Wheat and Weeds

Matthew 13: 24-30

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

 

Matthew 13: 36-43

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

whear“Green Bean” was what they called me. I spent many hours on my great-uncle’s farm in Cleveland, Georgia picking green beans. It seemed fitting to the adults around me that my nickname would be green bean. We would pick bushels of green beans early in the morning and then come down the Farmers Market in Gainesville and sell them off the back of a truck. The ones we didn’t sell we would take back home to string and snap so my mother could can them.

In the weeks leading up to harvest time, we would take a hoe and dig out the weeds around the beans. I was never really good at telling a weed from a bean plant. The adults saw that I was cutting into their crops and decided to give me another task.

In the religious business there are those who have convinced themselves that they are the experts at telling the difference between a good crop and weeds. There are many who go around naming what represents a weed and what doesn’t. They are servants trying to tell the Master what belongs in the field and what needs to be plucked out.

The Russian novelist put it best when he said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The Apostle Paul put it this way, “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” Romans 7:20.

But of course this doesn’t stop some from still trying to create a clear dividing line between what they believe to be good and evil. The drive for purity is strong. If we can get rid of the problem-causers, rabble-rousers, we can get on with the mission of the church. The only problem is when we start down this road we may well discover that others may start making similar conclusions about us.

The parable of the wheat and weeds is a parable on honesty. Johnny Carson once said, “Choose your enemies carefully, because you become like them.” It is easy to become intolerant of intolerant people and hateful toward hate-filled people. The parable calls us to be honest with ourselves and to recognize that the line that runs between wheat and weeds many times runs down the middle of our own hearts. In an attempt to pull out the weeds, we can easily become the destroyer of God’s crop.

There is an ambiguous notion to life that Jesus picks up on in the telling of parables. It would have been a lot easier if Jesus would have stuck to black and white declarations instead of elusive story-telling. In chapter twelve of Matthew’s gospel, the opposition to Jesus reaches its boiling point in a conflict over the issue of Sabbath observance. We are told, “The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” Matthew 12: 14. Then the religious leaders accuse Jesus of being in cahoots with Satan.

It was after this that Jesus gets in a boat and turns to telling stories to a crowd that has gathered along the beach.  Jesus doesn’t simply tell stories to illustrate a point in his teaching. The parables are a reshaping of Israel’s very story as it centers on Jesus. They are a radical way of saying this is how God’s story is being shaped by the in-breaking of the kingdom in and through Jesus. Jesus is feeding his audience bite-size snapshots of God’s kingdom.

We think the kingdom of heaven is like this…….but Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is really like this. If you are always the good and righteous character in the parables of Jesus, then you are probably reading them wrong.

The kingdom of heaven is compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field……that’s me. But while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat…..that is everyone that doesn’t believe, act, or do what I think they should. The servant of the house……that’s me because I always know what God wants to do……….says to the Master, “You want me to go and get rid of the weeds?” because you know we cannot tolerate messing up a pure church. The farmer replies, “No! For in the gathering the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.” What? How dare the farmer to think I don’t know the difference between wheat and weeds. How dare him to think that I don’t have the competence to make the kind of judgment implied in separating wheat from weeds.

It is easy to forget our calling to plants seeds when we are spending all our time pulling weeds.

Imagine how different our church would be if we acted more like the Master and less like the servant. Imagine if every time we thought we recognized a weed among the wheat we took on the attitude of the Master.

If the Master knows the difference, I don’t know why he doesn’t just show the servants the weeds and have him pull them out. It would make things easier. If everybody who wasn’t like me, thought like me, and acted like me was just jerked out of the church, it sure would make my job easier. If the Master Farmer knows the difference, then just get rid of them.

It isn’t just a parable about honesty. It is also a parable about patience. Maybe the Master Farmer knows that in some miraculous way what might have started out as a weed could be transformed into something of value. I mean this is Jesus telling the story……..dead to life, old to new, useless to life transformation is his mission. Maybe this isn’t just a parable about honesty. Maybe it isn’t a parable just about patience. Maybe this is a parable about grace. “Let them grow together” the Master Farmer says.

