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Life Among the Weeds

Sermon - 7/17/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 13:24-30

The text we read last week invites one to reflect on whether your life is like the hard soil, rocky soil, shallow soil or good soil on which the seed of God is sown. The parable this morning, which follows the parable of the soils in Matthew 13, give us just two choices: in the fields of life, are you wheat or weeds?

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

As Glenda asked on behalf of the munchkins, are you a good witch, or a bad witch? The surprising suggestion of this parable is that the Kingdom of Heaven, which is Jesus’ shorthand for his vision of God’s reign here on earth, this Kingdom of Heaven ruled by God Almighty contains, get this, both wheat and weeds. And that raises some rather thorny questions.

Now heaven knows the church does not contain the purest crop of heavenly fruit. We have our share of blemishes and imperfections. But when I look at this congregation, do you know what I see? I see gardenias and rhododendrons in full bloom, plum trees and grape vines loaded with fruit, eight-foot tall corn stalks and twenty pound watermelons--and not a one overweight. There may be a few thorny blackberries and sticky holly bushes in or midst, but not a weed in the bunch.

So I address my comments this morning to the “good crop”. If there be any “bad apples” out there, we’ll just let them listen in! I ask all of you good fruit-bearing folk, are we going to let the weeds of life thrive off our good soil which we have worked so hard to prepare? Are we going to allow a few bad seeds to violate the purity of the faith? Must we not root out that which threatens the sanctity of the church? Greed, jealousy, trivialness, adultery, debauchery, hypocrisy--pick a weed, any weed, do they not all compromise our faith?

If we cannot maintain purity within our faith, how can we profess to offer anything to the world? Must we not be the leaders of morality, purity and decency? Should we not root out the evil from our midst? And now that we have rid the world of Osama bin Laden, maybe we can go after the really bad guys—those evil people in Washington DC preventing us from solving the budget crisis!  Off with their heads I say!

As tempting as it often is to respond, “Yes! Let’s get those weeds, rip them out by their roots!”, there is this one little problem, a single, quiet voice that can barely be heard over the roar of the blood-thirsty mob, sticks and stones in hand. “Whoever is without sin,” the quiet voice says, “can cast the first stone.” Dare we listen to someone who regularly associated not just with the righteous, but with sinners as well?

It seems to me that we have a choice: we can pretend that we are perfect, or we can acknowledge and accept our imperfection with the assurance that God loves us as we are. And if that is true for us, then it is true for everyone. We can separate the world into the “us” and “them”, friends vs. enemies, the good guys against the bad guys, and try to isolate ourselves from all that is evil, or we can live with the ambiguity of the mixture of good and evil where few things rarely are black and white, even within the church or wherever visible manifestation of the Community of God exists in our world.

For this is the strange reality of our world, that amidst all of its beauty and wonder is cruelty and death. Disciple scholar Eugene Boring reflects on this parable,

Families cause deep pain as well as great joy. The church can be inspiringly courageous one moment and petty and faithless the next. Good mixes in with the bad. “Where did these weeds come from?” is a perennial human cry.

Dr. Boring goes on to note that the command of the master to let the weeds grow alongside the wheat is not “a call to passivity in the face of evil”, rather it is a reminder that we do not “have the ability to get rid of all the weeds and that sometimes attempts to pluck up weeds cause more harm than good.”

Every time I hear another story from Afghanistan about innocent civilians mistakenly killed in an attempt to get the bad guys, I think about this parable and I wonder, just who are the bad guys in Afghanistan? To destroy evil, how much evil must one commit?

Reinhold Niebuhr, the great American theologian of the last century, asserted that we “become evil at the precise point where (we) pretend not to be.” Or in terms of today’s parable, as soon as we think we are pure wheat and try to rid ourselves of the weeds, we become the weeds. In order to stop the spread of communism after World War II our government knowingly and willingly harbored Nazi war criminals who possessed useful skills or knowledge. To ship arms to our friends fighting the Sandinistas of Nicaragua we employed known drug smugglers. To protect our oil supply in the middle-east we support some of the most repressive regimes of that region. 

I was struck by the news of the assassination of Ahmad Karzai, brother of the President of Afghanistan.  The report noted that Mr. Karzai was believed to have had close ties with the heroin trade of Afghanistan, and that he was a close ally to the U.S.  Does it give you pause?  Who can tell the wheat from the weeds in today’s world?

Psychologists tell us that dividing the world into good guys and bad guys is part of our normal psychological development. Thus it is natural for children to play cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. Though we learn later in life that not all cowboys were good nor certainly all Native Americans bad, we still play the same games as adults, albeit more sophisticated. In politics it is called foreign policy, dividing the world into friends and enemies. In social relations it is racism, classism and elitism. In the church it is often disguised as the “saved” vs. “non-saved” or “believers” and “heretics”.

