Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11], July 22/23, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA ~ The Rev. Roy Almquist
Last week our Gospel lesson spoke to us about planting seeds. This week our attention is focused on pulling weeds. The two go together. Every backyard farmer knows that planting seeds is the easy part of having a successful garden. The time consuming task is always weeding the garden. That is where you sweat and strain your back. A wise gardener once said: The best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant.
Separating the wheat from the weeds … the good from the bad … is always a challenge. When I was in seminary, a long time ago, I was preparing to be an urban pastor. For that reason, I served 25 hours a week during my senior year as a seminary intern in a North Philadelphia congregation, Advent Lutheran Church, Fifth and Cumberland, two blocks south of Lehigh Avenue. It was a rapidly changing community … the Germans and the Irish were fleeing to Northeast Philadelphia, replaced by African-Americans and Latino people. It was an exciting time in our lives … Shannon and I loved serving in that multi-cultural setting.
A wonderful congregation in Montgomery County, Christ Lutheran in Oreland, offered to host our children for a day of fun and adventure in their lovely suburban setting. So we loaded up our merry gaggle of city kids into cars and vans and made our way out on the Schuylkill on a lovely spring Saturday morning. The good folks in Oreland welcomed us with games and crafts and a picnic lunch for the children.
When we arrived the kids jumped from the vans and threw themselves onto the lush grass, rolling downhill, turning cartwheels, and smelling spring. Several of the children began to pick the dandelions to create bouquets for their teachers. The church ladies smiled at the naïve children who thought these pernicious weeds were lovely flowers.
After lunch some of the children discovered even more beautiful blossoms for bouquets in the front of the church. Suddenly they came with bunches of tulips and daffodils from the church’s decorative landscaping. This time the suburban church ladies were not amused but outraged and infuriated. What is the matter with these children … don’t their parents teach them respect? … how could they do this after we welcomed them and gave them lunch?
I remember Shannon gathering the children, whose flowers still had bulbs on them. She led them to the front of the church where a third of the bouquets were replanted under the glare of our well-intended hostesses. I think it’s time to load the vans, I announced. Our attempt to integrate urban ministry with suburban reality was a stunning failure that Saturday in May.
Our Gospel lesson for today talks about this problem of weeds and good plants. Jesus’ parable dramatizes the fact that things do not always unfold as we plan. The farmer planted good seed in his field, only to have an enemy come and sow weeds into the field to sabotage the crop. When the servants discovered the weeds growing together with the wheat, they were determined to root out the pernicious weeds from their Master’s field. We can be forgiven if, like the workers, we are shocked to hear the Master’s directive. Do nothing. Let them grow together … until the harvest, lest the attempt to purge the weeds might uproot and damage the wheat.
Throughout the history of Christianity there has always been an “urge to purge” … from burning heretics to sending Crusaders to the Holy Land … from excommunicating the Reformers to expelling the pregnant girl from the Christian school or denying the Sacrament to the divorced. Would that we might have the same passion for planting the Gospel as we have for purging that which deviates.
Our Gospel reminds us that there are times when you cannot tell the difference between weeds and wheat … like those precious children from north Philadelphia, who thought dandelions and tulips were all the same. Indeed, the longer I live the harder I find the task of separating out the good from the bad in life … indeed, separating the bad from the good in my own life!
The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds is one of the hardest of Jesus’ teachings for us to understand. We want to make of it an explanation of evil or a justification for dividing the world into wheat and weeds.
In reality, this parable encourages us to live with ambiguity in our lives. But this is difficult for we want the world to be black or white, bad or good, weeds or wheat. We are genuinely troubled when we see people drift away from any outward faith commitment … any genuine desire to participate in religious community. That is wrong … we should reject them! But we dare not.
Matthew’s Gospel lesson says a lot to us about what it means to be the Church in 2017. We are not to be some kind of spiritual island nation, removed from reality, but rather we are to live our lives and give our witness in the midst of what is, at best, a mixed bag of good people and bad people. We are challenged to avoid the dual hazards of either indifference or fanatical intolerance. Our Gospel lesson encourages us to take evil seriously, but at the same time resist the temptation to take on God’s role of judging others.
“Wait for the harvest” … is not the most encouraging advice for us to hear. In many ways we are like the servants in our Gospel lesson. We want to make things right immediately … purge the bad or at least make the world the way we think it should be. When we look at all around us that does not make sense to us … we can all too easily convince ourselves that ~ an enemy has done this!
When illness strikes a loved one or our health become undermined …
When our job disappears, our children disappoint us, a significant relationship ends …
When a loved one dies … when decisions of the government profoundly distress us … when warfare crushes the innocent, forcing countless people to become refugees … we want to rip out these weeds … we want God to make it better!
But still our Gospel lesson would encourage patience. Sometimes a weed is a plant for which we have not determined a purpose, a flower that does not yet have universal acceptance. I remember reading once that for almost two hundred years settlers in colonial American were convinced that tomatoes were poisonous and were to be avoided. Now we cherish tomatoes and consider them a staple in our summer diet. It took long time before those green weeds with the red fruit were considered a significant crop.
I hope our Gospel lesson about the Wheat and the Weeds will make one point clear to you: God is more concerned with the realization of human potential than with the eradication of evil. Indeed, God loves the good more than God hates the bad and God calls us to be tolerant … to remember that it is always easier to draw a narrow circle that excludes those who differ from us. But God calls us to make the circle larger to include others within our fellowship, affirming their potential and inherent goodness. Ultimately, there will be a judgment, But we shall not be the judges!
So let us trust our Crazed Farmer God, who sows seed wildly and seems to love all that grows … the wild and the wanted, the weeds and the wheat … even you and me! May God bless us and keep us strong until that ultimate Harvest. AMEN.