Sunday, July 17, 2005: Even the Weeds

Click here to read Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43.

A farmer sows seed. The seed is good; there is no reason to believe that anything other than a nourishing wheat field will result from his labor. But when green tendrils begin to sprout from the rich earth, it becomes quite clear that something is amiss. The farmer’s slaves are concerned that an unexpected crop of weeds has taken root among the precious stalks of wheat, thanks to the handiwork of a not-so-neighborly enemy. They assume the task at hand is to immediately weed out the unwanted growth, but their Master encourages a plan centered on patience, trust, and preservation of the good. He wants to save each and every grain, and haphazard weeding would likely destroy some of the valuable wheat. The plan, therefore, is to let the good and evil plants mature side-by-side until harvest time, when the wheat is finally sifted from the weeds. Not a grain of wheat is lost.

Last week, we explored the parable of the sower. In that parable, we are invited to imagine the breadth and depth of God’s extravagant hope—the astonishing abundance that marks the nature of our Creator.

The parable of the weeds and wheat is clearly a related text. Jesus uses the same set of imagery to tell the story. Again, we are invited to imagine the Kingdom of God as a living entity, growing in the same mysterious-yet-ordinary way a tiny seed becomes a great stalk of wheat. In addition, both parables invite us to stand in amazement at God’s surprising economy.
Last Sunday we marveled at the seemingly wasteful manner in which God spreads the seed of the gospel—dispersing it even in inhospitable ground. Today, on the other hand, we witness the great care God exercises to ensure that no seed is lost. The reason for this swift turnaround is a good lesson in the nature of parables—no symbol is static. For in the parable of the wheat and weeds, Jesus tells us that we are like the grains of wheat, children of God emerging from the garden of faith.

The weeds are a fact. One of the reasons I love Jesus so much is that he doesn’t mince words about the state of the world. Just as there was only supposed to be grain in the field of this story, there was only supposed to be goodness in this world. But here we have these weeds. Weeds of violence and despair, injustice and loneliness, greed and infidelity have infiltrated creation, growing gnarled and ferocious roots.

We might think that we are supposed to single-handedly eradicate this unwanted blight. And sometimes I think we are supposed to roll up our sleeves and participate in the eradication of evil. Certainly, we can participate in the dismantling of our own sinful tendencies. And social sins like racism and sexism require our attention and effort. There is a season under the sun in which our participation in the redemption of ourselves and our sisters and brothers is imperative. After all, this is the same Jesus who also preached that if our right hand causes us to sin we should cut it off. But there is also a season in which our efforts to help are futile.
There is a brand of weed that cannot be addressed by our flawed human approaches. For one thing, as the farmer pointed out, the weeds at hand are deceiving; they look an awful lot like the wheat itself. If the well-meaning servants were to yank out fistfuls of weeds, they may very well find that they have destroyed a perfect stalk of wheat. And God just won’t have any of that.

There is a scene in one of my favorite movies that illustrates the folly of well-meaning but damaging interference. The film is called About a Boy. The title character is a terribly awkward British pre-teen who just can’t make it through a day of school without getting picked on mercilessly. He sticks out like a sore thumb. Although he is brilliant and loving, he does not possess the characteristics necessary to be considered “cool.” He is not athletic. He does not wear the right clothes. And he most certainly does not wear the right shoes. While all the other kids wear brand-name sneakers, our favorite pariah is stuck wearing heavy brown oxfords. Well, he is in the process of befriending a selfish yet harmless rich guy.
This man spends all of his money on stuff for himself, and is fully convinced that he does not need other people. However, the man finds himself feeling unusually sorry for the young boy. And he realizes he can actually do something about it. He can buy a pair of sneakers for this kid. In the voiceover that plays as we watch the man hand his credit card to the cashier, he ponders how easy it is to help this kid, and how positively pleased with himself it makes him feel. Sadly, things don’t turn out so well. In the next scene, we see the boy running home in the pouring rain with no shoes on. The same bullies that had teased him about his ugly shoes have stolen his brand new sneakers. The man’s good intentions to solve the boy’s problems backfired terribly, doing more harm than good.

If we so easily fumble when trying to help an awkward kid fit in with his classmates, however can we adequately address the roots of evil?

