by Rev. Sara Lund 7/20/14
A couple of weeks ago I was visiting a spunky 97 year old patient at the hospital. I asked what she would be doing if she were home, and she chuckled and said, “Playing tug-of-war with my favorite weeds!” I laughed and said she sounded affectionate toward her weeds. She replied, “What fun would gardening be without the weeds. The plants just sit there. But the weeds call, “Come out to the garden to play! Come find me! Catch me if you can!” I told her I’d been thinking about the lectionary passage of the wheat and the weeds, and she added, “We plant things we want to grow, but most of gardening is about interacting with the weeds.”
As seeds of this parable have been sprouting in my thoughts, her words have been intermingled with another conversation. Several years ago I met with a UCC Committee concerning my credentials. At one point I was trying to explain why I had been involved with a variety of churches across the Christian spectrum over the years. I called it “cross-pollination”– that I tried to share the strengths I saw in one church to benefit another. Someone said, “There’s something I can’t wrap my mind around. How can you worship with them? With people who don’t think the same as you do?” In truth I’ve heard variations of that same question here at Peace and from people in other church about how I could worship here at Peace. The questions distress me. I asked, “Doesn’t affirming diversity include worshiping with people who may or may not be or think the same way – the “us’s” and the “thems” all turning to God?”
I explained that as a chaplain I interact every day with people of very different backgrounds and ways of expressing faith. The reason my backside has dusted the pews of so many kinds of churches is because I want to know how to speak many dialects of faith.I do a lot of pulpit supply in all, and I don’t preach the same way at the in every denomination. I try to match the message to the congregation. Maybe that means I speak out of all sides of my mouth and lack prophetic backbone? Or do I just have a different calling, as Paul says, to be all things to all people that by all means we might reach some? I truly wrestle with these things both as a chaplain and as a Christian. Within the Christian Church how do wheat and weeds occupy the same field? How does this apply to the church in the midst of a weedy society? I want to look at the parable in light of these two different conversations.
Biblically weeds get very bad press. Weeds are a sign of neglect, intrusion and defeat, what chokes out the good seed. In this parable, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is LIKE a field in which wheat and weeds end up intermingled. The servants ask the owner, “Should we pull up the weeds?” He says, “No, allow both to grow up together until the harvest, because in trying to eliminate the weeds some of the wheat might be damaged. When the harvest is ready those appointed to do the harvesting will separate the wheat and the weeds. What feeds people will be kept; what doesn’t will be pitched.” He implies that wheat CAN grow even with weeds in the midst. Jesus was telling this parable to a crowd that may have included those who thought they were wheat and others were the weeds, and those who felt like weeds in their culture, and those who thought they knew which seed deserved to grow.
When the disciples asked Jesus privately to explain the parable he gives them an “obvious” explanation, maybebecause they wanted answers, to get it right. So he talks about good and evil and the day of judgment. Things will be sorted out eventually; righteousness will shine, unrighteous will be removed. Those assigned to judge will know the difference. But Jesus also warns, “Let those who have ears, hear…” Maybe there’s more to it.
My natural bent makes me look for words of encouragement more than warning. So I like to think this parable encouraged God’s servants not to worry if they are unable to get rid of all unrighteousness in this age. God will sort it out. Maybe if the weeds are the persistent problems in lifethat threaten our well-being, we’re encouraged that we can still grow in the midst. Maybe this parable affirms the deep love God, whodoes not want to risk damaging any wheat for the sake of rooting out what’s undesirable. Perhaps we’re given a gift of time to grow in our relationship with God until the harvest when Christ will destroy our sin, what was not nourishing and fruitful, and leave what has been redeemed.
I don’t believe the parable is suggesting we just let injustice sit and grow. In many other places in scripture Jesus talks about our responsibility to change unjust ways and systems, to promote justice, and relieve oppression and suffering. This is not a call to ignore prophetic ministry in the midst of the church and world.
Consciously or not, I think we apply these thoughts to the Church because we often feel the stress of our differences. We look at people as wheat and weeds as much as we look at issues that way. If that’s true, is there anything good to say about weeds to help us live in the same field?
I want to return to my 97 year old patient and her view of weeds. She said weeds engage her, andshe had a certain appreciation for them, even as she planned to yank them out of her garden. My conversation with her reminded me of a Peanuts comic strip I cut out of the newspaper once. In the strip, Peppermint Patty, an awkward girl and Marcie, a brainy one, are walking along a sidewalk. Patty sees a weed poking up through a crack, and she sighs glumly to her friend,
“You know what I am, Marcie? I’m a weed. The world is full of beautiful plants and flowers, but I’m a poor, ugly weed pushing her way up through the sidewalk of life.”
