Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Living With Weeds”
Rev. Art Ritter
July 19, 2020
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And 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?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let 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.’”
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
While setting up for last week’s outdoor service I noticed that we have a healthy crop of weeds in the flower and shrub beds surrounding the church. Because we have such a large building and property, it is takes a lot of work to keep things looking nice and during this spring and summer of pandemic, it has been even harder. We did have a work day in June that was well attended but it seems as if the weeds we pulled then have been replaced by bigger and better weeds. After the service last Sunday, Sharon Brown came up to me with a wonderful idea that was about ten minutes too late. She suggested that before the benediction and right before we left, I should have told everyone at the service to pull a few weeds and take them home! If we have another outdoor service, perhaps we can follow up on that idea. In the meantime you are welcome to stop by the church at any time and enjoy some social distanced weed pulling.
This seems to be the time of year when weeds are most prevalent at my home also. I have shared with you before the grief that the neighbor’s cottonwood trees cause me. First it is the little seed pods that clog my gutters. Then it is the white fluff which covers my deck and enters the kitchen like a winter snow, almost ankle deep. And then the curse of the cottonwood doesn’t end. Now all of our landscape beds are filled with tiny, little volunteer trees, seeds that have fallen upon good soil and trying to put down roots to become growing trees. I have spent a lot of time recently pulling out these nuisance trees, along with the weeds. Even in the drought these plants seem hearty enough to survive.
I shake my head when I consider how much time and energy Laura puts into trying to nurture a bed of annual flowers or I spend in reseeding a section of my front lawn. It seems our failure rate is about fifty percent. Things that I want to grow sometimes don’t seem to grow. But then there are the seeds from my neighbor’s cottonwood and the helicopters from my maple trees and the dandelions from my other neighbor’s lawn. They seem to find a way to plant themselves and grow without any sort of problem. There is no strategy or technique or effort. There is only growth.
In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells lots of parables. He tells two parables about a sower sowing seeds. In the second of these he speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven being like someone who sowed good seed in a field, only to have someone else come along and sow some weeds while he was sleeping. When the plants grew there was wheat and weeds alike. The man’s workers offered to go out into the field and pull all of the weeds. But the sower replied, “No, because when you gather the weeds you will destroy the good crops as well.” And the sower seems quite certain that an enemy has done this, someone who disagrees with him or dislikes him for some reason. Maybe he is a little paranoid, maybe he just finds himself in a situation of where there he feels like he is standing alone with his opinions, behaviors, and practices. It is those with whom he disagrees, those whose choices seems to threaten him who have planted the unfriendly and unwanted seed. Yet he is patient and forbearing, willing to allow the separation of the good and the bad at a later harvest time.
Perhaps the man had workers like me in his fields- people who couldn’t tell a weed from a flower! Sometimes even a trained eye finds it hard to tell the difference between a good plant and a bad one. In her book The Seeds of Heaven, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of the experience of uprooting the raspberries by mistake or protecting something that looked interesting but turned out to be a thistle. She says, “I don’t know what makes us think we are any smarter about ourselves or about the other people in our lives. We are so quick to judge, as if we were sure we knew the difference between wheat and weeds, good seed and bad, but that is seldom the case. Turn us loose with our machetes and there is no telling what we will chop down and what we will spare. Meaning to be good servants, we go out to do battle with the weeds and end up standing in a pile of wheat.”
Most scholars believe that the gospel of Matthew was written to a community that was struggling with each other. Jewish Christians were certain they belonged to the way of Jesus because of their heritage. They had always followed the rules. Gentile Christians were celebrating the freedom from the law, feeling like they didn’t need to obey all of those crazy obsolete standards of the Jews. These parables were written to address the question about how these two groups can coexist peacefully and with purpose. How can they understand one another? How can they forgive one another? How do they realize that they are excusing their own sins all the while they judge the sins of others?