The servants in this parable reflect this kind of us vs. them mentality. “Oh my goodness, there are weeds growing in the wheat field! What ever shall we do?” Keep in mind that we are talking about 2000 years before Roundup here. Weeds in wheat fields back then were about as common as bikinis in beer commercials today. Doesn’t seem to bother your average sports fan too much. I doubt anyone would have been too shocked back then either, by the weeds I mean. But this is a parable and not a gardening show. Even though weeds are a fact of life in the natural world, the farmer in the story blames “the enemy”. Sound familiar? When something undesirable happens, it is always somebody else’s fault:

“Well yes, officer, I may have been speeding but if that jerk hadn’t stopped in front of me, I wouldn’t have hit him!”

“Were it not for my no-good spouse, we’d have a perfect marriage!”

“Were it not for the [enter the political party you like the least], we would have a budget deal to avoid default by now.”

There is always someone else you can blame for your woes. And what if our unbiased opinions are correct? What if THEY really are to blame and we are free of any complicity in the error? What then? Shall we revoke their citizenship, divorce them, kick them out of the church, wipe them off the face of the earth? It has all been done before, often with disastrous consequences.

There has been this little controversy in local politics regarding the pledge of allegiance.  Did you notice?  I love Bob Welch’s take on the subsequent inclusion of Ken Kesey in the controversy as a supposed symbol of Eugene’s liberalism and, therefore, unpatriotic godlessness.  Noting some of Kesey’s more traditional and very patriotic viewpoints, Welch stated in his column in the Register Guard, “Here’s the thing: Spot-fire debates such as Eugene’s Pledge of Allegiance issue become Tillamook Burn-sized, in part, because we accord others so little respect for their respective nuances, political or otherwise.  Because we immediately see people as white hats or black hats, good or evil, without stopping to consider that maybe they’re neither. Or both.”

Judy and I were in Fresno several years ago on vacation when there was a related controversy about “under God” in that pledge. The local Unitarian minister there appeared in a public place with a sign that read, “Under God. What does it mean? To whom?” I thought they were thought provoking and therefore good questions. Not everyone else agreed. Two girls, ages 10 and 12, ripped the sign out of his hands. Now what, or who, would prompt pre-teens to do anything like that?  A local commissioner was quoted in the paper saying that the minister should leave this country because he obviously didn’t belong here.  Sounds a bit like what we hear from Syria right now. Evidently someone forgot to tell this elected official that the right of dissent is fundamental to American democracy. To his credit, however, he later went to the Unitarian church and graciously apologized to the minister.

My point is simply that it is our inability to grow out of the “us/them” mentality that causes things like Inquisitions, Holocausts and wars of all kinds. Rather than dividing the world into good and evil, this parable suggests another approach:

  • that we recognize that good and evil can exist side by side, sometimes even in the same person;

  • that we dare to believe that good is stronger and will not be destroyed by evil;

  • that God knows the difference between the two even when we do not;

  • that the time will come when God will determine which is which and therefore, we should be less concerned with uprooting the evil and more concerned with seeding the good;

  • that we risk entering into relationships that require us to live among the weeds, or what we perceive as weeds, taking our nurture from the same soil and the same sun.

This does not mean that we allow murderers, terrorists and questioning Unitarian ministers to run around scot free, heaven forbid. It does require that we not judge people by the labels others give them or that we not write people off as deserving less than what God desires for any person.

One more quote of Eugene Boring:

Are we lost forever, then, in a hopelessly compromised world? No, the parable contains the promise that, in the wisdom of God, the weeds will ultimately be destroyed. Evil is temporary; only the good endures. ...

Recall the famous quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Boring continues,

We live in an imperfect world, and no human effort can eradicate that fact. But that was never our job anyway. We are given the task of living as faithfully and as obediently as possible, confident that the harvest is sure.

So with this parable comes a warning: it is not for us to sit in judgment, to weed the fields or reap the harvest. Our task is to provide an environment where all may grow--wheat and weeds alike--that we all may be ready for the harvest.

With this parable comes a challenge: life among the weeds may not be easy. To live in their midst requires that we live with the ambiguity of good and evil side by side without becoming complacent or preoccupied with the evil but that we focus on the good that we do not become the evil we would destroy. 

And with this parable comes a promise: the harvest will come, justice will prevail, good will triumph, the truth will be known and it will set us free.

Thanks be to God.


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