Sermon on the Weeds and Wheat

As I move through the ordination process, I have been given the opportunity to preach a few times at some local churches, including my home church, College Hill UMC (CHUM) in Wichita. I’ll be sharing the text of my sermons here. I am scheduled to preach December 28th, and I will share that sermon here afterwards.

Today’s sermon was preached July 20, at CHUM. It was concerned with the Parable of the Weeds and Wheat, from Matthew 13.

Let me tell you a little about myself.

I grew up out in Butler County, in the Towanda and Benton area. I graduated from Circle High School and spent two years at BCC before going to OCU, a private UMC college in OKC. I studied political science, and spent time working in politics in Oklahoma. My family and I moved back here in January, and we currently live out in Towanda. I now am working as the Executive Director of SCDP. But my chief path in life now is Methodist ministry.

Now, despite the fact that I grew up in rural Butler County, amidst wheatfields and cow pastures, I don’t happen to know the first thing about farming. Growing things is not a forte of mine, although that doesn’t mean it isn’t something I dream of being good at. We have tried our hand at household herbs. We had dreams of a bountiful vegetable garden in our backyard in Towanda, and even made far-off plans to move onto a farm outside of town and take up farming.

Does the fact that we are moving into apartments near here in the next couple weeks tell you how that worked out for us?

We had this dream because we love organic and natural foods! We wanted to live off the fruit of our own labor, to pare our diet down to locally grown and raised products. We try to eliminate sugar and processed foods from the things we eat. And those things certainly are still important to us!

But the actual cultivation kicked our tails a little bit. Growing things is hard! Not only does it take countless hours of difficult planning and work, it takes a learned and lived knowledge that, frankly, neither Ari nor I have. Not that we can’t learn it! But trying to raise an acre’s worth of organic produce? A little out of our range of ability at this point.

So we decided, maybe we should just stick to something smaller. Get some experience under our belt first. Now, our little house in Towanda has two flower beds out front, one on each side of the front step. When we moved in in January, they were fairly covered in leaves and old grass clippings and bits of trash the wind carried in. Amidst all this were a couple of scraggly bushes on each side poking up, looking fairly miserable in the winter winds.

I decided that I, with this font of gardening skills I believed I was just naturally endowed with, was gonna make those flower beds beautiful. I could just picture the majestic azalea bushes and daisies and forget-me-nots that would make our home the most welcoming abode in all Towanda come spring. So once the weather warmed just a bit, probably in early March or so, I got out there and I pulled out all the trash and raked out all the leaves and grass clippings, and then I took one of those tall blue Garden Claw things that I got from my grandma and set in tilling up the soil between the little sad bushes, so that I could mix in some nice organic compost. Well, in the left-side bed, as I went to town turning and tilling, I noticed a real tough stem and root system growing between the bushes.

Now let me tell you: if these bushes looked bad, it was nothing compared to this “thing” trying to hold on between. And I just knew, this was some kind of noxious weed-tree thing and by golly it was coming out of my glorious flower bed! So I dug and twisted and cut and pulled and before long I got that thing out of the ground and deposited in its rightful place: the trash heap. Good riddance to you, weed. Nothing will blight my flower beds!

Now all this pulling and digging on the left side bed took up a good portion of an afternoon, so I called it a day and put away the tools, determined to get back out the next day and go after the counterpart weed growing between the bushes in my other flower bed. But, as this state tends to experience pretty often, it turned miserably cold and rainy the next day, and by the time it got nice again, I had lost interest in attacking that other weed. So it stayed, and I kept intending to get out there and attack.

Before long, spring appeared and the scraggly little bushes out front started to perk up and become downright impressive. And gosh darn it, wouldn’t you know it, that little noxious weed-tree sprouted up one night too and next thing you know my grandma (the ultimate gardener; her backyard would put Botanica to shame) came by and admired the beautiful white and pink peonies I had sprouting right there between the bushes!

And, I’m sure she noticed the ugly bare spot in the middle of the left bed too.

And sure just about everyone who drives by our little house notices it too.

So if I learned anything this spring it’s that I am not, in fact, a gardener. Or a farmer. Or someone who should be let within one hundred yards of this community garden out behind the church here.

But today’s scripture provides some balm to my bruised ego. In this story, a landowner plants his field with wheat. And that wheat sprouts up and bears grain and all seems well. But then, one day, the farmhands notice something: it’s not just wheat out in that field. There are weeds growing everywhere too! Somehow, someway, their hard work in planting that field went awry, and I think it’s safe to infer that they are worried about their job security. Think about it! Their job as farmhands is to mind the master’s fields. And so when one of those fields yields weeds just as much as wheat, they are probably rightfully concerned that their employer is going to question their ability to do their job.

See, even the pros get it wrong!

Before we go on, let me note something that might shed some light on the poor farmhand’s plight, and maybe help them make their case before the master as to future employment opportunities. In the Middle East, there is a common weed known as darnel. In the early stages of growth, darnel looks just like wheat. It’s identical, and distinguishing between the two is next to impossible. Only at the point of maturity, when the wheat yields grain and the darnel yields nothing, is it possible to tell them apart. So even if the farmhands were diligent about weeding regularly, there really is no way they could have done anything earlier about this problem.

