Rev. Danielle K Bartz July 23, 2023
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 “Don’t Light the Fire”
“It is an heretic that makes the fire not she which burns in it.” I heard that line, penned by William Shakespeare, last week when I went to see ‘A Winter’s Tale’ which is a part of the Great River Shakespeare Festival. “It is an heretic that makes the fire not she which burns in it.” That was spoken by Paulina, the Queen’s woman in waiting to King Leontes. The King believed that the queen had been unfaithful to him and the child that she had just given birth to was not his. He wanted both the queen and the child to be executed and Paulina was trying to convince him not to. I won’t give away the rest of the story, though I do encourage you to see if it you haven’t yet.
Undoubtedly it is because I am a minister that line struck my ear and stuck with me. In fact, sitting a row or two behind me were my friends Pastor Corrine and Pastor Greg. When the line was spoken, I heard Pastor Greg make the same noise of interest he makes in our clergy group when someone says something that intrigues him. Clergy really are nerds and experience the world through a finely focused lens – which I choose to believe is part of our charm. But, anyway, it really was one of those Holy Spirit moments to hear that line, have it stick with me, and then read the scripture for today. Because I think Jesus was saying the same thing.
Today’s Bible lesson has always been troubling for progressive Christians who are more comfortable with Jesus’ teachings around grace and love and peace. The whole wheat and weeds and burning and gnashing of teeth thing often doesn’t sit well with people. It doesn’t seem to really match up with Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness and God’s total acceptance of all people. Indeed, upon first reading one may choose to just pay attention to the idea that there are ultimately good people and bad people, and that the bad people will suffer in the fires of hell. Indeed this lesson is often used as a weapon and justification for judgments passed. Christianity has a violent history of burning perceived heretics alive. Being burned at the stake may not happen anymore, but passing judgment on whether a person is good or bad is common. We all do it. But, when we decide that our judgment of a person is aligned with God’s judgment of that person, then we become the heretics building the fire.
In this lesson Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God – that promise of God that is the Good News Jesus taught during his ministry. But the point of the parable is not just the end of the story – burning and gnashing of teeth. The point of the parable is the lesson it has for humanity – for you and for me. The point is that it is not our place to judge who is good and who is bad. Jesus makes it quite clear that we are not to gather and destroy the weeds, for in doing so we will destroy some wheat as well. Sorting out the wheat from the weeds is God’s job, not ours. So, the Kingdom of God, which we all strive for and pray for each week, is a place where we do not judge the worthiness of one another, because we are not able. And, I would venture to say, based on this lesson – we are called to assume everyone is good and to live in a community in which that assumption that everyone is fundamentally a good person is how we begin and end all interactions.
Now, believe me, I know what some, if not many, of you are thinking: ‘That’s cute, Pastor Danielle – with your head in the clouds, everyone is good, happy, smiley idea of the world. But, I mean, come on.’ I get it. And while I do try to start every interaction or experience with that mindset, that does not mean I am any good at. I pass judgments on people all the time. I most certainly don’t like everyone I encounter, and in fact there are some in the world whom I despise. I believe that evil exists and I believe people are capable of great evil. And I feel justified in those beliefs because Jesus spends a lot of time teaching about evil, including in this very lesson. I am just as human as everyone else, and that is where the focus on this lesson needs to be.
Because we are human, we are not God. And when we decide we know as much about a person’s true being as God does, then we become the heretics. We are fallible. We have prejudices and biases informed by our own experiences that get in the way. We do not know everything a person has or is experiencing, and it is no secret that most of our systems have injustice build into them.
And even more importantly, we are not able to fully comprehend the extraordinary grace that God extends to everyone. We do not know how that grace may already be working within someone, nudging them away from cruel intentions and towards repentance. But we know the power of that grace because we have all experienced it. We have all faltered, asked for forgiveness, and been granted it. We have all experienced that grace, and if we have then we must assume everyone else has as well.
At the UCC’s General Synod a few weeks ago one of the keynote speakers was Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is an ELCA minister, prolific speaker and writer, and all-around rebel in the Church on behalf of the Good News. If you don’t know of her, look her up. In her keynote she spoke a lot about how many in the world today are creating legal avenues to reinforce judgement against classes of people and doing so believing they are acting on behalf of God. Things like anti-Trans legislation, limits on a woman’s right to determine her own health, and immigration policies that devalue the humanity of people. In the United Church of Christ we spend a lot of our time and efforts speaking out against such discrimination and working to provide a sanctuary for those who are targeted by it. This work is a point of pride, and Nadia Bolz-Weber was celebrating us for that. But then she said something that hit me like a ton of bricks. She said, and I am paraphrasing, that God forgives the people doing the very harm that we are fighting against. God forgives them, God’s grace is alive and well in them. God forgives our enemies, she said, just as God forgives us. So, if we are going to condemn them for passing judgments against people on behalf of God, then we must condemn ourselves for passing judgments against them, even if we think God most surely agrees with us.
The Kingdom of God is a place in which we do not have any way of knowing who is ultimately good and who is ultimately bad. That is God’s responsibility. And by letting go of trying to take on that responsibility ourselves, we are left with a world in which we must assume that everyone is fundamentally good and has the ability to be good no matter their past or present actions. That does not mean we have to like everyone. That does not mean we must maintain relationships that become damaging or toxic. But that does mean we must not build fires for others to burn on, because by doing so we become the heretics.
One final thought, or perhaps lesson from history. This spring, during my vacation after Easter, I spent my time reading a biography on Joan of Arc (saying this aloud, I know how sad that sounds, so I want to assure you that my plans for my upcoming vacation next month are more…recreational). Anyway, I read the book because I was curious to know more about her and the biography I read included a deep dive into French and English history of the time to place her and her actions into context. I am not going to go into all of that, but I will remind you that she was ultimately tried for heresy against God and burned at the stake. That was in 1431. But then the political landscape changed and she was posthumously re-tried and the verdict of heresy was nullified in 1456 – just 25 years later. In fact, some of the people who testified against her in the first trial, testified on her behalf in the second trial. She is even now a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. What a startling example of humanity’s fallibility in trying to pass judgements on behalf of God.
“It is an heretic that makes the fire not she which burns in it.” If nothing else, let us resist the temptation to build those fires, both metaphoric and literal. We have enough to contend with in this world, so we can let go and let God be God. God will sort it out, we don’t have to. And in the meantime, let’s look for the possibilities of the people around us, and not just for their faults. Because, if nothing else, I do know that with God, all things are possible. Amen.
Just and Loving God, you created all of us in your image and by doing so have created within us possibilities of doing great good in this world. For this gift of your creation that we carry within us, we give you great thanks. And it is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
It is so easy, God, for us to fall into the temptation of trying to do your work of judgment. We are often too quick to determine whether a person is good or bad, and assume that you must agree with us. But you are also quick to offer us grace and innumerable opportunities to repent and repair when we do that. So, as we accept that grace for ourselves, help us to extend it to everyone we encounter.
One of the ways you give us to experience that grace is through times of prayer when we open ourselves to you. In these moments of silence, hear our prayers for ourselves and others…
Good and great God, with you everything is indeed possible. You are our source of life and our assurance in death. We pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ, our great teacher and guide. And we pray in the way he taught…Our Father…