It seems to me that weeds are only a concern for those who have forgotten the message of God’s amazing grace.

I don’t want you to think that I am ignoring the judgment. There will be judgment in the end. But I think what I am hearing is that we need to leave the judgment to God. The future might include a word of judgment. But the present presents a word of hope. Imagine if we learned to live together, worship together, and be in community together and let God do the sorting.

I am still not good at telling the difference between a weed and good plant. For some, this as a short coming in religious leaders. Just the other day I was talking to my neighbor and he said, “There was once beautiful daffodils that lined the edge of your driveway and the woods. But I haven’t seen them bloom since you moved in.” It occurred to me that the first year I moved into my new house I had sprayed weed killer along the edge of my drive way and the woods because I thought they were wild onions. And now, now I miss out on all those beautiful daffodils.

Let anyone with ears listen! Amen.

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Do Unto Others

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7: 1 – 14)

do unto othersI was invited to a United Methodist Church when I was fourteen years old. I made a commitment to put Jesus at the center of my life when I was fifteen years old. I heard the voice of God calling me into ordained ministry when I was seventeen years old. The United Methodist Church has been the lighthouse that has pointed me in the direction of God’s kingdom my entire adult life.

It would be foolish to think that things are not going to look differently in a few years. The truth is regardless of what happens to the people called Methodist, the entire Christian movement is going to take on a different look for our children and grandchildren.

When it comes to the way we do church the question that keeps me up at night is “Who will never be reached if we only do this?” If we only do church the way that it is currently being done, who will we be missing? I know people who will never step foot in the doors of this building. I know families who will never come to know Jesus by walking through the big, wooden, beautiful, and yet for some, intimidating doors.

What concerns me is that as we continue to debate issues of human sexuality, we are losing a whole generation of people. We are missing out on our opportunity to share the love of Jesus with many people because they are turned off by our squabbling and by our missional insistence that this is the only way church can be done.

I don’t want you to hear that I am saying this is not important. How we understand scriptural authority and  interpretation and life experience is vitally important. Since 1972, when the church set parameters in the Book of Discipline for ministry to, with, and by homosexual people, The United Methodist Church has struggled with this matter.

The 2016 General Conference – legislative body of The United Methodist Church – took a major step toward trying to resolve the struggle when it approved a Commission on a Way Forward to be appointed by and make recommendations to the Council of Bishops. The Commission was charged with finding a way forward for our church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. The hope is that decisions made in 2019 will allow the 2020 General Conference to focus on our mission and shared ministry. With the theme “God is Able,” the delegation will meet February 23rd through the 26th to discern God’s will and direction for the future of The United Methodist Church. If you want to learn more, go to http://www.ngumc.com/gc2019. [i]

The writer of Matthew’s gospel in the New Testament is concerned with the identity of his Christian community. The author represents a group of Jewish Christians who are no longer welcome in communion with the Jewish people. It is post-70 AD and deep division is developing between the Christian and Jewish community. This deep division is also playing out internally. There is a critical spirit and judging of one another that is threatening to divide the community. Only in this gospel is the word “church” used. And much like today, they are a community of believers trying to figure out exactly what is it that the word “church” means.

Fred Craddock tells the story of the first church he served near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was during his tenure that the community exploded with laborers brought in to work at the newly developed nuclear plants. The young pastor wanted to attract the workers to his church. But there was a problem. The church didn’t want them.

After service one Sunday, Rev. Craddock called a meeting of the church’s leadership and presented his plans. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here,” one church member said. “They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon.” It was decided that they would take a vote on the following Sunday.

At the outset of the meeting one week later, one of the church members said, “I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county.” It was quickly seconded and passed.

Years later, Fred Craddock returned to the area to show his wife the church that he once served. The parking lot was full; cars, trucks, and motorcycles surrounded the old structure which now sported a sign that read “BBQ: All You Can Eat.” Unable to resist, the Craddocks walked inside and saw the old pews lining a wall, and the organ pushed into a corner. The space was filled with different sized tables which were filled with people filling themselves on pork and chicken.

