Monday, July 18, 2011

weeds, wheat, and willie mays (a sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost)

Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

It starts out simple: Jesus asks his disciples to let God be the judge of the bad seed in the field. Never mind those rough seeds, he says, I’ve got ‘em. I’ll take care of ‘em. Like an All-Star center fielder calling for the ball with confidence, “I got it,” he says. He says it in a way you believe him. “You just rest easy. You just watch me. You just keep going. You just never mind ‘em.”

Let the weeds go. Leave ‘em alone. Like a simple word that changes everything - everything you thought you knew about weeds. Because up until now, weeds were considered very bad things, which is why your grandma paid you a penny a plant to pull them - or more, if you were lucky. Used to be that weeds spelled the end of the crop. Doomsday for the flowers. Death for the daffodils. Common sense, not just for farmers, but for ordinary men and women, too: everyone knows that you can’t grow things with weeds.

Like the battles my grandfather waged with the squirrels and the rabbits. Building moats around the garden (not really). Setting traps late at night. Because one bad apple can spoil the bunch the thinking went, and that meant get on yours knees in the heat of the day and earn your pennies one weed at a time. Keep the field clean.

That was the old way. Today, Jesus says God has another way in mind, and it’s simple: Don’t pull ‘em. I got ‘em. As cool as Willie Mays.

But if it’s as simple as that - if it’s all just that cool - why is leaving weeds alone also so very darn hard?

At least, the characters in the story, they think it is.

For starters, there’s the problem of where the weeds come from. Like the mystery of mosquitoes. Seemingly unnecessary evil, say the help. Why these obstacles to a happy life? they ask. Why these thorns in the flesh. How can a good farmer (or a good God, for that matter) permit the growth of bad seed? Seed that chokes growth in others. And we’ve heard this problem before. And we’ve more than heard it. When we lost the loved one to the unnecessary tragedy, the drunken driver or the abusive parent, the recurring cancer, we felt that problem like a knife to the heart.

The farmer’s answer is short, but true: an enemy did this. The field isn’t lost, but these things were not the design. The plan was good, and the plan is still on, but the farmer didn’t plant these seeds of suffering. They are the work of an another.

For the characters in the story, this answer makes the next problem worse: Well...
If the bad seed is the work of an enemy, why not undo it? Pull ‘em all out. Heck, we’ll help you do it. We won’t even charge pennies, they say. We just want to see the crop do well. Tell you what farmer, it’s nearly the end of the day anyway, it’ll just take us an hour, maybe two, a few beers, and a half a can of gasoline.

Yikes. The farmer cringes.

“Why don’t you boys have a seat for a second. Pull up a tree stump.”

Number one, yes, the field has bad seed in it, but number two, the plants look very much alike - and what if you hack down some good seed along the way, what then? - and number three, trust me, he says, leave it to me to sort out the field -not now - but when the harvest comes.

“But Lord,” they say, “just to clarify, just so we’re on the same page - won’t they get in the way--the weeds?” “Yes, they will.”

“But Lord, wouldn’t the wheat have an easier go overall if they weren’t fighting the weeds for their lives?” “Yes,” says the farmer, “they would.”

The help stares back, perplexed.
“So really, you’re not going to fix this?”

“No,” sighs the farmer. “And I don’t want you fixing it, either - destroying on my behalf the weeds that destroy the good plants. After all, and to put it blunt, you, Joe, you can’t tell a tulip from a turnip; you go around burning up wheat in my name, well that would be just altogether weed-like, wouldn’t it? And God knows that evil doesn’t need that kind of help.”

“But boss,” they say, “an enemy did this--it’s a declaration of war! How can you ask us to just stand idly by and watch the whole thing go down like this? What kind of farmer works like that anyway?”

A long pause follows.

The farmer finally clears his throat. “The field is mine. The field belong to me. The field will be fine. I won’t lose one of them. But we’ll wait. We’ll wait. My death will be your patience; my life will be your glory.”

Confusion. Awkwardness. And you can imagine the disappointment of the first disciples at a story that ends like this.

All of this is what makes this simple story hard. The farmer is talking weeds, seeds, and wheat, and Jesus is talking suffering, patience, and forgiveness - all against the backdrop of the cross. And these are not easy things.

