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Sunday, July 19, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 139:1–12, 23–24
We begin today where we left off last Sunday. Jesus is still in the boat, teaching both the crowd and his disciples. He is out there because, according to Matthew, the crowd had grown so large that getting in the boat was the only way Jesus could be seen and heard. That is something to imagine, isn’t it?
Why do you think they had all come on that day? I’ve wondered if some of their reasons for showing up on the side of a lake might be somewhat similar to some of your reasons for tuning into a worship service online. Perhaps they had come in hopes of hearing some words from Jesus that might help them make sense out of their world. Maybe they longed for him to tell them why everything seemed chaotic and unmoored. Some of them probably hoped Jesus would offer advice on how to deal with their stress levels that felt as high as the top of the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier. But in addition to all of those reasons, my guess is that all of them, as well as many of us today, came together desiring for Jesus to explain just what God was up to in the world, because from the perspective on the ground, it was growing awfully hard to tell.
Yet instead of making things easy, Jesus tells parables: stories mysterious and murky; no definition, no literal meanings, no straight answers. Standing in the boat, Jesus offers parable after parable after parable about the reign, the kingdom, the household, the empire of God, expecting all those who are listening to do the hard work of imaginative interpretation. Expecting all those who are listening to be able to handle being surrounded by mystery and surprise.
The servants in today’s parable were certainly surrounded by mystery and surprise. They had been eyewitnesses to the sowing of the good seed in the householder’s fields. They had probably worked up a gritty sweat sowing some of the seeds themselves. So naturally, they were both surprised and angry when they got word that weeds were popping up amongst their precious wheat, and these weren’t just any weeds. These were zizania plants (Van Harn, Lectionary Commentary). Big trouble plants. Their tough little roots would intertwine with the roots that belonged to the wheat.
Furthermore, to top it off, the servants knew that before all of the plants were fully ripe, the weeds and the wheat would look so much alike that one could not tell which was which. Commentators point out that these weeds looked so much like the wheat that they became known as “false wheat.” That meant that until it was the time for the harvest, you simply could not discern what was good wheat, and what was false wheat. So to have both of these plants in the same field—it was a disaster!
In response to this chaos, the servants grew angry. Someone messed up and messed up big! Immediately, they set off to find the householder. “Master,” they asked, not even trying to hide the blame in their voices, “did you not sow good seed in your field?” In other words, “How on earth did you mess this up so terribly? Look at what has happened in your field!”
I think I ask that kind of a question at least several times a day, don’t you? “God, don’t you realize what is going on in your field? Don’t you see the mess all around?” As of Saturday, more than 141,000 people in our country have died from the Coronavirus, 600,000 worldwide, and yet wearing a mask continues to be interpreted by some as either unnecessary or as a political decision. People are still losing their jobs in the middle of so much uncertainty, and surges are causing states to reverse course on reopening. A teacher friend of mine in Texas is resigned to using her own limited salary to buy masks for the kids that will come back to her classroom, because she does not trust the supplies will be there. The level of vitriol now casually tossed about from person to person tears at our collective heart.
And to top it all off, civil rights legends the Reverend C. T. Vivian and Representative John Lewis both entered God’s Church Triumphant on the same day, leaving so many of us filled with awe over their selfless and courageous service to this nation as well as deep grief because their voices of moral leadership and integrity are no longer in this world. And we are desperate for those voices today. It feels like we are just stuck in that movie Groundhog Day, in which every day feels like the exact same as the day before, while, at the same time, we are completely unsure as to what will happen next. And people still need to eat, bills still must be paid, all of Chicago’s children are still not safe from gun violence, our vulnerable neighbors still need care and compassion . . . God, don’t you see the mess in your field?
Matthew’s congregation undoubtedly struggled with similar questions. If Jesus is Lord, why are there still so many weeds in the wheat fields of our lives? (Tom Are, “A Mixed Bag,” a sermon preached at Village Presbyterian Church, Kansas City, Missouri). If God is in charge, and God is good, shouldn’t the world that God created be a beautiful sea of waving and golden wheat? (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Why the Boss Said No,” Bread of Angels).
All of these are good and faithful questions. The issue of theodicy has bedeviled us from the beginning of time. And yet, in this parable, Jesus does not address these questions of why. In this parable, the householder simply tells the servants that when everyone was sleeping, an enemy sneaked in and sowed the weeds in the midst of the wheat. No explanation as to how or why. Just a simple description of what happened.
Faced with this rather stunning and, frankly, disconcerting revelation, the servants immediately decided they needed to fix it. It was up to them to make things right again. “Can we go and gather those weeds,” they asked. I’m sure that in their heads they were thinking, “We can take care of it. One swipe with our Weed Eater and those plants will be history. Trust us. We will make the field perfect for the wheat once again.”
The servants’ solution might sound familiar to us. The Reverend Courtney Allen Crump puts it this way:
Like the servants, who see the weeds and want to pull them up, we [too] would really like to get rid of all the weeds—all of the things we see in people we believe are not like us—[for example], the theology that doesn’t fit with our own enlightened understandings; the hypocrisy of people claiming God but excluding neighbor; [as well as] the hypocrisy of judging [and excluding] those who [judge and] exclude, and all the rest. Often, we are inclined to focus our energy on pulling up all of the dangerous or questionable expressions of faith, narrowing the circle, and ensuring the only people representing God and the church have passed the proper litmus test. And these days it seems like we have a litmus test for every theological, social, moral, and ethical question. (Courtney Allen Crump. Preached on “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” 19 July 2020)
“Let us go out into the field, God, we say. We know what needs to be done. We can take care of it. It is perfectly logical. Get rid of the weeds.” Yet notice, by the way, this desire is often driven by the assumption that we are the wheat, so whenever Jesus talks about weeds, he is clearly talking about someone else, something else.
