Christ United Methodist Church
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Jackson H. Day, July 18, 1999
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
We've been hearing a series of comments from Jesus about planting. Last week we heard the parable of the sower, in which some seeds fall on rocks, some amidst thorns that choke them, and some in fertile soil. Today we have the parable of the weeds, in which we discover that what comes up doesn't always resemble what was planted.
Well, we don't need Jesus Christ to tell us what to do with weeds in our gardens!
Most of us would agree with Dag Hammarksjold who wrote in his book Markings "he who wants to keep his garden tidy does not reserve a plot for weeds.(1) And it's not just a matter of tidiness. Weeds take water and light from the plants we are trying to grow. If they grow close enough, weeds can choke the plants. Whether you've tilled a field, had a garden plot, kept a flower bed, or even grown a plotted plant indoors, there's no place for weeds when we grow plants.
Or when we grow anything else. I thought of five things that many of us might consider the most important things in our lives, and they all require cultivation:
All of this fits easily with last week's Gospel reading, the parable of the sower. Plant your seeds in good soil, not the rocks, not the thorns, not the pathway, and you will have a good crop in your gardens.
But not this week. This week, Jesus says, "don't pull the weeds. Let them grow together. God will take care of it later." Whatever does he have in mind?
I did a little research on this troublesome text.
First, I did some analysis of the text itself.
Second, I reviewed the previous four chapters of Matthew to try to get a feeling for what was happening for Jesus at that time and what he was dealing with. In those chapters
Third, I tried to imagine what it was like for Jesus, this young Jewish man, barely 30, intensely committed to God and his people, going from place to place in a land occupied by pagan Rome in which his own peoples' leaders act as Roman puppets. Some who hear Jesus are filled with hope and joy while others are filled with anger and rejection and plans for retalliation. We know from the stories of the crucifixion that the disciples carried weapons, as would anyone wandering about the dangerous, lawless countryside in those days.
And so those around Jesus, sensing the growing danger around them and the limits of their own weapons, must be asking, "shall we strike first? Shall we kill the people who disagree with us now, while we still have a chance?"
This, I believe is the question Jesus is answering with the parable of the weeds. This is the question Jesus is answering when he says, "No. For in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest."
These, then, were words of courage, for the dangers were real. Not many verses later in Matthew we hear the terrible story of John the Baptist's death when King Herod's grandaughter asks for his head on a platter as a reward for dancing well. For Jesus to say "no" to an attack on the weeds was an act of courage.
Because they were written in a time of conflict, Jesus words are helpful in our own times as well. Not many of us in this room are seriously tempted -I mean seriously tempted -- to go out and kill those who disagree with us, but the emotions are real and the consequences if we give in to them are real and Jesus' solution is worth serious attention.
1. Let them grow together because we don't kill or jail for ideas. If this was part of Jesus thinking, he was far ahead of his time. In the next two thousand years, tens of thousands have died at the hands of Jesus' followers in Crusades and Inquisitions purely for their ideas or beliefs. Only in the last two centuries have we had a thought like "I may disagree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it." In our own century Mao Tse-tung's statement, "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend" proved shallow when Red Guards appeared in every town and village waving little red books of Mao's sayings to sort between their wheat and their weeds.
2. Let them grow together because we don't know the outcome and, unlike weeds, people change. What parent hasn't thought at some time, "these can't be my children, somehow the genes must have gotten switched!" But children grow and people change, and our children carry the potential for good as well as evil. Mostly, a day comes when we are glad we kept watering and nurturing those funny looking plants, because they turned out to be wheat after all!
3. Let them grow together because we don't know the outcome and we can help the outcome change. The history of African-Americans in Methodism is a history of letting wheat and weeds grow together. In 1784 Francis Asbury, committed to making sure the needs of African-American Methodist were taken care of, directed that Richard Allen be licensed to preach in the Methodist Episcopal Church. But segregationist behavior among the early white Methodists led first to the formation in Philadelphia of the African Methodist Episcopal or AME Church, then in New York the AME Zion Church, and finally after the civil war in the south, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, (now the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church). Even in 1939, when the three main branches of Methodism came back together in, one of the prices was a separate segregated Jurisdiction for African-American Methodists. But all through this process, the seeds of change were growing, and when the General Conference of 1968 united the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form our United Methodist Church, one of its achievements was the abolition of segregated conferences. In our area it meant the union of the white Baltimore Conference with the African American Washington Conference, and as an attendee this year at the Baltimore-Washington Conference one of the joys was seeing such a tremendous, rich diversity. Somehow through the grace of God and the efforts of his followers, the wheat had survived and the weeds had fallen away.
4. Let them grow together because it'shard to tell weed from wheat until harvest time. Jesus was specific in his choice of weed, writing specifically about "zizania", which looked very much like wheat until ready for the harvest, but actually was "poisonous bearded darnel"--lolium temulentum. The parable then is a warning to beware of what looks like nourishing wheat and may sound like nourishing wheat, but when the time for harvest finally comes, reveals itself as a toxic weed. But until the harvest, we don't know.
I read the story of a Kentucky father who had two sons each of whom died in battle in the Civil War, one in Union blue, the other in Confederate gray. On the stone over their double grave the father inscribed "God knows which was right."
Today the biggest issue in our denomination is not race but sexual orientation. There are many in our denomination who are sure I am a weed for my beliefs, and Douglas is a weed for his beliefs, and we as a Reconciling Congregation are a weed for the stand we have taken to be a congregation that cherishes diversity and welcomes all in our church. And to be honest, there are people on the other side, who are weeds to me, who make my blood boil when I hear their talk or read their words. And in this parable Jesus tells all of us, "Don't kill each other. Don't spend your time trying to pluck from the field those who seem like weeds to you." If our denomination would just take this passage seriously, we would spend less time on church trials and more time bringing spiritual healing to the wounded.
5. Let them grow together because like the way darnel mimicks wheat, you may not be able to tell which is which at any time before the harvest. One of the blessings of my membership in the National Conference of Viet Nam Veteran Ministers is the richness of insight so many bring to understanding of trauma survivors. Many of our members survived the traumas of combat, of losing close friends, of losing their childhood faith in America, even of losing an arm or a leg. And some of us retain anger about that and angry people aren't the nicest people to be around. And when you think of it, that could be true of a lot of trauma survivors, whether the trauma is childhood abuse, or rape or discrimination. While dealing with their trauma and going through the changes that accompanies that, sometimes they may seem like weeds to others. And Jesus says in this parable, don't you go trying to cut out the weeds until you know which is which!
6. And finally, let them grow together because if you accept the classic Christian belief that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the expectations of God, we are all weeds, and we only become wheat by the grace of God.
Each time another baby is brought before this congregation, I am confronted by words in our Baptism ritual which excite and intrigue me. After the pastor asks the family if they renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of their sin, the pastor asks another question:
"Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?"
Every time I hear these words, chills go down my spine.
I've always known we ought to resist evil, injustice and oppression, and it takes time, energy and strength. In these words, God promises us the power we need to resist evil, injustice and oppression when we encounter them, and we can be grateful for the strength God gives us to speak up when we must and act when we must.
But these words promise not only power but freedom. It is in the context of today's parable that I understand a bit more of the freedom God gives us. It is in the freedom of God's presence and God's love that we know when to pluck a weed from our child's repertoire of habits and when to walk away from a weed of dispute and let it be until the harvest. It is in the freedom that comes from God's presence that we know when we must let weeds and wheat all grow together.
1. Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965, page 15
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