Friday, July 22, 2005

What do we do with the weeds?

OK, so I should be furiously packing boxes - because I have, as the old "Smokey & The Bandit" song says, "a long way to go & a short time to get there." But I wrote these notes during a powerhouse sermon on Sunday morning, and they're burning a hole in my mind. So here goes...

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to hear two different takes on the "weeds among the wheat" parable in Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. The first approach, which I heard down in Hutchinson on Saturday evening, might have been something fairly grace-filled and I just misheard it (wouldn't be the first time). But what I heard was a fairly straight-forward call to right living as a path to salvation - "the wheat goes into the master's storehouses, the weeds are bundled to be burned. Where do you want to end up?" A lot of righteousness, but not much hope for folks like me.

You see, there's at least one big problem with the whole "wheat goes to heaven, weeds go to hell" approach. It assumes that I can always choose to be wheat, and not a weed. And while many Christian denominations will tell you that a person can just "turn away from sin," and stay that way, that just has not been my experience.

You see, I'm with my soul-mate Martin Luther on this one. By nature, it seems, I'm a weed. Left to my own devices, I'm a creator of disharmony, chaos and pain; it seems it's just where I boot up, even on the best of days. I do not normally wake up singing God's praises; whereas a lot of folks I know are "Good morning, God" kinds of people, I'm more of a "Good God, it's morning" guy.

That's why last Sunday's sermon by my hometown preacher-man, Dr. Joe Crowther at Atonement Lutheran in Overland Park, really hit close to home for me. He cast this parable in at least three ways I'd never heard before. And he asked some powerful questions I'd never heard asked in this parable.

Do we really want to pull up the weeds? At first, it sounds like a stupid question. There's all kinds of similes for this one. It's the parental admonition from childhood: "Stay away from those kids - because one bad apple will spoil the whole barrel." It's the medical image - cutting out the cancerous tissue to save the rest of the body. Shouldn't we take a stand against the weeds, after all? They'll ruin the rest of the crop. It just makes sense...

Or does it, really? It reminds me of several science-fiction stories (episodes from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5 come to mind) where machines were designed to destroy everyone but the "pure" members of a race or a world. But who among us is pure? In the sci-fi world, the machines end up killing everyone - and no one wins.

So many Christian churches see the battle as simply cleansing the culture of whatever passes for weeds. In my pre-teen years, the Protestants fought us Catholics; white supremacists fought blacks. Back in the 50's and 60's, people would go so far as to burn their own house down before they'd sell out to a black family - making the neighborhood a walled fortress to keep out the weeds.

Gays (even celibate ones) need not apply to some churches; their kind aren't wanted, no matter in whom their faith resides. Even in my own life, I need not apply to have communion with my sister and brother-in-law on Christmas Eve, because I don't believe what her church believes about Eucharist. So I commit my one act of blatant heresy (and my one blatant lie) every Christmas Eve, because I love my sister more than I care about the supposed "Christian" church she attends.

And if my sister were to leave her church, because her brother couldn't share communion with her, she wouldn't be missed. After all, it's OK to just pull up the weeds - the wheat around the weeds are just "acceptable losses" - collateral damage, if you will. Pastor Joe pointed out that when we are "cleansing" the weeds, we often come to look like weeds ourselves.

What can be done with these weeds? The cry goes up often in the church: Are you really crazy enough to leave those weeds in there? What's gonna happen if we let them grow, and thrive, in our wheat field? What happens if we leave the weeds in the field? So often, we forget that in God's kingdom, weeds can become wheat by the transforming power of Christ.

But even more than that, we often find that in allowing the weeds to stick around, the weeds start to look more like wheat, and some of us wheat stalks seem to look a little weedy. So often, the church that welcomes the "outsiders" (the active alcoholic, the drug addict, the unwed mother, or the gay couple) will soon see the face of Christ in the most "weedy" among us - and see true brokenness in the seemingly most-upright among us.

The last question is what the servants ask the landowner: Did you not plant good seed? It seems that the servants think the landowner is responsible for the weeds. "After all, this weed-pulling is gonna be a pain - and it won't be you sweating it out in the fields. You bought cheap seed, full of weeds, and now we have to pay the price."

