A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on July 21, 2014.
The gospels last week and this week are giving us gardening lessons and that’s useful in mid-July. I was coming up 23rd Avenue last week and somewhere between Judah and Lawton I came across a garden about two feet wide and four feet long where someone was raising corn. Now, the Bible tells us that God made us to take care of a garden and that’s still a very strong instinct in lots of us and we try to act on it even in the unpromising soil of 23rd Avenue. I think that’s why the Bible gives us lessons in gardening.
Last week’s gospel was about planting which is the easy part. This week’s is about weeding and that’s the hard part – but weeding is what gardening in mid-summer is all about especially if you go away for a few days as I did one summer and had to spend the rest of the summer trying to get back in control. This morning’s gospel is very helpful in that connection. It says in effect, “Don’t bother! You’ve got weeds? Don’t worry! Let them grow! Let everything that comes up grow together until the harvest and you can sort it out then.”
Now that’s great advice: always put off til tomorrow what you don’t want to do today! You know, there are people who read Jesus’ parables and say: “See how much he knew about sheep or about housekeeping or about fishing. But did he really understand gardening if he thought you didn’t need to do weeding? Would this approach really work?
Actually, It just might, in some cases. When I used to pull up the weeds in the corn, for example, some of the corn would tend to topple and I’d have to hill it up to keep it from falling over. If I left it alone it might do better. I remember a time when I was pulling up weeds around the tomatoes and found myself with an uprooted tomato plant in my hand. You get careless and lose what you were trying to save.
So maybe Jesus did know something about gardening and knew how compulsive gardeners can be about weeds and used this parable to make a useful point because we do have this compulsive tendency to pull up weeds. I’ve done it right in front of the church, maybe you have too, tried to neaten it up, whether it’s good for the plants or not.
And it’s not just in gardens. Take an example from a completely different area of life, the United Nations. There’s always someone who wants to weed that patch. For years it was the United States. We couldn’t stand the idea of Communist China being in the UN. Then we decided that it would be alright after all and China could come in but meanwhile the Arab nations began to want to weed Israel out and there were African counties that wanted to weed South Africa out. Lots of countries want to purify the UN garden by their own narrow standards. But all of them were prejudiced standards. You can only play if we like you and if you agree with us. But what good is a world organization without the whole world represented? Once you start purging, you start choosing up sides for the next war. We may not like certain countries or approve of their way of life but it may still be better to talk than to fight. And who knows what may come of talking? Who knows what may develop in this weedy, unpromising field? But nothing will grow that’s uprooted, that’s for sure. And that’s the choice.
But bring the parable closer to home. How many times do we judge a church by its members? How often do we wish certain people went elsewhere? Or maybe we decide to go elsewhere ourselves or we stay home because of the kind of people in a particular church? Or how often do we invite nice new neighbors to join us and fail to invite someone we don’t much care for? There are churches that deliberately look for attractive people – young couples with 2.5 children – so they can boast to others about what really wonderful people go to their church. But you can’t help noticing the way Jesus was criticized for not associating with the right kind of people. Jesus seemed to practice what he preached when it came to being selective. We may be looking for a garden without weeds, a church without thorns. But the world God made, the church Jesus created, isn’t like that. It’s full of what look like weeds to us. There are weedy people, aren’t there, mixed in with the ones we like. But God is the gardener, not we.
So maybe there should be a word on behalf of weeds. Weeds, too, have value. Did you ever read one of those books by Euell Gibbons, books about weeds and wild plants and how to eat them, how to make dandelion wine and cook fiddlehead ferns and put purslane in your salad and so on? But the fact is there are weeds that are really good for you, full of vitamins and minerals. You may not like dandelions in the lawn but they’re really good for you in a salad.
And then there’s the problem I have with weeds early in the season because I’m never quite sure what I might have planted and forgotten about. Is this unidentified green sprout coming up something I planted and didn’t mark? or something from last year that self-seeded? But even harder to judge than the merits of different plants are the merits of different sorts of people. We value some plants for their foliage, some for their blossoms, some for their roots, some for their scent. If someone says to you, “Do you prefer lilies or tomatoes?” the obvious answer is, “For what?”
So how does God value us? Does God value success in business or the warmth of a smile or the way we dress or courage or patience or joy? Does God value those who make headlines: like Derek Jeter and Sarah Palin, Buster Posey and Jerry Brown? Or is it location that matters: are people from San Francisco more desirable to God than folks from Oakland or Los Angeles or even New York or Connecticut? Or do you think God has a preference for Americans more than Afghans or Iraqis or children from Guatemala? Or does God put a higher rating on intelligence or emotional stability? College graduates more than high school graduates; stable family people more than residents of a halfway house or reformed drug addicts?
And then we might ask whether now that we are gaining ability to indulge in genetic manipulation and select a child’s genetic makeup whether we should weed God’s garden ourselves?
I discovered recently from some reading I was doing that back less than a hundred years ago people got enthusiastic about Darwin’s ideas of evolution and natural selection. Darwin had written that in the natural world the weak and inferior stock is eliminated, but:
“We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick: we institute poor laws and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to smallpox. Thus the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”
That made a lot of sense to people and laws were passed in two-thirds of the states to enable what they called “eugenics” – weeding the human garden. In California, some 20,000 people, more than in any other state and many of them still alive, were forcibly sterilized by the state between 1909 and 1963. In the same way, we shaped our immigration laws to filter out certain nationalities and ethnic groups. Then we read about the holocaust and Hitler’s program to improve the human race by weeding out Jews and gypsies and homosexuals and others and we began to reconsider.
