Sunday, July 23, 2023

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

“Sowing Weeds”

Rev. Brent Gundlah

Well, it’s another day down on the farm with Jesus as our reading from Matthew again uses agricultural imagery to explain what God’s reign is like. In today’s parable, Jesus turns his attention to the challenging coexistence of wheat and weeds.

It’s a tension that resonates with many people, as we tend to try really hard — but, mostly, in vain — to rid ourselves of the actual weeds on our lawns and in our gardens, and the metaphorical ones in our lives. Jesus’s advice here, though, is just to leave the weeds alone.

And this sounds great. I mean, it could be argued that Jesus have me a free pass on yard work. I’m not sure what your plans might be for the rest of this hot summer Sunday but, if they involve toiling outside, you could always invoke Matthew 13 to avoid doing so. “Don’t gather the weeds. So sayeth the Lord;” it’s right there in the Bible.  

But just leaving things alone (especially things that bother us) is completely contrary to human nature. As much as I don’t like weeding, it’s really hard for me to ignore that dandelion in my lawn.

There seems to be something deep within human beings that leads us to want to classify and to sort, to separate things into good and bad, wanted or unwanted, and to rid ourselves of that which we don’t want around.

We do this with weeds in our yards, with clutter in our attics, and with people as well — with individuals and groups we view as undesirable or inconvenient, and with ourselves, obsessing over and seeking to eradicate all the things about us that we don’t like. As you’ve probably already guessed, Jesus is really talking about people here.

Here’s a little Bible trivia for you: the particular weed that Jesus describes in this parable is called darnel, and it is virtually indistinguishable from the wheat it grows alongside right up until the harvest, when the fruit it bears ultimately betrays it’s true identity. So, if one wanted to protect an entire wheat crop, it would be wise not to weed until harvest time. But what happens in the meantime, during this ongoing tension between wheat and weeds as we await the harvest?

This harvest of Jesus’s metaphor is, of course, the time when God’s reign will finally arrive, when good will triumph over evil, when sin and pain and suffering will be no more. The problem, though, is that we don’t want to wait — we want it all to happen now; we always want things to happen now. And so we generally take it upon ourselves to move them along.

Amidst our impatience and frustration we work to separate everything (including ourselves) into simplistic categories like wheat and weeds, like good and bad. We seek to nurture the former by identifying and isolating and getting rid of the latter. But is that really the way it works with God?

Weeds, I once heard someone say, are just plants that have the audacity to grow somewhere that we don’t want them to be (which sounds like it might be more about us than it is about the weeds). But what might the weeds actually have to tell us — about the world and about ourselves — if we took the time to pay attention to them, if we opened our hearts and minds to understanding them differently?

Many years ago, after my sister and I were both grown-ups, my parents sold their house in suburban New Jersey and bought an old farmhouse and some land in New York State. The property was a beautifully undulating field of tall grass surrounded by way taller pine trees. It was way too much for my father to mow on his own, so a local farmer agreed to come in with his tractor a couple times a year and cut down the hay, taking some to feed his horses as payment.

The first time the property was mowed, something strange appeared. In the midst of this huge field, was a small patch no more than 10 feet in diameter in which weeds of various kinds grew much faster and were far greener then the grass that surrounded them. The soil there was dark and damp and the whole area smelled like musty water. It was just a small spot in a vast field, and yet you couldn’t help but focus on it because it just didn’t seem like it belonged there.

One day my father was outside in the yard when a elderly man showed up in the driveway, got out of his battered old pick-up truck, and walked towards my father. He introduced himself, explaining that he had lived just a mile away his whole life.

He was also drawn towards that strange little area in the field and felt compelled to point it out. “You know what it is, don’t you?” he asked my father.

“I have no idea,” Dad replied.

“Its a plugged-up spring,” he said. “It used to feed a two-acre pond right about there,” he said as he sketched out its former bounds by pointing with his hand to features on the surrounding landscape. “Its been gone for about thirty years now. When they cleared the trees to make this field, all the runoff coming down the hill must have clogged the spring.”

“Why didn’t they do anything about it,” my father asked.

“I don’t know,” the mysterious man replied. “I guess they just liked the grass that grew up in it place. You know how people love their lawns these days. But the weeds are telling you what’s supposed to be here. You just have to listen to them. You could bring it back, you know,” he declared.

“Really?” said my father. “How would I do that?”

“I have a backhoe,” he answered as his eyes lit up. “It’ll take a day or so to do. I have to unclog the spring and regrade the land to make it fill-in properly, but it shouldn’t be too hard. It won’t cost you anything. I just don’t get to use my tractor much anymore, and it’d be nice to have a project to work on. I’ll come by when I have time, if that’s okay.”

“Absolutely!” replied my father excitedly. He went in the house and told my mother, who seemed fine with the plan.

At least she was fine with the plan until the man showed up with his tractor one day while my parents were at work. My mom came home to behold a two acre section of the yard that looked like a meteor creator — a vast bowl of dirt with a small, muddy puddle in the middle, right where the tall weeds were. My dad came home to an angry barrage of really choice words from my mom.

The man came back a few days later to check on things and, thankfully, my mother had cooled down a bit by then. The puddle had gotten a little bigger, but the area still looked pretty awful. My father voiced both my mother’s frustration and his own when he asked the man, “Is this ever going to be the pond you promised us?”

The man simply looked out over what he had wrought, saying only this before turning and leaving: “Be patient.”

Sure enough, over the ensuing weeks, the puddle grew, reaching a point where one actually felt justified in calling it a pond. The birds came and so did the deer. A family of muskrats took up residence near the ruins of a small outbuilding along the pond’s southern edge, using fallen plants of all kinds in order to build a nest. Birds and mammals and insects and reptiles and plants went about their business — dealing with and depending on one another in and around the pond. Life abounded.

The weeds, now liberated from their former prison amidst the field of grass, managed to work their way into the landscape around the water’s edge so that they and the grass became almost impossible to distinguish from one another. I’m not exactly sure why, but the areas filled with both weeds and grass always stood a bit taller than everything else around them; I don’t know, maybe they kind of needed each other. Evolution is funny like that. Competition has always been a difficult part of life, I suppose, but maybe dealing with each other somehow makes us better and stronger too.

Once my father finally started to believe in the possibility of what was to come, once he heeded the man’s call to be patient, he could focus on what was happening in the here-and-now — the wonders of life evolving on and around the pond. It was as though, liberated from his anxiety about the ending, he was finally able to enjoy the story. 

So what if Jesus declaring the need for wheat and weeds to live together for now, and telling us that God will ultimately sort things out one day, isn’t really a statement about the looming prospect of heaven for some and not for others? What if it’s about freeing us all from worry about what comes next so that we can make the most of what happens in the meantime here on Earth?

What if Jesus isn’t encouraging us to categorize one another as wheat or weeds, and to strive to be the former not the latter?

What if Jesus is saying that each of us necessarily a combination of both?

What if we are like that ancient field filled with wheat and weeds, where it’s hard to distinguish them, where you can’t separate them without destroying the whole?

What if we’re like those areas filled with both desirable and undesirable plants that grew together on the shore of my parents’ pond and towered above everything else?

What if the weeds somehow help show us to the way new life?

What if the combination of wheat and weeds within each of us is what helps us to evolve, to become better people, to grow closer to one another and to God?

I mean isn’t that kind of life — not one defined by separation and punishment and retribution — really the whole point of it all?