This sermon was preached at Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, NC on Sunday, November 20, 2016. The text was Matthew 13:24-30.

Let us pray.

Merciful God, you plant each of us like seeds in the same field and together we are nourished and nurtured by the sun. We sway in the wind and are refreshed by the rain. We are blessed by the knowledge that you want us to grow towards what you call us to be. When we deprive others of that same opportunity, forgive us. When we want to uproot those whom we believe do not belong in our part of the field, forgive us. When we label others as good or bad rather than accept them for who they are, forgive us. When we are reluctant to acknowledge that we ourselves are a mixture of weeds and wheat, forgive us. When we are afraid to look into the fields of our own lives to see what is growing there, forgive us. O God, you know us inside and out, through and through. You search us out and lay your hand upon us. You know what we are going to say even before we speak. So we pray that you will help us to reach out to the uprooted and rejected, the lonely and the outcast, and to develop and grow the good in ourselves, in others and in the world. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (by Moira Laidlaw)

Earlier this year, I decided to tear out a vine that had been growing in my backyard. It was a decorative vine that a previous owner had planted, and there was nothing wrong with it per se; but it created a thicket of foliage along the side of my house that was the perfect home for a number of different pests, including ants—and, as I discovered while weeding without gloves, black widow spiders.

I thought that space in the garden would be better suited to some small herbs or flowers, so I started pulling up the vine. It was incredibly hard work—my fiancé and I both put hours into digging up its roots and pulling it out in dirt-coated ropes. Finally, we got it all cleared, brushed the dirt off our hands, and gave ourselves a pat on the back.

The thing is, I had overestimated our ability to get rid of a plant whose nickname is “the resurrection vine.” I can tell you right now, it earns that name. To this day, shoots and sprouts and whole new vines are still popping up out of the dirt we so thoroughly excavated. I’ve given up until spring.

That vine, which had once been a decorative plant, is now a weed. You see, there is no standard definition of a weed. It’s all about context. One succinct description of a weed is “a plant in the wrong place.” A weed is a plant that is unwanted, either in general or in a particular spot. The weeds in our parable this morning are plants in the wrong place.

Many scholars see this passage as a message against the Jewish agenda of purity. In the time of Jesus, the Jewish community was particularly concerned with maintaining clear boundaries of who was considered Jewish. You had to be of a particular ethnic and cultural heritage, not to mention an adherent of strict purity laws, in order to be a real Jew.

This emphasis on purity emerged from a long history of being persecuted. For centuries, this small people group had to resist being destroyed either by violence or by being subsumed into another cultural or ethnic group. They turned inward for their own survival.

But Jesus turned that way of being inside out. He preached and embodied good news not just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. Suddenly the question of who’s in and who’s out became much less clear-cut. But was it so obvious in the first place?

The weed that Jesus refers to in this parable is most likely the bearded darnel. Darnel is an invasive plant that grows among wheat. It wraps its roots around the roots of the wheat, making it impossible to pull it up without tearing out the wheat as well. What’s more, especially in early stages of growth, darnel looks remarkably similar to wheat. If you have both wheat and darnel growing in your field, there will be some time where you can’t tell which is which. Do we really know the difference between wheat and weeds?

Years before I bought my house, a landscape architect planted countless native perennials all over the yard, including that pesky resurrection vine. My first spring in that house was an awesome time of expectation and surprise at the beautiful plants that popped up in the garden. However, it brought with it some uncertainty. More than once, I found myself studying a fresh green shoot and wondering whether it was supposed to be there or not.

My fiancé and I had a debate about one particular patch of sprouting plants, and we nearly concluded that they were weeds to be pulled. But we decided to wait and see, just in case. It turned out that they were ladybells, these slender, beautiful tendrils dripping with bell-shaped purple flowers. Throughout the spring and summer, they greeted me as I came and went to and from my house. Every time I saw them, I remembered that I had almost uprooted them and was grateful I had not.

When we good Christians read the parable of the wheat and the weeds, we tend to assume that we are the wheat. We must believe that if we are even considering pulling weeds. This assumption is optimistic at best and arrogant at worst. But more than that, it oversimplifies and misrepresents human nature. No one is 100% good, for “all have sinned and fallen short” (Romans 8:23?). But no one is 100% bad either, for all are children of God. So who is the wheat and who are the weeds, really?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it this way: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The line between wheat and weeds is drawn not between groups of people or even between individual persons, but straight through each and every human heart. We can’t destroy evil in this world and remain in one piece, for evil lives inside of us.

Wheat and darnel do eventually differentiate. They may look the same, but they are not the same. We eventually know which is which—to quote Matthew 7, we “will know them by their fruit.” I knew the ladybells in my garden by their flowers. We know the wheat by the grain it produces for food—apparently none of Jesus’ disciples were gluten intolerant. We know the weeds by the inedible fruit they bear.

Darnel is nicknamed “false wheat” because of how similar it looks to the cultivated plant. But you really don’t want to get the two confused, because darnel isn’t just inedible. It’s poisonous.

