Why Can't We Pull Up the Weeds?

Proud people that we are, O God, we bow our heads before you, move our souls to praise you as we ought, and grant us humble hearts that we may receive what you have revealed and do what you command for the sake of Christ our Lord. Amen.

September a year ago I began a new ministry in a lovely little church in Atlanta. It is a sturdy brick edifice with a tall steeple and wide front doors. The church sits back from the street on a hill, creating a vista that pleases the eye. The lawn begins level with the sidewalk, then it descends and rises. It's pretty enough to be on a postcard, or so I thought until the first spring came. I was expecting a nice carpet of grass to appear, but what showed up instead was everything but grass. Dandelions, thistles, and crabgrass covered the front yard. All that was missing were kudzu and seaweed.

"Emergency! Emergency!" I cried to the property committee. "Calm down," a veteran of many Morningside springs told me. "When we mow, no one will be able to tell the difference, whether it's weeds or fescue out there. Cut close, it all just looks green."

I was new so I tried to be nice, but I didn't like it. "Something there is that does not love a wall," Robert Frost wrote, but there is something in me that does not love a weed.

One day Jesus told a story in which weeds were prominently featured. The story is what we call a parable, a short narrative that uses ordinary events and objects that are a part of daily life to show us something important about the kingdom of heaven. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the forgiving father reveals the nature of divine grace. In the Parable of the Lost Coin, the woman who loses the coin and then searches until she finds it is a metaphor for God's searching love. Her joy at finding that which was lost mirrors God's joy over finding the outcast and the lost. In today's parable, a weed is not a weed. It represents the sin, the evil doing, and everything else that works against the great purposes of God. The sower of the seed is not just a sower. He is the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah, the Savior of the world.

What happens in the parable is this: The householder sows good seed in his field. That night, while everyone is sleeping, the enemy comes and sows weeds right in the same field where the wheat seed has been planted. No one realizes it until spring comes, and the weeds rise out of the ground right alongside the wheat. This scene was anything but postcard perfect. A mixed-up mess was what it was. You can't tell where the good stops and the bad begins.

The servants go to their master and ask, "Where did these weeds come from?"

The master answers, "The enemy planted them."

"Don't you want us to pull them up?"

"No," the master answers. If you do that, you might uproot the wheat along with the weeds. Let them grow until harvest time, and then I'll tell the reapers to collect the weeds first, tie them into bundles to be burned as fuel, and the wheat will be gathered into my barn."

Notice the master isn't worried in the least that the wheat will get choked out by the weeds. He knows that what he has planted will come to harvest. We know it, too. But sometimes we forget. Nothing can stop God's work in Christ. His kingdom is forever. Even when it's difficult to discern signs of the kingdom, the seeds of salvation are alive and well, growing, always growing in our midst.

One of the things I love most about this parable is that in the end the enemy who planted all the weeds gets them stuffed up his shirt. Not only did the weeds not have the effect the enemy hoped they would-which was to snuff out the life of the wheat-the weeds became free kindling for the householder. Perfect. In the arid, fuel-scarce region of Palestine, you couldn't ask for a better bonus. It seems that even the worst the evil one can do is to be transformed into energy to serve God's everlasting purposes. I really like that!

What I struggle with is the master's instructions to the servants that they are not to get involved with separating the wheat from the weeds. The master goes so far as to say that if they even try to do it, they could end up damaging the wheat. Followers of Jesus could actually do harm to the new life Jesus is bringing into the world if we put on our garden gloves and head out with our bottles of Roundup aimed and ready, certain that we know what is useful to God and what is not.

Do you belong to a Christian denomination that is divided these days? I do. My church is embroiled in all kinds of wrangles over issues of biblical authority, human sexuality, Middle East policy, who controls church property, and so on and so forth. Do you ever think your church would be better off without those other people who are so wrong-headed and argumentative and with whom you vigorously disagree about important matters?

On a vastly greater and more serious scale, there are extremists all over the world today who believe they have a mandate from their god literally to destroy those whom they deem to be enemies of God. Surely the Christian church in a world so polarized and filled with terror because of religious excess, surely Christ's people have a special responsibility to bear witness to a better way.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once put it: "God's purpose is not wrathful judgment. God's purpose is redemption, and the road to redemption is by way of reconciliation. Only in that way will the world finally be saved." Today's parable warns us against relying on our human capacity to know fully the mind of God. It also suggests that what might appear to be good and pure to us might not necessarily be either one.