We simply do not have the wisdom, the vision, or the power to deal with all the weeds of this world. We know that evil exists, and we are pretty sure we are able to accurately recognize the weeds from the wheat. But our vision is too often clouded by impatience. So often we cannot see the forest for the trees. We get panicky when the forces of evil encroach on our safe soil. We long for quick solutions and an end to our fear. We lash out in vengeance when we are hurt, or maybe we just try to ignore that the weeds even exist. We are quick to settle for a superficial peace.

We forget that our job is not to weed the fields, but to be the wheat. We are called not to judge what is good or evil, but to surrender ourselves to way of Jesus Christ. In our hunger for God to hurry up and start whipping this world into shape, we forget that the seeds of the Kingdom are already flourishing. As Garret Keizer put it in The Christian Century, all too often “our attention is fixed more intently on the stubborn persistence of evil than on the slow emergence of good.”

We must pay our attention and our trust to that slow emergence of good. And the only way we can accomplish this is to place our absolute trust in our just and merciful God.

Trusting ourselves to the care of God is utterly radical. It transforms the way we see the world. Instead of believing the lie that matching violence with more violence will save us, instead of playing along with the hoax that human power can ever eliminate evil, when we trust God we surrender ourselves to a wholly different wisdom. God considers the world with the utmost patience and hope. God wants each and every good seed to come to fruition, even if it means that the weeds, too, will prosper.

The parable of the wheat and weeds ends with the promise that by and by, the Kingdom of God will succeed. The wheat will be harvested. And so will the weeds. I shudder to think that a single soul will ever meet the fiery furnace of God’s wrath.
But I delight in the closing image of the parable in which the Master and his slaves gather up the last of the weeds of sin and evil. The punch line of the story is that the enemy who sowed those pesky weeds has been bested by the clever farmer. Not only is every single grain salvaged, but all those weeds are transformed into valuable fuel. This is the economy of God. Even the weeds are put to good use.

If we entrust ourselves and our world to our Creator, we open our minds and our hearts to the hard work of growing as disciples. We are freed to extend our roots into the good soil of Christian community. We are welcome to drink the waters of scripture. We are blessed to bask in the sunlight of God’s love. As our faithfulness blooms, we become shining witnesses to God’s unfailingly green thumb. Amen.


Sunday, July 10, 2005: The Extravagance of God

(Click here to read Matthew 13:1-23, the Revised Common Lectionary text for the week.)

And so we begin with a parable.

I can’t think of a more nerve-racking genre of scripture to proclaim in my very first sermon in this community. The only predictable characteristic of Jesus’ parables is that they are unpredictable. The Christian theologian Walter Wink once preached that “Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds, condensed metaphors that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives. Parables are not illustrations; they do not support, elaborate or simplify a more basic idea… They are the jeweled portals of another world; we cannot see through them like windows, but through their surfaces are refracted lights that would otherwise blind us—or pass unseen.” Now that is a beautiful description, and I think Pastor Wink may well be as accurate as he is poetic.

But if parables are like prisms reflecting God’s truth, they are also like greased watermelons. The tradition of greasing up a ripe green watermelon and tossing it into a swimming pool was always one of my favorite summer games. The watermelon floats on the chlorinated surface, as slippery as can be. The objective of the game is to get the watermelon from point A to point B, and as you can imagine, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. It doesn’t take long for the players to realize that seizing the watermelon is a fruitless strategy—pun intended! A greased watermelon refuses all attempts at captivity. The only way to get that watermelon across the length of the pool is for players to collaborate. If everyone creates enough splashes and waves, sure enough, the melon will drift toward the goal. Of course, everyone gets pretty drenched, and no one can claim an independent victory.

Parables are slippery little fruits themselves. When we happen upon a parable, such as that of the Sower, we are often tempted to clutch it tightly and apply one neat meaning to its mystery.

There is a certain safety in drawing boundaries around what a scriptural passage can and cannot mean. It is comfortable to match up each element of the parable of the sower with a corresponding designation: the seed represents the gospel, we represent the soil, the thorns symbolize adversity, and so forth. However, the second we grip that interpretation too tightly, the whole parable slides out of our embrace. Just like the slimy watermelons bobbing around in lakes and swimming holes, parables are served best by cooperation and a certain fearlessness of splashing up a storm.

