Cranmer: The Weedy Field with the Great Harvest
If you’re not aware of this already, let me give you some breaking news: Jesus is awesome.
I love this gospel text. It is a perfect illustration of his subversive wisdom, his undermining grace, his sneak attack on our complacencies and familiarities.
One of my favorite things about Jesus is that he refuses to allow us to believe we have all the answers.
We’ll arrive at a new spiritual understanding and relish and celebrate and benefit from it.
But the minute it starts to contribute to our ego satisfaction, Jesus will rip the rug out from underneath us.
Last week we talked about the fact that however great of a spiritual teacher Jesus may be, to be honest he would make an abysmal farmer.
Thank God the family business was carpentry instead.
But we continue this week with another edition of Poor Agricultural Advice by Jesus Christ, in the form of the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat.
First of all, who sows weeds? How does one even accomplish that?
Jesus attributes it to the Enemy or the Evil One, and I always have this image of the Devil standing in someone’s newly plowed field blowing the seeds off dandelions with unholy glee.
Then Jesus has the householder tell his servants not to weed the ground, because “in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”
That’s, um, not how it works.
Every first-grader cultivating his first garden plot in the backyard knows that weeding is an unpleasant but entirely necessary part of the process.
And when you pull out weeds, generally the plants you are trying to grow are not uprooted if you pay attention at all.
So if we conclude once again that Jesus is not giving literal horticultural advice, what does he mean? If we are to take this spiritually, where do we land?
Nowhere familiar, that’s for sure.
Jesus is preaching an approach to spirituality that is directly contrary to the general direction of the Church all the way back to Paul.
We all want to rip out the weeds in our hearts and souls, and we’ve been told to do so by the Church our whole lives.
Selfishness, greed, deceit, lust, laziness, cruelty—rip it out! Do not let the garden of your heart and mind be choked by sinful qualities and tendencies!
It makes sense on the surface, doesn’t it?
Remove the bad apple before you ruin the bunch.
Eliminate transgression by eliminating temptation.
Stop sin in its tracks by cultivating moral reformation.
It even has a technical theological name: sanctification.
But Jesus is having none of it.
Leave those weeds alone, he says. Let them grow up along with the crop.
And notice his rationale—let the weeds grow so you do not damage the harvest.
Do not obsess over your weaknesses, frailties, and outright basest drives—not because you want to preserve those bad qualities, but because the very effort to eliminate them will damage the growth of peace, patience, generosity and love in your heart.
Wow! That’s really interesting!
Jesus is saying that the worst parts of ourselves, no matter how we struggle with them, have real spiritual value.
In some fundamental sense, we need the weeds.
In some way that we don’t fully understand now, the things we hate about ourselves the most have a part to play in the harvest of grace, truth and love that God longs to cultivate within us.
I realized there is a person who absolutely exemplifies this counterintuitive reality within himself.
In fact, we could call him the Founding Father of our Church.
I mean Thomas Cranmer.
Thomas Cranmer was the Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII, the first Archbishop of the newborn Church of England, independent of Rome, having broken away from the Roman Catholic Church.
And in that role, Cranmer wrote the first Book of Common Prayer.
Being the first and primary author of a worship text that endures to this very day in our pews would be accomplishment enough. But Cranmer’s authorship of the prayerbook means far more than that.
As those of you who took my Anglicanism class last spring remember, one of our most important principals as Episcopalians is lex orendi, lex credendi.
That’s Latin for, “as we pray, so we believe.”
This prayerbook is our definitive theological statement.
We don’t have an Augsburg Confession like the Lutherans or Papal bulls and the magisterium like the Roman Catholics do.
This text was intended to incorporate and articulate our whole theology through the very words we say together in worship, which in and of itself is a beautiful concept.
And Cranmer navigated an incredibly complex world of shifting theologies and competing doctrines during the Reformation to build this book, theologies and doctrines people were willing to die for and did die for.
His brilliant mind and faithful heart led him to combine the riches of tradition in the Roman church and the rootedness in scripture of the new Protestants to form our own Anglican via media or Middle Way.
Another way of saying it is that we got the best of all worlds, and it’s all summed up right here in our little BCP.
I have all this fresh on my mind because when I went on retreat last month, I took the 600-page definitive modern biography of Cranmer by Diarmaid MacCulloch with me.
(Side note: You know you’re dealing with an incurable ecclesiastical nerd if she takes a break from reading serious church theology by reading serious church history. I am a hopeless case.)
