July 20 Sermon
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
Weeds: To Whack or not to Whack?
It has certainly been a good year for weeds! Have you noticed? Creeping Charlie, dandelions, crab grass, nut grass, violets, clover, fox tail, Johnson grass – ouch! – I can see some of the farmers and gardeners in the congregation beginning to twitch! And that’s just in my yard.
Weeds are doing really well this year! There are all kinds of weeds – “weed” is really what we call anything that is growing in a place where we don’t want it to grow. For instance, a couple of years ago, a little bit of creeping Jenny escaped from the water garden where I had placed it and rooted in the ground. There is now a four by four patch in the garden covered with the stuff. Pretty, but obviously plotting a romantic reunion with her boyfriend Creeping Charlie. I’m trying to chaperon, but they are determined and they get together despite my watchfulness.
You know, once Jesus told a story about weeds. Matthew puts it right in the same chapter as the parable about the Sower who threw his good seed about with such wild abandon. Here’s another story about a farmer with . . . unexpected growing practices:
He sows good seed (Jesus later explains that He is the sower. And that the good seed are the children of the kingdom - those who listen to him and grow in relationship to Him.) And an enemy (Jesus says this is the Evil One) comes in the night and sows bad seed – weed seed – which are children of evil. And these seeds also germinate and grow. So the hired hands of the man who owns the field come to him and say, “Wow. We’ve got trouble! There are weeds growing out there.” And they ask some questions, “Are you sure the seed you sowed was pure? Was there something the matter with your seed? And if you did sow good seed, where did these weeds come from?”
OK. That’s exactly the question we wish God would answer. God, if you intended this world to be a beautiful garden or good and wholesome growth, then what is with the evil in this world? I can see that you created Mother Teresa and my boy. But where did Hitler come from? Or the kid that bullies my kid at school? If you knit me together in the womb, like it says in Psalm 139, what about the fetus with Down’s syndrome? Where did that come from? What’s with this bad stuff growing alongside the good in the world? What about evil in the world?
Being it in a little closer to home: What about the church, God? Matthew’s Gospel was written to address the concerns and questions of the early church. And the early church was already asking the kinds of questions that churches are still asking: What about these people who come to church and they don’t believe quite like I do. Or live quite like I do? I’m not sure they belong in this field. I mean church. I don’t think they really are the same kind of plant as me. What are they doing here? What about bad seed in the church?
Bring it even closer now: What about me, O God? I’m trying to follow your way. I’m wanting to give my heart to you. But here in my heart I still find greed, and anger sometimes. I’m still battling selfishness. Self-righteousness rears it’s ugly head. Are you sure I’m good seed? What about the bad things still in heart and soul?
And to these questions, the Sower offers only the simplest, most basic answer – in fact it is not even an answer – it is just a statement of fact: An enemy has done this. That’s the way it is. Why is there evil in the world? In the church? In me? God just says, “It’s not what I wanted. But there it is. Both of us are going to have to deal with it.”
Ah Ha! Deal with it!! YES!
In the parable, the sower's helpers want to immediately rush out and DO SOMETHING! about those evil weeds. “We’ll head right out with our garden gloves and our sprayers of round-up and get rid of those nasty things! Don’t worry, God, we’re on the job! We’ll handle this! Just you watch! We’ll yank those weeds out of the garden faster than you can say, “glyphisate resistance”. Yee Haw, Round-up cowboys! Here we go!”
Over and over again throughout history, the so-called “helpers” have rushed in to whack the weeds of the world, the weeds in the church, and the weeds inside each human heart. In the world, that’s how crusades happen. Someone says, “Let’s rid the Holy Land of the Infidels!” Let’s whack ‘em!
In the church, That’s how schism happens.
On A Prairie Home Companion radio show, Garrison Keillor talks about how difficult it is to form a choir in the Church of the Sanctified Brethren, the mythical denomination in which he grew up. He says that anytime they got beyond enough members to form a mixed quartet, they'd discover some point in Scripture to disagree on and would split rather than tolerate false doctrine.
