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Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 19, 2020
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
We here at OHLC had some professional landscaping done in our church parking lot islands recently and it looks fantastic. However, there is one stretch outside of the fellowship hall that didn’t get done before COVID shut everything down. That strip was all torn up because of some other work we had done, and before long the dirt started filling in with all kinds of green things shooting up. They looked like weeds to me. I was just about ready to grab a bucket and some weeding tools and yank it all out. Thankfully a couple of our members mentioned to me that those weren’t actually weeds that were growing in there. Well, some were of course – but many were volunteer flowers and new growth from what had been planted there before. They all looked like weeds at first, but if you look now you see a beautiful garden full of poppies and snapdragons and daisies. If I had followed my instincts, if I had gone by my basically non-existent plant identification skills, it all would have been torn out!
Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between weeds and the plants you want to grow. We’re back in the soil this morning with another agricultural parable from Jesus, and this is the dilemma Jesus describes. The weed mentioned by Jesus in this parable is a specific kind of weed. It is darnel wheat, or false wheat. This weed was particularly troublesome to many farmers in Jesus’ part of the world because in its early stages it is virtually indistinguishable from real wheat. Not only is it troublesome because it is hard to distinguish from the real wheat, but beneath the soil its roots tend to intertwine with the roots of the wheat, making it impossible to pull out. If you were to try to weed out this false wheat, you’d pull out the real wheat along with it.
This image of a field with both wheat and weeds growing together alongside each other is put to us in this parable as an image which describes the world we live in. It describes the age we live in, the age between Christ’s first coming and his final coming. This field with both wheat and weeds is a starkly accurate description of our world. On the one hand, it is a beautiful place, filled with wonder and delight. Love happens. Reconciliation happens. Generosity happens. On the other hand, the world is full of weeds. There is hatred. There is corruption. There is violence.
This field of wheat and weeds growing together is a good description of the church too. The same sacred institution which has safeguarded the precious words of the gospel has also at times been the source of intense disappointment and pain for some people. Even at the congregational level, this same community of faith which so often envelopes us in love and mercy and comfort can also be the source of our deepest wounds.
This field of wheat and weeds living side-by-side is a good description of families. Family members can be the source of our greatest blessings, and also our greatest hurts.
To take things a step further, we ourselves as individuals resemble this field of wheat and weeds growing alongside one another. Both wheat and weeds, good grain and false wheat, grow out of our hearts.
When we encounter the weeds of this world, our instinct is to grab a bucket and some weeding tools. Our tendency is to want to pull out those weeds as much as possible. And in some cases, this is exactly what we should do! God works through government and law enforcement to create a measure of order in this world, to protect people from harm, to limit the damage the weeds might do. God gave instructions to the church in Matthew 18 on how to deal with problematic weeds that might crop up. There are cases when certain pastors or members need to be dealt with – perhaps even removed from a congregation. There are lines that need to be drawn theologically. Families need to be weeded in certain tragic situations such as when children are endangered. In those situations God works through protective agencies to weed out abusive or neglectful parents and plant kids in a different field where they can safely grow. God calls us as individuals to weed out our own wicked ways through self-examination and repentance. Sometimes weeding is warranted! Sometimes it is necessary!
But sometimes our weeding takes on a life of its own. Sometimes our weeding becomes counterproductive. Sometimes in our righteous attempt to pull weeds, we end up damaging the wheat.
We see this in the violent zealotry of the world around us. We see it reflected in the Orwellian “cancel culture” of our time, when people are pulled out of the garden of public discourse for holding views that are deemed by the fascist mob to be incorrect.
We see it in the conflicts of the church, where righteous attempts at establishing a pure community of faith have led to things like the inquisition, or the Salem witch trials, or the innumerable conflicts between and within denominations and congregations. In an overzealous attempt to weed out heresies, much wheat ends up being destroyed in the process.
We see it in families when an attempt at weeding out a problem leads to a divorce. Sometimes this is unavoidable, of course, but as that weed is pulled, people soon find that those entangled roots pull on everyone in the family, tearing up the whole field.
We see it in ourselves when we become obsessed with weeding out every imperfection from our lives. By all means we are to strive to curb our destructive, sinful behaviors, but as Martin Luther himself discovered in an Augustinian monastery, an overzealous perfectionism can only lead us to two places: pride or despair. Usually it is the latter. Neither are good.
This parable, then, is a warning to us. It is Jesus’ way of telling us to back off obsessive weeding! It is Jesus’ way of describing how the world will be for us as we live in the age between his first coming and his final coming. “There are going to be weeds,” Jesus says. “They have been planted there by the evil one. But you are to leave those weeds to me.”
But this isn’t just a parable of warning, it is also a parable of hope! You see, any field plagued by darnel wheat would be considered doomed in the ancient world. A farmer wouldn’t know until it was too late, and then there would be no way to harvest it. It would be a total loss.
Sometimes we think of the world in the same way – that it is beyond hope. Sometimes we think the church is too overgrown with weeds to grow anything good. Sometimes we think our families are too weedy to be worth much. Sometimes we think we ourselves have far too much thistle and pigweed rooted in our hearts to be worthy of God’s love.
But the punchline of the parable is that the Son of Man brings in a harvest! In a field where everything looks hopeless, where there is false wheat tangled up with the good wheat, there is a harvest! Jesus, the Son of Man, sends in his angels to gather the grain into his barn!
We live in a hard time, in an in-between time, where the weeds and the wheat grow right alongside one another, often entangled in a complicated mess. But we are invited by our Lord Jesus today to trust that the future is ultimately in his hands.
We are invited to live in hope, knowing that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. We are invited to live in the confidence that this very Son will do the weeding and bring in the harvest.
We are invited to live in the confidence that the church, even in the midst of all the weeds, will endure – for our Lord Jesus has promised that even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
We are invited to have faith that through Jesus Christ, we have been declared to be good, harvestable wheat. We are invited to trust that through his saving work our sin has already been incinerated, and that he is growing something beautiful in us even now. We are invited to live in the joy and peace of knowing that by his grace he will one day gather us into his barn forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church