What about the goodness of the seed - or the landowner, for that matter - if the seed has weeds in it? What does it say about the goodness of creation if so much evil comes out of it? And what about things which seem to point to the heart of a weed, but which in reality are truly wheat? If "they" are really "like that," how can they be like us? How can what "they" are really be "fearfully and wonderfully made"? And what does it say if we paint God as the creator, and yet there is even the tiniest hint that this very same God could have made "them" like "that"?

For so long, my primary fear of Christians was (and, God help me, still can be) this: What if they find out how "weedy" I really am? Won't they just yank me up by the roots, and throw me on the fire? That's why so many Christians hide what they feel is most true about them - for fear that others will only see thistles, and bring a torch...

The Landowner I know is not afraid of me, nor of my weedy nature. While I was yet spreading my weedy seeds in the field, the Landowner sent his very best Seed to grow, and be uprooted, that I (the hopelessly weed) might live forever in his field. You know what that is?

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.

Thanks, Joe. I really needed to hear that. And thank you, God, for giving your servant a message of grace like that.


Anonymous said...

I've always missed the question, "Did you not plant good seed?" Doctrines such as "we are all born in sin" and "total depravity" trouble me. What a beautiful picture - the best wheat ever gets pulled up because God loves a weed like me. Thanks Steve for pointing to Amazing Grace.

Michael Dodd said...

If we think of the weeds and the wheat not as individuals or groups within the community, but instead as aspects of ourselves, it can be a fruitful reflection. As I mature, I discover that some of my best qualities, my "virtues", are just the flip side of some of my worst vices. For example, I can be a great helper, but that is a flip side of being a manipulative control freak. Do I stop helping in order to avoid manipulating? Not so good an idea, probably. That way lies scrupulosity and paralysis. Instead, I need to cultivate the wheat and live with the weeds, and let God remove these character defects in God's good time.

I often think of this as weeds-among-the-wheat and wonder what to do with the weeds. Wouldn't I be better off thinking (as I suspect God does) about the wheat-among-the-weeds, and take care of that? And here I mean both my inner life and the life of the community. Instead of throwing out the gays who want to be Christians, I might try to work with the Christians who happen to be gay.

New Life said...

Hey brother, nice to "hear your voice".

What I like about this story is that God decides who is the wheat and the weeds.

When I read about neo-Puritans (I think I just coined a new phrase)
wanting to separate from the weeds and plant their own field of wheat I now know why I am so troubled.

Hope all is well.

Peace, brother.


Keith Brenton said...

An acquaintance of mine, Travis Stanley, spoke on the same subject Sunday, Weeds and Wheat. He has some good thoughts beyond the "usual," too.

Hope said...

"For so long, my primary fear of Christians was (and, God help me, still can be) this: What if they find out how "weedy" I really am? Won't they just yank me up by the roots, and throw me on the fire?

I get that. I really get that.

Peter said...

We forget: "weeds" are stubborn survivors. And one of Jesus' most powerful metaphors is the "heaven as mustard seed" parable.

Mustard is a takeover plant. Let it get in a field, and that's all you got in a year or two. Farmers in Manitoba, where we lived for three years, would apply huge amounts of Roundup herbicide and plough a swath 3 metres wide around the edge of their fields--just to keep mustard and cousins Out.

When I learned this about mustard, I reflected that these farmers can't really be listening to the passage--they should be white-knuckled and wide-eyed at the thought that God's Kingdom (I prefer Community) is like a weed that you can't get out once it starts.

And while we don't get tree-sized mustard here in the Shield country, it does very well, thank-you, as a half-metre high plant with pretty yellowy flowers.

Weeds like lambs quarters, nettle, dock, and many others, also happen to be nutritious and useful as medicine plants.

Only a monoculture hates weeds. Is our faith a monoculture...?

Kat said...

I am definitely a weed...whenever I struggle to do right, invariably I end up falling. I am not perfect...I am a mess. Yet, in spite of and because of my messiness, I am a delight to God. He finds joy in my bumblings and shortcomings. It's sad that people who think they are "judging" like God would, in reality, are condemning their own people who are just like them.