In today’s reading, we are offered not only the parable of the Sower itself, but a rich interpretation of the parable. In Jesus’ explanation, he helps us to see the parable in a faithful and thoughtful manner. The seed, we are told, is the word of the Kingdom, the good news of Jesus Christ. The sower is being a bit of a spendthrift with his gospel seed, dropping it every whichway—on the path, in the rocks, among the thorns, and finally, within the space of the dark and nourishing loam of the field. This is where we come in, for as hearers of the word, we are analogous to the four types of soil. Upon hearing the parable of the sower, we are enjoined to consider just what kind of soil we might be.

Did my lack of understanding of the gospel cause it to be removed from my heart? Did I claim fidelity to God, only to witness my faith collapse when the going got tough? Did my faith suffocate from neglect when I forfeited God’s grace for more possessions? Or have I received the gospel with humble understanding, welcoming the word of God into the very marrow of my bones and in turn welcoming others into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit?

These are great questions, and they are questions we should ask ourselves continually as we endeavor to follow Christ. But there is more than one way to slice a watermelon, and in this time of anticipation and vitality, I want for us to let go of one excellent interpretation for another possibility.

Let’s direct our faithful imagination to the sower of seeds. If this guy really wants to run an efficient farm, if this guy genuinely expects to coax all of his precious seed into fields of gold, why must he be so maddeningly wasteful with his seeds? Unless our poor sower has a hole in his seedbag, he seems to be awfully careless. Any good farmer knows that birds will devour seed dropped on the path. Any good farmer knows that rocky soil is an inhospitable environment for dependable roots. Any good farmer knows that thorns will extinguish tender, green shoots.

We’ve been pointing fingers at the soil all along, but perhaps the sower is to blame for his extravagance with the valuable seed!

God always has been rather extravagant, right? After all, God wasn’t content with a few measly varieties of flora and fauna. God’s creative spirit continues to pervade a world full of fantastic diversity. We are stewards of an earth abundant with oak and cactus, seaweed and roses, electric eels and labrador retrievers. And God’s creativity is matched by God’s compassion. As hardworking stewards of creation, people of faith are given the gift and the responsibility to observe the Sabbath—not five or ten hours of rest, but one full day of rest and re-creation, twenty-four hours of wasted productivity. Call it abundant, call it inefficient—call it whatever you want, but there is no doubt in my mind that our Creator is one extravagant God.

God wants the seeds of the gospel planted in the hearts of all of us. God yearns for a harvest resplendent with the grain of faithful discipleship. God has such extravagant hope for the children of this earth that as a sower of the gospel seeds, he showers any and every surface with the promise of redemption. The Divine Sower does not peer down at our imperfections—at our sinfulness, our weakness, our fickleness—and save his seed for our worthier brothers and sisters. The sower has an indestructible hope that despite the deficiencies of the soil, a great and glorious harvest shall be reaped. And those gospel seeds surely do multiply, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty, nurtured by God’s love. In spite of the fruitless plants, God’s extravagant hope is met by an equally extravagant yield.

I believe with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my strength that God has extravagant hope for the present and future of South Bay Christian Church. And I pray that each and every one of us can match God’s hope with our own hope for this community.

Like all congregations, we have our birds, rocks, and thorns to address. We do not need to fear these challenges; we can name them and accept them, knowing that God releases a cascade of compassion onto our failings as well as our successes.

The memory of past days when the pews and cribs were full is sweet, but not if we allow it to steal our present hope like a greedy bluejay.

The excitement of calling a new pastor is justifiable, but not if we expect the novelty of my youth to nurture the harvest. Like rocky soil, novelty produces a superficial crop.

And then there are the thorns. We inhabit a culture that vehemently rejects the good news of Jesus Christ. The perennial sins of materialism, selfishness, and apathy toward the life of the Spirit are ever present, eager to snuff out the gospel we seek to cultivate.

So we have some obstacles. We are also blessed with an abundance of excellent soil. This community is comprised of committed followers of Christ who willingly seek out meaningful ways to live the great commandments and commissions of the Christian life. If we were especially efficient gardeners we would painstakingly avoid the traps, and plant our seed only in the safest of soil. But we are not called to be especially efficient gardeners; we are called to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ. We are called to direct our attention not to all the possible ways our ministry might fail, but to faithfully lavish the good news seed within and beyond the boundaries of our community, on meager and hardy soil alike.

We must trust that God’s creative spirit will participate in the gospel greening of this place. God’s love is limitless, no matter the grade of the soil. God’s mercy is extravagant, no matter the interpretation of the parable. As people of faith, as members and friends of South Bay Christian Church, we can joyfully and confidently place our hope in the harvest, now and into our brilliant future!



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