Slow to anger

A sermon for the online service, 19 July 2020, using the readings for Year A Proper 11, including the parable of the wheat and the weeds.


When we read one of Jesus’ parables that ends in judgement, we might want to use as our introduction and epilogue his warning elsewhere: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

The temptation otherwise is either to read ourselves as the righteous and our enemies as the weeds, and secretly to revel in the thought of their comeuppance at the great conflagration; or, equally damaging, to diagnose ourselves as worthless weeds, only tolerated by the wheat that surrounds us, and doomed from our seeding to damnation.

The judgement, Jesus has warned elsewhere, is not ours to make. The servants who offer to go out and do the weeding for the landowner are rebuffed.

In fact, the parable is a model of withholding judgement so that the wheat is not damaged by a reckless and thorough weeding; there is no warrant in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus might be saying, for rash judgement and its collateral damage. Instead, we are shown the patience and forbearance of a God who is full of compassion, and slow to anger.

 

Have you heard the phrase, “cancel culture”? Its definition may be as controversial and complicated as the interpretation of a parable, but perhaps it boils down to the battle and balance between holding a person accountable for wrongdoing and allowing them the grace to redeem themselves, if they show any inclination to do so.

Certainly, actions and words have consequences. Some offenses are so egregious that the answer is clear. We have seen talk shows and dramatic roles cancelled when the #MeToo movement brought the misdeeds of various men to light, and rightly so. A politician can be righteously cancelled out of office with a vote. If a business is offensive or abusive, we can sometimes refuse to do business with them.

But what if they were convicted, by court or conscience, of their offense, and paid a penance, reparations of some sort, and publicly repented: would we forgive them?

At is most extreme, a culture of cancellation contributes to a culture of death. Those who have been tried, convicted, and officially sentenced to death live out for us our fantasies of judgement and a clean wheat field. Three times in the past week, after holding back its hand for seventeen years, three men have been killed on our behalf by federal execution.

Deacon Josh knows more about this aspect of our cultural judgement than I do, having ministered for years to men living in that valley of the shadows known as Death Row. But I also draw on the wisdom and faithful hope of Beth Kissileff, whose husband leads one of the congregations that met at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh when a man bent on sowing evil burst through their Sabbath doors. Beth wrote against the government’s move to seek the death penalty for the man who killed her friends; partly because that judgement belongs to God alone. Beth, via the Religion News Service, quoted her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman:

“Our Bible has many laws about why people should be put to death, it’s true,” my husband said. “But our sages and rabbis decided that after biblical times these deaths mean death at the hands of heaven, not a human court.”

Beyond that, and the slightest chance and hope that the man might repent of his sins, given a life long enough to reflect upon them, Beth pointed out that our clumsy attempts to pull out the weeds with the wheat can damage the tender plants that we’re trying to protect. Families and survivors of capital offenses endure multiple trials that can drag on for long years, delaying healing and wholeness, prolonging the harvest of pain. This, too, is collateral damage from our culture of judgement and cancellation; and there is no warrant for collateral damage in the kingdom of heaven.

 

I can’t help but think of John Lewis this morning; a man who, despite those who sought to cancel him, stood strong. He ended up serving in government, where wheat and weeds are sometimes difficult to tell apart. He recognized the tension of the need to act decisively to end evil, while holding fast to the gentle optimism that non-violence breeds, the impatient patience of the justice-seeker. He brought forth good fruit despite the strangling weeds, the poisonous strain of racism.

Of course, we hold one another accountable for egregious actions, words, attitudes. Of course, where there is evil at work, we can and should respond with a little bit of “good trouble.” Of course, there are rightful consequences. But we do not own the wheat, or its harvest, and the weeds are not ours to destroy. At the end of the age, Jesus says, it is the angels who will exercise judgement over us.

 

I came across a story online last week which I share with permission from my friend, Amanda Wolf. Amanda is a keen, not to say fanatical, cyclist, familiar to all Bishop’s Bike Rides participants and many other members of many other communities, including the cancer support charity that she rides for every year. Last week, she was riding out my way when a van nearly took her out altogether. Thank God, she was ok.

I’m still in awe of this story because of the grace that bursts out of it. It would have been easy to write off the driver of the van as a total weed, based on his actions. Instead, an encounter that could have led to real, physical, economic, social, and spiritual injury allowed, with a little forbearance and a lot of humility, for an abundance of healing.

The van bore the livery of a local business. Amanda, posting the story of her close encounter on Facebook, duly named and shamed the business for its recklessness and disregard for her human life and safety, and encouraged her friends not to send their business that way.

But then later that same day, I saw another post. It read:

In a previous episode of my Facebook, you might have witnessed me posting about getting sideswiped by a local business owner this morning on my bike, and I called him out on it. You also might have seen his jerky retort and lack of understanding of bike law.
You might also have noticed that post disappeared.
All for good reason.
Long story short, Cards In Your Yard has a better understanding of bike law, we’re friends now, and shortly I’ll be putting up a raffle for your own free yard card as long as you live in the counties he services.
All to benefit American Cancer Society Pan Ohio Hope Ride.
There could not have been a happier ending to this story. I hope it makes your day because it certainly made mine.

It did make my day, and it reminded me of Jesus, who told his disciples to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, to love neighbour and enemy well and alike, and to let the angels worry about who among us is whole wheat or a little bit of a weed.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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