But to the servants’ complete surprise and ours, the householder did not like their plan one bit. “No, you will not fix it. You are not in charge of pulling up weeds. As a matter of fact, I am going to let them both grow together. I will fix it at the harvest and set things right. Do not take this matter into your own hands.” Unfortunately, Jesus does not tell us the servants’ reaction to the householder’s prohibition. I imagine they were stunned. Surely the Householder is not telling us to be passive in the face of this evil. Why can’t we just fix it and do what we think is right? Another good question from the servants.
We are, after all, told to work for justice and to participate in God’s mission in the world. Our Presbyterian Book of Order states that the church is called to undertake this work “even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ.” Thus, shouldn’t that mean cleansing the field for the wheat? Not according to this parable. But why does the Householder say no? (Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels).
First, if the servants are honest, they must admit that it is sometimes very difficult to tell the difference between the weeds and the wheat. We already heard that one cannot distinguish between the zizania plants and the wheat plants until they are both ripe, until it is time for the harvest. The servants may very well destroy something that they think is a weed but in God’s reality is really wheat. As Debie Thomas writes, “Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way: the business of discernment is much harder than we think it is. ‘Turn us loose with a machete and there is no telling what we will chop down and what we will spare’” (Debie Thomas,www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay). It is difficult, if not downright impossible, for human beings to tell the difference between the weeds and the wheat. And it is often dangerous for us to try.
Second, the Householder reminds the servants that the lives of the weeds and the lives of the wheat are intertwined. “You cannot gather the weeds,” the householder states, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” It sounds like what has happened in my own household when, in the past, we have tried to spray our yard for poison ivy. Inevitably, we have hit the grass or the bushes in which the poison ivy made its home. By cleansing the yard, we often ended up killing the very things we were trying to protect.
This seems to be what the Householder wants to avoid. We may have all the best intentions in the world, but the impact of our actions could be devastating. As Christian Century writer Debie Thomas has written, “There is no way we can rid ourselves of everything bad without distorting everything good. When we rush ahead of God and start yanking weeds left and right, we do terrible harm to ourselves and to the field. Our sincerity devolves into arrogance. Our love devolves into judgment. Our holiness devolves into hypocrisy. And the field suffers” (Debi Thomas, www.journeywithjesus.net).
I have to say that again “when we rush ahead of God” and take it upon ourselves to decide who or what is worthy and who or what is not, based only upon our own perspective, “our sincerity devolves into arrogance. Our love devolves into judgment. Our holiness devolves into hypocrisy. And the field suffers.” I feel like I need to make that into a poster and hang it above my desk. How often have we experienced those changes from sincerity to arrogance, love to judgement, holiness to hypocrisy, or perpetuated them ourselves? We may have the best intentions in the world, but our impact can be devastating. The Householder emphatically makes that same point. So instead of taking this risk, the Householder lets the wheat and the weeds grow together, knowing all along that he will take care of it in good time.
Ultimately this parable seems to indicate that for some mysterious and surprising reason God tolerates a mixed field full of wheat and weeds. And whether we like it or not, or understand it or not, at least in this parable we are being asked to tolerate it also. Like the servants, we are told to leave the weed-eating up to God. It has never been in our job description as human beings to decide who or what is wheat and who or what is a weed. Rather, it is in God’s job description, and God does not seem to need our input on it.
Instead of concentrating all of our energy on cleansing the field, we are called to use our energy to learn how to be more faithful wheat. A faithful response to the weeds, to the evil in the world, is to devote our energy to our business of being the reconciliation of the world through the practices of love (Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels). And, as we do that, to trust with all our might that God will take care of the harvest. Trust that, in the end, God will indeed get rid of all that deadens humanity or corrupts God’s world. Tom Long has written, “Whatever is in the world, or in us, that poisons our humanity and breaks our relationship with God will, thank God, be burned up in the fires of God’s everlasting love”(Tom Long, Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion). The God we know in Jesus Christ is the only one whose job it is to decide who or what is weed and who or what is wheat. That is a word of hope and grace.
So does this mean that we just simply shrug our shoulders, retreat, and passively wait? No. As people of faith we have the very hard work of bearing witness to the reality that somehow, in mysterious and surprising ways, God is in control and at work in the mixed fields of our broken world. We bear witness to that reality today, as we come together virtually for worship. We bear witness to that reality every time we make some noise, as Representative Lewis always said, every time we get into good trouble, necessary trouble, on behalf of the beloved community.
We bear witness to that reality when we decide that the health and well-being of our neighbor and larger community are worth playing by all the pandemic rules, even though our impatience is growing. We bear witness to that reality every time we proclaim God’s presence and love to those who feel broken. We bear witness to that reality every time we see the face of Jesus in everyone we encounter and refuse to categorize them as weed or wheat, no matter how hard that is. We bear witness to that reality every time we choose to not put ourselves in a seat of judgment about another, usually one with whom we are in deep disagreement, realizing that to avoid that judgment is an absolutely countercultural practice these days. Yet this parable offers that challenge.
We are not told in this parable to be passive, to simply wait, but we are given the good news that the one who created the field can, will, and does tend the field. Frankly, I would not be all that surprised to learn that God has a special formula that can turn weeds into wheat. Maybe that is what happens at the harvest time. Who are we to get in the way of that! Amen.