(Another side note: I also realized that Cranmer may have had as much or more influence on modern English as a language as Shakespeare did. Cranmer was a generation before Shakespeare, and he created the first vernacular English worship widely used in Britain. So Shakespeare would have grown up worshipping in Cranmer’s language, and no doubt Cranmer’s rhythms, vocabulary and cadences influenced his own. And of course we know how profoundly Shakespeare influenced English itself. Seriously, Cranmer was amazing.)
But before I got into the biography, I had forgotten enough of my seminary lectures to slide back into some of the same stereotypes about the English Reformation that a lot of people have.
We know the English Church broke away from Rome because Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the Pope wouldn’t give it to him.
And an all-too-simplified way of looking at Henry’s thinking for founding the Anglican Communion was, “I want to marry Anne Boleyn, and maybe we can just slap some theology on top and call it a new church.”
And along with the English Reformation getting a bad rap, Cranmer did too.
He has often been seen as Henry’s flunky, a political opportunist who went along with the mad king’s sexual whims and rubber stamped them ecclesiastically.
But in reading this biography, I realized that while there is some truth to those accusations—Cranmer was a shrewd political operator who lasted as Archbishop through three monarchs when many others were imprisoned and executed—there was a lot more to him than that.
He really and truly cared about the church he was building, the theology it would espouse, and the spiritual life and health of every single person in the pews.
He was sincerely devout.
He prayed and and wept and anguished over how to discern God’s will for the church, and how to have the strength to carry it out.
Cranmer completely epitomizes Jesus’ field with the weeds and the wheat growing together.
He was flawed and human, but grace shone through him so powerfully that his words still enable us to lift up our hearts to God every single Sunday.
And as much as Cranmer’s life showed the presence of both the weeds and the wheat within him, his death is his most powerful witness to us.
By 1553, both Henry and his son, Edward VI, had died, and after the ill-fated nine day reign of Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, ascended the throne.
This is the Mary known as “Bloody Mary,” and she was determined to return England to the Roman Catholic Church come hell or high water, no matter how many heads she had to chop off.
Cranmer was dethroned as Archbishop of Canterbury and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he spent two years.
Cranmer broke under interrogation, which may have included torture, and recanted his Protestant beliefs and all the beautiful theology he had built for the new English Church.
He was sentenced to death by burning at the stake for treason and heresy.
Mary wanted to make a public example of him, and so he was allowed to preach his recantation from a pulpit before he was to be taken out and executed.
She wanted everyone to see the once-great Archbishop of Canterbury, champion of the English Reformation, humbled and begging to return to the Roman Catholic Church, admitting his sin and error.
The text was all prepared in the pulpit, and Cranmer stuck to it for the first three quarters.
But then something went wrong.
The clergy and royal onlookers who knew what he was supposed to be saying were not hearing what they expected to hear.
There, from the last pulpit he would ever preach in, with the wood being piled up for his execution just steps away, Cranmer renounced his own recantation.
He proclaimed that he would not abandon the new church, that he could not swear loyalty to the Pope, that his life’s work was the true work of God and he stood by it.
He cried out that the hand that signed his recantation would be the first to burn and he was dragged out of the pulpit still preaching and out to the place of execution.
Having found his courage at the last, the harvest came due, both weeds and wheat.
He kept his promise, and at the stake, thrust the hand that signed his recantation into the heart of the fire to be burned first.
His dying words were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…I see the heavens opening and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
That’s the story of how Thomas Cranmer lived his life as both a wily secular political operative and holy and innovative theological and liturgical architect of our church, and how he died as one of the great Protestant martyrs of the Reformation.
This is your heritage as an Episcopalian, and it’s brilliant in its humanness and its divinity.
In one man’s story, we can trace the growth of both the weeds and the wheat through his entire life, and Jesus was right—somehow both were necessary.
Cranmer’s failings make his greatness all the more remarkable, and all the more real to people like us who sometimes feel like we’re nothing but weeds.
But remember this story every time you speak and pray the beautiful words of The Book of Common Prayer that are Cranmer’s legacy and his gift to us.
Those words that we pray are one more way of helping the wheat grow among the weeds, and then one day God will gather our harvest with joy.
Let’s conclude with the collect for Cranmer’s feast day, which is March 21st by the way, and this prayer perfectly sums up what we’ve learned from and been blessed by today.
Cranmer obviously did not write his own martyrdom collect, later Anglicans did, but you can almost hear his voice in the rhythm and language of the prayer. That’s because he taught us to write as much as much as he taught us to pray, so let us pray.
“Merciful God, through the work of Thomas Cranmer you renewed the worship of your Church by restoring the language of the people, and through his death you revealed your power in human weakness: Grant that by your grace we may always worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
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