SERMON A Pentecost L.16 2017 King of Kings, New Windsor July 23, 2017
Mt 13: 24-29
While visiting Storm King Art Center recently, I noticed the beautiful wildflowers and thought about how, in my yard, I’d think of some of those particular flowers as “weeds”. A “weed”, is, after all, “an unwanted plant”; “a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow”; “a plant considered undesirable in a particular location”.
In today’s gospel lesson, we hear Jesus’ parable of “the wheat and the weeds”. If you grew up with the King James Version of the Bible, you might know it as “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares”. An enemy sows weeds among the wheat sprouts in a farmer’s field. Since it’s a wheat field, the “weeds” or “tares” are unwanted. But because the weeds look very much like wheat, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between “wanted” and “unwanted” plants during the growing season. So, when the slaves offer to uproot the weeds, the master cautions them against doing so, since they might destroy the desirable wheat as well as the undesirable weeds. Instead, the master advises them to let the wheat and the weeds grow together until the harvest, when it will be easier to tell which plants are weeds and which are wheat, when it will be safer to separate them.
Sometimes you and I act like those slaves, except we are eager to separate not plants but people. We are all too ready to uproot and clear out those who don’t belong, those who are different from us. We divide the world into “us” and “them”: the people we know and those we don’t know; the people who have jobs or pensions and those who don’t; the people who are educated and those who aren’t. Do you ever consider others to be unwanted “weeds”, living where you don’t want them, undesirable in one way or another?
Whole tribes—and nations—act like the slaves in the parable, treating others as weeds, trying to uproot them from their homes—or expel them from their nation—or eliminate them altogether. Of course the Holocaust is the most painful example of this dynamic, but there are plenty of contemporary examples of people who consider themselves to be “wheat” while they label others, who are different from them, as “weeds” and proceed to attempt to get rid of them.
The Israeli government, for example, treats Palestinians as weeds: as unwanted, undesirable in Israeli territory, unwelcome within the borders Israel has unilaterally declared. For almost seven decades, the Israeli military has been uprooting the Palestinians, making life unbearable in the West Bank and Gaza, weeding them out of the land of Israel. At the same time, the military wing of Hamas, the majority party in Palestinian Gaza, has employed rockets and bombs and guns to weed out Israelis.
Of course such tribalism hasn’t been limited to the Middle East. Sometimes these conflicts are religious: Christians vs. Muslims during the medieval Crusades; the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation in Europe in the 16th century. In our own lifetimes, too, tribalism has reared its ugly head: Protestants vs. Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland; Shiite vs. Sunni Muslims in Iraq. Sometimes these tribal conflicts are over territory: India and Pakistan contest the status of Kashmir; Ukraine and Russia fighting over the land between them; and the conflict between Israel and Palestine is also primarily about land. At other times tribalism is about principle: Dutch architects of apartheid vs. black South Africans; North vs. South in the Civil War, centered on the issue of slavery. Each of these tribes, no matter what the source of their conflict, consider the others as weeds, unwanted, undesirable, unworthy of inclusion in its community or in its country.
We’re not immune from these dynamics in our own country, of course. Religious “liberals” condemn religious “conservatives”, and “conservatives” condemn “liberals”. Democrats rail against Republicans and Republicans against Democrats. One news source criticizes another as biased and is, in turn, criticized. Those who oppose abortion label those who support a woman’s right to choose “baby-killers”, while those who support a woman’s right to choose characterize those who oppose abortion as “anti-woman”. We could go on and on: gun control, climate change, immigration reform, health care. Those on one side of any of these issues judge those on the other side as weeds, fit only to be uprooted—or wiped out—or expelled—or eliminated.
Nor are we immune from these weed-wheat dynamics in our churches. In the past 30 years, one after another, most mainline Protestant denominations in the United States have struggled with the issues of same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors. People on both sides of this divide have condemned those on the other side, judging them as weeds fit only to be collected and bound into bundles and burned. This nasty fight still affects the Episcopal Church USA, our own ELCA, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, and the Reformed Church in America, to name a few; these churches have sustained deep conflict—and often loss of members and of member congregations—as those disagreeing on issues of homosexuality have judged one another—and labeled one another—and treated one another as weeds.