Marcie replies, “That’s a great metaphor. Did you know that weeds have a wide tolerance for environmental conditions and the rare ability to exploit recently disturbed terrain?
Patty looks confused and asks, “What does that mean?”
Marcie says, “Resilience. You can roll with the punches!”
She’s saying that we can look at circumstances and see an ugly struggle, or we can look at character and see strength and resilience. Weeds probably get as much press as they do in scripture because in fact they’re good at what they do. They can grow just about anywhere under any circumstances. You can mow their tops off and they’ll grow right back. They don’t have to be coaxed. They’re first to spring up after a natural disaster. They can find the crack in the sidewalk. And they have the power to get us down on our knees, to put us to work.
Some of the main characters in the Bible had the character strengths of weeds – Paul, for example. People of his day saw him as a kind of weed springing up in all kinds of places they didn’t want him to be. In fact, the ancient world looked at the Christian church in that way. Over and over people tried to get rid of Paul. But he was resilient. He rolled with the punches. And he received many. In 2 Corinthians 9 he lists some of these: “Five times I have received 40 lashes minus one; 3 times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, 3 times I was shipwrecked… I have labored and toiled and often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food. I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches…”
When Paul focused on his circumstances he certainly saw an ugly struggle. But Paul also looked at the character of Christ in him, and found strength. So he was able to tell the Philippians, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation… I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” Paul was resilient, because he knew God had called him to this ministry and would provide. He was convinced of the truth and value of his message. Paul’s weed-like character enabled him to be a great church planter. People either became followers of Christ or tried to kill him off. Can many of you related to this character strength in your ministry for justice? Peace Church doesn’t wait to be invited to engage.
I had a weed-like experience a while back at the hospital. I usually poke my nose into people’s rooms without an invitation. This one day I went in to visit a new patient – a man in his 60s. When I introduced myself he shot back, “No thanks! You’re the very LAST person I’d ever want to talk to.” I thought, “This is a man with a story he needs tell. So I pulled a chair up next to his bed and said, “That’s the most interesting thing anyone’s said to me all week. Will you tell me what’s happened to you? He proceeded to vent at length about ways the church had wounded him, and about women who had deceived him, how God had abandoned him, in short, why his faith had been “ripped up by the roots.” I listened. And then we had a conversation about his experience of injustice and abandonment and about faith. When he finally felt spent he said, “If I were a praying man, I guess this would be where I ask you to say a prayer for me…but I’m not.” So I said, “IF you were a praying man, this is the prayer I would offer,”…and I said the prayer, eyes open, start to finish, and then added, “But since you’re not a praying man, I won’t.” He smiled and said that was the closest he’d come to religion in 20 years and he shook my hand. I believe there’s a time for intruding.
We are hesitant as a culture to speak boldly about faith. It’s considered intrusive and weed-like to be evangelical. Liberal Christians are bold mainly with how faith applies to issues of our day. Respectfulness IS important in a diverse culture. How Christians talk about faith can extend grace or be divisive –wheat/weeds, US/THEM. When I describe Paul as a weed, I’m talking about how others viewed him. He believed tried to have a different approach. In 1 Corinthians 9 he explained “Though I am free and belong to no one, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jew I became like a Jew to win the Jews. To the Gentiles I became like a Gentile… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Paul spent long periods of time immersed in the lives of the people he served. That included Jews and Gentiles and prisoners and guards. He tried to know his audience so he could speak of faith in ways they could hear. Do we know the cultures of those who are the “THEMs” within the Church?
When I think of Peace church, I think of people who are often weed-like in boldness, people who are willing to push their way into places they have not been invited in order to bring changes for justice and inclusiveness that may not be readily welcomed by all. I think of people who are resilient in their personal lives and in their ministry, who look beyond the mess of circumstances and see the character that God is growing within them. I see people not only acting with the character strengths of weeds, but also willing to engage weeds, if you think of weeds as the persistent problems that choke out Gospel values. It’s not easy work. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the wheat from the weeds out in the world and in the Church.
I go back to the question the person at the UCC interview asked. In our embrace of diversity, who is included? Who are the us’s and the thems? And could we worship together? Do we engage the weeds, and see certain character strengths that remind us of our own? Can we work and grow together in this field that is the Kingdom of God? Maybe this would be a good subject for a Sunday forum. In the meantime, I imagine some of you are eager to get to your gardens today to deal with your own weeds that are calling you to. As you yank them, think of my 97 year old lady, and who thinks they call to her. And ruminate a bit on this parable. May your lives and your gardens be fruitful and your work among the weeds engaging.