The following words were spoken at the closing session of the 2014 Ministry Conference of the Evangelical Friends Church Mid America Yearly Meeting. They were presented by the Yearly Meeting Superintendent, Dr. David Williams, on July 27, 2014. A very special thank you to David, Matt Macy (Associate Director of Evangelical Friends Missions), and all those Friends whom participated in the formation of the document at the Ministry conference.
‘In the last days,’ God says,
‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
We have a dream…
We have a dream of the gospel lived out…and that God would use us to do it.
We dream that whatever is true in Heaven be true on earth…in our local churches, in the communities where our churches serve, and in the family of churches called Evangelical Friends Church- Mid America Yearly Meeting.
We dream of the ethnic participation of our churches and larger gatherings reflecting the ethnic makeup of our communities. What if when we gathered as a church, we saw a vast crowd from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in worship together before the Lamb? What if they held palm branches in their hands, and in unity were shouting with a mighty shout, “Salvation comes from our God on the throne and from the Lamb!”
We have a dream of Jesus-followers being known as the most generous and live-giving people in the whole world. A church that is unstoppable, built by Christ, fueled by the Holy Spirit. Believing that what’s impossible to men is possible with God.
We have a dream that we as a family of churches would become known as Friends of sinners, where our churches would become places of forgiveness rather than judgment. What if we shared openly of our own weaknesses and stories of brokenness, and how God’s love and grace is so much greater! What if our neighbors were our friends and not our projects? What if the Word became flesh where we live, and also in the places where our unbelieving neighbors hang out? What if our co-workers and class-mates knew that we loved them as they are rather than as they ‘should be,’ but what if they also joined us side by side in this dream and pursuit of Heaven?
We have a dream of God’s Kingdom coming to heal the sick and the broken. Forgiveness of sins. Redemption. The homeless and hungry knowing that God cares, and has sent friends to help them. Prisoners and orphans and widows and the sick believing that their creator knows their name. Addictions falling away in the power of Jesus’ forgiveness. What if our churches were constantly celebrating recovery? Marriages and families growing stronger. Broken relationships being healed. What if one of God’s children was running the race, and fell, and couldn’t go on without help…and what if we stopped everything else for the sole focus of helping them continue across the finish line? What if we would lay our lives down for our friends?
We have a dream that every local church was actively participating with God in the process of making disciples. What if church culture changed from maintenance or preservation to multiplication? What if we knew exactly who God was sending us to, and we knew them by name? What if every church made at least one disciple in the next year, starting with non-disciples?
We have a dream that the youth in the church be equipped as disciple-makers. What if every day was like a mission trip? What if adults saw the children and youth of our churches as warriors in the Kingdom, and we walked with them and also sent them out? What if we gave more space for new expressions of the church lived out?
We have a dream that all of the small churches in EFC-MAYM felt truly loved. That big churches felt loved. That medium churches felt loved. What if each and every one of our churches understood clearly how to use the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven? What if every church knew their significance in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth? What if believers and churches worked side by side to accomplish common dreams? What if we served the world around us with no concern about our growth, our reputation, or our benefit, accepting whatever fruit God gives us?
We have a dream, that our properties, personal and corporate, be used 24/7 to bless the community around us, and even be used for community objectives. What if we had no spare rooms in our homes or church buildings? What if we all knew our neighbors across the street, and down the road, and across the tracks and helped them with their needs? What if our churches were like store-houses for ministry? What if God restored the broken and we could hand them the keys to our church vans and even our church buildings?
We have a dream that our church would emerge in the neighborhoods where we live. And a deep sense of awe came over them all. What if all the believers lived in wonderful harmony, holding everything in common? And they sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met? What if they followed a daily discipline of worship in the temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God? And people in general liked what they saw! What if every day their number grew as God added those who were being saved?
Turn from your brokenness and turn to God, because we have really Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven is near!
Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
10 May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today the food we need,[a]
12 and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
13 And don’t let us yield to temptation,[b]
but rescue us from the evil one.[c
Let us all join together to make this dream a reality.
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Scripture: Matthew 13:24–30, 36-43 (NRSV)
The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat
24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”
Jesus Explains the Parable of the Weeds
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
Most people like a good story. A story teaches, and encourages, but most of all a good story will stick with you for a while, several days or even years down the paths of life you will remember the story. Something about a situation we are in several years down the road will cause us to remember words spoken to us and we will begin to understand things just a bit more.
Jesus told stories that even after nearly 2000 years we are still learning from. They spoke to the conditions of the times in which he told them, and they continue to speak to us now, even though most of us are not engaged in the same sort of lifestyle as the people in first century Judea.