And because we’ve been talking in pictures this morning, let me give you a real life example. Up until the 1990s, apartheid in South Africa was a political program of systemic racism by which an elite white minority relegated black South Africans to the margins of power. Apartheid left blacks in poverty, cyclical illiteracy, chronic voicelessness, and facing unjust laws and frequent imprisonment, torture, and sometimes murder. Because the perpetrators of these crimes worked for the government, they almost always got away with it, like the weeds in the farmer’s field.

While many black South Africans resisted peacefully, others resisted violently. With car bombs, kidnappings. Terrorist-like activities. Years later, Methodist Bishop Peter Storey of South Africa was able to remark about the irony of these things:

“The primary cancer may be, and was, and will always be, the apartheid oppression, but secondary infections have touched many of apartheid’s opponents and eroded their knowledge of good and evil. One of the tragedies of life, sir, is it is possible to become like that which we hate most, and I have a feeling that this drama is an example of that.”

Seeing the evil will not keep us from aiding - even becoming - the evil. That’s what the farmer is on to when he asks them to sit. Be still. When he says, “I’ve got it.”

As it turns out, when God says, “I’ve got it,” God also means “you don’t.” We don’t. It’s not just that Jesus says “wait,” it is also that by asking the disciples to wait, he commands them to put down the pitchforks and extinguish the torches. No bounty hunter justice or lingering embers of resentment kept here. To each her due process, and the process belongs to God. Thank God.

As it turns out, to let God be the judge means that the disciples will have to learn patience for those plants (and those people) that they don’t understand. The ones who don’t look exactly like them. The ones who look too much like them. You know, like an unflattering mirror that highlights the zits, they hit a nerve for some reason.

What a bummer. When the judgment of God means fire for others, it’s easier to get excited about it. When the judgment of God means deferring the act of judgment to God, there’s a lot less to talk about. The plots and schemes and secret conversations and sleepless nights give way to what? If you don’t have other things to do, the judgment of God can leave you all dressed up on a Saturday night empty, with cancelled party plans.

Quick aside that’s worth saying: the disappointment, the impatience, that the disciples feel when Jesus asks them to be patient with others shows just how much they stand to gain if they can ever learn to be patient with themselves. Because to be patient with yourself solely because God says you’re worth being patient with is the beginning of grace.

Weeds and wheat. Together. One field. (For the time being.) One Lord. (Always.) One hope. And this hope has the power to transform.

So here’s the dime store recap, plus one more story.

The judgment of God means patience for us. Even suffering patience. Even patience when it hurts. A prayerful patience that looks at the weeds and slowly learns to pray that maybe she’s wrong. Maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe there’s wheat there I don’t see. A person told me once that her spiritual director had suggested that she pray for a particular weed in her life, ask God to bless this weed with the best God had for the weed. “But I won’t mean it,” she said. “Why should I pray it?” The spiritual director smiled. “Then say that. Start your prayer that way: ‘Lord, you know I don’t mean it, but bless this weed in my life with the best you have for her.’ And Lord, help me to mean it.” The woman reported that she prayed this way for two and a half weeks until one day she forgot to tell God she didn’t mean it. Pray for the weeds.

It may not be good farming practice, but it’s the heart of Good Gospel practice: if the best you can say about him is that he’s an enemy, you know for sure what to do with him: love him. Love your enemies, Jesus says. Pray for those who persecute you. In so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone, says St. Paul.

Let the weeds go. Forgive them. Leave ‘em alone. But keep growing. Like a simple word that changes everything - everything you ever knew about weeds. Because up until now, weeds were considered very bad things, which is why your grandma paid you a penny a plant to pull them - a penny a plant, or more, if you were lucky. Used to be that weeds spelled the end of the crop. Doomsday for the flowers. Death for the daffodils.

But, look! Death has been defeated, sing the angels. The risen Lord smiles with wounded, healing hands. It seems that weeds don’t hold the future hostage quite like they used to.

No, that was the old way. Today, Jesus says God has another way in mind, and it’s simple: Don’t pull ‘em. Forgive them. Pray for them. “I got ‘em,” he says, “I got ‘em!” As cool as Willie Mays.


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