Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sermon: Weeds, Wheat, and Butterflies

A Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Apologies to my blog readers for rehashing the facebook drama. It went too well with the text not to!

A couple of weeks ago, my facebook feed was full of jubilation and celebration. Marriage equality had just passed in New York, and it was Gay Pride weekend, and my friends were full of joy and hope. All but a few. The thing about facebook is that it lets you see that your friends have gotten engaged, and it lets you see what they’re wearing to the Pride march, but it also lets you see when someone has become a fundamentalist.

I have one old college friend who I used to sing in choir with, and our religious and political views were not so different once upon a time, but I’ve gone into ministry in the UCC, and he’s gone into fundamentalist Catholicism. By this point I don’t think you could find two people who call themselves Christian who disagree more than we do. That weekend, he posted exactly what he thought about Gay Pride and marriage equality, and I responded, and we really got into it about God and scripture and what the world should be like. Back and forth we went, back and forth, until he posted these words: “I am tired of dealing with your disgusting hypocrisy, your foolish self-confidence, and above all your repulsive blasphemy. Where do you get the nerve to insult your Creator and God the way you do? A rebellious creature, a creature that will not love its Creator, is a nightmare, a horror.”

“A nightmare, a horror.” … That’s me, I guess.

I am quite sure that God loves me and I love God, so I didn’t let it bother me all that much, but it was still on my mind when I started to study the text for this week, Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat. Jesus has just told the
parable of the sower sowing seeds on fertile soil and rocky ground alike. Now he tells another agricultural parable, but this one sounds much darker to me. A farmer has planted a field with seed. The field, this time, is all good soil – no rocks or brambles here! But in the night, an enemy comes and plants weeds along with the good seed. The farmer’s slaves are able to tell that something is wrong, and they go to the farmer, asking if they should pull up the weeds. No, the farmer replies, you might uproot the wheat along with the weeds. Let them grow up together, and at harvest time, first gather the weeds into bundles to be burned, and then harvest the wheat.

This parable, like all of Jesus’ parables, starts with ordinary things, things that would have been common in the lives of the people Jesus was talking to. But parables don’t end with ordinary things – parables take an odd turn, throwing a wrench into our casual assumptions and inviting us to imagine how the kingdom of God might be different from the world we know. Parables are like kaleidoscopes – we look at them, and a little bit of God glimmers through. Then we turn them and look again from a different angle, and everything has shifted and we see something still beautiful, but completely different from what we saw a moment ago.

So we start with ordinary things: a farmer sowing grain. It’s a little unlikely that someone comes in the night to plant weeds. But where things get really odd is when the farmer says to let the weeds grow. This would have been unthinkable in Jesus’ time – it is bad farming, plain and simple. For us New Yorkers, weeding is not really part of most of our lives. Even for people who grow gardens or tend front yards, weeding is an inconvenience which is mostly about getting a few good baskets of tomatoes, or maintaining a beautiful home. But before modern machinery made it possible for one farmer to produce food for a hundred people, when one farm well-managed could produce enough for a family and a bit extra to sell, weeding was quite literally a matter of life and death. Weeds left to grow could kill off the crops and leave the family with not enough to eat, let alone anything to sell. Imagine how Jesus’ parable would have sounded to people in that time: let the weeds grow? He must be crazy!

But we’re not talking about farming. Not really. We’re talking about the kingdom of God. And we’re not talking about weeds and wheat, we’re talking about people. The reading continues, skipping over some more parables, to Jesus interpreting the parable to his disciples inside a house. Scholars say that when the text tells us Jesus is interpreting his own teachings in secret, those interpretations are more likely to come from the early Christian community than from Jesus himself – when Jesus is said to be teaching inside the house, that helped to explain why an interpretation wasn’t widely known. So perhaps this interpretation is from Jesus, or perhaps it comes from the early church, but regardless, we read this interpretation: the field is the world, the sower is the Son of Man, the good seeds are children of the kingdom of God. The enemy is Satan, the bad seeds are children of evil, the harvesters are angels, and the harvest time is the end of the age. Well, that kind of messes up my kaleidoscope analogy. It makes it sound as if there’s only one meaning for the parable, only one correct interpretation, rather than the beautiful, perplexing, shifting mystery that parables can be.