Last week we contemplated the story Jesus told about the sower and the seeds. We considered the possibility that soils change as conditions change. Good soils if left unattended can become filled with weeds, and how hard and rocky soils with proper care can become good. I mention this because like most people we often think of things in a moment. Initially we assume that a hard hearted person will never change, but we tend to forget that it takes time for soils to become hard. Constant traffic walking all over a heart with very little care given to the wellbeing of an individual’s spiritual life can make any heart hard. So it will take continuous encouragement and time to work thought the hardness that was brought about by abuse and neglect.
Just as with the hard soils the rocky soils can be changed. Rocks can systematically be found and removed under the care of the farmer, and when the rocks are removed the plants can then grow freely. Weeds as well can be pulled from the rows allowing space for the crops to grow. Initially we assume that soils and people do not change. But imagine just for a moment if our ancestors lived with the idea that soils could not change? The states of Missouri and Kansas would never have been settled because many thought that the grass lands were unproductive soils. After this year’s harvest my family might agree with them. But our ancestors knew that soils under proper care could become productive, and if you had land of your own you could become successful and raise your family.
Imagine again if someone were have similar thought of you personally. Many considered the high plains of Kansas as being too hard, rocky, or weedy to be productive. Imagine if everyone that knew the gospel continued to neglect you as if you were a lost cause. Too hard hearted, too rocky, or filled with too many weeds.
To consider the parable we read today we must first remember the parable of the sower and the seeds, because just like a farm our spiritual lives are complex and need constant attention and care. Jesus begins by saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to…” This is an important place to start because we may risk understanding the entire parable if we first do not hear this statement properly. John the Baptist would cry out in the wilderness, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” And Jesus would also say similar things when He began to teach. The term near or at hand as some translations state it, is a word that is much deeper than we may think. At first we may consider it to be a term of time, as if saying the time is near, but that is not the whole story. Near or at hand means that it is all around in the air, the kingdom is near because it is right here with us. This is important because if the kingdom is all around us here now today as well as tomorrow and on into the end of ages, why do we not see it. This is the key to understanding this parable that Jesus spoke. When we consider the kingdom only to be a future event it has little effect on our lives today, but when it is all around us and we can actively live within the kingdom today as we will in eternity it can change how we interact with those around us.
The kingdom of Heaven may be compared to someone sowing good seed into a field. We can look at this passage from many different angles and interact with it through many different eyes. But if the field in the prior parable is the lives of individuals, I want us to consider the field in this parable in that manner as well. I say this because often we read the field as being the church and the seeds as being the individuals, as I was studying and praying with this passage this week I really felt that by looking at this parable in that manner we can get a very jaded view of the church and Kingdom, and a fatalistic view of the ministry. I also felt the need to look at this parable from a personal and intimate mindset because it enriches our understanding of the spiritual struggles that we each face as we walk the pathways with Christ.
A man sows good seed in the field and while he is asleep an enemy comes in and sows weeds among the wheat and goes away. And as the plants grew so did the weeds. The slaves say to the master, “Did not you sow good seeds in your field? Where, then, did all these weeds come from?” This is a wonderful question. Where did all the weeds come from? When we look at this story as your own spiritual journey with Jesus, I am sure many of you, as I do, ask this about your own lives. Over all our lives are filled with goodness, but every so often something pops up in our lives that just isn’t filled with the grace that God has shown us. We can be living our lives singing praises in our cars as we drive to the store, and suddenly someone pulls in front of us unexpectedly and the mouth that was just singing praises to God lets out a string of words that are filled not with grace but curses. Or maybe we spin a story we heard to mean something totally different from the truth, and the rumor weeds begin to emerge along with the seeds of spiritual growth. And we ask ourselves, “Where did all these weeds come from?”
Jesus tells this parable because this is actually a form of warfare that was used, and in some cases is still used in the world. If you want to hurt a person or a culture to gain power or influence, if you take out the food supply the people generally are less able to struggle against you. The weeds that Jesus refers to is a type of rye. In the Hebrew culture wheat infested with rye was considered unclean and in some cases dangerous, because rye is highly susceptible to a fungus called ergot
. If someone was to consume ergot they could become intoxicated to the point of hallucinations. Many scholars believe that ergot was at the root of the Salem Witch trials, because this tainted grain was being eaten because there was not enough good grain to eat. So with that bit of knowledge we can understand that there are spiritual battles that rage among us that at times can become intoxicating and cause us to do things we may not desire to do.
