This summer we are hearing sermons about parables. Some parables are easy to understand, some are hard. Some are popular, and some are not very well known. Today we heard a straightforward parable that I think the Mennonite church has not taken to heart. My sermon will be pretty historical today, but I’ll end by talking about how I think this applies in church today.
This is a farming parable, like so many of Jesus’s stories. A farmer plants a crop with good seed, but an enemy comes and plants other seeds in the ground. The Greek word that we translate into English as tares or thistles is zizania, which is a type of weed that looks very much like wheat, except that it’s seeds are black and inedible. So as the wheat and the zizania plants grew, you would not notice that the plants are different, until they start to bear seed. By that time the roots are all intertwined. If the farmworkers try to root out the zizania, they are going to pull up the wheat too. They can get rid of the zizania by pulling them up, but they will also kill the wheat while they’re at it, and they won’t get any harvest at all. That’s why the farmer instructs the workers to leave the tares to grow and at the harvest time, the harvesters will separate the grain from the tares.
Have Mennonites taken this parable to heart? I think they have hardly paid attention to this. Let me tell you three stories about our congregation.
Mennonites came to Canada in the late 1700s, making their way up from Pennsylvania, and settling in the Port Colborne area, and in settlements close to 20 mile creek here in Vineland/Jordan and 30 mile creek. Early settlers worshipped in their own homes with their neighbours, but eventually a meeting house was built right where our church is now. It was called the Moyer Church, perhaps because Jacob Moyer was the minister, and because the Moyers donated the land for the building. It was Jacob Moyer in the 1830s who helped commission getting a stone wall around the burial ground that we still see outside our church. So the pioneer church started with the pioneer settlers but within forty years the church faced a crisis.
A Mennonite reform movement had started in Pennsylvania, and was sweeping through North America. It blew into the Niagara Peninsula in the 1840s. These reformers were called, not surprisingly, the Reformed Mennonites, and these preachers from the States came up and were preaching about the importance of individual salvation, and a more spirit filled life.
Evangelical preaching by these Reformed Mennonites was often accompanied by dramatic conversions of people from Mennonite congregations. Some members of our congregation were converted to this new way of thinking about their faith. These newly inspired Mennonites wanted to hold prayer meetings during the week in their homes. The leaders of our congregation said it was OK, as long as the prayer meetings were led by a minister.
But by 1848 there were divisions. People in the church were divided bitterly over whether people should be allowed to hold prayer meetings in their own home. There seemed to be two different ways of talking about faith, and leaders in the church had to decide whether these new evangelical ideas with their more emotional tone should be tolerated, or whether the old ways of talking about faith were good enough. Should people be allowed to have prayer meetings in their own homes where they could share this new way of thinking?
A minister in our church, Daniel Hoch, had become part of this new way of talking about faith, a Reformed Mennonite, and he accused our congregation of being dead and led by the evil one. Bishop Benjamin Eby officially silenced Daniel Hoch and several deacons who thought like he did, telling them, “Stop teaching, you are harming the church!” And when Hoch and others refused, they were expelled from the church. By 1850 the divisions were finalized and Mennonites who had left and followed the evangelical movement had formed a new conference called, not surprisingly, the “New Mennonite Conference.”
You might think that people just cordially decided to disagree and go their own way, but that’s not what happened in this conflict. Some people in the church thought that the Reformers were off their rockers, but the Reformers thought that the people who resisted their ideas weren’t even Christian! Daniel Hoch the Reformed Mennonite described the conflict this way, “The praying and the non-praying parts of the church divided.” He called on people in the Moyer church to confess their sins, repent and be saved.
How would a parable like the wheat and the thistles have spoken into a situation like this in the 1840s? People disagreed with each other, and each side thought the other group was misled and even evil. Did they tolerate each other, and let the angels decide at the last harvest who was right? No! They wanted the church to be pure, they wanted everyone to think the same way. They wanted to root out these heretical Mennonites, and cast them out. Perhaps they were inspired by words from Jesus in Matthew 5:30: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
People on both sides of the conflict in the 1840s were sure that these issues were so serious, it was important enough to divide the church over them–they ignored this parable of the wheat and the thistles. So that was story #1.
Story #2 A generation later, in the late 1880s, what was happening in Moyer Mennonite Church? Sadly, division and strife again tore apart the congregation. The evangelical movement that some in our congregation had so rigidly resisted in the 1840s had become more acceptable, and some of its innovations were making their way into the Mennonite churches, including our congregation.
One of these innovations was Sunday school: lay people in the church teaching children about God. Other innovations were that people were starting to sing hymns in four part harmony, instead of in unison, which is how it had been done for centuries. Preachers were also starting to preach in English, instead of in German (Pennsylvania Dutch). Churches were holding evening meetings that reached out to people in the community outside the church. One preacher from the United States came and preached in our congregation, his name was John S. Coffman (he actually was the father of S.F. Coffman who later was our minister here for 50 years…John S. Coffman is the great-grandfather of our John Coffman who worships with us). Coffman held evangelical revival meetings that were so popular, right here in Vineland hundreds of people crowded around the open windows of our church building to hear him speak!