Perhaps you have known a person who presented him or herself as a saint; and, then, something happened that revealed another side. I think of an incident at a traffic light. A man was stopped, waiting for the light to turn green. When the light changed, he was distracted and he didn't budge. The woman in the car behind him honked her horn. He still didn't move. She honked again. By this time, she was pounding on the steering wheel and blowing her horn non-stop. Finally, just as the light turned yellow, the fellow in the first car woke up and drove through the light. The woman in the second car was beside herself. Still mid-rant, she heard a tap on her car window. She looked up to see the face of a police officer. "Lady, you're under arrest," he said. "Get out of the car. Put your hands up." He took her to the police station, had her finger printed, photographed, and then put her in a holding cell. Hours passed. The officer returned and unlocked the cell door. He escorted her back to the booking desk. "Sorry for the mistake, Lady," he said. "But I pulled up behind you as you were blowing your horn and cursing out the fellow in front of you. I noticed the stickers on your bumper. One read "Follow me to Sunday School." The other, "What Would Jesus Do?" So, naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.

It might be a good thing for all of us to remember not to wear our piety on our sleeves or our bumpers. Besides, according to today's parable, those who present their righteousness for the world to see and feel superior to everyone else just might end up as pieces of kindling when all is said and done. Only God knows who and what are useful in the kingdom of Christ.

One of the best Christians I've ever known was a Roman Catholic who cursed and smoked and had a heart as big as the Gulf of Mexico. She was not the kind of person you would find serving punch in the church fellowship hall. But she started the shelter movement in Atlanta. I remember when she stopped a knife fight at our night shelter by walking calmly between two combatants and saying, "You guys know better than this." And that was the end of that. When one of our homeless friends died on the street, she claimed his body, paid for the cremation, and waited for someone-friend or family-to come. No one ever came. She drove around for weeks with his ashes in the backseat of her car. Finally, she asked the rector of a downtown Episcopal church if the ashes could be placed in the church's memorial garden. "Our policies will allow only the remains of relatives to be placed here," he told her. "Perfect," she said. "Jesse was my brother."

It's often hard to tell who is wheat and who is weed. I don't know about you, but sometime I am wheat and sometimes I am weed, and I usually don't know when I'm being either. Some of the things I do that appear to me to be so good and holy turned out to be more about me than about Christ, and the things I am not even aware that I'm doing end up making a difference. It's hard to tell. It's hard to tell about the things that happen to us and over which we have no control.

I'm thinking of a family in a church I once served. Their second child was a beautiful baby girl with more congenital problems than you could count. The first year of her life was an unending series of surgeries and weeks in ICU. But I'm telling you, that baby was golden wheat. When her Mama said to me, "She is the greatest blessing of our lives," I knew it was nothing but the truth.

"Just leave the weeds alone," Jesus said. God knows what's good and what isn't.

Considered to be weeds, the needy, the afflicted, the outcasts, the alien, the other. What do you think? Do you think that weeds can become wheat? The Bible thinks so.

"Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation," the Bible says. "The old life is gone. The new life has begun."

Could it be that turning weeds into wheat is exactly the reason Christ came into the world?

I close with something that happened in Georgia a few years ago. A state representative made a speech before the legislature imploring his colleagues to pass a bill that would impose extra penalties for hate crimes committed against racial minorities and gay people. He told the legislature that all his ancestors in the 19th century had owned slaves. His great-great grandfather had fought in the Civil War. His third-grade classmates had clapped when President John F. Kennedy was shot and the news was passed along in the classroom. His college fraternity had ostracized six of its members because they were gay. He told of the African-American woman who had raised him, changed his diapers, and taught him more than anyone else the difference between right and wrong. He told them how one day when he was a boy leaving for school, she had leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. And he had averted his head because he assumed that such a thing was not supposed to happen. An African-American woman kissing a white boy. He spoke of the regret he had carried ever since. "On the day that we buried that magnificent woman, I pledged to myself that never again would I look in the mirror and know that I had let prejudice or hate or indifference negatively impact another person's life. Then he said, "I have finally figured out that the only way we are ever going to make progress is when someone steps up and takes a stand. I urge the House to pass this hate-crimes bill." And so they did.

And there it is. Weed to wheat.

Thanks be to God, who does this kind of thing all the time. Amen.