid image of weeds growing in the midst of wheat. If we ponder that image slowly, what might we notice? In a way, it would be better if I gave you ten minutes to sit quietly with the parable and see what comes. But we might ponder it together. Be clear that what matters is that the parable is an encounter with Jesus and each of us individually. Whatever a book says about it and whatever a preacher says about it, what matters is what each one of our ponderings reveals for us. So, what do we notice? What comes might be a feeling – guilt, fear, or sadness, we might feel trapped. We assume very quickly that the weeds are a bad thing and the wheat is a good thing. And the entanglement of them might seem to us to be very sad. Or we might think that if the field in some way reminds us of our own life or the life of the world then that might make us feel guilty or frightened. It can be very helpful to notice how we feel in response to a parable. We might also be puzzled. Puzzled is exactly where Jesus would love us to be!

What puzzles us about the parable? We might wonder about God, about why God allowed the world to be like this. We might wonder about whether there is any hope. We might be frightened because the field seems like us and there doesn’t seem to be any healing possible until some judgement comes and we might not like the sound of that. The parable might be very disturbing.

I would like to suggest that we might look at this field a little differently. Many of you will know that I love Ignatian Spirituality and I particularly love a way of praying loved by St Ignatius called the Examen prayer. The Examen prayer has many different forms but one form, described in a book that has been in our Cathedral Shop called “Sleeping with Bread” goes like this. At the end of your day, you ask God to help you remember your day and you watch over your day a bit like you are watching a movie. And when you have kept watch with your day you ask yourself two questions: “For what moment am I most grateful? And for what moment am I least grateful?” And then you put those two memories alongside each other and you ponder them for a little while in the presence of God who searches us out and knows us. And you may wish to say something to God about what you have noticed. And you may sit quietly, in the presence of this God who searches us out and knows us, and you may sense that God is saying something to you, speaking about your day.

I wonder if our day is not a little like the field with the weeds growing amongst the wheat. And that the Examen prayer might help us notice the loveliest stem of wheat and the most troubling weed. And we might know that they are woven together, day by day. But the Examen Prayer reminds us that God loves the field that is our day and God loves us, and God longs for nothing more than that we might look at it with God and ponder these things. And be blessed by God’s spirit guiding us in our reflections. And so, the field of wheat and weeds is very blessed and the pondering of it might help us grow just a few more stems of wheat and a few less weeds as time goes on. But the love that searches us out and knows us, encompasses us behind and before, and holds our life in the palm of God’s hand.

[1] M. Eugene Boring The Gospel of Matthew in NIB p299-300