But some people in the congregation had had enough…they could not tolerate this terrible practice of Sunday school, singing in four parts, preaching in English and revival meetings…they liked the old ways better. “Someone had to do something!” they thought. So some people from our congregation and other Mennonite congregations gathered together to resist. In the 1840s, it had been the people who were evangelical who had left the church. This time, with evangelical practices widely found in the church, the people who left were the people who didn’t like the evangelical movement. They formed their own churches that followed the old order of doing thing. They called themselves, not surprisingly, the Old Order Mennonites.
The people from our church who were Old Orders, uprooted themselves from this congregation and built their own church building on the other side of the graveyard so they could worship separately. They wanted things to stay the way they were. They didn’t want the church to change. So once again the community was torn apart, with families and friends separated and divided by different views and animosity. Once again the parable that we read today was the last thing on people’s minds.
For the third story I’m going to jump a hundred years, and give one last example of a challenge that faced our congregation; this story happened in the 1970s. A renewal was sweeping through churches in North America called the charismatic movement, with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, and spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophesy. Again there were people who were caught up in new ways of thinking about God, and once again, people in our congregation were critical of each other, for either following this new way of thinking and wanting these spiritual gifts, or for rejecting these spiritual gifts.
A charismatic minister that we hired was the focus of some of the tension, with some people liking the minister, and some people thinking he was off his rocker. Some people joined the church during this renewal movement, but many people left. This is partly why in the 1980s our congregation had dwindled to its lowest attendance numbers and we were wondering whether we should close the doors of our church permanently.
With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy for us to look back at these stories and all these divisions in our own congregation’s history and say, “It would have been better for people to tolerate each other, probably all those people were following God in their own way!”
What exactly were the evil seeds that were planted? Was the evil seed people who wanted to hold Sunday schools or prayer meetings, were people planting evil seeds by singing in harmony or preaching in English or speaking in tongues? Maybe the problem was not any of these things that everyone was focussing on. Maybe the evil seed was the judgemental attitude and pride that makes me think I know better than my neighbour what pleases God. A judgmental attitude that makes me feel that I am right and you are wrong, an attitude that thinks everyone must think exactly the same way, and if we don’t, let’s kick the others out of the church, or let’s leave and start our own new and improved better church, that we will probably call “Better Mennonite Church”.
How do we apply this today? Well there are still things that divide churches. In the Mennonite church today we see conferences casting each other out over whether or not to include LGBTQ people. There are divisions also about how we talk about salvation, what language we use to describe what Jesus did for us, and how we read the Bible. In the United States with the political climate there, we see divisions that are splitting churches: Democrats vs. Republicans. And now with the pandemic there are different views on vaccinating or not-vaccinating.
There are so many issues that can divide us. But I also think it’s not just issues dividing churches, it’s personalities. We can tolerate a lot from people we like, but some people just bug us, they get under our skin. So if someone who bugs us holds a different opinion, somehow suddenly we can’t stomach it anymore. One of the things I read about the conflict in the 1840s was that Daniel Hoch was not easy to get along with. People had a hard time with his reforms, because they had a hard time with his personality. How easy it is to look at someone else in the church and think, “They are stupid”, and it’s only a hop skip and a jump to think, “They aren’t Christian,” and there we are in the garden with our trowel, digging up those nasty tares, while at the same time uprooting the wheat that was so carefully planted.
This parable of the wheat and the tares is one of the few that Jesus himself explains to the disciples. A few short verses after the ones we read today, Jesus explains the parable, and one of the things he says is “The harvest is the end of the age, the curtain of history. The harvest hands are angels.” It’s not us who harvests, it’s not our job to make the church pure or not pure, or to judge who should be in or out….that is a job for angels.
Reading this parable today and looking at the stories of conflict makes me realize that you can take any position and find Bible verses to support it. I think all of the people who were involved in all of these conflicts were trying to be faithful and were reading the Bible. The people who cast out others have the verses about cutting off hands, and the people who want to practice tolerance have the story of the wheat and the tares.
I think that’s why God gives us the wider church. It is sometimes very complicated to read the Bible and figure out a way forward. The best way to read the Bible is not to do it alone, but to do it with open ears…to listen to how other faithful people are reading the Bible, and to pray for God’s spirit to guide us. To listen not just to how people are interpreting the Bible in our congregation, or in our own conference, but to listen to the wider church here and around the world. And, importantly, can we listen to our own history, and see where we went wrong? Can we listen to the terrible things that happen when we read only one bible story, and ignore another?
At the end of the explanation that Jesus provides about the meaning of this parable he says, “Are you listening to this? Really listening?” (Matthew 13:43) It’s my prayer that we can listen to Jesus, and the way the Spirit is working in the church today. May God give us the grace we need to love each other, as we all listen together.
A sermon preached at
The First Mennonite Church
August 8, 2021
by Carol Penner