Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity 2023

The sower has sown good seed in his field and looks forward to a good harvest.

The Reverend Prebendary Dr Tony Kyriakides Priest Vicar

Sunday, 23rd July 2023 at 11.15 AM

Behind me, in the north aisle of the Lady Chapel, and buried together, lie two Tudor monarchs of the sixteenth century: Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth, although those labels, Catholic and Protestant, don’t tell the whole story – but that’s for another sermon! That said, during Mary’s reign three hundred Protestant dissenters were burned at the stake while under Elizabeth, who succeeded Mary, nearly two hundred Catholics were executed. For Catholic and Protestant alike, the sixteenth century was a time of heroism and holiness; a time of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, of double-dealing and betrayal. Catholic and Protestant were at odds with each other, each perceiving the other to be a heretic.

The parable that Jesus recounts in today’s gospel speaks directly to the intolerance and bigotry which has characterised not only sixteenth century England but the Church for the past two millennia.

The sower has sown good seed in his field and looks forward to a good harvest. But in the dark of night an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat. The householder's slaves, on noticing the weeds, first question the quality of the seed. ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ When the master replies that an enemy has sown the weeds, the slaves are keen to tackle the problem by pulling up the weeds. It is the householder who holds them back with a bit of common sense: removing the weeds will damage the wheat. So, he orders them to let the wheat and the weeds grow next to each other until the harvest. Then, and only then, will he send in the reapers to collect and burn the weeds leaving the wheat to be gathered into his barn.

Looking carefully at this passage from Matthew’s gospel and remembering that Matthew was writing for the local church, a community of Jewish Christians living in a Syrian city called Antioch and not expecting his written gospel to end up being read by us two thousand years later, perhaps there are hints that all is not well in his congregation. Possibly signs of tension due to a lack of clear leadership for earlier in his gospel, Matthew vents his spleen on those among his congregation who are vying for positions of power. ‘No’, he says, ‘you are not to be called rabbi; you are not to be called father; you are not to be called instructors. The greatest among you will be your servant.’[1] Might this suggest an absence of strong leadership – leadership which inspires trust, loyalty, and confidence and, in an all-too-familiar power vacuum, gives rein to those who are keen to pursue their own personal agendas?

It is not unreasonable to speculate that in Matthew’s day, there were those who rode rough shod over others, keen to purify the congregation, expelling those with whom they disagreed, those who in our parable are the ‘bad seed’. It is not unreasonable because in every age there are those who cannot see beyond the end of their nose, who in the Church believe they know the mind of God. They whip themselves into a weeding frenzy, convinced that not only do they know the difference between weeds and wheat, but – more worryingly – they know how to exterminate, eradicate the weeds!

Sadly, the reality is that weeders themselves become a stumbling block to faith. If we go back to the explanation Matthew provides for this parable, he writes this: ‘the Son of Man will send his angels who will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin.’[2] That word sin, in the Greek Matthew uses – is skandalon which you and I might more readily recognise as ‘scandal’. That’s what the narrow-minded weeders do: they cause a scandal both within the Church and, for the Church, within wider society.

This morning’s parable makes clear that any attempt to root out the weeds will only do more damage to the crop, the congregation. It is something which has been played out far too many times, in congregations and denominations, by those determined to root out anyone who does not agree with their ‘right’ interpretation of scripture or liturgical practice or doctrine or sexual ethics. And, of course, it doesn’t stop there. Weeders are only too happy to also pronounce judgment on people outside the church -- on people of other faiths and beliefs all of which does serious damage to the church and its mission.

Jesus makes clear that we simply cannot be certain who is ‘in’ or who is ‘out’. In fact, God's judgment about these matters will take many by surprise.[3] As Matthew points out, ‘Not everyone who calls me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.’[4] Thank God it is not up to us for I’m well aware that in me, as in you, there is a mixture of both wheat and weeds! But we’re in good company for even Peter, the apostle, needed to be weeded. What did Jesus say to him? ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block, a skandalon, to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’.

Yet in spite of such harsh words, Jesus never gives up on Peter and he will never give up on you and me. Ours is a mission impossible. To love our neighbour be they wheat or weed and, by so doing, to be part of God’s kingdom which is drawing near.

So, who is my neighbour? This past week the Illegal Migration Bill completed its passage through Westminster. The migrant crisis is complex: a global, geopolitical and generational problem exacerbated by wars, persecution and climate change. No one condones the work of smugglers who exploit migrants but international law requires governments to criminalize migrant smuggling, not those who are smuggled. Could it be that for some in Parliament, and in wider society, migrants are perceived to be nothing more than weeds? Could it be that the Illegal Migration Bill is intended to be nothing more than weed killer? Is it a ‘senselessly cruel Act [that] will have a devastating impact on people’s lives’[5] or a proportionate and necessary response to a migrant crisis? Could it be that we, who claim to be God’s kingdom drawing near, need to exercise the prophetic voice of the Church, but if so, what should we be saying?

[1] Mt 23: 8-12

[2] Mt 13:41

[3] 8:11-12; 21:31-32; 25:31-46

[4] 7:21-23

[5] From a statement of 294 churches, charities and civil-rights organisations.