So anyways, the farmhands work up their courage and they decide to go talk to the landowner. And they have a plan! Instead of just breaking bad news, they will have a two-pronged attack: first, they will subtly remind the landowner that this “Good seed” was provided by him? How in the world did the seed he provided turn out so bad? And secondly, they have a plan of action: they will soothe him telling him, we will take care of these weeds. No problem.

So in they go and they ask him, “Master did you not sow good seed in your field? Then where could these weeds have come from?”

But the master knows his seed was good. And he knows the field was tilled and prepared and everything they did was in order. And so he easily knows where the weeds came from, and he answers them calmly and matter-of-factly. “An enemy has done this.”

Now the farmhands are feeling good. They are off the hook! But they still want to win some brownie points here. So they tell him, “Don’t worry boss! We got this! We will go out and pick all these weeds. It will be like this never happened!”

And the master is ready for them again:

STOP.” he says. “Don’t do anything.”

Can’t you just picture the farmhands, all filing towards the door, feeling both relieved and like hard workers, all the same time, come to a screeching stop? “STOP? What is this guy talking about? Why wouldn’t he want us to get rid of these weeds?”

The master continues: “In gathering the weeds, you guys are sure to uproot a good amount of my wheat too. Let them continue to grow together, and at harvest I’ll tell the reapers to collect the weeds first and get rid of them.”

What he basically tells his farmhands is, guys, that isn’t your job. I hire reapers to do the reaping. I don’t need you doing the job. You are to tend the fields, continue to help everything out there grow and flourish. That’s it. But when it comes to harvesting, to rooting out the weeds from the wheat, just STOP. Don’t do anything.

I haven’t preached in about two years. So when Kent asked if I was interested and I told him sure, I made a beeline for the lectionary verses. I figured there had to be one that wouldn’t be too tough on me, one I could really run with and get into the swing of preaching again with. And there certainly were. And even if there weren’t no one said I have to stick to the lectionary. However, when I sat down and read this parable from Matthew about a month ago, I remember looking at Arianna and saying “That’s a tough one for me, as a progressive Christian. I think I’ll stay away from that story.”

And Ari said, “I think that’s a pretty good reason to focus on that one.”

It’s hard for me because I like to be right. And I don’t like to just be right, I like to also point out when other people are wrong. Two of my favorites areas to do this are politics, and religion. There are few things in the world that get me rolling like seeing one of my more conservative friends say something crazy on Facebook.

I’m that annoying guy on Facebook who fights with everyone.

And truth be told, I think there are a lot of us liberals and progressives who absolutely love it when we hear someone start speculating on the just where the Garden of Eden is located.

Or where Noah’s ark landed after the flood.

Or my favorite: how mankind lived alongside dinosaurs about 6,000 years ago.

Oh man.

There is nothing I want to do more than smack that down. I’ve got my Darwin pocket reader ready to go, I’ve brushed up on the origins of the universe and the Big Bang, and I know more about carbon dating than just about any non-geologist should actually know.

It feels good to weed out that crazy stuff, right?

Christians in general like to do that. One of the key features of modern Christianity is denominationalism. Did you know there are 217 Christian denominations in the United States alone?

Whenever we disagree on something, whether its the nature of the sacrament, or women in the pulpits, or even what kind of worship music we use, the answer to the conflict all to often becomes a split.

We just want to pull those weeds. We think it will make our church stronger.

We are seeing these stormclouds today in the UMC. Our denomination is the only non-evangelical Protestant denomination that has not taken an open and affirming stance towards LGBT people, now that Presbyterians did about a month ago. Isn’t that sad?

And yet we know that two years from now, at General Conference, we will make a decision. And no matter what that decision is, a group of Methodists are going to be angry. And that group of Methodists will probably leave. And Methodists on the other side will take an attitude of “good riddance.”

More good weeding.

But is it really?

We see in this story today Jesus seeming to tell us the opposite thing. Instead of weeding that field, instead of seperating the wheat from the weeds in an attempt to make the field a better place for the wheat to grow, Jesus teaches us that in pulling these weeds, in our attempt to make the church “better” we are loosing something irreplaceable.

Now in the story, what would be lost is good wheat. In a pre-industrial agricultural society, every grain is precious! People were starving in first century Palestine. It was imperative that the harvest be maximized. They needed to get as much out of that field as possible. And while it seemed to the farmhands that the best way to do that was to pull the weeds, the master understood: you have to let the crop grow. You have to bring it all along. You have to let it come to maturity and then you can see what is weeds and what is wheat.

I sincerely believe that it is the same in the church today. If we want people to change, if we want them to come around to our side on any issue, we have to bring them along. We have to keep them in the fold.

And it’s hard on an issue that has as many real world consequences as the full inclusion of the LGBT community. Those who are advocating for a continuance of exclusive and condemnatory language in our Book of Discipline are people who I don’t necessaraily want to be in fellowship with. They feel to me like people with an outlook that the complete antithesis of what I take Christianity to be. How I would love to say “Sayonara.”