Keillor remembers envying the large choirs of Lutheran churches. But he didn’t think it was possible to have that many people sing together without having at least one person, most likely a soprano or tenor, guilty of unconfessed sin or of not toeing the official line on some theological point. (From The Lutheran, Feb 2005, an article by Keith Gatling)
It’s funny. But not too funny.
On a personal level, whacking weeds is how emotional repression and uncontrollable rage happen. One of you sent me a funny story about that this week about someone who wanted to be good, and must have really thought she had her weeds eliminated, but . . . then something happened. At a traffic light. A man was stopped, waiting for the light to turn green. When the light changed, he was distracted and he didn't budge. The woman in the car behind him honked her horn. He still didn't move. She honked again. By this time, she was pounding on the steering wheel and blowing her horn non-stop. Finally, just as the light turned yellow, the fellow in the first car woke up and drove through the light. The woman in the second car was beside herself. Still mid-rant, she heard a tap on her car window. She looked up to see the face of a police officer. "Lady, you're under arrest," he said. "Get out of the car. Put your hands up." He took her license, registration, had her sit in the back of the patrol car for a long, long time. Finally, he let her go. "Sorry for the mistake, Lady," he said. "But I pulled up behind you as you were blowing your horn and cursing out the fellow in front of you. I noticed the stickers on your bumper. One read "Follow me to Sunday School." The other, "What Would Jesus Do?" So, naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.
See? She thought she had her weeds under control until she discovered a cockle-burr under her saddle . . .
When we discover that weeds are growing alongside the precious wheat, we want to do root it out! Blast it with herbicide! Yank it up! But the sower says, “Not so fast, you guys! If you yank out the weeds, you’ll also uproot the wheat.”
And here’s the key to this parable: The difference between seed and wheat is not so easy as we sometimes think. The kind of weed Jesus describes in the story is “zizania”. Today it is called “darnel” wheat. This is a very particular type of weed that looks just like wheat as it is growing up. It still grows plentifully in Syria and Palestine. It looks like wheat, it appears like wheat but it is not wheat. But it’s difficult – indeed impossible to distinguish for sure which plant is which as it is growing.
God says, “Don’t go week whacking in my field! You can’t be sure about the difference between the wheat and the weeds – the good stuff and the bad. And I don’t want you harming the new life that I’ve started in this field.”
Now, that’s a disappointing response, isn’t it? We’d like God to congratulate us on our zeal. We’d like him to cheer for us as we wade into the field to do battle with the forces of evil. We’d like him to recognize what great little workers we are, and say, “Well done, good and faithful weed whacker.”
But God, the Sower, the Owner of the field that is the world, says, no. Don’t you try to fix this for me. We’re both going to sit here and wait. Because at this point, none of my helpers has a lock on what is wheat and what is weed. And, who knows, what looks like weeds today may turn out to be wheat sometime in the future.
I want to tell you a little story about that: It’s not my story, but it’s from a pastor in Kansas – which is, of course, my personal Holy Land. Rev. Pamela J. Tinnin was pastor of Partridge Community Church-UCC, the only church in Partridge, KS, USA (population 250) when this happened. Here’s her story:
“Last week I spent some time in the waiting room of a social service agency in Hutchinson. Except for the large woman with bright red hair who sat behind the desk, there was only one other person there, a thin woman who looked to be in her early forties. In blue jeans worn white at the knees and a sleeveless cotton blouse, she looked tired, her eyes sunk deep in the sockets, her hair lying in damp curls. I was waiting to talk to one of the staff people about a project I’m trying to organize, a volunteer chaplaincy program for people who find themselves homeless and in dire straits.
Glancing over, I saw that the woman was looking out the window at the street, her eyes sad, her hands held still in her lap, her feet in the scuffed tennis shoes side-by-side, flat on the floor.
I picked up a year old Readers Digest and began flipping through the pages. To be honest, at that moment, I didn’t have the energy to take on anyone else’s problems and she looked like problems came in the door with her. Early that morning I’d had some bad news from California. Pretending to read, all I could think of was how little I could do for the woman sitting across from me, much less my family, almost 2,000 miles away.