We live in a world much like that. There are lots of weeds and wheat growing together in our current social and political climate. We cry “Black Lives Matter” and someone shouts back “All Lives Matter.” There are plenty of peaceful protests but some fixate only on acts of looting, arson, and violence. When I watch the news at night I see a political ad about or against a certain candidate. Ten minutes later I see another ad that offers me the totally opposite information. When we look about us, it is hard to understand the views of people who we love and care about deeply. With such division upon the important issues facing us, can we ever be a weed-free field? In the midst of pandemic, the behavior of others worries or at least puzzles us. Some don’t seem to take the COVID-19 situation seriously, casting doubt on the words of scientists and health specialists. The failure to wear masks or practice social distancing makes us shake our heads or leaves us shaking in our shoes. There is honest and painful debate about the re-opening of the economy and colleges and public schools. How can we thrive or even survive when our opinions and practices are so divergent? How can we love someone who believes things that are so different, and in our view so hurtful or harmful?
How do we improve the condition of our world? What are we supposed to do with the “evildoers” of our day? How do we improve the crop to create a harvest of righteousness and justice? In a sermon in another book, Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Our job, in a mixed field, is not to give ourselves to the enemy by devoting all our energy to the destruction of the weeds, but to mind our own business, so to speak- our business being the reconciliation of the world to God through the practices of unshielded love. If we will give ourselves to that, God will take care of the rest- the harvest, the reapers, the fire- all of it. Our job is to be wheat, even in a messy field- to go on bearing witness to the one who planted us among those who seem to have been planted by someone else.”
Taylor then offers a story of the twentieth century Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. Pope John would end his lengthy prayers each night by saying to himself, “Who is running the church? You or the Holy Spirit?” Once he assured himself of the answer he again said to himself, “Very well. Go to sleep Angelo.” Taylor urges us to follow this example of prayer, perhaps as the only way we can sleep through pandemic and division and unrest and uncertainty. “Stay true to our roots and to the one who planted us, believing him when he tells us that the harvest is his.”
In his book Rip Van Winkle and the Pumpkin Lantern, author Seth Adam Smith writes, “Perhaps we are not really sinners in the hands of an angry God, after all. Perhaps we are all more like seedlings in the hands of a wise gardener.”
Finally and again, Barbara Brown Taylor tells a modern parable of the wheat and the weeds. “One afternoon in the middle of the growing season, a bunch of farmhands decided to surprise their boss and weed his favorite wheatfield. No sooner had they begun to work, however, than they began to argue-first about which of the wheat-looking things were weeds and then about the rest of the weeds. Did the Queen Anne’s Lace pose a real threat to the wheat, or could it stay for decoration? And the blackberries? They would be ripe in just a week or two, but they were, after all, weeds- or were they? And the honeysuckle, it seemed a shame to pull up anything that smelled so sweet. About the time they had gotten around to debating the purple asters, the boss showed up and ordered them out of the field. Dejected, they did as they were told. Back at the barn he took their machetes from them, poured them some lemonade, and made them sit down where they could watch the way the light moved across the field. At first, all they could see were the weeds and what a messy field it was, what a discredit to them and their profession. But as the summer wore on they marveled at the profusion of growth- tall wheat surrounded by tall goldenrod, ragweed, and brown-eyed Susans. The tares and the poison ivy flourished alongside the Cherokee roses and the milkweed, and it was a mess, but a glorious mess, and when it had all bloomed and ripened and gone to seed the reapers came. Carefully, gently, expertly, they gathered the wheat and made the rest into bricks for the oven where the bread was baked. And the fire that the weeds made was excellent, and the flour that the wheat made was excellent, and when the harvest was over the owner called them all together- the farmhands, the reapers, and all the neighbors- and broke bread with them, bread that was the final distillation of that whole messy, gorgeous, mixed up field, and they all agreed that it was like no bread any of them had ever tasted before and that it was very, very good. Let those who have ears to hear, hear.” AMEN.