Dr. Craddock leaned over to his wife and whispered, “It’s a good thing this isn’t still a church… otherwise, these people couldn’t be in here.”

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye” (Matthew 7: 1 – 3).

 Matthew warns before we start throwing stones make sure you are aware of your own failures and need of God’s forgiveness. He wants there to be some hesitancy when it comes to identifying and naming faults in other people. If Matthew was around today, he might tell us that if we keep at it there might a sign hanging on our front door that reads, “BBQ: All You Can Eat.”

The rule we know as the Golden Rule is given in this context. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s best. We are all in need of God’s forgiveness. We should not deny in others what is required of our self.

It reminds me of the story in the bible where a group of righteous men interrupt Jesus in his teaching to bring before him a woman they caught in the act of adultery. They asked Jesus if her punishment should be stoning because that is what is written in the law of Moses. Jesus ignores them at first and starts doodling on the ground as though he doesn’t hear them. But when they won’t let it rest, he says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Then he decided to doodle some more.

One by one they leave. Jesus is left alone with the woman. He says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

This brings us back to the Gospel of Matthew: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7: 12). The Golden Rule reminds us in a world where we will do whatever it takes to be right, don’t forget to also be compassionate.

A form of the Golden Rule is found in all major religions. There is a famous story told in Jewish circles about the rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus. A non-Jew came to him and offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. Rabbi Hillel stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest us commentary. Go and study it.”

What makes the rule golden is the context of Christian love. The Golden Rule only works when an investment in relationships is made. It requires of us to consider how someone else would want to be treated. It demands of us to look into our own hearts and see what inflicts pain and then refuse to inflict pain on anyone else.  In the gospel of Luke, the Golden Rule concludes the paragraph that begins, “Love your enemies.”

The Golden Rule is given in the context of love, mercy, forgiveness and how to live in the context of a Christian community. It requires the imagination of putting oneself in the place of another person and seeing his or her needs. It requires an act of courageous love.

A few years ago in Duke University Chapel, Bishop Will Willimon shared a story of a man named High Thompson. Thompson had recently been the recipient of an honorary degree at Duke. In 1968 Thompson was a young helicopter pilot flying patrol over the countryside of Vietnam. On March 16th of that year, Thompson and his crew were flying over the village of My Lai. Down below they observed a nightmare taking place. An American unit, in the midst of war’s madness, had lost control of discipline, reason, and humanity. They were slaughtering unarmed civilians in the village, most of them women, children, and elderly men. As would later be determined, more than 500 individuals had already been executed.

Seeing what was taking place, Thompson landed the helicopter between the troops and the remaining villagers. At a risk to himself, High Thompson got out of the helicopter and confronted the officer in charge. He then airlifted the few surviving villagers and radioed a report of the scene back to headquarters. As a result, likely sparing the lives of thousands of villagers.

On the day that Thompson received his honorary degree he was asked how did he find the courage and strength to do what he did. He said, “I would like to thank my mother and father for trying to instill in me the difference between right and wrong. We were country people raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia. One thing we had was the Golden Rule. My parents taught me early, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ That is why I did what I did on that day.”

Jesus knows that as soon as we are born that our inclination is to look after only ourselves. We don’t always have the interest of our neighbors in mind. We don’t care for those who need to be cared for. We don’t treat others the way we would like to be treated or even the way we would treat Jesus if he was standing in front of us.

Jesus also knows that when a group of Christians get together to make decisions on the future of the church and the mission of the church that we don’t always act in ways that reflect the light of Christ. So, before we make any decisions, I believe Jesus would say, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” I don’t know about you but I am not quite ready to hang up a sign that reads, “BBQ: All You Can Eat.” What about you? Amen.

[i] Read more at www.ngumc.org/gc2019

(Preached on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Gainesville, GA)