Harrowing Of Hell
July 19, 2020

You are Loved, and You are Forgiven

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends!

Thank you so much for being part of our Epiphany community, even though the way we are currently working and worshipping together has changed quite a lot. The way you all show up for each other and for those experiencing homelessness or in need in our Seattle community and our larger world community of human beings made in the image of God—is a gift that you give me, Doyt, and the whole staff.  When many of you ask with great kindness how I am doing, I can honestly say that I feel grateful and blessed to be part of this community. And after 4 and ½ months of preparing to-go meals for the men and women of Operation Nightwatch there has not been a weekend –or holiday—when  volunteers haven’t shown up to make sandwiches, to cut and bag carrots, to bake dozens and dozens and dozens of homemade cookies and to assemble all the food, chips, soda and drinks together in at least 125 meals EACH week.  Yes, I am thankful, and I am grateful that I get to ‘work’ with you doing something I love, something I believe in –- building the kingdom of God.

Now, I want to start today’s sermon stating this as clearly and unequivocally as I can. I find joy in being part of this community charged with spreading God’s Good News. Because, as you might have heard in more than a couple of stories or jokes in your life— you know the ones that  start with I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news…the Good News is supposed to buoy you up through  the not-so-good news or even what some might call the bad news. So, let’s start with the Good News. It is absolutely fantastic.  As theologian William Countryman would put it – it comes down to this: You are loved, and you are forgiven. Jesus Christ came into the world to better love us and his love for us was so strong and so deep that he willingly died to save sinners. All sinners. Every single one. Now that is great news it means we don’t have to be perfect; we don’t really have to do anything at all—except believe—to earn this love and forgiveness. It is as good as it gets. We’re free from our sins and we’re already living in and on our inheritance as the children of God.

But the bad news is Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Every sinner; the ones we love and cherish and the ones we don’t, as my mother might have said, “particularly care for….”  And it gets worse still—according to Jesus, we don’t even get to judge other sinners. There is no divine dispensation for our urbane Schadenfreude. There’s no preferential treatment for some and ‘just desserts’ for others. That’s what God’s unconditional love – what being loved and being forgiven looks like. And as Christians, yes, we are being held up to a different standard. Because as Uncle Ben reminded Spiderman, quoting Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 12:48), “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

Now if it took a while for Spiderman to learn this lesson — it’s taken humankind a heck of a lot longer. And Jesus being that he, the begotten son of God, was living a human life – well he got that. So, he not only lived this in every aspect of his life, healing the sick, hanging out with the poor, the outcasts, and tax collectors – honoring both men and women with equal attention and care – but he also taught this in parables. Last week, he talked about the sower who sowed the seed EVERYWHERE. – rocky soil, amongst the weeds, even on the road—but the growth—the real deep and lasting growth well that came down to the good soil –the good soil which we as Christians are asked to till and tend.

In today’s parable, Jesus builds on this and says that into this good soil while we were sleeping, an enemy comes and purposely sows weeds – darnel (also referred to as cockles and tares depending on your Bible translation). Now since most of us no longer live an agricultural life, we might not know a lot about growing wheat—let alone about the weed darnel but it has a long history with human beings. [1] In fact, interestingly enough, darnel is entirely reliant on human societies for its propagation and continued existence. It can be traced back to the beginnings of our agricultural and collective life in the Fertile Crescent. Darnel is a member of the ryegrass (Lolium) family. But while rye became an actual food crop, darnel did not. It is one of the few poisonous grasses in existence. From the perspective of humans throughout history, darnel could be seen as wheat’s evil nemesis whose mimicry of the wheat crops it invades allows it to survive and thrive. Its appearance even varies to mirror the type of wheat with which it grows and until it is ready to be harvested, it is difficult to tell the wheat from weed. Darnel the original bad seed, if you will, has been both despised and utilized as an intoxicant whose ingestion leads to psychotoxic symptoms. This is reflected in its species name, Lolium temulentum–“temulentus” meaning drunk or intoxicated in Latin.