The servants want to go in and pull out the weeds, but how does the Master in the story respond? He advises his servants to let the weeds grow because if they were to pull out the weeds they would uproot the wheat as well. Consider this for a moment? Why would we want to let detrimental weeds grow in our lives? Why would it be unwise to go in a remove the unwanted plants from the fields? Jesus in essence is saying let people sin. Why would a righteous God who demands holiness allow the weeds to continue to grow?
Without untrained eyes it would be difficult to determine what is good and what is bad when it comes to wheat and rye. For most of us in this room, we could go into the field and we would not have any idea where to even begin. So we would begin to uproot plants, not knowing if we were pulling a weed or the crop. Even seasoned farmers often have a hard time distinguishing the difference until the plants have grown larger, because the differences in the early stages of the plant are almost microscopic. We must allow time to run its course.
This story is a good story. It tells us a great deal about good intentions and how we can cause great harm if we are not disciplined. If the servants of the master went out and began to uproot plants trying their hardest to make sure the harvest was good, they could very easily cause ruin. It is difficult to let things sit when you know something is wrong. It is hard for us to let seeds of grace mature without stepping in to try to pull out the seeds of evil in the lives of those we are serving. But we have to wait for the master to let us know when to act. It is not our harvest, but God’s. It is not our field that is being worked but His. We do not and cannot change the spiritual fields ourselves but must work with and under the direction of our master.
This requires us to become disciplined in our own lives. Working on little things in ourselves first and then encouraging others. We first need to follow the rhythm of life that Jesus showed us; a life where we make it our custom to worship, where we withdraw to the isolated places to pray, and then to go out into the fields to minister where the master has lead us. Without this rhythm we are unable to discern the voice of the master. Without this disciplined life we are unable to see the difference between the wheat and the weed. But even with this disciplined life we must be careful. A few months ago I spoke about the stages of belief: the first being knowledge, the second being trust, and the third being entrust. These stages of belief also play a role in how well we are able to handle the kingdom of heaven.
Those that act on knowledge, but without trust will often move forward without discernment and cause harm, even with good intentions. Those that fail to entrust their lives and the lives of others into the care of God, will often find that their lives may have uprooted the seeds of grace and are now nurturing plants with poisonous intoxicating properties. This is why the gospel writers included the spiritual practices of Jesus in their stories and why they included his parables alongside his miracles, so that we would be able move from one stage to the next.
So why do we wait to pull the weeds? Coming from an agricultural background I understand these agronomic parables better than some, and since I have a degree in crop science it helps as well. While studying for my degree, I actually had to take classes dealing with the study of soils, the study of crops, and the study of weeds. These classes were to train us in how to encourage the earth to produce as much as possible, how to choose which plants to grow where, and how to identify potential issues before they became a problem. I often thought that in becoming a pastor in an urban setting these skills I learned in school and on the farm might have been wasted but then I read scripture. Why does Jesus ask his servants to wait? Rye matures faster than wheat, so as the plants mature you can identify them and cut them out before the harvest of wheat begins. So when Jesus is telling us to wait to pull the weeds, he is telling us that if we wait we will see more clearly, we will nurture the good seeds and then the contrast between the good and bad become more visible.
Often those in the church fail to see the kingdom all around us because we are too focused on the weeds instead of focusing on the seeds of grace that God has called us to nurture. We see all that is wrong with the world, and want to act before God has had a chance to get the good seeds established. The problem with that type of view is we become our own worst enemy. We work hard to nurture the lives around us and then we begin pulling weeds and in the process uprooting the spiritual lives of the ones we are called to minister too. In our desires to groom righteous people we forget to teach discipline and stop the deeper establishment of belief. The kingdom of Heaven is all around us. The early friends would explain it as the spark of light in everyone, our job as followers and Friends of Christ is to nurture and feed the light, fertilize and water the seeds of belief until the hearts are a blaze and the flowers are in bloom. We do not see the kingdom around us because often we have stopped tending the fields.
As we enter into this time of open worship and communion as Friends let us consider the wheat and the weeds, let us consider the stages of belief and the rhythm of life that Jesus taught us. Let us look at how we can assist our master in his fields by nurturing the seeds he plants and let the angels cut out the rye that the evil one has planted to confuse and hinder us. And let us become people walking along with Jesus as he worships, prays, and serves those in his community; and become a people Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the Love of Christ with other.
Scripture: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
There is something powerful about a story. Stories have a strange power that can transport us from one place and time in to a totally different universe. This is why so many of us enjoy a good book or movie, those stories take us from our living rooms and transport us to worlds far in the future, or deep into history. A good story often has a theme that encourages us in some way. There is usually an obstacle of some sort that the main character must overcome. Or there may be some sort of ethical issue in which the story teller is prompting us to consider through the facilities of imagination. This is why some of the greatest teaching Jesus has are not in the explanation of scriptures, but the seemingly entertaining metaphorical stories he tells.
