The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: July 23, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Kyle Oliver, Assisting Priest at St. Michael’s Church
I’ve been traveling for work the last the couple weeks, first in the Midwest and then in Germany. But at the beginning of the trip I got to spend a day with my sister in Wisconsin.
Rachel teaches baking at a community college and so has some flexibility to work other jobs in the summer. Currently she’s helping to manage the harvest at a small organic farm about halfway between Milwaukee and Madison.
My trip to the farm with her has given me a new appreciation for this passage from Matthew’s gospel.
When you can’t spray herbicides, you have to use every other trick in the agricultural book to give your crops a fighting chance. Even then, I’m told, you’ll probably end up like our farm owner from scripture—whether or not you have enemies sowing bad seed in the night.
That was certainly the case where I visited. In some fields it was hard to even tell the good crops from the weeds. I definitely believe that in some cases pulling the weeds would have been a problem for the produce.
I appreciated this lesson that sometimes no amount of care or agricultural cleverness can guarantee that a farm will avoid the weeds-and-wheat situation.
There is an alternative. Almost anyone who leaves the city for awhile this summer will at some point see farms that display a different reality: Row after row of perfect crops—wheat, yes but corn even more strikingly. There’s often not a weed in sight beneath those tall, straight stalks.
Of course, many of these seeds have been genetically engineered with immunity to herbicides and pesticides. Many of these farms also squeeze the last bit of nourishment out of depleted soils using industrial fertilizers.
But it’s worth noting that even big agribusiness cannot guarantee success in this struggle. Pests and weeds and blights can and do evolve. Exhausted earth cannot yield an increase indefinitely.
Of course, this is not a sermon about agriculture, any more than Jesus’s was. But the farmers’ situation in the parable and in today’s world is an apt illustration of … let’s just say the lengths to which we are willing to go.
The people who trained me to interpret scripture told me to be skeptical of the simplistic explanations that follow some of the gospel parables, the ones where Jesus lays out a narrow one-to-one correspondence between each literal element and its spiritual interpretation. These were likely added later by hand-wringing scribes and editors.
What happens if we lay aside the narrow reading of this parable? What if it isn’t a simple encouragement to perseverance for the faithful and a warning to all others that the clock is ticking?
What happens if we focus instead on the landowner’s wise restraint in the face of a quite natural longing—a longing to root out the ineffective to encourage the productive, to eliminate evil to protect the good.
Then this parable becomes a warning about the belief that we can fully identify, separate, and control the forces of good and evil. God knows we need the warning.
We want to rip out the weeds right now, stay on top of things, remove the threat. Even if we’re the kind of people who hope for the best, we usually fear the worst—and more often than not when we act out of fear we exacerbate the situation.
Whether we’re surveying history or today’s headlines, it’s hard not to start seeing this parable everywhere: I’ve noticed it recently in airport security lines and in the laments of educator colleagues about the folly of standardized testing run amok.
I saw it on grim display last week when I visited an East German state police jail—now a museum—that held political prisoners until they could be psychologically tortured into signing false confessions.
And I felt a last version of the parable leap back into my life after a momentary absence when I reconnected to our U.S. news cycle, filled with story after story of police violence, the communities it affects, and the accountability that is almost always missing.
When we believe we can understand and control the forces of good and evil, we sometimes cause ourselves or others unnecessary inconvenience or stress. Other times people will suffer or even die at our hands.
Against that backdrop, I believe this parable can be for us a warning against the constant temptation to let vigilance override restraint.
I was still at the conference that brought me to Germany last week when I got the email reminding me to choose a text to place on the today’s bulletin cover. I knew I wouldn’t be starting my sermon until the flight home, so I picked my favorite verse from among the scheduled readings and hoped for the best.
Obviously, you’re not hearing a sermon on the story of Jacob’s dream in the wilderness. Still, it seems to me there’s an important connection between his story and one last reading of the parable of the landowner’s wise restraint.
Jacob is, at this point in his life, a scoundrel. He’s out in the wilderness to have this fantastical dream because he’s on the run from his brother Esau—the brother whose birthright and blessing he has stolen.
And yet in this moment—when he’s basically a fugitive on the run—God chooses to bless him anyway, to renew in him the promise to his parents and grandparents to make of them a great nation.
Perhaps even more than these complicated relatives do, Jacob shows us that God doesn’t just work through moral superheroes in order to bring about good.
In fact, it’s God’s faithfulness to Jacob that drives his growth and transformation. He returns years later a better man. God didn’t give up on him. God forgave the bad and nurtured the good.
Just like Jacob, you and I are ambiguous characters. We have within us both good and evil.
So could it be that this God has the same plan for us?
Could it be that the weeds and wheat are not just or even primarily out there but are also in here growing together, composing us as flawed but nevertheless beloved children of the Most High?
Could it even be that our weeds are no threat to God bearing fruit in us if we can only learn to live with them by God’s grace?
I believe that so much of what tortures our relationship with the weeds and the wheat growing together in the world is that we do not want to think about the weeds and the wheat growing within ourselves.
God in Christ has promised not to make us free of evil and sin, but free from evil and sin. As in free from being determined by them. Not spotless, but redeemed.
God in Christ isn’t pulling weeds or spraying herbicides. God in Christ is patiently waiting for a harvest that is assured not by our vigilance but by grace.
Our destiny is to be gathered up—all made one by God’s reconciling love.
If we can trust that, then we can learn to see the tangled mess of life and growth as a field not of threats from our enemies but of fertile, patient possibility.