Just then a whispery, rough voice said, “Are you in trouble?” I looked up, and then behind me, thinking the slender woman was talking to someone else, someone who’d come in when I wasn’t looking. But when I turned back she was still waiting for me to answer. “Me?” I asked. “In trouble?”
She ducked her head then, like she was embarrassed, but answered. “Your face…you look like something bad has happened…like you feel really lost.”
I couldn’t speak for a minute and could feel myself flush with shame, me thinking all the time she had wanted something from me. Then to my surprise, I told her what had happened, told her how hopeless I felt, told her how more than anything I kept hoping for a miracle. She moved closer and sat down in the next chair. She told me not to give up hope, that miracles do happen. “About five or six years ago I got into smokin’ dope; then it was cocaine and meth…my husband left me…then he went to court and took my kids away,” she said. “I thought my world had come to an end…I didn’t believe in anything…not my family or friends…not even God,” she said, and smiled a funny smile that only curved one side of her mouth.
I didn’t know what to say, so I just kept quiet and patted her arm.
“But you know, just when I’d almost given up, I met some folks who gave me another chance,” she said. “They gave me a place to live; helped me get a job. Pretty soon, I’m gonna get my own place…try to get my kids back, least part of the time. Don’t you worry,” she said, “things work out.”
And she tipped her head then and winked. “This is a hard old world,” she said. “We got to be there for each other. Don’t you think that’s the good Lord’s plan for things?”
Just then a woman in a suit, a clipboard in her hand, came through the door and said, “Mrs. Holcomb?”
The woman in the worn jeans stood, reached down and slung an old blue backpack onto her shoulder. She stepped past me, then turned back and hugged me hard. I could smell the shampoo she’d used.
“Good luck,” I told her, “and thank you…thank you.”
She walked away and I sat there thinking how easy it is to look at someone and not even see who she is. You can never tell. . .
We can’t always tell. And we can’t ever tell for sure, who is the good seed that God has sown. Or that the weeds won’t turn out to be wheat, by God’s grace, some day. All we can do is wait.
Wait. Wait until the crop bears fruit. Wait until the wheat has reached maturity. Wait until the harvest. And THEN . . .
Jesus says, you won’t have to do a thing. I have a crack crew of reapers coming in. And they know what to do. (The hired hands drop out of the story at this point, do you see that? They think they are going to save the day, but they don’t even make it to the end of the story. It’s not about them!)
You see, when the grain reaches maturity at harvest, the seed heads of the bearded darnel – the weed – are not heavy, and the stalk continues to stand upright, while the stalk of the wheat bows under the heavy weight of that crop. At the end of the season – which Jesus says is the end of time – in other words, what we call “Judgment Day” – there won’t be any trouble distinguishing between the weeds and the wheat.
Then the weeds, proudly waving in the breeze, will be gathered first. And, in a cool turn of the story, they will become kindling for the sower’s fire. The very thing the Evil One meant to be a hindrance and to cause damage ends up being gathered up and taken to be used by the Sower of the seed.
That’s how I understand the bit about throwing the weeds into the furnace of fire. Now if you want to think that that part is about evil doers burning in hell, well . . . have at it. You could make that case. But that’s not how I read it. I read it to mean that, in the end, it IS possible – at least it is possible for God – to tell the evil from the good.
In the end, the truth will come out.
And the weeds do not win.
They do not ruin the harvest.
They do not bankrupt the farm.
In the end, they just provide a little fuel for the fire. Even the weeds get put to good use by God.
But the righteous! Ah, the righteous! They are gathered into God’s own barn where they will be safe and secure. And where – wonder of wonder – Jesus says, “They will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father!”
And that’s where we want to be. Good grain, shining like the sun, safe with God. And we can be. We will be. But in order to be, we have to resist the temptation to take the role of overzealous weed whackers. We have to be content to be good seed, to do the best we can, growing alongside the weeds. That good seed is promised an eternity with God. Shining. Shining like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.
Let anyone with ears – or weeds – listen!