The seeds, it is a story that we have each listened to so often that I wonder if we really listen to it any more. But imagine you had not heard it. You came to the seaside to listen to this traveling teacher and the crowd is so large that to be heard the teacher gets onto a boat and floats out a ways using the terrain as a natural amphitheater. You are anticipating the message you are about to hear, and you are hoping that you will be able to see a miracle.
Jesus looks out at the crowd and begins to speak. There was a farmer that was scattering seeds, the seeds fell in various different places. Some fell on the path where the birds came and ate them, others fell in rocky soil and grew rapidly but quickly withered. Some of the seeds fell among the weeds and were choked out and others fell on good soils and produced an abundance. Then he looks out at the crowd again, says “Let anyone with ears listen,” and he sits down in the boat. The teaching is over because he has now turned his attention away from the crowd and is focused only on his closest followers.
Consider that for a moment. That was the entire sermon that Jesus gave at that moment. No further explanation, no deeper discussion explaining the metaphors to the masses, He simply told a story and left it hanging there in the air. Concluding by saying “Let anyone with ears listen.”
Often we think a story is just entertaining and fun, but often the deepest and most meaningful expressions of faith come from the simplest stories. These simple stories of overcoming obstacles and finding a pathway through a struggle our culture yearns for from the deepest parts of their beings. This is something that humanity has always loved. The story of your life is one of the most powerful things this world has ever heard. The story of how you struggle and found hope even in the darkness, is often a balm for the wounded hearts attached to listening ears.
The sower and the seeds. For many of us is a simple story of a farmer, but in ancient times it was not as simple as we might think. Notice the first illustration that Jesus uses, “Some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.” The words used in this phrase to a listening ear is packed full of spiritual imagery. Although some birds were used as symbols of grace, and used in temple worship, birds were often seen as robbers in the culture. When a farmer had an infestation of birds their livelihood was stolen from them. As Jesus explains later to his disciples, the path is a heart that has been hardened so even though grace and mercy is scattered over that heart the hearer of the words do not sense it. Quickly the minions of evil rob that person of the words of life before the grace even has a chance to germinate. To go a bit deep the phrase, “ate them up,” is a term that is also used for devour, exploit, or to take advantage of. If we were to consider that for a moment we get a very different picture of these hardened people.
A path is a place where foot traffic has compacted the soil. A hardened heart is a heart that has been exploited and used, it is a person that has been abused by its culture so long that it resists any and all mercy. We each know these types of people, when you talk to them they are immediately skeptical and pessimistic.
Jesus continues, “Other seeds fell on the rocky ground, where they did not have much soil…” Rocky soil is a soil of transition, it is either in the process of being trampled and packed or nurtured to become productive. There is something there that responds to the seeds of grace, but Jesus says the sun comes out and they wither because they have no root. These rocky hearts are extremely vulnerable. They often respond to encouragement but can also be quickly turned away. I fear for these types of individuals, because often they can get caught up in the emotionalism of a moment but when their life experiences do not meet their expectations they can quickly become hard.
For example I was in a conversation with a leader of another denomination, this particular leader made an observation that there was a great deal of turnover in leadership among their group and he was reaching out to other Christian leaders for advice. This particular group was one that based the majority of their teaching on excitement, emotions, and blessing. In this leader’s group they would have leaders rise and fall away within a couple of months, leaving him questioning why. Groups like this are vulnerable to the rocky soil believers, they get excited about ministry and life with God and as long as there is not any struggle in their life, they continue to participate, but as soon as they encounter a difficulty they question everything about their faith. They enter into pastoral leadership, but they run into financial difficulties and resign, they begin to lead bible studies but then they have marital struggles and suddenly they question if God even exists. Many of these people then become hardened to the gospel because they tried it once and it did not work, they tried God and He did not bless them and in many cases they left in worse shape than they began.
Jesus continues to speak about the seeds that fell among the thorns and were choked. These are lives that are filled with various worries and distractions. Lives that have so many demands on time and attention that there is no room for anything else. These people by in large are good people, these people if you were to ask them actually say that they believe in God, but they are just unable to grow in their faith because the soils of their life are filled with other things. Our culture by in large is filled with people like this. We are a busy people. We juggle multiple jobs and our family. We have debts that need repaid and mouths to feed, even when we have a few hours to relax we fill that time with things that are equally as demanding as everything else. We like the idea of God, but a relationship with God is just something that will have to wait.