There is, however, a long tradition in Christian theology that cautions followers of Jesus against judging between weeds and wheat. An 11th century bishop applied this parable in his approach to heresy, writing that “the church should let dissent grow with orthodoxy until the Lord comes to separate and judge them”; in other words, the church should leave the judging about doctrine up to God. Martin Luther, in the 16th century, preached a sermon on this parable in which he affirmed that only God can separate false from true believers. He wrote, “Observe what raging and furious people we [Christians] have been these many years, in that we desired to force others to believe; the Turks with the sword, heretics with fire, [and] the Jews with death. [We thought to root out] the tares by our own power, as if we were the ones who could reign over hearts and spirits, and make them pious and right, which God’s Word alone must do.” Roger Williams, a Baptist theologian of the 17th century and founder of the state of Rhode Island, interpreted this parable as supporting government toleration of religious diversity. He believed that, in the end, it was God’s duty to judge—and not ours. Another 17th century proponent of religious freedom, the English poet John Milton, also believed that it was not our right to judge another’s religion or relationship with God, writing: “(I)t is not possible for man to sever the wheat from the tares; that must be the Angels’ ministry at the end of mortal things.”
In the meantime, before the “end of mortal things”, before the time of harvest, until the Lord comes, perhaps it is best for those of us who follow Jesus not to “sever the wheat from the tares”, to borrow Milton’s phrase. Perhaps it is best for us to let go of the temptation to root out or expel or judge or eliminate those who do not look or believe or act as we do.
Dorothy Day faced this temptation all of her life, from 1897 until her death in 1980. A convert to Roman Catholicism, she co-founded the Catholic Worker movement and edited its magazine, living in a series of Catholic Worker houses and farms, including one in Newburgh. She recognized that God alone could judge another’s faith and life, but she never outgrew her penchant for judging others. While her public witness spanned 50 years of “tireless service to the poor” and “courageous work for peace”, she spent all five of those decades in an inner spiritual journey trying not to judge those around her. Listen to these excerpts from her diaries….
“I am afraid I am very stiff-necked. I always desire to correct others when wrong…. Thinking gloomily of the sins and shortcomings of others, it suddenly came to me to remember my own offenses, just as heinous as those of others. If I concern myself with my own sins and lament them, if I remember my own failures and lapses, I will not be resentful of others. It makes one unhappy to judge people and happy to love them…. Our greatest need is mutual charity. To see the good in our neighbor. To forgive and not to judge. Not to speak ill of neighbor. Not to correct others when wrong. Not to criticize others to others…. I must learn to be more cordial to people and overcome my weariness and impatience with them. I am so greatly lacking in charity… If only I could control my tongue….
Dorothy Day held herself to a high standard—and often found herself wanting. She knew God as a forgiving God, and she knew that only God could judge someone else’s heart or actions, but she still found herself separating others into weeds and wheat—and then suffering for it and going to confession. Her whole spiritual journey could be summed up in the saying: “Whenever you draw a line, remember that Jesus is on the other side of that line.”
Whenever you draw a line, remember that Jesus is on the other side of that line. In fact, the only line Jesus ever embraced is the ever-widening circle of God’s love. That circle is constantly expanding to let people in, not keep them out. Jesus labels no one as a weed; Jesus uproots no one from the reign of God. Not Dorothy Day. Not the Israeli military or the Palestinian opposition. Not the Democrats or the Republicans. Jesus does not close the circle, even to those who draw lines against other people.
Instead, he preaches about letting weeds and wheat grow together and letting God be the judge. In the church, and in the world, “there are many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colors and all ages, too, from all times and places”. In today’s parable, Jesus reminds us that God loves each one of us, people of every time, of every place, no matter what color your skin or eyes or hair, no matter what language you speak, what foods you eat or what religion you practice. God loves everyone, of all sizes and shapes, all colors and styles. God loves the old and the young and the in between. God loves the Shiite rebel and the Sunni governor, the Israeli soldier and the Palestinian made homeless by Jewish settlers, the gay and the straight and the bisexual and the transgendered, those who live on palatial estates and those who are homeless, those who are starving and those who feast on caviar. “God loves you!” proclaims Jesus. So receive God’s love and let God be the judge. After all, if you draw a line, Jesus will be on the other side of it. So let’s watch God draw the line wider and wider and wider, until all are inside the circle. AMEN
[Jesus] put before [his disciples] 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.’