An untidy God

An untidy God

This is the sermon the Rev. Kevin Johnson of St. Alban’s Theatre Arlington preached at the diocesan worship service on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 19, 2020.


Pentecost+7, Proper 11A, 2020

Some summers back I received the gift of backpacking el Camino de Santiago. The Camino is an ancient pilgrimage trail that runs from France across northern Spain ending up in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where tradition has it that the remains of St. James are buried. 500 miles. It’s a long walk.

One of the joys of this long walk is that eventually the distractions of daily life fall away, creating enough room to finally pay attention to the messages from God that surround us all the time. For me, this paying attention began to happen about 250 miles into the walk when I began to notice little gifts scattered throughout creation, like jewels casually tossed upon the path of life. Day after day, more and more, the world around me dazzled with revelations of the divine. It was tremendously tremulous.

Wonderful enough that after I came home I put together a booklet of reflections entitled Scattered Gifts.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve received the gift of two quotations that God has scattered on my path. Two quotations that keep bouncing around in my head. The first was spoken by a transgender man named Preston Allen. The second quotation was spoken by former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg in a Zoom meeting I recently attended.

Preston, speaking of other people’s response to his transgenderedness, said, “Why do you have to understand my body in order to value my being?”

Pete, speaking of his Episcopal faith, said, “Salvation has to do with standing with and up for those whom the prevailing culture casts aside.”

  • “Why do you have to understand my body in order to value my being?”
  • “Salvation has to do with standing with and up for those whom the prevailing culture casts aside.”

Today’s gospel story is a complex curvilinear, folding in on itself parable about wheat, weeds, farmhands and farmers. It is one story set within a whole day’s worth of stories that Jesus tells to a big crowd of folks gathered at the beach. These surrounding stories speak about the ridiculously abundant kingdom of heaven. Well, ridiculously abundant in the eyes of a shortage-mentality world. In God’s eyes what we see as ridiculously abundant…. well, it is just scattered gifts, jewels casually tossed upon the paths of our lives.

So, in the stories, Jesus tells about a kingdom that is as giant as the giantest loaf of bread you can imagine. So giant that it can feed the whole village and the next village over and the village after that! And he tells about a kingdom that is as prolific as a mustard plant. So big that all the birds of the air can find a home in it.

Illogically generous. Brazenly shared. Ridiculous abundance. Those are the stories within which today’s story is packaged.

In this story it seems there was a farmer – this would be God, the Creator – who planted a field of wheat. Unfortunately, a nefarious person came in the night and scattered weeds. The people – that is you and me – well, our impulse is to purify the field – to figure out who are the weeds and get rid of them, or at least fix them so they are more like us.

Unfortunately, we, you and I and the Church overall, we aren’t very good at distinguishing weeds from wheat. We and the Church have a long, documented history of designating some people as weeds, who are, in fact, in God’s eyes actually wheat: Catholic Spain expels the Jews in 1492; in the 1700s here in Texas the Church decides that native Americans must convert in order to be good with God; our churches – our Episcopal churches – were built with slave balconies, a clear, physical sign of our categorizing Black folks as weeds; in our lifetime women and gay and trans folks were banned from ordination because – well, because weeds and wheat. Frankly, we haven’t always done well with the idea of an illogically generous, brazenly shared, ridiculously abundant, messy Kingdom of God. And so we categorize, tidy up, and cull.

The problem is that God – at least as I’ve seen God – God is not particularly tidy. Apologies to accountants, but God is not an accountant’s neat orderly balance sheet. God is not a zero sum game. If anything God is more like a Jackson Pollock painting generously filled with lush colors, wildly interspersed lines and blotches that when you first look at it seems to be too much…. but the longer you spend paying attention, the more you discover the ridiculously generous abundance within those swirling lines and colors.

But let’s be honest. At first, isn’t it tempting to toss out the Jackson Pollock painting with it’s crazy, illogical lines and illogical patterns that I don’t fully understand.

Give me a real painting that I can understand. A painting with real value. The one with the dogs playing poker – there’s a painting I can keep in my house.

Then, Preston Allen’s words rise up within our collective soul: “Why do you have to understand my body in order to value my being?”

How many people have we kicked out of the garden because we mis-understood them to be weeds, when in fact, it turns out, they are wheat.

When I was ordained as priest, the diocese in which I was ordained did not ordain publicly out gay men and women. And yet, here I stand.  If I’d been honest about my sexuality at that time in that place, I would have been designated as a weed and culled from the ordination process. But it turns out that I’ma valu-able stalk of wheat. Fifteen years ago, this very ground on which I am standing this morning would not have witnessed a female priest officiating the service. And yet, here Karen stands. She may have looked like a weed to some people fifteen years ago, but it turns out she’s a valu-able stalk of wheat.

Why do you have to understand my body in order to value my being?

Our job is not to cull out the weeds because, frankly, we, and I, are not very good at differentiating weeds from wheat. Our job is not to cull out the weeds; our job is to value every human being – to value with the same illogical, ridiculous, brazenly generous abundance that is God.

Pete Buttigieg is right. Our salvation is all mixed up with “standing with and up for those whom the prevailing culture casts aside,” standing with those whom our tidying up culture categorizes as weeds, saying again and again you are valuable to the Kingdom of God. We need you.

A generous God, beyond our understanding. That is God. That, is God’s Kingdom. Amen.