But more disturbingly, it sounds an awful lot like Jesus is saying that there are good people created by God, and bad people created by Satan. It sounds like he is saying that some people are hopeless, unsalvageable. God never had anything to do with them in the first place, or gave up on them long ago, and they’re headed irrevocably for eternal damnation.

But I think it’s a little more subtle than that. Jesus was often hyperbolic in the ways he talked about evil, using exaggerated language to help him make his point: remember the commandment to
gouge out your own eye if it causes you to sin? He was also quite clear in other parables, like the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin about God’s abundant love, mercy, and grace for all people. And finally, when he says that “all causes of sin” will be thrown into the fire and burned, the word he uses is skandalon, which means trap or stumbling block, a word he uses a few chapters later when he yells at Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!” If Saint Peter himself is a skandalon, a stumbling block at least sometimes, one of the things that Jesus says are destined for hellfire, surely there’s some hope for the rest of us. Surely we should hold those words about condemnation lightly, like a kaleidoscope, turning them over and over, letting them condemn the evil which is, very truly, present in the world. And if we listen carefully, we will hear that this parable is about the very opposite of condemning people to hell. Because in this parable, perhaps sometimes we are the good seeds, and perhaps sometimes we are the field, but certainly sometimes we are the servants, the ones who want to separate weeds from wheat, worthy from unworthy, good from bad.

How often do we hear people who think they know whom and what God hates? How often do we hear people trying to make those divisions of weed from wheat? When the Westboro Baptist Church pickets a funeral with signs condemning gay and lesbian people to hell, they are trying to separate the weeds from the wheat. When a Christian minister is so sure of the mind of God that he speaks hate against Muslims and threatens to burn the Qur’an, he is trying to separate weeds from wheat. When a fundamentalist tells me on facebook that I hate God, that I am a horror and a nightmare in God’s eyes, he is trying to separate the weeds from the wheat. And when I stand in the pulpit, and I make a list of people I disagree with, I am coming pretty dangerously close to trying to separate the weeds from the wheat myself.

The good news, and the scary news, of this parable of Jesus, is that it is not our job to decide who is good and valuable and deserving of God’s love, and who is worthless and useless and bad. The good news, and the scary news, for me and for you and for that guy on facebook, is that the God who made us and loves us is bigger than any of us. And while this parable celebrates good and condemns evil, that is not its point. It is calling us to something different: it is calling us to let go of the illusion that we get to judge other people. It is calling us to
do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God rather than attacking people we think are wrong. It is calling us to see every person as a child of God, a person who is known and loved by God. Because there is evil in the world. There is. But God does not make bad people.

New York Times article a few days ago reported that there has been a major decline in the population of monarch butterflies, those lovely little orange ones that migrate every year to Mexico to escape the cold Northern winter. Scientists have been trying to explain why they have been dying off, and recently made a connection. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed, a plant that used to be abundant in the corn and soy fields of the Midwest. Milkweed was a major nuisance to the farmers, until the invention of genetically modified “Roundup-ready” corn and soy seeds. These seeds grow into plants that can be soaked in weed-killer and survive to bear fruit. Now, using these seeds, farmers can blast every field in the Midwest with herbicide. No more milkweed! And so no more places for monarchs to lay their eggs, no more plants for them to feed on, and perhaps, pretty soon, no more monarch butterflies at all. Perhaps the author Barbara Kingsolver was right when she said that a weed is just a plant that is growing where you don’t want it. Perhaps, just like God does not make bad people, God does not really make weeds at all.

So often we think we know what is important and what is irrelevant. We think we know who is worthwhile and who is not. We think we can separate weeds from wheat. But friends, all of God’s creation is good. All of it. And this parable’s call for us is to set down the work we assign ourselves of judging and assessing and categorizing people, as if we were in charge of making God’s naughty list. This parable’s call for us is to stop trying to pull up weeds, and start tending the fields of our own hearts and communities and world. And this parable’s promise to us is that, in the kingdom of God, everything within us that judges, everything that condemns people, everything that hates what God has created, is burned away by God’s holy love, love which is
like a refining fire, so that our righteousness can come shining through. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Yes yes yes! Amen!
    I'm so glad you started posting, Feminist Pastor. I don't have the chance to hear anyone else's sermons on Sundays now (or Tuesdays or Wednesdays or Fridays...) and I haven't quite made peace with the podcast sermons. So, thank you for your thoughtfulness and scholarship and faithfulness here. Blessings.