But if full inclusion is inevitable, and I think it is, and we allow it to break our denomination, then where are those who leave ten years from now? Or perhaps the better question is, where do we want them to be? Do we want them to hold these same exclusionary positions in ten years? Or do we want them to see the love of God realized in our LGBT brothers and sisters, do we want them to realize that they were wrong but they become right and participate fully in the inclusive kingdom Jesus described to us?

We obviously want them in that second category. And the only way to get them there is not through exlcusion. It’s not through weeding them out. We have to let them grow with us. We have to bring the crop to maturity and see the fruit it bears.

Brian McLaren is one of my favorite Christian thinkers and writers, and he recently wrote a blog post that addressed the UMC and the way forward on inclusion. He laid out five different scenarios of action for the church, and in the end he made a really good point: no matter what action we take, whether it be full inclusion, full exclusion, partial inclusion, partial exclusion, or standing pat: people are going to leave.

It’s inevitable. It’s what we Christians do. And frankly, if the church doesn’t act with justice and love for all of God’s people, I understand that impulse. I will feel it myself.

But if schism is inevitable, how do we minimize it? If we know and feel that the church will act to welcome all in, what can we do to make sure we bring every one along and help them to grow to a place where they can also have an affirming love for others?

I blogged on this question after McLaren did, and I opined that the best way forward was for the church to take two actions: first, to follow the Presbyterians in allowing local congregations to make decisions about how open they will be, allowing churches like CHUM to practice love the way we know it should be while allowing churches that aren’t there yet to get there at their own pace. And second, we need to pass a resolution stating our support for and love of the LGBT community and condeming any and all actions and words that discriminate, promote intolerance, or convey any message that is not steeped in love and acceptance of all God’s children.

The impulse to pull weeds pervades our faith. We feel it all the time. Let me give you a personal example: I have friends and family members who aren’t as progressive theologically as myself. And when I get into a theological discussion with them, whether its the nature of hell or the prosperity gospel or Christian nonviolence, I feel compelled to open the floodgates and question everything they believe and try to force them to agree with me. And I can carry on these debates for hours on end. Just ask Arianna. She’s seen it.

But recently I’ve come to a new conclusion: those debates do no good. I can argue and argue and argue until I’m blue in the face and I am not really going to change their minds. Even if it seems like I did, it’s simply like the seeds planted in rocky soil that Kent talked about last week: shallow, with no roots. And all I had sown was anger and resentment and divisiveness.

And it’s because, they aren’t where I am in my spiritual journey. They are where they are, and I need to be ok with that, and most of all: I need to find that middle ground where can be Christians together, in unity.

It was like the field owner was speaking to me, saying: STOP. Don’t do anything.

Tend to them. Grow with them. Let them come to fruition. But stop trying to pull out the weeds. You are just gonna pull the wheat too.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a “Call to inaction.” Far from it. This can be a dangerous parable, because I think it has been used a lot in history to justify inaction on a whole host of issues. The traditional and easy interpretation here is that we are to wait until the life after death for justice and peace and mercy to be realized. But I definitely don’t think so. What I’m saying is, we need to act in a different way than is common. We need to act with an overwhelming love and acceptance of others, instead of in a way that induces schism and distrust and brokenness.

Acting with love, acting in a way that is completely unfamiliar to our normal way of doing things, is central to the Christian life. It means making the uncommon, common; the strange, familiar. It means finding those people who we are so angry at over this, and so many other issues, those people who seem to condemn and exclude as easily as breathing, and show them the redeeming, all-encompassing love of God. It means telling them, “We love you, we are brothers and sisters, we can be one.”

Its not easy. Its not what seems like the right way to deal with injustice and intolerance. But its the kingdom way. Its what Christian love looks like. We shouldn’t put off radical and “wasteful” love, as Bishop Spong describes it, until the great hereafter.

As Shane Caliborne says, “Jesus’ weeds-and-wheat parable was not meant for heaven; it was not a utopian dream. It invoked heaven on earth.”

What I’m saying is, don’t garden like I do. Don’t just get all gung-ho and start pulling things left and right.

Rachel Held Evans is one of my absolute favorite Christian writers right now. And just this last Friday, she wrote about this verse and had some really great stuff to say. Her lens was the increasing violence in Gaza, and the idea that a war like that can be waged with “minimal civilian casualties.” Let me highlight the key passage from her message, because I think it is really relevant to what we’ve been thinking about this morning:

As reports of civilian casualties mount, we see that, just as Jesus warned, human attempts to “root out evil” on our own, by force, result in the destruction to innocent lives. Like it or not, this parable challenges (perhaps even mocks) our notion of “precision airstrikes,” of getting rid of the “bad guys” without hurting the “good guys.” The fact is, we don’t see the world as God sees it. We are not equipped to call the shots…..”

Then, skipping ahead just a bit:

“…the instructive call of this parable remains the same: to let God do the farming. God is the judge-not you, not me, not kings, not president.”

It’s hard to stand aside and let things go sometimes. But maybe we should. Maybe we should let God do his work, let God reap the fields. In the meantime, we can tend to them and trust that in time, if we show them God’s love-and patience-, they will bear wheat too.

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