Growing Among the Weeds
My children have both been going through growth spurts recently. Now, ten years of motherhood have taught me that tiny people grow as they get older (I’m very observant!), but sometimes the growth feels especially dramatic. And so, I sometimes remark on it.
Not long ago, intending to celebrate my daughter’s rapid growth I told her “you are growing like a weed!” To which she responded “Mommy, weeds are bad. Don’t call me a weed.”
I have been thinking about that objections this week as I meditated on today’s gospel parable. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about my daughter’s perfect clarity in declaring “weeds are bad.”
My instinct, is to try to nuance that statement. To talk about how we all have some wheat and some weeds in our souls – and aren’t we glad God doesn’t just throw us out because of the weeds.
Or to talk about how our human tendency toward judging each other’s sins, and casting each other in the role of “the weeds” does deep damage, and interferes with the growth of our community, or our society. So, we should leave the judging to God.
Those things are true, and they can be valid ways to apply this parable to our lives… but they don’t fully deal with the fact that “weeds are bad.”
Certainly, in the parable, it is clear that weeds are intended to be understood as evil. They are sown by an enemy, with the intent to do harm. And biblical scholars teach that the weed in question is not just a minor annoyance like dandelions, but rather a specific weed: darnel. Darnel looks very similar to wheat while it is growing, but its fruit is poisonous. It is IMPORTANT than none of this weed gets mixed into the grain at harvest.
This parable is about real evil. And little as we may like to think about it, there is real evil in our world.
I was smacked in the face by that reality this week when I got an unexpected text from my sister. She’s OK. But she is currently in Greece, volunteering with the on-the-ground efforts to help refugees from Syrian and Africa. And she is seeing just how much evil is being experienced right now by helpless people.
On Tuesday afternoon, I got this text: “I saw an infant get tear gassed by riot police today. This shit is real.” I hesitate to voice profanity from the pulpit, and I don’t do so lightly, but those were her words and they express the tragedy and the shock of what she is actively witnessing: A peaceful protest about living conditions in a refugee camp,
that was met by violence, and has left over 1,000 refugees on the streets because the camp they came to after they had lost EVERYTHING was set on fire.
To be clear, I am not calling for the riot police at that protest to be categorized as dangerous weeds, or that they be “thrown into the furnace of fire.” I don’t know what happened to spark the tear gas and the flames, and I know people can do horrible things without being horrible people. As I said in the children’s sermon, declaring other people to be the “weeds” can do a lot of harm, and I don't feel qualified to stand in judgment over people dealing with an overwhelming refugee crisis.
But neither can I turn my back and pretend this is not part of our world. I can’t pretend the “weeds” are just a theoretical danger that doesn’t really cause harm. The truth is – there is destructive evil in our world, right now. There is deep harm done to people and creation every day. And the reassurance that God will weed out evil “in the end” doesn’t feel like enough. Not for the baby with lungs full of tear gas. And not for whatever manifestation of evil is hurting you or people you care about.
So, I spent most of this week struggling with how to preach this parable – this story from the lips of Jesus that seems to be saying: “do nothing – God will work it all out in the end.”
That “do nothing” perspective does not reflect the Lutheran theology in which I have been trained, or God’s heart for the suffering that I see throughout scripture; and it certainly does not ease the tears I cried as I messaged with my little sister about the pain she is actively witnessing.
But I have to preach the text in front of me… and that seemed to limit my options for proclaiming a hope more accessible than the final judgement.
Until I realized that the text in front of me has more perspectives in it than I had been recognizing. In our parables Bible study last month, we practiced “playing the parts”: getting inside the world of the parable by actually taking on the roles described. But I missed something important when we played the parts of this parable. I only assigned roles for the people in the parable … But in Jesus’s interpretation he assigns all the people roles to heavenly and demonic forces. In Jesus’s explanation, the human beings are the plants.
From that perspective, everything changes. Obviously, the wheat can’t eradicate the weeds from the field, but neither is it passive. The job of the wheat is to grow where it’s planted, despite the weeds.
So, how do we grow in a field that is polluted by weeds? How to we produce good fruit in a world poisoned by evil?
That question takes a whole Bible to answer, but we read three other texts today, so let’s start there:
In the reading from Isaiah, the prophet is addressing the Hebrew people in exile. These are people who know about how hard it is to grow among the weeds. So, the prophet reminds them of what they have learned from their history. In the chapters leading up to our passage, the prophet rehearses their identity as the chosen and redeemed people of the one and only true God.
Despite the reality of their weed-choked lives God tells them: “Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses!” (Isaiah 44:8).
So, that’s our first piece of guidance for growth among the weeds: Do not be afraid; witness.
We know what God has done already (in our lives, in the history of the church, and in scripture). We have a wider view than just the weeds in our vicinity (or even the weeds half a world away). And, because of what we know about God, we can testify to a vision that is different than the evil that we see. Part of how we grow despite the weeds, is by fearlessly witnessing to what we know God is really about.
Which means, we need to know what God is really about.
Today’s psalm confesses that need as a prayer: “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.” (Psalm 86:11)
Psalm 86 is a prayer that comes from among the weed. This psalm is usually classified as a Psalm of lament – meaning that it cries out to God for help from a condition of pain and need. But this prayer goes beyond just “help me,” or even “comfort me.” This Psalm cries out for God to teach the psalmist God’s ways, so that he can live according to that truth.
That’s the only way to grown and produce fruit in a field of weeds – by leaning and living according to God’s truth; in defiance of the weeds.
So that’s the second piece of guidance we have for living among the weeds: Learn to walk in God’s ways. We know that we will stumble on that path, but our prayer should be for an undivided heart that wants what God wants. Part of how we grow despite the weeds, is trusting God’s steadfast love enough to live according to God’s ways, even when the weeds make that way look impossible.
And when we get discouraged, we can turn to Romans 8, with its powerful imagery of freedom from slavery, and the spirit of adoption into God’s family, and the hope in which we were saved…despite the groaning of all creation.
Romans 8 speaks a powerful message of HOPE, but it does not deny the painful reality of life among the weeds. Paul compares this temporal reality to labor pains. The pain is real. The groans are deep. And they grip all of creation in bondage to decay.
And yet we have hope…. Because labor pains lead to birth, to life. And the life we have is the life of the Spirit of God.
So that is the final, all-important resource that lets us grow and bear fruit in a world full of weeds. We have God’s Spirit; Hold onto the Source of hope. God’s Spirit is already in us. We are God’s children and we are led by the Spirit that sees beyond the field. We can grow, and flourish, and bear fruit despite the weeds because it is God’s Spirit that nourishes us, and that is where we look for strength.
Do not be afraid; witness.
Learn to walk in God’s ways.
Hold onto the Source of hope.
Life among the weeds can only flourish if our response is to live in defiant hope, recognizing evil for what it is but not being polluted by it, but rather witnessing and walking according to the ways of God through the power and hope of God’s Spirit living in us, now and not just at the harvest.
In closing, I would like to share a prayer/poem attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero, a leader who knew quite a bit about growing among the weeds.
The prayer is entitled: A Future Not Our Own
It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Thanks be to God.