What do you talk about with people you’ve just met?
Photo: (Reuters/Marko Djurica) – photo lifted from Quartz article highlighted in the sermon. Link at bottom.
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
An article came out in Quartz last week with the provocative title, “One of the most common questions in American small talk is considered rude in much of the world.”
The rude American question? “What do you do?”
The question of what someone does for a living is one of the most common things we Americans ask someone we’ve just met. But to many folks in other parts of the world, it’s too intimate, reduces a person to what they do for work, is considered sort of classist, and on top of all that, it’s generally considered a boring question. And it’s true — a person’s job may tell us very little about the person and their passions, likes, and dislikes, and instead, it puts them in a box and reduces them to what they do for a living. (Pastors and doctors on airplanes know this particularly well as we tell our seat mates what we do for a living and then have to listen to a list of either their excuses for not going to church or their physical ailments for the remainder of the flight.)
Instead of “What do you do,” more common French questions include, “What are your hobbies?,” or “What part of the country are you from?” These questions, for the French, are much more interesting giving more insight into who a person is, where they come from, and what they’re passionate about (1).
But What do you do? still lingers for Americans.
Everything for us seems to hinge on that question in a broad sense — not just what we do for a living, but what we do — how we behave, how well we parent, what productive things we do with our spare time.
What do you do? Not just with your job, but with your life?
We use questions like this to measure each other. We want to hang out with people of a similar type to us. In some ways, this is almost primal — it’s a tribal thing. You don’t want to be someone who hangs out with lazy people, or people who drink more than you do, or people with [gasp] the opposite political affiliation. We often try to surround ourselves with the best company that we can. We like to have some measure of control of our environment — and honestly, that’s not always a bad thing.
Unfortunately, it’s not exactly how we’re told to do church.
Yet again today, as last week, we have Jesus comparing God’s work to things that grow, calling us to have a little patience and, in this case, as farmers often have to do, to give up a little control.
What we have today is Jesus essentially admitting that sometimes, human beings can kind of be leeches — people who act as weeds, sucking up our time, our energy. People who figuratively choke the life out other people. Our immediate response, of course, is to yank up the weed-like people, to throw them out, to keep our little church field of good soil carefully tended.
We do it all the time in our regular lives: we love to curate our environments and cut out people who annoy us, or people we disagree with. This is getting ever worse with the advent of social media and “filter bubbles” — where the social media site essentially shows you things you already agree with, things it knows you want to see based on your likes and dislikes. This can lead to an existence where we forget that the people we disagree with still exist, because we never have to hear from them.
It’s not just the social media sites that are doing it — we’re willing to do it manually as well. If someone irritates us too much on social media, we unfollow or unfriend them. And of course, my favorite posts are the ones — from liberals and conservatives and moderates alike — that tell other people what to post and what not to post.
And it isn’t just on the Internet, either: if a friend irritates us too much and becomes a burden, we slowly stop returning their calls.
What do we do?
Well, for one thing, we really like to weed our little gardens.
We like to think that it’s out of the question to do church this way, but it isn’t. We’ve all found that most churches want to reach their neighbors — but by “neighbors,” most of us really mean people who look like us, think like us, and are of a similar economic status to us. I have been in churches where someone showing up looking for assistance was not seen as a chance to “welcome our neighbors,” as they often declared they wanted to do — it was seen as an issue to be dealt with, a weed to be uprooted.
What do you do?
If our vocation is to be God’s metaphorical gardeners, unfortunately, like children in the garden, God hasn’t given us an invitation to weed the garden, lest we pull up Mom’s begonias.
As a result, it’s true that — as we all know — church can be quite a mess. It’s one place people can go and expect to be heard, a place where they can’t get fired, a place where we don’t have to deal with the complex authority dynamics within our families. And so, as a result, church can bring out the worst in us at times, especially when it doesn’t live up to our expectations.
What do you do? Jesus is telling you the one thing you don’t get to do: pull weeds. Leaving a practical exception for when someone is causing harm or danger to the congregation, we don’t get to decide who’s in and who’s out like we do in the rest of our lives. We just don’t get that much control.
Now, it’s tempting to romanticize this text as saying, “This means God loves everybody and allows them to grow!” and that would be true.
What do you do?
My Episcopal priest in college was a sniper in the Marines during his military career. He said the snipers had a motto: “Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” When he became a priest, he said, his life and his vocation obviously changed dramatically. His motto now, he says, is “Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out” (2)
What do you do? Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.
Whenever you have a hard time doing this, consider: we’ve all done our time as weeds, both in the church and in the world. We’ve all been a drain on other people’s energy and patience. We’ve all been a drain on each other’s energy and patience and emotions.
Even if you’ve behaved well, no matter who you are, someone, somewhere, thinks that people like you — whether it’s because of who you are or how you think — are weeds, worthy of being pulled out of the garden and thrown into the fire.
About that fire.
This text does have a rather harsh ending, when the wheat is gathered and the weeds are burned. We get a little fixated on this, as we often do whenever the Son of God mentions what sounds like a literal and eternal hell. We may say things like, “Alright! Our enemies are going to hell, guys!” or, “Am I a weed? I don’t think I’m a weed. Does God think I’m a weed?!”
I think we’re missing what Jesus is trying to say here, which is much simpler than some heady theological eschatology or soteriology, which are fancy theological words for what happens at the end of time and where we go when we die. Jesus is not writing a theological treatise.
What do you do?
What Jesus is saying is that what we do does matter. It matters if we intentionally function in the world like weeds. It matters if we choke the life out of other people emotionally or spiritually. It matters if we treat people poorly. It matters if we kill or harass or otherwise oppress other people. And it matters if we don’t welcome all of our neighbors.
You see, what I think Jesus is getting at with this ending is that God cares — deeply — about how we treat each other.
If you find my preaching at all worth listening to, you can mostly thank the Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day, a New Englander who’s advanced since my own seminary years to become the dean at Wake Forest Divinity.
When asked to give a lecture on “The New Testament and Heaven” at a local church, Dean O’Day said something to the effect of, “This is a difficult topic, because the New Testament is not primarily concerned with what happens to our eternal souls — something that is firmly in God’s hands — the New Testament is primarily concerned with how we treat one another while we’re here.” (2)
Even New Testament attempts to describe the next life are supposed to affect how you treat other people here, in these times, in this life.
So don’t choke the life out of others. It matters.
What do you do?
In that sense, what we do matters deeply.
But there’s something else: Marty read this morning from the Wisdom of Solomon, a book you may not have heard of before. It’s a book in the apocrypha, or a set of Hebrew scriptures not usually printed in the Protestant canon but which nevertheless show up as options in our lectionary.
The reading this morning said, in a saying attributed to Solomon and addressing the God of the universe: “Your strength is the source of righteousness, and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all…. Through such works you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:16, 19 NRSV).
“The righteous must be kind.”
So what do we do?”
We have patience in this world of filter bubbles. We give up control wherever we can, knowing that who’s in and who’s out is not up to us. In this world of weeds and wheat, we dare to be brought together not by what we do, but by love.
In short, we love ‘em all — and let God sort ‘em out. Amen.