So, while we probably don’t know much about darnel, as ethnobiologist Howard Thomas notes once you start looking for darnel in historical and literary sources it seems to be everywhere. It is found in the writings of Horace and Ovid who referred to it as “eye-blightening.”  It shows up in Shakespeare, in Henry VI, Part 1, in Henry V, and in King Lear.  King Lear wears it in his crown of weeds and the symptoms of the king’s madness, Thomas notes, are similar to the symptoms of darnel poisoning.

But if farmers fought darnel and were wary of it because of its damage to the grain on which they depended; folks also found ways to use it. Darnel has been found inside Egyptian artifacts. In classical Greece, the “plant of frenzy” was used in the rites of Demeter and Persephone. It was used in Europe as a medicinal plant and as an anesthetic up until the 19th century. But most often, it seemed to have been baked into “dazed bread” or brewed into beer for an extra kick.

Now while I find this incredibly fascinating, I am sharing this with you because sometimes we lose the significance of Jesus’ parables not only in terms of their original context but also how they continue to speak to us today.  Hearing about weeds in a field and the landowner’s desire to let them remain means one thing for those of us who can easily go to the store and buy food. It means something entirely different to those who grow crops to meet the needs of their families and communities and for whom there is little if any surplus. And while darnel is quite rare in most of Europe it still wreaks havoc in many parts of the world – including places as close as South Dakota and Montana where Persian darnel can have devastating effects on crops – diminishing the harvest of spring wheat by up 83%. For the small farmers in these states this pernicious plant is as destructive as it ever has been. Farmers are still counseled to either delay sowing until later in the growing season after the darnel has sprouted ( which still lessens the spring wheat crop but mitigates loss) or to make absolutely sure that the seed sown is free of darnel seed as trying to weed an existing crop is almost impossible.

So, what does all of this mean to us as Christians? …well answering this question seems to be what the gospel writer was trying to do for his community as well. The Matthean author writes: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one…Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.” While the gospeller was trying to bring solace and hope to the small and persecuted community of Christ, if the field is the world, well, not to ruin the ending but Jesus came to save it –the whole world. And the Son of Man didn’t ascend to the right hand of the Father before he descended to the dead and raised all those who desired to follow him. And as followers  of Jesus,  as good seed if you will, we need to remember that our ministry is to all God’s children—especially those we might see as weeds or bad seeds. They need us. Ethnobiologist Howard Thomas noted that while darnel is neither a wild nor domesticated plant, it depends on humanity and our husbandry. So, while we might wish to label some folks as heroes and others as villains, just a darnel is a human-dependant plant made to resemble wheat, all of humanity is a God-made creature made in God’s own image.

The ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus believed that wheat could transform into darnel and vis a versa, since he observed that fields sown to wheat are often darnel when reaped. While we might know more about plant biology, our parable today still asks us to refrain from judgement or our desire to be weed-wackers. God’s good soil grows both good seed and weed.

As children of the Good Soil, as good seed, we have been given much and much is expected of us. Our Good News is simple – we are loved, and we are forgiven. And our work is simple – we are to share this Good News wherever we go even if others think we’re getting into the weeds. That is what Christians do – we repeat this Good News again and again even in the fields filled with darnel or other weeds– even when the costs are high.  The world needs us.  Human civilization has always depended on good people to do God’s work. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “What is a weed? [but] a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Our job is to see, to believe in, and to hope and pray for that virtue in every sinner. Just like Jesus does.

[1] Remembering Darnel, a Forgotten Plant of Literary, Religious, and Evolutionary Significance

Author(s): Howard Thomas, Jayne Elisabeth Archer, and Richard Marggraf Turley
Source: Journal of Ethnobiology, 36(1):29-44.
Published By: Society of Ethnobiology

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-36.1.29
URL: http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.2993/0278-0771-36.1.29