So is it possible that God is not like us when it comes to gardening – as today’s gospel implies? Is it possible God sees something in human lives beyond what we see: something simpler, something deeper, something of more lasting value? Is it possible that the differences in ability that seem so important to us are not so important in the eyes of God?
These are not all easy questions to answer, but I think this parable of the wheat and weeds indicates something of God’s answer and something of the sort of answer God hopes for from us. But let me broaden the field – if I can put it that way – and bring in the other two readings to throw more light on the same subject. Father Miner pointed out last week that the readings in Pentecost are not tied to a common theme. What we are doing in Pentecost is reading consecutively through three different parts of the Bible. We’re getting distant background in the Old Testament and it’s a great story to follow through week by week. Then we’re given sequential readings from Paul’s epistle to the Romans – probably the most important letter Paul ever wrote – and we’re also working our way through Jesus’ teaching ministry in the gospel readings from Matthew. There are people like me, you know, who sometimes have two or three books going at the same time and that’s what’s happening on Sunday morning. We have three books going that have no necessary connection at all and I don’t know how any congregation can be expected to take in three disconnected readings this way and make any sense of it. I mean, I like reading the Old Testament in sequence and I value the epistle to the Romans and you wouldn’t want to go home without hearing about Jesus but how can we take it all in?
(Parenthetically, I went to church one Sunday several years ago in a Protestant church where they had only one reading – from the Old Testament. Can you imagine going to church and not reading from the Gospel or at least the New Testament?)
But back to my point – we’re asked to do some serious thinking about three different books and we probably ought to take a break after each reading to discuss it. But all that is by way of noticing that today’s readings by sheer coincidence do have a common theme and that theme – put as broadly as possible – is the same one I found to talk about last month, the last time I preached here – which is “God’s purpose.” If you remember – you do remember, don’t you? – I talked about the question the new bishop of Connecticut likes to ask which is – you remember? – “What is God doing now?” I can imagine people asking Jesus that. “If we are God’s chosen people,” they might have asked, “how come the Romans are running things and putting their idols in our temple? How come we have to pay taxes to an alien army?” And if they came to Jesus with questions like that, that might have been the day Jesus told them the parable of the wheat and tares. That might have been the day they came to Jesus to ask, “What are you up to? What makes you think you can bring in the kingdom of God with this motley crew?” What was Jesus doing with half a dozen fishermen, a reformed tax collector, a couple of people so insignificant their own friends couldn’t remember their names when they came to write the gospels. Can you name the twelve apostles? Maybe you can but Matthew and Mark and Luke came up with different lists when they tried to write about it years later. Who was that twelfth man anyway? Well, we all have trouble with names when we get older. But couldn’t Jesus have chosen someone His close friends would still remember thirty or forty years later?
There’s an old story about how Jesus returned to heaven after the crucifixion and resurrection and was welcomed home by the angels and archangels and asked “What now? What’s the next step?” And Jesus told them, “I’ve chosen a dozen men to carry on the task?” And the angels say, “But that’s not a very impressive group. What if they fall short?” And Jesus responded, “I have no other plan.”
So we’re it, friends; we’re it. I could go out to Noriega Avenue and find a dozen people out there, lawyers and doctors and teachers, respected leaders in the community, but they’re not here and we are so we’re it. We’re the ones chosen to carry out God’s plan. “Wheat and tares together sown” as we will shortly sing in the offertory hymn. We’re it. God chooses to go with us. That’s the Gospel.
Now look at the Old Testament: pure coincidence, but what’s happening there? Jacob as the story begins is fleeing for his life. We don’t get that context in the reading; just “Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran.” You bet he left Beersheba; his brother was after him and aimed to kill him. He was afraid for his life and at that moment of despair God gave him a dream and told him, “Your offspring shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth. Never fear, I have a purpose for you and I will accomplish it.” But what was God up to in choosing the younger son, the dreamer, the trickster, over the stronger and more deserving Esau? God does not make the obvious choice but God has a purpose. God knows the difference between the wheat and the tares.
And isn’t that just exactly what Paul is talking about in the second reading? He’s writing to the little band of Christians in Rome. They’re persecuted and discouraged and the worst is yet to come. And he tells them who they are. You are God’s chosen. I remember a former bishop of New York who liked to tell how, when he was a teenager, his mother would send him off on a Saturday night with the words, “Remember who you are.” Paul is saying that to the Romans: “Remember who you are. You are the children of God. And you didn’t get that title to fall back into fear. You are joint heirs with Christ, and you may need to suffer with him in order to be glorified with him, but whatever suffering you know now doesn’t begin to compare with the glory of the promise.”
So we have three readings this morning that show us one picture, point toward one future, spell out one promise. What is God doing? Short term, I have no idea. Long term, God is building a future so glorious we can’t even begin to imagine it. If we sowed good seed, what are these weeds doing here? If you want a harvest for the kingdom why do we have these empty seats on Sunday morning? What is God up to anyway? It requires, it seems to me, great forbearance, great patience, and very great understanding. It requires us to remember that we are in God’s garden – you and I – by God’s choice more than our own and it is God’s garden to shape, not ours. This gospel parable implies that God hopes for a greater harvest than we can yet imagine and in that harvest, by the grace of God, perhaps you and I also will have our share.
© 2014 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Bible Readings for July 20: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp11_RCL.html