Jesus is teaching to people that understand agriculture. Those listening to this story, if they themselves are not a farmer, know someone who is. They have each observed each of these sorts of situations. They experienced birds robbing them of crops by eating the seeds, they have seen plants quickly taking off and withering away as the temperature rises, and they have seen the weeds choke out the plants that they hoped would feed their families. They also know that the earth is constantly changing and that with proper and intentional care any field can become productive.
Often when we listen to this story we look at it from a position that all soils and all people will not or cannot change. That is not the case. Good soils can become bad and poor soils can become good if we work with them according to their specific needs. So we must then consider what we as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus should do to prepare lives for the seeds of grace? The goal of our efforts is to harvest of the planted seeds. We first keep that goal in mind, but we also have to recognize the situations around us. Jesus is saying to these listening ears in this simple story, that just like a farm a relationship with God takes a lot of work. This is the reason Jesus came to live among us, to show us how to tend the fields of life. It is through the life that has joined into the spiritual rhythm of Jesus’ example that we are able to tend the fields of our community. The rhythm of worship, prayer, and service are similar to the efforts a farm employs in the fields.
The work first begins in our own lives, because we cannot share with others what we ourselves do not possess. When we enter into the spiritual rhythm Jesus has shown, we remove the weeds as we learn through worship and prayer what areas of our own lives can be simplified, and as we simplify our lives we can then encourage others to simplify theirs as well. When we intentionally make time to pray we quickly recognize all the things that are making demands on our time, examine those demands and weed out the ones that are distracting us from the goal of a harvest.
We also may observe not only weeds but rocky areas that prevent deepening roots, things that may threaten our very faith. What do we do to remove these rocks? Rocky soils are everywhere on earth. Ireland is considered to be the Emerald Isle, but the field though rich were also filled with rocks left buried after the glaciers of the Ice age receded from the land. For the farmers in Ireland to use the land to grow crops they had to dig into the ground and pull these rocks out, and they would then carry them to the edge of the field and stack them up. Eventually they removed so many rocks they build walls between the fields, walls that have become monuments to the persistence and dedication of man to survive. In our lives rocks could be many things. They can be addictions or choices that we may not be able to overcome on our own. This is where the church is so important, because it is in the church where we find others that have had similar issues and are willing to help us dig and carry the stones to build monuments of grace. To remove the rocks from the soils of our community requires the Disciples of Christ to become vulnerable and open to others. We become willing to share the areas of life that we have struggled and are willing to help others if asked. It also requires us to be willing to ask for help when we see a need in our own lives.
Prayer and worship assist us in removing the weeds and the rocks of our lives, but it also opens our eyes to be able to see the areas of our community where the seeds of grace are being devoured by the wild birds of the evil one. In the spiritual rhythm Jesus taught and showed us that worship and prayer leads us into service and ministry to the ones least in the community. These are the people that have been exploited and trampled and are so hardened in life that they cannot even begin to contemplate God. But hard soils can be remedied. It requires us to get out into the community to constantly work the soil, using the gifts and tools that God has given us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and help cleanse the ones that are unable to help themselves. These are the ones that will despise us and persecute us but they do that because they have hardness in their hearts and the grace and love of God is being snatch away before they have a chance. To break through the hardest soils requires time and work. Breaking up the soil in to chunks and then letting water seep in, then as it dries up you work it again until you get just enough soil that the seeds of grace can begin to take root.
It is those hard areas God wants us to labor. These are the ones God is calling us to share our lives and our stories to. Those are the ones we invest our time into, and expend our gifts. Working back and forth, up and down, always laboring even if we never seem to see any results. Then suddenly after a while we may see little glimmers of hope, and little shoots emerging in the cracks.
Let anyone with ears listen. Each of us have areas of hardness and areas of goodness. There are areas in our lives where the seeds of grace rapidly take hold and wither away and areas where they yield much fruit. Let us not forget that there is always room to improve. Let us not neglect our own spiritual lives and allow the weeds to encroach on us and begin to choke out our life. And let us be willing to engage our community even though we may face persecution of various types. Working in those hard areas showing and living the love of Christ even among those whose lives have been trampled and exploited in various ways. Soils change, and Christ is calling us to labor in His fields. Getting into the fields to pull the weeds, dig out the rocks, and break down the hardened pathways.
As we enter into a time of open worship and communion as Friends, let us examine our lives and identify the rocks and weeds keeping us from enjoying the abundant life in Christ. Let us also be open to the Spirit’s leading and see where God may want us to focus our time and talents in the lives of the least in our community. Let us have ears to listen.