Sometimes we try to make others believe we are all wheat, that there are no weeds in our good Christian hearts. We go to church, and we wear cross necklaces, and when someone sneezes, we don’t just say, “Bless you”—we say, “God bless you.” But what fruit are we bearing? That Matthew 7 passage is talking about false prophets—wolves in sheep’s clothing. How does the world decide if the fruit we bear is food or poison? How do they know if we are really a harmless sheep or a dangerous wolf? How much of our outward appearance and behavior testifies to authentic discipleship, and how much prophesies falsely?

A few days ago, someone pointed to a passage in 1 Corinthians that struck me as a sobering example of our misguided attempts to separate the wheat from the weeds. Hear these verses from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the troubled church in Corinth:

“Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ ‘I belong to Apollos,’ ‘I belong to Cephas,’ ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name?”

A friend and I couldn’t help but chuckle grimly at the admonition not to be divided into rival groups. You could trade almost any political figure’s name for the camps Paul lists. Many time in the last year and a half, it seems the answer to the question “Has Christ been divided?” is…yes.

But don’t forget that division and diversity are two very different things. There are many different species of wheat. But just as we might mistake a weed for the wheat, often we mistake a different kind of wheat for a weed. When we divide into rival groups within the church, we tear out precious wheat. When we divide the body of Christ, we say that our worldly labels are more important that our identity in Christ. When we separate the wheat from the weeds, we take on the role of the gardener.

But we are not the gardener; Christ is the gardener. Today is Christ the King Sunday. Today, we are reminded that as Christians our lives are ruled not by any governmental leader or political party, not by social class or cultural practice, not by religious affiliation or partisan ideology or any other human invention, but by Christ. It is in Christ that our true identity lies and to Christ that our ultimate allegiance is owed. We are called to stay rooted in the field where God has planted us, to grow in grace and truth, and to trust the wisdom and mercy of the gardener who tends and keeps us until the harvest.

If this sounds like a terribly passive form of discipleship, you’re having the same reaction I did to this passage. Sometimes a weed is just a plant out of place, but sometimes a weed can be truly dangerous. Does God expect us to “let go and let God,” to ignore that which destroys and deceives, and trust that God will sort it all out in the end?

Just as the definition of a weed is all about context, so, too, is the reading and application of any passage of Scripture. The harvest that this parable refers to is the gathering together that will happen at the end of time. The metaphor is about eternal salvation, the burning away of all that separates us from God, the refining by fire that all must go through in order to enter in to the kingdom when it comes in full.

Until then, there is work to be done. Later in the book of Matthew, in chapter 18, Jesus gives us a model for how to confront evil in our midst. When someone sins against you, confront them privately; if they don’t listen, then bring one or two more people with you the next time; and when all else fails, bring it before the whole church. God will indeed sort it all out in the end—but that is not an excuse for us to ignore sin and evil in the meantime.

Saying we belong to Christ doesn’t mean that we get to float blissfully above the troubles and trials and divisions of this world. It roots us as firmly in this world as the next. Saying we belong to Christ places costly demands on our lives. It calls us, in the words of the prophet Micah, to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” It reminds us that the work to be done is all about loving our neighbor and, to quote our baptismal vows, resisting evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they may present themselves.

We’ve seen many different forms of all of these but especially of division in this election cycle. We must identify the weeds of sin and brokenness that wrap around the roots of the Gospel in our hearts and in our lives. Otherwise, they will choke the seeds of love and mercy and instead bear the fruit of bitterness and exclusion.

But if we are not the gardener, if pulling weeds is not in our job description, what is there for us to do about the problem of evil? We find the answer in Romans 12:21—“Do not be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.”

Author Michael Flynn writes, “I have come to believe that there is more grace in becoming wheat than there is in pulling weeds.” It’s not about annihilating all evil—that would be impossible—it’s about growing so strong in the good that evil cannot prevail. John Wesley called this growth process sanctification—that lifelong journey of increasing in grace and holiness, of being saved, of maturing in faith and trust so that we bear the fruit of justice, mercy, and humility.

The good news is that God gives us everything we need to become wheat, to grow in the likeness and image of God, to prepare ourselves for the harvest to come. The better news is that God can put even the weeds in our hearts and lives to good use. The wheat is used for food, and the weeds are burned—but the burning provides heat and fuel. The burning makes it possible to bake that wheat into bread. The burning gives light in the darkness and leads us out of the shadows.

There’s a song I love by the band Five Iron Frenzy called “Dandelions.” It describes a little boy gathering dandelion flowers and proudly presenting the bouquet to his mother. The chorus goes like this: “She sees love where anyone else would see weeds / Dandelions—you see flowers in these weeds.” The mother-son interaction becomes a metaphor for God’s gracious reception of us.

We will never be able to present a perfect grain offering to God, and yet God does not reject us when we bring our full selves, good and bad, to be used in the kingdom. Even in the weeds of our sin, God sees the potential for us to become wheat. Can we see the same in ourselves and in others, no matter how out of place we feel or how different they may seem?

The prayer I opened with was written by Moira Laidlaw. I want to close by re-reading one line from that prayer:

We pray that you will help us to reach out to the uprooted and rejected, the lonely and the outcast, and to develop and grow the good in ourselves, in others and in the world. 

 

May it be so from now until the harvest. Amen.

Advertisements