Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’ve discovered over the years that it is to my benefit (and I hope to some extent the benefit of those subjected to my sermons) to read theologians and biblical scholars for who I have a great deal of respect and with whom I find some common ground but who at the same time challenge my own ideas. This is like threading a needle. I mustn’t stick exclusively to those with whom I am in nearly perfect agreement (probably the closest would be the so-called “radical orthodoxy” of theologians like John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock), as they’ll serve largely to reïnforce what I already take to be the case. On the other hand, it does me little good intellectually–and perhaps it is positively harmful spiritually–to spend too much time poring over texts whose basic assumptions are so beyond the pale that it becomes questionable whether the authors are even making good faith arguments. Here I class things like the Jesus Seminar and Process Theology.

So the “sweet spot” as it were is where intellectual honesty and rigor meet the challenging of my own assumptions, and there are plenty of good examples of this. I love much of what Karl Rahner wrote, particularly regarding “unthematic revelation” as the precursor to Christian inquiry, but I can’t fully embrace his definition of the Trinity. I think N.T. Wright is a tremendously careful, faithful reader of the bible, but (as I mentioned during our Christian education series on Romans) I’m not sure I can fully embrace his reading of Paul’s use of the word faith (πιστις) in that letter, and I think in some ways he’s over-corrected when it comes to his view of the afterlife. There is a great deal I find compelling in the work of Karl Barth, but sometimes I can identify with one critic who wrote “the first time I read a volume of [Church Dogmatics]… I felt like a ferret swimming in a bucket of Thorazine.”

Probably the best example of this “Goldilocks zone” of theology for me, though, is the work of Orthodox Theologian David Bentley Hart. His first monograph on aesthetics and theological truth was a game-changer and his work metaphysics (insofar as I understand it, anyway) seems similarly on point. But his 2019 book That All Shall Be Saved strayed too far, I believe, from the biblical witness and teaching of the church in its argument for universalism (that is, to put it simply, the idea that it is impossible for anybody to choose perdition rather than salvation). I could maybe go so far as the Orthodox Church in America’s Archbishop, in echoing the great Kallistos Ware (himself, like Hart, an Anglican convert to Orthodoxy) “we can’t teach universal salvation as doctrine, but we can hope for it.”

That said, what we mustn’t ever do, is presume to claim who makes the cut and who doesn’t, whose faith is genuine and whose isn’t, who’s elect and who’s reprobate. Some sadly do so presume. The Westboro Baptist Church, that cult from Kansas, that homophobic Kansas cult that protests soldiers’ funerals, famously have done. I’ve done a fair amount of driving the last couple of weeks, and I’m always struck by the billboard on I-75 that just says “Heaven or Hell” and gives a toll-free phone number. I’ve not tried calling, but I wonder what verdict they’d give me.

This morning’s gospel should serve as a warning to avoid this kind of speculation. The slaves approach their master and ask if they should pull the weeds out of the garden, a rather obvious thing to do, one should think. The master, however, is afraid that some of the wheat would be thrown out with the weeds, and instructs the slave to let them grow, leaving the separation for the reaper.

I had always thought it rather strange, not having a background in agriculture, that the weeds could not be distinguished from the wheat. I had always assumed a farmer could tell the difference. Having done a bit of research, though, I discovered that the weeds in question were likely lolium temulentum, or darnel, which indeed cannot be easily distinguished from wheat until very late in both plants’ maturation. So Jesus’ audience would have known the dangers of trying to pull up these weeds from a wheat field prematurely. Some of the crop would invariably be lost.

And notice whom Jesus identifies as the reapers: they are the angels. They’re not us. They are not the clergy or the matriarchs and patriarchs of a parish church or the vestry or the General Convention of the Episcopal Church or any other human agent. The angels make the separation, not us.

It goes without saying that this should lead us to a degree of tolerance. I think it’s easy enough for most of us to avoid speculating out loud about a person’s ultimate destination, but I think our hearts have more trouble in this regard than we might expect. I have thought to say and very occasionally actually said to somebody those three horrible words that lie in wait, ready to pop out of our mouths when we’re angry: go to hell. Rarely do I really mean it literally, but sometimes, maybe deep down, I do. That’s my problem; that’s sin.

In a sermon on this very text, St. Augustine had this to say:

O you Christians, whose lives are good, you sigh and groan as being few among many, few among very many. The winter will pass away, the summer will come; lo! The harvest will soon be here. The angels will come who can make the separation, and who cannot make mistakes. … I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God; let us all through His mercy escape the evil of this world. Let us seek after good days, for we are now in evil days; but in the evil days let us not blaspheme, that so we may be able to arrive at the good days.

Here that great father of the church not only tells us to withhold judgment—not knowing as well as the angels who might be a weed and who might be wheat—but he also warns us not to blaspheme. Blasphemy is irreverence, and it may take the form of us presuming to carry out the divine task of judgment ourselves. To presume to say somebody is going or has gone to hell, to take upon ourselves the authority to proclaim damnation, is perhaps the greatest blasphemy of all.

Let’s make a go, then, of withholding judgment, knowing that judgment is not our prerogative when it comes to eternal matters. In fact, let’s go one step further, by really trusting that God knows what he’s doing. We might be surprised on our own heavenly birthday, when we go to join the saints in light, when we see who’s there. They will have been changed, perfected, made into what God meant them to be, as will we. If we hadn’t got it be then, we will finally realize how wrong we were to condemn so quickly, but, thanks be to God, that that realization will not inhibit us, but will free us to live in that land where our sinful arrogance has been purged and we can live in perfect peace and unity.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.